by Ren Powell
She has fashioned for herself
of hollowed egg shells
and white thread.
She has taken from the clasp and string
her great-grandmother’s pearls
and arranged the four hundred sixty-eight
to hang in their stead.
An undergarment of ivy
woven to lift the dry shells
from her naked collarbones
is interwoven with the wild orchids
that adorn the bodice.
The crinoline is formed of dried bundles
of bugleweed, saved from midsummer picking –
eight times in youth
and twenty-seven times
She has trimmed the hem with holly.
A train of evergreen.
She saves for the last
to tie the knot.
Breaking the thread with her teeth
sliding the needle into the cushion
leaving open the door
to the coop.
(Mercy Island. Phoenicia Publishing: Montreal. 2011)
Ren Powell was born in California but has settled in Norway. She has six full-length collections of poetry, and more than two dozen books of translations. Her sixth collection The Elephants Have Been Singing All Along was published in 2017. Her poems have been translated and published in six languages.
Ren and Bekah connected via The 2018 Poet Bloggers Revival Tour. We wanted to know more about her and her writing, so here is our interview with her.
Q~ Tell us about “Spinster’s Shroud.” How is it representative of your work?
A~Yeah, so here is a strange woman doing strange things. But more than that, I can see my tendency to focus on whatever little facts fascinate me. This poem was inspired by an article I read about a Swedish midsummer ritual where unmarried women put bugleweed under their pillows, so they will dream of the man they’re going to marry. If I were to write this poem today, I would work harder to add all that information to the poem, rather than play hit and miss that anyone gets the allusion. But that’s a good thing, I think: to know how I want to improve as a writer.
I like numbers. I like precision – it grounds things for me. I also like irony and shadow narratives. In this case: the shroud being a wedding dress, “tie the knot” her marriage with a man at this late stage of her life – or with death itself. There the sexual imagery of the needle and cushion, and the freedom of abandonment – either sexual or spiritual.
Q~Did the poem come easily to you or was it hard to write?
A~This one flowed. But having said that, it flowed in a series of edits over a couple of months. It began as a four-line poem and grew. Most of the time my editing process is about adding and filling out, not cutting. But the song – the melody – was there from the beginning.
Q~What’s your writing process usually like?
A~Slow. I try to listen to the dragons. Catch the melody first and then let it grow. I sit down at the desk. Light a candle. Set the chimes to mark a beginning and end, and I listen. I write a lot of crap. I repeat myself a lot. I obsess about how everything in the world is round. I forgive myself for all the crap. I start again.
Q~How would you describe your style?
A~In grad school, my mentor once called me a post-modern modernist. I’m not exactly sure that that means, but I do think that I have been more influenced by the Imagists than I would like at this point. I think that sometimes I make the reader work too hard. I grew up thinking that great poetry was academic and necessarily intertextual. I was later hugely influenced by Robert Bly’s book Leaping Poetry, and maybe that combination made some of my writing too inaccessible, for even my own taste these days. It is a fine line to walk, isn’t it: accessible poetry vs. pedestrian verse?
I think my “style” is continually evolving, and I am proud of that. I am often influenced by the music of writers I have translated. I like experimentation: free verse, nonce verse, respectful rip-offs of forms that aren’t directly translatable from other languages. I have a penchant for scientific facts used as metaphors for our internal/emotional lives. I would say that I tend to stick more to themes than styles. I am fascinated by the unreliability of memory, and as another poet once said of my work, I write “poems about strange women doing strange things.”
In contrast with a lot of contemporary poetry, my writing is still primarily for the page (which is odd, since I work in the theater). I like to play with line breaks, indentations and white space. Often, I invite the reader to read both left to right, and down columns, or grouped with indentations to indicate correlations.
Q~Why do you write poetry?
A~Honestly, because I don’t sing very well. When I write poetry, and it flows, I feel a kind of catharsis similar to singing drunk in the bathtub: it’s an emotional and physical release. It’s like orgasm. It’s like running. I wonder if any scientist will ever hook up with a poet and measure their serotonin and oxytocin and all that, just as she finishes the line that pulls it all together. I would volunteer.
Q~On Twitter, you mention that your two passions are writing and running. Do you see a connection between the two?
A~I think running clears the space for me to write. I run in the mornings and then come home and write for fifteen minutes to an hour and a half, depending on the workday. Running is about breathing and taking in the smells and sounds of the world. It’s about listening. I had a project a few years ago called Running Metaphors that I’m excited to be starting up again from my blog and on Instagram.
Q~You said you have an “ambivalence and confusion regarding social media and what being part of a poetry ‘community’ means.” Can you explain what you mean?
A~Norway doesn’t have a tradition of academic writing programs in the Universities. My whole goal of getting a PhD and becoming “a poet” (i.e. teaching poetry at a university) and finding a tribe (as they say) went *poof* when I decided to stay here in Norway. I live here, and I write in English. That makes me an outsider. I am lucky to have an amazing translator, but I’ll always be considered an American poet by my colleagues here.
And yet, having been here so long, I no longer write to the American experience, and especially these days, that makes me an outsider in virtual poetry communities.
I don’t go to conferences or residencies. I see Instagram posts with hashtags like #poetshavingfun and get as jealous as a teenager. I guess I still crave the validation and community I’d planned for and imagined.
But then, I get eyes off the computer and go for a run, handwrite a poem in my journal and remember it was all a consumer package that I wanted. This is what I’ve got, and I make it work.
Q~What is the poet’s role in society?
A~I honestly believe that a poet’s job is to be the antidote to the incorrect belief that we are unique as individuals, as a particular generation, or as specific cultures. I believe that art in general is about communicating the human experience: to alleviate both isolation and narcissism.
Q~What’s one piece of advice you want to share?
A~Will I sound like a jerk if I say don’t fetishize “being a poet”? I’ve slipped into that a few times. It made rejection much more painful than it needed to be. The fact that I don’t really belong to poetry community question whether or not I’m really “a poet”. I think it’s especially difficult these days with social media, and with the neo-liberal demand for us all to brand and sell ourselves. I’m not good at that part, not good at networking, and if I focus too much on those aspects of poetry, I stop writing. It’s ridiculous, I know, but I doubt I am the only person who has struggled with this desire for approval, and this need to find a persona of sorts to market. You know that song from Gypsy? “You Gotta Get a Gimmick”. When I start getting stressed about publishing and selling books, I hum that song and remind myself not to take any of it too seriously.
I am also really terrible at tackling criticism. I read a critique and start cursing and telling my partner what an idiot the person is… then I put everything in a drawer and forget about it for a week. Then I read it again and can actually take it in and learn from it. And even be grateful for it.
Q~Do you find yourself returning to certain themes or subjects in your work?
A~I think I write about outsiders and secrets.
They say that we can work through our personal traumas by working with narratives – changing them, creating perspectives. I think I do that. I am also drawn to other people’s deep experiences, I am curious about them. About the humanness of it all – the good, the bad. The way we hand over our narratives, intentionally or not. I think we all have secrets from ourselves, too. What is stashed in our mitochondria? I am fascinated by the secrets of the non-human world: how we have only recently learned that elephants talk to each other all the time, and we just can’t hear it because it’s subsonic: a secret language – the entire human species as outsider.
Q~What are your poetry highs/lows of the last year?
A~Oh, this year has been extremely difficult for me. Last July, a congenital defect in my pelvis revealed itself (after all these years) by causing life-threatening blood clots. I was rushed to the hospital with blue lights and siren blaring, and I’ve had a difficult time processing it all. I pulled away from poetry (as a genre) and wrote a couple of plays instead. I have only started writing poetry again this summer.
Q~What are your poetry likes/dislikes?
A~I think I have eclectic tastes. I don’t like poetry that sounds like platitudes. Or poetry that uses only abstract worlds like love and spirit. I’m drawn to poetry that shows me what I believe is concrete in the world and then dissolves it for me. I’m amazed by poetry that can make me connect a whisker on the muzzle of horse to the memory of a (and my own) first kiss.
Q~Who was your poetry first love?
A~Cliché as it sounds, the St. James version of the Bible. Prayers. Then Dr. Seuss. Seriously? Elisabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.”
Q~Who are you reading now?
A~Actually, I have just picked up Edna St. Vincent Millay again. “Renascence” fascinated me when I was 14. Reading that poem now, I understand it differently, while carrying with me that 14-year-old’s intuitive response. Being 52, I am excited to read much more of her work in the context of her life – and the context of mine.
Q~There are lots of publications out there. What is a literary gem you feel deserves more attention? Why will we love them?
A~I would say Poetry Internal Web is a great resource for finding new voices. I know that a lot is lost in translation, but a lot is still there – sometimes the translation process opens a poem even wider. I hope it’s okay if I mention Poemeleon? It’s Cati Porter’s baby, and I have been so proud to be associated with it. There will be a new call for poems very soon!
Q~Where can readers go if they are interested in reading more of your work?
A~Most of my books have been published in hardback in Norway. Several are still available from my publisher – or people can email me to help arrange shipping. My selected poems Mercy Island is available in North America from Phoenicia Publishing. I haven’t been good about submitting work these last two years, but I have several poems I am proud of in the online journal Escape into Life. I also have some translations here: https://www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poem/item/26851 I am currently overhauling my website. I am on Instagram and Facebook. I also had a project called This Choice Podcast. It was a way for me to reach out and talk to poets in the states. I miss it very much.