I eat them from a bowl, licktheir succulence from my thumb and finger,
tongue the whorls and pads, suck
my own sweet flesh, linger
in the feedback loop of warm and wet.
—from “Medjool Dates,” Sherry Chandler
Sherry Chandler’s work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including The Louisville Review, The Cortland Review, The William and Mary Review, Kestrel, and Calyx. Her work has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Chandler has had professional development support from the Kentucky Arts Council and the Kentucky Foundation for Women.
The Woodcarver’s Wife is her second full-length poetry collection. She is the author of one previously published full-length collection, Weaving a New Eden, and two chapbooks, Dance the Black-Eyed Girl (Finishing Line Press) and My Will and Testament Is on the Desk (FootHills Publishing).
Chandler was born and raised in rural Owen County, Kentucky. A 1963 graduate of
, she has degrees from Owen
(BA) and the Georgetown College University of Kentucky
(MA). She has recently retired from a 25-year career as a board-certified
Editor in the Life Sciences. Chandler lives in Bourbon County, Kentucky with
her husband, the wood carver T. R. Williams. She has twin sons and twin
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As I mention in my review of The Woodcarver's Wife (click here for the review), I first met Sherry Chandler several years ago at a reading and panel discussion held as part of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference in Lexington, Kentucky. The past two years I've enjoyed participating with her and other poets in writing a new poem every day during the month of June for the Lexington Poetry Month Writing Challenge, organized by Hap Houlihan of the Morris Book Shop and Katerina Stoykova-Klemer of Accents Publishing to promote local poets and poetry.
—Karen L. George
(This interview was conducted via email.)
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On your author website it says you didn't publish a poem until 1993 and that your first chapbook was published in 2003. Had you been writing poetry for years, and just hadn't submitted it for publication, or did you begin writing poetry later in life?
SC: I was nine or ten years old before a television set was considered as essential to the home as a cookstove, especially in our rural community. Although we did have radio, and I remember listening to series like The Lone Ranger and The Shadow on radio, everybody read: Agatha Christie, The Courier Journal, Motor Trend, Superman comics. As the youngest in the family, I was the only one in the house who couldn’t read, and I did a lot of begging to be read to.
Eventually l became an omnivorous but naïve reader. When I decided to concentrate on poetry, my first task was to learn what it is—a task I’ll probably never finish. A task I hope I never finish.
Although I started out behind, I always wrote, even if it was just letters. Before I wrote in any other genre, I was known as an entertaining correspondent. Alas! The form was archaic before I set pen to paper.
Setting pen to paper, by the way, the act of writing is something I enjoy.
I wrote a few poems in college but studying the English canon convinced me that the poet was next to God, a height to which I could never aspire, not the least because of my gender.
Fiction writers at least had to be grounded, so I spent several years learning the short story. I even had a little success. Got an artist enrichment grant from the Kentucky Arts Council and used the money to attend the Indiana University’s summer writer’s conference.
I’ve had two big epiphanies in my development as a poet: One was reading “The Red Wheelbarrow;” the other was hearing Andrew Hudgins read at IU. He was not comparing anyone to a summer’s day or daring to eat a peach; he might be explaining the ways of God to man, but he was doing it by writing about church ladies with funeral parlor fans. He was writing poetry about the world I lived in. I could do that!
So that was 1989 and I was 44 years old. That was when I became a serious poet.
What made you first want to write poetry? And why led you to submit your poetry for publication?
SC: I don’t know why I wanted to write poetry. As I say above, I wanted to write and once I got over my awe of it, I realized that poetry is the genre best suited to my particular imagination. My mother used to recite poems she had memorized in school: “The Song of Hiawatha,” “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “October’s Bright Blue Weather,” “The Swing.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Helen Hunt Jackson, poets we’d long-since dismissed as too popular, but I didn’t know that. What I did know was the pleasure they brought my mother and I loved to hear her say them. That’ll do for a reason, to please my mother.
I do know why I offer poems to journals: Ego. The world has room for only one Emily Dickinson. For most of us, the writing process is incomplete without publication. Acceptance by the gatekeepers. Of course the nature of publication has changed since I started writing and people are finding ways to by-pass the gatekeepers – or create new ones. Self-publishing, in print or online, doesn’t carry the stigma it did in the 20th Century, and poets who post their work to their blogs get more readers than poets published in traditional print outlets.
One of the things I admire most about your poems is how rhythmic they are because of your use of assonance, alliteration, internal and end rhyme. Do you have a musical background that instilled this element into your poetry? And is this something that finds its way into your early drafts or do you add it in later revisions?
SC: Thank you.
The always-in-the-present me forgets how old I am. As I said, I lived several years before television made it into everybody’s living room. In those days people had to entertain themselves and most everybody played some sort of instrument. And in my particular case, people would gather at the general store on Saturday nights. They sat in the back room among the sweet-smelling bags of feed and jammed while the children chased lightning bugs or took each other on snipe hunts.
Or they’d roll back the rugs in somebody’s house and have a square dance.
It’s just too Norman Rockwell for words, isn’t it? Well, I suspect there may have been a bottle involved.
Robert Pinsky says because the accentual cadences of spoken English require not just changes in volume but also in pitch, it’s almost as though we are singing to one another all the time. I like to push my poetry toward singing. I am, in fact, a bit word drunk. With practice, the devices that started out as add-ons in revision are internalized and start to appear in first drafts.
What is it that compels you to write formal poetry? Is it a decision you make while, or after, you write a first draft of a poem?
SC: I find working with restraints pushes me to surprise myself. It can be really hard to write in (something I laughingly call) meter and rhyme. The biggest temptation is to pad lines. Earlier poets do it shamelessly – all those “I did go” constructions and inversions to hit the meter – and it was partly that wordiness that made the modern poets embrace free verse. If you work in rhymed and metered verse now, it has to read like ordinary speech. “I didn’t realize it was a sonnet” is about the highest praise I receive.
The second temptation is to sound “poetic.” I don’t want iambics to over-ride my natural-born cadences.
It culminates as a sort of synthesis if I’m lucky.
Any number of poets (Robert Graves, Richard Wilbur) say a poem finds its own form. Molly Peacock suggests that form is a scaffolding not a cage. I work the reverse of your question – I sometimes use form to generate the work and edit it out in the revisions. And sometimes the poem just won’t do what you tell it to do. “For my Valentine” defied me. I tried to make it a sonnet, because it’s a love poem, but Wooly Bully insisted on a bigger role so I had to open the gate and let him run. The result is much more relaxed and, I hope, amusing.
Your bio says, "You recently retired from a 25-year career as a board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences." Can you tell us more about this work, and did it play into your poetry writing?
SC: I worked for academic physicians, doctors who doctor, teach, and research. That’s a big commitment and I admire them tremendously. Besides they have the money to pay editors.
Part of what I did was to translate jargon into plain English. Writing for medical journals follows a very strict form, much tighter than formal poetry, and papers are heavily peer reviewed. Medical researchers have to be very careful not to claim cause and effect. As a result, doctors don’t trust the sentence. They think it’s gonna haul off and assert something. So they subordinate (badly) and qualify and hang so many constraints on any statement, use so many acronyms, and so much jargon that the poor sentence is choked almost to non-meaning. In addition to which, a fair number of my clients spoke English as a second language. So I had to become an expert on the sentence, first to pull it apart and figure out what it intended to convey and second to put it back together so that it said what it meant.
It was a bit like working for Humpty-Dumpty:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.
I also had the job of writing consent forms that made the research understandable on the sixth grade level. That was my favorite part of the job. I prided myself on writing elegant consents.
The most “readable” text is not that comprised of one simple declarative sentence after another. Intelligent subordination works best in consents and in poetry. To be nimble with English syntax is essential. Even if you’re going to violate syntax, you first need to know how it works.
Several of your poems contain lists, such as in "Bennet's New Latin Grammar (1895): A Love Poem" it's grammatical terms, and in "Clearing Out" it's items someone has collected throughout a lifetime, and in "The Woodcarver's Wife" it's carving tools and types of wood. Can you tell us how you decide which items to include, and do you arrange them in a particular way for some effect?
SC: There is music — and magic — in the names of things. Ancient cultures thought to know the true name was to have power over. Gertrude Stein says "A noun is a name of anything, why after a thing is named write about it.” But I write about it too.
I wanted “The Woodcarver’s Wife” to function like a rhapsody, constantly changing form, rhythm, and mood. I wanted those lists to just tumble down the page and off the tongue, and I was lucky enough to find some rhymes to help with the music. If I was successful, the lists don’t just accumulate, they culminate. They chant like a shaman:
Chain saws,pole saws,
In “Bennet’s” I tried to pick grammatical charts and tables that would undercut the speaker, providing glimpses of the relationship. Latin is wonderful for that purpose, having forms like “accusative of the result produced” and “moods of indirect discourse.” Because it’s a somewhat comic poem, I let it get a little raunchy. Love those copulatives and supines.
I've discovered you're posting micro poetry on your Twitter and Facebook page. What inspired you to do this and how long have you been doing it?
SC: Blogging brought me in contact with one Dave Bonta, an avid supporter of open-source publishing on the web (http://www.vianegativa.us/2007/08/should-poetry-be-open-source/ ) Dave, who lives in the Pennsylvania Appalachians, writes a micro poem daily, which he posts on Morning Porch (http://morningporch.com/). Before I made a cyber connection with Dave, all I had seen and read about what was called “TwitterPo” was derogatory, but I admired what Dave was doing and decided to try it for myself.
I started out with two rules. First my postings would serve me as a sort of meditation – not just to observe one thing closely each day but also to find fresh language to evoke what I see. Second, the postings would be ephemeral. That is to say, I’d put them out there and let them go.
I opened my Twitter account in April 2008; that means I’m into my 7th year of writing micro-poetry. As it stands today I’ve made over 1600 posts and have about 3600 followers. From time to time, someone will ask me whether I intend to put the tweets in a book but I want to stay true to my original concept.
I only have one regret – when I set up my Twitter account I had to choose a name. For reasons too complicated to explain, I chose the name @BluegrassPoet, as though somehow there was only one. To all the other wonderful Bluegrass Poets out there, I do apologize.
Some other good micropoets: @morningporch, @jdbrush, @morganabag, @krislindbeck
What poets did you first come to admire, and what was it about their work that intrigued you?
SC: If I say Hank Williams, will you laugh or cry? Or both? Maybe it’s because we always had a lot of whippoorwills around our house but at certain moments, I still want to sing
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight freight is whining low
I’m so lonesome I could cry
Williams’s songs are raw emotion with a steel guitar, but sometimes that’s what you need.
Then there were minimalists: Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, E. E. Cummings. I liked the way they used space. Like I said, when I first saw “The Red Wheelbarrow” I was hooked.
And I was intrigued for a while by the Middle English poets: Chaucer and the Gawain Poet (Pearl Poet) were best. Chaucer could be so many people, some of them very earthy. The poetry I read before college had been pretty heavily bowdlerized. Who knew you were allowed to tell dirty jokes in poetry? But Chaucer is amazingly skilled at creating characters who reveal themselves unawares by their speech. Gawain and the Green Knight was at once familiar and alien, like Disney crossed with Stephen King. I loved horror stories when I was young.
Donne, Browning. Frost. James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones.
Your arm's too short to box with God.
Your arm's too short to box with God.
Have your tastes in poetry changed over the years, and if so, in what ways?
SC: My tastes in poetry have become more educated but I don’t know that they’ve changed in essence. I’ve come to know more contemporary poets and my taste ranges from Kay Ryan to Patricia Smith to Seamus Heaney who did an excellent translation of Beowulf. I still love the ancient poems – Gilgamesh, Beowulf, et al.
I seem to have a predilection for Southern poets: Ellen Bryant Voigt and our own Maurice Manning. Natasha Trethewey. Sally Rosen Kindred.
Looking at the poems I’ve named in answering your questions, I’d say I am drawn to poems that are strongly voiced and musical and that is completely predictable, because that is the kind of poetry I attempt to write.
You just keep teaching me things about myself, Karen.
What poets are you currently reading, and can you recommend particular collections of theirs?
SC: I’m reading:
Cathryn Essinger’s A Desk in the Elephant House. Actually, I’m re-reading this book, her first, and I recommend it and her other books: My Dog Does Not Read Plato and What I Know about Innocence.
Joe Survant’s The Land We Dreamed. This book is the last of a trilogy about Kentucky’s history. The others are Anne and Alpheus and Rafting Rise, the latter my favorite.
Richard Jarrette’s Beso the Donkey, a book of short poems recommended to me by Cathy Essinger. It reads sort of like “Seventy Ways of Looking at a Donkey.” If Beso were a mule he’d fit snugly into a William Faulkner novel.
Lisa Williams’s A Gazelle in the House. Lisa is a multi-award winning poet. I have just started this book so I can’t say much about it. My favorite at this point is Woman Reading to the Sea, which won the Barnard Women Poets Prize.
Do you have any writing projects you're working on now?
SC: In a word, no. I’m enjoying the freedom to follow my nose in the writing and to hope, like Mr. Macawber, that something will turn up.
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To read some of Sherry Chandler's poems and learn more about her and her work, visit her website: http://sherrychandler.com/index.html.
Read her micro poetry on Twitter @BluegrassPoet: https://twitter.com/BluegrassPoet