Pamela Porter Interview, with JP Reese
Pamela, your poem "Where are they now" is such a lovely autumnal hymn filled with aching and loss, but it is also a paean to nature’s beauty. The last stanza is particularly stunning in its imagery. What was your impetus for this poem and when did you write it?
I began writing "Where are they now" in the weeks before my mother died. I knew that her death was imminent, and I was waiting day by day for the phone call that would announce her passing. Composing the poem gave me something to focus on, and helped me begin to sort out our broken relationship. I had been estranged from my parents and sister for twelve years before my mother's death. I thought about the summers of my childhood when we took vacations on Padre Island on the Texas Gulf Coast; it was what my mother wanted, and always she would leave us to walk far down the beach, though the trips never made her any happier, and my sister and I always seemed somehow tangential to her life. As a child, I learned how to make myself 'invisible,' and less vulnerable to her criticism. As I waited for my mother's death to arrive, I realized that I was still playing the same invisibility game. A death causes one to strip off the burdensome defenses we've built up, and I began to hope that through her death, with all her anger and bitterness dead too, I could come to a better, more forgiving relationship with my mother.
Along with your poetry, you also write children's books. Which came first and which is more difficult to write, poetry or young people's fiction? Does one genre influence the other?
Poetry has always been my primary obsession as a writer, but I started writing for younger readers as well once I had two children of my own. Two of my three novels – The Crazy Man (2005), and I'll Be Watching (2011), are written in free verse, and are most appropriate for middle school to adult readers. For some years I had wanted to write a novel in narrative poems, but at that time, no publisher had expressed interest in either my adult poetry or my work for younger readers, so I held out little hope that a publisher would pay any attention to a novel written as poetry. Once I finally had a novella for younger readers published (Sky, 2004), I went to work on The Crazy Man. I had no idea how successful the book would be; The Crazy Man won a dozen awards, both in the US and in Canada, where I now live. As it turns out, if you're young enough not to have had your innate love of language ruined by a teacher who introduces you to poetry as a medium that requires a decoder ring to figure out, or who passes out the dreaded sheet of terms you have to memorize, with names like hyperbole and onomatopoeia, almost every child takes naturally to poetry. It has been very satisfying to see young people so enthusiastic for narrative poetry, and it has allowed me to take my work into classrooms to further encourage a love of poetry.
In other interviews I've read, you've stated that you toiled in obscurity for years before you were recognized for your writing. What was it that made you persevere?
I made the decision to become a writer at the age of 19, after I took my first creative writing course at SMU in Dallas. I had poems accepted into journals from time to time, but it took 29 years before I had a book published. That 29 years was a long haul. A few things kept me going. One was Ara Carapetyan, my high school choir director. After I went off to college, I came home after a few weeks and paid "Mr. C" a visit. He asked what I wanted to do with my life, and I responded by saying that what I really wanted to do was to write poetry, but everyone I spoke to said I couldn't just write poetry; I had to have a 'real job,' so I was trying to decide what I would do for a 'real job.' Ara sat down with me and said, "Don't listen to them. You can be a poet if you want to. People find ways to make a living doing what they love." I carried those words like a talisman through the years I struggled to publish my work. After I had five books published, I realized I needed to find Ara and let him know what he had done for me. I have since sent him all my books. When I enrolled in my first poetry class, my professor, John Skoyles, took me aside and said to me, "I really think you have a gift." There were two people in the world who thought I could become a poet. Lastly, there were instances in those 29 years when I tried to quit writing and found, as Rilke advised his young poet friend, that I had to write. I also seemed to have inside me a deep-seated though sometimes barely audible voice that believed I could succeed as a writer. And when the rejection slips rained down on me, I vowed that I would go back to my desk and write something so good that an editor would not be able to turn down. As a result, my writing improved.
Describe the moment in which you felt most proud to be a writer.
I think the moment I was most proud to be a writer was the moment I learned that my novel, The Crazy Man, had won the Governor General's Award, the national book award for Canada. Few people even knew I was writing the novel, and when it came out, it was just my second published work. When I was flown to Ottawa for a formal ceremony, I knew then no one could say anymore that I wasn't a "real writer." Most of all, I would no longer harbor my own fear that I wasn't a real writer. Another moment came when the same book won a Texas Institute of Letters book award. It was satisfying to go back to the place where I grew up, now as a recognized writer. I thought to myself, "I did it. I really did it." Recently, a feature article about me and a review of my new novel, I'll Be Watching appeared in the local newspaper; I later discovered that my daughter had copied the link into Facebook and sent it out to all her friends. I realized that it made a difference in her life whether or not I stuck to my dream of becoming a writer.
You earned an MFA earlier in your life. Would you like to weigh in on the current controversy regarding MFA programs?
Of the MFA, I agree with those who say one doesn't need an MFA in order to succeed as a writer, but the program helped me. Through pursuing an MFA, I was given two years to devote to the development of my writing, with teachers present who would get to know me through those two years, and with a group of fellow students whose writing informed and at times influenced my own. I also developed a writing discipline during my studies that was later crucial for me during the long years I wrote alone and in obscurity. Rather than pursue a degree in creative writing, one can go to conferences and workshops, but the instructors don't ever really find out who you are and what kind of writer you are and can become. Whatever teaching jobs I've had through the years were due to having an advanced degree, and I believe that I was granted a scholarship to attend the Bread Loaf conference because my MFA professor, Richard Hugo, wrote a letter of recommendation on my behalf. I think, though, that there is a danger in placing creative writing programs in university settings, and it is that the university is a very left-brain place, and students tend to come to writing workshops and approach their writing in the same left-brained manner. The result can be that much of the writing the students produce may be smart and clever, but doesn't go into any deep place, that place of profundity which is theheartbeat of poetry. I was fortunate in this respect to be one of Dick Hugo's students, because Dick would talk about "the triggering town" – that town you drive into one day, one you've never seen before, but you soon realize you've lived there all your life, that you know all the people and what are their dreams and tragedies and fatal flaws. What Dick was saying was that a poet discovers and mines his/her own psyche, and that's where the profound and universal truths lie. So I have always set out to find my 'triggering towns.' Whether one chooses to study writing in a university program or by some other means, the important thing is to find a teacher who inspires you. I had some very good teachers as an undergraduate and then a graduate student, but I found my best teacher outside the university, twenty years after completing my MFA, and he has been the most significant influence on my development as a writer. Still, I have never regretted getting my MFA.
These four poems seem to have as their underpinning a child's or young adult's relationship to a father whose influence seems even more powerful in the present because of his absence. In "Little apple" the speaker says of the father "he remains an absence on the stairs,/the fallen light in a room/where he might have stood,/the dampness in the soil,/ where he did not kneel..." Beautiful. There is a longing here that is universal. Have you written more father poems? Are they a form of catharsis for you? There's also a kind of sacred reverence for nature in all of these poems. Can you tell us how much the sacred influences your work?
Yes, the search for father has been huge in my life, beginning in childhood. Something very deep within me, almost a voice but not a voice, kept urging me to find my father. It was mysterious, disturbing and painful, but above all confusing – how was I supposed to find someone whose name, face, and address I didn't know? No matter how much I denied it or refused to listen, it would not go away, and continued into adulthood. I didn't tell anyone, for obvious reasons. Do all of us at some time in our lives hear such callings, which come from somewhere within or beyond us, which we don't understand, and then bury because others will think us crazy? I buried it, the best I could, and then in middle age, I found him. Since that moment, for me everything is sacred, the veil between this world and the other is very thin, and I now understand I was never alone, though I was convinced I was utterly alone in an uncaring universe. As a result, I began to write feverishly. The poems are still coming. I don't know when I will be done with this. It may take the rest of my life.