Interviews

November 15, 2009      

An Interview With Judith Skillman by David Hoenigman

Judith Skillman’s eleventh collection of poems is “Prisoner of the Swifts” Ahadada Books (ahadadabooks.com).  Her manuscript “The Never” was a finalist for the FIELD/Oberlin Press Award in 2009 and is forthcoming from Dream Horse Press in 2010. “Heat Lightning: New and Selected Poems 1986 – 2006” was published by Silverfish Review Press, Eugene, Oregon, 2006.   The recipient of an award from the Academy of American Poets for her book “Storm” (Blue Begonia Press, 1998), Skillman’s work has appeared in Poetry, FIELD, The Southern Review, The Iowa Review, Midwest Quarterly Review, Seneca Review, and numerous other journals and anthologies. An educator, editor, and translator, she holds an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Maryland, and lives in Kennydale, Washington.

See www.judithskillman.com for more information.

David Hoenigman: What projects are you currently working on?

Judith Skillman: I am working on a manuscript titled “The White Cypress,” which has as its theme the seven deadly sins. Not a pretty subject matter, but some of the poems had already been written when I recognized the theme/focus of my current writing. I decided to ‘go deeper’ into that realm, since I had already begun.  This is often how manuscripts evolve, it seems to me—one is attracted to certain images and metaphors without knowing why. Becoming conscious of the underlying ‘theme’ takes time and can’t be forced, which must be why writing a manuscript (of poems) takes place in geologic time.

DH: When and why did you begin writing?

JS: Actually, I wrote my first poem in fourth grade. It was an assignment: to write a poem about the assassination of President Kennedy (OK, yes, I’ve dated myself.) The poem was written in elementary school sing-song style, but it got recognized by a Maryland congressman, and was  hung, alongside my fellow poet and fourth grade colleague Sandy Marion’s. It was a very exciting experience for a fourth grader!
DH: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

JS: I began to think of myself as a ‘poet’ long before I had anything concrete to show for it. At Western Maryland College, now called “Westminster College,” in, yes, western Maryland, in a very sequestered  town surrounded by horse towns and racial prejudice, I was first an art major. I had to make a change though, when we were forced to do architectural blueprints as a final project in a design class. I’d already taken a  number of English classes, and was fascinated by “Beowulf”,  and Latin American Magical Realism. In fact I had been a total bookworm since learning to read at age six, so the change to English major was not difficult. What was hard was my art professor’s dismay at my choice. He seemed personally offended. So I said “I’m going to be a poet,” to which he replied, “Well then, that’s OK.”
DH: What inspired you to write your first book?

JS: My father was an astronomer and Solar Physicist, and my mother earned her PhD in Math Education, so my interest in the arts & humanities made me rather a black sheep.  But they were encouraging of all art forms, especially music. Sometime during my youth my father ground his own mirror and installed  his own observatory in our back  yard. He loved to have ‘star parties’ and show off the stars to anyone who was interested. We also  had discussions about the  universe, or ‘cosmology’ as it is now called. So my first poems came from the excitement of discovery as witnessed in my father’s excitement just looking at the night sky.

Then, when I became a literature  major, and began reading poetry seriously, I couldn’t keep from imitating those poets I admired. Imitation is discouraged among writers, but actually we can’t help but do it all the time. Artists are encouraged, ordered even, to copy other artists as part of their learning process. So I think my unwitting ‘copying’ of styles allowed me, in time, to begin to learn what kind of voice I wanted to use. That’s a rather roundabout reply to the question of inspiration, I suppose.
DH: Who or what has influenced your writing?

JS: As I said before, the excitement of waiting for a meteor shower, or seeing a celestial event such as a comment, gave me a bit of a drive to ‘see’ the unusual stuff going on around us every day. So my father, and my mother, who both always seemed to share in a child-like sense of wonder at nature and the world, were my first inspirations. After that, seeing and dabbling in visual art, hearing music, playing the violin—in which I was indoctrinated from third grade through high school—all contributed to my writing. Writers and poets who specifically have influenced me are:

Beth Bentley:  A wonderful poet and teacher, Beth Bentley has published “Little Fires” and “Phone Calls From the Dead,” among other books. Her work is tremendous and she taught me to think and write “associatively.” Though I had a master’s degree and did a thesis (a mss of poems) for my MA at the University of Maryland, I feel it was Beth  Bentley’s verse-writing workshops at the UW Extension program, which I took off and on from 1983 – 1991, that really taught me to write.

Jack Gilbert: An amazing man, monk, and poet, I met Jack at Centrum in 1995. He took the time to discuss writing with me, and I learned more from reading his work and talking to  him about the difference between “fancy” and “imagination” than I feel I could have learned in four years of lit courses.

Hemingway, even though he was a fiction writer, has made an impression on me regarding “minimalism.” I would like to bring his minimalist leanings to verse.

There are so many other poets I have read it would be impossible to list them. I taught “Great American Poets” using the Annenberg tapes for a couple years in the late nineties. The pages of translations of Vallejo, Celan, and Char are especially dog-eared.

DH: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

JS: I think I addressed this earlier, but one other thing worth adding is that when I wrote my “trauma diary” for a psychologist (I’ve had many shrinks and counselors over the years) it turned out  to be very eye opening. I feel more like the survivor of a war than the mom of three grown kids…I won’t go into that here though.
DH: Do you have a specific writing style?

JS: I sometimes write in stanzas of set line lengths, or try for a three  or four beat line. But my main goal is to have the content of a piece adhere to its form, and/or vice versa. The lyric is my first choice. I am always trying to strip language down to the essence in my quest for the minimalist poem.

But then, I suppose that goes without saying, since poems should capture the essence of things. Certainly I live by several mottos: William Carlos Williams’ “No ideas but in things” and Stafford’s “Can’t write? Lower your standards…” The latter has helped me through many a dry spell.
DH: What genre are you most comfortable writing?

JS: Poetry. I have tried other genres, and have written a novella and seven short stories titled “There Are No Gray Elephants in Denmark.” A few of the stories have been published (in small places.) I tried a second novel, but at this point I believe I have to accept that for me, self-expression thrives on the form of the poem.
DH: Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?

JS: No. I don’t endorse messages in poetry! For me, the interesting kinds of poetic, and, for that matter, novelistic or creative non-fiction works, are those that move associatively. Didactic material belongs in the classroom.
DH: What book are you reading now?

JS: I am trying to re-read “The Cantos”, and to read them with renewed interest in Pound’s treatment of Greek myth, as much of my work tends to be revisionist in terms of various myths.  I also love Jack Gilbert’s new book, “The Dance Most of All.”
DH: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

JS: Beckian Fritz Goldberg is the poet I am currently reading. I also was given an anthology: “Native American Songs and Poems”, edited by Brian Swann, and I am especially fond of certain pieces, as well as surprised at how contemporary these poems ‘read.’
DH: What is the most misunderstood aspect of your work?

JS: Perhaps that it is ‘confessional…’  I do use childhood and other parts of my own life as I feel we can write about anything other than what we know, but when I use part of my life I am doing so because within the experience there is something larger I want to explore, and  hopefully, if a poem works, it does so on a higher  plane than the mere confession.
DH: Any memories of particular works: the writing of,  feedback, the thought behind…etc.

JS: I guess I will never forget, after writing the title poem for my first book, “Worship of the Visible Spectrum”—a poem that was accepted by Poetry way back when—and which I wrote while my two (first two) children were in pre-school—I will never forget running around the house looking at this piece of paper all excited, feeling as if I had ‘done’ something that surprised me out of myself…how’s that for a run-on?

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