John Guzlowski: What first drew me to your poems was the strength of the grandmother in your poem “Garnet.” Could you tell me something about the strong women in your life? And the connection you feel to them?
Anne Colwell: “Garnet” is about two of the strongest women I’ve ever known, my grandmother, Anna Nolan Colwell, and my sister, Jeanne Colwell Iasella. My family is Irish Catholic, and one of the hymns that the choir sang at my grandmother’s funeral included the lyrics “gentle mother, quiet dove.” When the words floated out over the congregation, the pews erupted into quiet snickering! My grandmother was definitely not a “quiet dove” and she’d call any woman who sought to be quietly dove-like a “simple jackass.” She was fierce, in the best way, with a sharp sense of humor and a keenly ironic eye. After my grandfather died and left her with three children, she took over his job selling condiments to restaurants. She traveled up and down the Eastern Seaboard and she managed to do this and raise her family and send all three kids to college. She believed in work, in self-reliance, in going forward when you don’t think you can. She was fiercely loyal and fiercely determined and fiercely loving. My sister and I are both runners and we often run longer races together. We always joke that, even if our training isn’t what it could have been, we’ll be able to finish the last few miles “because we are our grandmother’s granddaughters.” My sister inherited my grandmother’s loving strength, clear determination and sharp sense of humor. Even though she is my younger sister, she has shaped my life by her courageous example and I often look to her for strength in times when I can’t find my own. That’s what “Garnet” is really about – a time in my life when I had lost all of my own strength, when I didn’t think I could go on. My sister leant me our grandmother’s birthstone ring so that I would remember, would have a symbol of the deep well of power that I could draw from. Jeanne’s daughters, my nieces, Anna and Francesca, are four- and six-years-old and I watch them and I see it happening all over again in the next generation. My grandmother’s strength, my sister’s strength, it’s in them, too, and it makes me so happy to watch it go on.
JG: Like you, I’ve also written critical, academic work about literary authors. Sometimes I think that doing so has been a misdirection and other times I can’t imagine how my own work could have developed without the kind of critical writing I’ve done. How do you feel about your critical writing?
AC: That’s a great question! I don’t think I’ve ever tried to put into words how my “academic” self has impacted my “creative” self. Of course, splitting them that way is already a problem, isn’t it? It suggests that there’s nothing creative about writing nonfiction critical essays and nothing “academic” about fiction and poetry. My husband, James Keegan, is an actor and a writer and an English professor and a painter and a musician. Sometimes when we’re talking about how to “do it all” and if one really should try to “do it all,” we will come down to the idea that “everything feeds everything else.” I guess that’s how I feel about the critical work, finally. Though I don’t really see myself as a critic, I think that a good deal of the critical writing I’ve done has had the effect of opening doors in poetry and fiction that would have been closed for me if I hadn’t had to grapple in writing with what other writers had accomplished and exactly how they accomplished it. My book about Elizabeth Bishop, Inscrutable Houses: Metaphors of the Body in the Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, examines her poems to figure out how she works, how she uses form to embody and overcome loss. I think that my critical writing is the expression of my student self, the part that can never learn enough, and maybe the kind of criticism I’m drawn to is the “taking apart the engine” kind of criticism, the kind that tries to understand how an artist creates so that I can emulate it.
JG: Years and years ago, I started out trying to write postmodernish fiction, writing that questions its own ability to arrive at the truth of reality, and it’s still a concern that comes up now and then in my poetry (“My Mother Reads My Poem ‘Cattle Train to Magdeburg'”). I noticed a similar concern with questions about writing in poems of yours like “Revisions.” The poem seems to signal such concerns in its opening lines: What you can’t see from this window, Although you’re six stories up, Although you see nearly the whole city, Is the green bench by the river, Or the woman standing beside that bench Who walks and sits, walks and sits, Or her hand readjusting the pink scarf Or the watch on her wrist that says Everything’s doubtful. Could you say something about your sense of the truths poetry can and can’t arrive at?
AC: Kenneth Koch called poetry “the language inside the language” and I think that’s a beautiful way to describe it. Poems seem to me to have the possibility, like dreams do, of pushing language toward the inexpressible, right to the edge of the abyss. We know that there are truths that we can feel or understand and yet have no words for; we experience this every night when we dream and wake up to say things like, “it was our house but it wasn’t our house and my father was my father but also a tiger.” Even as we try to describe dreams they disintegrate; they resist the logic of the conscious mind. Poetry, at its best maybe, is a language that can go deep into the depth of the subconscious and bring truths, emotions and /images, otherwise impossible into the light of the conscious world. One of the things that I love about “My Mother Reads My Poem ‘Cattle Train to Magdeburg'” is that the poem has such a strong “speaking silence.” You bring me right to the brink of language’s failure. I think that’s an amazing thing in a poem. Bishop does it over and over again in her work. Everything says “yes” and “no” at the same time and yet it makes perfect sense; it has a clear lucid surface. No fish can be covered with barnacles, no fish can have five hooks in its mouth, none of the details of her poem “The Fish” are possible, but you can see it, know it, believe it because language has so much power. “Revisions,” as you pointed out, lives in that land, too. It’s playing with ideas of perspective, of what can and can’t be known, of what words can make you see. The truth is the truth of the transformation, the imagination, and how it can transcend.
JG: I’ve moved away from poetry these last few years and have been spending most of my time writing fiction. I see that you too write fiction. Can you tell us something about your fiction? Do you see your fiction and poetry as being fundamentally connected?
AC: Several years ago now, I started writing little bits of stories that I would squirrel away and not pay much attention to. I didn’t know what to do with them or how they could fit anywhere. At the same time, I was falling out of love with poetry. I got tired of the way I wrote, but also I was tired of a kind of poetry that seemed to be everywhere around me, tired of the lyric fascination with the self. I can’t find the exact reference now, but I remember at the time I read a piece by a poetry editor – I think it was from the Paris Review – and he was commenting on the solipsism of contemporary poetry. He wrote a parody of the poems that came across his desk and it went something like this: I look out my kitchen window I am so important That said it. That expressed my own impatience with writing about myself and my life and my childhood and my growing desire to change, or even maybe to just stop. My good friend, Maribeth Fischer, who had published two books, looked at my little scraps of stories and she diagnosed me as having come down with a bad case of novel. So I started to write fiction. The first thing I loved about it was all of the space, all of the wide fields that a writer could fill. I also loved the imaginary world that I got to inhabit and the complete “otherness” of my characters. When I applied to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference for the first time, I applied in both categories, poetry and fiction, and I explained that I was a poet, but I was having an affair with fiction. Fortunately for me, I was accepted as a poet and I began the journey back to loving poetry again. Now I see writing fiction and writing poetry as two sides of the same coin. Maybe we can even, to come back to an earlier question, throw nonfiction critical writing in here, too. Writing teaches you to write. I’m newer at fiction than poetry, but I’ve learned a great deal by living in the imaginary worlds I’ve been able to create. I think that writing fiction gives me another way to be attached to and alive in the world and another means to play with language, to keep the tools sharp.
JG: We live in an amazing age–so many excellent poets, but what we seem to lack is audiences. Does that worry you? Should writers worry about audiences?
AC: Here’s the question where you discover my eternal optimism. My sister says that if you gave me a barn full of shit, I’d run through it screaming, “There has to be a pony in here somewhere!” So . . . It’s true that poetry does not sell, that many people, even very intelligent people, claim to hate it or complain that they “never understood it.” However, I belong to a small local writers group called The Rehoboth Writers Guild that was founded by Maribeth Fischer (the novelist I spoke of earlier). Once a month on a Monday night, somewhere between forty and sixty people of all ages and all backgrounds come together to hear each other read. Some read fiction and some read poems, but they support one another and they risk self-expression and they believe that the words change the world, even just a little. When terrible things happen, like the atrocities your parents saw, or 9/11, or any of a million horrors that humans perpetrate in the world, I think we turn to poetry to bring us as close as we can get to the humanity of the loss and the grief and the strange joys. I believe that we instinctively understand from the time we are children that musical language that is full of pictures is the right language for expressing strong feelings. I think that people only start to hate poetry when they are told in school that they can’t understand it. Better education is the way to an audience for poetry. I had great teachers! I was so fortunate. W. D. Snodgrass, Gibbons Ruark, Jeanne Walker, and Fleda Brown, all great writers, were my teachers and friends in graduate school. At Immaculata University, I worked with Dan Machon and Jim Mooney, Sister Loretta Maria and Sister Christine. They taught me that words mattered, my own and other people’s. Writers need to help educate readers about the crucial importance of poetry. I think they also need to be a better audience for poetry themselves. When I’ve taught creative writing, I always ask writers who they read. The answer I frequently get, especially from younger writers, is that they don’t read poetry; they only write it. Would any musician ever say that? Any painter? It’s preposterous, but they have somehow gotten the idea that they will lose their voice or be “poisoned” by careful study of the masters who have gone before and who are alive right now. I think we can change this. I believe that we can teach people to love poems because all of these amazing teachers taught me.
Here are a few links to other fine work by Anne: