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Sherry Chandler: I like to tell a story and work with voices

June 2, 2009 by · 2 comments

Katerina Stoykova-Klemer’s interview with poet Sherry Chandler

Sherry Chandler is the author of two poetry books, Dance the Black-Eyed Girl (Finishing Line) and My Will and Testament Is on the Desk (FootHills Publishing). Her work has been nominated for the Kentucky Literary Award in poetry, and she has won several local prizes, including the Betty Gabehart Award from the Kentucky Women Writer’s Conference and the Joy Bale Boone prize from The Heartland Review. Her work has appeared in many print and online magazines, including Spillway, The Louisville Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and Umbrella. She has had professional development assistance from the Kentucky Arts Council and is currently working on a series of poems focused on women in Kentucky history with a help from a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women.

Please tell us about your chapbooks. How are they different?

The poems in my second chapbook, My Will & Testament Is on the Desk, were almost all written in the weeks leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was having a lot of success at that time using a writing exercise wherein I would choose a random series of words, one per line, and then write to the words.

Writing like this pushes me to work with language as language and not as a conveyer of information. Because of the looming darkness, these poems tend to be lyrics of dark mood. They were published as #4 in Foothills Publishing’s Poets on Peace series, a series FootHills publisher Michael Czarnecki revived in 2003.

I wrote a lot of anti-war poems in those early years of the Iraq War. I’m fully aware that a lot of protest poetry is neither good poetry nor good protest, but in those days there was an atmosphere of suppression. “You have to watch what you say.” And I felt it my duty as a citizen to speak out, just to defy in some small way that pressure to march in lockstep with the government.

My first chapbook, Dance the Black-Eyed Girl, has been described as a series of snapshots. It’s my attempt to tell certain stories about the place where I grew up and the people I grew up with, to capture a time. Finishing Line’s editor, Leah Maines, who grew up in the same area, once said told me that was why she chose to publish the book: because it captured the place so well. I guess these are my autobiographical poems.

It’s a beautiful chapbook and Leah was kind enough to nominate it for the Kentucky Literary Award in poetry, but my life has been pretty mundane (for which I am grateful!) so I mined that vein out pretty quickly.

I would say the two chapbooks represent two ways of writing that are important to me. I like to play with language. At base I think language play defines poetry. But I also like to tell a story and work with voices.

What do you write about? Do you have recurring topics and themes?

I’m very much a poet of place. I once saw a bumper sticker — “Obscure Regional Poet” — I think that probably defines me pretty well. I live on a farm and I like to write about nature, but I think all landscape is more interesting with people in it, so I wouldn’t really characterize myself as a nature poet. Except for Twitter; I Twitter nature poetry at .

I like to paint portraits, capture voices, tell stories. And I’m very interested in history, especially women’s history. In Kentucky there are a lot of strong male poets dealing with aspects of Kentucky’s history and the interface between man and nature in this state. Poets like Wendell Berry, whose Mad Farmer poems and his Sabbath poems, speak to man as steward of the land.

Younger poets like Davis McCombs deal with some of the same agrarian culture. Maurice Manning, of course, does Daniel Boone and he has his own version of the Mad Farmer in Bucolics. Frank X. Walker does York, the slave who accompanied the Lewis & Clark expedition to the west coast. All of these men are excellent, excellent poets, poets of place. But I’ve long felt a certain need for some women’s voices in all this history. I mean Rebecca Boone crossed the Cumberland Gap too — in skirts –with children clinging to them.

Until recently, though, I have mostly been interested in capturing the stories of my mother and grandmothers before they were lost. My mother died recently, at 91, and every day I realize what a devastating loss her death is to me, not just emotionally, but in my personal history of connections to people and place. So many questions I never got around to asking.

I don’t come from highly literate or educated people. My mother and father valued books and passed that value on to me, but their opportunities for formal education were very limited. For the most part, my family were just ordinary dirt farmers, dirt poor in the generations I knew. But they valued the story. And their lives had a story that was often at odds with the mainstream social/historical narrative. I wanted to capture that.

Have you lived in KY your whole life?

Except for six years when I lived in the Hyde Park area of Chicago. My husband was attending graduate school at the University of Chicago and I worked downtown in that wedding cake Wrigley Building by the Chicago River. I think of these as my Mary Tyler Moore years. I sometimes miss being able to wander Michigan Avenue on my lunch hour. There was always some kind of street theater, intentional or not.

But Kentuckians nearly always come home. I have read that we are among the most place-bound people in the country. That term, “place-bound,” makes staying put sound like a bad thing but it has its rewards. I grew up in an extended family with land all around me that I could consider mine to wander over.

Both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors who’d known my family for generations, they all lived in walking distance, and I got my cultural education from all of these people, not just my mother and father or the schools. Well, my school teachers – some of them had either taught my parents or gone to school with them. Inbred, I guess, and sometimes stultifying, but also very rich.

You have received a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women to complete a project. Can you tell us a little bit about this project?

Let me begin by saying that the Kentucky Foundation for Women is an amazing resource for women artists in Kentucky. Endowed by Sallie Bingham, it is run by women for women with the purpose of bringing about social change. Their work has helped to create a very strong community of activist women artists throughout the state.

In putting together a project application for the KFW, I was able to solidify some ideas that had been floating around in my head for years, ideas I’ve already introduced here, of giving voice to the women in Kentucky’s agrarian history, more or less in answer to all the male writers who have shaped our ideas of that history. I might go so far as to say these men romanticize agrarianism. Women, by and large, don’t have that luxury.

What’s new in this project is its scope. Whereas before I was working primarily with family stories, I am now going all the way back to the historical beginnings of the state and I’m trying to give voice to all kinds of women – settlers, slaves, farm wives, church ladies – whoever I find who strikes a chord. In some ways, this all is my family history. Members of my family have been in the state since the early 19th century, so many of the events/trends/politics that shaped the state have also shaped my family and by extension my self.

I’ve been working on this project for about six months now and I have to say that all of a sudden I have also made great strides forward in craft. I give credit for this to my mentor, Leatha Kendrick. I’ve been working with Leatha for several years in master classes at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, Kentucky. She is that rare creature, a great poet who is also a great teacher. She has a keen intuition for what it is you’re trying to do with a poem, and she helps you find the best way to do that.

The KFW granted me funds to work in private consultation with Leatha on this project and I’m just really very excited about the partnership. With Leatha’s help, I have been able to take some of these poems from adequate to breakthrough. It’s so much fun, I can’t tell you. Nothing is more fun than writing at the top of your form.

Are these persona poems?

Yes. Most of the poems are persona poems, though I have reserved the privilege of doing an occasional lyric. Variety is the spice of life.

How do you get into character when you write persona poems?

Some characters come into my head with a strong voice. Rebecca Boone has a strong voice, and she’s been talking a lot. Maybe she’s been pent up for a long time.

Certain other characters who are less well known also have strong voices. There’s Nancy Lee, a slave woman in Lexington in the 1860s, and an “old Dutch woman” who escaped from the Shawnee along with Mary Ingles. That “old” woman doesn’t ever have any other name and yet she came the whole 600 miles from Big Bone Lick to Draper’s Meadows in the Virginia Alleghenies. Then she disappears from the record.

I love finding people like that who were involved but obscure. It gives you a lot of room to play.

For other characters, sometimes a form will help me find a voice. I’ve used acrostics, syllabic forms, sestinas. I wanted to write a poem for Jemima Boone, Rebecca’s daughter, who was kidnapped by a group of Shawnee and Cherokee right outside Boonesborough. It’s a great story that includes an interestingly intimate (not sexual) relationship between Jemima and one of the captors. But I couldn’t find a strong voice for Jemima so I used an adaptation of what Allan Ginsberg called the American sentence. The constraints of the form working in tension against the narrative I wanted to capture pushed me into finding a voice for Jemima.

Have you tried your hand in other genres besides poetry?

Years ago, I wrote a few short stories and even got one or two published. But I really didn’t have the passion so I gave it up.

In the hands of masters like Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, the short story is one of the highest forms of literature. I’m proud to say that my son has inherited my love of the form and is a much more passionate practitioner than I was. I think he’ll write some fine stories.

For myself, I figure if I can write the best poetry I’m capable of writing, that’s enough for one lifetime.

When did you start writing?

When I learned how, I guess, in first grade. That sounds flip but I don’t ever remember a time when I didn’t write something if it was only personal letters.

Do you remember your first poem, or the moment you wrote your first poem?

In fourth grade. I’m sure it was awful but the teacher – she was one of those I mentioned who taught my mother — and my father — and my aunts and my uncles – Mrs. Verna Mae Roland, whom I adored, praised it. Had me stand up in class and read it out loud. So a poet is born. And a ham.

How have the topics and themes of your poetry changed over the years?

Hmmm, I don’t know whether my themes have changed so much as my method. I have come more and more to think that poetry is about exploring language, not about conveying deep thoughts. Or even strong emotion. So I have come more and more to write in form, which I find pushes me out of linear thought and causes me to find relationships, possibly even depth, that I would not have found otherwise. You might say that I have been moving away from what Annie Finch calls the notion that poetry depends upon the sincerity of the lyric I.

Tell us about your website. .What might one find there?

One thing you will find there is a list of the magazines and small presses operating in Kentucky, with contact information. I also try to maintain a link to websites of as many Kentucky writers as I can find, as well as links to resources for writers, such as the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and the Kentucky Literary Newsletter and Calendar. And to writers groups, such as Poezia.

In addition to those things, you’ll find the usual shameless self-promotion.

You are very involved with several writing groups and organizations. Which groups are these?

I am involved with the Green River Writers, a grassroots writing group based in Louisville. GRW has been around for over 25 years now. They draw writers from all over the state . They sponsor several retreats each year and publish a limited number of books through Grex Press. More information about them is available at Anybody can join.

Locally here in Lexington, I meet with two small reading groups, one monthly and one every other week . Both of these groups have grown out of connections I’ve made at the Carnegie Center. These groups are informal and by invitation only, and I don’t know whether I should mention the names of the members.

What do you think are the benefits of being involved in groups like these?

A trusted group of readers is invaluable to any writer. It seems to be the one thing most writers are looking for and it’s one of the hardest to find. For one thing, the mix has to be right, everybody needs to be writing at about the same level so that you can help one another improve in craft. And you want variety in voice or form but not so much in prosodic values. I’m not sure you can mix say, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets with formalists.

The thing I like about my small groups is just that – they are small and there’s time to give attention to everybody’s work in a couple of hours, plus engage in shop talk and exchange books. Both the small groups I meet max out at six people and yet they’re totally different in mood and in the style of feedback you get. It’s why I continue to meet with both of them.

For people who live around central Kentucky, I always recommend participating in events at the Carnegie Center as a great way to find a compatible writing group. I know of several that have grown out of the Carnegie Center community.

With the Green River Writers, which is a much larger group, what you get is safety. They embrace writers of every race, color, creed, gender, sexual, or poetical persuasion. In many ways their retreats are like a big support group where people can let their hair down for a weekend, eat, drink, laugh and write.

Who are your influences? Which poets have you learned from?

When I was in college I fell in love with Emily Dickinson, and being always a smart ass, I used to go around saying I wanted to write “terse verse.” I don’t think Dickinson would have minded. She used language playfully herself, and I identified with her defiant spirit.

After the complexities of poets like Browning, Eliot, Milton, the apparent simplicity of Dickinson’s verse was a great delight. Then, too, as I said, I didn’t come from educated people but the hymn stanza was a verse form I understood. As was the lyric, because I was raised listening to a lot of roots music.

Of course, I was totally ignorant of what Emily Dickinson was really doing. I liked the conventional stuff – like “The soul selects her own society, / then shuts the door,” and “I cannot live with you / It would be life—“ Really I was quite a romantic. But that’s a nice thing about Dickinson. As you grow more sophisticated, oddly enough, so does she.

I had a similar reaction to Andrew Hudgins’ work when I heard him read in the late 1980s. Here is a person making poetry of experience that I can understand, a life like the one I lived. It was a breakthrough moment that caused me to give up writing fiction, which I wasn’t good at, and return to serious pursuit of poetry.

I also had a fling with E. E. Cummings early on. I liked the way he played with the shape of a poem on the page and also his playful punning ways. He was just fun – with a bit of a satiric bite. I forgot to mention that I love satire and it’s too late to follow that up now.

I gave up the typographic stuff pretty early on but I still love punning and I enjoy reading poets like Heather McHugh and A. E. Stallings who are playful and even cerebral, not to mention a bit satiric.

What would you like to wish for the readers of Public Republic?

Peace. I wish us all peace, shelter and enough wholesome food to eat, clean water to drink. Love and meaningful work. Freedom from tyranny. That they write brilliantly and find brilliant writers to read.

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