Interview with Geraldine Connolly — August 9, 2010
Geraldine Connolly was born in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, in 1947. Her chapbook, The Red Room, was published in 1988, and a full length collection, Food for the Winter (Purdue University Press), appeared in 1990. Her second book of poetry, Province of Fire, was published by Iris Press in December of 1998, and Hand of the Wind appeared in June 2009. She has won many prizes for her work, including two NEA Creative Writing Fellowships, the Carolyn Kizer Prize from Poetry Northwest, a Maryland Arts Council Fellowship, the Margaret Bridgman Fellowship to Breadloaf, and the National Ekphrastic Poetry Competition Prize. Her work has appeared in many magazines and journals, including Poetry, Chelsea, The Gettysburg Review, The Georgia Review and Shenandoah. WPFW’s Writers Almanac broadcast her poem, “The Summer I was Sixteen.”
Christopher Nelson: Often landscape, a natural setting, is the stage for your poems, the atmosphere in which insight is found—a motif foreshadowed by the book’s cover. I marvel at how your images of the natural world are keys for accessing internal states. How would you describe the role of landscapes, natural settings, in your creative process?
Geraldine Connolly: Landscape functions as a door to the unconscious for me. I’ve always gone to nature for solace and discovery and adventure. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m thinking or feeling until I meditate upon an object in the natural world which can access an intense reaction or an unexpected thought. I love being outdoors and spent much of my childhood roaming the hills and woods of western Pennsylvania. I felt there was no barrier between my body and those of the trees and creeks and leaves. The scenery of that Appalachian landscape is embedded in my psyche. I still spend as much time as I can outside. And I keep notebooks where I record what I see on my walks. I use them as a compost heap for my poetry. Many of my first drafts are heaps of images on a page, and then I go back and try to find the argument or attitude embedded in the imagery.
The three major landscapes of my life are rural Pennsylvania, the suburbs of Washington D.C. and lastly, northwest Montana where we have lived the past ten years. They serve as backdrop for the emotional dramas of my life. I’m someone who begins in the outward to go inward. Now that I live in the Sonoran Desert, in Tucson, for half of the year, I am drawn by the minimalist quality of the desert. I love its strange, unique beauty.
Nelson: You have a penchant for the image; your book is like a photo album made of words. What does a successful image do? And which poets do you return to for their strong images?
Connolly: I have a visual mind and imagination. I would have like to have been a painter. I think of an image as a word picture, an intense electric connection between the eyes of the writer and the mind of the reader. Sir Philip Sidney called imagery “the very height and life of poetry.”
Sometimes I think my penchant for imagery has something to do with growing up Catholic. In church we were surrounded by paintings and statues: Jesus with his crown of thorns, the Stations of the Cross, statues of Mary crushing the head of the serpent, the purple shrouds of Advent, the lilies of Easter and the Resurrection, etc.
I have always been mesmerized by Charles Simic’s haunting and unique imagery. Some of the other great image makers are Dickinson: “frost, a blonde assassin—”; T.S. Eliot’s singing mermaids who do not sing to him; Wallace Stevens’s “downward to darkness, on extended wings.” I love the way that image of pigeons’ wings descends and expands simultaneously. All of these images that come to mind include paradox. There’s something about contradiction that feels honest and true to me.
Nelson: Could you talk about the formal variety we see in Hand of the Wind—long lines, short lines, stanza patterns, occasionally no patterns, pantoums, a villanelle, a poem in numbered parts, poems in fragments—and how a poem arrives at its shape, which unerringly feels like the inevitable shape the poem must take?
Connolly: I like moving back and forth between formal poems and unpatterned poems within a book. Books that do this seem surprising and risky to me. It feels respectful to the Individual poem. Each poem is deserving of its own special structure.
I think there’s an inevitability about a great poem, and it can achieve its nature through any number of patterns. There’s no right or wrong. Sometimes this inevitability that you mention in a good poem occurs through free verse, sometimes in formal verse. The structure and the message of the poem should be working together. If I have a poem that’s not working in free verse, I try imposing syllabics upon it to see if I can find an opening, an expansion. Sometimes taking material that is not working and trying to rewrite it within a traditional form can underscore a theme, help open it up, make a discovery, result in a better poem.
Nelson: In these times, when turning away from the traditional lyric is common, you’ve chosen a relatively traditional lyric mode. What draws you to the lyric, and why is it the best vehicle for your voice?
Connolly: The house of poetry has many rooms. I think all of us have the capabilities within us for various modes but are drawn by our temperaments toward writing that is structure or unstructured, musical or not musical, telling a story or making a meditation.
I think life is chaotic and I love the order imposed by working inside a structure. Writing poems that 99 percent of the world can’t understand or doesn’t care about seems to defeat the purpose of being a writer. Using the “little I” in one’s work does not necessarily mean self-obsession. Naming the “I” can be liberating and powerful. Describing one’s life, if done well, can produce memorable, moving poems, like Seamus Heaneys’, that combine political and cultural themes.
The poems that I find personally memorable and meaningful are often the traditional lyrics. This is not to say that they might not have fractured syntax or unusual imagery or odd points of view—some trademark quality that imprints the stamp of the original voice—and makes them new, as Dickinson did or Ezra Pound or Wallace Stevens.
Nelson: How have your stylistic and thematic concerns changed from Province of Fire to Hand of the Wind? What has remained constant?
Connolly: My first two books, Food for the Winter and Province of Fire, have many poems that record childhood and family stories, pay tribute to immigrant ancestors and my working class background. Other poems incorporate a dream-like consciousness or have a surreal twist.
In my new collection, Hand of the Wind, there are more meditative poems, a little more experimentation. An example is the poem “Palisade,” about my troubled relationship with my mother. It’s loosely structured, with uneven lines and ragged stanzas to mirror the unresolved relationship.
My interest in the image has remained constant. I went to an art opening last night and I found that when an artist painted a landscape then changed the perspective or changed the colors of the trees to some bright strange hue and distorted their shapes I found the painting more appealing. A work of art that has an attitude and an original way of looking at the world always appeals to me.