Barn Owl Review Contributor Interview: Bernadette Geyer
by Sara Tracey
Barn Owl Review contributor Bernadette Geyer discusses her work as a free-lance writer and poet, the merits of chapbooks, and forging a community of writers.
First, the basics. When did you start writing and why?
I remember writing Nancy Drew-type mysteries when I was about 11 or 12. I still have some of them. I don’t exactly remember why I started, but I remember it was great fun. I wrote on the playground at recess and my classmates would take each page as I finished it and pass it around. A neighbor even paid me 50 cents for letting her read them. As for poetry, I wrote some in high school for English classes and started loving poems then, even collecting favorite poems. One of the first poems I memorized was Resume, by Dorothy Parker. After graduating from college, I moved to Washington, DC, and focused on establishing a career in public relations for the first several years. In 1996, I participated in a free poetry workshop offered by a bookstore and realized how much I enjoyed writing poetry and pretty much gave myself over to it.
Where do you find inspiration? What themes or images keep popping up in your work?
The full-length manuscript I’ve been shopping around has a lot to do with things we inherit or that are passed down to us – traditions, memories, stories. Also, that inanimate objects have histories important for us to seek out and pay attention to. My current manuscript-in-progress is a little wilder in that a significant portion of it consists of persona poems, many in contemporary bastardizations of traditional forms. The manuscript is currently titled “Women I Could Have Been,” so I’m delving into some of the less “amenable” aspects of myself and submerging myself in personas of women I wouldn’t naturally gravitate toward. Sort of along the lines of “There but for the grace of God go I.” There’s a much more spiritually-reflective bent towards some of my newer work as well.
Who are you reading? (Or what’s your favorite book of 2007/08?)
I am so behind on my reading that I’ll probably get to the 2007 poetry releases somewhere about 2010. Right now I’m reading the new issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, W.S. Merwin’s The Carrier of Ladders, and Immortal, a novel by Traci L. Slatton. I’m reviewing the last for the quarterly book review e-zine I publish. I have about 200 books and lit journals on my “to-read” shelves. As the stay-at-home-mother of a two-year-old daughter I don’t get much time to read anymore so it takes a bit longer for me to finish a book.
Who are your biggest influences (literary, mentors, other)?
I am particularly inspired by the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska, Miron Bialoszewsky, Zbigniew Herbert, Gregory Orr, Sharon Olds, Margaret Atwood, Dana Gioia, and Louise Gluck. I’ve also been heavily influenced by the poetics of Thomas Lux, Charles Simic, James Tate and Marvin Bell, based on essays and interviews I’ve read by them. I don’t have an MFA, but I have participated in several workshops and master classes. I can’t say I have “mentors” as such, but Rick Barot and Dana Roeser were wonderful “teachers” in the Jenny McKean Moore Poetry Workshops I participated in; I definitely feel I learned a lot from them. I have a few close friends I exchange poems with and have found their friendships to be sort of co-mentorships.
Which literary journals (besides Barn Owl Review, of course) do you enjoy most?
Mid-American Review, 32 Poems, The Bitter Oleander, Smartish Pace. I’m sure I could name more.
What advice would you give to writers who are just starting to send out their work?
Don’t take rejection personally. Check out publications before you submit to them to make sure your work is right for them, or that you actually would want to be published by them. When I started out, some of my poems were published in journals that were actually very poor quality – both design-wise and content-wise.
Don’t be in a rush to submit your poems – let them gestate; take your time with the editing process. To me, “intent” is the key to a successful poem. Every word, every image and metaphor, every line break should have a specific purpose. A poet should be able to tell a reader why he/she broke a line in a certain place, what purpose any given image serves, and why one particular word was chosen over the thousands of words at our disposal. I believe every poem should have a reason for existing outside of mere description or as the result of an exercise.
Would you tell us a little bit about your chapbook, What Remains, and your thoughts on publishing chapbooks vs. full length manuscripts?
I think the chapbook doesn’t get the credit it deserves, and I’m not just saying that because my first publication was a chapbook. Many poets have published chapbooks following the publication of successful full-length collections. Louise Glück for one. I think chapbooks are a great medium for publishing a very strongly linked series of poems that might seem forced if expanded to suit a full-length manuscript.
When my chapbook came out, I had been involved in the DC-area poetry scene for about four years. I was starting to be invited to be a featured reader in various poetry series, based on poems I read at open mics and connections I was making. I had enough poems that tied together thematically to form a chapbook, but not enough to be a cohesive full-length manuscript. R.D. Baker, who published four of the poems in WordWrights magazine, invited me to submit a chapbook for his consideration, which he did accept and publish the following year.
There are a lot of chapbook publishers who really care about design. Some very gorgeous chapbooks I own include Barbara Tran’s In the Mynah Bird’s Own Words (Tupelo Press), Katharine Whitcomb’s Hosannas (Parallel Press), and Rebecca Cook’s The Terrible Baby (Dancing Girl Press). Even DIY chapbooks can be very creatively designed as well.
You’re a free-lance writer and publisher of an e-zine. How do you balance these projects with your work as a poet?
I don’t think of it as a balancing act, which implies that all things are of equal weight at any given moment. To me it’s a juggling act. I have a two-year-old daughter who gets about 90% of my attention when she’s awake. When she’s asleep, one project gets all my attention at a time. When I am working on poems, the house goes to hell. When I’m working on the e-zine, I don’t worry that I’m not writing poetry. When the weeds get too high in the garden, I get down on my hands and knees with canvas gloves and a trowel. I’ve learned to hone my attention to the task at hand, which has probably saved my sanity. I’m also lucky enough to have a mother-in-law who comes over four hours a week to play with her granddaughter, which allows me time to get out and work on my writing. There are things I’ve scaled back on – primarily volunteer activities – until my daughter starts school. I realized that I needed to focus on my family and my own creative activities at this point in my life. Everyone needs to take stock of where they are once-in-a-while. Reassigning priorities is nothing to be ashamed about.
You mentioned that you didn't go the MFA route as a writer, but you seem to be very adept at making connections and forming/finding a community of writers to work with. Can you talk a bit more about that experience?
I’ve been very fortunate that the Washington, DC, area has such a wealth and variety of poetry reading venues and literary organizations. I started regularly attending the IOTA Poetry Series in Arlington, Virginia, back in about 1997 and met Miles David Moore, the host of the reading series. It was really his friendship that led to my involvement with The Word Works, a literary non-profit organization that publishes wonderful poetry, organizes readings, and sponsors an annual poetry book competition, the Washington Prize. I met so many other wonderful writers through my volunteering with The Word Works. I served as editor-in-chief for a couple of years and had the pleasure of working closely with several local authors on their books, and with a couple of the Washington Prize winners. I had also spent a couple of years volunteering as an editor for a local literary magazine called WordWrights, which also led to friendships with many fine writers in the region. I guess if I had lived somewhere without a local poetry community, I would have had to try to forge one. But the internet has also become a great way for writers to seek communities. I belong to a couple of poetry lists, which helps me to meet other writers. Of course, there’s the blogosphere, in which I spend far too much time … but which also serves as a valuable community.