An Interview with Poet Betsy Sholl

KA: First, congratulations on winning the 2015 Maine Literary Award for Poetry. I know you’ve won several other awards as well. How does getting this kind of recognition affect your writing or sense of yourself as a poet?

BS: This is an interesting question because certainly winning an award is a boost to confidence, and it makes spending so much time writing seem like it has some value for someone beyond oneself. I am grateful for every bit of recognition I’ve received. But I’m also aware that awards involve a lot of chance and luck and grace. It’s a great gift to win some recognition, but it’s important to remember how many great books are out there not getting recognized.

And of course, poems come from some place deeper than public recognition, some deeper need and passion or vision, which is why people can continue to write with or without recognition. The work is really all we have; recognition comes and goes and follows currents beyond anyone’s control. Also, every poem is a new venture (hopefully) that we don’t know how to write, so we have to be a beginner all over again. Past recognition maybe helps a writer feel like the effort is worth it. But the effort is still necessary.

Once my teacher, Jack Myers, said a visiting writer had come to his school and complained that ever since he’d won a big monetary prize for a book of poems he found he kept writing those same poems over and over. Jack said to me, “We’re free, Betsy. Nobody’s paying us 50 grand to write the same old poems.”

KA: You had already published several books of poetry before getting your M.F.A. in poetry from Vermont College. What made you decide to get an M.F.A. despite being a already well-published poet?

BS: Before the M.F.A. I was mostly self-taught. My training in creative writing came from one undergrad class and a peer workshop I belonged to in Boston—one whose members began Alice James Books. But at some point I felt that I had come to the end of what I could learn on my own. My poems seemed bland and familiar. I was too concerned with trying to make a finished product, rather than focusing on the process, being open to exploration. I knew I had to put myself in a position to grow, be challenged, learn new things. I loved being a student at Vermont College. The low residency model was great for me, since I had a family and a job. I made a pact with one of my advisors, Mark Cox, that whatever I sent him, he’d show me something else I could do with it, and I’d forget about finishing anything, just play. It was great. My next advisor, of course, said, “Enough playing around, Sholl, you’ve got to finish something.” And so it goes.

KA: One of the many things I admire about your work is how coherent each collection of poetry is and the way each book differs from the previous one. Dont Explain, for example, weaves jazz motifs with clear-eyed explorations of contemporary life while larger questions are embedded in the poems of Otherwise Unseeable. Your work continually develops and shifts. How consciously do you construct each book?

BS: I really admire poets who can think in terms of a whole book or a sequence of poems. I can’t seem to do that. Whenever I’ve tried to imagine a sequence, the thing collapses after two poems. I just write individual poems, and when I’ve written a bunch, or enough time has gone by, I try to see how or if they fit together. It usually takes a long time to figure that out, to get past thinking either every poem is either the same or they’re all entirely different. So, it takes a lot of shuffling and dealing, a regular ongoing poker game of a process. Also, I’m not beyond asking friends to help.

I don’t know that I intentionally think about how to make one collection different from the previous one. I tend to become aware of something missing in one book and try to add that to my new poems. The missing thing might have to do with style or voice or content. It might be a question of distance, say the poems in one book feel like they aren’t intimate, or they’re polished in a way that leaves other messier aspects of life out. There can be too much autobiography, or I suppose too little. So, I guess if the books are different, it’s because of that unnerving but divine discontent that keeps one moving, trying to expand ones range of sympathies.

KA: You have a history as a social activist. I see your concern with social justice reflected in your poems but what do you see as the connection between these concerns and your work as a poet?

BS: Well, my history as a social activist, such as it is, I came to by marriage. My husband was a community organizer in Boston, the back of Mission Hill, and then later did probation work in the Appalachian Mountains working with troubled kids. So, I’d be sitting in my study in a pretty rundown, sometimes dangerous neighborhood in Boston, feeling guilty because I was writing poems, or trying to, and not being a social worker. That was a challenge.

I think you can only write about social ills if they’re somehow internalized. Living where we did, seeing what I saw, had to enter my psyche. But also I grew up with a widowed mother, a family that had fallen on hard times, so I identified with people on the losing end of the culture, black kids getting shrieked at by white women, the poor kids who got put down at my school. My family had education and culture, but no money. Whether I was ever really an outsider, I don’t know, but I felt like one—the poor cousin, the scholarship girl, so part of me at least feels that I belong with the folks on the short end of the culture.

I guess I have to add that when I read the Bible, I read “Blessed are the poor” and the meek, and I read lines like “sell all you have and give to the poor…,” and those values are both challenging and convincing to me.

KA: I know this question always gets asked of women poets but it’s one I’m interested in. You’re a mother, grandmother, wife and teacher. What kind of tensions do you experience among your many roles and to what degree do they enrich each other?

BS: Ha! Well, the ideal answer is that they all feed each other, right? We learn as much or more from teaching than our students do, and family is nurturing as well as demanding, and what kind of writers would we be if we cut ourselves off from all those experiences, from our obligations to others?

But of course, the real experience is much more fractured than that.

There’s no doubt that time given to other things is taken away from writing, and the balance is often uneasy. Sometimes I think the writers whose work will truly last are probably squirreled away somewhere doing nothing but writing—not promoting their careers, not being social goody-goodies, just writing…. But we can’t all live that way, so we do the best we can with the lives we have. I try to preserve mornings for reading and writing. I try to tell myself that being attentive, even when busy, being open to language and not worrying about it, will lead to new work, even when obligations are pouring in.   But there are seasons when that doesn’t work, when deadlines and jobs and other people are in need. If I’m not careful I get overextended and then only crashing and pitching a fit and being miserable will call me back to balance. Possibly that’s too much information, but it is part of my process.

I don’t know how other people do it. But I also try to remind myself what a blessing it is to be engaged in work you love, to be engaged with other writers whose work you love, to have a family that is ever supportive and surprising. Grandkids—what a gift! And seeing your children become wonderful warm and productive adults, despite your parenting skills and their teen years! How selfish it would seem to not want to give back to students…. And so, the balance, the teeter totter, the rickety ship.