Naomi Rachel earned her MFA in Creative Writing and her PhD in English literature. Her dissertation was on colloquial language in American poetry. Her poems and eco essays have appeared in over four hundred publications and her chapbook was titled The Temptation of Extinction. Before coming to Colorado she taught at the University of British Columbia. At the University of Colorado she has earned the Van Ek teaching/mentoring award as well as a Women Who Make A Difference Award. Naomi Rachel has been an environmental activist (forestry issues) in both Canada and in the USA and has written widely on the subject—and as a regular columnist for “Wild Earth”.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
I did start writing poetry when I was very young and my first published poem appeared in “Seventeen Magazine.” It was actually an anti-Vietnam war poem but since I used lipstick as a metaphor for blood, I think the editors didn’t realize I was making a very political statement. Certainly it wasn’t like their other sentimental love poetry!
What is your writing process?
I don’t think poets should be trying to write something original. Who knows if there is anything truly original or unique. Creating art is more about taking common ideas or images and linking them in a way that sends off a spark. We see something anew just because of the connection. The common becomes uncommon. Poetry is an act of attention. When we are writing, we are paying very focused attention to the world of our poem.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
A really wonderful text book I use and recommend whenever I can is The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes. It’s a book that works for beginning and advanced poets. She has a wonderful collection of work by a diverse group of poets and I think young readers will find at least a few poets whose work will matter to them. Read the poetry you love. And then let one poet lead you to another. Find out which poet your favorite poet reads and go from there.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
I think poetry is a great life support system for younger adults. It’s a time in life when the questions can seem overwhelming. And it is interesting that writing poetry helps because more questions occur. But I think asking the questions helps with self definition. We discover who we are by asking questions. Picasso said of computers “they are useless because they only answer questions.” Poetry asks the questions. And they are the very questions that have either no answer at all, or many many answers. Maybe that is why poetry is a good tool for young people to be able deal with the questions that can’t (and perhaps shouldn’t) be answered. James Thurber said “I’d rather know some of the questions, than all of the answers.” Poetry does this better than any other form of communication.
Young writers often ask the question, “why write poetry”. It certainly isn’t mainstream communication. There are many personal reasons but we often, as a culture, use poetry when nothing else seems to express difficult emotions and ideas. That’s why poems crop up at weddings, births and funerals. That’s also why W. H. Auden became popular after 911. He was really asking questions but the ones we needed to hear. We have always attempted to use poetry to express what is most important. During his years in prison, dissident poet, playwright and (later) president Victor Havel wrote of hope in the same light that I want to write to you of poetry. He had hope not because he had knowledge that things would turn out well. Havel had hope because of his certainty that something makes sense regardless of the outcome. Your poetry needs to make sense and to communicate and then there is indeed hope for young poets… those who keep writing because they have something to say. Think of writing poetry as a private communication that sometimes becomes public.
And be patient about reading and writing. Franz Kafka had a wonderful sign above his desk at work. It simply read “WAIT”. Write daily for discipline but don’t be in a hurry to find the right word or phrase or the image that will wake up the poem. It’s wonderful to discover how the subconscious helps you. You may not be thinking of the word you need, and then it just appears. It’s better not to wait for inspiration (which usually comes as a reward for the work done) but it is great to let that space in the poem alone until the time is right and the word is ripe.