June 7, 2014

Interview w/ Poet Joan Colby

1.  When did you start writing poetry and why?
I’ve written poetry and stories since I was a child. I was always an avid reader; my father was a big influence, reading me Shakespeare, Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Ivanhoe and similar books from my earliest years. The first poems I remember were Longfellow’s Hiawatha as well as poems by Byron, Keats and Shelley. And Homer’s Odyssey.

2.  What is your writing process?
My process is pretty much Carpe Poetica—that is seize the poem before it escapes. I’ve been known to pull over on a roadside to write down some lines or (disclosure) even worse, to scribble frantically while steering.

3.  Which poets throughout time have influenced your writing?
Too many to note. My earliest loves were the classics: Shakespeare’s sonnets, Marlowe, Byron, Keats, Donne. Later, Whitman, Roethke, James Wright, Adrienne Rich, Louise Gluck, Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes, Neruda, Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, Eliot, Dylan Thomas. If you mean influences in terms of preoccupations, it would be more the short fiction of Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield. The sort of epiphanies their stories provided were what I hoped to do in poems. Originally, I wrote a good deal of fiction, but over time found myself concentrating on poetry.

4.  What do you consider your poetic style to be? 
I think each poem finds its own best style. Most of my poetry is free verse with a lot of internal rhyme and meter. Sound is important to me. I also like to write sestinas, a form that is fun and challenging, that invites a certain amount of word play. For many years, I followed the fashion of upper-lower case prose style in poems, but over the past several years I have been capping first lines as the classical poets used to do. I like that it enables one to stress a particular word—and then, a friend once said it made my poems look “stately” and of course, I fell for that.

5.  What topics do you tend to write about?
Any and everything. I’ve had books with the themes of relationships (How the Sky Begins to Fall), crime and saints (The Lonely Hearts Killers), art (The Chagall Poems), country noir with horses (Dead Horses), nature (Properties of Matter), abstractions/surrealism (Bittersweet) and currently I have a chapbook forthcoming which addresses the muse of history (Ah Clio) and a ms. of body part poems (The Body in Question). Working as a journalist, trained me to be observant.

6.  What advice would you give to a novice poet?
Read. Read. Read. Not to imitate, but to set the mood for poetic inspiration. And of course, write. Revision is important; however one must distinguish between those poems that arrive full-blown and those that need work, to avoid ruining the former. Joining a writing group or taking classes is helpful.The feedback you get from peers can be invaluable. It’s also essential to hone your own critical judgement so you can be as objective as possible about your own work—which is why it is always a good idea to put a new poem on ice for a bit.

7.  What advice would you offer to someone who is frustrated because his/her work is constantly being rejected by journals he/she submits to?
Every writer gets rejections. Sometimes, a poem doesn’t fit a particular journal (helps to read an issue). Sometimes, it doesn’t suit an editor’s taste. I’m often surprised at which poem is selected for publication out of a group I’ve submitted. One must be persistent and not take rejection personally. As with any craft, practice is critical to improvement. You can’t get published if you don’t submit. Don’t be afraid to aim high if you believe you’ve got a really good poem. Again, don’t set impossible standards: The New Yorker or die.

8.  What is your ultimate goal as a poet?  Are there any specific awards or prizes you strive for?
My goal in writing has always been to find out what the poem will tell me. That’s foremost. But like most people, I like to see my work acknowledged. I’ve been published in journals like Poetry and Grand Street. That’s rewarding. I’d like to be in the New Yorker or American Poetry Review. I’ve received a fellowship in literature and several literary awards from the Illinois Arts Council. I’ve been runner-up in some major contests (I’d like to win one!). Having my Selected Poems—a compilation of over 40 years—published last year was extremely gratifying.

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