Was there ever a more dreaded phrase heard in a classroom than “Let’s read a poem,” “Let’s interpret what this poem meant,” or “Let’s write a poem”? One can’t help but wonder how many careers of aspiring young poets were nipped in the bud by teachers who simply went about teaching it in all the wrong ways and made their pupils eschew this form of expression for the rest of their lives! Fortunately, Yvonne Higgins Leach was not one of those students scared off by the depth of what poetry has to say. We’re pleased to put Yvonne in the spotlight to talk about her debut collection, Another Autumn.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: Tell us about your journey as a writer and, especially, what fueled your enthusiasm to express your feelings through poetry?
A: I started writing poetry in sixth grade. My sister Michelle was about six years older than me and she was writing poetry. She introduced me to the art form, and more than anything, she instilled in me that I could write and that poetry was a gift to anyone who wanted to give it to the world. I went to a Catholic school and every day we’d say the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. After starting to write poems, I approached my teacher and asked her if I could read one of my poems instead of having the class say a prayer (that’s asking a lot when you think about it!) and she agreed.
From there, I got involved in my high school literary magazine. I had a teacher – Mark Arnold – who was influential at such a critical time in my life. He did after-school workshops and even a mini-course where we went to the Oregon Coast for a week with about six other students. In college, I got a degree in English, took as many creative writing classes as I could, and met another mentor and talented writer, Alex Kuo. Alex was more than a teacher, and I vouch for all my co-student friends when I say that. He took each of us under his wing, advised us constantly, read our work carefully and gave honest feedback. We’d do things outside of class too. He’d have us over to his house and we’d go camping. Having a sense of community around poetry was phenomenal. Those were great years.
My MFA came later (from Eastern Washington University) after I was in the workforce for several years. You know, you go to graduate school and you get a degree in Creative Writing Poetry and you make these goals for yourself: mine was that I’d have my first collection of poems published by the time I was 30. Well, my reality at 30 was that I was going through a divorce, raising a daughter, and had started working for a Fortune 100 company. A short three years later, I was in a new relationship and raising two daughters. I did well at my job and was recognized for it, so they kept giving me harder, more challenging assignments and more responsibility. I took on each one and just did my best at it and over the years I found myself an executive and leading good-sized teams and handling major PR corporate issues. The job became a 50 – 60 hour week, easy. But regardless of all that was happening in my personal and professional life, I never gave up on poetry.
Q: Many an aspiring writer has lamented, “Oh, but I just don’t have the time to write because I’m too busy raising my family, climbing the corporate ladder, cleaning the house, etc. In your own experience, you had more than a full plate to fill your waking life. What was your secret to making room for the written word?
I remember many a day at work being tired because I started a poem at 10 p.m. at night and wouldn’t finish until the wee hours. And then I would work on refining it throughout the evenings of that week. For me, it was as if I couldn’t help it. Either I had an experience that moved me to the point that my inner voice said: this has to be told, or someone tells me a story and I am so moved I said the same thing: this has to be documented. When that happened, the poem would stir in me until I could carve out time to get it on paper.
Q: Tell us more about your writing process.
A: It usually, but not always, goes like this: something strikes me…an idea, a story, an experience I had directly, and it tells me that it must be written. I then feel it is something that needs to be made separate, in and of itself, and to be shared with others. I’ll sometimes write the idea in a notebook; but often it just hangs around in my head and heart. When I actually get to the point where phrases are being written in my head or I see the structure of the poem taking place then I know it is time to write. From there, I live with the poem for days and sometimes weeks, replaying the lines, the images, in my head and I’ll tweak them, refine the poem over a period of time. I do a fair amount of this in my head.
Q: Do you allow anyone to read your works in progress or did you make them wait until you felt you had polished it to perfection?
A: I do allow people to read my work as I create it. I find that having an “early reader”, as I call them, is very helpful. He or she usually can tell me right away if something isn’t working, is a bit clunky, or unclear. Also, just recently I joined a small community of poets and we now post first drafts on a website called Inked Voices that allows us to critique each other’s work. It’s a really useful tool.
Q: What is your favorite style of poetry?
A: I have two favorite styles of poetry: free verse, especially when a poem uses regular patterns of sound and rhythm that are close to how we speak naturally and yet create an emotional experience that blows your socks off. I have always loved the elegy as well. I know it might sound strange to admire the “melancholy poem that laments its subject’s death” but what I appreciate in an elegy is by the end there is some form of consolation.
Q: Who are some of your favorite poets?
A: I’ll put them in two categories – those who have passed and those who are living.
Those who have passed: Theodore Roethke, for his largeness and realness in poetry. Raymond Carver, for his simplicity of language and expression. The Irish poet Seamus Heaney, for his acute eye and ear and sense of storytelling in poetry.
Those who are living: some of my favorite poets are Tony Curtis, not the singer, but the Irish poet. He really knows how to capture an experience that moves you. Edward Hirsch…I find his poetry precise, thoughtful, accessible, and his passion for poetry insatiable. He has written several wonderful books about poetry as well. W.S. Merwin, for his love of the world, both physical and spiritual. And last, Ellen Bass, for her gorgeous poetry that has a great balance between intelligence and heart.
Q: If you could sit down for lunch with any of these beloved wordsmiths, which one would it be, where would you go, and what question would you most like to ask?
A: I am of Irish heritage so I would definitely sit down with Seamus Heaney in an Irish pub in County Derry in Northern Ireland where he grew up. I would ask him to describe what he felt was the hardest thing he overcame as a writer in his lifetime.
Q: My favorite part of any interview is shining a spotlight on a book’s debut. Another Autumn is your first published work. Brava! It’s time to brag and tell us what it felt like to hold that first copy in your hands.
A: It felt surreal to be honest. I remember first feeling happy with the cover art because it represented authentically the title and so many of the poems in the book. Then I read it front to back as an actual book in my hand and that was a wonderful experience.
Q: What’s the story behind the title (and is it a teaser to future “seasonal” collections)?
A: The title comes from one of the poems in the book. I picked it because many of my poems are about the passage of time, which the seasons represent so well.
Q: You are what I would consider a working poet. Most poets are academics and tied to a college or university. Do you have thoughts on the academic versus the working poet?
As with most things, there are advantages and disadvantages. I have two primary thoughts on this: One, I think if one is in the academic environment there is a lot of support for writing, because writing is taught there and “the structure” and peers tend to be very supportive. In the work world, often your work and your writing are very separate so you frequently have a feeling of isolation when it comes to your writing. It is easy to not feel understood. Second, I think it boils down to how a writer manages his/her time to write. I don’t think anyone can deny whether you are tied to academia or the work world, we’re all busy people. It’s a matter of how you carve out the time to write. For me, it was often late at night after all the duties of the day, both professional and personal, were done. That was just my reality.
Q: What about the naysayers who declare, “But there’s no money in writing poetry. Why aren’t you writing novels instead?”
A: For me, it’s a matter of what drives your passion. I have always had a passion for poetry, knowing there was no money in it. I wouldn’t want to change genres just to make money. I would feel like I would be leaving my real self behind.
Q: The resistance that a lot of people put up toward poetry and its interpretation often stems from their exposure to it in elementary school and high school. What do you say to the person who says s/he doesn’t understand it and, accordingly, chooses not to read it?
A: Poetry is an exchange. I believe both parties have some responsibility in that exchange. The poet’s responsibility is to capture the essence of the poem through the use of his/her tools — words, line breaks, rhythm or song, metaphor — in a way that allows the reader to understand and experience it. I don’t believe in poetry that is so complicated or obscure or internal to the poet that the reader never does understand it. On the other hand, I believe the reader does have a responsibility, too, to give the poem a chance. To wrestle with it, talk back to it, read it again and again because by engaging with it he/she will discover more about the poem and I am certain something more about themselves. When we have this exchange, we make meaning together.
Q: On that note, what’s your personal list of “Ten Poems You Need To Read Before You Die”?
A: What a fun question! “Digging” by Seamus Heaney; “Traveling Through Dark” by William Stafford; “Musee des Beaux Arts” by W.H. Auden; “Sonnet Xvii” by Pablo Neruda; “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost; “Papa’s Waltz” by Theodore Roethke; “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins; “What the Doctor Said” by Raymond Carver; “Fall” by Edward Hirsch; “Elegy for a Walnut Tree” by W.S. Merwin.
Q: What’s your philosophy on the writer and the reader?
A: Like a painter, s/he starts with a blank canvas and then, with the tools at hand, paints a scene, image, portrait, whatever it might be. Then the painter waits for a viewer. Poetry is similar. I start with a blank white page and my tools are the words, rhythm, images, metaphor, white space that I create into an experience. The relationship between the writer and the reader is by definition removed by being experienced through text, a body of words on the page. It is a particular kind of exchange between two people most often not physically present to each other. If the poem is good, it is often a passionate form of communication between strangers, and often immediate and intense. Reading poetry is a way of connecting – through a medium of language – more deeply with yourself even as you connect more deeply with another. As a result, I believe the poem delivers on our spiritual lives precisely because it gives us the gift of intimacy and privacy and participation that we wouldn’t experience otherwise.
Q: You’re hinting at the spirituality in poetry. Can you tell us more?
A: Oh most definitely. I have two perspectives on this: First, Wallace Stevens said that “poetry is like prayer in that it is most effective in solitude”. Poetry often comes out of silence and it longs to discover the mysteries of life; hence it is kinship to prayer. So when you think about it, poetry is one of the soul’s natural habitats. In that moment when the soul captures what is deep within we attain something spiritual. I look at the poem as the soul in action through words on a page. Second, poet Pablo Neruda said in so many words: to feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. He also said “but to feel the affection that comes from those whom we do not know, that is something greater and more beautiful because it widens our boundaries of our being, and unites all living things.” I believe that is what poetry does. It connects us.
Pablo told a wonderful story related to this. When he was a young boy in his backyard, he looked through a hole in the fence and much to his surprise the hand of another small boy shot through. When Pablo looked through the hole again, there was a marvelous white sheep there the boy had brought him to gaze at. But the boy had disappeared. Pablo then went into his house and brought out his favorite treasure: a pinecone, opened, full of odor and resin, which he adored, and set down in the same hole in the fence. The next day the pinecone was gone. This little story is about how all of humanity is somehow connected. And when the exchange of gifts occurs, whatever they may be, that is indestructible. Poetry, to me, is an exchange of gifts.
Q: Now that you have more time to write, what do you hope for?
A: Because my time was limited for literally decades, and as a result, many of my poems fit just on one page, I hope to explore writing longer poems, and perhaps write about more philosophical topics. Many of my poems are about experiences, and from there, I have an insight. I’d like now to explore other topics for poetry, like maybe take on concepts and see where the poem goes. As an example, recently I went to a reading where a poet read a 10-page poem about particles meshing into the thing they are closest too. It took her a year to write that poem. I am also reading other poets “by the pounds” now and feeling like I am getting a more complete perspective on the contemporary poetry scene in the U.S.
Q: So who is on your current reading list?
A: I have been reading poets I consider on the national scene but also getting to know many of the local poets in the Northwest. On the national scene, poets include: Claudia Rankine, Nicky Finney, Tony Hoagland, Ross Gay, Gregory Pardlo, Jane Hirshfield, Terrance Hayes, Jamaal May, Saeed Jones, Ocean Vuong, Naomi Shihab Nye, Kathleen Jamie, and Wesley McNair. I could go on and on. I am having so much fun consuming poetry!
Q: Where can readers learn more about you?
A: At my website: www.yvonnehigginsleach.com
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: If you feel you have something to share, a story to tell, a poem to write, then do it. Don’t let that critical voice we often hear inside ourselves shut you down. You have every right to create!