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National Poetry Month Feature- Interview with Ellen Steinbaum

On the last day of National Poetry Month, I have for you today an interview with Boston-area poet Ellen Steinbaum, Pushcart-nominated author of Container Gardening and Afterwords.

1. Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been writing? Who or what influences your work? What poets do you love to read?
I have always been a writer. As a child I wrote a family newspaper (which was a little pathetic since I was an only child, so there wasn't much news, but I persisted). For much of my life I wrote magazine and newspaper articles and then later found myself drawn to the idea of what I could do with poetry that I couldn't do with prose.
Influences include my teacher, Ottone Riccio, and contemporary poets like Linda Pastan, Gail Mazur, Ruth Stone, Marie Ponsot, and Dorianne Laux who combine "the materials at hand"--details of daily life--with careful craft.

I also love the work of Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, and Richard Wilbur who does rhyme so elegantly that it looks effortless. Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman--two very different poets whose work intrigues me. And the sound of Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems is so wonderful. Keats...Mark Doty...Wislawa Szymborska...Edward Hirsch. Yeats. Yehuda Amichai. Octavio Paz. So many--depends whose work I've read most recently. And two friends whose poetry I greatly admire and enjoy, Susan Donnelly and Patricia Smith.


2. What is your approach to or style of poetry? Do you think it's important to have a style or define yourself within a movement? Does it limit or expand what you can do?
Obviously, when you write poetry you're going to be aware of what other poets are doing and of the long tradition you are part of. But my concern is more on doing my own work than on figuring out where I fit in. I'm just concentrating on writing in an authentic voice and trying to make it as clear and true and precise as I can.



One thing I do want to mention is what I visualize as almost the collaboration between poet and reader. I know there are poets who feel that the poem exists only as they intend it to, but I don't entirely. I believe the poet has his or her intentions, but readers come to the poem with their own set of attitudes and experiences and so what the poem is varies a little from reader to reader. It becomes at some level a combination of the original intent and the received thing.

It's a huge gift to a poet to have readers willing to bring themselves fully and respectfully to the work. It's humbling. I am always grateful when readers tell me that my work has meant something to them.
3. Onto the poems themselves, which I loved. My favorite poem in Container Gardening is probably "Gathering," about using shells collected by speaker's aunt to mark her grave. Can you talk about some of the themes in this lovely poem?


Thank you! I am writing this, actually, on the birthday of that very dear aunt. Primarily what I was thinking about when I wrote that poem was how the small pieces of our lives that, at some point, have real meaning to us, get lost to ourselves and to others. They just melt away, the way we forget where the stones were from. We think we'll never forget this experience, and then we forget, though of course something of it remains with us. And when the stones and shells are someone else's, they show how impossible it is to really know another person's life. No matter how close you are to that person, there are always mysteries.
4. In the first poem, "Standing at the Shore," the moment described- people on the beach, children rooted but striving for freedom- starts as "soft"- "the same soft moment"; later, it's "that messy instant." Why the change? Is the moment soft and messy at the same time?


The softness, I guess, is the light just at dusk, the quiet on the beach, and everyone concentrating on standing there and looking good for the photograph. At least the adults are feeling that. But the children always have another agenda. While the adults are thinking about preserving the moment, the children are busy living it, squeezing the juice out of it.

But I hadn't actually thought about that before. (This is why I knew it would be fun to answer your questions--they make me think of new things about my work and about poetry in general.) What I was thinking about--or at least what I thought I was thinking about when I wrote this was time and impermanence, which is probably what I am often thinking about when I write.
5. In the first part of the book, dominant themes include loss, memory and history, and the poems are deeply personal. In the second, the tone is somewhat more political with mentions of wars, terrorism and allusions to first-world privilege; still, the poems are rooted in day to day life. In the third section, there's a hint of menace as we move from the past through the present and into the future- an idea that the future is a dark place. Can you talk about this progression? Is there optimism as well or is it all bad news?


I didn't think of it as menacing, but rather just as life with its certainty of pleasures and sorrows. When I named the book Container Gardening, I was thinking of how we construct our own little universes to live in. Partly they're private, built out of our own experiences. Partly they are touched by the larger world we live in, and that's where the political poems come in.


But then--and I guess this is that third section--we take those pieces and go forward with our lives into whatever happens next. And we hope that some of what happens will bring us joy. And we know that some of what will happen is bound to bring us sorrow, simply because we are mortal beings connected to other mortal beings. And all we can do, I think, is muddle through the best we can. There's a Jewish saying I read once about the idea that at the end of our days we will be called to account for every fruit we did not taste in its season. That is often in my mind and I hope that's what that third section is about, the sense that with all the certainty of sadness, we still can--must- notice the joy. As the last words of the last poem say, "rest within the wonder/of this gift."

Thank you so much for agreeing to participate! This interview was originally posted at the weblog Boston Bibliophile as a part of the National Poetry Month Blog Tour, hosted at Savvy Verse and Wit.
Visit Ellen at her site, www.EllenSteinbaum.com.

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