I spoke with featured poet, Sandra Becker. Here are some of her personal experiences and insights on writing poetry.
LF: When did you begin writing poetry? SB: My first memory of writing a poem was in creative writing class in junior high school. The teacher had each of the students keep a journal, which we would hand in weekly to which he would reply to each entry. The only thing I remember about that experience is writing my first two poems in the journal and having it returned to me with the comments: “A gift, Sandra, a gift for language.” I did not write again until decades later but I guess those comments really stuck with me and made me aware, in retrospect, about the tremendous influence of a teacher’s words, and that my words must matter if he could say that. I recall how, some time after I graduated from CUNY of Queens College, I sought out poetry workshops to audit (not for credit, cost-free) as a full participant. I found that teachers love students who are in their classes not because they are mandatory or needed for credit, but out of the love of the subject. I was just beginning writing, a time when you feel you’re sharing very deep emotions and you feel vulnerable. A teacher of one of the workshops was extremely critical in an unkind manner. One time, he actually made fun of one of my poems in front of the class. Another time, he balled up the paper on which my poem was typed, and said “This is not a poem” and pitched it into a trash can. I was grateful to a few students in the class who told me on a few occasions that he just didn’t understand the reason I chose a particular form, or two women told me after class that they liked one of the poems so much they shared it with others. I went home devastated after he’d ripped my poem apart. Another workshop teacher said my poetry was amazing and said they were perfect and that she could not improve on them. I found that disappointing. Then I found a workshop led by Martha Rhodes (the founder of Four Way Books and director of the poetry conference at The Frost Place) in her Soho apartment in Manhattan. Martha gave constructive criticism with kindness, the perfect blend for a teacher in my opinion. I’ll say one thing, though -- The first two teachers - one cruel, the other overly kind, having given me extremely opposing experiences, paved the way for me to learn to evaluate my writing with more objectivity, and without too much emotional attachment. And then later, of course, I was graced with the workshop with Christopher Bursk, a uniquely gifted teacher whose mentoring has been beyond generous and instructive and genuinely radical in its bond-building between poets of the community throughout decades. We’ve been given an extraordinary base of support and endless inspiration, and of course, constructive critiquing which challenges us to expand further, dig deeper, work, work, share.
LF: Where do you look to find creative inspiration? SB: I know it’s been said before that the poet doesn’t choose his or her subjects; rather, the poet is ‘given’ the subjects, but I must say I agree. I do, however, find that there are common threads that run through my work and recur through time, perhaps in different contexts, which I might not realize until much later. For instance, my book Imperfect Matter includes poems from different times in my life about the difficulties of the physical body (from my experience of illness throughout my life - asthma as a child, migraines as an adult) and, I guess you could say, neurotic mind or one seeking both emotional and spiritual freedom. I also find it very helpful if I can find or “be open to” a subject that has a lot of charge for me, both consciously and subconsciously, such as the subject of X-rays in "Foreign Bodies” and the Persephone mythology in "At the Well of Flowers” and the stories of special needs individuals whom I work with, the subject of "Dread Islands.” But, the subject has to mean a lot to me, and I consider it a gift when I am “given” such a subject.
LF: Could you describe your creative process for writing poetry? SB: It changes all the time. Sometimes, I write in response to a poem I’ve read or a line from a poem I’ve read. I generally write at home in a quiet space. I try to capture a poem when I’m presented with the urge when inspired because I know how fleeting those experiences are and the initial impulse with its accompanying words, phrases, images are important to get down when the experience and its energy are fresh (and of course, revision comes later). I have gone through periods of time when I will sit down and journal or read, adopt some sort of discipline. More and more, though, I have been working on “projects” (theme-based as I alluded to before) and my life is so busy that I steal any moments I can to keep the creative juices flowing.
LF: What are you working on now? SB: I’ve begun a manuscript about the lives of girls, the lives of women, including my own – a sort of psychological exploration of the similarities of women in different countries, circumstances, challenges. How our stories are all connected. The manuscript, I think, is still in its embryonic stage, so I’m trying to let it show me where it wants to go. I’m also taking Christopher Bursk’s annual spring workshop. The theme is poetry and its relation to music and vice versa and it’s been a really thrilling exploration for me – making poems reflecting the effects of particular songs, genres, musicians. I’m thoroughly enjoying this new territory and I’m finding new doors opening in my writing as a result.
LF: Why is poetry important in the world? SB: Speaking as a poet, it enables me to articulate experiences in ways impossible in other forms of language. I believe writing poetry actually changes circuitry, opens pathways in the brain, rewires the nerve networks. So much is being discovered about the malleability of the brain and that we have the power to revise our brains. Poetry has helped me in the ability to discern, pay attention, listen, appreciate nuances, live more fully. As poets, we learn to cut through old, worn, ways of using language that are so common they don’t really mean anything anymore, they don’t really have the ability to change one, open one up to new energy, new vision. I believe this to be true of all arts whether painting, making music, dance, theatre. Humans are creative beings and when we don’t obey that part of our natures, our lives are so much more limited, so less full of joy, of love, of possibility and connection with ourselves and one another and we suffer for it.
LF: What do you hope readers take away from your poetry? SB: I hope they take away a sense of connection from my poems that my poems act as a bridge to one another. I hope that the reader feels a sense of beauty, and as importantly, a sense of the mystery behind the creation of that beauty, the shared experience of the ineffable origin of the creation of that beauty. A sense of awe. And, the sense of wanting more.