The Colorado Poet, Issue #30, Winter 2022

Lisa Zimmerman on Poetry and Sainted: Poems by Lisa Zimmerman

Interviewed by Veronica Patterson

Veronica Patterson: The first poem in Sainted, "Kitchen Meditation," opens into the rest of the collection and ends "red for blood and other passions". Why begin with a view from the kitchen  window?
Lisa Zimmerman: I knew I wanted that poem to be at the front of a book like a window. In a way it represents the part of me that stayed open to what I loved about Catholicism, even though I had rejected the dogma by the time I was 13 and was no longer Catholic. What I still loved was the iconography, the art, the frescos and stained glass, and of course, the saints.
Patterson: In the second  poem, "Travels with Saint Francis and Saint Clare," it feels like the speaker, who has visited San Damiano (where St. Clare built her community), though she says she is only herself, is no longer alone. How did the flock of others join her?
Zimmerman:  I really felt the power of Francis and Clare during my stay in Assisi that April. I would sit in the basilicas with tears streaming down my face—I allowed myself to be open and porous and that openness was a blessing because it gave permission to those saints and others to accompany me, and thereby help me tell their stories.
Patterson: In "Ortolana, Pregnant with Saint Clare," Does the striking line "What did God know about the uterus?", along with the midwives' laughter and wisdom, open a way into women's strengths and resistance?
Zimmerman: During my sabbatical research, I realized that women often entered convents to escape the terrible world of men. I read that Ortolana was afraid when she was pregnant. It was the end of the 12th century and sometimes births ended in the death of the mother or the baby, or both. Even though Ortolana received a vision of promise, I believed she would put her trust in the midwives who were with her physically in her hour of need, rather than in the remote male deity offered to her by the Church.
Patterson: The sequence of three poems—"Saint Clare of Assisi: At the Beginning of My New Life," "Saint Clare: I'm Willing to Do Whatever It Takes," and "Saint Clare, the Next Day" establishes Saint Clare's inner independence, especially the lines "I said no to the world that day and yes / to the world inside and yes / to the promised one, beyond" and "No man would own me, ever."
Zimmerman: Clare was only 18 when she “met” Francis and saw his ecstatic preaching. I think his radiance and humility affected her at a soul level. He was also moved by her willingness to devote her life to God and he probably knew he should add women to his “order.” Francis wasted no time in putting her somewhere safe after she surrendered her life as he had—sending her to the Benedictine convent at San Paolo. She professed that she would have no husband other than Jesus Christ.
Patterson: In "Some Notes on the Life and Death of Saint Francis," "When" begins each of the five stanzas—and the progression from stanza to stanza captures God denying Saint Francis everything, until the last. What arises in that sequence?
Zimmerman:  I had not intended to write about Francis but my reading about his life encouraged me to find imagery to share some of the astonishing and beautiful things that “happened to him” because he was a truly remarkable human being. I’m sure those who spent time with him already knew that he was a saint.
Patterson: Your poem "Getting Lost as a Child on the Feast Day of Saint Bernadette" seems to parallel the saints' lives—they find a way to go on. In its sense of the saints' love and determination entering you, does it bring you further into their stories?
Zimmerman: This poem came as a surprise to me. My father was an Army officer and much of my childhood was spent in Belgium, first in elementary school and then later in high school. We took a lot of family trips and my father, being Catholic, wanted to visit Lourdes, where Bernadette had experienced the Marian visions. I recalled that trip and how I got lost in the crowd. I was touched by Bernadette’s story and the imagery became entwined. I was reminded of Ted Kooser saying poems come to us from “something we see, something we remember, or a piece of language.”
Patterson: Your poem "Two Polish Saints" contrasts the saints' lives. And that final phrase "Any questions?" manages to be both humorous and serious.
Zimmerman: I looked up the saints whose feast day was my birthday in May and read about the bishop of Kraków. Even though I didn’t want to write poems about, or for, bishops or popes who were canonized, I was captured by his story. And then I read about another Saint Stanislas and  his story was in such stark contrast to the bishop’s. The question at the end of the poem is both humorous and serious.
Patterson:: Your poem "Joan of Arc, Patron Saint of France and Soldiers," begins with "I need a new narrative." And it then takes Joan of Arc as we have known her in a completely different direction—"Let me / be an emblem of a different form of courage..." This poem shows that you don't back away from the old stories but can also create fresh stories. Does this poem change the arc of the chapbook?
Zimmerman: During my sabbatical my sister would sometimes email me and ask if I was writing about  this or that centurion or soldier who was an early saint. I said I didn’t want to write about soldiers who killed people and then got converted to Christianity. Killing in the name of the church was part of why I rejected Catholicism. Even though I told myself I was only going to write about “lesser-known” saints, Joan of Arc was the patron saint I chose when I was confirmed. After that, I left Catholicism, but I kept Joan of Arc. And I wanted to honor her. I’m not sure if it changes the arc of the book. It’s true that there are a couple of poems after hers that can be considered as touching contemporary issues.
Patterson: Your poem "Ode to Mother Teresa, Saint of Calcutta" ends with the phrase "God's / monsoon silence." Why or how did this poem become an ode?
Zimmerman: Mother Teresa is complicated. It’s an ode because it does praise her. An ode is often more interesting if it has other ingredients. Some of Pablo Neruda’s odes come to mind, like these lines from his “Ode to Salt”:
salt sings, the skin
of the salt mines
with a mouth smothered
by the earth.
I shivered in those
when I heard
the voice
the salt
in the desert.
 Patterson: Your final poem, "Some Truths About My Research on Lesser-Known Catholic Saints," notes that though the saint poems weren't written at the pace you first thought they might be, did that slower pace surprise you or become important? I'm thinking of the final lines "that elusive terrifying rush of God / in the heart that I thought / I was going to find by myself."
Zimmerman: All I can say about those “truths” is that I had “set myself a task” like Lynn Emanuel’s speaker says in “Stone Soup”:
She has set herself a task, like a train lugging
its hard body toward Portland, so she now makes
a father’s coat come home from the day shift
I had to honor what came through—and when it came through—before I could “make” anything. The time was punctuated by deep silences, and that feeling I get so often as a poet—that I don’t know how to write a poem at all. Billy Collins said that poetry is a “negotiation with silence.” That’s where I found myself so often and I just had to let that be okay.