Poet Interview: Barbara Crooker
The 2017 poetry collection Les Fauves is your most recent book. What is ekphrastic poetry?
Ekphrastic poetry is just a fancy term for poems that have a conversation with a work of art, usually a painting.
I know that asking an author to choose their favorite poem is like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. . . so, which poem from Les Fauves has garnered the best response or resonated with fans the most? And why do you think that is?
I’m going to give you two poems. The first one is ekphrastic, and I think people have resonated with it because of the visual imagery, the word play, and the food references:
L’ATELIER ROSE, 1911
I came back to Paris free of the Louvre’s influence
and heading for color.
It’s like being back in the womb, isn’t it, these walls of pink,
this floor one rose shade deeper? I think about my middle
daughter, five months pregnant. Her baby‘s grown
from an orange seed to a green olive to a plum. Now
it’s the size of a boneless chicken breast. What is it
about babies that makes us think of food? And what
is it about this color that makes us think of health?
Because we say in the pink when we’re feeling fine?
Because roses blush in different shades? Because some
kir drizzled in Champagne makes it royale? But
if you get a pink slip, you’ve been canned, and watch
out for those elephants on parade. No one aspires
to a pink collar job. And no girl wants a bunch
of carnations, smelling of cloves and maiden aunts.
The sunset pinkens the sky in the west, and I’m
tickled pink, thinking of you. Matisse’s studio glows,
suffused in light, the inside of a satin slipper. Pink
the edges of my heart, cut them into scallops, make
them whirly. Imagine strawberry ice cream, rhubarb
compote, candy hearts. This sweet, sweet world.
The second poem from Les Fauves is the other thread in this book, which is me, going wild and crazy like the Fauve painters, only for me, this meant a throwback to form. This poem is end-rhymed, and I think that’s what has ticked the audience. It’s also a lot of fun to read out loud:
So, I live in Pennsylvania, home of potato filling, cabbage slaw,
shoofly pie, apple butter, scrapple, red beet eggs, hog maw,
solid starchy stuff. But when I want to go wild, overdraw
my account, then I fly to Paris, change to a black lace bra,
matching panties. Stop at a bistro, eat oysters in the raw
with brown bread, unsalted butter, wine the color of pale straw,
then stroll down a leafy street, wander gardens I could draw
if I had talent. For a country girl, this is shock and awe:
even a folded napkin, a work of art. I’m sure there are flaws,
but I can’t see them. I prefer Pépé le Peu to Quick Draw McGraw,
Gérard Dépardieu to Brad Pitt, Isabelle Hupert to Kate Capshaw,
coq au vin to KFC, Bain de Soleil to Coppertone, scofflaw
that I am. Ray Charles said, Tell your mama, tell your pa
I’m gonna send you back to Arkansas,
but I don’t want to go there, or to Utah or Omaha.
I want to stay in Paris for that je ne sais quoi.
"Radiance is a pleasure to read, straight through, for its humour and intelligence and for the sheer bravery of sentiment. It dares to show deep feeling, unguarded by irony. It's a straight-ahead passionate book by a mature poet and rather suddenly I've become a fan."
Tell us about your book Radiance.
It's my first full-length book, which only took me fifteen years (!) to place. Publishing poetry is very difficult these days; mostly, you have to win a contest, and most of them have around 800 entries. The top ten or so get to be finalists, which is where I spent the last ten years, but the contest route is like the game of Chutes and Ladders—you can get close to the top, but if you don't win, you slide back down to the bottom and have to start all over again. Also, I've been a mother-at-home with a child with autism, so I've been pretty much out of "the loop"— don't have a mentor, haven't studied with anyone famous, etc. I've just been writing...and also steadily publishing, over 500 poems in small literary magazines and places like Yankee and Christian Science Monitor, anthologies like Worlds in Their Words: Contemporary American Women Writers, over ten college textbooks...but no first book.
It was a very happy day indeed when I found out I'd won the Word Press First Book Award!
What themes does Radiance explore?
Some of the themes in the book include love in a longterm relationship ("Away in Virginia, I See a Mustard Farm and Think of You"), aging and the body ("Nearing Menopause, I Run Into Elvis at Shoprite," "In the Middle"), French Impressionist paintings (there are poems referencing work by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Cézanne, besides the title poem, which is based on a Hudson River School exhibit), my son with autism ("Autism Poem: The Grid"), and the radiant natural world around us ("Praise Song").
I'm always concerned with and fascinated by the objects of ordinary life [ see: "Ordinary Life," which isn't in this book], and how something like hanging wash on the line might turn into a poem.
How did you decide to begin writing poetry?
I didn't get started until I was in my late 20's, a single mother with a small child. Part of this was because although I'd taken courses like "Contemporary American Literature," (dead white men) I was pretty much unaware of what LIVING contemporary writers were up to.
My ex had left some of his books behind, including a copy of The Eagle, a little magazine from Mansfield State College in northern Pennsylvania. I read it, and was blown away by some of the poetry, especially that of Diane Wakoski, who I thought in my ignorance was an undergraduate there. Perhaps if I'd realized she was a famous writer, I'd have been intimidated, but I read her work over and over, trying to figure out how she got from point A to point B.
And then I wrote a couple of poems. And I liked how they turned out, eventually, and so I kept writing. Later, I learned I needed to do more reading, especially of contemporary writers, and so my self-education began.
If you could offer any advice to young poets or writers, what would it be? What is the best advice you have received from another author?
The best advice would be the same advice, which is to read, read, read. Read journals, both print and online; read individual collections of poems; read authors you admire; read authors you don’t admire; read poetry criticism. . . . Keep reading.
What projects are you currently working on?
My new book, coming out in early 2019, is The Book of Kells, which contains meditations on the illuminated medieval manuscript, plus poems about Ireland, plus a series of glosas, a fifteenth century form that incorporates a quatrain from other poems, with Irish writers Yeats, Heaney, and O'Driscoll providing the embedded lines. I’m also working on a new manuscript of poems, still in progress
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Our series of poetry books is sponsored by Garrison Keillor's independent bookstore Common Good Books, which is located in the heart of St. Paul and features a great selection of poetry. Stop by when you are in town!
Just now opened your site again – thought you would never return. So good to read and hear you again. please consider returning to Minnesota – I’m sure a good 40% (perhaps more) would welcome you like good Lutherans, with a nod of the head.
Barbara Crooker is one of my favorites also, and I met her on Writers Almanac!
And Garrison, I am loving your blogs or essays or reflections – whatever they are. They make me
feel at home – sort of like how the Lutherans made you feel. Thanks!
I too admire Barbara’s work, the intensity and pleasure offered in the world she creates!
Nice to see GK back in the game. I have so missed his presence!
Barbara, I am always amazed by your work—so right, so witty, so light in the best sense. Congrats on having an interview with Garrison, who we miss so much on the radio!