How to Witness, What to Share: A Conversation with Vivian Shipley
An accomplished poet, former long-time editor of the Connecticut Review, and Professor of Creative Writing at Southern Connecticut State University, Vivian Shipley’s charming, and sometimes challenging work embraces you like an old friend. Imbued with accessible metaphors, richly detailed narratives, and a deliberate weaving of fictional and nonfictional accounts with deeply personal memories, her poetry is at once astounding and familiar. Like an archivist of memory, Shipley champions the value of bearing witness by unapologetically sharing the most vulnerable parts of her own life, as well as the lives of many people whose stories have been all but lost, and uses that sharing as a passageway to connect to the fundamentally human experiences of her audience: to the tenacity of our hope, the raw necessity of our family survival, and the earth shattering grief of our losses.
By maintaining a colloquial intimacy in her signature voice, Shipley creates memorable moments that can be truly inhabited. Her work that comments on, and highlights the nature of, social justice issues is as accessible and unapologetic as her work about family. There is nothing off limits here. And that, I believe, is the root of her appeal, and her success.
Katy Abrams: Vivian, you began writing poems as an adult after a brain tumor nearly took your life. What can you share with me about how you view, in retrospect, the content or the form of those very early poems?
Vivian Shipley: I’m not even sure that they were poems. I was in the hospital quite a while after I had the tumor removed, and I couldn’t talk for a long time and had a lot of swelling. The early poems just were really literally a form of screaming, I suppose, of thoughts and feelings coming out of me. The brain tumor was the first hard thing that I had ever experienced. I thought I was supposed to die, and it didn’t seem fair, because always before I’ve been able to work hard, do this, do that and things went okay. But, all of a sudden, when you almost die, you realize how absolutely fragile life is and how suddenly it could be taken from you or how suddenly it could change. Also I think you understand how there’s a basic unfairness to the world. When you become a part of it, it’s a much more dramatic thing than simply reading about it, because when you have good luck, good fortune, you think ‘Hey, why not me? I deserve this.’
After I had the tumor out, I was taking a lot of Dilantin and Phenobarbital so I was pretty heavily medicated and I was very labile. So I would go from very intensely emotional and maybe cry and then feel really really happy. But, I started writing and words were just pouring out of me, and I had never written before. So, it was a fairly dramatic sort of experience. And the aftermath of the tumor was fairly dramatic, and I do feel in retrospect that the doctors probably should have told me how labile I might be, because the tumor was so big, and it left a huge part of my brain fairly raw.
I wrote very short, very cryptic, lyrical things. And the other thing that happened in conjunction with the tumor is that I was married to my first husband and was not really happy. After having my tumor and realizing I could die, I felt much more intensely about my relationship, but I didn’t contemplate getting divorced or leaving. So I wrote a lot of poems around the theme of being trapped or hidden and they were pretty hard to understand because I didn’t want anybody to understand how bad my marriage was.
Also at that point I had two small children, and I was finishing my PhD at Vanderbilt. The year after I had the tumor out, I defended my dissertation and graduated. The first book I did was called Jack Tales, and jack tales are stories from Kentucky, tall tales about the character Jack who can do all kinds of things. My work had become increasingly narrative and much longer and more complex. A lot of times the kind of writing that we do is a reflection of the amount of time we have.
KA: You and I have exchanged more than a handful of emails over the past few months [laughs], and something that struck me really immediately about our communication was this very comfortable, conversational tone that resonated even though we hadn’t met yet. In your poetry that casual intimacy really seems to come with equal ease in your personal voice and in the dramatic monologue voices of others. Is that an aspect of yourself that you find particularly important to transfer to your work?
VS: Yes, it is. I try very hard to get a very casual voice to my work, and I’ll sometimes interject things, very short two or three line sentences. I like writing food poems and herb poems, and there was a poem that I did about basil. In one of Keats’s poems, one of the women buries her lover’s head and hopes to grow basil from it, and I wrote in mine, “there are easier ways to grow it.” [laughter] Or I wrote a poem once where a donkey was trained to lead bulls in the ring. It’s called “First Ice,” and it’s one of my favorite poems, about my father and picking out his gravestone. But this donkey was trained to lead prize winning bulls and so he just went round and round and round, and so I injected a line “no blue ribbons for the donkey.”
I do a tremendous amount of revision but I don’t want the revisions to show, and so I try very hard to make them appear casual on the page, but they really aren’t. I overwrite. So, I start out with maybe three or four pages and I’ll just go back and cut and cut and cut. Voice is something that I consciously inject into a poem
KA: Was that conscious voice something that you noticed in your really early work or did that become a decision later?
VS: No, I don’t think in my early work I ever really thought about the writing. I’ve never really had any real formal training in writing. I’ve also never gone to any retreats or any of that sort of thing because I couldn’t. My first husband left me. My youngest son was six months old. I had three very small children. I’ve always worked full time, and so obviously I couldn’t leave them and leave my job and so on. I regret that. If I had wishes, I wish I had been able to study formally and get an MFA. It would have been fun to go to retreats or Breadloaf, and workshops. But, I’ve never workshopped with anyone, and I don’t workshop my poems.
VS: I’ve always just written them. For me writing is very solitary, and actually the only person who really reads my poems and critiques them is my husband, and he says he doesn’t like poetry. But, he’s a really good critic, because he can tell me when something’s not working. He’s a super good proofreader. I’ve taught, I’ve read a whole lot of books about writing and teaching, and I’ve also taught myself. I wish I had had the opportunity to do the MFA and study with people and make contacts. When I was at Vanderbilt, it was all about literature--
KA: Right. So, ironically we move on to the poem, and I love this poem, “Why an aging poet signs up for yet another summer poetry workshop” where you write, “like ham curing on a hook, my heart still swings from Connecticut to Kentucky.” Your home of origin is that really beautiful section of the country that sort of straddles the midwest and the south. But, you spent much of your adult life in the New England Atlantic coast. Do you find that those geographical, familial, and cultural experiences really fight for attention in your work? Are you more drawn to write about one of those sets of experiences over the other?
VS: Those experiences grate against each other. In particular, living in New Haven, Connecticut with Yale University there is an intense academic, intellectual emphasis which is very different from how I was raised in Kentucky. I think where you were asking about the voice--I grew up with people who were basically no-nonsense people and I was not ever comfortable with people who were artificial or put on airs. If they had a lot of money, where I came from, nobody needed to know about it. I think that’s also where a voice I try to inject, which is a little bit of undercutting myself, trying to keep a bit of a sense of humor about myself.
I wrote this poem about the Elizabethan Club, and how when I go in there it’s the ultimate in academic pretension. I was drawn to write that poem about Red Pollard, who rode Seabiscuit to victory. I read about him in one of those magazines on the airlines, and I was really struck by the kinds of things that he did to stay thin. He’d eat tapeworms, but he was always told that he didn’t have the talent, and the same thing with Seabiscuit. One of the things about my work is that it has come in fashion, and gone out of fashion. I’ve been called plain of speech and ordinary and I guess I am, that’s me. But I think it’s kind of a funny thing that you can’t say things in a plain way, or an ordinary way. So, I think probably the reason that I write or create a comparison is because there’s often comparison between the East and Kentucky, because the cultures are very different.
The one that I grew up with, in Kentucky, was rural with people who were very hard working and no nonsense people. That stayed with me. But, what always grated with me in Kentucky was that I liked to talk. I liked to read, and I grew up around people who didn’t like to talk a lot, and so I was always the talker in the family. And my mother asked me once “Why do you have to think like that?” Well you can’t help how you think! And so I always felt out of step there. But, then I will say that I’ve never felt quite in step in Connecticut, even though I have lived up there forever and ever.
KA: You might be pleased to know, then, that your books Gleanings, When There is No Shore, and Down of Hawk are housed in the Special Appalachian Collection section at the ASU library.
VS: Oh, I didn’t know that! That’s wonderful.
KA: What does it mean to you to identify as an Appalachian writer?
VS: Well, I’m from Kentucky, from a rural background, as you can see from the cover of Perennial: that was my great-great-grandmother, and the cover of Down of Hawk was my father in front of a smokehouse--
KA: James Dean! [laughter]
VS: My daddy was very good looking, and he was, according to my cousins, a real heartthrob of all the neighborhood: Charley Shipley, they just thought he was really something. [laughs] So it’s a part of me, it’s a part of my history, my heritage, and even though I moved up to Connecticut, I went home a lot to Kentucky, and while my parents lived there I went several times a year. I always felt that my heart would stay there, and I think once you get really grounded in a particular place, a formative experience, that stays with you all your life. As you age, you even come back to it more. It’s the kind of food that you like. It’s the kind of voices that you like, the accents you like--when you feel like you’re really home or whatever that might be. And so now, for me, obviously, Connecticut is home: my children and my grandchildren are there. But, I still do like to go back to Kentucky, to my parents graves. I do that once a year to honor them. But, it’s a comfortable thing, and I think that Appalachian people have a directness, they have an honesty to them. They have a decency to them. They are, generally speaking, a lot more helpful to one another than Northeastern people might be, and it may be that there are fewer people and it’s a slower way of life, because almost certainly where we live it’s very crowded and it’s not a slow way of life. But, I think Appalachian people are much more prone to help one another on a regular basis, whereas I think in the Eastern area where I live, that’s more uncommon. People sort of stick to themselves. They come together if there are tragedies. I do think I’ve retained the values--the positive values--of an Appalachian heritage.
KA: So, sort of segueing off of identifying as an Appalachian writer: you’ve been alternately referred to by the literary community as a confessional poet, a poet of family, a poet of nature, and a poet of irony, and I’d like to note that your 2017 craft talk for the Hughlene Bostian Frank Visiting Writers Series at ASU was called “The Poetry of Witness.” So, I wonder if that is how you classify your work, if you even choose to classify your work in one way, and how you might respond to those other classifications that have been sort of bestowed on you by other people?
VS: Well, I think that I’ve gone through a lot in my life, and at one point I wrote a lot about family. I tend to write about whatever’s happening to me at the time. I went through a long period of raising children while teaching full time, and I was always exhausted. I wrote about raising the children and I wrote a lot of poems about frustration, about not being able to have time to write, have time to work, and not having any time to be me. I also wrote a lot of poems about my sons, things that I went through with them.
My older son had a very difficult time during his teenage years, and that was very consuming. I wrote a number of very negative poems about that. Then I went through a period of sort of relative calm after my youngest son went off to college. I was about 50 and that’s when I decided if I was ever going to do something with my work, I better start doing it. So, what I did was a lot of revising, and about that time I also met Sue Walker who is the Editor of Negative Capability Press. She was a professor at University of South Alabama, she really liked my work and wanted to publish another book for me. So, that was a great incentive to start getting a manuscript together and revising. I had so much work that I had written, but never revised or tried to publish. I’d just write it and put it some place. During that period of calm and this is [laughs] a terrible thing to say, but I think people will identify with this, that my most emotional inspiration comes when I’m having difficulty. I tend to want to write about problems that I’m having, so when I’m having peace and happiness, it’s like, “Okay…what will I write about?” [laughter].
So, generally speaking, what I’ve done during those happy times, because I want to keep creating, is I start writing about other people and their lives. I’ve always kept clippings and done research for possible subjects. Something ironic in the situation would draw me to it. For instance, I read, then then wrote a poem about Alcatraz, which had a birthday party [laughs] for the penitentiary and they invited ex-convicts back, and this was all true. They had a big cake made, decorated the cells and guys wore the numbers they had when they were there. [laughter] I thought this was the most ironic thing I’d ever read in my life. So, I wrote a poem about that. I had the ex-con who was coming back be from Kentucky. So that part of it was made up.
Then, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Being a true Kentuckian he had not gone to the doctor for a long time. It was all through his bones. So, I brought my father and my mother from Kentucky, which was probably the hardest thing I ever did because they did not relocate well up to Connecticut, and they stayed at my home with me. So, again, that was a very difficult period physically and emotionally. Again, I continued to work full time. I wrote a whole lot of poems about my parents’ illness and deaths. In 2015 I got the opportunity through Sue Walker to publish Perennial because I was the poet in residence for the Alabama Writers’ Conclave, which is a great conference they have in the summer. So, she wanted me to get a book out in time for it. So, I put it together with all these very serious poems that I had. So, most of those are about the perennial problems of poverty, prejudice, persecution.
Now that I’m dealing with aging I’m trying to write lighter and funnier poems, which I find very difficult to do [laughs]. However, right now what I’m trying to concentrate on is to write poems of witness about what’s going on in the world and incorporating contemporary events that are very terrible, and I try to juxtapose them with other subjects so they can be approached, because they’re so terror provoking and horrible that it’s hard to write about them.
When I wrote The Poet, that was based on the idea that the poet is an imposter. There are some funny poems in the book; me as a surfer chick, me as a hammer thrower, me as a dominatrix, me as a hag moth. Most of them aren’t true, but they were fun and they’re all around the idea of in writing how you don’t quite tell the truth or you change it.
KA: So, that actually perfectly segues into my next question. You spoke during your craft talk about this idea of giving voice to voices that have been silenced by violence or poverty or injustice of some kind, and I may be quoting you a bit off, so correct me if I’ve got this wrong, but I remember you explaining that, in these poems, what you hope to do is “bear witness to the struggles of heart mind and body.” Was there a point when you first decided that that was a goal for your writing?
VS: I have always used myself as a laboratory of my own feelings, and by extension, I hope that if I’m honest enough about how I feel, then I can write something that other people can relate to. A lot of my poems which are fairly honest about feelings and emotions--many people relate to them, and particularly the poems that I’ve written about the loss of my parents. I’ve gotten lots of emails and various forms of correspondence from people that say they were very comforting to them. Also in poems that I wrote about my children, I tended to focus on problems that I had rather than the great joys and pleasures, because one of the things I found in raising children, some people just seemed to have, or said they had, the perfect children--and I didn’t. I always wondered “Why don’t people tell each other the truth about the good parts and the bad parts?” Because that’s much more helpful.
Now, I think more about people who develop terrible illnesses that no one deserves and they’re trapped by the body. You certainly find as you age that your body becomes your coffin in a sense of controlling you, limiting you. Your joints get stiff or they give out or you, that you get tired. The other thing that I’ve tried to write about is getting older, but I don’t like crying in my beer and I don’t like beer anyway, or if I did I wouldn’t be crying in it [laughs]. I want to approach the subject of aging with dignity, and I think people, as they age, want to approach it with dignity. But, the interesting thing I am writing some about also, is that when you get 74, you have a frame on your life that is much much narrower than when you were 50 or when you were 40 or when you were 30. Then, you know that in all likelihood, you may be dead in 10 years. I can remember when I turned 70 my first thought was that I was age appropriate for an obituary [laughter] because when you read obituaries, and people are 70, you think “Well, you know, that’s okay.” If you read someone and they’re 50, you think “Oh my gosh, that’s so young!” Even 60, you think, “That’s pretty young.” As I said, my husband’s 81 and we’ve had a good marriage and so it’s hard not to think about and something happening to him. Your thoughts are framed in a different time frame. So, I think that’s very sobering. But, it’s then the question of how to deal with that without becoming maudlin, overly sentimental. Sentiment is one of the things I fight against tooth and nail in my work because a lot of the subjects that I write about are very emotional. That’s maybe one of the reasons that I’ll establish a funny voice or undercut some of the things that I say, is to keep that sentiment down. I do like to combine, when I can, the heart and the mind together. But I don’t want one overpowering the other. When I’m writing the poetry of witness it’s based on a lot of biographical information, and it’s very difficult incorporating information, statistical details, without becoming a historian or a newspaper reporter.
KA: How do you discover the people whose experiences you choose to write about? I remember you saying in the craft talk that you saw about the Radium Girls in a newspaper article.
VS: It was New Haven Register. I actually read the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, every day, not every page of it but quite a bit of it. I’ll read the papers or The New Yorker, and many other magazines and something appeals to me. I started doing a lot of research and reading about the Radium Girls, and wrote a series of poems about them. I also wrote a new series of poems about the sculptor Camille Claudel, and what I was most struck by was that her mother and her brother put her in the insane asylum and she was there for 30 years and nobody came back and got her when she died. Nobody even bothered to claim her body. I thought that’s just the saddest story. When I started reading more about her, I become more and more intrigued. As I said at the craft talk, in my poem about the statue of Cleopatra. I was intrigued by the history of the statue, because it is hysterically funny. It’s not at all dignified. I like to learn something when I read, whether it’s fiction, essay, or poetry. I like to incorporate details that are concrete, that a reader can come away with. I like that about my work. I hope people learned yesterday about some of these people that they didn’t know about. I think that just preserves their identity.
KA: You’ve sort of touched on this a little bit as we’ve been speaking. But I’m really interested in how humor informs some of your writing. I’m thinking particularly about “What to Do About Sharks” and “Fungus...”
KA: “Yum.” [laughter]. I’ve also read a poem of yours about how Martha Stewart--
VS: “10 Commandments for Snow.”
KA: Yes, “10 Commandments for Snow,” which I thought was just delightful-
VS: ...and that came from a newspaper article.
KA: Did it?
VS: Most of the detail in there is true. That was advice that she had given to people! I’ve always been afraid that I’m going to run into her someplace [laughter]. Because that poem has been so widely published and anthologized. It’s just so wicked; it’s a mean poem.
KA: But, it’s delightful. You know, when you read “Fungus, Yum,” much to the delight of our students in attendance, [laughter] it made me wonder if there was a particular point in your writing career where you felt really drawn to write with this kind of lightheartedness and you mentioned a few minutes ago that it seems to be a more recent development in your work.
VS: Well, most of my work is very serious, and I think the desire to try to write something funnier has come from doing a lot of university readings, and most are with students who are 18, 19, 20 years old. So, I get up and I do 45 minutes of doom and gloom [laughter]. So when I can, I write about something that’s funny, so that I have some poems that are more lighthearted. What I resorted to for a long time is I’d read a really serious poem and then I’d tell a joke and everybody would laugh, juxtaposing these very serious poems with something that was silly. But, I wanted people to lighten up, because nobody wants to sit and be depressed for 45 minutes, which is normally about how long I read. The “Fungus, Yum” poem was really a poem out of sheer anger. But, it’s funny and students relate to it, because it’s about drug use, and some of them have done the same things themselves. My three sons were all partiers, and we had so many issues. I have two houses that are close to each other, there’s a summer house and winter house and they were always having their keg parties wherever we were not staying at the time [laughter]. The word would be out at the highschool, party at Todd’s beach house. We had DUI’s and car wrecks. So, you know, that keeps me in touch with what kids do, and you know that they’re not always telling you the truth.
At my age, one of the most difficult things about reading is that I’m so much older than anybody in the audience. I’m 74. So, I’m 50-some years older than most of my audience of students. How do I relate to them? I often do it by, “Oh, I’m sure you’ve never had anything to drink, but…” and they know I’m being silly. But, it helps establish a relationship. And then, I never try to be younger than I am. Students like people being age appropriate, and they relate to me as they would, I suppose, to their grandmothers.The humor is a deliberate attempt on my part to be entertaining.
KA: Grace Cavalieri said that your poetry is “made up of units of energy” when she interviewed you for the Library of Congress. When you’re writing, do you actively seek to create that energy for your reader? Is that an energy that you experience in the act of writing, and your poetry just perhaps can’t help but resonate with it?
VS: When I write first drafts I just slog through things. First of all, I try to get as much information down as possible, and then I go back--it’s almost like writing an essay in many cases. A lot of my work is long. I will go back and try to organize it. But, initially, I really feel like I’m kind of wading through deep mud or deep water, and then I do a lot of revision. Sometimes I will keep a piece for quite a while and come back to it. But, the energy is there. The energy comes with the revision, and it comes with the cutting down.
I think the energy is something that I try to inject as a lyrical quality with poetic language. I’m very conscious of craft, in particular line ends. I try to break line ends often to pull the reader back around with anticipation. I pay attention to where I stop and how I stop, because very long lines can become very heavy. I think my work is extremely dense, which is one of the reasons that I’ve gotten into dividing things into stanzas. It creates some white space, which I think helps a lot.
KA: Absolutely. This concept of energy really strikes a chord with me in particular. As a working mother of small children, I can really relate to some of what you’ve said about your work. That it’s often been overshadowed by the sort of necessity of family success and survival, and that the struggles of silence and voice permeate so much of your work. How has that experience, as a writer pulled in so many directions, affected your writing process, do you think?
VS: Well, I don’t think I have a writing process, and I think a lot of people do. I mean, I probably should have one. [laughter] But, I really truly have written when I wanted to write. I don’t sit down at any regular time of any day and devote two hours to this or an hour to that. I’ve never really been able to, and I probably could now. But, it’s hard to change habits of a lifetime. I just always have work with me, wherever I go, to read, to work on, to revise. I used to go to a lot of soccer games, basketball games, baseball games, and sit on the sidelines forever. So, I always carry work around. It’s not that there are days off or days on. I’ve been lucky that my job as a university teacher works perfectly with being a writer, and then I was lucky enough for a long time to edit Connecticut Review, which I enjoyed because that’s a wonderful way of giving voice to other people.
When I had children my major responsibility was to raise them well. I’m very happy that I’ve got all the threads of my life together. I’ve been able to keep my job over my lifetime, and have raised my children. I’ve got three wonderful sons. I’ve got lovely grandchildren, a rich life. I’m from a generation of women who quit work. There are very few women my age who worked continuously full time, and so when they try to come back after raising their children and find meaningful jobs, most of them haven’t been able to. As hard as it is just to hang in there when there are children and so many things to do, it’s important to do it. I’ve got a picture on a plaque from my mother of a mother lion who’s hanging onto a tree with her claws, and it says “Hang in there!” [laughter]
KA: Do you have any advice that you could offer writers who, sort of, feel similarly pulled in different directions?
VS: Hang in there. [laughter]
KA: Be the lion! [laughter]
VS: Be the lion. Be the mother lion. [laughter]. I will say that I think what you’ll find in life is that if you do a little bit of something, eventually you get a lot back. So, even if you just do a little bit of writing, maybe you might not be able to finish something completely or whatever. Do a little bit of something, even if you have 15 minutes. Use that time, and eventually it will all add up. And so I’ve certainly followed that rule I do it all, all my own house work, all my own yard work. But, I follow that rule now because I can’t work as long or as hard as I used to. But, I’ll go out and do a little bit, then I’ll rest. Then, I’ll do another little bit, and pretty soon I get a lot done. So, I think that’s advice I’d give to people. Literally, hang in there, and keep a sense of perspective. Look at yourself as kind of a puzzle with several pieces. It’s wonderful to envy someone who’s got no distractions and sits there working peacefully. But, I would find that unbelievably lonely and boring [laughter]. One of the reasons I liked to work at home is that I could write and then I’d get up and do a little bit of housework. So, I’m writing a book, I’m writing a poem, I’m cleaning the floor, quite literally. [laughter] That’s what my life is about.
KA: I’d like to shift gears a bit, if that’s ok, and talk about your newest work. Your collection, An Archaeology of Days, due out next year by Negative Capability Press, opens with "Cargo," a poem that takes something as innocuous as an injured bird and creates an unexpected connection to the desperate plight of illegal immigrants to the US. The poem references the incident in Texas where a truck driver's cargo of illegal immigrants, dehydrated and dying in the back of his truck, were discovered in a Walmart parking lot in July of last year. What prompted this poem? How did you know you had to tell that story? And why was this the poem that needed to open your new book?
VS: Many of the poems in Archaeology of Days, focus on problems of current society, many of which involve human suffering, like “Cargo,” which won the 2017-18 Steve Kowit Poetry Prize. I opened my new book with this poem because it unites my personal experience with a national event, much like other poems in the four sections of the collection do. Many of these bear witness to struggles of the heart, the mind, the body ensnared by powers that can’t be understood or controlled. “Cargo” is based on a personal experience I had two years before, in July 2017, when a Texas truck driver knowingly allowed illegal immigrants to die in the back of his truck. From a window overlooking Long Island Sound by the desk where I write, I had watched a plover with a broken wing struggle on the rocks. I closed the blind to physically shut out the sight but I continued to think about the bird who stayed there for two days. However, I did nothing to help the plover except not allow my dog to go after it. I wanted to write about the experience but did not until I read about the horrible deaths of immigrants in Texas. Although a bird and human beings cannot be compared, I realized that I was capable of the same insensitivity to suffering that the truck driver exhibited. In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn provides insight into evil: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” When I write I attempt to incorporate the ideas of tenor and vehicle first discussed by I. A. Richards in The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1936). Both are the parts of metaphor, which I try to achieve but often find I have either the tenor or the vehicle but not both. Even if I have to wait several years as I did in writing “Cargo,” when they come together as they did with the wounded plover and the Texas truck driver, I can write the poem. In another poem in Archaeology which utilizes actual personal experience, “Pagurus bernhardus, the Hermit Crab,” the tenor is the question of where the bestiality present in humans that is creating such unspeakable violence originates. The vehicle is my grandsons who are burying hermit crabs alive in dry sand, showing that brutality is inherent in young children. This metaphor was easy for me to create because it actually happened.
KA: "How much time he gains who does not look to see what his neighbor says or does" was first published in CMR's spring 2018 issue, and also appears in your new collection. The poem's commentary on the value of nonnative presence and the global nature of experience is focused on sunflowers, but clearly reaches beyond horticulture to tap on the shoulder of our current social climate. How do you see the role of poets and writers in this era of sociopolitical unrest? What obligations do you think the creative community has to respond to injustice or inequality in our culture?
VS: Poets must respond to injustice and inequality in our society if only to document it. My interest in social justice is long standing and was first aroused by my study for my PhD from Vanderbilt University in Victorian Literature. The gap between rich and poor and the inequality that it creates was as enormous then as it is today. The desperation of poor Victorians was portrayed by poets like Alfred Lord Tennyson and the novelist Charles Dickens. Shaped by their strong social conscience, my career goal has been to write poems that recalibrate social fact to create characters contemporary people can relate to in order to dramatize the impact of poverty, racism, sexual violence and the brutality that permeates our world because of world wide warfare. Today, poets must write to counter the constant media coverage of violence that numbs the modern world with daily statistics of people killed in by bombs dropped from drones, suicide bombings, and other acts of unspeakable violence. In a recent 2018 LOC speech, Tracy K. Smith, Poet Laureate of the U.S., said, “We have to turn down the volume on sources seeking to sell us an unmendable divide.” Trying to commit the deadliest mass shooting by a single gunman in U.S. history, Omar Mateen interrupted the massacres at the Pulse Nightclub, June 12, 2016 in Orlando, FL, to check his media coverage. Terrorists won’t be tamed, injustice won’t be eliminated, but poets cannot allow the world to look away from atrocities like the November 5, 2017 slaughter by Devin Kelley of 26 people worshipping in a Texas First Baptist Church or Stephen Paddock who massacred 58 people on October 1, 2017 at a Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas. The challenge in writing poetry of witness is to keep the individual voice from becoming a statistic.
KA: That concept of individual voice brings to my mind how your work often moves very fluidly between deeply personal family themes, historical investigation, and commentary on social issues. In An Archaeology of Days, the series of poems that speak in the voice of Adolph Hitler's sister Paula, weaves all of this together in an unrelenting narrative about a sister's heartbreak. How did you come across this family history? Did it feel especially important to write about it now, as we're being repeatedly struck by a cultural revisit to the white supremacist history? What do you hope a reader will walk away from that narrative feeling or thinking?
VS: I wrote the series about Paula Hitler after reading “Hitler’s Lost Family” in The New Yorker (July 17, 2000) by Timothy W. Ryback. I then did online research and discovered the U.S. Government report entitled “Interrogation of Frau Paula Wolff (Frl. Paula Hitler)” about her meeting on July 12, 1945 by George Allen for the U.S. Army that I describe in the poem. I started thinking how horrible it would have been to be Adolph Hitler’s sister and how sad it was that even though he was the epitome of unimaginable evil, she still yearned for his love and attention, which he never gave to her. I often think of the relatives of current mass murderers. Adam Lanza who committed the massacre of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 in Newtown, CT, killed his mother before he went on his deadly shooting spree. At least she did not live to know how her son slaughtered 22 children, or live with the lasting grief her son caused for their families. However, the reason I was drawn to the story of Paula Hitler was that I, too, yearned for the love and attention of my sister and I was not comfortable writing about it directly in a poem. So, I projected my feelings into the voice of Paula Hitler. While much of the day to day detail about her in the series is, of course, fictional the biographical detail is accurate. For instance, the reference in section VI to Goebbel’s little daughter is based on a photograph in Ryback’s article of Eva Braun holding the little girl whose hair was topped with a white satin bow shaped like a swastika. The emotion that Paula expresses is based on my own realization of how complex the relationship with a sibling is.
KA: Thank you, thank you so much for spending this time with me. I have really enjoyed it.
VS: You’re very welcome.