Our former poetry editor Grier Martin recently had this exchange with Sandy Coomer, featured poet for Issue #34. Here’s what she had to say about stylistic choices, the development of voice, and the power of a mentor.
In all three of your featured poems you embrace a spare style, including short lines and simple but powerful language. What inspired you to make these stylistic choices?
I pay a lot of attention to a poem’s physical structure. My intention is to present form and shape so that the theme of the poem is enhanced. In “Kitchen,” I chose short lines to create anxiety in the poem, a fearful anticipation. I think that choice, in combination with enjambment, helps to reveal the serious nature of the poem from the very first line. Writing the first lines like they are now gives a totally different feel from writing them like this:
“He is making a sandwich, dipping mayonnaise from a jar
with a spoon and spreading it with a knife.”
Longer lines are almost friendly, while the short lines, especially paying attention to what word ends that short line, gives a sense of holding the breath, of not being sure what will happen next.
The same concept applies to “The Small Book of Virtues.” The short, choppy lines in this poem mimic the panting of an animal in pain. I don’t actually say the dog is panting (though we know an animal in pain does that), but a reader can get that sense within the short lines—some only 1 or 2 words in length. The simple language (pain, bite, pinch, grind—concrete words with specific, obvious meaning) is language a child recognizes. While the speaker in the poem tries to understand the meaning behind the strange/brave action of the adult, the overriding factor is the breathless pain and impending death of the dog, and perhaps even breathless fear and awe from the children. After the poem’s turn in the third stanza, there are some slightly longer lines and more complex, abstract language (justification, innocent, benevolence, sacred) because at this point the speaker is looking back at the scene with adult understanding. There is a return to the shorter lines a few times in the second half, almost as if the memory of pain returns with sudden sharpness, seen especially in the one word line (Stanza 4, line 2), “children.”
The short lines in “Calligraphy” are more image-bound than emotion-bound, but the focus on creating additional input towards theme remains the same. To me, this is a poem of coldness, of distance between two people. With the choice to write in couplets, one is led to think “relationship,” you and me, we and us, but because of the line length and broken images, a reader also picks up on the lack of warmth and connection.
How long did it take you to develop your own particular voice as a poet? What has that process been like?
I’m not sure I believe a poet has a single particular voice. I believe we are always evolving, always understanding things in new and deeper ways, and our “voice” changes as we grow. Just as I’m thankful I don’t write now the same way I did 10 years ago, I hope my poet self in another 10 years sees and perceives differently than I do right now, hopefully in a wiser and deeper way. I don’t want to be stagnant or predictable—ever. That said, I am particularly fond of image-driven poetry, and if I could claim any one quality of voice I want to keep and hone, it would be to use images effectively.
You present a child’s impressions of difficult situations in both “The Small Book of Virtues” and “Kitchen”. Is childhood a significant theme in your work? What do you find to be interesting or compelling about presenting a child’s point of view?
I write a good deal about relationships, including the relationship between parent and child. When I write from the point of view of a child, I am writing to understand, to make sense of things, to give that child a voice and to recognize the validity of that child’s emotions. It’s careful, delicate work, but I think it’s important to honor a child’s perceptions even as I walk the line between reality and the sometimes fickle nature of memory.
In “Kitchen” you address a child’s fear of an adult, hinting at an abusive relationship. Do you see poetry potentially affecting or helping readers who have gone through this kind of trauma? If so, how?
I think there is great power in naming fears and painful situations so that there is a chance of understanding them. Secrets are not friends, and hiding pain (in my experience) only serves to increase it. I won’t say I am the child in “Kitchen,” but I will say I’m very familiar with the child’s emotion—the uncertainly, the fear. Because it’s written in the 2nd person, the speaker is removed from the scene as she describes it, which makes revealing it much safer. If a reader relates to this poem because it names a familiar experience or emotion, and there is in some small way a better understanding of it, then I’ve done something worthwhile with this poem. Understanding is everything.
In “Calligraphy” you compare “the words we keep/from each other” to “the true shape of things” revealed in a winter landscape. This poem could be read as directed from the poet to one specific person, to a group of people, or even to society as a whole. Did you intend to include these layered possibilities in the poem?
I really wish I had thought of that! But no, I wrote the poem as a statement on the relationship between 2 people. I do appreciate it, though, when a reader takes a poem I wrote in another direction and finds a new or deeper meaning within in. That’s one of the beauties of poetry—the way I interpret a poem might be completely different than someone else and both interpretations can be valid.
You are a mentor in the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Writer to Writer Mentorship Program. What has this experience been like? Did you have a mentor yourself, and if so, how did that affect your writing?
Allow me to answer the second part first. I had the best possible mentor in the Tennessee poet Bill Brown. Bill was “assigned” as my mentor when I was a student in a creative writing program at Middle Tennessee State University. He was generous, encouraging, thoughtful, and gentle. I was a brand new poet with no confidence and no clue how to write. We met just about every week, talking about my poetry, poetry in general, what books I was reading, what questions I had. I trusted him completely. When I graduated from the program and was about to go off into the world of poetry on my own, Bill told me I was ready, that my work was strong. His confidence in me, his belief that I had something of value to offer the world, made me believe in myself. I don’t think I would have done that without him. He is still my most trusted poetry advisor and one of my dearest friends.
It was because of Bill that I wanted to be a poetry mentor in the AWP program. I felt a responsibility to pass on the encouragement he had given me. The AWP program is very structured, with modules about many aspects of craft and the writing life. Participants (mentors and mentees) go through the modules together, discussing and sharing thoughts and ideas. There is the option of working on a manuscript if the mentee has one and wants to work on revisions. My experience with my first mentee was completely wonderful. I haven’t met her face to face, but we email, text, Skype, and talk on the phone regularly. We went through the modules together and worked on her poetry chapbook, which is now nearly complete and ready to be submitted. Our time as partners in the program has technically been over for several months, but we keep checking in and chatting with each other. I’ll get a new mentee soon as a new session is about to start, but I’ll stay in touch with my first mentee too.
As far as good advice goes—I’ve shared a lot of my views about poetry craft, submissions and being a part of a wider poetry community with my mentee. One thing that is separate from all that, though, and something I really believe in, is that every writer’s journey is unique. There is a lot of impatience with writers—I want to be a good poet NOW. I want to be published NOW. But these things rarely happen quickly. Poetry evolves as the poet evolves and that takes as long as it takes. Be willing to embrace it.
You are also the founding editor of the online journal Rockvale Review. How has your work as an editor affected your work as a poet? Are there any challenges in balancing the two roles? How do you achieve this balance?
It’s made me a lot more appreciative of editors! Being one of RR’s editors definitely takes some time away from my own writing, but I consider it worth it. One of my long held dreams was to be able to promote and publish emerging poets, to give their voices a place in the poetry world. I’m very proud of the work RR is doing along these lines. I’m honored to read submissions, discover a beautiful poem, and communicate with the poet. It enriches my own experience with poetry. The fact that I get to make 25 – 30 poets happy with each issue, maybe even giving someone their first acceptance, is thrilling to me.
Rockvale Review is published twice a year. I designed it that way on purpose, so that I have several “off” months a year. I also work with 4 other amazing editors who share the workload of reading submissions and deciding on acceptances. These wonderful women make my job much easier to manage.
How would you describe the ways poetry can help people understand each other? Is this a goal of yours when you write?
You’ve hit upon one of my core poetry goals—to communicate with others on an emotional level. Words have great power to heal, and also to hurt, but what I’ve learned as a poet is that words also have the power to reveal, and revelation is the first step to understanding. When I read someone’s poetry, or they read mine, we are sharing a part of ourselves that is vulnerable. Maybe I like what I read, maybe I don’t, but I have definitely learned something about the poet, and vice versa. I hope part of what we’ve learned is that there is room in this world for many voices, many opinions, many passions. I think writing, reading and sharing poetry takes courage and daring, and a willingness to allow yourself to be opened and challenged, perhaps even to be changed.