“You will never be alone with a poet in your pocket,” John Adams once told his son.
I recently discovered this wonderful quote in David McCullough’s John Adams, but it was a lesson I learned at a young age and have carried with me my entire life.
A collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, along with a compilation of 100 great poems, sits on my bedside table. I thumb through the volumes from time to time, stopping at random and allowing the words to roll over my tongue, soothing my mind with their rhythm and imagery.
One day, Emily tells me, “hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” and on another William Carlos William says, “much depends on a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water.”
So when I heard about National Poetry Day, I was ready for a celebration, despite the fact that it’s a British event and I’m very much located in middle-America.
And I couldn’t think of a better way to get the festivities rolling than a chat with an actual poet, the second part of my interview with my poet-friend Janet Ruth Heller.
Happy National Poetry Day everyone! Now read some verse and make merry!
Tell me about your favorite author… What is it that really strikes you about his or her work?
I love the work of many authors. My earliest favorite author was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I have loved his poetry since I was in seventh grade. He was one of the first writers to use colloquial language in poetry, especially in his “conversation poems.” He can also tell stories in magical ways in works like “Christabel” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Also, he can use sounds in enthralling ways in poems like “Kubla Khan.”
Most authors are usually introduced to writing at a young age. Where did your love for books come from?
My mother and my elementary school teachers read me many excellent books when I was a child. I liked the way that authors like Rudyard Kipling used words and sound patterns. I could listen to stories for hours.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
In 1972, I had a five-month love relationship with a man. I started writing poems about him every week. After he broke up with me, I was devastated. Writing poems helped me to cope with my feelings and heal. I started writing much more frequently than in the past. By the mid-1970s, I was publishing poems, literary criticism, and essays in journals with national distributions.
Where do you find inspiration?
Any unfairness in my society and in the world prompts me to write about it and to become involved in organizations to remedy the situation. For example, I started a union of nontenure-track faculty at Western Michigan University and have published scholarly essays about ways to improve conditions for adjuncts and better methods for evaluating adjuncts. I also love nature, sports, foreign languages, and words in general. I often write about these topics, too.
And now for a not-so-serious shift in the conversation…
What literary character is most like you?
When I was a child, I identified with Phoebe Jackstraw in Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm by Betty MacDonald because I shared many of Phoebe’s fears. As an adult, I am more like Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’m smart, but I often misunderstand people, as Elizabeth does.
If you could have any accents from anywhere in the world, what would you choose?
I love the beauty of the Spanish language. I double-majored in English and Spanish as an undergraduate, and I have about one-third of a master’s degree in Spanish literature. The language is very poetic and easy to rhyme.