Thursday, April 8, 2021 7:15 – 9:00 p.m.
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Carolyn Dahl was the winner of the “Poetry of the Plains and Prairies” chapbook competition sponsored by North Dakota State University. The press published her poems, A Muddy Kind of Love, as a limited edition, signed and numbered letterpress-printed book. Her 2019 chapbook, Art Preserves What Can’t Be Saved, won first place in the Press Women of Texas’ contest and the National Federation of Press Women’s Communications’ contest, chapbook division. She is the co-author of The Painted Door Opened with Carolyn Florek, the author of three art books, and has been published in many anthologies and literary journals. Raised in Minnesota, she now writes from Houston Texas where she raises monarch butterflies, releasing them into her garden. http://www.carolyndahlstudio.com.
CH: What is your first memory of poetry? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer? as a poet?
CD: First of all, let me thank Bookwoman Bookstore and Cindy Huyser for this opportunity to read from my two chapbooks and to be interviewed with such interesting questions. I’m grateful to participate in this series.
As to my earliest memory of poetry, I was maybe eight years old when I read a child’s poem called “Little Boy Blue” by Eugene Field and was reduced to tears. In that moment, I realized there were two kinds of language: the language of every day life and the crafted, heightened language of a poem that had the power to move emotions. For some reason though, it never occurred to me to write poetry myself until late in life, even though I had been a diligent journal keeper since age eleven. It was only after a career in singing/acting and visual art, and the publication of three art books, that I dared to think of myself as a Writer, as opposed to a writer. An invitation to visit a poetry group returned me to the beauty of language that had so moved me as a child and started my interest in composing poems of my own.
CH: You’re a visual artist as well as a poet. How would you describe yourself as an artist? How does your life as an artist influence your work as a poet?
CD: My professional career for twenty five years was mainly focused on textile art, though I also worked in a variety of other mediums. (www.carolyndahlstudio.com). I exhibited my work in many galleries, taught fabric dyeing and painting methods at national conferences, lectured, appeared on HGTV and PBS television, and wrote books and articles in my field. Because I have always worked in multiple methods, I had no difficulty adding poetry to my options because all my creative endeavors flow from the same source. I don’t change who I am when I make art versus write poetry, nor do I feel I’m in different zones as I switch from the verbal to the visual.
In fact, bouncing back and forth can be beneficial, such as when I’m having a difficult intellectual problem with a poem, I find that the change to a physical activity (art) often breaks open a solution. Working in both seems to suit me as I like the duality of perspectives and the satisfaction each brings.
CH: Tell us a little about your chapbook, Art Preserves What Can’t Be Saved (The Orchard Street Press, 2019). What was your vision for this book?
CD: When the publisher asked me to submit a chapbook after a poem of mine had won a finalist award, I admit I didn’t have one ready. Instead of presenting him with a collection of already written poems organized around a unified theme, I had to uncover a vision inherent in a diverse collection of poems I had on hand. The method I used was to print all the possible entries, lay them on the floor, write on each page the main components (subject, emotion, images), contemplate the topics intently, and read them out loud multiple times. As I worked with the poems, I began to see an organizing principle develop of four sections based on the theme of the Art of My Life, what is important to me (making art, empathy for others’ lives, respecting animals, poetry writing). I was fortunate to have the publisher accept the book, allow me some artistic input on the selection of the book’s cover, and to change to perfect binding instead of a stapled chapbook, which allows it to have a spine and be stocked in bookstores.
CH: Most recently, your chapbook A Muddy Kind of Love (North Dakota State University Press, 2020) won the “Poetry of the Plains and Prairies” chapbook competition sponsored by NDSU. First of all, congratulations on this recognition. What inspired this book? How did your process in writing and compiling this manuscript differ from that of Art Preserves What Can’t Be Saved? How was it the same?
CD: Thank you. I am very honored to have received this award from NDSU press and am especially pleased because it fulfilled a long held dream—to have a handmade, letterpress printed, signed and numbered collectors’ edition of my poems.
Unlike Art Preserves What Can’t Be Saved, these poems were written specifically to a theme (a disappearing way of life that I wished to preserve) and were part of a full-length manuscript I was writing. My first task was to decide which poems in the larger manuscript would lend themselves to the short form of a chapbook. I wanted it to read like a stand-alone book, totally sufficient to itself, without any gaps, or sense of missing poems in the through line of the theme.
Once again, I used my floor shuffle method to organize the book as I had with Art Preserves What Can’t Be Saved. Because the book features both a female and male perspectives, I also had to decide if I would group the poems by gender, or mix them together. After many arrangement tries, I chose the former because I thought it gave a more complex development of the characters through the power of a series. An interesting result of developing this chapbook that I hadn’t anticipated was that I gained insight into my larger work’s organization and how my poems moved through its pages. The process also refined my definition of what a chapbook was versus a full-length book and how different they are.
CH: The poems of A Muddy Kind of Love reflect a very different place than your current home in Houston. How does place figure in your work?
CD: Very prominently. Place is the constant atmosphere behind all the poems. It establishes tone, provides the conflict, stimulates images, and is often the catalyst for the poem’s existence. I once read that the landscape of where you grew up affects who you become, your attitudes, approach to life, and dominates your memories, and that the places you live later don’t change your personality that much. I don’t know if this has been proven true, but perhaps it accounts for why so many people write about the terrain of their birth.
A Muddy Love Kind of Love is set in the past, in a rural midwestern environment (though similar farms and lives exist everywhere), uses the concrete diction of the area, and relies heavily on my memories of Minnesota. However, this dedication to place isn’t static, but could shift with each book I write. A Muddy Kind of Love relies on this Midwest landscape to spur the narratives of its poems; whereas, Art Preserves What Can’t Be Saved ranges through many locations, my travels, and my life in Houston. Different environments always stimulate different poetic responses. What stays the same may be how you approach your topics.
CH: I was fascinated several years ago to learn you raise monarch butterflies, and I’m curious about your experience. What have you learned from this experience? How does the time and attention raising butterflies demands relate to the demands of art and writing? How has this experience influenced your art and writing?
CD: Raising Monarch butterflies has been my passion for many years. I can’t even remember when I started. If I am successful, I may produce 100-200 butterflies a year. That’s not a lot for a short-lived, fragile creature. But nurturing nature can’t be measured in numbers, nor the pleasure of living with wings described. I consider it a privilege instead of a task. In return, they allow me to observe their form of life closely, with all its strange and fascinating habits (did you know some caterpillars nod their heads in time to singing), which forces my imagination into new areas. Such as, what does a caterpillar think about music? You can’t exactly google a caterpillar’s mind.
Many similarities can be found between the writing ritual and raising butterflies. Feeding caterpillars five times a day for many weeks echos the writing ritual of “showing up for the muse.” The thrill of the transformative process matches how a triggering idea becomes a poem, and the excitement of releasing the hatched butterflies into my garden clearly equals the joy of watching a new book move out into the world. More importantly, raising butterflies brings a sense of awe, beauty and wonder into my daily, often repetitive life. It is this awe that energizes my desire to write.
CH: In addition to your poetry books, you’re also the author of three art books. Where do the processes of creating an art book and a poetry book overlap?
CD: When I write an art book, it is like writing two books at once. I must compose an interesting text, the how-to step-outs which are an art form in themselves, and then create the art that illustrates the text. It is a very long process, requiring a shifting back and forth between verbal and visual skills all in the same book. As a poet I work mainly with words and don’t need to consider how they will be illustrated. When I am finished, I turn the manuscript over to a publisher to decide any visuals. A poetry book has a somewhat set format also, is divided into sections usually, whereas art books take a variety of formats with no standard presentation.
CH: Do you have a particular medium you prefer as an artist? A particular form or aesthetic to which you’re drawn in poetry?
CD: Now that I no longer teach around the country, and only exhibit my textile art by invitation, I am returning to doing mainly drawings. Perhaps the presence of 100 sheets of white paper waiting in my studio to be filled with images motivates me. I can’t ignore blank surfaces for very long. As to what aesthetic attracts me in poetry, I tend to favor free verse, narrative, imagistic, nature referenced, and poetry where the surreal bumps up against reality.
CH: Who are some poets whose work has influenced yours?
CD: I don’t know if these poets influenced my style or technique. I tend to avoid dissecting poets’ work that I love because it loses some magic when I return to it. But these poets have certainly stunned, excited, taken my breath away, and saddened me because I wished so badly that their lines were mine: Mary Oliver for her alertness to nature, Kevin Prufer for intellectual complexity, Ted Kooser for the brilliance of the ordinary, and Bridget Pegeen Kelly for her ability to make me feel I’m in the middle of an incantation. However, when I begin to write, I find I’m taken over by a very strong inner voice that I fear often obliterates other poets’ influences. Of course, I could be wrong because influences are absorbed unconsciously. A reader might be able to detect an influence in my work that I do not see. Poets aren’t always aware of what is in their own poems.
CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?
CD: I am reading a lot of poets from other countries now. I just finished Dear Ms. Schubert, translations by Robin Davidson of Polish Ewa Lipska’s poems. With a pencil in hand, which is the way I always read, I enjoyed underlining incredible phrases like: “…I open my mouth and flip the switch in my throat,” or “…I won’t translate the words for you I never said,” or “…last page was torn out of the flying bird of messages,” and “…he dreams of a literary pandemic capable of claiming millions of victims.” Wow.