Photo Credit: Constance Koons
This News Splash interview is with Patricia Fargnoli, former Poet Laureate of New Hampshire and author of six collections of poetry including her just-released book, Then, Something (Tupelo Press). I had the pleasure of working with Pat on a statewide initiative she created during her Poet Laureate tenure that celebrated children’s poetry. As she talks about her creative process, I see many lessons for business people such as “letting go” to conjure innovation, discovering inspiration all around you, about the hard work of honing a good idea until it is ready for prime time, about the importance of feedback and more. Read on and be inspired! And, for anyone local, stop by and hear Pat read from her new book at the Robert Frost Farm in Derry, NH, on Thursday, Sept. 10, at 6:30pm as part of the Hyla Brook Reading Series.
News Splash (NS): When we worked together for the statewide Children's Poetry in the Libraries program, you were anything but a stereotypical lost-in-the-clouds artist. You are an amazing project manager: very strategic and organized while rallying a big volunteer work force. Are these traits that help you approach your creative side as well?
Pat: Thank you, Kyle. That project was such a joy to work with you on! One of the things that made it so much fun was that I got to use some long dormant skills of mine that I acquired in my first years as a social worker when I administered a YWCA program for young women in trouble with the law…and later when I worked as the supervisor of a team of technical workers at Aetna Insurance Company.
But strangely…or perhaps not…I am utterly unorganized and “lost-in-the-clouds” when it comes to writing poetry. I write best when I can let go of the need to control the words and the direction of the poem, and try to get into a kind of “loose-mind” state and just write. I think, for any artist, there are three kinds of “work.” One is the creative part where you try to access the deeper (perhaps subconscious or dreamlike) parts of yourself. Or where you try to “see” a thing (a mountain, for instance, a deer, a city, etc.) in a way it's never been seen before and then give it a new language. Or where you try to give a language to a feeling or thought that seems to be almost beyond words.
The second kind of “work” is revision when the conscious mind with all its knowledge of craft and technical skill steps in and begins shaping the piece, much the way the sculptor chisels the marble to find the shape within. The third “work” is the business of poetry…knowing the potential markets, writing cover letters, networking, getting poems sent out. My “business skills” of course come most into play with the third “work” but also with the second kind where one has to know the tools, believe in oneself and ones art, be motivated to work hard and stick to it.
NS: I've always been fascinated by how many poets come from a business-type background. You are a retired therapist, Dana Gioia was an executive at General Foods, Wallace Stevens was at Aetna, T.S. Eliot spent several years at Lloyd's Bank of London. Why do you think this is?
Pat: Hmmm. These days far more poets come from academic jobs, primarily as teachers in the colleges and MFA programs. In general, poets from the business world have to work harder and be luckier to be successful. The hard fact is that being a poet doesn't pay and all poets need a “day job.” Those with corporate jobs in general are better off financially than those who teach. I have, recently, seen a fair number of poets emerge from the medical professions. William Carlos Williams was a doctor, Courtney Davis has edited an anthology of poems by nurses, C. Dale Young, the editor of the New England Review, is a doctor. I guess the bottom line is that poets can spring from anywhere and work at any job at all to sustain themselves. But regardless, all of us share a love of the language and the desire to express our vision of the world.
NS: Why is poetry important?
Pat: Because it constantly redefines reality and expands our understanding of the worlds...both those we live in and those beyond us. Because it translates the unsayable into language. Because it connects us to the creative spirit in the universe. Because it informs us about and connects us to our common humanity...in all its beauty, flaws and frailty. Because it is a source of joy.
NS: Tell me about your creative process.
Pat: I read a great deal of poetry by other poets, not only for enjoyment (though that is key) but because it both inspires my own, and teaches me techniques and strategies I didn't know before. Often I read poems to start my writing day. Then I either sit down with a pad, or sit before the computer, and begin with whatever is on my mind or happening right outside my window, or right in front of me (once I wrote a poem about a bug that was sitting on my computer).
I usually just try to keep writing without worrying very much about whether it's a poem or not (nevermind a good one). A friend calls this the “garbage page.” Later I type it up or print it out and start cutting and shaping. After that, I put it away a few days, then revise some more and when I've got the poem as far as I can take it, I'll show someone (usually people in one of my workshops) and ask for feedback. Then more revision. Often a poem will take months, even years before I feel it's done.
But there are other ways poems come into being too. Perhaps I'll see a bunch of words or a magazine article or something that intrigues me. Or some event will happen and I'll rush home and write about it; or I'll be driving and see something I don't want to lose and so I'll write it down on a napkin or something on the steering wheel (which I don't recommend).
NS: Do you have any tips for business people who want to more fully tap into their creative side?
Pat: The famous German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, in his poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” says that once you have seen the power of art “you must change your life.” I agree. Making a space for poetry in my life has totally changed my life and given me a wealth of friendships and immeasurable happiness. It is indeed possible to combine a business life and a creative life. One simply needs to shift priorities enough to create the space/time for making art in one's life. There is a wonderful book/workbook called The Artist's Way, by Julia Cameron that lays out a complete plan for making that happen. I was once in a workshop group with 30 artists and we worked with that book together. It was life-changing, and I highly recommend it.
NS: What inspires you?
Pat: Mountains, ponds, deer, foxes, the color blue, things of the spirit, all things mysterious, the questions for which I have no answers.