March 11, 2010

Allusions of grandeur


— By

Staff Writer

In ''Rough Cradle,'' Maine's poet laureate works through the ideas of beauty versus darkness, grit versus comfort.

But Betsy Sholl will be the first to say the journey she took in writing her seventh book of poetry was a fluid one and not mapped, plotted or planned.

''For the most part, the last thing a poet thinks about is what the poem means,'' she said. ''Are the rhythms working? Does the tone seem like a true embodiment of something? I have depicted things that I feel are accurate without overstepping their bounds. And then what a poem means in a more intellectual way is sometimes the last thing one ever gets around to.''

Sounds funny coming from one who teaches poetry, both at the University of Southern Maine and in Vermont College's writing program.

But Sholl, a founding member of Alice James Books and the winner of awards such as the Felix Pollak Prize, does not herald the messages found in poetry.

''The main work that poetry does is to refresh or renew the language,'' Sholl said. ''And from that, it renews the presence and aliveness of language. Once we have that, we start seeing the world again, communicating with each other beyond our cliques.''

One thing Sholl is clear about in regard to her own poetry is that she is not clear about anything -- nor should she be. Whatever meanings or messages her poetry offers, she insists, is for society to decide.

''I think that advice is the lowest form of spiritual rhetoric. The biggest questions are beyond us,'' she said.

That said, Sholl recently discussed some of the themes and images that can be found in her latest poems, while reminding at each turn that poetry is more organic than intentional.

And in some cases, she added, ''some poems are just trying to celebrate something. With the elephant seals'' -- from the poem of the same name -- ''I was just trying to enjoy these guys.''

Q: What is the fourth part of ''Rough Cradle'' about? There are poems in this part that are gritty, and so real: the prison poem; the one about the airplane; the step-father driving.

A: I was concerned with finding balance between a sense of hope and a sense that there is beauty, and some kind of harmony in the world. I was playing that against the fact the world is full of dissonance and violence. In general, I was trying to let those two elements work themselves out by putting them together, to see how they are resolved without me controlling it.

Q: So you volley those two themes back and forth?

A: Yes. And I hoped that in the process of doing that, they would create their own kind of wave pattern, I guess. In some ways, the last part is more positive to me.

Q: Perhaps it was just my interpretation, there is so much, as you said ''dissonance and violence'' today. It's everywhere.

A: I think with 24-hour news service, it's a blessing and a curse It is such a burden to sit on our couches and see suffering in the world and not act.

Q: And by reflecting on it, are you helping people to deal with that conflict?

A: I think when you write poems, you are immersed in the language and immersed in the rhythm of the poem, and you can't think beyond that. To say I'm writing my poems to help people turns art into some kind of purely social function. Art starts closer to the body and unconscious, and whatever uses it has, somebody else decides that, not the poet.

Q: What about the poem ''Rough Cradle?'' It describes a happy adventure, but there is some conflict at the end.

A: Originally, I thought it was about depression. I have two sisters and a step-sister, and we talked about the idea how we were always told to measure up. And it was an impossible demand. And it was really a burden on us. So in that poem, the two phrases that come up in each section are ''measure up'' and ''talking.'' I was trying to play with that demand to measure up and what it means

Q: And the rocking of the boat, is that a comfort in this scene?

A: It's kind of a true story. I grew up on the shores of Maine, and we'd gun the boat right to the ocean's edge and then it was, ''Holy mackerel, should we turn it around?'' There is some pleasure in that, being something bigger than yourself. It comes down to: all our talk is an attempt to avoid what is bigger than us.

Q: What do you hope to leave the reader with in general, hope or reflection?

A: I guess I would hope that the reader would take away some real engagement with language of poems, maybe a sense that the world is a little more fluid than rigid. I feel nervous claiming to have some kind of moral purpose. I guess I would hope that the reader would take away a sense of engagement with the world of poems and a sense of fluidity and maybe just a desire to be attentive. That's kind of creepy to make those claims.

Q: But does what you just said define the way you wrote this collection: not so intentional or mapped out, but more fluid?

A: A couple of times in my life, I had a project in my life that was reflected in a book. ''The Red Line'' (was written at) a time in my life when I was really trying to teach how to be generous. Almost every poem in that book is trying to look at the world with a generous spirit, and that was very clear to me. It's not like each poem set out to show that, but my whole life was about that, and you could see it in the poems...

With this book, I'm not sure it had a clear purpose, except that maybe I was a little obsessed with the tension between transcendence and realism. That sounds highfalutin'. But there is a part of me that longs for the capacity for some sort of spiritual abandon, and then there is a part of me that yaps like a crow, ''Isn't it all the here and now?''

That tension between the here and now and the beyond, that might be something I am working through in all of this. And maybe also it is an attempt at questioning the grip of memory. You remember your childhood, but what if it wasn't really that way? What is the relationship between certainty and something more fluid?

I haven't actually thought about this, but those might be what I was thinking about.

Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be contacted at 791-6452 or at:

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