3 Questions and a Poem–in which one of my favorite poets is interviewed and shares a poem.
What do you consider the three most important elements of a poem?
A poem must have a sense of urgency, an irrefutable tension. As both a poet and an editor, I am endlessly curious about how poems invite us into their spaces. However, it is not just about the invitation—once a poem extends a hand it has to be compelling. It needs to take off its cloak—whether that is in the seduction of a strip tease, a flamboyant reveal, or a quiet unbuttoning. A reader needs to feel the urge to get up and dance with the poem, to read it out loud, to feel it resonate through their own voice and body. The best poems are ones where I have dropped everything to call friends and read them over the phone. To create that kind of energy from words, to be that mesmerized by beauty—that is where it is at. And then, to return to those poems again and again—poems become family, lovers, mentors. To call on Ben Okri here: “Poets want nothing from you, only that you listen to your deepest selves…to honor the original pact you made with the universe when you drew your first breath from the unseen magic in the air.”
James Dickey was fond of saying poets don’t write the truth; they make the truth. John Ashbery says: “I write with experiences in mind, but I don’t write about them, I write out of them.” And Jane Hirshfield: “…to make a poem is a way to experience life with greater intensity, authenticity, depth—a saturation of both emotion and intellect…a poem expands the vocabulary of existence.”
I am not interested if a poem is “true” in the sense that it actually happened that way. We tend to read the “I” in poetry as the speaker, when often the “I” can be purely fictional. In fact, there is freedom in that, and it allows for voice and persona to take on layers that the poet may initially resist. It also encourages poems to come through, for the poet to be a conduit for other voices, to tell stories that may have gone untold. I think specifically just now of Sean Hill’s “Haints, 1918,” among many others. As I often tell my students, if the car in the poem was red “in real life” but a yellow car works better for the image, be unafraid to change the detail.
To elaborate—I have been working on a poem that mentions a finger tattoo I spied on a recent flight. The design I originally saw was of three baseless triangles, pointing toward the finger’s tip. However, as I’ve continued to edit the poem, the three upside down V’s became an arrow, and the poem—quite literally—took me in directions I could not have anticipated, pointing me toward lines that would not have been there otherwise. Listen for what the poem tells you; it knows far better than we think we do.
I cannot stress this enough. Conscientious, attentive relationship to craft launches the poem into vibrational buoyancy. Nothing is more gutting than experiencing a poem chock full of killer images and deft metaphors only to have it clamor down because of lack of craft. Craft is the life blood in the sentience of the poem—line breaks, enjambment, punctuation, repetition, title, stanza breaks, caesura—I could go on and on.
It may be controversial to say but I will: there is so much verse out there that claims to be poetry, simply because of how it appears on the page. When we break verse apart from a craft perspective—when we really get intimate with enjambment, em dashes, line lengths—we see it is not poetry at all, but rather merely a series of—perhaps—pithy observations. And this alone does not a poem make. It may still be captivating, searing, apropos, but that does not make it a poem. Just as someone who snaps a visual image on an iPhone is not a photographer—a term we use far too recklessly, incidentally; there is such a necessity of mastery in truly being a photographer—observational verse with line breaks is not necessarily poetry.
What’s your best advice for writing poetry?
Confession: I disdain unsolicited advice—there is far too much of it—but as this is an invitation, it is my joy to offer a few observations:
Read, read, read. And do not just read poetry, but read wherever your curiosity takes you. Go spelunking in the library—with actual books, not screens—we do not do enough of this. Go on a search for something that interests you—say the history of the Ruben’s Tube—look it up; you will not regret it—and read the books beside it too. Look up words you do not know, concepts you do not understand. Be in a sense of wonder and awe. Break out of your habits. Treat the composition of poems as a dynamic process—use your entire body in it. Move around the room as you read the poems aloud, as you feel them move through you. Connect to them energetically. Listen to what they have to offer versus trying to tell them what to do. Rewrite poems from end to beginning just to see where they take you. Hang poem drafts on the wall. Cut up poems with scissors and rearrange them. Give yourself poem challenges and prompts. Do not write for publication, but for the joy of exploration. Impractical as that may seem, writing for the essence of the poem is where you find the authentic lifeforce of it.
What’s the one poem that everyone should read today?
I will change my answer every five minutes but on this day, at this hour, I will share three:
- The first is one I return to again and again, from my ever teacher, James Dickey:
James Dickey’s “The Strength of Fields”
- The second is one I have recently fallen in love with, thanks to Dorianne Laux. Incidentally, this is one of those poems that made me call friends and read it aloud to them because I was so gobsmacked by it:
Lynn Emanuel “Frying Trout While Drunk”
- and, since I always like to include a poem not online, “Tiny Siren” from Stag’s Leap
Tiny Siren Sharon Olds And had it been a year since I had stood, looking down, into the Whirlpool in the laundry nook of our August rental, not sure what I was seeing—it looked like a girl brought up in a net with fish. It was a miniature woman, in a bathing suit, lying back after the spin cycle— the photograph of a woman, slightly shaped over the contours of a damp towel. I drew it out—radiant square from some other world—maybe the daughter of the owners of the house. And yet it looked like someone we knew—I said, to my husband, This was in with the sheets and towels. Good heavens, he said. Where?! In with the sheets and your running shorts. Doesn’t it look like your colleague? We gazed at the smile and the older shapely body in its gleaming rainbow sheath—surprise trout of wash-day. An hour later, he found me, and told me she had given him the picture the day that they went running together when I was away, he must have slipped it in his pocket, he was so shocked to see it again, he did not know what to say. In a novel, I said, this would be when the wife should worry—is there even the slightest reason to worry. He smiled at me, and took my hand, and turned to me, and said, it seemed not by rote, but as if it were a physical law of the earth, I love you. And we made love, and I felt so close to him—I had not known he knew how to lie, and his telling me touched my heart. Just once, later in the day, I felt a touch seasick, as if a deck were tilting under me— a run he’d taken, not mentioned in our home, a fisher of men in the washing machine. Just for a few minutes I had felt a little nervous.
& a POEM
When the Leaves Come to Hide Me in Late Spring I Climb by Julie E Bloemeke By then, song cured, I am curled under ripe petals. Saucer magnolia, a tree whose flowers bloomed my mouth. High up in the gospel branches I open before the words collapse onto paper. Now you know damn well I went to sky. Lord, yes I did. Scaped my body up good to get as tall as climb allowed, past shouts of get your ass down you’ll break your neck. But see my hands rise straight up through the leaves, until they have grabbed the light by its beam. Know my hair, askew as an urchin’s, and my heart, blistered open in spring’s sudden heat. I claim the words from the deep end of my throat, they language sear. They scar and play in my mouth, my holy ravenous mouth that only wants to be heard but cannot reconcile ears. I am star bait, coming down not for night, but only for hunger, an anger which takes me from my bliss. Too much need, the body sometimes. I never fall. I never break a thing. But still the neighbors will argue there was a cast, a fracture, still they will say I am forbidden. And still, fruit heavy, I climb, back up to sit beyond their sight, tune in as they whisper hisses about the girl I was supposed to be, my white socks bloodied with mud, my shirt off, my chest bared to the sun, Listen, the petals say— Girl, you always knew. First publication: Body Language issue of Nimrod, Spring/Summer 2023, Vol 66, No. 2
Summary of Slide to Unlock (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2020): (A 2021 Book All Georgians Should Read and the 2021 Poetry Finalist for Georgia Author of the Year)
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jericho Brown has called Julie E. Bloemeke’s debut collection “a kind of philosophical love poetry” in which the poet has “located in the body the satisfactions of the mind.” Seductive in its exploration of telephone and screen culture, Slide to Unlock is an unflinching examination of our love affair with tech language, a pointed unraveling of our perceptions of intimacy in an ever-evolving digital landscape. Drawing on place as anchor and point of departure—from Toledo, Ohio, to Paris and Venice—Bloemeke’s poetry is both ruthless and tender, an offering and a confrontation, which the poet Jane Hirshfield has praised as “utterly dazzling.”
Summary of Let Me Say This: A Dolly Parton Poetry Anthology (Madville Publishing, 2023):
Let Me Say This: A Dolly Parton Poetry Anthology offers 54 poets’ takes on often-unsung facets of this diamond in a rhinestone world—calling in Dolly’s impeccable comedic timing, her lyric mastery, her business acumen, and her Dollyverse advocacy. These poems remind us to be better and to do better, to subvert Dolly cliché, and they encourage us to weave Dolly metaphor into our own family lore. Within these pages, Dolly takes the stage and the dinner table; readers see the public Dolly of the silver screen and the private Dolly of identity contemplation. Dolly raises praise and question, and butterflies into our hearts unabashedly to claim the mantra In Dolly We Trust.
About the Author
Julie E. Bloemeke’s (she/her/hers) first full-length collection of poetry, Slide to Unlock, debuted with Sibling Rivalry Press in March 2020. In 2021, Slide to Unlock was chosen as one of two full-length poetry collections statewide as a Book All Georgians Should Read.
She is currently an Associate Editor for South Carolina Review and co-edited a tribute issue of Limp Wrist for Dolly Parton’s 75th birthday in January 2021. Along with Dustin Brookshire, she is the co-editor of Let Me Say This: A Dolly Parton Poetry Anthology, which debuts with Madville Publishing on Dolly’s 77th birthday, January 19, 2023.
As a teacher of online poetry workshops, she has worked with such organizations as The Hudson Valley Writer’s Workshop, Reading Queer, The Wild and Precious Life Poetry Series, and The Ranch in Tiburon, California. Please visit the Workshops tab on her website for more information or to apply.
She is a proud native of Toledo, Ohio.
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