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Getting To Know Pamela Stewart

Pamela Stewart writes to us from her farm in Hawley, MA about poetry manuscripts, her own writing process, and reading new work.

Pamela Stewart

What are some of the qualities you look for in a successful poetry collection? What helps lure you in? What keeps you satisfied?

I never know what I’m going to like, what I’ll have the patience for, or be intrigued by.  Also, I change, and a poet I adored in the early 80’s doesn’t much interest me now, and a book I found not exciting in that same decade suddenly engages me and it’s currently in the upstairs loo. I’m drawn to imagery, “psychological” or mythic undertones, a nice hint of darkness perhaps, small stories, poems which grin at themselves without being cutesy, words that bang up against each other to surprise me and always poems where I feel my heart is momentarily touched, or grown wiser. My brain can be fascinated or delighted, but raising an emotion which had been hidden from me – well that’s what I really appreciate.

Please name one thing you’d like other poets to know about you, which never fits into a standard biographical paragraph.

I love Louise Penny’s books! I can’t wait to enter The Beautiful Mystery.

What are some of the important inspirations and themes behind your own work?

I don’t know. What I look out and see. A phrase or congestion of words I hear elsewhere. A detail from a novel or even something on TV. Weather atmosphere. Memory and connections, re-seeing oneself/the past. Extreme emotion on a passing face. Something about children being in danger runs through a lot of myself stuff but I am not sure why. Fairy tales?  I work hard moment to moment on accepting the world is as it is and still living ,at least semi-joyfully, in it. Sometimes that’s what the poems grip at.

Please share with us some of your thoughts and/or experience regarding what it means to take risks in one’s writing.

Writing at all is taking that risk. From the moment just as you pick up the pen. The hours before that.  If one can let oneself play, then risk isn’t a tension, though it may be an excitement!  Taking risks, whether you know it or not is, just part of the deal. You’ll only sense a risk if you have already been SURE of what you’ve been doing.

What currently excites you in the world of contemporary poetry—any particular authors, books, styles, tendencies, or techniques?

Nutsy, off-the-wall stuff I can quite like.  Poems which apparently undo the lyric yet somehow retain that gathering quality. I’ll continue to say Fawzi Karim’s Plague Lands is beautiful and great. I like translations for the flavors, I am liking more poems I would have deemed minimalist because they offer suggestion as emotion or thought. Lorine Neidecker,  for instance. Here’s an admission-- I am comforted by reading poems by my peers; work of young people can also excite me a lot and I feel/hope I am open and will follow someone’s work as much as I can but the subject of the day, of the world changes with one’s age.

What is the most important thing you have learned in the process of writing your own poetry collections? We’re not thinking so much in terms of advice you may have received from other authors, but something you learned all on your own through your own process…

You can learn to trust yourself and for me part of that is learning when NOT to trust myself: to know when I ‘m letting something slide, taking the easy way out, choosing the lazy word, putting in the staggeringly gorgeous and wise phrase and then knowing it’s dishonest for the present poem. Alas . . .I have a poem, probably 4 years old, which I think is nice writing and the atmosphere and image I want, but no ending works! Every ending I’ve tried is dull, cliché, ordinary and I just can’t do the THINKING/VISIONING!  It sits sadly in its folder while I go about my ordinary life pretending it isn’t there.

Where is your favorite place to write? What does the idea of “place” mean to you as a writer?

Place is my landscape- mostly hilltowny- or the seascape of Cornwall. Place is a room, a containment. A dream  A lot of my poems waver within the inside/outside dilemma which is its own place.

I like to write in the kitchen. Stove, and not too far from the bathroom so it doesn’t take any time to move back and forth. I like sitting in rocking chairs to muse and initially “compose”. You can build me the nicest study in the world and I’ll end up back in the kitchen.  The problem is, so does everybody else.

The process of writing a poetry manuscript is so often one of writing, re-writing, shuffling, and revision—a cycle which frequently must be repeated more than once. Do you have any thoughts on how a poet many know when his/her collection is complete?

Ed says a poet will know when she or he is dead. Then he says an artist is never satisfied. But there is a moment, for me, called as good as it gets. I build my manuscripts – or I imagine I do – as music. I don’t put a long poem next to a long poem. I move in an out with tones;  I want/hope one poems’ end to have a reason to be next to another poem’s beginning. I don’t bunch thematically though that would work if there were a narrative continuance. I play, I shuffle, as you say; I lay the stuff out on a very long table. I invite the cat who is discerning. And sometimes I end up saying bye-bye to a poem I thought was doing ok. I often find a little introductory poem to set the tone of the whole manuscript as a kind of prologue. A set-up, a crack in the door.

How do you find that your work as a writer informs your work as a reader (or in this case contest judge). How do the reader and writer in you converse with one another?

The reader talks more to the writer than vice versa. The reader then drifts -- sometimes to arise as the writer.  Mostly the reader AND the writer are letting dogs in and out constantly. I read every manuscript thoroughly and with attention. I don’t rush it. Each person has made a commitment of her/his heart and soul, intellect and talent to make a book.  Each deserves a thorough read, and often more than one. This is fun for me because I learn of other voices, other windows, other lives. I guess I have more patience with manuscripts than I often have with piles and piles of books. There’s something so exciting and possible , so hopeful about a manuscript. I get fed and fascinated. I guess it would be a combination of reader and writer looking at fresh work, but I still have to get up and let the dogs in. Then out.
Isn’t that how a poem is made anyway?

To read another recent interview with Pamela Stewart, check out the blog Taking Giant Steps by Giant Steps Press


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