Dancing with Words: Interview with Poet Janet Ruth Heller

Janet Ruth Heller’s writings range from poetry to essays to picture books to criticism, yet regardless of the format it all contains one thing in common: an ear for the musicality of words, the ability to make a sentence dance and sing.

A teacher at Western Michigan University, Janet has earned numerous awards, as will, I’m sure, her most recent publication, Traffic Stop–a collection of poems with themes encompassing nature to nontraditional women.

In the following interview Janet discusses how poetry can influence all types of writing, some of her favorite poets, and her plans for the future.

And be sure to check back this Saturday when Traffic Stop or Janet’s picture book How the Moon Regained Her Shape (winner chooses) will be given away as part of the Literary Giveaway Blog Hog.

I once took a fiction workshop from the author Lance Olsen who recommended that we all read at least one poem a day. He said our writing would improve by trying to emulate the cadence and feel of poetry. What are your thoughts on that idea?

I believe that writers cannot do their best work in a vacuum: all writers need to read both good authors of the past and good authors of the present. Reading poetry is one way to learn about different rhythms, images, structures, and patterns of sound.  My mother read me many good poems when I was a child, and these got me interested in poetry. Studying music is another way to gain knowledge of rhythm, structure, and repeated sounds. I took piano lessons for eleven years and have sung in choirs and as a soloist since I was a young child. This exposure to music has shaped my poetry and my prose. I wrote my book for children about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Sylvan Dell, 2006), in musical prose-poetry.

Who are some of your favorite poets and why?

My favorite poets are British writers S. T. Coleridge, W. B. Yeats, Charlotte Smith, Dylan Thomas, Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Shakespeare, Seamus Heaney, Robert Burns, William Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning; American writers Alicia Suskin Ostriker, Adrienne Rich, Judith Minty, Lisel Mueller, Hart Crane, Alice Friman, Marge Piercy, Elizabeth Bishop, Jim Daniels, Edna St. Vincent Millay, T. S. Eliot, Maxine Kumin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alberto Ríos, Bruce Guernsey, Mong-Lan; Israeli writers Chaim Nachman Bialik, Yehudah Amichai, Rachel Bluwstein, Chaim Guri, Leah Goldberg; and Hispanic writers Sor Juana, San Juan de la Cruz, Federico García Lorca, Rubén Darío, Antonio Machado, Jorge Guillén, Pedro Salinas, and Dámaso Alonso.

I like writers who have striking images, careful structures, lyrical use of sounds, and profound ideas. I like to read poets from other countries to get a broader perspective.

How has writing poetry influenced and/or improved your other writing?

Writing poetry has helped me to be more rhythmic and more concise when I write prose.  In high school, I learned about haiku poems and began writing them. This format has taught me to avoid wordiness. Working on poems has also spurred me to use more imagery in my prose.

As the founder of the literary journal Primavera, you were one of the first editors to publish work by Louse Erdrich. I think she’s a perfect example of a novelist/short-story writer whose prose reads like poetry. What other writers do you think have the same touch? What do you think it is about their writing that has the feel of poetry?

Poetic writers of prose use many images (similes, metaphors, etc.) and demonstrate sophisticated rhythms. Great playwrights, novelists, and memoirists adapt the dialects of real speakers but make the language more lyrical. I consider the dramas and stories of Anton Chekhov, William Congreve, Athol Fugard, Oscar Wilde, and Tennessee Williams very poetic. The fiction of Edith Wharton, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Eliot, Madeleine L’Engle, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Patterson, D. H. Lawrence, Myla Goldberg, Jaimy Gordon, and P. D. James is also very poetic. I find the essays of Charles Lamb, the memoirs of Frank McCourt, and the dramas and memoir of Dylan Thomas very poetic. Of course, many of these authors also wrote/write poetry.

What are you working on next?

I’m writing a memoir, revising more manuscripts for children’s books, revising one-act plays, and revising a book of poems based on characters and events in the Bible.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the connection between writing poetry and writing prose?

The line between poetry and prose changes over the centuries and is not always clear.  For example, William Wordsworth and S. T. Coleridge wrote “conversation poems” in the 1790s that were radical because these two writers used more informal language and more prose-like rhythms than traditional poets did. Today, we are very comfortable with the British Romantic poetry that seemed so radical when Lyrical Ballads was published in 1798. Walt Whitman broke away completely from meter in Leaves of Grass (1855), using repetition and parallelism to create new poetic rhythms. In the twenty-first century, authors are experimenting by writing prose-poetry and using nonfiction writing in the middle of poems.

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