When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
My earliest instincts, as a teen, drew me to writing poetry as a kind of self-therapeutic, cathartic process that helped me say what I needed to say but couldn’t say out loud. The first poem I wrote was after the accidental death of my first love – I was fourteen and grief stricken when I crafted it – and although I wouldn’t write poems for again for a few more years, I felt, for the first time, the healing power of expressing my feelings by trying to craft them in a beautiful and meaningful way. I remember showing the poem to my parents – I doubt I showed it to anyone else - and I felt the freedom of feeling my grief was deeply understood by them from my poem in a way I wasn’t able to communicate in words. I’m still doing that with my poetry, decades later.
As an undergraduate I wrote some poetry, but mostly fiction and journalism, and planned to be a writer but became a psychotherapist instead. I was an excellent listener committed to helping people heal their feelings, heal their traumas by telling their stories in a compassionate environment. When I returned to writing, it was as a non-fiction writer and playwright for many years, but I’ve moved into a phase of life where I feel most interested in the emotional depth that poetry offers – and telling stories through poems is what I’m most interested in.
My approach to poetry is very much as a healing process – as writer, reader, and teacher. I’m captivated by the surprising insights poetry offers – especially when we write and read poetry as a conversation with each other. I love the illuminating process of finding what we feel but have not yet expressed. Reading and writing poetry lets us share stories about rites of passage - how we grow and ignite empathy - in ourselves and each other. I like the way poetry offers us the chance to deeply listen to and learn about each other’s beauty and truth – as we share the stories of survival, rebirth, courage and creativity in the phase of disaster.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I approach every day as an important day for writing and I try to make that happen, with discipline of shutting my door and sitting down in my seat. But I’m a mother and a wife and a daughter of elderly parents and a friend, so I take care of my relationships as much as I take care of my writing process. All of it matters, and the people I love and who love me realize how important my writing is, so they support it. I want to show up for people when they need me, so some days the writing has to be interrupted. Not devalued in any way, but balanced by my desire to be present for important needs, activities and feelings of others. In some ways, that’s the therapist in me who is saying: listen. Someone needs you and it can’t wait and you wouldn’t want it to if you can help.
I start most poems as notes and crude drawings in my journal. I ask myself questions and write long answers. When I’ve got all my raw material, I go through it with colored markers circling and underlining and highlighting the heat and the heart and the liveliness of images and words and then I craft a rough draft that I take to my computer and begin generating drafts. Here’s a poem I wrote about my process:
How You Know a Poem is Finished
No one knows what it is you’re seeking.
You bargain and begin. Soon enough, fail.
So many more beginnings than you bargained
for. If you find a draft you love a little, hate a lot,
sleep. Wake and revise to the point of ruin. Keep
dreaming and beginning. Write as badly as you
must. When you find a draft you like a little, hate
less, read every word out loud. Revise. Record
your voice speaking line after line. Again. When
what you’ve said sounds almost true or beautiful
hit stop. Walk or run where a tree like a willow is
rooted, especially near a body of water in motion.
Listen. Listen to the poem someone recorded.
Keep walking, running, listening. Return. Sleep,
dream, wake, revise, record, repeat. Repeat each
step until the poem someone found sounds like a
tree bending over the river, giving thanks.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Most often, my poetry writing process is inspired by photographs that capture my imagination, glimpses of truth and beauty, and my intuitive sense of powerful feelings that are unresolved, yet potentially very meaningful. Exploring the emotional and dramatic world of a particular photo helps me find the heart of the poem and put that into words. Sometimes I have the photo before starting a poem and I write intentionally probing it; other times I find a photo after the first drafts which helps me concretize the theme and fine tune the meaning or description.
If I’ve used a photo as inspiration for the poem, I paste the photo into the document with the draft of the poem and leave it there so I can continue to be influenced by it. If a photo hasn’t prompted the poem, I go looking for one that fits the poem I’m trying to write, and I paste it into the document as well. The images provide the spark to remind me WHY I cared enough to start the poem, and WHY I care enough to overcome frustration and blocks and fears to finish it.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Jane Kenyon, Sharon Olds, Marie Howe, whose prose poems are particularly fascinating; May Sarton’s late journals about her writing life and flowers and birds and the ocean are exquisite; Mary Oliver, poet of the woods and streams and the spirit. Wordsworth, his love of nature and romanticism appeals to me; Donald Hall, poet of New Hampshire, speaks to my New England rootedness. These are a few.
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 is a project book? etc.
My title poem, “All these Cures,” is about imagination as a spiritual and emotional remedy that’s always available to us. Many years ago I read a quote by Gloria Steinem that resonates deeply, “We imagine God and endow him or her with the qualities we need to survive and grow.” I think that idea is very much at the core of my poem, “All These Cures,” about the ideal grandmother who appeared in my imagination many years ago, and I welcomed her and let her live in my conscious and unconscious and nurture and nourish me in profoundly spiritual ways. “All These Cures” is the story of how she came to be and how the course of her “life” and influence on mine was guided by the mystery of imagination.
The poems in this chapbook are about my stages of life: growing, changing, aging, healing, parenting my children and parenting my aging parents with Alzheimer’s. They are inspired by nature, growing up in a small town in New England where I returned to raise my own children, and about being a woman in her 50’s. Mostly, these are poems about family and how we honor and take care of each other.
Kelly reading "What This Is Called," a poem from All These Cures:
What This Is Called
This is how you bend without tipping.
This is how you kneel and lift a soft
thing up like a flake of cold that falls
from up there when it’s white all over.
This is how you can smell it, sweet.
This one fell from a name I can’t name, a
flower that pricks with its flakes falling
there and here on the ground going brown.
This flake of pure white is the only kind of
thing you need. You can bend without tipping.
You can lift one up from the ground before it
turns brown. You can smell it, sweet. You can
hold a bright white world called something
beautiful in your hand.
Copyright 2013 by Kelly DuMar
First published in Corium, 2013