The Poet's Story: Interview with Naomi Thiers
I’ve had the good fortune of spending a lot of time with your poetry collections, “Made of Air” (Kelsay Books, 2020) and “Only the Raw Hands are Heaven” (Washington Writers Publishing House, 1992). They’ve helped me through some hard moments in the past couple of months, so thank you. Your imagery is gorgeous, but it’s remarkable how often I’m taken by your last line(s). Might you speak to that a little? Do you know where a poem is going from the outset? Do you sometimes have the last stanza or image in mind and work backwards? Or does a piece more typically just lead you to its end through the writing?
Great question! I never have the last line in mind when I start a poem, though I often have a fully formed first line, which is what starts me writing the poem. I just start writing and the last line comes as it comes. I may have a sense of where the poem will end up, what thought or thought-twist will be at the end, but almost never the actual last line. So, I get to that last line as I write and can tell the poem’s coming to an end (at least the end for that draft). Ideally whatever words and sounds have come along as I’ve been writing suggest and sort of make inevitable the last line--that’s in the best cases. Sometimes it’s really hard to find the last line—and I settle for something that seems to work.
It’s usually more important to me to bring into the last line the sounds and ideas that ping through the poem—not to bring in a new or strong image. I like when the last line kind of resonates into the air the idea, emotion, or tone that weaves through the poem, condenses it in a memorable way—and by that I don’t mean a “summary". A summary at the end of a poem is deadly!
Your question got me looking at the last lines—the last word—of the poems in my first book and Made of Air. I realized I very often end on some concrete, elemental word, a simple noun that has a lot of resonance: sleep, flame, bread, blade, table, page, scar, laugh, children…. words like that. I almost never end on a detailed image or an abstract word-— the one poem in Made of Air ends with transaction! I’d noticed before that in my first book (Only the Raw Hands Are Heaven), several poems ended on the word god. It’s not a book of religious poetry at all, but I was struggling with some questions about faith and religion at that time. So, I counted: 5 poems in that book have as their last word either god or pray, and 2 end on the word live. For whatever that’s worth!
That’s surprising to me, that such powerful last lines come to you in process. It makes me think of divine intervention, which then has me wondering about your use of religious imagery. I can ask another question if this is too personal (I’m one to go for religion and politics talks at dinner, heh), just let me know, but when you write “god” in a poem, what or who do you have in mind?
I could write pages on that! The word god could mean different things in
different poems—and what the concept means, how I use it in poems, has evolved.
Definitely the word doesn’t mean a being or a presence or usual things people
might think; It always means something I don’t understand. There is a tradition in
all faiths, including the Protestant faith I was raised in called apophatic—it’s the
idea that “god” is un- understandable, that we can’t truly know anything about
any god even if we follow a faith because anything we’d conclude about
something divine is just a human construct, an idea limited by our finiteness—so
faith means to “take delight in nonempirical realities that we glimpse.” I’m
quoting the religious scholar Karen Armstrong there, I draw on that apophatic
tradition, which I discovered by reading Armstrong’s book The Case for God. I
don’t draw energy from, pray to, etc. anything like what people would think of as
a god. It’s not even if I “believe” that’s important to me—it’s my religious
community and the ritual of it, and the tradition of seeking. I talk about this in
some poems, like “For Monica and All Believers” and about religion more
conventionally a bit in In Yolo County, because my grandmother, who that book
is about, was religious. But I’m getting away from talking about writing! So I’ll
just say that how I conceive of faith is closer to the way “primitive” people did.
Armstrong writes: primitive people “weren’t expected to believe [a myth] in the
abstract; like any mythos, it depended on the ritual associated with the cult.”
Fascinating. Yes, I see now, the “un -understandable” and your fluid use of “god”. Thank you for such a thoughtful response!
You go so many places in your work, geographically as well as in purpose — documenting governmental atrocities, uplifting familiar others, celebrating family. In thinking of the range of your poetry, all tied together by your singular, powerful, compassionate and clear voice, I have a couple of questions. 1) When you sit to write, are you typically thinking of an individual poem or are you thinking of adding to a collection. And 2) Do you have a sense of what you think the role of poetry is or should be?
To answer 1): I’m always just thinking of the individual poem—of whatever image, word flotsam, or story hooked me into that poem. I just look up when I have a bunch, maybe 35 good poems, and then I’ll try to gather the children under one big umbrella—like poems written while my daughter was young, “houses yards & fields” poems, portraits of women, or what have you--so they fit into one category. Then that group could become a book, or a section.
I mean—unless you’re a poet with some giant reputation, most of us can’t just decide on a theme or scheme to use to shape a collection, write around 40 good poems that fit the theme, take a year or so to get that book published—then repeat the process, and three years later have a different set of poems with another focus that then becomes a book. There’s some idea when you’re in grad school, I mean if you get an MFA degree, when you’re writing your manuscript, obsessing on the order, that it works like that-- but for who does it work like that? There are so many people now trying to publish! So I just write what comes to me. After a while, I have a mass of poems, then I figure out ways to slice & dice those into various groupings that hang together in a way that might get published. Maybe put 28 into a chapbook grouping. Or gather in every poem I can make sit under one umbrella for a themed contest I have a shot at. The only time I had a collection in mind was when I wrote poems about my grandparents’ small-town courtship in 1920’s California—my book In Yolo County. I knew certain events and aspects of their courting I wanted to include, coming from their voices, and had an idea of what I wanted various poems to express, so I deliberately wrote to hit those points. That was fun.
As to #2, I’m going to say very little because many writers, critics--whole books—have said SO much about the “role of poetry”. Many take the question very seriously. I think we need to take it a little more lightly. A lot of poetry is about delight and energy, like music. Yes, poems can tackle social issues and make change, they can shake people up, but to me poetry is a just an exciting genre among other genres—I don’t see it as having an exalted role. I think of the role of poetry in terms of energy: by helping us feel something fresh (through language), a poem brings energy—and it brings as much energy to the one writing the poem as to any reader. If you write a poem that never gets published or read, something fantastic has still happened! This quote from Jimmy Santiago Baca, which I love, sums it up: “When you work at a poem long enough—if you just do that one poem and don’t worry about anything else—then the imagery of one verse line exudes a sparkling fountain of energy that fills your spirit.”
Wow, Naomi, I love these responses! Especially to that second part. If I’m ever asked that question, I might just quote your whole answer. “If you write a poem that never gets published or read, something fantastic has still happened!” Yes! I couldn’t agree more!
If you don't mind another personal question, I know your partner, Greg Luce is also an incredible Poet. I think many of us poets romanticize what sharing years with another creative writer would be like. I love biographies or collections of letters of literary couples through history. So might you just speak a little to your relationship in the context of your work. To what extent does your poetry inspire each other's work? Are there particular challenges in sharing the same art as your partner, maybe in way of balancing writing and the day to day or submitting to the same publications or for the same readings?
I’ll just say a little. It’s good—it’s wonderful to share something meaningful like poetry with my partner, something that’s a serious, fascinating activity, not just us both being a fan of a singer or something. It’s like a rich language we both speak. It feels good to both get excited about a development in the poetry world—like when Phillip Levine, who we both love, was made Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, we were both thrilled. We do give each other feedback on poems, and it usually goes well, even when we’re critical. It’s one thing we don’t fight about!
Professional jealousy does occasionally creep in when one of us is having more success in writing. Right now, I feel small pricks of jealousy at times because Greg’s retired, so has more time to submit, seek out readings, etc., so he gets published more than me, and more attention as a poet. But it’s not a huge deal. . . we’re mostly happy for each other’s success. And Greg’s always giving me ideas or where to submit and opportunities. He’s super generous and supportive.
How did you get into writing poetry?
That’s hard to say exactly. Like a lot of poets, I was always interested in the sound of words in a playful way, from super young. My family had a set of books called Childcraft—they were digests of literature and things about culture for children—and I loved to read the poetry ones. It was things like Carl Sandberg and excerpts from Longfellow. When I was 7, someone gave me a book called Hailstones and Halibut Bones—10 longish rhyming poems in the same style, packed with concrete imagery, each one about a color—and I loved that book, the sound of the poems in my head, the images. All through childhood I gravitated toward juicy language and poems if they weren’t just cute or sentimental. Edward Lear, Lewis Carrol. . .and I can still remember poems other kids wrote in class as far back as second grade that I liked—literally! In my early teens I got into Wordsworth and Blake and started memorizing, and then I started writing my own dreadful little rhyming things in my journal. At that time, the genre I was serious about was singing. I had voice training and was in top choirs, but poetry was always waiting. In college, I took creative writing classes, had good teachers. . .that’s when I really started trying to be good—and being recognized as being good at this thing, and publishing. So it just went from there.
Writing was something I just fell into more and more because I dug words, sounds, and imagery. There was never some time I decided “I’m going to be a poet.” But there was one moment when I decided to pursue an MFA. I was at a reading at the Writers Center in mid-‘80’s and one reader mentioned she had just gotten her MFA in poetry (this is when that wasn’t so common). I suddenly just thought— poetry school! I’m going to do that! I went to George Mason and studied with Carolyn Forche and the amazing Susan Tichy—it was a very full education in poetry. That sealed it as direction, part of my identity. I still meet to work on poems with a few people I took classes with at GMU in 1989 and 1990.
Well, I for one am grateful for the path you've taken. I look forward to reading more of your work and hearing you read. And now I have it in mind to hope to one day hear you sing!
Thank you so much for your time and thought-provoking responses. It’s been a pleasure!
Bio: Naomi Thiers grew up in California and Pittsburgh, but her chosen home is Washington-DC/Northern Virginia. She is author of four poetry collections: Only The Raw Hands Are Heaven (WWPH), In Yolo County, and She Was a Cathedral (Finishing Line Press) and Made of Air (Kelsay Books). Her poems, book reviews, and essays have been published in Virginia Quarterly Review , Poet Lore, Colorado Review, and others. Her latest book Made of Air is available at www.kelsaybooks.com or directly from her at this PayPal link: https://paypal.me/madeofair (Cost $14, with all profit made going to CASA MD for their DC-area work with local asylum seekers/immigrants if you order from the author).