JACQUELINE KOLOSOV: In reading and re-reading Winter, I find myself struck by the silences that permeate the collection. Here, I am reminded of the silence of winter, which can be magical but also bracing—stark—and ultimately enabling of the meditative sensibility at work in your fourth book. Winter ranges across a lifetime, and it does so in a way that seems effortless, the way good riding or any other challenging discipline can seem so. Would you give us a window into your composition and revision and organizing process in bringing Winter into being? And if possible, would you mention three to four poems that are absolutely fundamental to its integrity and movement as a whole?
PATRICIA FARGNOLI: I knew that these poems were mostly quiet poems, but I didn’t realize to what extent the theme of “silence” runs through the book until Meg Kearney pointed it out to me in her wonderful blurb. It makes sense though: I am retired, living alone and I have a severe hearing loss, so I literally live much of my life in silence. But also, I am drawn to the silent places–places of beauty, places of the spirit, perhaps as an antidote to what I see as the clatter and clank, the constant too-fast-changingness of the world and the universe. I love this quote from Rimbaud: “I turned silences and nights into words. What was unutterable, I wrote down. I made the whirling world stand still.” A challenging goal, but that is part of what I wanted to do in Winter.
I didn’t begin the book knowing what it would be about. Nor did I think of it as a project. After, Then, Something was published, there was a time when I floundered around not knowing what to write. Then, slowly, I just wrote whatever poems I could write, and that meant, usually, whatever was happening in front of me, whatever I was thinking about, whatever image struck my sight and seemed to carry meaning beyond itself. Then, when I had about a hundred poems, many published, I gathered them and read them again and again to see if they would somehow come together as a book. And I didn’t think they would.
But after cutting back and back (with the help of a few good readers), I could see that many of the poems had winter in them. And I began to arrange them with the thought of “winter” as a symbol for cold, for quiet, for solitude, for contemplation, for looking back over a long life. And I understood that I am moved by winter as by no other season. This is not to say that it is my favorite season, nor that I don’t, in the midst of it, long for it to be over. But it is, for me, the season of most depth, the season of my spirit.
Arranging the poems was fairly easy then. I spread them all out on the bed, intuitively picking up one after another–poems that seemed to follow each other, mixing long and short; left-margined and not etc.
I like a book of poems to say hello and goodbye and so the first poem was, from the start, decided: the fox is my totem animal, and here, he not only is the muse I let into my “cabin” but an invitation to the reader into the book. The final poem also was decided early on . . . the poet contemplating her shadow, merging with it and releasing herself to the care of the night (and the universe).
It began to be clear that the first section explored the themes: aging, mortality, the connections between the animal world, the world of nature and ourselves. I wasn’t, at first, sure about what to do with the more narrative personal poems until I recognized that contemplation on the past also can be an activity of a winter mind. Thus, the second section focuses on memory (especially the childhood loss of my parents in a long poem about my father’s suicide for instance). The third section tends toward what I think of as poems of the spirit, poems that struggle a bit with the difficult world and reach, in the presence of doubt, toward an omniscient Presence.
KOLOSOV: You worked for many years with troubled adults and youth, most recently as a psychotherapist in a Behavioral Health non-profit organization. How has that experience informed your writing practice and your understanding of poetry? Do you believe that poetry can be enabling or even transformative in the lives of people at any stage of life who are struggling? And if so, could you provide some concrete ways in which they might come to poetry? OR be ushered into poetry via a teacher, a friend, a counselor?
FARGNOLI: My education as a clinical social worker taught me to be open to and accepting of people from all kinds of backgrounds. For ten years, I was privileged to listen to the stories of those who came to sit with me in my small office and share their lives and work toward growing. To do so felt like a sacrament.
Listening hour after hour to the joys and sorrows of others could not help but expand my understanding of human nature and especially of resiliency of the human spirit. Although I’ve written only a few poems based on my experience as a therapist, what I learned there informs my poems. What I understand is that the themes that are important to me in my own life are also those that important to others, and that when I write as deeply and honestly as I can, I can bring to my readers (as Mary Oliver has put it) “news of their own lives.”
Poetry can, indeed, be transformative to people all through their lives if only they will let it. I’ve taught poetry (both reading and writing it) to children, to adults, in life-long learning classes, to my social work clients and have seen how affirming it can be–how faces light up, how the time rushes by. I believe that writing poetry can be a healing act. It has to do, I think, with the act of writing itself–how it transforms nebulous thoughts, chaotic emotions into words that contain them, give them shape, clarify them. As the poet, Brendan Galvin (my first teacher) called it: “Getting the world right.”
I came to poetry early when, as a very young child, I was read a great deal of it by my beloved Aunt Nell who was one of the aunts who raised me. I still have a worn copy of One Hundred and One Famous Poems and one of Silver Pennies which she read to me again and again. I think early exposure to poetry is crucial to later love of it. And I’m happy to see that, more often in elementary schools teachers have encouraged students to write poems. I am saddened by the recent emphasis on testing that has resulted in teachers having less time to focus on the arts, and I applaud those teachers who, often out of their own love for poetry, continue to teach it.
A few years ago, I was thrilled to be asked to teach at The Frost Place’s summer teacher’s conference and was witness to the excitement, creativity and energy the teachers who attended it demonstrated. That program is truly a gift.
KOLOSOV: What are you working on now? This is the all-too-often asked question, of course, but it would be invaluable if you’d talk a bit about your reading and your writing practice. Who are you reading now? Who are the writers who deeply enrich your writing? And in what ways has Winter opened up a door or enabled you to cross a threshold in your work?
FARGNOLI: After each book I’ve published, has come a fallow period, a time of stumbling, perhaps a needed time of renewal, of gathering in and letting simmer. And this time after publishing Winter is no exception. I am waiting–for words, ideas, images, direction, for whatever source it is: muse, unconscious, the universe to inspire me.
Which is not to say that, in the meantime, every morning (which is the time I write) I am not at the computer thinking about poetry and listening for a poem. Often, a beginning will come. Other times, words seem impossibly far off and I despair. Often I worry that aging has stolen the words from me. But always, I am reading the work of others. I read the poems on “Poetry Daily” and “Verse Daily” each morning. I buy book after wonderful book–far more than I can afford. I read many at a time: currently on my night table are Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine which I love for its inventiveness, Greg Orr’s River Inside the River (for a second time) for its beauty and spirituality. Neruda’s Winter Garden (a gift from a dear friend) and six journals. Alicia Ostriker’s new book, The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog, is right now winging its way to me.
There are literally hundreds of poets who have expanded my understanding of the world, have taught me (through their own poems) how to write, and how to, through my own work, find a way through grief, pain and fear toward an oasis of the spirit.
Mary Oliver, who chose my first book, Necessary Light, for the May Swenson Award, many years ago has, since then, been a touchstone and a mentor. I have been strongly influenced by Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Frost, and recently by W.S. Merwin, Charles Wright, Linda Gregg, Jane Hirshfield, many international poets and more others than I can count.
I’m not sure Winter has led me to a crossed threshold. Unless it is that I’ve moved toward shorter, image-intense poems and further toward poems that consider spiritual questions. But also, I have always written about the concerns and themes of my own life in the hope that it will touch other lives–and I think I will continue to do so.
KOLOSOV: Poetry is becoming more popular in this country, in part via the growth of advanced degrees in creative writing, programs which are sending more and more talented individuals out into various parts of our society armed with poems. Maybe “armed” is not the best word, but I choose it in light of the violence committed by youth, of late, youth who have become tragically lost in our mass culture. What advice or thoughts might you offer to these individuals emerging from MFA, MA and PhD programs, as well as those seeking poetry from online courses and weeklong workshops? And in answering this question, perhaps you might speak a little bit about the grounding role that poetry has served in your own life.
FARGNOLI: To tell the truth I am a bit overwhelmed by all the excellent poetry and poets coming out of the graduate programs. There is so much that’s worthy to read, so few hours to read it. I subscribe to several journals and am sometimes gifted with more. And I read widely and daily. When I think of the sea of submissions to journals, I wonder how, among all that wealth, I can add something of worth.
Not holding an advanced degree in poetry, I hesitate to give “advice” to those moving out of those programs into the world. I can only offer what has been important to me as, for over thirty years, I’ve worked at learning craft and building a poetry community and a life with poetry as its spiritual core.
For me, constant daily reading, both essays and books about craft and the work of hundreds of poets, has been crucial. Attending workshops and occasional conferences has been important. Also extremely important has been finding other poets, building a poetry community, and passing down the gifts of encouragement and support I’ve received to others.
I’ve heard that, within the graduate programs there is already a strong sense of community, support, and every day focus on poetry. It’s vital, I think, that graduates find ways for that to continue. Few of us are able to write in isolation.
I’ve been terribly lucky to find groups of poets to workshop with and to find wonderful publishers who wanted to publish my work.
Yet, I’m finding it more and more difficult to compete for publication, and rejections are more and more frequent. I can only write the best poems I can and keep submitting them–because I know that Persistence is crucial to success.
KOLOSOV: A wildcard question: if you could sit down to tea at the Plaza or a five course meal at one of the world’s best restaurants or share a picnic in a meadow (complete with wildflowers and birdsong and a few horses grazing nearby), who would be the poet you’d invite to share that time with you? And here, time is no barrier. You can share gingerbread with Emily Dickinson if you like or ale with Thomas Hardy. Who then would your companion be?
FARGNOLI: Well I’d vote for the picnic for sure, maybe on a bluff by the ocean in Maine, seabirds in the sky, the smell of saltwater. Cold lobster, good bread and white wine. And I can’t choose just one: Mary Oliver for sure . . . for her spiritual grace and wisdom and capacity for joy. And W.S. Merwin too . . . for many of the same qualities plus his activism for the environment. And then, Rumi for his ecstasy. And I don’t think I’d talk at all unless it was to ask the big questions about living and dying. And I’d listen and listen.
PATRICIA FARGNOLI, the New Hampshire Poet Laureate from 2006-2009, has published four books (three of them award-winning) and three chapbooks of poetry. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as Poetry, Ploughshares, Massachusetts Review, Harvard Review et. al.