“What if ruin is a good thing? What if each day is built on the ruin of the one before? What if all our attempts to avoid ruin only make us bitter or closed off from what’s around us? What if only by exploring our ruins do we become human?”
The back cover of Betsy Sholl’s new collections of poems, Otherwise Unseeable, begins with this hefty handful of questions. The poems inside show that Sholl, in mining the gritty aspects of life from many angles and perspectives, is not afraid to get in the rubble and get dirty, perhaps in an effort to come clean. She recently visited us to read from and discuss her book, and I was left wading through words like “grit,” “muck,” “rough” and “wound” for days afterward. It’s been somehow a freeing sort of mire.
Sholl began her reading by explaining that even though poetry uses the same words as the newspaper, it’s not the same language. “The language of poetry is the language of metaphor, of association.” It is intended to slow us down, to be more meditative. “It’s a language that is set up with all the speed bumps that Stevens Avenue has,” she joked.
She began by reading “Genealogy,” the first poem in the collection, and prefaced it by explaining that some of her poems are more realistic and some are more metaphorical. Some she can remember the process of writing and some just come to her.
“’Genealogy’ just came to me. If you asked me what it’s about, I don’t know if I could say.” The poem mines two aspects of Sholl’s life ruins, two essential rocks of her own personal rubble. Her father died when she was two, and she says of that, “In a way there is this whole side to who I am that was absent. My mother tried to make him present — I know his favorite foods, I know things he didn’t like — but I don’t know a lot.” The second element that appears in this and other poems is that Sholl is a stutterer.
One of her parents was a star already gone out,
the other a cup that she carried into the night,
convinced it was fragile.
One of her parents she drank, the other she dreamed.
In the revolving door of her becoming,
one pushed from inside, one from without.
Thus, her troubled birth, her endless stammer.
Class is also a theme in her work. “I grew up in a widow’s household, a family that had been well-to-do and fell on hard times, and I think that must be connected to this next poem, called ‘Alms.’” She described it as realistic, a true vignette about being asked for money by a woman on the street in Portland. In the poem she characterizes the woman’s meek call to her (“Miss, Miss…”) as “voice of pocket lint, frayed button hole,” and later, reflecting that she hadn’t been compelled to give the woman the totality of the seven dollars in her wallet, she reckons with her unconscious withholding. “…so clearly that voice / wasn’t small enough, still someone / else’s sorrow, easy to brush off,” and in her regret she sees it as “a failure, a lack, a lost chance.” Sholl is troubled by the panhandlers so numerous on the streets of Portland these days, saying, “There is no way not to feel indicted, in a way.”
Sholl says that many of the poems in this collection could be characterized as arguments, and the one entitled “The Argument” plays around with those debates she has with herself, when she thinks one thing and then immediately counters with the opposite. The verbal joust between her and a crow centers around her urge to celebrate the beauty of an early autumn day, and the crow’s reminder that it’s the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland. The crow voice wants to bring her down, to solemn her heart “for the sake of the murdered, for the sake of the dead / for all that hasn’t happened yet…”, to quandary her in ruins that are not her own, yet perhaps might be.
“Every book of mine has to have a poem with a crow in it,” Sholl remarked, “and every book has to have at least one poem addressed to my sister. She is a musician, and growing up in a sort of grieving widow’s household, my sister would sob as she played the piano, and I thought then, ‘what a dork’. Only as an adult do I realize that all of her grief was going into that.” Sholl read “Tidal,” in which the wailing piano scales played by her sister’s fingers over and over and the wind rattling the roof of a house in a kind of emotional lock-down “…make us / unlatch our wounds, and love our ruins.”
During the reading Sholl reflected on what poetry does for her, and mused about how her poems might impact the reader, whether or not what she feels in the poem comes across. “I go to poetry to be expanded in some ways…my thought, my emotions, my view of the world. It’s really hard to tell if your poems do that. Your own poems are in your face. You have no idea if they’re expansive.”
Before turning to discussion, she went on to read a poem for her mother (“Elegy with Morning Glories”); another about the primal tug to trace one’s roots (her to horse thieving Nearys in County Mayo, in “Belmullet”); two poems about sounds and music and musicians (“Wood Shedding” and “Rahsaan”); and one exploring love in the face of inevitable death (“Vanishing Act”), among others.
Once the discussion began, Sholl was asked how she got started writing poetry. “Well, it really is connected to being a stutterer,” she said. “I was the youngest of sisters, and it was hard to get my word in edgewise, and we had rules about what we could talk about; those three things sent me to words, and putting words on paper.” After college Sholl left a Ph.D. program, saying it was because she wanted to be a poet. “So then I really had to get serious,” she said. Sholl met with a friend to write late into the night, and it was then she began to try to write every day. It wasn’t until the late ‘80s, after she had married and had children and was teaching full time, that she went back for her MFA. “I’d published a couple of books and I felt like I had just come to the end of what I could teach myself. I felt like I had hit a brick wall, and either I had to quit, and just say I failed, or put myself in a position to grow. So I went to Vermont College and that was a great experience for me.”
Later in the discussion Sholl addressed the accusation that some make against MFA programs, that they churn out academic poets who all sound the same. “Before they had MFA programs poets had to write in the style of whomever they read and copy and copy and copy until they found their own style. You started as a backup singer. And if you keep at it you might get to the mic. To me it’s the same thing, going to an MFA or staying in a third floor room all the time by yourself with your books. It’s the same thing, and the work is to move beyond that.”
“Do you work at the internal rhymes in your poems? Or do they just come to you?” one guest wanted to know.
“Mostly those just come,” Sholl answered. “I do have to work at structure. When I was in a poetry workshop in Cambridge when I first began to write, most of the poets were 10 or 15 years older than I was. I was like their charity case and they were tough on me. They’d say, “Stop that chiming!” I felt like I had to. And then I began to read Seamus Heaney and I thought, ‘Well, damn, I’m Irish!’ So I began to let that come in again.”
“Do you ever work with fixed forms?” another member of the group asked.
“Well, I do write villanelles from time to time. There’s one in this book. There’s one in my last book. I write a sestina every year and pretty much erase it from my hard drive. I have a sestina and a villanelle that are both about teaching in prison. Isn’t that interesting? The form is sort of a jail…In general, I think it’s connected to class for me. Formal verse, for me, was what all those old guys did who lived in a building on the top of a mountain with a sign outside that said, “No, not you.” Free verse was what an upstart chick with no money could do…And when I try to write in form it just dies on the page.”
“What do you think the work of poetry in the world is? Why the hell write a poem?” MWWC curator and poet Cathleen Miller was curious to hear.
“I was talking about this stuff and a teacher of mine said, “Betsy, we just do what we can do.” I used to live in Roxbury, MA. My husband was a community organizer and he worked with tough kids. And I would think, why am I sitting here at my desk, doing this little stuff, when I could be out saving the world? And what I said to myself was, it’s no worse than working in a shoe factory, you know? You make a pair of shoes and people get to wear those shoes for a little while and then they wear out and they get a new pair. And doing a poem, a few people might wear your poem for a day or two and then look for another one. What more can you say?”
“On the other hand, I think the arts in general speak to our deepest soul and our deepest human roots, and they offer something different from moneymaking, and different from violence. Different from all the forces that tend to dehumanize us. We go to the arts for that expansive experience. To be bigger, deeper or more real than we feel in our day-to-day lives…Poetry is a one-on-one thing. A dialogue between souls. And we need that.”
To learn more about Betsy Sholl and her work, visit www.betsysholl.com.
(Blog post title quote is from the poem “Belmullet”)