When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover you wanted to write poems?
The first poetry I remember hearing was when, as a young child, my father read Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems aloud to me, and I adored the music of those metered lines. I’ve always loved words and I became an editor, but I didn’t begin writing poetry, except for a few overindulgent poems in high school, until the mid-90s. My early poems sprang from having a kind of ecstatic response to the natural world (sea stars on a beach, a great blue heron trying to eat a frog too large for its mouth), and also from an urge toward self-examination after getting divorced from my first husband.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
My favorite time to write is when I first wake up in the morning, in my bed, with a cup of tea on the nightstand. I cherish the uncluttered hush and the emptiness of my mind before it starts to ratchet up for the day. I’ve also spent three splendid, separate weeks at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown studying with Marie Howe, Nick Flynn, and Martha Collins. I’ve really enjoyed dwelling in a focused and liminal space with full permission to be receptive and to write. Being in such a beautiful environment—the light, the small cottages with their lush, immaculate gardens, and, of course, the ocean—is intense and inspiring.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
My poems come most frequently, though not always, from the visual world. I majored in art history, and love observing everything. I seem to like to describe something I’ve seen, often something small (a dead beetle on my basement floor, for example), and to keep pushing the lines forward until I find a sonic rhythm and/or, as Tracy K. Smith says, I surprise myself. I also write to understand an experience or a fleeting feeling I’ve had, be it puzzling or deeply moving in some way as yet unknown to me. It’s so easy not to examine these moments, and so powerful when the very process of writing about them lets me enter that territory and explore its contours.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I love so many poets, but the ones who come to mind are Rilke, Keats, Kunitz, C. K. Williams, Frost, Ellen Bryant-Voigt, Szymborska, Keats, Zbigniew Herbert, and lately, Matthew Zapruder and Ocean Vuong.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was it a project book? etc.
My book considers at a huge sweep of time, from “before there was before” to 7.59 billion years from now when the sun itself will burn the earth to cinders. The poems also dwell in the present, in my own life at this perilous time for humans and the planet.
In putting together my manuscript, I saw that I had a number of poems on biblical subjects such as Adam and Eve and Noah’s ark, and also quite a few poems about evolution, Darwin, and the natural world. I’ve been a poetry editor for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, and I’d written a number of poems about birds and John J. Audubon. To wrestle the poems into coherence, I decided I needed to study Genesis, one kind of creation story, and let it butt heads with the Big Bang to see what sparks would fly to help light my way through the book. The resultant poem, “Before There Was Before,” became my title poem.
Hear Wendy Drexler reading 'Before There Was Before' from Before There Was Before here: