POETiCA REViEW Author Interview with Laurie Byro
1. Which poets are you currently reading?
For my poetry Circle of Voices, of 20 plus years, I picked TS Eliot (April being the cruellest month) and Simon Armitage in May because I am predicting and hoping SA will be named Laureate. Next to my bed is: Barbara Crooker, Tree Riesener, and Tobi Alfier. Local poets, I am humbled by their talent. I always have “Poetry as Insurgent Art” by Ferlinghetti as something I turn to and carry with me to readings.
2. Which poets would be on your short list for the next Nobel Prize?
WS Merwin if they’d give one now that he died. Margaret Atwood. If they went for a singer/poet again? Leonard Cohen? Neal Young?
3. Which poets do you always return to and why?
This changes depending on my mood. Ted Hughes for his animal shamanism sort of approach. Auden for his hopelessness (Lay your sleeping head) Hirshfield for her hopefulness. (Hope is the hardest love we carry). Naomi Nye for her kind universal view, Bill Stafford (Travelling Through the Dark might be my fave poem, one that never fails to amaze me). Very few poets I don’t “get” or like in some way. Bukowski might be an example of how I felt about algebra in school. Like “I don’t get this, I don’t see the point, this is torture for me.”
4. What do you think of the adage: ‘talent borrows, genius steals.’?
I thought it was amateurs borrow and professional steal? TS Eliot, and I also dig Ezra Pound. I think his “In A Station of the Metro” may be one of the best poems of the last century. So again, if I could remember all the poets I love and why, that’d be a dozen more pages. I really have no opinion of the quote as not familiar with it. But I do know in my own work and Dylan certainly, so many of them/us we use jumping off points to get things written. I borrowed or stole a few lines from Billy Collins and when I asked him about it he was great. Said something like “poems need to rub against one another as not to be lonely.” He’s a poet I return to often as well.
5. Do you agree with the poet, John Redmond when he writes: poetry does not have a nature’, what might poetry be for you?
I think it’s a means of communication. My earliest poems were written while dealing with an older terminally ill brother. I think it’s a communication with others, ourselves and the dead.
6. What do you think of ‘confessional verse,’ does it have a place in your heart?
When I started writing “Salon poems” meaning poems that were historical poetry about Gertrude Stein and her gang, The Bloomsbury Set, DH Lawrence, Peggy Guggenheim and the new book about Isadora Duncan and Van Gogh, I realized that there are parts of me in each of them. The early “confessional” poems were about me and my family, but I think the new PL of the US Tracy K Smith said that she had to “get the family poems over with” etc, but there are parts of me in each. Sclerotic welt of paint for example, that would have a ref to my MS. I find some of it “boring” meaning, the Lowell, Sexton, Plath group of pure confessional poetry, yet at the same time Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes, I really enjoyed. I think some of the earlier ones are so familiar to us there are no surprises. The best poetry I think has ambiguity in it.
7. When I was a boy, my father would pay me pennies for remembering verses. Do you like or think it is important to commit verse to memory?
Yes, but you have to do this young. Otherwise, forget it. I only know a few lines and that is because that impulse changed in American education. Same thing with diagramming sentences. I loved doing that, think it’s important.
8. What kind of relationship do you have with the past, are you nostalgic?
Absolutely, I am with Blake in this, as I said some of my poems are a communication with the dead. We have to avoid sentimentality, naturally, but if you think of a beloved poem, Prufrock for example, it is nostalgic but anticipating the old man Eliot would become.
9. Do you write every day? Do you have a set regime?
I used to and for a long time, I think as we build on our successes we can let go a bit and relax with it. I was very prolific and structured, now less so. When I am truly “stuck” I give myself prompts or assignments. I had no knowledge of Shakespeare and spent 3 or 4 winters reading and listening to his plays. I got quite a few poems out of that and most of them published and or awarded. THAT was gratifying. I also do as Bill Stafford suggests and that is “If you are not writing well that day, you lower your standards.”
10. Have you ever attended poetry writing workshops, if so, do you think a workshop can teach writers to be better poets?
On line workshops, I adored Desert Moon Review and they went belly up. Very helpful. Now Babilu and Penshells, and workshops have changed, they seem to evolve into praise and not serious crit. In person, I attended some at Dodge and in Paterson at Maria Gillan’s “Distinguished Poet’s Series.” Yes and no, I think Gary Snyder said if you know what you are doing pass it on, but not if you don’t know. I think, I have ruined poems by listening to folks who didn’t know, but I think it takes confidence to know the difference. Not an MFA, confidence.
11. What is the best book you’ve written and why, and is this the one you would recommend most highly to anyone interested in reading your work?
“Luna” is the personal/old stories. “Wonder” is Alice in Wonderland, Oz etc. “Bloomberries” was tough for me because I found out I didn’t like that group very much and even the descendents are snotty and weird. I could tell stories, I won’t. I like Gertrude Stein as a person and she had such an interesting gang. Cowboy Buddha did a really good job with the book about DH Lawrence and Peggy Guggenheim. D’eux as Grace Cavalieri said “wins a beauty prize.” So not to be disingenuous and plug them all but how do you choose among your children? So “best” for me depends on the reader’s interests. I encourage anyone to write to me if they want to pick, they are on Amazon and I don’t make a profit on them, the publisher does, but that is fine with me, I want them read.
12. What single life experience has influenced your poetic vision most profoundly?
My brother’s young death. As I said I would spend hours speaking to him about what I was writing, I was just a beginner and finding my way, but he didn’t know that and it was encouraging because it gave us a language to discuss his dying.
13. Is everything writable about, as Sylvia Plath had said?
Yes and no. Lowell (Robert not Amy) wrote poems intended to wound an ex. I think Ted Hughes may have been right to destroy parts of that diary. I think I believe the adage that Laurence Oliver said and that is a “gentleman does not hurt someone’s feeling unintentially of ” I didn’t write about my mom’s alcoholism until she was dead. What was the point?
14. What’s the greatest pleasure in being a poet?
Having an appreciative audience. Having folks you admire recognise your work, that is better than any award.
15. What do you think of poetry in translation, can it ever remain faithful to the original?
I think as with Merwin taking liberties with Neruda it can improve the original. Apologies to Pablo Neruda. Also the Li Po translated by Ezra Pound.
I like his version of The River Merchant Wife: A Letter.
16. What has been your most ambitious poem to date?
I wrote some poems about Cinderella and then the idea that Lear is Cinderella and wrote about that, and that was tough for me. Also I wrote a decent villanelle and that was something I was proud of, though I’m not a formalist. I include it here so you’ll know what I mean, also the Villanelle…
I should have known by the chirping toads, that my past
was catching up with me, that Daddy was holding court, that
my wit would let me have lands, filled with dragonflies mating:
jewel upon jewel, tourmaline wings. Eyes, flashing fire
and icicle tears drip off a broken roof. Consider, the cat,
shanghaiing a speckled toad. I half-expected it to become
a footman, in her soft grip of teeth. It was her present to me,
as I rail the curse of being the youngest. Papa still able
to line the others up: all the mice and lizards, a bellowing
forest, how could he still rule this slippery earth? How could he
decree me disloyal? Consider, the youngest, as she is known
by so many names, the nesting doll that stays hidden like
a split seed. Zezolla, Ella, Danielle: call me the favorite,
swaddled in wooden shells, these nesting dolls that could
tread the water, balsa-light like boats. I stuffed a jar
with fireflies. I took a dull slipper and coaxed the blink
and pause of you, into a glass, to remind me of your heartbeat.
A captive lightning storm enclosed in globe. Had I released you
at the right time, you would have become food for Father.
Instead, I cup my hands around you and release
you like wishing stars. Holy storm: let these quick fairies, split
the forest trees, singe the warts off old Daddy’s head. Let me rain,
let me hail a forest-chosen Ragamuffin Queen. I stand before
you lessers: swift foxes and deer. I stand before you, old-men
‘possums with a green-robed chorus of frogs. My face is streaked
with the soot of vagrant dragonflies. They skitter and dance
in their red-velvet gowns while Daddy looks longingly at his last meal.
All day, your heartbeats shine somewhere in a canopy of trees.
You lure me to the forest, as Daddy croons his lasting forgiveness.
Lady slippers leave their hollows, tip-toe quietly away.
Villanelle with Vincent
And then Van Gogh learned that matadors will cut off the ear of a bull
to show courage and present it to their lady………
A matador can never be afraid
unless his pride is given to the light.
And thus dear Vincent knew the price he’d paid.
For company and love, he always prayed.
He prayed soft fields would dazzle him with light.
A matador can never be afraid.
And with a final thrust his future made.
A swagger as he dances near the light.
And then poor Vincent knew the price he’d paid.
He gave his lady-love the gift he’d made.
It glistened like a star in morning light.
A matador can never be afraid.
In France, he learned of matadors who made
a show of taming passion with a fight.
Was then our Vincent knew the price he paid.
Crow-sunflower, he watched the colors fade.
A swirling cape, a star, both made of light.
And then dear Vincent knew the price he paid.
A matador must never be afraid.
17. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is 99, Ernesto Cardenal is 94, Hans Magnus Enzensberger is 89, Milner Place is 89, Elaine Feinstein is 88, Fleur Adcock is 85, Gillian Clarke is 81, Gillian Allnutt is 70 (just some of my favourite living poets). Do you think your work gets ‘better’ as you get older?
Yes and no, For me, success is damaging, I did better when I was hungry for the next level and didn’t know ANYTHING. I got lucky with an early acceptance from the Literary Review, wrote that poem in 10 minutes and didn’t change it. I am not great at revisions, but after studying Merwin, much better at line breaks.
18. Do you believe in God? Are you a ‘spiritual’ poet?
Yes, and not overtly, but I am aware of grace in my life and was told I am an intuitive. I recently (last poem in the new book) wrote about my friend George and birds that appeared like in the Hitchcock movie. Years ago I wrote a poem, Icarus play Atlantic City and in the workshop someone said “It needs something.” and I said “Yeah, it needs Lou Reed.” (Icarus and Lou Reed?) He died the next day.
19. I’ve often read that poetry is in the life-blood of many countries. Do you think that the American people hold poetry in such high esteem?
No. Tragically, no. My husband and I were just talking about this, I think I would do better in England.
20. What are you working on now and how can people follow your writing?
I can give you the link to Amazon, and Google will bring lots of things up. I was toying with writing about Ginsburg and his relationship with the Beatles. A beat and a Beatle, but not a huge AG fan in that, all the Beats were interesting but broken reeds in some ways. I got to meet him a few times, my husband was on a roof during a luna eclipse and talked with him a bit. But I discarded that idea. So now I am thinking about a sequence about the Beatles.
Picking Burnt Norton or one of the Quartets and seeing if I can anything there. Eliot’s last important work, maybe that will be something I can move around in.
Some how I started with George, for Burt Norton, it seems more Blakian, spiritual, not sure why and again, this might be a waste of time, but I did get so much out of the biography Jonathan Cott wrote “Days I Shall Remember” about John and Yoko that I sort of got re chuffed about the Beatles. Yoko in particular, and so when I start projects about the “salon” poets etc, I start researching and see where it takes me.
I may not get anywhere, but the research is exciting for me. After the Bloomsbury set though, I think it helps to like your subject.
Thanks for including me in this venture, I appreciate it. Your efforts to bring out good poetry and introduce us to poets is a worthwhile cause. Thanks Mark.
Laurie Byro has been facilitating “Circle of Voices” poetry discussion in New Jersey libraries for 20 years. She is published widely in University presses in the United States and is included in several anthologies. Laurie has garnered more IBPC awards (InterBoard Poetry Community) than any other poet, stopping at 55. She had three books of poetry published in 2015 and 2016, her Fifth La Dogaressa was published in 2018 by Cowboy Buddha Press. Her Sixth, also by Cowboy Buddha is called D’eux & Other Sorrows. The art of her husband, Michael Byro, graces all the covers, there are 6 of his pointillism paintings in D’eux. Laurie received a 2016 New Jersey Poet’s Prize for the first poem in the Stein collection and 2017 Prize for the 2nd poem in the Bloomsberries. Laurie is currently Poet in Residence at the West Milford Township Library, where “Circle of Voices” continues to meet.
Laurie Byro 5 poems
Lear Signs On The Dole
I observe him holding court in the waiting room,
or trying to, curved and defiant as a sickle.
I ask him for his resume. He clears his throat
and tells me that once he ruled the world.
He insists his house in those days
was larger than a double-wide, but just lately
he’s been down on his luck. I’ve heard it all before.
As unkempt as a sea-monster, Mr. Lear’s hair is all
lightning twisted and his flip-flops have seen
better days. He removes his crown, it perches on his
knee like a tarnished canary. Why does he want
to work at his age? He cannot drive, his eyesight
fails. “My daughters are big-shots in real estate,
top dogs at Century 21 and Coldwell Banker and both
know what I have been.” But what is it he brings
to the table? “A leg of venison,” he stutters,
“a serpent’s tooth, unbroken . . . ” Mr. Lear creaks
like a fury about to erupt. “My youngest will tell you
what business I have done.” We have nothing
for him. I stamp his paperwork. As he leaves, he slyly
doffs his crown and asks me if I’d like to take lunch
with him. He is older than God and I have three more
to see before quitting time. The next one is waiting.
Mr. Lear, unadorned, draws his pension in the rain.
Dr. Gachet, you tell me my crows are thieves and dirty scavengers,
that you will rid me of my obsession with them. If you are to cure me
of my madness, kindly leave the birds out. They are my truest friends.
They want nothing of me but to share my bread and my company.
The leader, I call him Paul Gauguin, struts in his black mourning coat,
issuing orders. He is sly and tricks us into obedience. The others
are angels you see, drawn to the beauty of soot. They don’t understand
their value in the world. I have invented my own world as God invented his.
There is Sien who never tempts me with her body, her boa of darkness.
There is Claude Monet, the fat one, who only wishes to make water ripple
off his sword. He makes lilies speak to each other and that is not delusion.
Can’t you hear them? They love me. Can’t you see the mistake of curing me,
of killing them off in my memory? My women are sunflowers, their heavy
hated grace, their sleepy eyes. It is my will to make them beautiful. Neither
a blossom nor a bee will shun me. They don’t turn away from my perfume.
This isn’t madness, doctor, only acceptance. My angels are freaks, unaware
of their perfect bodies their lovely souls. What if they come to me as a murder
of crows? If my lovers are chaste and still as petals, who are you to turn me
into a sane man? I shall cut off my other ear so as not to hear you scold me
into mediocrity. You and Theo will nag me to death. You are wrong to think
I am invisible to the universe. I am Vincent I need no other name.
The Other Vincent
Theo, I never told you or our parents that the other Vincent, the one
who was born dead whispers to me from the dark cloak he wears as he
grows tall like a shadow on the days I am alone. When I look out
at the Rhone, he walks toward me carrying his armfuls of stars.
They are really chrysanthemums, don’t tell him I know, but in his hands
they glow off the water like sticks of fire. Is he preparing a pyre
for the second Vincent? Do you miss him like I do? Little stranger, he died
without sin. He was good at mathematics, he was smart at school. He
may have been a priest so often he hears my confession. I worry for
his ears in frost. He glows as if he is covered in snowy moths. I was his best
brother. He never complains like you about my voices. You take after
Mother in worry. Theo, sadly, I am again in need of certain colors. Please
send as you can, bolts of canvas and tubes. You can help me match my moods,
azure and grey for dreary Wednesday. Cornflower, cobalt, aquamarine. Oh
that glorious gold of angels. Oh the sooty overcoats of crows, of brothers.
There are brothers to spare, angels everywhere I look. You are my favorite, really.
Deirdre Beatrice Craig
“I am here in a villa by the sea dying of despair.” Isadora Duncan
Mama, I held Patrick’s hand tight just as you taught me when crossing
the street because the water was cold and I was scared. The river
rushed over us like a blurry dream. The fish swimming past
were angels. Though I could not speak, I mouthed to Patrick
“Don’t be afraid.” I thought “we are going to a beautiful place where
mermaids will comb and braid my hair. We will never worry
and always play.“ When I looked up through the tangled water,
at the sky, I could see lilies and frogs. Damselflies and dragons became
bright cobwebbed light, just like their wings. Oh, that light. It lit up
the turquoise blue sky and I mouthed to Patrick “Don’t be afraid.”
Heaven was pulling us into its arms just like you did, Mama.
Mama, this place is so pretty, a world without end. Why,
the cobwebs in the angel’s wings seem to disturb the light.
The Dance is love, it is only love, it alone, and that is enough…Isadora Duncan
Maybe it was the full moon, a Corfu-blue eye, reminding me
that the river floods, roofs lose their tile and leak, children drown, children
go into a river to play. A full moon, any moon at all reminds me,
and rain, blue pelting tears: a lamp, a child crying. She is obsessed
with the taroc, they whisper, she is drunk with mother’s love.
But what they didn’t know is that instead of bringing their ashes
to the beach of Corfu like I said, I hoarded them and pretended
the leavings from an English grate was them. While on this island, waiting
for peace and their father, the moon swelled like my belly did once.
I ate them and drank them down.
It was easy as sticking your tongue out for snow. The marmalade,
the chicken and potatoes with garlic, I seasoned my days with them.
I sucked them through a straw. In my tea, in my wine, in my toast with jam,
in my throat.
I loved them.