AN INTERVIEW WITH JUDITH GOLDHABER, AUTHOR OF "THE BEWICK'S WREN", GRAND PRIZEWINNING POEM, 2009 MARGARET REID PRIZE FOR TRADITIONAL VERSE
How did you happen upon such a novel and engaging subject as the wrens' building their nest in a doll's house?
The simple answer is that the story of the wrens and the doll house actually happened, pretty much the way I describe it in the poem. The more complicated answer is that this poem is one of many I've written in the past few years that draw from a deep well of feeling about the empty nest – my daughters growing up, leaving home, and making their way in the world. I have never been fond of the confessional style of poetry, either to read or to write. The word "I" seldom appears in my poems, unless it is spoken by some animate or inanimate stand-in for myself -- a spider or a raven or a butterfly or a duck (or, in one case, the planet). But I pack a lot of personal emotion into these poems. I am a believer in Robert Frost's words: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader."
Did the subject seem to instantly lend itself to a traditional rhyming form or did you experiment with other formats as well?
I almost never experiment with other formats. I am hopelessly addicted to the sonnet (for lyric expression) and to the sonnet sequence (for storytelling). To me, the familiar rhythm of iambic pentameter (so close to ordinary English speech, yet "elevated"), the ear-pleasing chiming of recurring rhymes, the orderly progression of ideas from octet to sestet, and the final jolt of the twist at the end make the sonnet the perfect form for expressing a powerful idea or emotion. And a series of sonnets, bound together by form, is perfect for telling a long story. Long narrative poems are hard to read, but a sonnet sequence or cycle keeps the reader going because he/she expects, and gets, a small payoff at the end of each link.
Approximately how much time did you spend writing and polishing this poem?
Since my poems usually involve some kind of animate or inanimate stand-in for myself, I spend quite a bit of time researching the subject -- reading, Googling, etc. For example, when I had the idea of writing about the birds in the doll house, I didn't even know what kind of birds they were. Once I had identified them as Bewick's wrens, I read everything I could about their habits, and this material provided the inspiration for the detail in the poem. I even emailed the head of ornithology at the Smithsonian Institution to find out the preferred pronunciation of “Bewick.” (Buick? or Bee-wick?) He responded promptly -- Buick! (Everyone likes to help a poet.) In actual writing time, I usually write and polish one sonnet, or one link in a sequence, in two working days. I take a long walk in the morning and wait for an idea and a few lines to come to me, then rush back to my computer and turn them into a poem.
You also won a Most Highly Commended Award for another entry, "The Garden Spider". In your own estimation, do you prefer one poem to the other, or would you rank them equally?
It's hard for me to judge "The Garden Spider" objectively, because it has a very special meaning to me. It was the first poem I wrote after a dry period that had lasted for almost 40 years. And the first line of the poem, "The first step is a drop into the void" is a metaphor for what I was trying to do – reclaim my vocation as a poet. I had been a precocious, prize-winning poet as a teenager and college student, but the muse had deserted me for 40 years of adult life, marriage, motherhood, and a career as a science journalist. A poet friend visiting from London, Claire Barnham, dragged me to some poetry readings (which I had been avoiding for many years), and the muse began to stir. It was October, 2002, and my garden was full of hard-working specimens of Araneus diadematus and their beautiful webs. Always the curious science writer, I wondered how the web was made, and looked it up. The field guide's description of the spider's web-making began "The first step is a drop into the void", a path I followed.
How long have you been writing poetry and have you enjoyed any previous successes?
I was born into a family of writers and journalists and poets. I wrote my first poems at the age of 12 or 13. By high school I was winning state-wide prizes, and by college I was writing sonnets virtually indistinguishable from the ones I write now. (So really I have not matured at all as a poet – I don’t know if that’s good or bad.) My greatest influences as a poet were: a) growing up in the midst of nature, in an ancient farmhouse without electricity or indoor plumbing; and b) reading great poetry early in life, and unconsciously committing countless pages of it to memory. I carry around in my head an enormous anthology of the poetry that I read in my youth – Yeats, Shakespeare, Frost, Jeffers, Eliot, Millay, Wordsworth. I never took a college course in poetry, never joined any kind of poetry group, never even considered trying to make a living as a poet or academic. I did, however, go into "the family business" as a science journalist, specializing in physics and astronomy. Before long, my kind of poetry went out of style. (Poetry without either rhyme or formal meter never interested me, and still doesn't). Both the academic world of modern poetry and the vibrant poetry-slam scene seemed closed to an outsider. The muse deserted me, and though the desertion made me sad, I accepted it and moved on.
In 1988, as a journalist, I had occasion to meet Stephen Hawking, the great British astrophysicist who is paralyzed by ALS. This encounter obviously touched something very deep in my (paralyzed?) creative self, for quite unexpectedly, a poem, "Hawking," emerged. Over the next few years, I wrote the book and lyrics for "Falling Through a Hole in the Air," a musical fantasy about Hawking, which (with composer-collaborator Carl Pennypacker), was produced at San Francisco City College a few years later. Another musical, about Albert Einstein's "lost" daughter Lieserl, followed, but has not yet found a producer. I found it easy and liberating to write song lyrics, but it took another decade for poetry to re-emerge. When it did, it came in a great rush. Beginning with "The Garden Spider" in 2002, I have written over 300 sonnets –including one unpublished book-length collection of long sonnet sequences, The Coming Earthquake (which includes "The Bewick’s Wren") and two self-published books, Sonnets from Aesop (100 of Aesop's fables rewritten as sonnets), and Sarah Laughed (tales from Genesis rewritten as sonnet sequences), both illustrated by my husband, Gerson Goldhaber. Virtually every one of the twelve long sonnet sequences in The Coming Earthquake has won some kind of a major national prize, including the Annie Finch Award of the National Poetry Review, the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Award for Poems on the Jewish Experience; the Dancing Galliard Sonnet Contest; the "In the Beginning Was the Word" Poetry Contest (twice); the Winning Writers' War Poetry contest, and, now, the Margaret Reid Prize. Yet only one of these sonnet sequences has been published! They are too long for the journals, and book publishers don't seem to be interested in poets who don't have the usual academic credentials and contacts (for blurbs and reviews). It's very frustrating. Cash awards are great, but one also wants to have readers.
Any words of encouragement that you'd like to share would also be much appreciated.
Words of encouragement . . . Hmmm. I would say that despite missing the recognition that comes with being a conventionally successful published poet, I have derived deep satisfaction from finding my own poetic voice very early and sticking with it for a lifetime. Some might say that this shows nothing but a lack of nerve. Perhaps if I had attended some workshops and sleep-away camps for writers back in the seventies and eighties, I might have learned to love (and write) the kind of poetry that others were writing, poems more acceptable to the taste of the times, and I might have avoided the 40-year dry spell. But I doubt it. To me, poetry is pure magic; I don't know where it comes from; all I can do is say "welcome" when the muse decides to visit.
A word about self-publishing. It can work in certain cases. After numerous vain attempts to interest a publisher, my husband and I established Ribbonweed Press to publish our book Sonnets from Aesop. (We had quickly realized the futility of trying to find a publisher for a book containing 100 sonnets illustrated by 100 full-color, full-page paintings.. The cost of dealing with the pictures would be prohibitive for any publisher, and the book would have had to sell for upwards of $50 to cover expenses.) By doing a lot of the setup ourselves, and printing in China, we are able to sell Sonnets from Aesop for $14.95. It was published in 2005 and won an Independent Publisher’s Award (IPPY) as outstanding independently-published book of the year. Sonnets from Aesop (and its later companion, Sarah Laughed: Sonnets from Genesis) has sold well in local bookstores and on Amazon for several years.. Both books are still available (and selling) on Amazon: Sonnets from Aesop. The combination of classical theme (Aesop and Genesis), full-color illustrations, and low price has made these popular gift books, for adults and children. But I doubt if this approach would work for a simple volume of poetry. I have not tried it for The Coming Earthquake.