By Heather Leah Huddleston
Goddard MFA alumna Carolyn Locke’s poetry embodies the spiritual, the ethereal, and the human, all wrapped in a tight package to create sense, meaning, and magic of this world. Her words reflect that which we all encounter—the body, the heart, and all the complex emotions that make us uniquely human. Her latest book, The Place We Become, received an honorable mention in the poetry category at the 2015 New England Book Festival.
HLH: What inspires you to write? And what purpose does inspiration serve in your process: do you wait for it to strike, or do you sit down every day to write?
CL: The word “inspire” sounds somewhat grand or romantic to me, and for that reason, I’m tempted to say I’m never inspired to write. However, I often have the urge to write, and so I guess that could be called inspiration. But where does that urge come from? Deena Metzger, author of Writing for Your Life, describes it this way:
The beginning. Something wants to be said. We don’t know what it is
or what shape it desires. An inchoate feeling. A pressure around the heart,
perhaps, asking it to open.
And that pressure can come from many different sources. For example, it might be the need to connect with another person at a level deeper than talking. Or it might be a luminous moment, sometimes seemingly small or inconsequential, that haunts me—a particular sensory image that just won’t go away—or an immediate physical sensation that jogs something loose. Sometimes it’s a phrase or sentence that pops into my head out of the blue. But whatever lures me to the writing, I’m seldom able to identify what it is or where it will take me until I pick up the pen and begin to write. For that reason, I try to give myself the space and time to pay attention and discover what lies beneath the surface. I do this through regular journaling and exercise and daydreaming. Do I write or work on a poem every day? No. Do I intentionally strive to weave a search for what wants to be said into my daily life? Yes. I do this because it’s what makes me feel alive and connected to something larger than myself.
HLH: Can you take me through the stages of a poem? How long does it take to write one?
CL: WOW! This is a difficult and complicated question to answer. I would have to begin by saying that each poem has its unique way of arriving and needing to be worked on. In general, though, the first step is the opening of the heart that Deena Metzger talks about. One needs to pay attention to that pressure and then be willing to take the journey. Often that opening comes for me during a free flowing journal entry, a search through entries previously written, or a close look at photographs from a trip I’ve taken. I’m in search of a nugget of energy that feels strong, genuine, or intriguing. Sometimes I take that with me as I go for a walk, ski, or snow shoe, or when I garden, cook, or do yoga. I don’t think about a poem directly, but somehow that nugget gets woven into whatever I’m doing, and words might even start surfacing. Occasionally, chunks of a poem (or even an entire poem) get written in my head line by line when I’m in motion, and I have to scramble to get them down on paper as soon as I can or risk losing them. Other times, I stay put and write a line or two, looking for a way to begin the journey: maybe start the conversation with the person who is on my mind, capture that haunting image as clearly and precisely as I can, or write the line that has popped into my head at the top of the page and see what comes next. Then I begin to play with line breaks, reading the words out loud over and over to find an energy and rhythm that seems right. At this point, the poem often seems to come from the breath and the body rather than the words and any meaning they might have. Eventually, the words begin to tell me what form suits them best—long or short lines? where to break each line? stanzas or not? Pretty soon, the form the poem is taking helps me to find more words and perhaps even the meaning or mystery I’m seeking. One line leads to another, and if I’m lucky, offers some surprises and mysteries along the way. I might handwrite the same poem many, many times before it feels ready to be put onto the computer, where things continue to change even as I’m transcribing the words. Once I’ve exhausted the possibilities of the typed draft, I print it, and the process of revision begins again. I read it out loud again and again, often over the course of many days or weeks, until it seems whole and honest to me. This usually means it’s in sync with my body rhythms and breath, as well as having something to say. When I’m ready, the next step is to get reactions from various readers, in order to become more objective and critical about the work, which, of course, leads to more revisions. How long does this take? Weeks, months, sometimes years!
HLH: How do you go about compiling a book of poetry? Is there a thread that moves through each poem, and is that present when you’re writing each individual poem?
CL: I begin compiling a manuscript with a couple of things in mind. First of all, I make a pile of what seem to be my strongest poems and determine whether there are common threads running through them. With Always This Falling, which grew out of my Goddard manuscript of a different title, it was a very long process. I kept throwing poems out and replacing them with newer ones for several years, and the title wasn’t decided until very close to the end of the process. I select from those poems the ones that deal with the common threads from different angles. For The Place We Become, because the title emerged early on in the process, it drove the writing of new poems as I continued to think about multiple meanings for place and becoming. For both books, once the poems were selected, the next step was to order them so that they conversed with each other in some way, hopefully leading the reader deeper into the book’s thematic concerns. In the case of The Place We Become, that resulted in the need to divide the book into sections, so that the sections conversed with each other as well. Who knows what the process will be for my next book? I think I already have a working title, but I can’t say why. It just “feels right.” Still, I am not yet ready to think about the manuscript as a whole, and I’m not intentionally writing poems to fit that title.
HLH: Can you offer some advice to aspiring poets, about both the craft and art of listening to make room for a poem to come?
CL: First of all, I think it’s important to think about your reasons for writing, and to remind yourself of them often. This poem by Rumi has become a mantra for me:
All day and night, music—
a quiet, bright
reed song. If it
fades, we fade.
Reciting it helps me to stay open and to remember that the poems aren’t about life, they ARE life. For me, writing poetry is a way of living that helps me to pay attention and to live with more intention and gratitude. Most people go through periods of not writing, which can be difficult, but if you think of those periods as a ripening time and an essential part of the process, you realize that you’re always working on a poem, even if you’re not actually putting pen to paper. However, this requires you to be simultaneously patient and vigilant, actively seeking triggers to encourage the surfacing to happen but not pushing too hard. It’s a continual balancing act, and I don’t have a magic formula, but maybe other poets do.
For anyone who worries about the value of the work or how others are judging what they create, I offer these thoughts from Martha Graham which have pushed me to keep going when I questioned myself:
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. . . It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to stay open and aware to the urges that motivate you.
HLH: Lastly, can you offer some fun fact about yourself? Something not many people may know.
CL: As a Gemini, I find that there are at least two people in this body who are often at odds with each other. There’s the homebody who loves nothing more than to slip into a pair of warm, snuggly pajamas and talk with my cat, Yuki, and there’s the woman filled with wanderlust, who has hitchhiked through Spain and France, and spent a month stranded in Greece with only $40 in her pocket. Some people may know me as the introvert who wants to hibernate in a cave, while others may know the extrovert with a keen interest in the world and other people. It’s hard to say who will be occupying this body on any given day or even from moment to moment in the same day.
We’re pleased to have the opportunity to re-present an excerpt from Carolyn Locke’s “Rest in the Riddle of Yes,” which was published in Clockhouse, Volume 3. If you’d like to purchase a volume, please click here.
From “Rest in the Riddle of Yes”:
There was no secret ingredient—what came to her came, and she
without precision, reaching for what should come next and
First, her skin melted and then one by one each layer below, until
was only bones radiating light. And so, it was imperative that she
Carolyn Locke is the author of three books: Always This Falling (2010), a collection of poetry; Not One Thing: Following Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior (2013), a haibun that weaves prose, haiku, and photographs in a meditative exploration of her 2009 travels in Japan; and The Place We Become (2015), a collection of poetry. Not One Thing and The Place We Become received honorable mentions in the New England Book Festival in 20013 and 2015 respectively. She has published poems in a variety of places such as Puckerbrush Review, Off the Coast, Bangor Daily News, The Cafe Review, The Aurorean, Kyoto Journal, and Clockhouse. Two of her poems were cited in writing contests sponsored by the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, and her poem “Regeneration” was selected for Take Heart: A Conversation in Poetry, edited by Wesley McNair, Maine’s fourth poet laureate.
A graduate of Bates College and the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College, Carolyn taught high school English, creative writing, and humanities classes for many years. She was the recipient of several teacher travel grants including a three-week Fulbright Memorial Fund trip to Japan, a six-week Fulbright-Hays Seminar in Morocco, two three-week Primary Source trips to China, and a four-week Fulbright-Hays Special Projects trip to Japan.
She lives with her husband in Troy, Maine, where she teaches part-time and continues to write.