Saturday, December 21, 2013


by Barbara Crooker

Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon


ISBN 13: 978-1-62032-940-5

Purchase GOLD on Amazon

An Email Interview with BARBARA CROOKER by Caroline LeBlanc

CL:  Barbara, thank you for inviting me to review Gold on the Poetry Matters blog.  The interviews on your webpage, which I suggest interested readers consult, are informative and enjoyable so I hope I can meet the challenge of exploring your work in a new way in this interview.    
While your poems are full of gracious awe, they are not what I would call overly Christian or religious, even though Gold is published by The Poiema Poetry Series, which “presents the work of gifted poets who take Christian faith seriously.”  Carl Jung said, “If our religion is based in wonder, our chief emotion will be gratitude,” and that is what I find in your poems—wonder & gratitude, despite the great challenges of your life, including a spouse who abandoned you into single motherhood,  a stillbirth, caring for your autistic son and dying mother.   The poems in Gold are spiritual and sensual, often moving in ways that don’t readily seem to go together.  Would you say something about how you think images of sensuality, spirituality and religion are related and their place in poems?  Also, what advice would you offer the “true believer” in any system of belief –secular or religious—about how to engender poems with passion without becoming dogmatic?     

BC:  This is a really great question.  I’m glad that you noticed, but were not bothered by, the lack of overt religious sentiment in these poems.  I love the Jung quote, and also this one by Wendell Berry, “Be joyful, even though you have considered all the facts.”  For while it might seem that my life has included more than my fair share of sorrow, the fact is, all of our lives are a mixture of sorrow and joy.  And they’re intertwined—you can’t have light without shadow.  To me, the fact that we live in these bodies is something holy indeed, and our sensual lives are part of our spiritual lives.  I confess that I don’t understand some parts of Christianity that want to deny the flesh, and its desires.  It seems to me that in doing so, we would be saying that part of God’s creation is flawed.  But God don’t make junk, as the saying goes, and in celebrating our sensuality we are also celebrating His creation. 

Now, how to write religious poetry without being dogmatic or didactic? Ah, there’s the rub.  Political poetry, too, falls into this category.  I’m not ever sure I’ve succeeded, but that’s what I’m aiming for, poems that are deeply religious/spiritual, but not narrow and rigid or tied to any one religious tradition.  I am a practicing Lutheran, but like to think of myself as a “Zen Lutheran,” as I borrow a lot from other traditions in my own spiritual practice, particularly the Buddhist concept of mindfulness. 

The other part of your question, “how to engender poems with passion,” speaks to something I also wrestle with.  I work equally hard on all of my poems, often going through fifty drafts or more.  But some of them are “dead on arrival”; i.e., they never get up off the page and sing and dance.  Others arrive almost fully formed, and full of life.  In both cases, I try to bring everything I know about craft to bear, but some poems rise up, while others don’t.  The ones in the latter category I winnow out when I’m putting together book manuscripts.  But back to “engendering poems with passion”:  I want my poems to touch other people, to mean something to somebody.  I don’t want to write mere decoration or intellectual doodlings.

CL: “Ambrosia” strikes which me as a good example of how you find a voice and tone that avoids getting mired in or clichéd about the difficult subject matter of many poem in Gold, i.e., your mother’s dying process and death.    “Ambrosia” is a bittersweet celebration of life even as your mother increasingly leaves this life.  Images of complex, robust foods suggest the equally robust woman who enjoyed them.   Then lines 6 & 7 take us to “simple [food], a sun-warm/tomato or peace” and the poem turns as you introduce us to an 85 pound woman, still robust in spirit, but not in body.   A woman who refuses to settle for a bland life and, even in her diminishment, finds ambrosia.  Would you speak about the craft of taking the reader through intense suffering, without becoming maudlin, and into celebration, without becoming trite or clichéd?

BC: Well, there’s the rub again, how to write poems that deal with death and dying without being trite and maudlin.  Your question is an excellent analysis of this poem; you are seeing exactly what I’m trying to do.   It’s taken me many years to get to this point, to feel that I no longer have to apologize for my subject matter, which is often domestic, and unafraid to sail on the knife-edge between sentiment (which is earned) and sentimentality (which is not).  I want to take it right to the edge, but not fall in.   I needed to write about our journey, but I didn’t want to descend into bathos, and it seemed that food was a way to keep it simple, yet profound. 

I’ve also realized, in doing readings from this book, that there are more poems about food than I noticed when I was putting the book manuscript together.  I think perhaps it was because there was nothing that I could do to take away my mother’s suffering, to stem the tide, to stop her decline, but what I could do was cook, or bring her what she was craving, like Dunkin Donuts and Peeps. And so I did.

I was actually afraid, when I started submitting this manuscript, that editors would look at the subject matter (dying mother, grieving daughter) and turn away, but, in fact, two presses offered me contracts.

CL:   We enter “Goddess” through women’s art & fashion, jumps from ancient love goddesses to a modern embodiment, moves to the more obscure “Enheduanna, the first poet,” whose words connect the poet to “the fabric of time.”  In the middle of the seventh line, the focus turns to your own and your friend’s loss of your personal mothers.  Then the poem returns to goddesses, this time Persephone and Demeter and the reversal of their archetypal relationship that your losses are. Yet  you and your friend are sisters of sorts in this “unmothered” state and from “black caftans” the poem travels “across town” where cherry blossom petals wrap the earth and transform into a ballerina’s silk ribbons that are “strong/enough to keep her on her toes/as long as she needs to remain en pointe.”  All in eighteen lines.   Other poems in Gold take us on similar twists and turns. 

“Goddesses” moves from institutions and monuments, to mythology, to personal loss, to nature out of which an image of true strength evolves. On your web page, Shirley Stevens discusses your use of metaphor, and writes that James Geary “maintains that metaphor breaks up common relationships and reorganizes uncommon combinations.”    Would you tell us about how you have arrived at a point where you can combine images that could easily be no more than fragmented lists into metaphors, even conceits, that birth such organic poems?

BC:  Again, what a terrific close reading you’ve done; you’ve completely delineated what I’ve attempted to do.  I’m not sure I can adequately describe how I’m able to do this, other than I’m trying to write the kind of poems that I want to read, whether it’s religious poetry that transcends merely retelling what’s in scripture already (a pet peeve of mine in sermons!), or lyric poetry that rises above a simple lists of images.  I’ve been working hard at this for about forty years, and one of the things I’m always trying to do is “push the envelope,” go deeper, have more layers, without losing my “ideal reader,” who I imagine to be my former neighbor, Joan, a woman without a college degree, but who’s smart and well-read.  She says she loves my work because for her, it’s like sitting down with me and a cup of coffee.  I want to keep that connection, while at the same time, I’m always trying to do things like enhance the music or the rhythm, or, as in this poem, throw a lot of balls up in the air (goddesses, ancient poets, the loss of our mothers, the cherry blossoms) and still have them drop gracefully into my hands at the end at the end of the poem.

On a more practical level, many years ago I started giving myself permission to start poems with really awful prose, what Anne Lamott calls “the shitty first draft.”  I typically write large, edit small, amassing as much material as I can, then chip away at it, until nothing but the poem remains.  In revision, I try to put pressure on the language, mining for metaphor.  I also believe in serendipity; this poem began when I was part of a group reading at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, where the exhibit on Mary McFadden was also being held.  One of the other readers was Pat Valdata, and we had that conversation about our mothers, plus we’d been in a symposium together previously for the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets’ Timeline, where she’d presented a paper on Enheduanna.  I was staying with another poet, Rosemary Winslow, who organized the reading, and she and I walked the Tidal Basin in the rain, gasping at the cherry blossoms.  All of this became material. . . .

CL: As an older woman, yet not so old MFA graduate with a limited background in literature, I am drawn to “Weather Report” and “Very Long Afternoons” where you write about those voices that “[screech] not good enough” and the feeling of being “late out of the gate, plodding in the back.”    Clearly, the struggle continues despite your many publications and prizes.   And, as is often the case in your poems, someone else’s writing and nature offer ways to move beyond  your angst.  In the spirit of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, would you compose a letter to us, especially us older- young poets, working to find our voice and place in the writing world?


Dear Poets,

First of all, you can’t go wrong going back and re-reading Rilke; I think he’s said many, many wise things about the writing journey.  Second, here’s a dirty little secret:  the struggle always continues.  You never feel “good enough.”  But here’s the thing, you have to keep trying.  It’s a journey, not a destination.

Let me also recommend to you the virtue of persistence.  I’m constantly stumbling over articles with titles like, “How to Keep Writing After You Get Your MFA,” and I think, “Huh?  What’s up with that?  If you’re a writer, you write.”  Some of the MFA programs  seem to offer a great deal of praise to writers while they’re enrolled, but then they face the “real world,” where it’s pretty much a constant stream of rejection, and it’s hard to keep going.  One of the things I was writing about in the two above-mentioned poems was the sense of self-confidence I see in new MFA writers that those of us who haven’t come up in these programs lack.  Or maybe I wasn’t there when these genes where handed out.  But I dwell in the land of self-doubt.  And then I keep going.

So let’s hear it for perseverance.  There are lots of people out there with talent.  But not all of them persist, keep going, and keep growing in their craft.  With autism (my son’s disability), we try to extinguish “self-stimming repetitive behaviors.”  With writing, we call this an asset—the poems go out, they get rejected, you send them back out again.  In time, you start to see their deficits, and you revise.  And then you revise again.  All the while, you’re constantly reading, and you’re setting the bar higher with your own work.

And you rejoice in the joy of “the made thing,” rather than looking for externals, like publications and prizes.  To quote Raymond Carver, that’s just “gravy.”

CL:  Unlike many of your poems, such as “Plentitude,” which offer indirect political commentary, “The Burren” and “Stones,” two of the last few poems in Gold, offer more direct commentary on political correctness and injustice.  “Stones” in particular calls to mind Eavan Boland’s poetry and essays about the Irish famine.  What went into this shift in the camera lens for you?  What are your thoughts on when to use a more direct or indirect methods of commentary in one’s poems? 

BC:  I wish I had something pithy to say here, that I actually controlled the process of writing poems, but really, the material chose me (and thus the focus) rather than the other way around.  Again, there was serendipity—I was in Ireland, so I was immersed in the history of what I was seeing (I do a lot of background reading when I travel).  I saw the young woman who looked so much like my friend Clare, and that flipped me back into her sorrows.  I’m pretty sure I wrote this poem a year or so after the actual trip, and that I was writing from photographs I’d taken.   The European Robin incident (again, serendipity) seemed almost mystical, and I very much wanted to have it appear in a poem.  I’ve been reading Eavan Boland for years and I’m sure she’s an influence, although not a direct one.  Most of the material in “Stones” came from the display material on the wall at the Famine Cottage site, which we toured with a young couple from eastern Europe.  They were in tears, as they didn’t know anything about the politics behind the lack of relief during The Great Hunger.  (The “undeserving poor” of that time.)  My background is Scottish and Italian, but one of my Scottish forebears was evicted during the Highland Clearances and ended up in Ireland just in time for the Famine, so that made it personal.  But my left-leaning tendencies were shaped during the protests on the Vietnam War, and although supposedly we grow more conservative as we age, I don’t see that happening.  Again, I’d like to tie this into my religious beliefs; I’m a peace and social justice Christian who’s feeling hopeful again these days, partly because of journals like Sojourner’s, and partly because of the stance taken by the new Pope, Francis.

Anyway, I’m not sure I’ve answered you vis-a-vis the close focus lens or the wide angle one.  I try and listen to the poem and see what it wants to become; sharpening the vision seemed to be the right thing for these two poems.  Political poetry is really tricky; you don’t want to be shrill or didactic.  I hope that the imagery saves both of these poems.

CL:  You have said that you often revise a poem fifty times before sending it out.  And that you send many poems out and get many rejections.  But an amazing number of your poems have been published and either nominated for and/or won awards.  On a very practical level, would you please share how you track you poems:  their revisions, submissions, rejection or acceptance and eventual publication? 

BC:  In this digital age of Excel Spreadsheets, websites that track these things for you, etc. etc., I'm as low-tech as you can go--I use a very simple method of 3 X 5 cards.  Each poem has its own card, with a note at the top as to when and where it was written, plus a date for every revision.  Each journal I submit to has a card, with a list of the poems I've submitted each time written on it.  When I send a batch of poems out, I enter the journal and the date on each poem card.  Every week, I note how long the poems have been out.  When I hit 12 weeks, I double-check the response time at the journal, and query if appropriate.  I've been at this a long time, coming up at a time when double-submitting was frowned on, but I'm doing it more and more these days.  When a poem is taken, I put a little "p" with a circle on the journal card--that gives me a sense of what this particular journal seems to like.  But then, I'm often wrong--in a group of five, I might have four poems I think they'd like, plus a filler.  Sometimes, they take the filler.

CL: Do you have any other words of wisdom for our blog readers?

BC: Only to read everything you can get your hands on. Gerald Stern has said you should read 100 books of poetry before you begin writing.  I’d add to this that then you should go out and read some more. . . .

CL:  Thank you, Barbara, for your poetry and the time you’ve given for this interview.

Barbara Crooker is a widely published, award winning poet.   Her fourth book, GOLD  (Cascade Books, 2013) was  selected by The Christian Century  as one of the five best poetry books of 2013.  Crooker’s web page ( contains the impressive list of her publications and awards, as well as a number of older reviews and interviews definitely worth reading.   Her poetry is frequently posted online and read on radio, including on Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac.  She is a consummate poetry writer, reviser and manuscript submitter who wrestles with self-doubt and literary rejections like the rest of us; a mature writer whose poetry is rooted in her daily life.
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GOLD:  A Book Review by Caroline A LeBlanc

The poems in GOLD are meditations on matter and physical existence as our mortal vehicles for engaging eternal realities such love, loss, mourning and remembering.  These lyrical, narrative poems navigate human loss without sentimentality or bitterness.  The cycles of nature, the transience of physicality is at the same time a source of the poet’s suffering, joy, comfort, and poems.  Crooker seamlessly weaves personal with archetypal perspectives, connecting disparate images into richly layered metaphors—most in free verse poems that read as comfortable narratives with easy, conversational rhythms. 

The fifty-five poems in GOLD are divided into four untitled sections.  The majority of poems, particularly in the first two sections, are elegies for the poet’s mother, recounting the path from her mother’s diagnosis through her dying, and the poet’s grief during the entire process.  Poems in the third section seek comfort and perspective in multigenerational realties, art, current relationships and events that give the poet’s life meaning.  The fourth section expands the focus on life’s hungers, injustices and paradoxes.
“Plentitude,” a multilayered poem in the book’s first section, is an example of how Crooker weaves images through skillful associations and turns in the text.  The first lines invite the reader in with homely images of warm sun, honey, “hands [that] curl/around a mug of tea,” both a “benediction” and a “reprieve” from the poet’s stress due to her mother’s illness and the lack of services for her autistic son.  Her troubles, named but not dwelled upon, are quieted by “the happiness that comes/from working again, even though rejections/…[are] thicker than snowflakes”—the poet’s cue to turn.   “Winter’s waiting…its breath/on the back of the wind. This is a bit of respite/before the storms roll in”—storms of life, death, nature, mentioned but contained by a quick turn to the “blue/mountains [that] cup me in their hands,” just as the poet earlier held her cup of tea.  The last two line of the poem are metaphorical mirrors its first lines, finishing the poem’s imagistic bookends with a “lucent afternoon/ and a spigot of birdsong [that] fill my bowl to the brim.”  Many poems in the book enact such imagery of embrace and nesting with these kinds of turns and returns.      
“Grief,” in the book’s second section, turns allusions to the river Styx, the Greek afterworld, earthly life and mindfulness inside out. For the poet, “Grief/is a river you wade in until you get to the other side [i.e. life]…/[where] there are apples, grapes, walnuts,/ and the rocks are warm from the sun. ”  In Greek mythology, it is the dying who cross the river Styx to the underworld, which for heroes are the Elysian fields of beauty and bounty.  For Persephone, Hades was a land without her mother, an images in “Goddesses” (two poems later) where the poet writes  that her loss is like living “Persephone and Demeter/in reverse.”  In “Grief” the poet’s personal loss corrupts one of Thich Naht Hahn’s classic techniques of mindfulness—embracing difficult emotions tenderly as you would an infant until you can release them.  “I’m going to stay here/in the shallows with my sorrow, nurture it/like a cranky baby, rock it in my arms./I don’t want it to grow up, go to school, get married./It’s mine.”   Crooker, acutely aware of the comforts and bounty waiting for her among the living, roundly rejects them in her sorrow.  Her terror over her mother’s death freezes her; she stands in the river “growing colder, until every inch/of my skin is numb. I can’t cross over.”  The collision and confounding of personal, spiritual and mythological images in this poem enacts the psychological chaos of intense grief.  The poem creates a sense of the poet’s suspended animation in her desperate effort to deny that her mother is really “gone.”
“Soft” in section three, is one of the poems that celebrates the poets return to life and love.  The poet’s fascination with the pleasures of physical love still available in aging bodies is one of the pleasant surprises in this book that could have easily been formulaic in its dogma and darkness.   “I don’t want a younger man with a buff body,” the poem begins, with “the sine curve of his buttock, the way he doesn’t/yet know that sorrow’s going to find him.”  The poet wants “a man with a gut like a chair cushion, something/…to hold on to, sparse silver/hairs springing out of his chest and groin.”  In “Soft” the poet embraces the sensate details of the body with the same specificity and rich imagery as so many of her other poems recount details in nature.  The poet and her mate are a matched pair.  She writes, “My body, too, loosens, sags, the skin letting go,/…[the] sludge in my blood, crumble in my bones.”  Yet, despite the “erosion” of their years and their sheets, “under the covers, in the dark, I can edit him back to the boy/he was, the one I never knew.”   The poem ends with the kind of acceptance and wisdom gained in a happy, long marriage.  “Some nights/ we can.  Some nights we can’t.  Let’s praise/what’s still working.  This is every body’s story.”  A woman of any age can suffer the loss of her mother, understand a daughter’s grief, but only a woman of a certain age, with the experience of a satisfying long term love relationship, can write and fully appreciate a poem such as “Soft.”
Section four broadens the lens of this collection of poems.  In “Sugar” the poet’s mother has become a hungry ghost which could devour her daughter.  “Sugar” is followed by several more sensual poems of love and longing, a writer’s doubts and struggles, personal and political betrayals.  The last three poems connect images of food, the metaphorical heart of so many other poems, with the generations and the cosmos.  “Pistachios” is the unassuming, penultimate poem of the book.  The reader who has traveled the book knows that the first line, “They are already half-cracked, aren’t they,” refers to a Pistachio and the preceding poems about grief’s obsessions.  A tongue-in-cheek quality tints the line. Crooker’s capacity for captivating and combining unusual images shows up by line two, “the tongue/ of the nut peeping out.”  Then, a trademark leaping turn from the nut in hand to a Vancouver museum sculpture of “First Man curled in a clam shell, Raven/perched on top, waiting for it to crack open.”  Not only does the setting shift, the content moves from personal to archetypal where the poet engages the reflected personal question in its archetypal shell.  “If I had known then/ how much sorrow lay ahead, was yet to be borne,/could I have let my heart open like that?”  The line break on “borne,” plays on the larger theme of the poem, the birth of the Human race, even the poet’s birth (which some say we choose) and certainly the birth of her devotion to her dying mother, for the choice to not be fully present is always open to us.    From contemplating birth and the (green) pistachio, the poet wanders into eight lines of musings about other qualities of green:  “things newly minted,” spring  grass, things “unformed, unripe, even envy/is jealous of green, its freshness, its hope.”  The obscure green flash that sometimes happens at certain sunsets brings us back to the pistachio, how it, like the sun or a person, can slip “perfectly back into its shell, although you/ can never quite click the lid, tuck in the world’s/ sorrows …once the hinge/ is broken.”   In the last two lines, the poem turns again, taking the reader from a morose image of a broken world into an image of perspective:  “and the crack that‘s in everything/has let the light back in.”  Leonard Cohen fans will recognize the adaptation of his song lyric from Anthem.  There are all kinds of cracks in this poem and in life and if we can find the crack that lets the light in, we can survive and grow despite life’s imperfections, its cruelest losses and deepest grief. 
In this review, I’ve focused how Crooker’s uses turns and seeming disparate images to braid the ordinary and the extra ordinary in poems  that easily engage yet pull the reader into the depths of craft and experience.  I have to admit that, when I realized that GOLD was published as part of a Christian poetry series, I had second thoughts about my promise to review it.  For a number of reasons, I have not been on friendly terms with western religions in many years.  But a promise is a promise and my commitment was more than rewarded by the poems in GOLD.  The book is a comfortable and comforting read for the religious and non-religious seeker alike. 
Caroline LeBlanc turned her energies toward making art and writing after thirty-seven years as a Nurse Psychotherapist.   Her relocation from Northern New York to Albuquerque, New Mexico now involves unpacking box after box after box, including many book boxes.  In 2010, her chapbook, Smoky Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle was published.  As the Writer in Residence for the Museum of the American Military Family, she is hard at work on the script for the museum’s upcoming summer exhibit, Sacrifice & Service: The American Military Family, hosted by the National Museum of Nuclear Science.  She hosts bimonthly writing salons for women veterans at a nearby community center.   As life settles into a routine, she plans to write more about her own experiences as an Army Nurse, a military spouse and mother; her Acadian and Franco-American ancestry, and her own relocation sagas.