Lee Sharkey is the author of Calendars of Fire (Tupelo Press, 2013) and three other full-length collections. Her poems have appeared in Crazyhorse, Field, Nimrod, Prairie Schooner, and Seattle Review. She is the coeditor of the Beloit Poetry Journal. Three of her poems from “Gleaners” can be found on KROnline. Her other two poems appear in the Fall 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Is there a story behind your KR poems “First Song” and “A Patient Word”? What was the hardest part about writing them?
“First Song” and “A Patient Word” are the first two poems in an eight-part sequence titled “Gleaners.” Three of the other poems in the sequence currently appear in Kenyon Review Online. I have been writing sequences for the last five years, sets of discrete poems loosely held together by an overarching theme they explore, each poem becoming a facet of the exploration. In this case, I had become intrigued by the idea of gathering the leavings, of living lightly, modestly, in a world despoiled by excess. Four of the eight poems in the sequence are based on Old Testament narratives; “First song,” on the story of Ruth and Naomi. A world of possibility is contained in that third spikelet of barley that Naomi, a poor immigrant whose only wealth was loyalty, bent to gather in Boaz’s field. So, too, with the widow who paints on her husband’s belly in “A patient word”—how much knowledge is inchoate in the brush whose touch links “the quick and the dead.”
A challenge in writing these poems was sustaining the balance between specificity and freedom from representation. I wanted them to have the quality of parables, all the while flaring into imagery in the reader’s mind.
In your poems in KR, you break lines not only as you move down the page, but also as you move across it. How frequently do you work with horizontal white space, and what does it bring to your poems?
White space is an important compositional element in my poetry, equivalent to intervals of silence when I read the poems aloud. The space is a resonance chamber. The space is the white light that fills in around the black letters, which in the Jewish mystical tradition inscribes the true word of God. From the first draft, “Gleaners” employed white space rather than punctuation to indicate pauses, but the spacing wasn’t regular—there might be one, or two, or no medial spaces in a line. Then Ed Hirsch, a gifted teacher, suggested I regularize the spacing so that each line made use of a single break, a caesura, thus strengthening the formal unity of the poems with a prosodic strategy that dates back to Old English verse. The other formal constraint was the poems’ length—each is eleven lines, or twelve minus one.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
The older I get, the less I know about the writing process. I have never been a person who could sit down to my writing at the same time every day, and of late I seem to need larger and larger swaths of uninterrupted time to compose anything that seems of consequence to me. I am a gleaner, picking up scraps of lines and images from my reading and direct experience and stashing them in my journal until something coalesces. But I also seem to need to be nosing after a moral urgency before the words start shaping themselves into lines. For me, those moral urgencies can’t be separated from formal investigations: of pronouns, indirection, syntax whole and broken, modular units, associative leaps, and incorporation of others’ words into my own.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
No doubt, my work as editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal. In the simplest terms, that work takes up the better part of my day and makes it difficult to find time to write. But it also keeps my finger on the pulse of contemporary poetry, sharpens my critical faculties, and broadens my aesthetic palate, particularly when it bumps up against the tastes of other members of the editorial board. Perhaps less obvious to someone who hasn’t edited a journal is that the work puts me in correspondence with other poets and gives me the sense that my own work is engaged in an ongoing conversation about poetry in the world. That has deepened my understanding of the vocation of poetry and my conviction that generosity is at its heart.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
I’m currently wrestling a manuscript that explores my relationship with the Jewish literary tradition, particularly the Eastern European poets whose work constitutes acts of spiritual resistance against the silencings of the Holocaust and Stalin’s rule of terror. Several of the longer poems are in dialogue with these poets, among them Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, and the Yiddish poets Abraham Sutzkever and Peretz Markish.
Photo credit: Al Bersbach.