An interview with Judith Skillman

Interview by Carol Smallwood, Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award

Judith Skillman’s poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart, Best of the Web, the UK Kit Award, and is included in Best Indie Verse of New England to mention just a few honors of this prominent American poet and translator. Her work has appeared in many anthologies and journals and her work as an artist has also attracted notice. The state of Washington poet has published sixteen poetry collections of acclaim; visit www.judithskillman.com

How did you decide on the title of your new poetry collection, Came Home to Winter?

A number of the poems deal with “the dark seasons,” at least here in the northwest: autumn and winter: “The Quaking Aspen’s First Autumn,” for instance. Then there more than a few pieces about aging, including “Rheumatism” and “Mobility”. It seems fairly clear, now that I am in my mid-sixties, that winter is more than an apt metaphor for the aging process, and also, ultimately, for mortality.

To equate a season with the body once seemed too precious, too cliché. I suppose I was ageist. But it occurred to me lately that all young people must be ageist, really. It’s part and parcel of youth’s innocence and arrogance. It is a necessary defense that enables one to survive.

Having said that, as one “matures”—doctors with a bedside manner like to call it that—many of the features we associate with winter accompany the body on its journey. There is a poem titled “Post Vitreous Detachment,” which appeared in Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). If someone had told me when I was in my thirties that there was a gel in the eye and that gel would dry up and pull away from the retina, well, I don’t know if I could have handled the prospect. This has happened in both eyes now, and the results are described in “The Floater,” which was also in JAMA.

Of course, despite its intimations of mortality, the ‘dark season’ casts and reflects light. Growing up on the east coast, first in Syracuse and then Maryland, and traveling a great deal to Montreal where my relatives lived, was a wonderful way to experience the beauty and magnificence of winter. The season of cold does not have to be dark. Snow and ice are beautiful in their austerity.

You write about nature with such close observance and skill. How has the land of Washington state influenced your poetry?

When we moved to the Northwest in 1982—first to Sequim, on the Olympic Peninsula—and then to the “Eastside,” across Lake Washington from Seattle, I fell in love with what the realtor called “God’s Country.” Of course, in the 36 years since we arrived, the area has become a metropolis resembling Washington DC, which I wanted desperately to get away from. But the mountains and water, as well as the flora and fauna, have definitely influenced my writing.

I remember first seeing a madrona tree; it was with jaw-dropping awe. And learning about how these trees hold all four seasons at once was eye opening. So many of the plants here, even the weeds, are large and beautiful. Foxglove, for instance. I love nature so hiking has been an ecstatic experience. Coming from Maryland it was a pleasure to find that the worst thing one encounters might be nettles, rather than those dangers I grew up with from the age of six on: tics, hornets, yellow jackets, poison ivy, and poison oak.

Regarding “close observation,” this wanting to get closer to nature comes from my father. He was a solar physicist and astronomer who loved studying the sun, planets, and stars, and he also looked at nature in other ways. I got the myopia gene. Growing up I was puzzled to see him take off his glasses and peer at a bug or a flower…now I do that myself. More with flowers and plants than insects, though.

I see in your acknowledgments that magazines accepted your poems such as Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Alaska Quarterly Review which must give you great satisfaction. How long did it take you to appear in top magazines?

Well, I was lucky enough to have poems taken by the journal Science (which no longer exists), and by Poetry and Poetry Northwest in the 1980’s. When we moved here I studied with Beth Bentley at University of Washington Extension and I credit her with for teaching students how to write associatively. This is a difficult lesson to learn and one I still struggle with. The conscious mind wants to take over; the subconscious holds mysteries that lead to a strong poem.

Of course I would like to get acceptances from top magazines more often, but that is not realistic. Journals are subjective and what is in vogue changes. Also, writing good poems doesn’t happen that often! As in any endeavor, the nature of the poebiz is that rarely one hits a hole in one. The only way to improve one’s art or sport is to keep practicing.

You are included in Wikipedia. When did you get this honor?

Actually it was my college friend Jesse Glass, who is a poet and a professor of English at Meikei University in Japan, who gifted me with the Wikipedia site some years ago. He said it was a garden and that I needed to work in it. I should update it more regularly.

How long does it take you to write a poetry collection? Do you have a topic in mind before you begin? Do you write first poems in longhand?

To begin with the last question first, I no longer write poems in longhand because I can’t read my own writing. Also, writing longhand doesn’t keep pace with thoughts, at least as compared to using a word processor/computer. Generally I have a feeling more than a topic. Sometimes a title or subject comes to mind, but in associative writing, which is what I try to do, the goal is to allow ourselves access to what’s frozen (or invisible), below the tip of the iceberg.

Also, I try to be aware of the difference between fancy and imagination—though this is possible only in revision. Fancy is contrived, whereas the imagination is defined as the “mind’s eye.” When the imagination is at work, one can follow a subconscious thread. That’s why the goal is to generate material from feelings, not from intellectualizing or overthinking. I also learned, from David Wagoner, to pay attention to your dreams and the songs that get stuck in your head. These can be clues.

Regarding the length of time it takes for put together a poetry collection, it varies from a year or two to perhaps five or ten years. I try to keep the material fresh. With Kafka’s Shadow (Deerbrook Editions, 2017) the subject matter was all of piece and that felt very refreshing. I’d like to do another biographical work in verse at some point.

Your poetry brings in such a wide knowledge of authors, art, language not to mention general knowledge. What is your educational background? You are also known as an accomplished translator. In what languages and when did you begin?

Thank you, Carol. I’ve always been a ‘bookworm’ though that term is now archaic. Although I read far less now than I used to, if my nose isn’t in a book—even if it takes a long time to finish said book—something doesn’t seem right. It’s not a good feeling. Probably this love of the written language predicted that I would buck my original family’s arena’s of expertise in the scientific fields. My mother is a math educator with a PhD, and I’ve already mentioned my father’s physics. Both of my siblings have PhD’s in the sciences.

I got an MA in English Literature from the University of Maryland because at that time the MFA degree in Creative Writing didn’t exist there. My very first major out of five or six as an undergrad was visual art, and though that didn’t work out, it’s been rewarding to return to making art when possible. Art and poetry have so much in common.

I am a Francophile; my favorite language is French. But actually the first translation project I did was Italian. Because it is a Romance language it was possible, but only with a native speaker. I also worked with a native Portuguese speaker to do two Pessoa poems that hadn’t been previously translated. I love trying to read Cesar Vallejo in Spanish, and René Char in French, after reading their translations to English by different translators. I credit the Translation seminars I was lucky enough to take at UW with for learning enough to venture into translation—it is a science and an art.

Some of your poems are in stanzas while others aren’t. Do you know before you begin writing how you will arrange the poem? Some are short, others long, and use indentions. Have all of your collections included a Notes section at the back to aid the reader?

Regarding form, I try not to think about it when writing a first draft. It’s only later, going back to a piece that may be worth some revision, that I try to break the lines into stanzas. I also try to count the beats in a line. This seems to help in getting rid of excess verbiage—especially adjectives and gerunds. If a poem lends itself to couplets, tercets, or quatrains then so much the better. That can also help to lop off an ending that really isn’t necessary.

It seems best to think of content and then consider form, unless one sets out to write a deliberate formal poem such as a sonnet or a villanelle. If the form and content gel it helps a poem succeed. As for using indentations, I like to think of fractures. Is this a piece that lends itself to separation and disjunction? In visual art some subjects and/or treatments of subjects are considered organic. That can be true of poems, too.

For Notes, it depends upon the work in a collection. Some collections have only had three or four notes. Poetry is confusing in and of itself, so any time one can assist with a note, why not. But on the other hand a poem should stand alone. There is this tension regarding the “Notes” page in a book. I try to not overuse them.

Other recent poetry collections include: Angles of Separation (Glass Lyre Press 2014); Kafka’s Shadow (Deerbrook Editions, 2017); Premise of Light (Tebot Bach, 2018). Are you working on the next book? If so, could you please give us an idea what it is about?

Well, I have some new poems in various stages of revision. I play around with order when I have time. The theme is various rifts we create and those which are thrust upon us. I don’t want to write the same poem over and over, though many poets/writers have said that is all we can do. I’d like to change it up, and perhaps that can become an inspiration even as it is an uncomfortable place to be.

Creativity can take on many forms—whether it’s working on a book, a painting, or just listening to a piece of music. The feeling of entering a new realm, whether through reading, writing, or simply day dreaming about possibilities—that sudden feeling of avenues opening up—is what renews one’s joie de vivre. Art reminds us how important it is to remain open to possibilities, and to continually renew our wonder.

The book is available directly from the publisher with free shipping: https://www.deerbrookeditions.com/?page_id=256

About the interviewer: Carol Smallwood is a Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award winner. A multi-Pushcart nominee; she’s founded, supports humane societies, serves as judge and reader for magazines. One of her recent poetry collections is In the Measuring (Shanti Arts, 2018).

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