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An Interview with Poet Gayle Lauradunn

Gayle Lauradunn is an award-winning poet whose work has appeared in numerous journals as well as national and international anthologies. Some of her poems have also been included in art gallery exhibits and adapted for the stage. Her third poetry collection, The Geography of Absence (Mercury HeartLink, August 2022), prompted one reviewer to write: “Open this collection to the first poem—or to any poem—and lose yourself in words that matter.” Look for Gayle’s book on Amazon.

Tell us how and why you chose the title of your poetry book The Geography of Absence.
When I was camping in the Sahara I was struck by the immensity of the space and the gigantic proportions of the sand dunes that seemed to creep across the landscape. The sheer vastness. I wondered what was absent in that huge emptiness. Then we spied a brown speck in the distance between dunes and went toward it, and it turned out to be a large Berber tent, probably large enough to hold 80-100 people. But there was only an old woman and her 3-year-old grandson napping beside her. She invited us in and talked with our guide, who translated for us, carding and spinning the camel wool contained in a large bag beside her the entire time we were there. There was nothing else in the tent, not even cooking utensils, and I still wonder who or what was absent. That experience led me to become aware of absence throughout our lives. The poet Morgan Parker has said, “Absence implies a memory of what once took place.”

Your book cover has interesting details with randomly placed blocks, giving a fractured appearance. Is it representative of what this poetry collection is about?
Yes. I originally thought I wanted a photo of large sand dunes with a broad sky but could not find anything. I asked my friend Scott Wiggerman, who is both poet and artist, if he could suggest something. He sent me what he had posted on his website. Of the many items there, I kept going back to this piece even though it is not the kind of art I generally like. I went to Scott’s house to view the original and asked him what he was thinking when he created the piece. He said he was thinking about what was absent between the blocks. When he said the piece was untitled, I suggested we call it “absences” to which he agreed.

You mentioned that you write poetry to learn about the world and to learn more about who you are. What things can you share with your readers about your discoveries?
The process of writing poetry is organic for me. I begin with a vague thought, an idea, a landscape, etc., and write the first line, whatever occurs to me. The poem writes itself; I never know where it is going or how it will end. I don’t think ahead. I let it be what it seems to want to be. It’s similar to traveling to a culture that is different from ours, a landscape that is different, a different language. The absence of my own culture surrounding me is provocative and causes me to view the world in a new way. I’ve taken ten trips with a company that focuses on going off the beaten path. It’s the reason I rarely travel to Europe which is our heritage. I prefer places like Mongolia and Bhutan. After hiking up 12,000 feet in the Annapurna Mountains in Nepal, we had lunch in a tiny village and visited one of the homes. The woman had a television set and later I asked our guide what the people thought about how different much of the world is from their lives. He responded that they think what is on television are fairy tales.

In your book description of The Geography of Absence you question the validity of memory. Can you elaborate? Do you find freedom with this prospect when it comes to writing, or is vague memory more of a hindrance?
Memory, vague or clear, allows me to write both the actual event and infuse it with imagination. Whatever the memory, imagination expands it, enhances it to get to the meaning of what really occurred.

What sort of decisions do you make when putting a poetry collection together?
Good question, one I’m dealing with right now as I work on the order of my next collection. The Geography of Absence and my first book, Reaching for Air, were both much easier as the poems lent themselves to sections. My second book, All the Wild and Holy: A Life of Eunice Williams 1696-1785, is a book-length persona poem which I wrote chronologically as I followed her life. This current manuscript has a central six-part poem which is the focus of the collection. My struggle is how to arrange the other poems around this one. All the other poems reflect the central idea in the long one and that is what I need to keep in mind as I organize them.

For someone new to poetry, can you recommend where they might start reading?
It depends on what kind of poetry you want to write: open or formal. Today there seems to be more call from publishers for the latter. I find much of it fairly boring as the traditional forms do not fit our contemporary language, which causes the poet to focus on the form rather than what is being said. People are inventing new forms such as the golden shovel and calling a single line a haiku. I’m a storytelling poet, so content is more important to me than form. I do occasionally write a form poem, such as a pantoum, but I am rarely satisfied with them as the content often becomes distorted to fit the form. Some poets write a sonnet which you would not recognize as such because they are more interested in content than form. For form poetry, start with Shakespeare and improvise on his sonnets. For open, start with Denise Levertov and Gwendolyn Brooks. Galway Kinnell wrote both open and formal.

How important is accessibility of meaning? Should a reader have to work to understand a poem, or should readers find their own meaning?
I have been giving readings since 1970. In the early days, I experienced an awakening when after a reading, people would come up to me and say such things as “I love your poem about….” or “I understood your poem X as I had a similar experience.” In such cases I had no idea to which poems they were relating as I did not see what they said in any of the poems. That taught me that when we write, if we are open and not tightly controlling, people can get inside any poem that speaks to their own experiences. All we must do is write from within ourselves, organically. I remember one of my high school English teachers taking us through ten unbearable weeks of poetry. She invariably asked such nonsense questions as “What does the word the on the third line mean?” I doubt if even the poet knew. Readers should let the poem speak to them and not try to control it. Poems are a gift to allow people to find their own meanings.

Do you have a favorite poet? Someone who inspired you along the way?
Too many poets to choose just one. My early influences were William Blake, Walt Whitman, Denise Levertov, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Galway Kinnell, C.K. Williams, and the early poems of Louise Glück.

What do most well-written poems have in common?
A broad and deep knowledge of craft. Learn it and then you can toss it away. It will be part of you and you will use it without being conscious of doing so.

Su Lierz writes dark fiction, short story fiction, and personal essays. Her short story “Twelve Days in April,” written under the pen name Laney Payne, appeared in the 2018 SouthWest Writers Sage Anthology. Su was a finalist in the 2017 and 2018 Albuquerque Museum Authors Festival Writing Contest. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, with her husband Dennis.

An Interview with Author and Poet Jeanne Shannon, Part 2

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.

KLWagoner150_2KL 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 and writes about memoir at

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