The Colorado Poet, #24,Fall 2013

Interview: Barbara Ellen Sorensen

By M. J. Fievre

(The interviewer, M.J. Fievre, is the Haitian editor of the Haitian anthology, So Spoke the Earth. She has a website where she blogs about writing: her own and others.)
M. J. Fievre: How did you become a poet?

Barbara Ellen Sorensen: I think I was just born a poet. I remember delighting in hearing nursery rhymes, such as “The owl and the pussycat went to sea / in a beautiful pea-green boat, / They took some honey, and plenty of money…” I love the movement and cadence of poetry.

MJ: What is the first piece of poetry you remember reading?

BES: To begin with, nursery rhymes! But later, I do remember being smitten with Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabelle Lee” and Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

MJ: Of all the places you've been, where did you find to be the most inspiring?

BES: It’s a toss-up, really. Emotionally, I would say that the years I went to Haiti to do relief work, were particularly inspiring. And here again, sound played a big role. The rhythm of the Creole language, the constant sound of drumming in the hills surrounding our workstations in the rural clinics, the cacophony of the roosters that wove itself into the sound of crackling early morning fires. All of my senses were so alive there, but most particularly, sound.

I would have to say that New Mexico has also been a very inspiring place. I have been there so many times, and not just for the art. I am a poet and writer, so naturally I like to observe. There is a great place in New Mexico, Bosque del Apache, that is a flyway for sandhill cranes and snowgeese. In this place, I have found such tranquility in just observing the flight patterns of the birds.

Birds are a constant motif in my poetry. They represent many, many things in my life. They carry disease, but contrapuntally, some types (zebra finches) are also now being seriously studied for a possible key as to why and how our brains go awry with such ailments as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and other neurological disorders.

MJ: Able Muse is publishing your first book of poems, Compositions of the Dead Playing Flutes. What is it about?

BES: It is my first full-length book of poetry. I had one chapbook, Song from the Deep Middle Brain (Main Street Rag) published three years ago and it became a Colorado Book Award finalist. Many of the poems that were in that book are included in this new book.

I wanted to generate a vocabulary that would meld itself organically to the images of death that many people experience.

I wanted to generate a vocabulary that would meld itself organically to the images of death that many people experience. This vocabulary would evoke a commonality or contextual structure to this poetry largely centered around disease and death. The commonality, I hope, is beauty. I also didn’t want them (the death experiences) to just be about my life events. I wanted very much for a universality to emerge and so I thought of the instrument that I actually played when I was younger, and the etymology of its being. As most people know, the flute has very deep roots in stories and mythologies. In fact, the flute crosses continent after continent, culture after culture and offers a maat kheru (or voice) for the dead in almost every ethnic group. If flute music calls forth the dead and guides them to another place, it also must be playing from something written down. Compositions can be an arrangement of elements for visual art, music, and words. In this way they become, like the flute, conduits through which the dead and dying speak to all of us whether we choose to hear them or not.

I hope that the lyrical pieces, as well as the more narrative ones, reflect that cadence and perhaps carry some of that grief to lighter places in the heart.

Equally important in all of this death imagery is that flute music is actually happy, soothing music to the ear. So death in each “composition” is accompanied by the tumbling-water and siren-like cadence of the flute. I hope that the lyrical pieces, as well as the more narrative ones reflect that cadence and perhaps help carry some of that grief to lighter places in the heart. Flute music and its compositions cross ethnic groups to also articulate love. I am hoping that my poems are not so morbid as to make the essence of desire and love completely untenable. I am hoping that love, even in the midst of death is felt, seen, and heard vividly in many of these poems.

MJ:  Poetry, fiction, nonfiction--you've dabbled in all the genres. Which one do you find the most satisfying?

BES: Definitely poetry. I am doomed forever to be poor and unknown (who reads poetry except other poets?). Next, I would say non-fiction. Non-fiction has been my bread and butter, so to speak, and I am now studying memoir writing. I think I will probably work on a memoir piece soon. I have had an interesting, if not tumultuous, life that I think on many levels might be compelling for people to read. I think this only because my memoir piece “Ghost flower & Wind” (published in spring 2012, Drunken Boat) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

MJ: Tell us about your writing process.

BES: I write when I am inspired. That is really all I can say about that. However, I am inspired often. I’m not a big fan of writing nonstop for 20 minutes everyday, as some writers advocate. I write when an occasion presents itself to me. Besides, I am now 54 years old and I can’t see myself just sitting down every day and journaling about ME. I want my writing to appeal to many people. I want people to know that you can still be vividly alive even if you are struggling with an illness, or you have lost a child, or are still grieving parts of your childhood that might have been marred in some fashion.

MJ: You're also an editor. What is the hardest part of the job?

BES: The hardest part of any editing job is reading something that is poorly written! Also, tight deadlines are no fun.