Deborah Bogen will be the featured reader Thursday, May 10, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),
Deborah Bogen’s four books of poems are In Case of Sudden Free Fall, Jacar Press Poetry Prize, 2017, Let Me Open You a Swan, Elixir Press Antivenom Prize 2009, Landscape With Silos, National Poetry Series Finalist and XJ Kennedy Poetry Prize winner 2005, and Living by the Children’s Cemetery, ByLine Press Chapbook winner 2002. Bogen has also published two novels set in medieval times: The Witch of Leper Cove and The Hounds of God.
She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, teaching occasionally, playing ukulele in the Highland Park Mini Band and writing lots of prose poems for a new manuscript, Selfies.
CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What first sparked your interest in writing?
DB: I recall all the children’s books from the fifties – notably – A Child’s Garden of Verses. Music, rather than content, drew me to the sing-song of nursery rhymes.
CH: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a poet? As a writer?
DB: I was always a reader of poems & spent a year at Oberlin College studying with Stuart Friebert & David Young. That was the year of the Kent State shootings. We closed down Oberlin early and went en masse to Washington DC – scared and determined. When we came back, college didn’t seem to make sense anymore. I dropped out, married the first hippie I could find, and proceeded to have a couple hippie babies. That left time to read (Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg et al) but no time to write. My phil classes in college convinced me I could think and write logically – but poetry was still a dream, other peoples’ work. I loved reading & read a lot, but I was 47, remarried with kids in high school, before I tried writing poems. As soon as I started, the first night of the first workshop I attended, I was hooked. I could tell my writing wasn’t bad but at the same time it was mysterious to me. Where did all this stuff come from? I was encouraged to send out work. A good magazine took four poems right away so that was a positive push. My first chapbook came out in 2000 (I was 50!) Ed Hirsch chose it so once again I was encouraged. By 2007 or 8, I felt okay calling myself a poet.
CH: You’ve written both novels and collections of poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?
DB: I’m a better poet than I am novelist. This is probably because it takes time to learn craft and I probably won’t have enough time to get really good as a novelist. Still, lots of people seem to enjoy the medieval books. I started them because I wasn’t sure I had anything more to say as a poet. I didn’t want to keep writing “the dead father” poem again and again. I also had a granddaughter dealing with a Crohn’s diagnosis – and I wanted to write a book for her. At the time she was only 10 so the book doesn’t have lots of sex or serious violence (sorry.) It does have real relationships, honest fears and questions, and young people stepping up, being brave, learning to evaluate and outwit a monstrously large institution. Relevant for us today, yes? After the second novel, the poetry just came back. In a flood. It was a new kind of poetry for me. I’m glad In Case of Sudden Free Fall seemed nominally dystopian when you read it. It has to do with our shared world, the dangers facing our children and others, the fact of our mortality (which is easier to handle for me than political and environmental trauma) and things I started to notice as I got closer to 70.
CH: How would you trace your evolution as a writer?
DB: I was already old when I became – officially – a writer. At 47 I had a full-time job, a family with several kids ready for college and a rich life outside of work. But “just for fun” I took a community writing seminar with Doug Anderson, a terrific poet (now memoirist as well) and as full as my life already was, I could not let the writing go.
Or was it the writing that would not let me go? You know this feeling, this wild, almost irrational feeling that you have found something in the writing that you were looking for.
You have to have it, to make it, this word art. Your life changes.
Poetry was the form that called me, and newbie that I was I took direction. I’d been an avid reader for decades but now it was not just read, read, read. The direction was also to write, write, write – and eventually to send out the work. First there were poems in journals, then a big old stack of poems people referred to as my “manuscript” and finally a much refined version of that which became Landscape with Silos— my first full-length collection. Somewhere in there was a chapbook chosen by Edward Hirsch which was a lift, and along the way there were other blessings and anointings. These are important in the poetry world. Poets whose work I loved were kind enough to tell me that I too was actually a poet. Those were rich years of summer workshops (I had too many bills to pay to afford an MFA) and correspondence with generous busy professional poets and weekly writing group meetings with my pals. And of course there were the poems, opening me up, saving me in a way, keeping me company in places where I had once felt alone.
Eventually there was the second book, Let Me Open You a Swan and I started to feel rather official. Small-time, yes, but official. Not entirely unknown. A working contributing poet. The chapbook and the two long books had been published via contests and were put out by small literary presses (thank you, Elixir, for being the best.) I hope I am safe from ever finding out what I spent on entrance fees, but if you are a poet who uses contests as way to find publication you will know what I mean.
At some point I was even older, 58 maybe, and had started to think of myself as done with new literary horizons. Enter two 10 year old boys in a class I was teaching as a “poet-in-the schools.” One was named Billy, the other was Jacob. They were opposites in a way, one rambunctious, involved and talkative, one nearly silent and thoughtful. But they both got under my skin. One was intrigued by everything I told him about the Middle Ages (long story – for another day) and the other was suffering from a tear in his universe that I understood and wanted to speak to. That combination got me started on a book that takes place in the early 13th century in England. It’s a book for all ages – at least for 10-year-olds on up, and those boys gave it to me. They made me write it.
I had never written a novel – or a novella – or a short story. I was a poet who wrote at a slant, elliptically. I had not tried to tell a story before. But now I did, or (as you novelists know) it told itself to me. Eventually I had a book, The Witch of Leper Cove.
CH: How did you become interested in the medieval as a subject of writing? What similarities do you see between writing a novel and creating a collection of poetry?
DB: It was the art of the medieval age that first drew me, those rich colors. I started buying books because I loved the covers, most of which were medieval paintings. Once I read them (I can’t stand having books on my shelves that I haven’t read) I was in. The parallels to our current age are real, but of course the technology to take out millions of people quickly, to poison so much land and water and air etc., had not been developed. The disparities between the rich and all the rest was very like what we can see today. Also, I got interested in How We Got Here. Whether you’re interested in science, art, religion, scholarship, farming or almost anything else, the middle ages have a lot to say about that. Oresme on education is fascinating! I find novels and books of poems entirely different – the first is more consciously directed. My poems start from a place of intuition. They do require intellectual rigor later but they need to be able to call the shots themselves longer than a novel does.
CH: I love the compressed, evocative language of In Case of Free Fall, and its redolence of dystopia and myth. How was this book inspired?
DB: Like a lot of writers I have many journals that include writing, both from groups stuff I wrote on my own. Maybe 20 or 30 of these. I decided to review them with a yellow marker in hand to see if there was anything that still interested me. There was (also a lot of drivel.) I painstakingly typed up the things I had highlighted and started to see if any of those things spoke to each other. If there was a conflict, a collision or even an expansion I could exploit. I found out that some obsessions never go away – they just evolve into larger obsessions. If you begin writing about and experience that was salient for you, along the way you find out it is salient for many and that’s interesting. There were poems in all of that material, but many of them felt like poems I needed to write for other people.
CH: When you began this book project, did you conceive of the poems as all being prose poems? How did you come to the decision to bottom-justify the poems?
DB: I didn’t really begin it as a book project. I just wrote one poem. I tried lineating it, but nothing better happened when I did. I wasn’t moved. It didn’t read better. So I just put the lines in a box. The question became – what belongs in this box? What will make both music and meaning although we’re inside this little box? An earlier poem from my third books says “She began to wonder what you can do in a small space.” I didn’t know it when I wrote that line, but I was already deeply interested in that. I am ongoingly interested in that. As I kept writing I started to see that a book was happening. The poems were talking to each other. The bottom justification came by happy accident. My publisher and editor, Richard Krawiec, was printing out the MS when a printer error occurred. The poems were landing on the bottom of the page. We both liked it so we kept it.
CH: Writers are known by their obsessions. What are a few of yours?
DB: Like lots of writers I first wrote about my very unfortunate, disrupted but hidden childhood. I’m from a family of much grief, some stupidity and even a crime that resulted in a very public suicide – yet the rule in our home (to the extent that we had one by the end) was “we don’t talk about that.” What a deadly hurtful rule – both for the enforcer and for those forced to mute themselves. But by the time I was writing Free Fall, I had written all that. I knew I had to stop. That’s when I took up my life more fully as mother, grandmother and citizen, but most importantly as an artist. Artists have to own themselves as creators and create. That’s what I do now, in a number of forums. Death is significant to any thoughtful persons so that will always show up, but I am now more obsessed with our communal human condition – the situation we all share. When I wrote Rue St. Severin I was in Paris and aware that there was no where I went anymore that did not have a homeless community sleeping on stones. I couldn’t figure out what to do or say about that (and I tried) – but I could sense “something is here and something is coming.” I wish those words had been less prescient. I do like the fact that Free Fall is full of poems for other people. For lost friends, for my brother(s), my children, my pals alive and dead, even your kids (“and every day the sun comes up like a guillotine.”) So many people who have enriched my experience and I wanted to write to their experience.
CH: To which writers do you find yourself turning, time and again, for inspiration and instruction?
DB: Marilyn Hacker, Anne Carson, Elizabeth Bishop, Lynn Emanuel, Tony Hoagland, Dean Young, Miroslav Holub, Kuno Raeber, Martin Espada, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Gunter Eich, Jean Valentine, Mary Jo Bang – and yes, there are many more. For fiction there’s no one better than Jane McCafferty.
CH: What is the most recent book of poetry that you’ve read?
DB: Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust which I read for a project I’m into now. I don’t recommend it, although when he wrote it (1975) it would have been very cutting edge. It’s dated now and the language is not compelling. Recent books I do recommend include Mary Jo Bang’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, Martin Espada’s Imagine Angels of Bread. I also love Ted Berrigan’s Sonnets though I cannot explain why they are so important to me. And no one should miss Lynn Emanuel’s New and Collected, The Nerve of It.