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Fumbling and Experimenting With Language: The Unpredictability of Poetry

An Interview With Sherry Shahan

by Jonah Meyer, Poetry Editor

Having a molecule of an idea and watching it morph into a creature I no longer recognize. I’m an avid scribbler—everything from quirky lines heard in a song to snippets of an overheard conversation and odd images that randomly pop into my head.

–Sherry Shahan

It has been an absolute pleasure getting to know you and some of your work. Please tell us, Sherry, about your writing process.

Thank you for welcoming me into your creative community! I’m a longtime admirer of Mud Season Review. I spent memorable time in Montpelier working on an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, Vermont College of Fine Arts.

My graduate thesis was a YA novel in free verse and traditional poetic forms, PURPLE DAZE: A Far-Out Trip, 1965 (Authors Guild).

My process has been the same for decades. I hit my office each morning and stay at my desk for 5 or 6 hours. I’m more of a plodder than an intentional writer, fumbling and experimenting with balanced and unbalanced language.

The unpredictability of poetry encourages me to take risk in my prose. I really do ask myself, “What’s next?”

I understand you have written some 40 books. Can you tell us about that – and about traveling the world writing and doing photojournalism? 

That’s a big question! While I have books published for most ages and genres,

I’m best known for my middle-grade adventure novels Frozen Stiff, Ice Island (both Random House), and Death Mountain (Peachtree). 

These stories were inspired by trips I took as a travel writer. Frozen Stiff and 

Ice Island are set in remote parts of Alaska. Death Mountain developed from a backpacking trek in the Sierra Nevada after my party was caught in a deadly electrical storm. 

Can you share what it’s been like in your experiences visiting school classrooms as a writer, sharing your books with children?

I once visited 5th-grade classes in a rural school in Alaska while hitchhiking on bush planes to cover the 1,049-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. 

During a writing exercise, I asked students, “If you had one wish, what would it be?” Each of the kids answered the same, “For my parents to stop fighting.” That had a profound impact on me. Frozen Stiff and Death Mountain’s main characters deal with challenging family dynamics. Surviving life-threatening situations in the wilderness is a metaphor for learning to deal with personal issues. 

When did you realize you first wanted to be a writer?

My family’s tiny rental homes didn’t have bookshelves, let alone books. I don’t recall ever receiving a book as a child, and I didn’t have a library card until my children were in pre-school. I’m definitely a late bloomer when it comes to reading and writing.  

What is your favorite part about creating poetry?

Having a molecule of an idea and watching it morph into a creature I no longer recognize. I’m an avid scribbler—everything from quirky lines heard in a song to snippets of an overheard conversation and odd images that randomly pop into my head. 

I found these lines in my notes: Split ends thread into paisley socks and We squat naked in bed playing darts with stilettos from Saks. I have no idea where these came from! 

What would you say is the most challenging part?

As long as it comes from my heart and remain true to my art, I don’t feel pressure to create the perfect story or poem. This helps me slog through early drafts. 

Could you tell us about your favorite stanza from the portfolio of five poems we have published here – what is it specifically that you like?

“Ode to an Avocado” expresses passion for my favorite fruit: 

My dear alligator pear, you fickle berry fruit.

To bow to your every whim is pure devotion.

Neither Dionysus nor Pomona could cherish 

your unpretentious grassy undertones so.

The sexual nuance didn’t appear in early drafts. It amuses me.

In “Meeting My Mother for Breakfast at a Downtown Motel” I focused on story structure—going for a quirky opening and maintaining the tone throughout.

Who are some of your favorite poets and authors? What speaks to you about their work? 

Cecilia Woloch is a poet, traveler, teacher, writer, and my longtime mentor and friend. The text of Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem has been the basis for multi-lingual, multi-media performances across the U.S. and Europe. She’s a master storyteller.

Currently on my nightstand: Grocery List Poems by Rhiannon McGavin, former Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles. I’m in awe of her scrupulous use of language and the flirty voice of a coquette. She invites readers into a playful world that has unexpected connections.

What are you currently reading?

T. (Tobin) Anderson’s Newberry Honor novel, Elf Dog & Owl Head. Tobin’s a hilarious and fierce writer—a New York Times Bestseller, National Book Award Winner, and an all-around cool guy who lives in a small, haunted 18th century house in Vermont.

And what are you currently writing?

I’m constantly revising! Right now, I’m consumed with another Alaskan-based adventure for middle-grade readers. I’m also creating a series of short stories with a touch of magical realism, which is a new style for me. I’m playing with a poem about my first time at a burlesque show.

What kinds of things are you involved with when not writing? 

I’m an obsessive dance student and thrive on the adrenaline experienced in West Coast Swing competitions. I recently began pole dancing and am proud to say I’m the most ‘senior’ dancer in class.

Any advice you’d give for beginning writers, beginning poets, out there?

I admire the dedication and enthusiasm of writers just beginning their journeys. My advice is to find a like-minded writing tribe, experiment and be flexible, and give yourself the gift of time to write. Always follow your heart.

Thank you for inviting me to your pages! 

I’d love to hear from your readers: kidbooks@thegrid.net

By Jonah Meyer

Jonah Meyer is poetry editor of Mud Season Review. A poet, writer, and editor in North Carolina, he holds a Bachelors in Cultural Anthropology, Masters in Library & Information Systems, and has backgrounds in print journalism and public librarianship. Jonah’s creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in O.Henry Magazine, Ampersand Literary Journal, Carolina Peacemaker, The Writing Disorder, Bluebird Word, Boats Against the Current, American Crises, JAB Fiction and Poetry, Bohemian Review, Found Spaces, The Mountaineer, Sledgehammer Lit, Oddball Magazine, Cold Lake Anthology, Beaver Magazine, Press Pause, Digging Press, Raise the Voices, Within and Without Magazine, and elsewhere. Jonah plays guitar, banjo, and piano, shoots street photography, and studies neuroscience and Buddhist philosophy. He serves as Poetry Editor for Twin Bird Review, Assistant Poetry Editor for Random Sample Review, Staff Writer with The US Review of Books, Copy Editor with Under the Gum Tree, Poetry Book Reviewer for Heavy Feather, and Poetry Reader for Okay Donkey. Jonah firmly believes everyone has a story worth telling.