Award-winning Virginia Poet Laureate Kelly Cherry graciously accepted my recent invitation to be interviewed by e-mail. Part of that interview appears today at the T.S. Poetry Press blog, TweetSpeak, where Ms. Cherry talks about her earliest memory of experiencing a poem, what influenced her to become a writer (she's also a novelist, short story writer, memoirist, essayist, critic, and translator), her writing aspirations, and the wide range of poets who have influenced and inspired her. Ms. Cherry also provided a poem, "Two Roses", to accompany the interview; you'll find that, too, at TweetSpeak.
The remainder of my interview — Ms. Cherry shares her advice to students, the value to her of her travels, her poetry collections she's most proud of, her experience as Poet Laureate, and the titles of poetry collections on her reading table — is below.
I first wrote about Kelly Cherry's appointment as Poet Laureate here.
Interview with Virginia Poet Laureate Kelly Cherry
Maureen Doallas: You were born in Louisiana and grew up in Virginia. What role does place have in your poetry?
Kelly Cherry: We left Louisiana for Ithaca, New York, when I was five, and when I was nine, we moved to Virginia—Richmond and Chesterfield County. I've also lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, England, and Wisconsin, and have traveled elsewhere. All these places have impressed themselves on my work. Place is often but not always acknowledged in my poems. But place — and climate — are always important.
MD: And music?
KC: I love music and cannot remember a time when I didn't. My parents were string quartet violinists. They specialized in the late Beethoven quartets but also played Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, etc., and usually included a contemporary quartet on each program, which in those days meant, say, Diamond, Elliot, Riegger. When I was still crawling, I crawled around the legs of a quartet in rehearsal.
MD: Of the dozen poetry collections you've written, of which are you most proud, and why?
KC: Well, of course, every parent loves every one of the children. But I guess I'd pick out Natural Theology, God's Loud Hand, Death and Transfiguration, and The Retreats of Thought. I'm not sure I know why. Maybe I just feel more comfortable about them. Maybe I took big steps in them. I like Rising Venus for its bravery and organization.
MD: What do you advise your students who want to become poets?
KC: Read and write. Read and write. Read and write. Read and write. Read and write.
Secondarily, I tell them the wastebasket is their friend. That they must make good friends (the human kind) who write, and keep them, because they will need to cheer one another along the way. Also, that they are in competition with no one except themselves. And that if they want to be writers, writing must become a habit.
MD: Where have you found some of your most satisfying and meaningful connections to people or place?
KC: I love talking with my writing buddies but I also like to talk with people who aren't even interested in reading. I am infinitely grateful to my husband, who is smart and fun and kind. We both love our dogs Pippin and Booker. Halifax is a pleasant little town. I go to pulmonary rehab and enjoy talking with folks there and at a small seniors group I teach every other week at an assisted living home.
I found the Philippines to be full of generous, open-hearted people and am sorry I've not been able to go back. Theatre in London is fabulously exciting. Any classical concert is likely to send me into ecstasy, especially if the program includes Beethoven. Latvia and Russia registered deeply on my work. Germany's museums. The cities of Helsinki and Vienna. And, like everybody else, I love Paris.
The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst [Virginia] has played an important role throughout my career. [It's] located on Mt. San Angelo, with beautiful landscaping and sculptures, [and] creative artists in residence have time and peace to work.
In 2009, I was a Rockefeller Fellow at Bellagio, in Italy. The center and the town are beyond gorgeous. I had a book I planned to work on but, even so, before I went, someone said to me, "Don't write poems about Bellagio in Bellagio. It never works." Sure enough, as soon as I arrived, I began a poem about Bellagio. Fortunately, my friend's warning echoed in my mind and I turned away from a failing poem back to my project. [Bellagio's] a wonderful place to write as long as you don't attempt to capture what can't be captured. It's also a place to meet interesting people working on interesting projects.
In 2010, I was a Director's Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, working on a poetry manuscript. Again, a verdant campus, a studio with wonderful windows, and whole days and weeks in which to concentrate. Perfect!
MD: What has most surprised or delighted you in your role as Virginia's Poet Laureate?
KC: I've never been around small children much, and getting to read a storybook to a bunch of pre-K kids was one of the highlights of my life. Such amazing energy! Such good spirits! And every single one was adorable.
I was also very pleased to deliver the keynote address at the opening of the Virginia Book Festival this year and to read at the National Book Festival last year. [You will find a transcript and recording of the latter here.]
I should also say I've met a lot of warm, interesting folks — beginning with the Poetry Society of Virginia and extending to countless communities — who care deeply about poetry and contribute immensely to the life of poetry.
MD: What poetry collections are sitting on your reading table now?
KC: Christian Wiman's translation of Osip Mandelstam [Stolen Air: Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam]. For the Mountain Laurel by John Casteen III. Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith. . . . and Love..., an anthology edited by Richard Krawiec. Conditions of Grace: New and Selected Poems by Mark Sanders. A Wiser, More Beautiful Death by Miklos Radnoti. The Cold War by Kathleen Ossip. They Carry a Promise: Selected Poems by Janusz Szuber.
MD: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
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Kelly Cherry's two-year tenure as state poet ends this year. She plans to publish a new collection of poems in 2013.