The Colorado Poet, #22, Spring 2013

Interview: Lynda LaRocca

Spiral (Liquid Light Press, 2012)

Bob King: One thing I notice in this book is that you frequently deal with, or are inspired into poetry by, familiar events—a continuing snowfall, visiting a cemetery, a memory of parents or grandparents, standing at the window looking out at the night sky. What is it about these moments or memories that attracts you into poetry?

Lynda La Rocca: I honestly don’t know what it is about certain moments or memories.  That probably sounds ridiculous, but the truth is that something suddenly happens inside me, something clicks, sometimes when I’m thinking about a past event, other times when I’m actually in the event or watching it unfold (like a snowfall).  I just know there’s a poem there.  I get totally engrossed in that certainty, and the poem starts to form.  I can’t really articulate it

BK: There are also poems I could call ‘cosmic.’ The title poem starts with something like the creation of the universe, “a shatter of stars, / alpha flares to omega,” and continues on to other natural events: “…lava spurts orange flame. /  Rock to sand, / each cell divides.” In “Drift” you are a burrower, a delver, but you delve into the earth itself, “plunging past black / to flames molten and spearing, / the orange sparks / shooting and / scorching and / shearing.” Are these two parts of yourself, the attention to daily life and this push into the cosmic, going from stars and into the earth, “past dark,” as you write, “into light”?
LLR: I never thought of this as two parts of myself before.  But yes, I would say that these two poems do illustrate the self, my self, that dwells in reality (or at least, in my perception of reality) and the self that focuses on the “big picture.” 

That “big-picture” self is more who or what I really am, though, and what I’m most comfortable being, because I’m usually thinking about, or obsessing over, an unanswered question.  It’s not that I feel I deserve, must have, or even can have, an answer, or even that there necessarily is an answer.  It’s simply that I love asking, “Why?”  It’s what I do.  I’m perfectly fine with God, the universe, or whatever replying, “Because.”  I’m equally fine with, “It’s none of your business,” or with no response at all.  It’s still, and always, fun—and important—to ask, wonder, and ponder.  The answers either come—or they don’t.  Meanwhile, I’m big on being “awed” in the Biblical sense, and asking “Why?” again.    

BK: Most of these poems are in short-lined free verse, but you do have a rhyming poem here, “Let’s Face It,” and one inspired by Emily Dickinson (“I Haven’t Met My Angel Yet”) where you actually adopt her rhythmical scheme (“I sometimes sense her presence in / a whispered word, a breath, / a shadow on the bone-white moon, / and in her consort, Death.”). What’s your take on your use of form and of free verse?
LLR: I had a wonderful, incredibly intelligent, rather eccentric English teacher my senior year in high school who used to say, “You have to learn the rules first before you can deviate from them.”  His homework assignments included writing poetry, which we then read aloud in class.  Mr. Tucker could be quite dismissive of free-verse poetry, not because he disliked free verse, but because he felt that people wrote what was trite and boring, then called it free verse because they were too lazy to attempt the discipline of a form.  I think of him every time I tackle a traditional form.  And I very much enjoy writing in specific forms; “Let’s Face It,” for example, is an old French form called a “lai.”  I also write a lot of sonnets, villanelles, and a modern form called the minute.  And I continue to tackle the sestina, a form I truly dislike, which may explain why I haven’t yet produced a decent one.

Obviously, I love writing free verse. But I believe that poets
must study all aspects of our craft.

Obviously, I love writing free verse. But I believe that poets must study all aspects of our craft.  And that means learning about traditional forms and attempting to write in at least some of these forms.  I’m not saying that free verse isn’t difficult and challenging; it is.  But traditional forms are demanding and challenging in a different way.  They require more determination, self-discipline, and objectivity.  I say “objectivity” because it’s very apparent, for instance, when a line doesn’t work in a sonnet.  If you’re honest with yourself, you can see that, accept it, detach from your enchantment with your own words, and improve the line, or at least attempt to do so.  But with free verse, it’s easier to convince yourself (hopefully only temporarily) that a bad line is good.

Also, for me, when a poem comes out in free verse, it’s usually because I’m completely focused on an event, emotion, memory, etc.  When I’m working with a form, for the most part I come to the form without a preconceived idea of a subject.  Instead, I’m initially thinking about the form itself, how to fit words into iambic pentameter, how to come up with two strong, repeating lines—and so I usually get a couple of lines or my meter going first and then shape the rest of the poem around that.

I also use an ancient rhyming dictionary when I’m working with forms.  I never use a thesaurus, not because I have anything against using a thesaurus but because I just don’t use one.  I prefer to look up words in the dictionary and find synonyms through the definitions.  I love my rhyming dictionary, though.  If I don’t have it with me, I’ll go through the alphabet in my head and jot down lists of rhyming words to give me options for the rhymes required in many traditional poetic forms.   

BK: You open and close the book with a parallel “I am…” poem. In the first, you end by being a tortoise—“on my black shell I balance / the wobbly world.” In the last, you end with “I am a branch that is snapped in the storm. / In the side of the world, / I’m a splinter, a thorn.” Did you see these two as an introduction and then a conclusion?

LLR: I confess, the idea for the “I Am” poems was borrowed from Gregory Maguire, the brilliant author of such books as Wicked.  Maguire writes these wildly imaginative, truly stunning novels based on classic children’s literature and fairy tales.  “Mirror Mirror,” a takeoff on the Snow White story with Lucrezia Borgia in the role of the Wicked Queen, is prefaced by a poem where each line begins with the words, “I am.”  As soon as I read it, I thought, What a great idea; I’ve got to write my own “I Am” poem.  So I did—and then I wrote another, without really considering how, or whether, the two fit together.  I just wrote for the fun of seeing what images I could conjure that appealed to me personally and also seemed to go from the personal to the more universal.  Only when I began assembling the manuscript for “Spiral” did I see these two poems serving as a beginning and an ending.

BK: Can you describe your writing process? Where a poem starts and what it goes through to finish?

LLR: My writing process probably isn’t a process at all.  Sometimes a single word intrigues me, and I’ll build an entire poem around that word.  Sometimes it’s a phrase, and I go from there.  Often, a memory, a realization, a theme or a line reflecting a specific theme come to me and I tell myself, OK, write that down, you need to make a poem out of that.  Sometimes, a poem is an assignment for my poetry group, the Salida-based Shavano Poets’ Society, which is a chapter of Columbine Poets Inc., the state poetry society.

Other times, as I said previously, I borrow from the incredible ideas of extremely talented writers—and wish that I’d thought of those ideas myself.

As far as what a poem “goes through to finish,” some poems are never finished.  I’m never happy with them.  I can tweak some poems for years and they’re still not “right” enough.  Other poems, I don’t know where they come from or how it happens, but they appear so quickly, and they seem finished to me almost as soon as I write them.  I may still change a word here and there, but it’s as if the first draft is the final draft.

In every instance, though, after I write a poem, I put it away for a few days, a week, sometimes much longer.  Then I read it again to decide whether it’s any good or has any potential.  Sometimes I’ll re-read a poem and think, “Wow!  Did I really write that?  Nice job.”  Other times, I’ll re-read a poem and think, “This is awful.”  In the latter case, maybe I’ll put the poem away once more and do another read later—and then give up on it!

After I write a poem I put it away for a few days, a week, sometimes much longer. Then I read it again to decide whether it’s any good or has any potential.

And I always read aloud to myself—both in-progress poems and poems that I think are finally finished.  I pace back and forth through the kitchen and living room, pen in hand to make changes, while reading aloud, because the poem on the page is different from the poem in the air.  And that reminds me—I always write poetry in longhand because I like doing it that way.  A poem only goes on the computer when I think it’s “finished.”  And even then, years later, I may decide to tweak it again.

And I show every poem to my husband, Steve Voynick.  Steve’s a writer and photographer who specializes in nonfiction works on mineralogy, geology, and Colorado mining history.  He occasionally writes poetry that’s either very funny or that reminds me of the style of Robert Service.  Steve is my best critic, because he gives me very specific feedback and he isn’t afraid to tell me if the poem doesn’t “do” anything for him.  Of course, sometimes I’m so enamored of my own words that I don’t listen to him.  And then we see who’s right when I send the poem out and it either sells or fails abysmally.    

The spiral feels symbolic of what I wanted the collection to illustrate, namely, the circular, ongoing, connectedness-yet-uniqueness of all life.

BK:  Was it just coincidence that you wrote a poem called “Spiral” and that your husband happened to photograph the petroglyph of a spiral on a famous Utah rock that became the artwork for your cover? It’s an ancient symbol, and usually positive in a variety of cultures, of course, but why did you pick that as cover and as poem?

LLR: It was a complete coincidence.  When I wrote that poem, I had no idea that Steve had taken photographs of Newspaper Rock in Utah.  He offered that shot as a possibility for a cover photo when Markiah and Mariamne Friedman, my wonderful editors and publishers at Liquid Light Press, and I were considering titles for the collection.  I had initially titled the manuscript “It Is Not Things,” after another poem in the collection.  But Steve’s photo and the poem “Spiral” seemed to mesh perfectly, so we changed it.  The spiral feels symbolic of what I wanted the collection to illustrate, namely, the circular, ongoing, connectedness-yet-uniqueness of all life.  It’s funny—we recently visited Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona and stopped at a site there, also called Newspaper Rock, that contains some of the most exquisite, incredibly detailed petroglyphs I’ve ever seen anywhere.  There were spirals on those rocks, too, and seeing them made me feel—how can I put this?—even more pleased and more deeply certain that we made the right choice with the “spiral” title and photograph because that symbol keeps appearing in my life.