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Barbara Crooker: I tried to have each poem connect to the one next to it

May 18, 2009 by · No comments

Katerina Stoykova-Klemer’s interview with poet Barbara Crooker

Barbara Crooker is the author of more than 625 poems published in over 1925 anthologies, books, and magazines. She is the recipient of numerous literary awards, such as the 2007 Pen and Brush Poetry Prize.

A twenty-six time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, she was nominated for the 1997 Grammy Awards for her part in the audio version of the popular anthology, Grow Old Along With Me–The Best is Yet to Be.

Garrison Keillor has read fifteen of her poems on The Writer’s Almanac, National Public Radio.

She is the author of ten chapbooks, two of which won prizes in national competitions. Radiance, her first full-length book, won the 2005 Word Press First Book competition. Line Dance, her second book, is newly out from Word.

Congratulations on your new book, Line Dance. Please tell us a little bit about it.

Thank you. It’s a challenge putting together a poetry collection, rather like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle, only you don’t know what it’s supposed to look like in the end. I started working on Line Dance at an artists’ colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA), in Amherst, VA, where I had space to work (at home, I don’t have a studio, just a corner of the dining room, so I have to pack up every night).

I pulled out my strongest poems, looking to see what relationship they had with each other, and what themes I had going. I identified four themes, and first thought I’d put each of them in a section. But a friend who saw the manuscript found that was too blockish, too much like a square dance, not the line dance that I intended. So I had to do something else.

Then I fell in love with a painting by Barbara Schaff, a line of nests done in oil stick, when I was at the VCCA. I wanted the poem, “Line Dance,” which stems from a photograph taken at my oldest daughter’s wedding, to be the title poem, so I came up with this construction: first, I wove the themes together, like a bird making a nest.

Then, I tried to have each poem connect to the one next to it, like the people who are holding hands and dancing in the poem. This made it a double helix, and I nearly drove myself mad, but in the end, I like the way it turned out.

I also tried to have an arc, with darker and colder poems first, and poems with more light in them coming later. Robert Frost said that if there were 25 poems in a book, than the 26th poem is the book itself, and I have tried to follow that dictum. . . .

Could you describe some of the themes at work in your new book?

The four themes I mentioned above are line, breath, dance, and song, but I also have poems in this book about my son, who has autism; the body and aging; my mother’s slow decline; politics; rock and roll…

How long did it take you to write and compile the book?

I know the compilation took at least two years, because I remember working on it twice at the VCCA. Because I’ve been writing a long time, over thirty-five years, I have a lot more material than would fit into a single book; both books encompass work that spans several decades, although there is newer work in Line Dance.

You also authored another full-length poetry book called Radiance. How is your new book different?

Radiance had a different type of construction. It took me fifteen years of constantly entering contests, coming close, being a finalist many times, the runner-up several times but never winning, to finally have a full-length book. So I’d revise it every year, and it went through a lot of different configurations.

In the end, I pulled the strongest poems, including the title poem, “All That Is Glorious Around Us,” which was chosen by Grace Schulman for the 2004 WB Yeats Society of NY’s poetry prize, and the closing poem, “Poem Ending with a Line By Rumi,” which was chosen by Stanley Kunitz for the 2003 Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award.

So I knew where I wanted to start, and where I wanted to end. It seemed to me that the poems I was considering were ones that spoke to some aspect of light, so I looked for others to enhance this theme. This light is many things, the golden light of the sun, the changing light of different seasons, the light of God’s grace among us…

I wanted to end up with a book that could be considered spiritual, but which was not explicitly religious. There are some dark poems in it, too; one about my father’s death, and that of my first child, but light cannot exist without shadow to give it depth and definition.

You are an author of 10 chapbooks. How is writing a chapbook different from writing a full length book. Is there a difference besides the length?

Length is a big difference (24 pages for a chapbook vs. 48-60 for a full length collection), but also, chapbooks are often on a single theme or subject, and thus more focused. One of my chapbooks, Ordinary Life, is about my son, and how living with a severely disabled family member affects the family.

Another one, The White Poems, is about a close friend’s journey with breast cancer. There, I’m doing something a little different, using lyric poems in a narrative, or storytelling fashion.

Another thing, and this is from a publisher’s standpoint, is that often chapbooks are more beautiful books, with lovely paper and great tactile feel. Because they are limited editions, publishers are able to put their money into production.

What can you tell us about your creative process?

“Process” sounds like such a big word for what would look, to an outside observer, like a person with her head in the clouds, staring off into space, talking to the cat, taking long walks in the woods… Sometimes I start with an image, something that compels me, that keeps popping up.

Sometimes I start with a line, one that comes out of nowhere, but which is musical enough to hang a poem on. Some poems spark out of images or words in someone else’s poem; I remember seeing the word “red,” with a comma, at the end of someone’s line, and I knew I wanted that to be the title of a poem (it appears in Radiance).

I try to never know where a poem is going (Robert Frost said that if you know where a poem is going, start there.). I also try to banish my internal editor (we all have one), the one who says, “Well, this is a lot of hooey. This isn’t any good. Who needs another poem, anyway?” and send him packing.

I try to write large, then pare it down, the way a sculptor works, when I’m editing. Some poems stem from just plain looking, either in my own gardens, in the woods behind us, or at a painting (ekphrastic work). I’m always thinking about writing, even when nothing is coming. Then I read a lot.

Would you mind telling us how you go about your revision process?

I read the poems over and over, making notes in pencil, then retyping and reprinting. I save all my drafts in hard copy; that way, if something strikes me as “off” later on, I always have them to go back to.

I keep doing this until I can’t go any further; as Paul Valéry said, “A poem is never finished, just abandoned.” Then I show it to my writing group and to some internet friends I exchange poems with, carefully considering any of their comments for revision.

And I let it sit for a while, as Donald Hall says, “in a dark desk drawer.” (In my case, since I don’t have an office, in a dark file folder.) And often, even after I’ve been sending a poem out and about, or even after it’s been published, I continue to revise. . . .

I know you’re very busy with upcoming readings and book signings. Do you enjoy doing these events?

I don’t do many book signings (frankly, for poetry books, nobody comes), but I do enjoy doing readings, teaching at conferences, and guest-lecturing in college classes. I used to be a nervous reader and would throw up before going on (or at least be queasy), shake, etc., but somehow, through dumb repetition, this has gone away, and now I look forward to events and the new friends I may make there. Poetry first started in the cave, around the fire, and was meant to be shared and performed.

Remarkable fact from your bio – you have published more than 625 poems in over 1925 anthologies, books, and magazines. Did you ever receive a rejection?

Oh, my gosh; what you see as a lot of success is just the tip of the giant iceberg of rejection lurking beneath. First, some of these poems have been reprinted several times—I like to think of it as recycling—in magazines that don’t mind previous publications, in anthologies, and then in my own books and chapbooks.

But second, of course I get rejected, over and over and over. Right now, my all-time record stands at over 50 rejections for over ten years with a poem that then won a prize at the Atlanta Review, is in the collection Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets Look at Pennsylvania
(Penn State University Press), and is also in Line Dance. If I love a poem, I don’t give up.

What is your advice for poets and writers who are just starting to send work out?

Read first, send second. In other words, read as widely as possible what is being published today. If you hone in on a particular magazine, study it, and make sure that what you’re sending is of similar quality.

I used to feel guilty telling beginning writers to buy all these magazines (while at the same time, we, as a writing community NEED to be supporting these magazines), but now, with the internet, samples are generally available. Still, subscribing to 3-4 magazines per year is an excellent idea.

Also, know your writers; know which writers write like you do, and look for their names when they appear in contributors’ lists. I have a document on my website, under the “online” button, which delineates exactly how to submit. (

What do you wish for the readers of Public Republic?

That everyone would try to read more poetry… Here are some great sites to visit: Poetry Daily,; Verse Daily,; and The Writer’s Almanac, (you can sign up to receive this one in your inbox.)

One thing my website features is an “automatic updates” button, so if you sign up, anything new I have going up on line will come to your inbox via e-mail. Also, I have a “Poem-of-the-Month” button, so there’s a new poem automatically posted on the first of every month. With so many internet publications, including print magazines with itnternet editions, poetry is out there and easily available; you just have to know where to find it. . . . .

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