Debbie: Please tell us about your new book of poetry.
Andrea: What the Willow Said as It Fell (Red Hen Press, 2016) is a book-length poem about chronic pain. I include personal writing in the book, mythological writing about figures like the willow tree (which contains salicin in its branches, used for millennia as a pain relieving compound) and the ash tree (which was thought to be a healing tree), and found poetry. So basically, I try to recount some of my own experience with chronic pain, but also reach outside my own experience.
I became really interested in the book-length poetry form several years ago when I wanted to push my own short lyrics in a longer direction. At about the same time, I decided I wanted to try to write about chronic pain because I didn’t see much literature discussing it. And chronic pain seemed like the perfect subject to explore in the book-length form—it can ebb and flow, diminish and return, circle back on itself, and appear in unexpected places. Basically, the subject matter and the form each inspired and challenged my thinking about the other.
I’m also a long-time lover of found poetry, so I loved having the change to incorporate writing from the painter Frida Kahlo and from professional athletes about their experiences with pain, writing about the body, and writing about trees. Hopefully, the book works in part by moving between my own experiences and the experiences of others.
Debbie: That sounds like a heavy book—and your first book was heavy too; it focused on your father’s death. Why do you think you write about such serious subjects?
Andrea: I keep joking that my third book is going to be absolutely hilarious—but so far, that’s not turning out to be the case! One of the things I love about writing and reading poetry is that it allows me to struggle on the page through some of the harder aspects of living. At almost every poetry reading I’ve done to support my two books, audience members have spoken to me afterwards about their own experience with loss, or about their own experience with health issues. Being able to connect with a reader like that and knowing that we are not so alone in the world, well, it is the best part about being a writer, even when the material is scary or hard.
Debbie: We’d love to hear about your experience as the U.P. Poet Laureate!
Andrea: It has been a delightful experience! Michigan is one of only a few states without an official Poet Laureate position, so the UP Poet Laureate is an entirely grassroots position, which is pretty cool. I decided I wanted to use the position to try to increase poetry’s visibility, so I had a friend build a Free Little Poetry Library that I’ve moved around the UP to different locations (it even won a blue ribbon in last summer’s Marquette County Fair), I’ve done poetry readings around the UP, I worked with Marquette’s Food Co-op to create an event called Eat this Poem based on Pablo Neruda’s food odes, and I partnered with Ore Dock Brewing Company in Marquette to start a monthly reading series called Bards and Brews.
Many people think of poetry as a dead art or an art that they just don’t understand, so I wanted to try to make poetry feel accessible and fun. Maybe you’re just out walking your dog and you see the Free Little Poetry Library and you take home a new poetry collection, or you’re just grabbing a beer at Ore Dock and people start reading poetry and you realize you really like it. Just having more opportunities for people to come into contact with poetry (and hopefully to fall in love with it) is really my goal.
And I have really appreciated the community support for my programs and activities. You never know when you organize an event if anyone is going to actually show up, so having 60 people come to a poetry reading at Ore Dock has just blown me away!
Debbie: What will happen in 2017 when your tenure as U.P. Poet Laureate ends?
Andrea: Hopefully the position just keeps growing! Russ Thorburn was the UP’s first Poet Laureate and he lay the foundation really strongly, so I just tried to keep growing it and making it more visible. So hopefully, whoever takes over in 2017 will do the same. It would be great to have some financial support for the position—I raised money for my programs by doing an Indiegogo campaign, but it would really be nice to have some financial backing from Michigan so that the new Poet Laureate can jump right into programming.
Debbie: Sometimes people, even if they’re avid readers in other genres, are a little intimidated by poetry, and end up avoiding it even though they’d enjoy it if they tried it. What advice do you have for folks who’d like to begin cultivating a poetry reading habit?
Andrea: Start searching!
When people tell me they don’t like poetry, I always tell them that’s like saying you don’t like movies or you don’t like music. There are so many styles of poetry and so many different poets that if you don’t like one, you should just keep searching. And don’t feel like you have to understand everything about a poem the first time you read it—or that you have to spend 10 hours reading one poem in order to understand it. Most poetry definitely rewards slow and careful reading, but it’s also okay to read a poem once and move on.
In all honesty, I think we often do a disservice to poetry when we teach it. We tell students that there is one hidden meaning to a poem and ask them to search and search for that meaning. And sure, some poetry is written like a treasure hunt, but a lot of contemporary poetry especially is very accessible to the non-poetry reader, and doesn’t require any special sleuthing abilities.
So I would say: go to your local library or bookstore and just start browsing the poetry section. Pick up twenty books and read one or two poems in each until you find a writer you like. You can also start with some popular anthologies like The Best American Poetry series which comes out every year, or Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry which is incredibly diverse in terms of writers and content. I’m not always a huge anthology fan, but they are great in introducing you to a bunch of writers at one time so you’re sure to find at least one writer who strikes your fancy.
Debbie: And what about first steps for cultivating a poetry writing habit?
Andrea: Start writing!
Sometimes people think they have to wander around waiting for poetic inspiration to strike them, but the truth about writing is that you just have to start doing it. Stephen King says, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” And I agree. Reading and writing are two sides of the same coin: the more you do of one, the more (and better) you do of the other.
There are also some really great books out there with writing prompts, which I find very helpful when I need to find a new direction in my work or when I feel stuck. I have taught with The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux for years, but I also use it for myself when I need a writing prompt or refresher. So I would say, borrow or buy a poetry writing handbook, make an appointment with yourself to sit down at your desk, and start writing. Choose a poetry prompt, and see where it takes you. Also remember that your first poems are going to be terrible, and that’s okay. It’s like throwing out your first pancake. You have to write those first poems in order to get to the good stuff, so just keep going.
Debbie: Please tell us a little more about life in the Upper Peninsula. What are some of the best parts? What are some of the hardest challenges?
Andrea: For me, the best part about living in the UP is the natural beauty. This is by far the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived! I love the hiking, the miles of running trails, the miles of beaches. And I have fallen in love with Lake Superior—it’s so interesting to watch through the different seasons, to see the really stormy days and the really calm days and everything in between. If you like to spend time outside, there’s no place better than the UP.
The biggest challenge for me is the UP’s isolation, especially in the winter. I really love the snow and the snowshoeing, but I have to admit that I get some serious cabin fever mid-March.
Debbie: What are some common beliefs about the U.P. that aren’t actually true (and maybe a few that are!)?
Andrea: Well, it’s definitely true that we have a lot of winter! But it’s also true that most people just continue on with their lives throughout the winter. Sure, we have to dig out our cars before we can drive anywhere, but we dig them out and continue on with our lives. And after having lived in the UP for six years now, I can feel pretty high-and-mighty when I see that other cities shut down with 2 inches of snow—the news up here barely even mentions a 2-inch snowfall.
In terms of beliefs about the UP that aren’t true: there are a lot of stereotypes about so-called “backwards” Yoopers that I find incredibly offensive. I won’t mention them because I don’t want so support their continuation in any way, but I will say that the best way to get to know the UP is to come up here and spend some time! I guarantee you will fall in love with some aspect of life up here.
Debbie: Books change lives. Tell us about one that changed yours.
Andrea: Oh, there are so many. Special books definitely have the habit of coming into my life right when I need them. Carolyn Forché’s The Country Between Us is a poetry collection that changed my life in myriad ways—and it’s a book I reread at least once a year, always finding new moments of beauty or heartbreak, a new line that resonates with me, a new favorite image or moment. Reading Forché’s work helped me think about poetry in new ways, and the kinds of things that poetry can do and say, which was absolutely essential to my development as a poet.
When I was in high school, my doctor gave me Mary Oliver’s collection Dream Work, and that’s also a book that I return to again and again—“The Journey” is one of my all-time favorite poems to read when I need a morale boost. Even The Babysitter’s Club series was important to me at a particular time in my life—it showed me that families very different from my own existed in the world. My grandmother used to give me Agatha Christie novels too, and I loved disappearing into their world and trying to solve their mysteries.
Really, books have been such a huge part of my life for so long that I can’t remember living without them, so I’m certain they’ve shaped my life in ways I don’t even realize.
Debbie: Current estimates (per something called the Global Language Monitor) put the number of words in the English language at 1,025,109.8. Of all those wonderful words, what are a few of your favorites? (Also, which word do you think counted as only .8 of a word?)
Andrea: That’s another hard question because there are so many interesting, strange, wonderful words! I’m just starting to learn about birds, so I’m really into bird words right now: indigo bunting and arboreal and brood are all great words. And I love the word proper, although I hardly ever say it—its sounds are perfect and perfectly balanced. But there are so many words that I love.
And that .8 of a word is probably the or an—some tiny word that we use all the time.
Debbie: Last question. In our ongoing Michigander/Michiganian tally, are you still in the Michigander column?
Andrea: Michigander for life.
Debbie: Andrea, we'll put your tally mark in bold! Thank you so much for returning today for another Michigander Monday interview!