Thursday, June 10, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Feature Christine H. Boldt will be reading from her inaugural poetry collection, For Every Tatter (Lamar University Press, 2021). Boldt, a retired librarian, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria in the 1960s, lived in Italy during the 1970s, and has lived in Texas for forty years. She has published in Christianity and Crisis, the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, and Working Mother. Her poetry has appeared in Christian Century, Windhover, The Texas Poetry Calendar, Bearing the Mask, Adam, Eve, and the Riders of the Apocalypse, the Poetry Society of Texas’ Book of the Year; Red River Review, Ilyia’s Honey, and Encore. Her collection Missing, One Muse: The Poetry of Sylvia St. Stevens was selected as the winner of the 2018 Alabama State Poetry Society Morris Memorial Chapbook Competition.
CH: What are your first memories of poetry? What was your experience with poetry growing up?
CHB: My first memory is of my having an ability to memorize verse easily. When I was three, my grandmother would ask me to entertain her bridge club by standing next to the fire place in our living room and reciting nursery rhymes.
My father, who had memorized a great deal of Nineteenth Century poetry as a boy, recited it to me in lieu of bedtime stories. In both elementary and high school I was required to do lots of memorization. Students were asked to take turns standing in front of the class and repeating the poetry they had learned. I took what were called “elocution lessons” from a private tutor who required even more memorization. I also compensated for not being able to carry a tune by memorizing ALL the verses of hymns, and not just hits songs from Broadway Musicals but all the witty patter that preceded the stars’ bursting into song.
When, at age 12, I received a gift of money during the holidays, I bought a copy of the Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and spent evenings beside the Christmas tree reading her work. I still return to those poems each year during the holidays.
CH: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?
CHB: In Elementary School in Buffalo, New York, I won two city-wide essay contests. These affirmations encouraged me to write. Because of all the poems swirling around in my head, poetry seemed the natural way to express my interest in writing, but after college I set poetry aside for about 40 years.
CH: I understand you volunteered with the Peace Corps in Nigeria in the 1960s, and lived in Italy in the 1970s. How have these experiences shaped your perspective? In what ways have they influenced your writing?
CHB: Living in foreign countries required me to appreciate life from other peoples’ point of view. It also taught me empathy for “outsiders,” (since I was one), and it challenged me to question my own assumptions. Most of my poetry is preoccupied with character study of one kind or another. I turn to poetry when I want to puzzle out why people think and behave as they do.
Language exposure has been another plus of foreign travel. Being conversant with Latin, French, and Italian gives me many more words to use as building blocks when I construct my poetry.
People in the countries where I lived or visited had amazing traditions of expressing religious thought through sculpture and painting. Although I did not write poetry during the years I lived abroad, when I returned to poetry in my later life, I was prompted write ekphrasic poems and poems with religious themes because of sensitivities I had developed in my years of travel.
CH: You had a long career as a librarian. What do you see as the influence of this career on your development as a poet?
CHB: Well, as a reference librarian I was astounded by the variety of things people wondered about. I was so curious about library patrons’ interests that I was encouraged to think someone else might be interested in the things I reflect on. Often the answers to reference questions seemed like poetic metaphors just waiting to be tapped.
CH: Tell us a little about your chapbook, Missing (New Dawn Unlimited, 2018), which won the Morris Memorial Chapbook Contest of the Alabama State Poetry Society. How did you collect and assemble this manuscript? What did you learn from this process?
CHB: I imagine that everybody who writes poetry writes ars poetica, poems about writing poetry. It is not strange that the processes we are involved in, and the discoveries we make, would be one of the chief topics of conversation we have with ourselves. But it is also likely that writing poems about writing poetry is a guarantee of having a small audience for one’s work. When I found myself writing too many of those poems, I decided that I either had to own them or quit writing them. So I imagined a persona, a character named Sylvia, who stumbles into poetry for all the wrong reasons, has a comeuppance, and then approaches poetry again from a new perspective. Each poem Sylvia “writes” is a milestone on her journey. I hoped her path into poetry could be emblematic of the paths that others might take in crafting their own lives. Assembling this manuscript made me wish that I had learned about poetry by reading entire volumes written by individual poets, rather than by reading the anthologies that were the texts for most of my classes. I learned a collection needs a narrative thread that holds the poems together.
CH: For Every Tatter (Lamar University Literary Press, 2021) is exquisite in its treatment of aging, both from the standpoint of individuals who are reaching their later years and from the perspectives of those around them. How long has the subject of aging been a writerly obsession for you? How did you come about deciding to use an excerpt from William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” as an organizing principle for the book?
CHB: Thank you. I think I have been writing this book for most of my life. I grew up in a four-generation household where the difficulties of aging were much discussed by my grandparents and great-grandparents. Often my parents would take me aside to explain what it was my elders were experiencing. They always described our elders through a prism of love, and always assured me that “One day you will understand.” And, sure enough, I have. As I began to age, I wrote more and more poems on the various aspects of aging, but I could never decide how to organize them. Yeats has been a favorite poet since I read some of his poems in a children’s anthology “Silver Pennies,” seventy years ago. I was listening to a CD of his poetry while driving in my car one day and was struck by the verse from “Sailing to Byzantium” that I have used to introduce my book:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
I thought that I might use each line of that verse to headline a group of poems offered by different voices: In the first section I would have old folks reflecting on the disabling factors of age. In the second I would present the voices of younger people as they regard their elders rather critically. I then envisioned a third section where the older voices would remark on the joys of aging, and a fourth where young people would express admiration for their elders. I soon realized that the third and fourth sections would need to be combined because many of the joys of aging are found in the interactions between the elderly and the young people who are a part of their lives. With this scheme in mind, I began to order each section so that it moved from a confusion of emotions toward resolution and acceptance.
CH: Many of the poems in For Every Tatter take on lyric forms. Who are some of your influences in lyric poetry?
CHB: The Romantic and Victorian poetry my father recited for me when I was young still rings in my ears today: poems like “Abu ben Adhem” by Leigh Hunt, “The Children’s Hour” by Tennyson, and “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray. Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Yeats, Frost, and Dickinson, came into the picture pretty early on. Auden is very important to me. Galway Kinnell is another poet whose writing has meant a lot to me. But then every poet whose work is in my CD collection or whom I have heard read at the Georgetown Poetry Festival, or at Roundtop, or at Baylor’s Beall Poetry Festival in the last twenty years has left his or her mark. It was a highlight of my Covid Year to be able to Zoom the Dodge Poetry Festival!
CH: I was struck by your deft use of received form throughout the book. What are some of the challenges you find working in form? What calls you to the use of form? What informs the decisions that you make to alter received form, as you do with the rhyme scheme in “The Changeling?”
CHB: I think I was imprinted by exposure to so much rhythmic poetry as a child. Rhythm does not come easy to me. I have tried mapping stressed and unstressed syllables and simply can’t do it. I just have to keep saying the words over and over again and making corrections until they sound right. But I keep at it because I need form. I need to build some kind of structure in which I can think my thoughts, have my feelings and express them without being overwhelmed by them. I recall someone once describing a formal poem as a rubber room in which one could bounce to her heart’s content.
As many people have discovered, concentrating on form lowers a poet’s guard, allowing unexpected words and ideas to slip into a stanza, words and ideas that might otherwise have been held at bay by logic, prudery, or fear. And I have been struck by the way rondels, pantoums, and villanelles echo our thinking processes as we mull over decisions in our lives rehearsing and rerehearsing our decisions.
I am happiest when I can create a poem with true rhymes, but I will always prefer to use near rhymes, or an extra beat, when it is a choice between doing that and contorting the syntax of a poem.
CH: How was the process of creating For Every Tatter different from that of creating Missing? If you had one piece of advice to share with a poet working on their first full-length collection, what would it be?
CHB: In both cases it was a matter of finding a pattern. Missing has only one voice, Sylvia’s. Well, actually, it has two, because each poem “written” by the Sylvia has a second, ironic title which comments on her thoughts and behavior. Perhaps it is better to say that Missing is the story of one woman coming to understand her life and her gifts. Tatter’s organization was trickier because I tried to include as many voices and perspectives on aging as I was able to create. Each section is a somewhat random compilation of voices, but I still tried to nudge the poems in each section–and the combined sections–toward definite conclusions.
I guess I would have to give two pieces of advice that helped me: First, to read other poets books from cover to cover and think consciously about their organization. Second, to identify the story you want to tell and to keep shuffling the poems until their order allows the story to be told. That process may require writing poems that fill in missing pieces of the “story.”
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry that you’ve read?
CHB: Bonfire Opera by Danusha Laméris. Wonderful!