An Interview with Judith Skillman

Judith_skillman_3 Over the past three decades Judith Skillman has written and published numerous poems for books, journals, and anthologies. She has collaborative translations from Portuguese, Italian, and French. Skillman's publications include the Iowa Review, the Southern Review, Poetry, the Northwest Review, and Midwest Quarterly, among many others. She has published ten books of poems.

Jeremy Voigt: The natural world seems to play a major role in your writing. Do you see yourself as a nature poet, a regional poet, or a poet of any particular place?

Judith Skillman: I guess I would prefer not to be labeled as any particular kind of poet, other than, perhaps, someone who loves to write about what happens inside and outside the self. Nothing seems too small to be worth writing about, or too big? I do love nature but I am not a "nature girl," since I depend upon white noise in order to sleep and have rituals that, over time, seem more obsessive compulsive than reasonable. Having said that, I am so glad I moved to Washington state from Maryland in 1982. The northwest is my landscape. I've lived here for twenty-six years now, which is longer than I ever lived in upstate New York or Maryland. I love the light here, the terrain, the flora and fauna. I love that there is no poison ivy! And I also feel Washington state is unique for the way we can go over the pass and find ourselves in an entirely different kind of landscape within an hour.

JV: Could you talk a bit about your specific writing process?

JS: I don't follow a schedule, as my life is too hectic, much like everyone these days. But I do try to be receptive to the muse, or "inspiration." If it has been a week and I've not been applying the seat of pants to the seat of the chair–to use a fiction-writing maxim–I do sit down to write. Taking walks is more of a luxury than it used to be, but walking definitely helps generate the kind of thoughts that lead to poem-writing, if not poems. So does any activity outside, like gardening, hiking, or star-gazing. Sometimes a title or a line will come to me, and while I don't carry a notebook, and I don't journal as many writers do, I pay particular attention to words that come out of nowhere. The exception to this rule might be words that occur in a dream (yes, I do speak in my sleep) which often, while seeming profound during "dreamtime" amount to nothing more than "Hand me the handle."

I try to have more than one iron in the fire, and when I am stuck, I go back and revise older work. I also use revision to jump start the writing process when I feel dry or "used up," and try to keep reading and learning from other writers as much as time allows.

Having birthed and brought up three children, I thrive on interruption and have been known to create it if it is absent. Mothering teaches humility, and the interruption factor is perhaps the most lasting lesson. I used to think it was horrible; now I rather crave it. I know taking breaks from a poem often allows clarity to enter the scene, and also takes pressure off the angst of trying too hard. 

JV: In the introduction to "Heat Lightning" David Kirby mentions the range of your work–from poems that use conversational language to poems that might be classified as "language" poetry. Do you see yourself as fitting within a particular poetics?

JS: I suppose if I were to categorize my verse-writing, it would fit within free/open verse, but free verse with constraints. I have written formal verse–including sonnets, sestinas, pantoums, and blank verse. In addition, I have dabbled in concrete and structural verse. But I find I am more interested in pursuing the associative process while writing. This becomes more difficult when constraints are placed on any element used in verse-writing: the sound, sense, or visual format of the English language.

My goal, then, is to remain open to content and to write using whatever kind of form best fits each poem's particular, specific nature with regard to its subject matter. Content/subject matter is, for me, the raison d' etre. The pull toward a subject is highly subjective and may encompass the contemporary (as in certain poems on the loss of the pastoral in my current manuscript, "Prisoner of the Swifts"), the problems of relationships, the beauty of nature, or metaphysics. I try to avoid overt politics, as corruption doesn't lend itself to the explorative process of poem-making.

Two constraints I've found particularly useful are counting the number of beats per line, and the number of lines per stanza. When using a set stanza and/or number of beats as a measuring device, a poem sometimes will fall into a more "minimalist" structure, and this is something I do strive for–lyrics that aren't over-wordy, poems that resist the little word padding of language. These words are necessary as connective tissue in prose; in poetry they can ruin a good line. The poem's content drives the form.

JV: That is a provocative title, "Prisoner of the Swifts." Could you talk a bit about your new manuscript?

JS: My new manuscript deals with the loss of the pastoral, endangered species, antiques, and the general malaise of this 21st century. Poems such as "Losing the Hurry,"–written, incidentally, at Centrum–speak to a sense of time moving in slow motion, as it used to, and how the loss of that kind of time impacts one's relationship to nature.

The title poem was written in March of this year, when a flock of swifts quite literally took over our house and yard. We felt as if the blue angels were flying around us. When I looked into the specie–I like to do "loose" research for some poems–I discovered that swifts only land on vertical surfaces. They mate in the air and never touch down at all. They are also the fastest flyers in the bird kingdom. I did feel imprisoned by them in the two weeks they adopted our yard as their territory. As I worked on that piece, the extended metaphor for the manuscript morphed from the guilt response and reverse victimization that accompanies our defilement of planet earth, to a perhaps more "nuanced" version: despite the human/inhumane imperatives to take over our myriad underlings, nature will win out, one way or another.

JV: David Kirby also mentions, in his introduction to "Heat Lightning," your use of humor in combination with or in contrast to strong emotional content. What role do you see humor playing in your writing?

JS: I feel that humor is a by-product of particular poems at times, but it is not a thing I strive for. In fact, most of my poems are not funny whatsoever, though sometimes while workshopping them I find my colleagues react to lines as though they are funny in a film noir kind of way. It troubles me that within the last two decades poets have had to worry about "entertaining" the audience. I realize that poetry can be very dull, and sometimes overly serious. I don't think there is any way to set out writing the comedic poem in order to entertain a crowd while at the same time trying to find one's uniquely physical presence, place in space/time, and emotionally charged territory. The latter is the place I prefer to be, by far.

JV: What writers would you name as having major influence in your writing?

JS: I began reading poems in high school by Diane Wakowski and by Japanese poets translated into English and from there into undergraduate work I read Eliot, Berryman, Coleridge, Keats, Shakespeare, et al. I was lucky to attend the University of Maryland, which had an excellent reading series, and got to hear Tess Gallagher way back in 1975, as well as Galway Kinnell, Stanley Kunitz, and other contemporary poets. In my reading over the past three decades I have gone through lots of stages. Like a fad or an affair I would take up with James Wright or Patianne Rogers for a year and not read anyone else. In the past decade I've come to love Philip Levine, Czeslaw Milosz, and Jack Gilbert. I return to their books, now dog-eared. I especially enjoy reading translations of Tomas Transtromer, Friedrich Holderlin, Fernando Pessoa, Pablo Neruda, Paul Celan, Cesar Vallejo, Edith Sodergran, and many others. Recently at a bookstore in Half Moon Bay (south of SF) I came across a treasure: Herman Hesse's "Poems" translated by James Wright.

JV: Humor seems to be a popular mode at the moment do you see this as a positive trend in the poetry world? I concur with Kirby as it seems to me that your use of humor is often a counter point to dark or powerful subjects. For example in "The Librarian Decides on Cryonics" the poem seems to move as a lament to the loss of reading culture as the librarian's head is "stuffed with children's books / and the thin yellow cards of the catalogue," then the poem turns into an elegy and its major subject which is death and legacy, "the slim volumes filled with their choices: / die or be frozen, freeze-dried."

JS: Well, the popularity of humor in poetry disturbs me, as I mentioned. I am not sure why it has become such a trend. I had no idea, at the time of writing "The Librarian" that this would be a funny piece, or an entertaining one. In fact it seems quite dated now! I guess I'd say that humor has its uses in society and therefore it can be a diffuser of anxiety in literature as well. But, ultimately, the associative element of language is what I like best about poems. A well-wrought poem is like a dream–all kinds of stuff combines to make the piece come off right, but there isn't always an analytic or rational way of understanding how the disparate elements work together for the larger whole or extended metaphor.

I should say that I do like narrative verse as well, especially when it is forcefully combined with imagery as Philip Levine's work, but I love the lyrical bent of Jack Gilbert at his most deadly serious, and likewise all the "Great American Poets," including Williams, Frost, Bishop, Stevens, Pound, et al.

JV: I recall reading somewhere that Aristotle called metaphor a "mistake of the mind." How does association play a specific role in your process of writing a poem? Is it present in certain stages of the writing process or pervasive? 

JS: Association and the associative process is definitely at the heart of my own writing. I try to write when I feel rather foggy about things. "Mystical" might be to pat a word to use, but remaining open to the bizarre sounds even worse.

As Richard Hugo, said, "The imagination is a cynic." If metaphor is a "mistake of the mind," it's good that the mind can also be allowed to make mistakes. Ultimately, we are not aware of what goes on below the tip of the iceberg. Our conscious, waking, functional state of  mind, the specialists now say, comprises only ten percent of the brain. So it's more than a bit fun to allow the mind to have its say on things, and that includes a willful suspension of disbelief, as well as the feeling that a can equal b for the sake of exploration.

Perhaps those monsters, demons, feverish hallucinations and nightmarish creations we experienced as young children can remain with us throughout our lives, if we recognize them for what they are. To bring the subconscious into play is a powerful and scary thing to do, but our subconscious has much to say, and it can be a friend and partner with us in our lives if we allow it to come out of hiding, albeit only occasionally. I try to do this sober!

JV: Reginald Sheppard wrote an interesting article in the summer edition of the Writer's Chronicle where he argues in favor of difficulty in poetry. This seems counter to popular trends, though not necessarily totally counter to publishing trends (it seems to me that much of poetry published currently is difficult in a good way). Your poems are often rooted in clear domestic or natural images, but seem to resist mere description in favor of pursuing something more abstract (a thing that may not be clear to the reader or the speaker of the poem). I'm thinking of poems like "Magpie Eyes." I wonder if you have any thoughts about current trends of difficulty in poetry (or the resistance to it) in current contemporary poetry?

JS: I think there has always been a resistance to difficulty in language, and the English language is no different. The poem is the perfect place, however, to allow things to be difficult. This goes back to the nature of the subconscious and the complex human psyche. It would be wrong to inject simplicity and accessibility into poetry, when humans are in no way simple. Our lives begin and end alone, our emotions encompass paradoxical worlds. Human beings are like mysterious magnets. Poems should not pretend to be otherwise.

What seems to be happening now is that the difficulty inherent in words as symbols of things has been overtaken, or eclipsed by, the kind of poetry that exacts difficulty from the placement and syntax of the words themselves. I see this as a bad thing for poetry in general, and a sad situation for poets, especially.
Once we get caught up in syntax, if we are not e e cummings, and we are not, we may get lost on the page. So many poets seem to be doing back handsprings in order to pull off original verse, but the more gymnastics they do, the less meaning there is in the work. This goes right back to the importance of subject matter. Content is everything. Form must follow content.  It seems to me there is no reason to take language, which is an inherently difficult venue for the expression of art, and make it more difficult for the sake of impressing a reader. The best poems are those that go through you like a bullet train. They are made of words and plain English, but they leave you wondering what went by.

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