Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Garden of Verses: Rebecca Newth

Rebecca Newth is a poet (five books of poetry) and fiction writer. She has also written Milk Horses: A Memoir as well as a play. She has just finished a new book about time travel and friendship during the Civil War for third and fourth graders. Her favorite subjects for writing are our current predicament, nature, and people. She has been awarded an NEA prize and a Fellowship from the Arkansas Arts Council to work on a novel. Born and raised near a lake in Michigan, Rebecca lived for many years in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Rebecca now lives near two lakes, and she writes about fluid things, redemption, grief, and cherished places. We recently sent Rebecca some questions, and what follows are her responses – with some insightfully poetic lines included. Rebecca’s latest book (Fall 2010) is The Pass-Key (Will Hall Books)
When I was eleven, I began looking at A Child’s Garden of Verses to find out how poems are made. It was hard to convince my parents, even when little poems started to get published, that I would be a poet. My mother was practical, getting rid of needless things, and didn’t give me a middle name because it would be extra when I got married. She was proud of me but not a writer in her heart and my father was a saxophone player. My husband’s brother is writer Jim Harrison, and when I got a poem published he said, “Well!” as if he were pleased and that was nice. We were all at Michigan State. My husband was not a writer but rather a facilitator, a librarian, which fits. I think being sad and uncomfortable caused me to write. Also I think seeing the lake where we went on weekends, so beautiful, made me write.

I do not know any rich people, was that one of your questions? – No, it wasn’t, but in the sixties I once knew that Dan Gerber thought my poems were written by an eccentric lady in Cambridge with beads around her neck. He had wondered what kind of person wrote them and was almost the first person to accept my work for publication in a journal called Sumac, printed in Michigan.

In the seventies we lived in Connecticut and met James Laughlin of New Directions Publishing. He gave us one sheep, which we put in our VW bus and brought home. I can barely believe any of that happened. My husband called him “boss” and offered to write the bibliography. Last year I finished it – a massive list of all the books published. Would that be four decades late? At least I finished. But of course meeting the man who established New Directions and published Tennessee Williams and Dylan Thomas and brought to our country those books from other countries in the black and white covers – books like Pablo Neruda, Garcia Lorca and Rainer Maria Rilke – was an incredible jolt. We went into his “basement” where the copies were housed. We tiptoed.

In the eighties we moved to Northwest Arkansas thinking it was out in the country, but Sam Walton beat us to it. Because of Wal-Mart we have direct flight to Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and D.C. My husband was eager to start to work in a new, smaller college library, and I got snarled up in all sorts of endeavors such as going back to school (at first in Geology), working as a secretary in a law school, conducting interviews with authors on local NPR, and doing scholarly work on Marianne Moore and H.D.’s The Gift. When the college part of my life was over I felt lost, and I promised my mind I would take care of it. “I will find you things to read and to delight you,” I promised it.

My poetry has always been inspired by some unbelievably interesting or beautiful event. I have a rather odd mind, however, people tell me, and sometimes my poetry is oblique. I do not have trouble thinking up ideas although not all of them are good, or rather, I cannot handle them well. Often, also, a think I have a finished product when what I have is incomprehensible to others or merely notes.

My favorite story is one called “Milk Horses” from a memoir by that name. I am comfortable in my writing using the focus of being age eleven or so. That seems the optimum time to observe the world as a poet. I am sure that is not true about the writing of essays.

When I had young children I used to write at night in the kitchen under a hanging lamp. Later, when they were in school I wrote in the morning at a desk that overlooked an orchard. I usually keep another book near me for inspiration, and I read from it and that gets me going. I very much believe we learn from other writings. There is no way to progress without the writings that have come before us. I was very fond of a book by Merwin called The Lice. I am excited by words and sometimes as I am reading another author I let my eyes blur and I see one word for another and then I start to write with the odd word stuck in there to see what happens. I am interested in taking a poem and going all over it trying to start it in different places with different syllable counts and sometimes going from bottom to top. All this is to establish an immediacy and freshness.

Sometimes I wake up in the night thinking scary thoughts when I could be thinking glorious ones. I want to write about people in daily life in Crete – the shepherds, the bandits, the librarians, the heads of villages, the way to make raki. We went to Crete on sabbatical. All these details are the glorious things. I want to write a play about a church breakfast where the priest is excitable, the chef has a dark cloud over his head, and the choir drinks spiked mimosas and then goes out to sing the anthem.

I think poets are modern day prophets giving us the best they can of truth and beauty, sense and nonsense, requiems and evening prayers, prose. Poets (writers) need to be persons of enormous appetites and curiosity, and generous because we are asked to give. Even some tiny shred may mean a world to someone.

My latest book, published this fall, by Will Hall Books, 2010, is The Pass-Key, a book for younger readers. My models were Sounder and Huck Finn. I am working now on a book about the village in Crete.
Copyright c. 2010 by Rebecca Newth