Friday, January 23, 2009
Spotlight Interview: Poet Barbara Crooker
To say that Barbara Crooker is a prolific, widely lauded poet is a considerable understatement. Ms. Crooker has published over 600 poems in such respected publications as Yankee and The Christian Science Monitor, anthologies such as Worlds in their Words: An Anthology of Contemporary American Women Writers, and 10 college textbooks. Her first full-length book, Radiance (2005), won the Word Press First Book Award and was a finalist for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize. Line Dance, her second collection, was published in January 2008. She’s the recipient of the 2006 Ekphrastic Poetry Award from Rosebud, the 2004 WB Yeats Society of New York Award, the 2004 Pennsylvania Center for the Book Poetry in Public Places Poster Competition, and the 2003 Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award; plus, she’s been nominated for a Grammy Award (1997), and an incredible 26 times for the Pushcart Prize.
One critic once wrote of Crooker that she “writes largely about the concerns of ordinary life: raising children, planting a garden, mowing the lawn. She feels that in her work, the word ‘I’ in a poem is not a product of the imagination, but rather, comes from real experiences. All of her writing exemplifies this ideal. She strives to make her poems true to events in her life, while allowing them to live on the page independently, as lasting acts of language.” And of Radiance, famed humorist Garrison Keillor wrote: “(It’s) a pleasure to read, straight through, for its humor and intelligence and for the sheer bravery of sentiment. It dares to show deep feeling, unguarded by irony. It’s a straight-ahead passionate book by a mature poet and rather suddenly I’ve become a fan.”
To find out more about her life and poetry, please visit her Web site at:
Here is my exclusive interview with Ms. Crooker:
Mike: I know that you took up writing fairly late in life. How did you get started?
Crooker: I was in my late 20’s. I had taken one creative writing class as an undergraduate, but now was a single mother with a small child, and going through a divorce. One day, I picked up a copy of a little magazine from Mansfield State Teachers College in northern Pennsylvania that had some poetry in it, and it blew me away. These poems were written by Diane Wakoski, whom I thought, in my ignorance, was an undergraduate there. I was fascinated both by her and her words: How did she do that? How did she say so much in so few words? Perhaps if I'd realized she was a famous writer, I’d have been intimidated, but I read her work over and over, trying to figure out how she got from point A to point B, and then I thought to myself, “Well, maybe I could do something like that.” So I wrote a couple of poems which pleased me when they were done. And then I kept on writing, one poem following another for about a year, when I met my second and current husband. When we decided to get married, he asked me if I would like to go to a summer writing conference or get an engagement ring. I chose the conference.
I had already published a few poems at that point, but I was a seeker, I wanted to know how to get better, and I also wanted to study with one of the writers there, someone who shall remain nameless. I was ready to begin learning about craft. It turned out that this nameless writer was there for a vacation, and only wanted to socialize. In the workshop itself, there was very little critical attention; in fact, the rule was that writers could read their work aloud to one another for appreciation, but there was not to be any feedback. Which wasn’t very useful.
Another writer at the conference, an accomplished fiction writer named Asa Baber, knew how disappointed I was to not have my manuscript critiqued, so he said, “Why don’t you give it to me and I’ll take a look at it?” After he had given it some thought, we sat under a tree and talked. He said, “I’m afraid I can tell you aren’t reading anybody contemporary. I don’t want to discourage you, because you’ve done some interesting things here. But what you really need to be doing is reading what’s being written today.” Boy, was he right. I had lots of influences, like Yeats, Hopkins, Dickinson, people from the past, but I didn’t know much at all about what was being currently written.
The class I took in Contemporary American Literature only included Dead White Men. What he said was, “Keep going, but throw away what you’ve written, and start doing a lot of reading.” He was very kind, and somehow, I wasn’t crushed. It was the best advice I could have gotten. I had no idea what was out there in magazines of the mid1970’s, so it was a real eye-opener. It was as if I’d just stumbled through the underbrush onto a path that wasn’t really clear, but I was going to walk on it anyway.
Mike: Did you publish right away?
Crooker: Yes, I did. But I didn’t know what I was doing. You can publish work that isn’t very good. Publishing your work isn’t necessarily a sign that you’ve arrived. There’s a hierarchy to these magazines.
Mike: Was there anything unusual about your childhood that led to you being a writer?
Crooker: I did a heckuva lot of reading. I was one of those kids with my nose in a book all the time. Even when I was sent outside to play, to “get some fresh air,” I’d slip a book under my shirt and shinny up a tree so I could keep on reading. I grew up in a family that loved books.
Mike: What time of day do you mostly write?
Crooker: Are you kidding? I write all the time—scrawl in a small notebook, jot things on napkins, and the like.
In the context of real life, life with children (two daughters and one son), there were years when I only wrote during naptime or nursery school.
I’m at my desk between 12:30-3:30 PM (which is metaphoric; I don't have a real writing desk, or a “room of my own,” just a corner of the dining room). In the beginning of the process, I write in longhand with a pen (a black-ink roller ball—it has to be black), on a lined, yellow pad.
I start out in longhand drafts because I want the physical connection, from the mind to the hand to the page. At some point, five, six, seven drafts into a poem, I get eager to see how the lines are falling, so I go to the computer and do another oh, 10-20 drafts or so there.
But my best place to write is away from home, at an artist’s colony called the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Here, for 8-10 days, I can stop being a “mom,” get up early, write all day and into the night, between 10-15 hours a day. Now, some of this “writing” time is spent reading, walking, thinking…This is my idea of heaven, and if left to my own devices, if I had no other responsibilities, (but who has no responsibilities?) this is what I would do.
Mike: Is writing hard for you?
Mike: Do you pain over every word?
Crooker: It’s pains-taking work, but not painful. This isn’t agony for me; it’s a search. If certain words aren’t right and I think the poem is three-quarters of the way finished, it can drive me nuts. What I’ll do then is put it away and not look at it for awhile. Let the subconscious do its thing. It’s amazing that I then look at the same piece again later, with fresh eyes, and suddenly see exactly what’s wrong with it. The word I needed comes floating up out of nowhere. But if I were trying to work on it every day and worrying it to death, the solution would resist me.
I try to trust the inner music of the poem, and if it wants to have long lines, or short ones, so be it. Because I’m writing on paper first, I try to not, as much as possible, impose my will on things when I'm in the early draft stages, and I don't fool around with line lengths until I move to working on the computer. Then there's a shapeliness I aim for. I don't like to have a bunch of short lines and then suddenly a very long one, unless I'm trying to do that for a particular effect.
Mike: How long does a poem take you to write on average?
Crooker: There is no such thing as an average time for me—they’re all different, with different time frames.
I know I have poems that I’ve worked on for 5-10 years, simply because I knew there was something I wanted to write about, but didn’t know how to find the way in.
Sometimes, long first drafts turn into two or three separate poems.
And there are also a handful of poems that simply came out fully done and don’t get revised one bit. They wrote themselves. We call those “gifts.”
I’m still open to revising everything, even things that have been published several times. If something occurs to me that’s not quite right about a poem, I’ll change it and keep changing it, until it clicks.
I once went to hear Donald Hall read from his collected works, and as he was reading, he started scribbling in the margin of his book. When the Q&A time came, someone asked him what he was doing, and he said, “I heard a clunker there. I’m going to work on that one some more.”
Mike: That’s a poet’s mentality, isn’t it?
Crooker: It definitely is.
Mike: How can you tell when a poem is done?
Crooker: Paul Valéry, the French author, said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
Mike: Yet you’re so prolific.
Crooker: No, I’m not prolific, just old. I’ve been writing for over thirty years. It might seem like I have a lot of poems, but that’s simply the weight of all.
Mike: Do you outline at all?
Crooker: No, I don’t. I never know where a poem is going. Robert Frost said: “If you think you know where it’s going, then start there.”
Mike: Where do your ideas come from?
Crooker: Everywhere. I write about what engages me, for whatever weird or quirky reason.
Mike: Are you a trained writer or did you train yourself?
Crooker: Both. I was an English major and art history minor in college, then got a master’s in English Literature. That’s one sort of training. But I don’t have an MFA, or a mentor. I’m “outside the loop,” self-taught, an autodidact.
Mike: Do you write anything other than poetry?
Crooker: Poetry is all I really want to write. I’ve recently done some essays about poetry, and I’ve written twenty or so reviews of books of poetry in the past year.
Mike: When you go back to your early poetry, what’s different about it?
Crooker: In some ways, believe it or not, there’s not a whole lot of difference. My voice showed up right from the beginning. In other ways, though, I know how to do more things now with the material, because of what I’ve learned about the craft. I think my current work has deepened, has more layers and nuances. I’m purposely trying to have 2-3 threads going in a single poem that somehow come back together at the end. Sometimes this works, sometimes it fails, but every day that’s spent with some desk time is a good one.
Mike: In the workshops you conduct, what are the biggest problems you encounter with beginning poets?
Crooker: Especially with the younger ones, it’s very dark and full of angst, or all about love, with too much abstraction— the curse of the beginning poet. There’s nothing concrete—no specific images—that helps you enter their world.
Abstractions are a nice, cozy way to hide behind your feelings. As a teacher, I find that my hardest task is to get people to leap from using abstractions to concrete imagery.
Another way of putting this is “telling, not showing.” Beginning poets want to tell you exactly how to feel. They want to give you the punch line ahead of time. The more serious writer wants to show you things, have a dialogue with the reader that says: “Hopefully, you’ll feel the same thing I feel. But only if I choose the right details.”
Also, when you write for public consumption, you need to have an audience in mind. Poetry is a form of communication, not navel-gazing. You have to imagine who your audience is and how to reach them.
Mike: What is your teaching philosophy?
Crooker: I want people to write about what they’re doing in their real lives, what they’re going through. I don’t want mere decoration, but honest sentences, sensory images.
And let go of control; “let that pony run,” to quote Paul Simon. Allow the poem be what it wants to be. Be funny, if it wants to be funny; be serious, if that’s where it’s going.
One way to approach this as an exercise, is to spend 20 minutes just writing. If you run out of words, keep writing anyway. Then go back and look for the good stuff. Later, when you have the gist of your poem, work on crafting it. Ask yourself: How many adjectives can I get rid of? All the power in your work comes from nouns and verbs, just like it does in other kinds of writing. And get rid of clichés.
The difference between a real writer and an amateur is you have to throw some stuff out. You can’t fall in love with every word. Hemingway once said: “What is left out is often as important as what is left in.” Less is more. Use the fewest words possible to give us the most experience.
My method of composition, if I could be said to have one, is this: I find something I want to write about, then write down as much material as I can, all sorts of things, most of it garbage. I call this “taking notes.” Once I begin to find, in this mess, some lines, some music, something to start making a pattern with, then I try to take the best line, and use what I’ve written above to work from. Then I chip, chip away. So first I amass a quantity of work, then I get rid of most it. I think of myself as a sculptor, using words instead of clay.
Other times, a line or even a word comes to me, and I start writing, following the thread, with no idea at all where it’s leading. I look at some poems I’ve written, and am surprised that I wrote them.
Mike: How did you come to having your first book of poetry being published?
Crooker: Just about the only route for a poet trying to break in to book-length print is to enter one of the contests that are in Poets & Writers. For 15 years, I entered between 15-20 contests a year. They’re both expensive and time consuming, and the odds against winning are enormous. Each contest of any decent reputation draws between 800-1000 manuscripts of between 60-80 pages each. In the end, there’s only one winner. You not only have to be lucky, but be lucky twice: first, you need to get through the screeners to the famous-writer judge. Then you need to have the right famous-writer judge, the one who loves your work above all others.
I was a finalist, semi-finalist, runner-up many times, but then sometimes, I was screened out completely. I started to think, “Is this book going to be posthumous?” And then, one day, it happened, I found out that I had won the 2005 Word Press First Book Award, and Radiance was born. By the way, it was then one of seven finalists for the 2006 Paterson Poetry Prize, a contest for best poetry book of those published in 2005.
Mike: Can you talk about that book? What does the title mean?
Crooker: The title poem (which was chosen as the 2004 WB Yeats Society of NY winner by Grace Schulman, pinch me) was based on a golden and glowing Hudson River School painting, so that's partly why I picked this as the title. But radiance can also be read metaphorically, as God or God’s love, or literally, as light, which is present in most of the poems. I have dark poems in the collection as well, including one about a friend who died from breast cancer, several about my son and autism, my mother’s declining health, the stillbirth of my first child. To make art, you need contrast, shadow and light.
Our lives are fleeting, everything goes by so fast, and we don’t take time to reflect. Poetry should make us all stop in our tracks, look at what’s around us, think about the world that we can’t touch or see.
Mike: What are some of the themes your poems explore?
Crooker: Family, home, and garden; aging and the body, especially that of a middle-age woman; my son with autism and the inadequacies of language; love in a long term relationship; the radiant natural world around us; art and painting (ekphrastic poems); the objects of ordinary life.
Mike: Are all your poems autobiographical?
Crooker: To an extent. I think an audience would feel cheated, for example, if I wrote about my stillborn daughter, but hadn’t gone through that experience. Charlie Parker said, “If you ain’t lived it, it won’t come out your horn.” I try to be true to the basic facts, making it as real as I can, then I might take some liberties with the details.
Mike: You seem to have had a tough life.
Crooker: Not a tough life, but I’ve had more than my share of sorrow. On the flip side, I’m in a very happy second marriage (we had our 31st anniversary this past July). Because of my husband’s job, we’ve had multiple trips to France (I call that my “third” life, besides my colony life, and my life as a mom). And we have two wonderful daughters, a very nice son, despite his deficits, and the world’s most adorable grandson. So, overall, I’d say that my life is very, very good.
And there are the intangibles that writing has brought me, including many wonderful friends in writing, opportunities to travel, and things like dinner with the late Arthur Miller (we were both speaking at a conference; I had, of course, one of the minor slots, while he was the featured evening keynote reader). They had a pre-event dinner where all the presenters mingled; Mr. Miller took my arm and asked if I’d sit next to him. I still get goose bumps thinking about that.
Then there’s the amazing exposure I’ve had being on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer's Almanac. He’s featured me eleven times, and to have him showcase my work like that has been wonderful. It actually brought me fan mail, which, I assure you, never happened, when I appeared in, say, Nimrod or Karamu (two highly respected, but unknown to the general public, magazines)—I would be hard pressed to put a dollar value on any of these things.
Mike: Talking about dollars, making decent money is a difficult endeavor for a poet, is it not?
Crooker: Money? It’s pathetic. You can’t do this for money, only for the love of it.
For one poem that won a national contest, I made $1,000, which is about the best that you can do. I’ve also won three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships in Literature awards, which paid between $2000- $5000 each.
As a poet, you don’t become famous (famous poet is an oxymoron) or well paid, unless you’re maybe Maya Angelou. In some ways, though, we’re the purest of artists since we’re not tainted in the least by the marketplace.
Mike: Who are some of your favorite living contemporary poets?
Crooker: In no particular order: Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, Harry Humes, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Charles Wright, Christopher Buckley, Dorianne Laux, Maggie Anderson, Len Roberts, Linda Pastan, Maxine Kumin, Billy Collins, Stephen Dunn, Stephen Dobyns, Marilyn Hacker, Jonathan Holden, Fleda Brown, Jeanne Murray Walker, Scott Cairns, Mark Jarman, Mark Doty, Alicia Ostriker, Philip Levine, David Citino, Ted Kooser, Ron Wallace.
I love the work of all these people, and I’d advise, even urge new writers to read them. All have had some influence on my work, and I look for their work in magazines, and buy their new books when they come out.
Mike: What do you think of slam poetry?
Crooker: Not much. It’s the difference between surface and depth. I think there’s a lot of energy in it, but it’s more performance art than anything else, and this kind of poetry doesn’t usually read well on the page.
I do think, though, that there’s a place for it. It’s attracted many young people to the art of loving words and putting them together. And that’s a good thing. And when you really reach an audience, that’s another good thing.
Mike: How about haiku?
Crooker: I’m not wild about it. It works well as an exercise, as it teaches compression. But it’s not something that appeals to me. There’s only just so much you can do with the form. It’s not easy to publish them, either, as only haiku journals are interested this kind of writing.
Mike: What’s the best way to improve at writing poetry?
Crooker: One way, especially as a beginning poet, is to never be satisfied with that first draft. Writing poetry is not putting down whatever comes into your head, and leaving it at that, never taking it any further. Poetry involves layers, and a lot of revision. But I think it all goes back to reading. If you want to be writing good 21st century poetry, then you should be reading everyone who’s good right now.
And you should go to as many poetry readings as you can. There’s nothing like hearing live poetry. There are also many summer workshops and conferences all over the country you can attend.
Mike: Give me a good poetry prompt.
Crooker: Take a line from a poem— anybody’s poem—and use that line to get started with a poem of your own. (Don’t forget to credit that line in an epigraph.)
Mike: What writing books would you recommend?
Crooker: Here are a few: Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott, Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write by Gayle Brandeis, and Poemcrazy by Susan Goldsmith.
I came to these, however, after writing for a long time, but they’ve been useful to me as teaching guides.
Mike: And poetry sites you suggest?
Crooker: Here are three:
• Poetry Daily at:
• Verse Daily at
• The Writer’s Almanac at:
I read the Poem of the Day at these places every day.
Mike: Every day?
Crooker: Oh, gosh, yes, every single day.
Mike: You do this to learn?
My ideas of what poetry can do are always being expanded.
If you aren’t willing to learn, or willing to read, then you’ll never be anything more than an eager amateur.
Mike: What do people need to understand about writing poetry?
Crooker: Language is a tool that we all have, but if you want to write poetry, you have to be a reader of poetry. So you should be reading widely and deeply, all kinds of work, to measure what you’re doing against the best writers out there.
Crooker: You need patience and persistence, often (or usually) in the face of a daunting number of rejections. Remember that 15-year odyssey I went through to get my first book published.
I liken the whole submission/rejection thing to a bizarre form of tennis: You hit the ball (your envelope) out, it comes right back atcha (the SASE), and you keep on volleying, hitting it back out again.
My all-time record for a single poem was sending it out over 50 times in over 10 years. It ultimately won a prize from The Atlanta Review, and it’s one of the prefatory poems in Common Wealth: Contemporary Writers Look at Pennsylvania (PSU Press).
In the autism community, we try to extinguish “preservative repetitive behavior,” but in the world of writing, it can serve you well.
Mike: Were there times you wanted to give up on a particular poem?
Crooker: There are many times I HAVE given up on a poem. Not everything you write is savable/publishable.
Mike: What's the hardest thing about writing poetry?
Crooker: Getting it right. Making the poem in your head live up to the poem on the page.
Mike: Did you ever regret becoming a poet and not a fiction writer? If nothing else, the money would come easier as a fiction writer.
Crooker: Money means very little to me, so that part's not an issue. There have been times when I've wished I wrote fiction because it's more publishable, but now that I'm writing reviews of poetry books, for which there really is a need, it doesn't give me nearly the pleasure that writing a poem does. Nor is it as satisfying when one is accepted. I guess I've got one life to live and one genre in which to write.
Mike: Could you imagine a life without writing?
Crooker: No. At this point, it would seem to me like a life without breathing. It’s not like I’m putting words on a page every day. I have times when things don’t come out very well, or there’s nothing I want to write about. And some poems are simply Dead on Arrival, don’t ever get off the ground, or get up and dance. You have to develop a sense of not only what’s good and bad in other people’s work, but also what’s good and bad in your own work.