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Q&A with Poetry Contributor Holly Wren Spaulding

Holly Wren Spaulding’s most recent book is If August (Alice Greene & Co., 2017). She is the founder of Poetry Forge and teaches at Interlochen College of Creative Arts.

Her poems “Crocus” and “Starling” will appear in the Winter 2019 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, January 13, for special savings.

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“Crocus” and “Starling” are such brief, sonic titles. How do you decide what to call a piece?

You make a good point about the sounds of these words, which also evoke the things themselves. I love that a single word can do all of that immediately.

These two poems belong to a larger body of work called Lost Lexicon, in which every title is a “nature” word that was deleted from a popular children's dictionary when editors made room for new technology words. In total, I've written about 70 poems as a way of salvaging this lexicon of the natural world and giving space and voice to the beings and places they represent. In many cases, I decided that the flower or bird or plant itself would speak, as with “Crocus,” which provided an opportunity to explore the uses of persona. But in general, I tend to find my titles in the language of the poems themselves— or in fragments I cut during revision.

The images of “Starling” build a connection to place. How do you approach writing a setting? Do you often write about where you are at that moment?

I'm influenced by the haiku practice of capturing the “now moment,” and write with my senses as much as anything else. Deliberate observation lies at the heart of my practice. “Starling” is a little different because I imagined it rather than experiencing it, although I was inspired by my correspondence with a friend in Marfa, Texas. I started looking at photographs of the area, which soon reminded me of a road trip I took to that part of the country after high school, and all of these elements came together to give me a setting. That said, it came out more or less whole cloth, and I attribute this to a mood. It was an almost dream-state, when I wrote it. I can revise forever, but this version looks so close to the first draft. I can only think of one thing I cut. A line toward the end: We walk into it.

Brevity is key in these poems, particularly “Crocus.” When do you know it’s time to end a line? End the poem?

For the last few years, I've been experimenting with setting type in a letterpress, which forces you to reckon with every word and piece of punctuation in a way that I've found revelatory. It also prompts new thinking about the role that layout and design play in the overall experience of a poem on the page. I'm interested in writing super condensed poems with the goal of achieving some kind of immediacy, as well as a “continuance of ripple,” to use Jane Hirshfield's phrase, and brevity seems the best vehicle for that. Our world is noisy and overwhelming. My poems are experiments in compelling a reader's attention and holding it for a moment before they turn away or resist the poem. I'm also interested in what happens when a poem is short enough that you remember it without any extra effort. Some of the poems in Lost Lexicon have only two lines. They're composed with a heightened awareness of silence, or the white space of the page.

What and/or who are your writing obsessions at the moment?

My favorite poetry reading experience of the past year was Alice Oswald's Memorial: A Version of Homer's Iliad. I don't usually gravitate toward epic poetry, or even long poems, but this book seduced me from page one. In its introduction, Oswald explains that she translated “the Iliad's atmosphere, not its story” in an attempt to retrieve what ancient critics called its enargeia, or “bright unbearable reality.” Her use of repetition and simile and the vividness of the description put me into such a beautiful trance and did cool things for my own writing, as well. I admire that book so much.