Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the 2009-2013 Kansas poet laureate, which has not been an easy feat when one realized the Kansas Arts Commission was eliminated in mid-2011. Despite lack of the state’s support as epitomized by this gesture, Caryn has managed to successfully put together two different anthologies, Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems, which celebrates Kansas’ Sesquicentennial, and the subsequent To the Stars Through Difficulties: A Kansas Renga in 150 Voices, both of which began as daily blog postings. Caryn is the third Kansas Poet Laureate and continues to serve as the state continues its search for the next its next distinguished poet to serve in this office.
Please enjoy today’s interview which immediately follows the poem by Caryn:
Did you think your life was straight as this road,
something that could be time-lapsed into a predictable gait?
Did you ever try to map lightning, predict when
the thunderhead would pause and fold in on itself?
Have you pointed to a place in the clouds and said,
“there” just before a ghost cloud twisted briefly into form?
It is all nothing, then supercell, multiple stikes through
the clouds while the tips of the grass shimmer awake.
From the deep blue that narrates your life
comes the pouring upward of white curves and blossoms.
From the dark, comes the thunder. Then the violet flash.
From the panorama of what you think you know
comes the collapse of sky, falling on you right now
whether you’re watching the weather or not.
The world dissolves, reforms. What comes surprises,
motion moving all directions simultaneously, like the
losses you carry, talismans strung through your days, singing
of those you’ve loved deep as the blue framing the storm.
It rains for a moment in the field, in your heart,
then the weather stretches open its hand of life and says,
here, this whole sky is for giving.
I was thrilled and honored. After working for so many years as an activist poet, helping others find their voices and use those voices to effect change and bring great meaning and healing to their lives, I had spent a lot of my work life lifting up other writers (which I still feel is a sacred calling). But to be recognized for my work in the community and also for my poetry was one of the greatest honors in my life.
Have you worked with previous Kansas Poet Laureates?
Yes, I worked very closely with the previous poet laureate, Denise Low, and also with Jonathan Holden, our first poet laureate. I also have worked and am still collaborating with poets laureate of other states, especially since I organized a national convergence of poets laureates that brought 20 poets laureate to Kansas for two days of readings, workshops and visiting. I’m about to go to New Hampshire for another such gathering, this one focused on poetry and politics, and I’m looking forward to more generative projects coming out of my time with other state poets laureate.
You mention on your website that when you were very young, you told your Grandfather that you were going to live in Kansas someday. Can you recall your early impressions of Kansas before you ctually visited? What did Kansas represent to you or how did you imagine it?
All I really knew about Kansas was from the Wizard of Oz movie. When I first got on a plane to go to Missouri — I lived in Columbia, MO and then Kansas City, MO for a total of 4.5 years before I moved to Kansas — I didn’t really know where the Midwest was even, and certainly didn’t know anything about Kansas.
There is often a deep connection to place for Kansas poets. Can you tell me a little bit more about the relationships you are building with“the particulars” of Kansas?
I think many poets many places have deep connections to the earth and sky where they live because what better way to get inspiration? With Kansas, the beauty of this place is far more subtle than in Colorado, where the Rockies blow your mind, or the shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota, which dazzles just about anyone. Here, the main attraction is as much the sky as the land because the weather is astonishing, big-hearted, subject to rapid change, vivid and dramatic, and always happening. I also love the land here — the tallgrass prairies of eastern Kansas (where I live) where the grasses turn red each fall and need to be burned each spring; the Flint Hills and further west, Smoky Hills; the rock formations way out west and wide valleys throughout the state. Kansas is very varied, and the more I live here, the more I see the variety and also the patterns of who migrates through and what tilts each season.
How do poetry, teaching, and community interconnect for you?
All three are woven together so tightly that it’s hard for me to see the separate strands at time. I write, and because I write, I have a writer’s point-of-view when I teach: I can help students revise and strengthen their work, find overall patterns, clear away what keeps them from hearing the calling of the piece of writing. Because I also do a lot of community facilitation –workshops, meetings, etc. — I’m often hearing, in one ear, what my writing and teaching has to do with making community and making positive change in the world while, in the other ear, I’m in tune with what the words we write want to say and how we can best help them.
What role does revision play in writing and how do you approach revising your own work?
Sometimes revision is everything and sometimes not. This is to say that I have revised some writing for years. My novel, THE DIVORCE GIRL, about to be published is something I started in 1997 after writing it in my head for decades. I spent over a decade simply revising it to the point that I feel like I have sections of it memorized at this point. I have books of poetry I’ve worked on for over a decade, revising some poems dozens of times. I also have things I write and just put out — like most of my blog posts and some poems — that just come, and that’s that. But I think they tend to “just come” because I’ve written like a maniac since I was about 14, so those trails in my mind lead easily to writing on the page.
You are involved in numerous wonderful projects. Tell me how you maintain balance and protect your writing time while also keeping up with these projects? How do you prioritize?
I struggle with this at times, and at times, I feel the balance. It’s an ongoing practice Today, for example, I had a meeting with the program director of the Individualized MA program (in which I teach) about ways to help starting graduate students, then had lunch with the former poet laureate, Denise Low, to catch up on writing projects an talk over a contract I was offered on my book on the Holocaust — NEEDLE IN THE BONE: HOW A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR AND POLISH RESISTANCE FIGHTER BEAT THE ODDS AND FOUND EACH OTHER. I’m answering emails now, then finishing a letter to a Goddard student, then working on a book proposal for another book before going to teach a writing and yoga workshop. That’s today, and tomorrow will be very different – I’m meeting Kelley Hunt to write some songs, and working on some poetry or fiction (depending on my inclination at the time). I try to do something physical for an hour each day: yoga, walking, going to the gym. I’ve also been sleeping outside on a futon bed on our screened-in porch lately, which is only possible with ease during a handful of days each year (when it’s not too hot or too cold), and being outside helps me most of all to keep balance. I also talk with my husband daily, sharing all kinds of moments from our lives, and I see my friends and kids and other family a lot. It all helps. How I prioritize is to balance the work I need to do (workshops, work with my students, etc.) that’s bound to deadlines with the work I need to do for my soul (my own writing), making room for both. If I feel off kilter, I’ll switch things up a bit.
The Kansas Poet Laureate program is now part of the Kansas Humanities Council, which will be announcing a new poet laureate later this month.
I’m also working on two writing projects which will probably take me over the next year or two: revising a novel on the story of Miriam, from the bible, but set in the U.S. from the 1960s to the present; and writing poetry to go with photos from Stephen Locke, a weather chaser and brilliant photographer (www.tempestgallery.com) for a book on storms and wild weather that we’re pitching through my agent to various publishers.
Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the Poet Laureate of Kansas, and the author of 16 books, including four collections of poetry, most recently Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems (editor, Woodley Press); Landed; The Sky Begins At Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community & Coming Home to the Body (Ice Cube Books); a forthcoming novel, The Divorce Girl (Ice Cube Books); a non-fiction book, Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other (Potomac Books); a beloved writing guide, Write Where You Are (Free Spirit Press); and several anthologies. She co-edited An Endless Skyway: Poetry of the State Poets Laureate (Ice Cube Books) with Marilyn L. Taylor, Denise Low and Walter Bargen. Founder of Transformative Language Arts – a master’s program in social and personal transformation through the written, spoken and sung word – at Goddard College where she teaches, Mirriam-Goldberg also leads writing workshops widely. With singer Kelley Hunt, she co-writes songs, offers collaborative performances, and leads writing and singing Brave Voice retreats. She writes columns and serves as poet-in-residence for http://www.TheMagazineOfYoga.com. Here daily blog posts, “Everyday Magic,” plus occasional podcasts and writing exercises are at http://www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.wordpress.com, and her websites are http://bravevoice.com/ and www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.com.