I met Barbara Crooker one summer at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts (VCCA). She’s a gentle, impish writer who’s work has won many awards. Garrison Keillor has read 24 of her poems on The Writer’s Almanac too, and although she is publishing constantly, she continues to work hard on her craft, and hesitates to call herself a poet.
Q: WERE YOU A READER AS A KID? WHAT WERE YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTERS AND AUTHORS?
You’ve got my number! In the world before television, reading or playing outdoors were the only options to a kid growing up in the fifties. I’d ride my fat-tired one speed coaster brake bike (no helmet) the mile and a half into the village (Fishkill, NY) to the library, and load up the wire basket with books, something that seems quite foreign to children of today. (I did a presentation at my old elementary school, doing writing exercises and talking about growing up there. One little girl raised her hand and asked, “Did you have electricity then?”) My parents were always trying to get me to play outside, so I’d go out, shinny up a tree with a book tucked in my shorts, and read. I read all the “series” books—Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Cherry Ames, student nurse, etc. But my favorite author was Louisa May Alcott, and my favorite character was Jo. Sometimes I pretend I’m channeling her, scribbling in a vortex with no real hope for publication. . . .
Here’s a poem that talks about my early reading, then veers off in another direction: http://home.windstream.net/ellablue/crooker1.html
Q: DO YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST POEM THAT YOU READ THAT MADE YOU THINK “I MIGHT BE A POET?” HOW DID THAT FEEL?
Okay, you’re hitting a little nerve here, in that I never say, “I’m a poet.” I’m aligning myself with Robert Frost, who felt that this was an honorific that should be bestowed by someone else, after you’re dead. Instead, I usually say “I’m a writer,” and then when asked, “What do you write?” will answer “poetry.” Yeah, I’ve published over 800 poems in over 3000 places (journals, anthologies, books, etc.), but each new poem feels like a mountain to climb, and I’m a beginner, not sure which rope to use. . . .
Q: DO YOU WRITE PROSE AS WELL AS POETRY?
Nope. One life to live, one genre to write in, that’s my motto, although I have written essays, blog posts, book reviews and the like—but they’re all about poetry. . . . Part of this is because I’m the full-time care giver of my 31 year old son, who has autism. There have been many times when I’ve thought, in praise of poetry, thank God it’s short. . . .
Q: WHAT IS THE MOST FUN YOU EVER HAD WHEN WRITING A POEM?
This little number about Spanx, Freshman Composition, and my uncle Angelo:
Compare & Contrast
after “Control Top Panty” by Martha Silano
When I was an undergraduate, I thought it
would be brilliant to write my compare &
contrast paper on the Maidenform three-way stretch
girdle and the three branches of US government:
executive, legislative, judicial.
I somehow worked in power panels
and breathable mesh, control
and flexibility, checks and balances.
And this makes me think about two women
from church, raised on hot bacon dressing,
potato filling, donuts fried in lard, talking
about how they got stuck in their Spanx
in a dressing room at Macy’s— But back
to the paper, written in the sixties,
on a manual typewriter (an object
preceding the word processor that went
“ding” when you reached the end of a line.
You had to do the hard return yourself,
with a silver lever ) before any shots
were fired over the prow in the sexual
revolution. Then we got liberated,
went braless, girdleless, shoeless. . . .
But where are we now, in a world that
sneers if our waists pop out in muffin tops?
Has the world spun out of control, or is it spun
out of Lycra? We’ve raised our consciousness
and hemlines, but now the elastic waistband’s come
full circle, and we’re stuffed into our shapewear
like my Uncle Angelo making da sausiche, grinding
plump rumps, adding spices, stuffing the mixture
into casings. Some with fennel, some with cheese. How
do we feel, encased in Power Panels? Empowered
or corseted? Should we go Slim Cognito? Pray
to a Super Higher Power? Start speaking in tongues,
waving our arms above our heads (no slippage here),
shouting Bra-lelluhjah, amen, amen?
(first published in Earth’s Daughters)
Q: DO YOU HAVE AN EXERCISE THAT YOU CAN SUGGEST FOR PEOPLE WHO MAY NOT CONSIDER THEMSELVES POETS BUT WOULD LIKE TO TRY TO WRITE A POEM?
Pick a poem you admire, say one that seems “easy,” by Billy Collins or Mary Oliver (trust me, they’re not), and try to write a similar poem. Painters, for example, try to copy famous works (I love watching students do this in museums); ditto musicians, so why not writers. . . .
Q: WHAT HAS SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT THE PUBLISHING SIDE OF POETRY?
How very hard it is, especially to find a publisher for a full-length book. I’m currently “shopping” my seventh book, and I thought, naively, that by this point, it would be easier. But it isn’t. (I say this even though my sixth book was solicited, which definitely falls in the “dreams come true” category.) For the most part, the road to book publishing means entering the contests (at $35 a pop), and that means competing with roughly 800 other manuscripts. Back when I was trying to get a first book, I was a finalist/runner-up so many times I stopped counting (which means top ten), but you have to be lucky twice, first to get through the initial screeners, then to have the right judge, the one who will fall in love with your work, forsaking all others. It’s daunting. But since the other alternative is keeping the poems in my trunk (aka my hard drive), that’s what I’m doing. . . .
Q: DO YOU HAVE A CURRENT FAVORITE AMONG YOUR OWN POEMS AT THE MOMENT?
Hmm, that’s like asking “who’s your favorite child?” My answer is always “all of them.” So what I did was look at poems appearing online; here’s my favorite recent online publication, from Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry: http://www.americanlifeinpoetry.org/columns/534.html It’s also in my fourth book, More:http://www.amazon.com/dp/193619600X/?tag=barbaracrooke-20
Q: WHAT BOOKS ARE ON YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE?
Sorry, I don’t have a bedside table, just the floor. What I like to read before falling asleep are mysteries; my current one is A Dangerous Placeby Jacqueline Winspear (Maisie Dobbs is the main character)(Nancy Drew for grownups).
Q: DO YOU EVER FEEL UNCERTAIN ABOUT YOUR WORK?
How about all the time?
Q: HOW DO YOU COPE WITH YOUR UNCERTAINTY?
There’s no cure, I fear, so I keep on going. . . .
Q: DO YOU HAVE DREAMS/GOALS AS A POET THAT YOU CAN SHARE WITH US?
I am very much hoping for a publisher for my seventh book, Les Fauves, (here are some poems from it: http://www.verse-virtual.com/barbara-crooker-2015-july.html and http://www.verse-virtual.com/barbara-crooker-2015-june.html) which is, as you might imagine, a collection of ekphrastic (poems having a conversation with art) poems on Fauve and other post-Impressionist paintings, plus what are for me my “wild woman” (“Fauve” means savage or wild animal) poems, some in abecedary (every line begins with a letter of the alphabet, in order) form, others in variants or nonce forms. Then I’m hoping I can return to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, Ireland, to complete The Book of Kells, (here’s a poem from it:http://www.christiancentury.org/contributor/barbara-crooker andhttp://roseredreview.org/2013-winter-barbara-crooker-2/) mediations on this illuminated manuscript, plus other poems about Ireland, and a number of glosas, which is a form that uses a four line stanza from another poem. I used poems by Irish poets (Yeats, Heaney, O’Driscoll) and one by Neruda. It’s about 3/4 finished, which means I really have to go back there! And, beyond that, I have another manuscript of nature poems similar to Small Rain, but I think I’ll wait on that. I am also dreaming that IF I find a home for Les Fauves, I can return to VCCA’s studio in Auvillar, France, and do a reading from the book (many of the poems in it were written there) with slides of the various paintings in the background. But, as I’m sure you know, all of these things will not be easy, as the competition both for book publication and for getting into artist colonies/retreats is fierce, and, as I’m getting older (a significant birthday this year), overseas travel is becoming more daunting. Still, I’m dreaming. . . .
Barbara’s website www.barbaracrooker.com
Links to books: Small Rain:http://www.amazon.com/dp/0944048633/?tag=barbaracrooke-20
Barbara Crooker: Selected Poems:http://www.amazon.com/dp/1938853709/?tag=barbaracrooke-20
Barbara Crooker is the author of six books of poetry: Radiance, winner of the 2005 Word Press First Book Award and finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize; Line Dance ( 2008), winner of the 2009 Paterson Award for Excellence in Literature; More (2010); Gold (2013); Small Rain(2014); and Barbara Crooker: Selected Poems (2015). Her writing has received: the 2004 WB Yeats Society of New York Award (Grace Schulman, judge), the 2003 Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award (Stanley Kunitz, judge), and three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships. Her work appears in a variety of literary journals and anthologies, including Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania and The Bedford Introduction to Literature. She has been a fellow at the VCCA fifteen times since 1990, plus the Moulin à Nef, Auvillar, France and The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, Ireland. Garrison Keillor has read twenty-four of her poems on The Writer’s Almanac, and she has read her poetry all over the country, from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, including The Calvin Conference of Faith and Writing, The Austin International Poetry Festival, Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Symposium, and the Library of Congress.