Mary Akers: Hi, Ann, thanks for agreeing to talk with me today. I love your poem “Christmas Cactus.” It moved me the very first time I heard you read it and it still moves me with each successive read. I think what I love most about your work is all of the beautifully layered, understated, multiple meanings contained within your poems. You never hit the reader over the head, but the layers are always there. How do you feel about having your work described as “layered”? Are you conscious of the layers as you write?
Ann Goldsmith: You talk about layers and layering and wonder if I fill my poems on purpose with multiple meanings. Yes and no, I guess. I wrote a poem once about the poem as a kind of merfish that could be brought up sometimes from a deep well. The last two verses tried to give a sense of the dynamic involved: The well is my well / and the poems in it / will rise for no bait but mine, / but it has underground connections. // Someday, perhaps, / I’ll land a shining one, / spawned and seasoned in the deep river, / speckled all over with a fire. / If I drown with it in my arms, / maybe it will carry me to the ocean / and teach me to swim.
With “Christmas Cactus,” questions of death and renewal were implicit in the actual experience; and then that time of year, especially these days, highlights my sense of time racing by while moments seem to go on for years. I had an experience decades ago that I wrote a poem about, when I was hiking with my husband in the Colorado Rockies. We were high up, on a narrow trail, and while I could touch the slope with my right hand, off to the left the mountain dropped away hundreds of feet and the view stretched to some far peaks. I had to sit down because I got so dizzy trying to process the two kinds of seeing—and that became a metaphor for me of temporal and galactic time and the struggle to move between them.
MA: Much of your work involves the exploration of ties between the natural world and the man-made world: the hawk that swoops in and takes a small animal from a suburban yard; the wild mouse, a present from your domesticated cat, that you hold lovingly as it dies; personal pain eased through the calming effect of mountain ranges; giant trees just outside a city; the hiking dreams of a husband long gone. Has nature always inspired you to write?
AG: Quick answer: yes. I’ve written a few urban poems, but even in those, nature tends to break through. That’s where my imagination automatically goes—a color, a shape, a gesture . . . they take me to the cabin in the woods, the two ants duking it out on the kitchen floor, the Christmas cactus. . . .
MA: Looking back over my list above, it strikes me that many of your poems also explore death in some form, but are infused with so much redemption that they feel uplifting. Is that a balance you consciously seek to reach? Or is it simply a glimpse into your own process of trying to make sense of a chaotic world?
AG: Oh, I’ll go with the glimpse. I do aim for balance, but mostly I’m trying to sort through the stuff of my life and my questions and intuitions about death. As the first grows shorter and the second draws closer, I find myself increasingly drawn to contemplation of the hinge or membrane between them. Sometimes it feels as if I could almost reach through.
MA: Another phrase I would use to describe your work is “full of grace.” And I don’t mean strictly religious grace, but that is part of it–the grace of God, mostly unspecified. You also manage to make the structure and the sentiment graceful. You write accepting, embracing, loving poems. Does my description of your work ring true to you? Do you strive to make graceful work?
AG: I do believe in grace, but I’m not sure how to express the concept. Perhaps it’s what leaks into a poem after enough struggle. Thanks for this gracious comment!
MA: What did you think of the artwork selected to illustrate your poem? Did you find any special meaning in the image?
AG: I loved the illustrations not only for my poem but throughout this issue of r.k.v.r.y. The red bird in “my” illustration seemed to capture the feeling of “Christmas Cactus” and also of a sense of flight and life that invited additional worlds into the poem.
MA: I’m always fascinated by the ways in which creative people find links between different genres of creative work. I know you have done several ekphrastic poems in the past and also participated in readings that were paired with the work of visual artists. I really love creative pairings. What do you think it is about blending and combining creative talents that makes the experience so enriching and rewarding?
AG: Collaborations like this are a lot of fun. They bump me out of my ruts into new forms and ideas. My favorite example from my own experience was when a group of poets, painters and composers put together a program several years ago in which we jumped off from each other’s works. I wrote a poem, “Requiem,” inspired by Catherine Parker’s painting, “Litany,” which she had created while listening to a symphony by Alvo Pert, and then Persis Vehar composed a choral piece entitled “Cathedral of the Universe” from my poem. There were these marvelous connections, not just among us, but between individual works.
MA: Oh, that sounds wonderful. And ephemeral–at least the performance-pairings all enjoyed at once.
And finally, because we are recovery-themed, what does “recovery” mean to you?
AG: The word “recovery” is one of those umbrella words, isn’t it?—encompassing a variety of possibilities. Recovery for me, I guess, is healing of any kind and the restoration of life energies.