Readers of Jeanne Shannon’s work find her “vitally rich and engaging” poetry to be imaginative, captivating, and meticulously crafted. Her articles, poems, memoir pieces, and short fiction have appeared in numerous publications. Summoning (Mercury HeartLink, 2015) is her newest book of collected poems. You can find Jeanne on her Amazon author page.
What inspired you to create Summoning?
I wanted to publish a “collected poems.” The poems in this book have been published in journals and in my chapbooks over the course of decades, and I wanted to gather them into one volume. But it turns out that this is just “Volume One” of my collected works, for I have enough poems for another book the size of Summoning that I hope to publish in a year or two.
How did you choose the poems/prose to include in this book?
I divided the book into sections organized around themes that I most often write about, such as the natural world (“Honey Locust”) and memories of childhood and meditations on mortality (“Summoning”), and chose poems that would fit into those themes. I tried to include only the poems that I consider to be my best work. No pieces were written specifically for this book. I wrote a first draft of one of the poems as long ago as 1955, and the rest of the poems date from the early 1980’s to around 2010.
What was the most rewarding aspect of putting Summoning together?
Knowing that I had complete control over the content of the book—it would be exactly what I wanted to give to the world. Because it was self-published, there would be no editor or other person trying to put their imprint on my work by telling me what to include or what to leave out or what to change. I take full responsibility for whatever shortcomings the collection may have.
Should a reader have to work to understand a poem?
No. Reading poetry should be a pleasure, not a classroom exercise in which a hard-and-fast meaning has to be identified. I think the idea of having to figure out what a poem means has caused many people to avoid reading poetry. Poetry can have its own logic, which doesn’t always match ordinary, “logical” logic. Archibald MacLeish said it best, “A poem should not mean, but be.” Learning to read differently—to listen for the music of the language, for example, as I did in the case of T.S. Eliot (see part one of the interview)—will free the reader from the notion that we always have to know exactly what the poet had in mind in writing the poem. As Eliot himself said, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”
What do poorly written poems have in common?
That’s a big subject, but I think that too much focus on the ego of the poet is a common failing. Too many first-person pronouns. That is, instead of focusing on the subject of the poem (the view from the top of a mountain, for instance) the focus is often on the “I” of the poem. The spotlight is on the poet—“Look at me, how perceptive I am to see what I’m seeing down below”—rather than on the scene itself.
Another common failing is what Steve Kowit calls “sentimentality and emotional slither.” That is, vague and generic declarations of emotions without providing scenes and concrete images that convey those emotions that let the reader experience the emotions rather than simply hearing a boring recitation of what the emotions are.
Then there’s the dull prose that’s broken into lines to look like poetry. Dull prose is still dull prose, no matter what it looks like on the page. And there are gimmicks to make the poem look more interesting than it is; centering every line is one example. Occasionally that can be effective, but it can easily be overdone and call too much attention to itself.
What do well-written poems have in common?
♦ Charged, compressed language: words selected for conciseness and clarity and for their emotive quality.
♦ Musical elements such as rhyme (if it is used well and not just cobbled together for the sake of rhyming), meter and repetition.
♦ Intensity of detail (concrete rather than abstract).
♦ Simile, metaphor, and sometimes symbolism.
♦ Vivid and fresh imagery (images that appeal to the senses—all or most of the senses, not just the visual).
♦ Euphony—a pleasing combination of words. Poets must think about how they want something to sound as well as the thought they want to convey.
♦ Effective use of line breaks and stanza breaks.
♦ If it is a narrative poem, attention to the narrative arc and the scenes just as in fiction.
Poetry may well be the art of the unsayable. Poet Marie Howe defines poetry as “a cup of language to hold what can’t be said.” The best poetry is “the language beneath the language.” Any poem that can be completely paraphrased is not a poem, but simply versified or emotive prose.
Readers who want to learn more about what makes a poem work or fail to work can find few better sources of information than Steve Kowit’s In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop (Tilbury House Publishers, 1995).
In part one of the interview you told us about your favorite poets. Who are your favorite fiction authors, and what do you admire most about their writing?
Paula McLain (The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun) comes to mind, because her prose is often vivid and lyrical and she tells compelling stories. Lydia Davis for, among other things, her flash fiction that is like nobody else’s. (She has been characterized as “one of the most original minds in American fiction today.”) Carole Maso for her unique novels and her willingness to “break every rule.” Kate Braverman, especially for her novel Palm Latitudes that seems like a long poem in prose. Ron Hansen for Mariette in Ecstasy. James Salter for A Sport and a Pastime and everything else by him that I’ve read. Truman Capote for Other Voices, Other Rooms and some of his short stories. F. Scott Fitzgerald for The Great Gatsby. Lee Smith, especially for her novel Fair and Tender Ladies. She writes about the South where she and I grew up (about fifty miles from each other), and is the author I most want to emulate when writing fiction set in the Appalachian South. And always, always, Eudora Welty, especially for The Golden Apples. What all these authors have in common is language that burns with intensity and is perfect for its purpose.
What are you working on now?
Short fiction (I recently finished one short story and am working on another one) and a novel that is a blend of memoir and fiction.
For the first part of this interview, go to An Interview with Author and Poet Jeanne Shannon, Part 1.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.
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