Getting to Know Linda Flaherty Haltmaier and Her New Book Rolling Up the Sky
When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
My first encounter was hearing my father recite poetry on long car rides. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was a favorite: All in a hot and copper sky/the bloody sun at noon. I can still hear the words in my father’s deep, dramatic voice. While my older siblings were groaning, begging for the radio, I was silently transfixed.
I wrote my first poem in 2rd grade about being “burnt to a frazzle in hell”. Thank you, Father Mitchell. As a teen journal writer, I would write an occasional angst poem but it wasn’t until the last few years that poetry bit hard.
I think that writing screenplays taught me how to compress language and pack meaning into the fewest possible words or beats. That practice led directly to writing poetry. My nephew, Mitch, introduced me to a poetry website he was posting on and it was mad love from the get-go. I loved the challenge of a new container, a new form.
Turns out that I had a lifetime of poems and images stored up and they started pouring out.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I write nearly every day, sometimes on a grocery receipt or a stray napkin, but it still counts. I find that meditating or walking on the beach before writing is ideal for me. Many of my best ideas burble up when I’m walking along West Beach. I may look like the madwoman of Chaillot talking to myself, working out the rhythm or phrasing of a line, but I’m past caring. The seagulls seem entertained.
I used to write in cafes but I find that with poetry I need to get quiet. For me, writing poetry is a form of listening, a tuning in. That’s why I often write lying down, like Mark Twain did. It seems to open up channels, gives me access to a different kind of sight, takes me out of the normal flow of life.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
I love words like kids love candy. I’m always chewing on a phrase or a line in my head. I’ve done it since I was a kid and assumed that everybody else did, too. Often a phrase will come to me, bewitch me, and a poem will grow out of it—like the title of my book “Rolling up the Sky”. That phrase was so evocative that it became not only a poem but an entire collection. Some poems pop out like an egg, fully-formed on the inside, while other need more attention and coaxing.
I’m also a nature nut so it’s a jumping off point for much of my poetry. My father would take the five kids out to “look for creatures” so my mom could have an afternoon of peace. We would hunt for water snakes, pick cattails, or just dangle our feet in a brook. They were magical expeditions. I still love hiking around swamps and ponds–coming upon a snapping turtle, spotting woodpeckers, or visiting a heron rookery. I find these encounters usually spark poems. In fact, birds are an enduring topic for me. I find them utterly fascinating and beautiful.
I also paint and draw, so visuals are a key inspiration as well. A recent poem that did well in a competition, “Deflated”, came to me when I noticed a faded beach ball stuck in the corner of a yard. That image didn’t end up staying in the poem but it sparked an entire poem about summer’s end.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I began writing fiction and some of my poetry has the feel of bite-sized stories. My biggies as a child were classic writers—Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, HG Wells, H. Rider Haggard.
In terms of poets, Shakespeare was a first love. Then came favorites Mary Oliver, Tony Hoagland, Billy Collins, Meghan O’Rourke (recent). I love discovering new poets—the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference was great for that. I respond to poetry that is accessible but stuffed with gorgeous imagery. I want to be moved or awakened--and humor goes a long way with me.
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.
The title “Rolling up the Sky” is about finding your place in the world, a place of your own making. As a child, I had a nagging sense of dislocation, like an egg placed in the wrong nest. I came from this loud, funny family where everyone was out-ribbing each other, had tongues like Ginsu knives, so it could feel overwhelming at times. I craved peace.
The themes in the book are many—family, friendship, grief, love, aging. I’m equally as fascinated by the tiny moments as the big questions–and nature is often the portal in to the poem. For me, the sparks fly at the edges of things–where light meets dark, love meets hate. I like swimming in the ambiguity and trying to find a little handhold of truth or meaning that makes sense to me.
The collection really came together while doing a two-week residency at the Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard. I printed out my poems and laid them all over the room, every surface (a stiff breeze would have caused a nervous breakdown!). I began clumping poems together to see how they talked to each other, changed my mind a million times, but ultimately turned the paper cyclone into a manuscript. I sent it off two days later and it ended up winning The Homebound Publications Poetry Prize.
View sample poems from Rolling up the Sky here:
Come to me
Come to me, old friend,
bring your wanton thighs,
hair gone to dread,
wrinkles scrubbed clean.
Come to me, just as you are.
Let your belly go slack like
a Buddha in repose.
I want to have a tea party with your soul,
nibble brownies with your wisdom,
sip your essence with milk and sugar.
Come, sit by me
and watch my crow's feet dance.
I am bound to you
and you to me,
not by blood,
but filaments of joy intertwining.
Come, let's laugh
til our hearts split open
and candy spills out.
He had murder in his eyes,
that little robinon the railing,
looking so plump and innocent
as I crossed the lawn with my morning coffee.
He watched me
and I knew
and he knew
that he wasn'tthinking about twigs
or the latest worm hunting techniques.
That fluffy baseball
tracked me like a hit man,
an intelligent gleam flickering
like a laser pointer on my forehead.
Some say dogs are people with fur,
but birds really are dinosaurs with feathers,
A robin's bloodline—
T-Rex royalty, Rex regis,
king of kings.Only now,
he's king of the worms,
Darwined into cuteness and irrelevance,
a miniaturized afterthought,
dominion bred outover eons.
Perhaps a primordial itchstill lurks
inside his bite-sized head,
one that time
and mass extinction
can't snuff out entirely–
a lingering, cellular hubris
of Hitchcockian scale.
Who was I to challenge an
evolutionary hiccup with
talons and a stabby beak?
I hopscotched up the stairs,
graceful as a golem,
as I lunged for the door.