In this holiday time when we carve out a span of weeks to remind ourselves of myths and miracles, of solstice lights and winter sights, I offer this guest for your enjoyment. Cathryn Essinger is an extraordinary poet expresses our deepest revelations in and among the everyday rituals of our lives. One of my favorites is “A Blessing for Unholy Things” and these lines from the final three stanzas:
I want a blessing for unholy things–
for the catbird that empties
the sparrow’s nest,
for the mice, moles and grubs that eat
at the roots of the apple tree,
that bites and stings and spoils, a blessing
in which the faithless can, nevertheless,
put their faith.
Janet Irvin: Welcome, Cathy. I’m thrilled to have you as my December guest. Let’s start with the most obvious of questions…why write poetry?
Cathryn Essinger: I used to write fiction, and am still tempted sometimes by nonfiction. I even wrote a novel once. I took it apart and turned it into poetry, because the plot was weak and I was tired of fiddling with it. It never occurred to me that you can’t advance a plot with imagery alone. Ka-duh! That’s when I discovered that I was basically a narrative poet. Poetry was just easier. I used to blame my inability to write fiction on my children–they shortened my attention span to about the length of a short poem. But, in truth, it is probably because I am better suited to the short forms. I like the way a single line or word can change the direction of a story, or just the sound of the words when they are spoken aloud.
J.I.: When did you start writing?
C.E.: I’d like to say that I was always driven to write and was one of those teenage girls who kept huge diaries and journals, but it’s just not true. Oddly enough, I always ‘knew’ that I could write and would get around to it sometime, but it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I thought I had better actually do something about that. I need a lot of down time to get my ideas together, so when we moved to a little Amish town in Indiana where absolutely nothing happened day after day, I began writing very imagistic short stories. I published a few of those, but I gradually drifted toward poetry instead.
J.I.: You find inspiration in the natural world. What is it that attracted you to write about dogs?
C.E.: I started writing about dogs because a famous writer at a workshop told me that I shouldn’t! He said that it was too risky to anthropomorphize animals unless I wanted to work for Disney. Shortly after that I wrote the poem “My Dog Practices Geometry,” which was published in Poetry and still sometimes gets anthologized. I like being with animals, and I like the person that I become when I am with an animal. That said, poetry is always about people, so my topics and observations are often about animals (or butterflies at the moment), but the poem always has its impetus in a desire to talk to people.
I don’t know anything about “jump starting” creativity. Some people like writing prompts, but I think of them mostly as a nuisance, something that distracts me from what I really want to be doing. That said, I’ve gone to some workshops that used prompts and gotten good things out of them! As a teacher, I’ve given a lot of prompts myself and think that they work for some students, but I’ve always given students the option of doing something else that seems more relevant to them.
J.I.: And butterflies?
C.E.: At the moment I am raising and writing about Monarch butterflies. I started raising Monarchs after a friend told me about how endangered they are in North America. The Monarch population is down 80% in the last 20 years, mostly because of climate change and the chemicals that people put on their crops and lawns. Round Up weed killer and the herbicides that give us perfect lawns are the primary culprits in the Midwest, because they kill the milkweed which is the only host plant for the Monarch caterpillar and many of the wildflowers that the butterflies depend upon for nectar.
The Monarch is the only butterfly that migrates. The last generation of Midwest Monarchs, called the Methuselah generation, flies over 2,000 miles every fall to a winter home in Mexico. We could very easily lose that amazing migration from the Midwest to Mexico if these little guys don’t get a helping hand. The best thing that people can do is to plant milkweed and refrain from using pesticides. Recently ODOT and many local farmers have stopped mowing the milkweed that grows beside the road, and the migrating numbers are beginning to inch upward.
I didn’t intend to write about Monarchs, and I had other projects that I was already working on. But I wrote one poem about metamorphosis and then one more about releasing a newly-eclosed butterfly, and then suddenly I had a whole list of possible poems involving Monarchs. I always like poems that tell me something new, or have a scientific background to them, so these really fit the bill. And yes, I suppose I anthropomorphize them in some ways, but my intent is not to talk for the butterflies, but to show how we respond to them. We learn about our own thoughts and feelings, not what the caterpillar may be thinking as he mows through another milkweed leaf, slips into a chrysalis and emerges 10 days later as a butterfly. Anything observed closely makes a good poem, because we live on this amazing little planet where everything lives and dies.
J.I.: Do you have a regular writing regimen?
C.E.: Do I have a regular writing schedule? Ha! No, I don’t. I do walk a lot (with a dog) and that gives me time to think, I know that my writers group expects a poem from me every month, and I usually have no trouble turning one out, for better or worse. I keep a big sloppy journal with a lot of little observations, bits of dialogue and description, so I know I have something to fall back on every month. Mostly, I have too many ideas, and narrowing them down to something that I can finish is the biggest problem. I don’t court inspiration in any way–that is hokey–but I do try to pay attention! If the world has something to say to me, I hope I am at home when she comes to talk. Mostly, I like a poem to sneak up on me, present itself in a few words or as a little bit of irony that I can twizzle with until I know what it wants to say. I also write so I can figure out what I am thinking about. Thinking is such a messy mystery!
J.I.: You are a long-time member of a writing group. How important is it to belong to a committed circle of writers who share your passion?
C.E.: It’s hard for writers in rural Ohio to find each other, much less poets who are supportive of each other’s work. I am not a founding member of the Greenville Group, but I’ve been a part of their workshop for 30 years. Without them I would be an English teacher who just happened to have a few poems tucked into a drawer somewhere. Knowing that you have a dedicated group to read your work and to comment on what you are doing makes it possible for you to take chances and to expand your interests. We share publication information and celebrate each others’ successes. After all of these years, we are not just writers with a common interest, but good friends who wish the best for our members.
J.I.: Since you’ve been at this for a while, has your approach to poetry changed over time?
C.E.: I don’t think my approach to poetry has changed much through the years. I still hope for a poem to sneak up on me when I least expect it. I’ve become more confident that a poem will find its own natural conclusion, and I fret less over poems that don’t quite work. Give it a month, six months, a year or longer and you will come back to it as a different person with new ideas. I have things in my journals from 10 years ago that I still consider “an interesting work in progress.” When the time is right, the poem will find its own way. I guess I’ve learned not to panic if something isn’t working. I’ve learned not to force my own ideas on a poem, not to dictate what it might want to say.
J.I.: Do you recognize any new directions or trends in the poetry being written and published today? Do you have any advice for poets just starting out?
C.E.: Trends? Well, young poets are always looking for something new, a way to distinguish themselves from the literary past, and older poets are always lamenting that their “style” is no longer relevant. I do try to pay attention to who is editing a magazine before I submit to it. If it has a young staff with a lot of MFA students among their authors, they probably aren’t going to care for my work, which is more traditional–I like clarity and regular stanzas. That doesn’t mean that I don’t admire some very creative, experimental work. I hope if I was editing a magazine, I would make room for all kinds of poetry. It’s important to read what the magazine is publishing to see if your work might fit their aesthetic. But, it’s also important to take chances! Submit to a new funky magazine just to see if they might like your work. What do you have to lose?
J.I.: Poets don’t realize huge monetary gains from their work. What do you identify as the rewards of writing poetry?
C.E.: Rewards? I’ve never thought about the rewards that come from writing poetry, at least not much. It’s just something that I do. I like it when someone admires my poems. I like hanging out with other poets, who seem to be a lot less competitive than fiction writers. I like the acceptance from an editor I admire, but mostly I like knowing that I’ve said something in a memorable way, told a story that someone else has learned from.
J.I.: Can you share any plans you have for future work?
C.E.: I am writing some about the WWII generation, my parents’ generation. Another project that I promised myself I wasn’t going to write about, but here it is! I’d like to get braver about writing about family, a topic that I have mostly stayed away from. I guess this is a “heads up” to my family?
J.I.: Thank you, Cathy, for joining us this month. As always, I like to ask a few ‘Authors Workshop’ questions, so here goes. What’s your favorite comfort food?
C.E.: Comfort food — well, coffee isn’t a comfort food, but I can’t get along without it. Chocolate. And I like almost anything that I didn’t have to cook.
J.I.: And what are you reading these days?
C.E.: I am rereading some old Annie Dillard essays. I just finished Educated by Tara Westover, and am starting What the Robin Knows, by Jon Young, a nonfiction book about the grammar of birds. As for poetry, I am reading a lot of young poets at the moment and trying to help them organize their manuscripts. That requires a distance I don’t always have, so it’s slow. I read a lot of poetry journals–at the moment, Agni, Southern Poetry Review, Beloit, and Main Street Rag.
Cathy’s Bio, in her own words:
Cathryn Essinger is the author of three books of poetry–A Desk in the Elephant House, from Texas Tech University Press, My Dog Does Not Read Plato, and What I Know About Innocence, both from Main Street Rag.
Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The New England Review, Antioch Review, Rattle, River Styx, as well as PANK, Spillway, and Midwest Gothic. They have been nominated for Pushcarts and “Best of the Net,” featured on The Writer’s Almanac, and reprinted in American Life in Poetry.
She is a retired English professor who occasionally teaches poetry classes and workshops.
Contact Cathryn at the following: Cathrynessinger@gmail.com