Terri Kirby Erickson is the author of five full-length collections of award-winning poetry, including her upcoming collection, Becoming the Blue Heron (Press 53, Spring, 2017). Her work has appeared in the 2013 Poet’s Market, Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry, Asheville Poetry Review, Atlanta Review, Boston Literary Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, Cutthroat, JAMA, Literary Mama, NASA News & Notes, North Carolina Literary Review, storySouth, The Southern Poetry Anthology, The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, Verse Daily, and many others. Awards include the Joy Harjo Poetry Prize, Nazim Hikmet Poetry Award, Atlanta Review International Publication Prize, Gold Medal in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, and a Nautilus Silver Book Award. She lives in North Carolina. For more information about her poetry, please visit http://www.terrikirbyerickson.com or http://www.Press53.com.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Becoming the Blue Heron. This is your fifth collection, correct? How has the experience changed for you since the first book? Does the excitement of a first book evolve into something different by the time you get to hold your fifth?
Terri Kirby Erickson: Thank you, Curtis! Yes, Becoming the Blue Heron is my fifth collection, which for a “girl” who dreamed of being a published author since the age of ten, is still thrilling. I will say, however, that one’s confidence level grows after the first book is published and is well received. If there is any better feeling than holding a book you’ve written in your hands, whether it is number one or number five, it’s finding out through letters, emails, and conversations with readers, how much poems that began in your head as a lone image or idea, have touched and impacted the lives of others.
CS: I’ve long admired your work—your tones and images, your ease of language. If you had to choose one element of poetry that excites you most, that calls you to your desk then makes you feel good after you’ve grappled with it, what would it be?
TKE: Thank you for the kind words… I enjoy capturing a so-called “ordinary” moment because such poems remind us there is enchantment to be found where one least expects to find it. In my new collection, there’s a poem entitled, “Spider in the Sink.” This poem was inspired by a small spider I saw one morning, in my kitchen sink. I am not especially fond of spiders, but since this one wasn’t a tarantula (although “Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy,” a fine poem by the late Thomas Lux, gives us the opportunity to see them in a more positive light), I was rather charmed by its delicate and perfectly made body, its arduous, yet gracefully negotiated journey across a sink filled with cups and saucers. What I most want is for readers to see the spider along with me, and to appreciate “the tiny flicker of its life” as I did. That’s when I feel good about the work—if I believe I’ve accomplished what I set out to do in the first place, which is to say to a reader, “Look at this!” and in so doing, he or she feels something unexpected like fascination and even identification with a spider.
CS: A number of themes run through your work—one of the most striking is your connection to the natural world. You take us to lovely vistas, have us commune with animals and insects. What is it about nature that calls you and demands to find its way into your work?
TKE: For one thing, the sky with its ever changing colors never fails to move me. And the creatures of the air—songbirds, herons, hawks, and all the rest—are not earth-bound, but able to soar among the clouds—a feat that is awe-inspiring to watch, creating a yearning in me for that kind of effortless freedom. So the next best thing to flying is writing about flying, just like the only way I can have my childhood back is to write about it. Nature comes up again and again as a subject in my work because from the time I could walk until first grade, my little brother and I were seldom inside our house except to eat and sleep. In fact, my mother sometimes handed me a sandwich in whatever tree I had most recently climbed because I didn’t want to come down! On summer days, my nose was perpetually pollen-dusted from smelling flowers, my hair in strings from constant running around and rolling in the grass, my bare feet black as coal. My world consisted of flowers and plants and trees and birds and turtles and frogs and salamanders and lightning bugs and on and on. So writing about nature allows me to relive, in a sense, those glorious and carefree days of my childhood, and hopefully recreate this magical time for others to enjoy.
CS: Family and the nature of memory form their own running current. You take us back to your childhood, to family members now gone. Your work serves as a witness—both to them and to your experiences. I imagine the creation of these poems, while still utilizing the same lyrical language, takes you to a very different place than the poems set in the natural world. Can you address how your approach and process differs depending upon your subject?
TKE: I think my approach to any subject begins in a similar place of respect and reverence for the divine spark in every living thing, and gratitude for the beauty that surrounds us. What I most wish to do in my poetry, is to paint word pictures that illustrate the depth and breadth of our common human experience and emotions, including our interdependence and interaction with the natural world. The difference in approach to a “memory/family” poem and a “nature” poem, for me, isn’t all that vast because both require the same attention to detail, the same emotional involvement with the subject not necessarily in intensity, but with the similar goal of creating a still life with language that reveals something important, memorable, and moving about that subject, to the reader. More importantly, I’m hoping that my observations, insights, and recollections allow room for readers to reflect on memories of their loved ones, time spent in nature, or wherever and with whomever the “journey” of reading a poem takes them.
CS: And while we’re addressing different approaches, let’s talk about form. Your poems run from slight and delicate in texture to others that are dense and rich and verge on flash fiction. When in the process does form come to you? Do you feel it from the beginning? Or does it arise on its own during your writing?
TKE: Every poem I write seems to take on a life of its own after the first few lines, but in general, if I’m telling a story more so than making an observation (or what I like to think of as shining a light on something we take for granted or assume is ordinary when in reality, everything is extraordinary!), the poem grows more dense and prose-like all by itself, while retaining the qualities and poetic devices that differentiate it from flash fiction. As to the more loosely strung together lines, sometimes I just feel, for whatever reason, that words on the page need room to “breathe.” I suppose it is rather like, in terms of knitting and crocheting, determining the density of stitches (referred to as the “gauge”) when making a scarf or a shawl. Using this analogy, one could say that the “gauge” of words in poems is less dense in some than in others, depending on how closely the writer “stitches” them together. And in my case, this decision or more accurately, this surrendering to the experience of creating the work, happens quite early on.
CS: This is no slight collection—there’s a lot of material in here. And within the pages, the collection is divided into six sections. How did this structuring come about?
TKE: Well, you may notice that every section begins with a poem about a different creature (lightning bugs, carpenter bee, rooster, barn owl, great blue heron, and honey bees) which seems fitting in a book entitled, Becoming the Blue Heron. I love and admire how birds, insects, and animals are simply themselves, without the existential angst and occasional despair that many human beings feel, at least at one time or another. Also, since there’s something of the “picture-straightener” in my personality, structuring a book comprised of so many different “stories” and images into six sections with twelve poems each, is probably my way of creating order out of chaos. Life is messy and unpredictable. We’re at the mercy of mercurial weather, the environment, the health and fitness of our bodies and minds, economics, and so many other variables that whatever we can do to feel more in control, however temporary and illusionary, is comforting—at least it is to me. Writing poetry in general is one way to make sense of it all, to break up what is vast and essentially unknowable, into smaller, more digestible pieces.
CS: What’s next?
TKE: After a recent health scare that reminded me that life is precarious and infinitely precious, I feel grateful to God and to all of the kind people who prayed for and supported me during that difficult time. So my upcoming book launch party for Becoming the Blue Heron feels like a celebration of more than just the new book, and I’m having such fun planning it! This event, sponsored by “Readings on Roslyn” is free and open to the public, and will take place at 7 p.m. on Monday, March 27, at The Barn at Reynolda Village in Winston-Salem, NC. We’ll have live jazz, art, special guests, and of course, poetry. And it is my honor to donate 10% of the evening’s book sales to The Centers for Exceptional Children (www.thecfec.org) where a number of good and caring people have dedicated their lives to serving children with developmental delays, orthopedic disabilities, and other health impairments. (For more information, please visit terrikirbyerickson.com). What comes next, after that, is anyone’s guess. I hope, however, it will involve two of my favorite things, poetry and chocolate!
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chapbooks, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing published Kurt Vonnegut: Bookmarker, a collection of his essays about Slaughterhouse Five.