Getting to know holly guran and her new book River of Bones
When did you first encounter poetry?
Before Things Happen (Dorothy Aldis) was given to me when I was three, and was a favorite for bedtime reading. Later I was drawn to poetry in English class: Ovid's Metamorphoses, John Masefield's “Sea Fever,” lots of Shakespeare, John Donne.
How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
In high school creative writing class, I wrote short stories and continued to do so in college. After a separation from my first husband, I landed in Connecticut. In 1972 as our belongings arrived (shipped from Oregon), and I was opening them with my three children eagerly watching, a poem also chose to make its appearance. I have been attempting to write poetry ever since.
Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I am erratic, but I do write in my study. It has windows and the scene outside is always changing. My journals need to be the black and white composition kind, with lined pages. First drafts are hand-written. Computer is useful for revising, but I have to print out frequently to see how the poem appears on the page. I read unfinished poems out loud to hear where they need to change.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
Hard to predict. Some as I am writing in my journal, others when a memory is triggered by a sound, a smell, something I hear or read, many from walks in nature, others from the research I've done most recently on life in the 19th century mills. A new manuscript is based completely on letters exchanged between Harriet Hansen, a mill girl, and William Robinson, an editor at the Lowell Courier. These letters span a 25 year period (1847 – 1872) during which the couple meet, fall in love, marry and have three children. The letters bring the couple's thoughts and surroundings alive. Both were excellent writers, politically and intellectually active.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
When I first started writing poetry, Silvia Plath's emotional heft and fine craft in Ariel made a searing impression. Near that time, I was also drawn to Mary Oliver's American Primitive, to Adrienne Rich's Diving into the Wreck and to Stanley Plumley's Out of the Body Travel. Always love Stephen Mitchell's translation, Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, and Nabakov's slim volume, Poems. Lucia Perillo's unique voice is a delight.
Bruce Weigl has been an amazing teacher/mentor, and I love to revisit his work. His most recent collection is An Abundance of Nothing. He teaches how to revise poems down to their essence, how to listen and find the music of the poem.
Martha Collins has also been a generous teacher/mentor. My favorite of her books is Blue Front. She is a guide who demonstrates how poetry emerges when you research a theme or, in my case, a historical period and its unique persons.
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.
River Full of Bones delves under the water's surface of many rivers to offer a glimpse offamily history and social history. Time's insistence shows itself in what the backyard holds, what the river carries, and in the lives of young women who worked in the nineteenth century cotton mills. I am indebted to the Lowell National Historical Park where I first stood listening to the the looms roar, and to Lucy Larcom, Harriet Robinson, and others whose writings brought the period to life. I was fortunate to have a family book that traced one ancestor back to the seventeenth century. In researching my family, I found mental illness going back three generations. My own story has been shaped in part by this legacy.
Read sample poems from River of Bones here:
Across the street she sweeps
holding the pale handle. My muscles
recognize this motion that repeats,
learned in girlhood. The eye
catches clouds of dog hair
or the pavement's sand, conveys
its message to the limbic brain
which sends us to find the broom
then discard what we cannot
erase or shove underneath.
The street sweepers come
to clear debris.
Somewhere the ocean's wavess
advance and retreat brushing the sand.
This rustle I hear in the trees
is the rise and fall of sparrow wings.
Two Cent Bridge
Makers of paper
crossed on their way
home to factory
then home again.
A scripted offering
in each extended hand
two pennies each
for the toll booth man.
Dark in the morning,
dark at night.
They waited all year for light.
Her two feet, his aching arms
across that bridge we stroll
time on our hands,
above the still racing Kennebec
one falls to the next,
near the man asleep in the sun
flushed cheeks, mouth undone,
near the tavern
of drunk fights and arrests,
and maybe you did
your own hard drinking then.
From one side to the other
morning entered night,
home became factory,
dark extinguished light.