Interview with Wendy Mnookin, Author of Dinner with Emerson

Photograph of poet Wendy Mnookin
Poet Wendy Mnookin, author of Dinner with Emerson
Poet Wendy Mnookin and I travel in similar orbits in the Boston poetry scene, but our paths have never intersected in person. I was happy to be able to speak with her via email about her most recent book Dinner with EmersonA veteran poet with five books to her name, Mnookin has taught poetry at Emerson College, Boston College, Grub Street, and at workshops around the country. Her honors include an NEA Fellowship, a book prize from the New England Poetry Club, and several Pushcart Prize nominations. Her work has been featured on Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac and Poetry Daily. We spoke about the difference between tone and voice, the choices she made while compiling each of her manuscripts, and the relationship between her teaching and her writing practice.

What first brought you to poetry?

I have always been a reader, and, in my own way, a writer, mostly scribbling in journals. By the time my third child started kindergarten and I could see blocks of free time appearing in my life, I took a plunge into more dedicated writing and signed up for a poetry course at the Radcliffe Seminars Program. Ruth Whitman was teaching the course and I fell in love–with the reading, the discussion, and most of all, with the regular writing. I took courses there for several years and then attended the low-residency program at Vermont College, where I got my MFA. Although I don’t think courses are necessary for someone starting out in poetry, the structure helped me explore, build confidence, and establish a network of other writers who were serious about their work.

Cover photo for the poetry collection Dinner with Emerson by Wendy MnookinDinner with Emerson has a wonderfully consistent voice. As you’ve grown as a poet, do you find that your poems generally speak with one voice, or did you compile this collection because of the cohesiveness of the voice?

I recognize a cohesiveness in the voice–present day woman talking in mostly accessible, often conversational, language. My own perception of the poems is that they move between poems that are narrative, often conversational in tone, and those that are more metaphoric and elliptical. “Woolen Hat” and “In the Small Rotary” are examples of the more narrative poems, while “Midsummer Opera” and “Dream of Snow” are examples of the more elliptical. For me, it’s important to have the welcoming accessibility of the narrative poems and at the same time to include poems that ask the reader to enter a dream space. So I guess the answer would be that I compiled the collection more with an eye to thematic concerns than to voice.

Many of the poems in this book have to do with family dynamics, but the book itself is arranged in a cycle of seasons. I’m assuming the chronology is metaphorical rather than literal. Some of the poems, such as “In the Small Rotary” or “Woolen Hat,” quite obviously belong to a certain season. But some of the poems’ placements are more metaphorical. What was the journey that you wanted to take your reader on, and why did you organize the book the way that you did?

In addition to organizing the poems around seasons, they are also (roughly) organized within each section from morning to night, so there are those two cycles operating within the book. Whether or not the reader recognizes this consciously, I hope that the recurring cycles suggest the way we experience life, with the past looping into the present and the present pressing up against the future. I am more interested in that complication than in books that proceed with a straightforward chronology.

You’re the author of several books of poetry. Has your process for creating and ordering manuscripts changed over time?

My first three books tell specific stories. Guenever Speaks tells my version of the life of Guenever in the legend of Camelot. To Get Here chronicles our family’s experience with my son’s drug addiction, and What He Took looks at my father’s early death in a car accident and the experience of loss in my life. So the structure of these books is at least somewhat dictated by the order of events. My last two books are less focused on a central incident, so I had more freedom in coming up with structure. But I think writing those first books made me attentive to creating some kind of story line that weaves the poems together, and I have worked toward that in putting my manuscripts together.

Your book doesn’t deal explicitly with politics or gender issues, but I ask all my guests this question:  Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

I think that women telling their stories is a feminist act. Although women’s stories are more accepted than they used to be, there are still many ways in which these stories are pushed to the side–sometimes by the writer herself. Daily life is an important subject for art, and the more women tell their own stories, the more these stories will be counted as worthy of attention.

You’ve taught in a number of different venues, including at colleges, Grub Street, elementary and high schools, and various workshops. What has it been like for you to work with so many different kinds of students?

For me, each type of teaching has its appeal. I loved semester-length teaching, because it gave me a chance to get to know my students and the time to explore topics in more depth. On the other hand, I loved the intensity of one-day workshops, and, of course, the lack of grading! The elementary and high school students were often less hampered than older students by a conception of what poetry “should” be, and so were more willing to experiment.

How do you think teaching affects your own writing?

On the best days I would be energized by the reading, by having to think more formally about poetry, and of course by the students’ own writing. Then there were the days I was exhausted and
couldn’t find time for my own writing.

What does your writing practice look like today?

I write best when I write every day, preferably in the morning, before the day’s tasks and concerns take over. Right now I am on a break from writing, something that often happens after I have a book published. I don’t like it, but I have come to live with the understanding that I need time to fill up again after the work of writing and assembling a manuscript.

What would you tell poets seeking a publisher for their first manuscript?

I started out sending my manuscript to contests, but that was expensive–and I wasn’t getting to the final cut. So what I did was figure out which were my five favorite poetry presses, and then I wrote to each with a paragraph on why I liked their press, ten poems and the table of contents, as well as a brief bio. That’s how I got to BOA Editions. It seems that might still be a good way. I’d also explore cooperatives if I were starting out now. Some seem very appealing.

Dinner with Emerson is available for sale at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA; Newtonville Books in Newton, MA; at the publisher’s website; and on Amazon.com.

Visit Wendy’s website at WendyMnookin.com

Boston Area Poetry Readings for December 2016 and January 2017

Without further ado I present the latest missive from poet Daniel Bouchard: a listing of most of the poetry happenings in Boston and environs. All towns are in Massachusetts except where noted. Give the gift that keeps on giving, and help a starving poet or two and buy their book. They make great holiday presents and the Muse will love you.

Wednesday, December 7, 6:30 pm
Adam Scheffler and Clint Smith
Cambridge Public Library
449 Broadway
Cambridge
Free parking available in garage accessed from Broadway

Continue reading Boston Area Poetry Readings for December 2016 and January 2017

Haiku from Warmer Days

Today, the first snow of the winter came whispering down. In cold weather, smells don’t carry as well. Winter brings with it a different kind of beauty made of solitude, clarity, and dreams in the dark. Here’s a moment from warmer days to dream of:

After dark in the park
the feathery larch
smells me her secrets

Turmoil, Three Miracles

Three small miracles I saw today because I forced myself outside for a walk:

Two tiny finches circling and twittering around one another, one with a bright splash of orange on the top of its head, and another with a bright splash of yellow in the same spot

Three grey tufted titmice, who used to come to my feeder all the time when I lived closer to woods

A whole little flock of birds I don’t know how to identify, but who may be cedar waxwings: the size of a robin, but with a brilliant side patch of orange and an orange beak.

Also, deer tracks.

Some things keep happening in spite of humanity’s foibles. Even in times of great catastrophe, even in times of war and death and turmoil, the sun rises, the spring comes, the leaves fall, the birds migrate.

Dispatches from an MFA: Nonlinear Time

As so many writers do, I’ve been letting the perfect get in the way of the good when it comes to these dispatches. I thought it would be a simple matter to re-purpose some of the prose that I sent along with my monthly packets, but the work involved in creating the packets (along with all of my less writerly responsibilities) makes even that relatively easy task more difficult than anticipated. I’m sure I’ll share that work at a later point. But for right now, let me discuss a thorny problem I’ve been having when it comes to my own poems — a craft element, as one would call it in the creative-writing MFA world.

The great problem I’m working on this month is the use of nonlinear time in a single poem — how to transition from one scene to another and to another or back to the first while making the poem feel all of a piece. There’s a lot of talk about keeping the reader in the “moment” of the poem, so this feels like an advanced technique to me, and one that I really want to master.

I did a lot of hunting for poems that use this particular technique and finally had to resort to crowdsourcing (thank God/dess for one particular Facebook community of women poets) to find relevant poems. So far, most of my work this packet has been of the thinking, reading, and researching variety, so it’s a relief to have at least half of one craft annotation finished. I’m trying not to think about the relatively short time remaining before the entire thing is due. As Anne Lamott would say, you do it bird by bird.

Here’s a listing of the poems I’ve found so far, with links where appropriate and bibliographical references where not:

So far, the key seems to be anchoring the work in one particular image or phrase, especially by beginning and ending with it. While I’ve been aware of Robert Pinksy’s work since I moved to Boston 16 years ago, it wasn’t until I read “Shirt” that I became aware of the depth of his own craft. This poem in particular swings back and forth from the moment of putting on a shirt to all the implications of the object itself — stitched together most appropriate with the poetic technique of cataloging and the metric iambs he uses in his lists.

Do you know of a particular poem that also deals with nonlinear time?


Two clock faces photo credit Ron Kroetz via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0

Boston Area Poetry Readings for October and November 2016

Poetry readings in Boston and environs abound well into November this year. Of special note: a celebration of Latin American Poetry at the Center Communities of Brookline on Sunday, October 16; Liz Janick and Grey Held at Newtonville Books on Monday, November 7; and three evenings in a row of readings at the Granoff Center for the Arts in Providence, Rhode Island.

Full listings follow.

Continue reading Boston Area Poetry Readings for October and November 2016

Hello, I Am Still Queer

In honor of National Coming Out Day, I present below an essay I first published on my site about 20 years ago. Sexuality and identity run on a spectrum. Today I tend to identify as a queer femme. I like the word queer because it is all-encompassing, placing me in solidarity not only with socially-acceptable gay, lesbian, and bisexual monogamous couples, but with all the rest of us: gender rebels, transfolks, bisexuals, straight supporters, heteroflexibles, kinksters, and others with complicated identities. We all deserve a place in the world and we all have something to contribute.

Because I present visually as gender-typical and my partner is a man, my queer identity is largely invisible today. It doesn’t change the fact that I feel passionately about issues of gender equality in all its forms, and about the ways that gender issues intersect with issues of race, national origin, class, and disability. I’m proud of the way that the queer liberation movement has evolved over the last couple of decades, not only in terms of legal protections for same-sex couples, but also for the new awareness and advocacy for trans folks and for femmes of all genders.

On the Definition of a Lesbian Continue reading Hello, I Am Still Queer

Open Letter to My Friends With Kids

I’m glad you had your babies. I’m glad good people are raising the next generation. Your children are beautiful and special and I enjoy watching them play with you and take their first steps and say profound things at bedtime.

Sometimes I’m annoyed because it seems like some of you have lost your identity and spend all your time posting photos of your children, but then again I’m sure I annoy a lot of people with my endless photos of our cats and our garden — not to mention my #365feministselfie project. Continue reading Open Letter to My Friends With Kids

Rafael’s Question, by Carla Drysdale

My son carries the name
of the healing archangel. He

sits on my lap, at the computer’s
luminous screen. We look at photos

of my parents, divorced
when I was two. Their faces

sagging, eyes hopeful.
Still alive, but their visits to us

number less than a handful
in his five-year-old life.

Sometimes, after brushing our teeth
he’ll say, “Mom, make it like a river.”

And I’ll cup my palms together
under running water, and he’ll drink.

Tonight as we sit together
I’m silent, because it’s hard to explain.

He asks,” “Do you still love them?”
So gently, so gently.

Carla Drysdale, from Inheritance, published by Finishing Line Press. Republished with permission of the poet.

Photo credit: Daniel Padua via Flickr, Creative Commons License 2.0.