Laura Shovan’s poetry chapbook, MOUNTAIN, LOG, SALT AND STONE, won the inaugural Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize from CityLit Press. Laura is an Artist-in-Education for the Maryland State Arts Council and has also led children’s and adult writing workshops for the Maryland Humanities Council and the “Write Here, Write Now” program. Her articles, essays and poetry for adults and children have been published in newspapers, literary journals, and e-zines. Recently local poet Barbara Morrison sat down with Laura to talk about contests, chronology, timing, and transitions.
Barbara Morrison: Do you enter many contests? How do you select the ones you enter?
Laura Shovan: I will usually only submit where a friend of mine has had a good experience. With this competition, I had a relationship with CityLit (through the “Write Here,Write Now” workshops). When I first moved here eleven years ago, I had been very involved in the poetry community in New Jersey, which is supported by the Dodge Foundation. I missed that when I moved here, so I’m really glad that Gregg (Wilhelm) and CityLit have worked so hard to start putting that structure in place. It’s made a huge difference in helping people find each other and build a sense of community.
BM: You said that you are not a big submitter.
LS: I don’t submit much at all. You know, I’m a working mom, I do a lot of teaching and volunteer work and writing, so it’s just not the right time for me to do a lot of submitting. When my children leave home, I’ll be able to submit more.
BM: I certainly felt that way when my kids were little. I was a working mom too and single, so I decided not to worry about it until life calmed down a little bit. And it does. It’s just a different time of your life.
LS: And I’m okay with that.
BM: Your chapbook and CITY SAGES (edited by jmww editor Jen Michalski) are the first publications from the new CityLit Press. Could you talk a little bit about the experience of working with a press that is just starting up and CityLit in particular?
LS: The more I think about it, the more I think it the whole experience was a huge gift, because you have Clarinda Harris, whom I had met at a few readings and knew by reputation. I just think she is an amazingly brave poet. After Gregg called and said I had won the competition, I asked if we were going to do any editing. He said that was up to me, but he’d see if the judge had any feedback. Michael Salcman was kind enough to invite me over to his house, and he went through the book with me page by page. It was a huge blessing. Michael’s become a mentor for me. He just took so much careful time with the poems.
BM: That’s really above and beyond.
LS: It was, and it came from such a generous place in his heart that I was completely grateful. I feel like it was this team effort between the three of them, and that I was very, very lucky to have this particular group of people working on it. I could not have imagined a better situation. One thing that facilitated a lot of the team effort was that, although the competition was national, I’m local.
BM: Yes, at the reading I went to, both Michael and Gregg said it was blind competition, so they really didn’t know the winner was local; it just worked out that way. I like that some of the poems in your chapbook are from the point of view of a child while others are from a parent’s point of view. How have you managed to remember what a child’s experience is like?
LS: I read a lot of children’s literature because I write for children, too. I’m especially fond of some of the novels in verse for children, which is what I’m working on now. Also, having kids and working with kids as I do, I feel like I’ve kept the access open. It also helps that I was that type of kid; I absorbed things and they’re still in there. I’m still tapping into them.
BM: I find more and more of a challenge every year to tap into what I felt as a child.
LS: I took a class with Kendra Kopelke at UB and she had us do an exercise to write out 50—I’ve also heard 100—memories. I think what happens when you do that exercise is that by the time you get to around 30, stuff starts to come up that you maybe hadn’t forgotten, but you hadn’t examined in some time. Actually the title poem comes from that exercise. I had a memory of this painter who came to paint our house, and it made me ask why I remembered it. The poem is really answering that question for me. If you can get back to a child’s point of view, the reason for saving those memories may become more readily apparent. It was something that I wasn’t ready to deal with at the time, so it was filed away.
BM: One of the poems I particularly like is “Baba Yaga”. Could you say something about the genesis of this poem?
LS: This poem for me is about how we can have a different experience of someone than someone else has. My English grandmother was warm and huggy and sweet. She was delicious. It was always wonderful going to see her; we only saw her once a year for a few weeks. Then when I was a teenager I found out that with some of our cousins who were based in England and whom she saw more often, she was really unkind and impatient. For me the poem is about a point in childhood when you realize that a person you know isn’t the whole person, and that it’s possible for someone to behave differently toward you than toward someone else. And that’s very hurtful. I feel that’s a real transition to adulthood. The fairy tale was a good backdrop for that because fairy tales are about those transitions to adulthood.
BM: You are involved with Poetry Friday which is a group of bloggers.
LS: Most of them are involved with children’s literature: writers, teachers, reviewers of children’s’ literature. One person signs up to host each week. You put up a post related to poetry, and people will post comments and they add in the link to their blog. We sometimes get up to 50 people. You get children’s book reviewers reviewing about what’s out for poetry for kids. You get original poems sometimes by children’s authors. People review each other’s books. There’s analysis and criticism. My project for National Poetry Month was to do posts on all of the states’ poets laureate which I’ve not yet finished.
BM: I love reading your posts about them.
LS: I’m up to 41. The other thing that Poetry Friday has done for me is that it has given me access to an online poetry community. It’s always good to have people supporting you and cheering you on. It’s been a wonderful experience. There’s going to be a Convention for Children’s Literature Bloggers coming up in October in Minneapolis, and I’ve been invited to be on the Poetry Friday panel.
BM: Let’s talk about arranging a set of poems. Are the poems in the chapbook in the original order or did you and Michael move them around?
LS: We didn’t move them around. For the most part, the book follows a narrative: the voice of childhood poems are grouped in the front of the book; the teen into early marriage are in the middle; and then the ones about parenting are more toward the end. I think that most of my poems do explore some kind of relationship. I’m not so much into imagery for the sake of imagery. It’s got to speak to something human for me, so that’s why it made sense for me to do something chronological.
BM: When you read books of poetry, is that something that you look for, a narrative?
LS: No. I usually keep a book of poems by the bedside and I try to be in the habit of reading one or two poems a night, so the chronology isn’t necessarily that important to me. That’s very different from reading a novel in verse or working on one. A lot of that for me is about how the poems will be arranged and what the interplay is going to be between them.
BM: Are you thinking about interplay that as you write your poems?
LS: Not for the chapbook or my poems for adults, but for my most recent draft of my children’s novel in verse, I’m finding that I need to go through each section of the book, figure out where the poems I’ve already written fit to tell the overarching story, see where the gaps are, and write to those gaps.
BM: What does it take to write for children?
LS: I think it’s an openness and a willingness to see children as real people. Because of what I do, because I’m going out to schools and meeting them for the first time and asking them to write and be honest and brave, I have to be willing to be honest and brave with them too. Sometimes they write things that are scary for them, and for their teacher. Being open to that has helped me to write for kids, tremendously.
BM: What grades do you work with?
LS: I work with third grade through middle school. I have six residencies planned for this year, and I usually put aside two weeks for each. And then I’ll have a few schools that will invite me to come for just one day.
BM: So it leaves you time to write.
LS: Yes, It does. which has been good, but sometimes the transitions are hard. This year I stopped teaching in March and had a hard time adjusting, but the last few months have been a very busy writing time for me.
BM: I noticed that some of your poems are free verse, some use forms. Is that something you consciously try to do, experiment with form?
LS: Sometimes I do experiment with form. If I do a first or second draft, and I don’t feel like it’s quite there yet, I’ll try it in different forms to see how it feels. While I was working on one of the poems in the book, “An Absolute Vista,” I tried it as a triolet. Working on the triolet showed me more clearly what the theme of the poem was. The triolet lost a lot of the imagery, though, and that’s why I went back to the form it’s in now.
BM: When I write short stories I often write a poem first and then write the story, because the poem is like a distillation of the story. It helps me see what I wanted to say, and then I can write the story.
LS: I like what you’re saying about that process. I think it’s something I would like to see more teachers doing: using a poem to introduce a novel. Especially for middle and high schoolers, it would be a really nice way to promote discussion of the book.
BM: In some of your poems, like “Brother” and “Petula,” you have us inhabit someone else’s world and see the world through someone else’s eyes. To me that is one of the great things that any kind of writing can do. Is that something you look for?
LS: It is something I look for. I’ve thought about this a lot, because my family is bi-cultural. I think it has a lot to do with growing up and hearing the different accents, the different diction. Added to that my parents lived in Thailand before I was born and were friends with a couple who wanted their sons to be educated in America. So from the time I was an infant until I was 5, I had two Thai brothers living in our house. So then it was three voices and accents, and I think that that had a huge effect on my writing style, and how I pay attention to people’s voices.
Laura and Shirley Brewer will be the speakers for the August meeting of the Howard County chapter of the Maryland Writer’s Association. They will read from their books, and discuss topics including reading your work to an audience and how one goes about putting together a collection. Laura Shovan’s website is http://www.laurashovan.com, and her blog is authoramok.blogspot.com.
Barbara Morrison writes the Monday Morning Book Blog (http//:www.bmorrison.com/blog/) and twitters from bmorrison9. HERE AT LEAST: POEMS BY B. MORRISON is available from Cottey House Press. She also is a contributor to NEW LINES FROM THE OLD LINE STATE: An Anthology of Maryland Writers (Maryland Writers Association, 2008).