C.R. Schwab Interview, with JP Reese
I find it refreshing that you lived for eighty-odd years before the poetry bug bit you. Your poems in this issue concern the poetry of memory, as might be expected from an older poet who has lived a long life, but they also tackle the now in surprising ways. You are 90 years old, and your work is insightful, fresh, and humorous (in a slightly grim but pragmatic way). In your poem, "Reflections of A Nonagenarian," one line imagines the Grim Reaper as someone with a "black garbed body topped by a hoodie-hidden...face" – a combination of old and new imagery. Which subjects tempt you to create poetry most often, memories and the past, or ideas you glean from the news and/or daily life?
Having been fortunate enough to remain active this late in life, I don't find myself engrossed in the past, although those memories occasionally creep in. "Reflections of a Nonagenerian" was written for a celebration of my birthday last August, and I suppose the others you read were not representative of my output to date. Most of my poems involve animals or other aspects of the natural world. Often the former are combined with news stories, such as the gray wolf tracked for 3000 miles in the Northwest, and the young bear picked up on Cape Cod. I have written about the scenic pond a few steps from my door, distant mountains, and annoying newscasters, among other subjects. I don't conceal my age when putting myself in any of these works.
In my life before succumbing to "rhyme" disease, I was attracted mainly to the musical and graphic (photography) arts. The only writing I did was for market research reports. Although I've tried my hand recently at a few short prose pieces, I have been strongly intrigued by the technical aspects of meter, rhyme, compression, and more. Besides, people like and respond directly to poetry.
You say people respond directly to poetry. Have you ever read your work for an audience? If so, how did it make you feel? If not, are you interested in doing so? Should poetry be read aloud or is it simply sufficient to read it on the page?
I have read my poem(s) to groups of 5-8 at my local senior center and in poetry class, meeting with pleasing reactions. The only large group consisted of middle school parents following Jessie Brown's class here in Arlington. Hearing genuine applause after reading the second poem of my career, I felt then I was on the right track. Recently, I read one of my poems during filming of an hour's discussion of poetry for the local cable station. I hope to have an opportunity to do more public reading. I feel reading poetry aloud and seeing it in written form is equally important.
You have lived through the Depression, WWII, the expansion and growth of America into a superpower, the red scare of the 1950's, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, the sixties, and all the decades since. What an amazing opportunity you have for creating poetry that delves into both lengthy personal as well as historical experience for your subject matter. Of all the decades you have lived, do you have a special decade you cherish more than any other—one about which you have written more than any other?
Of all the decades of my life, I have written most about the last ten years. Perhaps that's because the subjects are more immediate, more proximate. From one standpoint these years are most cherished. But from another – looking back at my entire life – the '40's stand out as most memorable. Entering an Ivy League university, working in a war plant during WW II (after being rejected for the draft), returning to school with radical ideas, marriage "on a dime," etc. Those were heady days, but so far only a bit of that has crept into my writing. Maybe more will.
Who is your favorite living poet and why? Do you have a favorite deceased poet as well?
My favorite living poet is Billy Collins. His poems speak directly to the reader, are mostly accessible, and his lines (the thoughts) move from start to ending. Among the "dead" poets I admire especially Robert Frost.
I can see that influence in your own writing. Like Collins and Frost, your poetry is somewhat narrative in approach and clear in its subject matter and meaning. “Requiem” is lyric in its sensibility but still uses language that clarifies and chastens. How important is it to your own work to read and evaluate/appreciate other poets’ work?
I am learning through class and outside that other poets and would-be poets all have something important to say; some do it better than others, and I can learn something from all. Above all, we are each one a part of something essential in the human experience.
Have you ever considered what you’d like your legacy to be? In what way would you like to have made a difference in the world?
I suppose I didn't give much thought to my legacy even for some years after retirement at 65. Doing volunteer work at the senior center on a more or less full time basis has been rewarding in more than one way, but especially in the sense of serving others (not to belittle the job of parenthood). My past admiration for or envy of great builders, thinkers, or political leaders, I think, has been replaced in some degree by high respect for those who devote their lives to social service. Rationalization, maybe, for unfulfilled dreams, but I view my legacy (if any) as being forged in what I've been doing in the last ten or fifteen years.
Finally, you are an inspiration to me, and I don't think I am alone in feeling this way. Many people would not want to embrace a new occupation, whether vocation or avocation, in their eighties. What drove you to choose to learn a new skill and what advice do you have for other people of any age who may think learning a new skill or art form has passed them by?
Perhaps, as I sat in that middle school class together with several other oldsters, I saw myself starting a new life. Long suppressed thoughts emerged, such as viewing life as a race with no designated finish line, or the importance of having a few spare minutes for someone else. My only advice for others is to know thyself, learn more about yourself and try something new. It also helps to be in touch with persons who can lead you by inspiring and nagging.
Reflections of a Nonagenarian
On reaching that reputed ripe old age:
Is this the time when life’s fruit
Is sweetest, a time when one should stop,
Lean over to taste its juiciness,
To devour it slowly, bite by bite,
Not letting it rot on the vine
Or fall to fertilize the ground?
Ninety is the new eighty, one hears,
For those born in recent years.
In the nineties of the nineteenth century
The nation was gay but not in the way
That some in the country are gay today.
Neither gayness grabs me now
As I turn and glimpse that black-garbed body
Topped by a hoodie-hidden scary face.
What’s the hurry, I exclaim!
Can’t you see I’m not ready?
A voice echoes from that childhood game
Of hide ‘n seek. The seeker shouts:
All around base are it, so
Ready or not, here I come.
A mother’s warning now recalled:
Your father and I and the rest of the world
Choose not to wait until you’re ready.
The only option was to delay:
Long silence, or just a minute.
I’ve got to finish what I’m doing.
So I say to the figure beckoning me
That I’m almost ready, but not quite finished.
One more taste, a few more bites.
Won’t you kindly try again later?
Lying in bed I am tuned
To the soft soothing sounds
Of Faure’s D-minor Requiem.
Like being sung to sleep
By a lullaby.
Faure’s version more peaceful,
Than traditional musical Requiems,
Diverging from the notes of a dirge,
Eliminating the Dies Irae,
Day of Judgment part,
With reduced emphasis on fear and dread
For both the dying and those who grieve.
Some years ago I sang
This work with others,
Not realizing its full significance,
Not really conscious of its future meaning
And all others
Of my generation.
Listening now, I learn.