What were your first significant encounters with poetry? As a child did you read or write poetry?
My very first encounter with a form of poetry would probably be songs, lullabies, and children’s poems when I was very young. My father sang us cowboy songs, such as “Goodbye, Old Paint, I’m Leaving Cheyenne,” “Red River Valley,” and “Get Along, Little Doggies,” which were very evocative in the way they suggested the western landscape and cowboy lifestyle, and then there were the lullabies, like “Rock-a-bye Baby” (which always troubled me. I worried that the baby would get hurt falling out of the tree), and the children’s poems like “Little Bo Peep” and “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” which told simple but vivid and memorable stories.
One of my favorite books when I was young was A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. I had a Giant Golden Book edition with color illustrations so pure and innocent I still remember them, and I would sit on my father’s lap as he read those poems to me. Stevenson’s poems are perfect for a child, so relatable, about things like swinging on a swing and not wanting to go to bed while it’s still light outside. The verses entertained me, but I appreciated the musicality of the words, too. I also had a regular-sized Golden Book of Edward Lear’s humorous poems with very funny illustrations (“You are old Father William,” the young man said . . .” and Father William was madly ice skating, a huge grin on his face and his long white beard trailing behind), which my mother mildly disapproved of because the poems were silly. My father thought they were funny and creative. There were other books of poetry around, including Longfellow’s and Robert Frost’s works and several titled something like Selected Poems whose beige and crumbly pages held poems by a variety of great poets (Wordsworth, Keats, both Brownings and more).
Not only was there poetry in books, there was also poetry in the air. In those days, children were required to memorize poems and recite them in class. My father had a whole Longfellow collection in his head, which he would happily share, and I eventually memorized sections of “Paul Revere’s Ride” for a third grade class project. We memorized Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” in that class, too. Memorizing was a chore, but it had a lasting effect. There is something magical about having poems in your head, always there, musical word streams that pop into your consciousness and make you smile with recognition or that relate particularly to a given moment. And there’s something magical, too, about hearing poems aloud and about reciting them yourself. Poetry is the language used imaginatively and creatively, and the words linger in the air like musical melodies do.
In those years, I wrote rhymed pieces, I’m sure, but nothing that I remember. I do remember writing stories, though. When I was five, I wrote my first story, “The Adventures of Cowboy Bob.” Bob got lost exploring a cave and sent his dog to get his father, who came and got Bob out of his predicament. My brother, who was in fifth grade at the time, thought it was really something and showed it to his teacher, Mrs. Weiss, who was kind and generous and gave me very good feedback. “It’s written well,” she said, “but Bob’s father is the hero. Bob should find a way out of the cave himself.”
Two lessons in that: Maintain the focus of your story, and be kind and generous to beginning writers. It’s like watering a plant; encourage it and it will flourish. Even when dealing with more advanced writers, I place high value on encouragement, on comments that are constructive. I’ve never seen a value in the kind of writing classes where students are encouraged to go at each other with chains and knives. Not literal ones; the figurative ones can be damaging enough. And that’s the point: When we offer up our work to others, we are letting ourselves be vulnerable. Out in the world, there’s very little we can do about it, but in an instructional setting, in a classroom or a workshop, we can be sensitive to that vulnerability while nurturing creativity.
After “Cowboy Bob,” there were more stories and occasional poems. Though I loved poetry, I did not consider myself a poet, not then, and not for years.
Do you have any degrees or formal education in creative writing?
As an undergraduate, I attended The City College of New York, CCNY. There were two English concentrations in the major at CCNY, a literature one and a writing one, where a student got a significant amount of literature, too. I took the latter, and many years later based the writing track I developed for the Molloy College English Department on it, since it provided an excellent foundation in both literature and writing. That program, unusual in its day, gave me a great opportunity to select courses that I felt would be beneficial to me as a writer. Literature majors had to choose a certain number of literature courses from specific categories, but in the writing concentration, I could select any that I wanted. So I took two terms of Shakespeare, and read all the plays and many of the sonnets, and I took Romantic poetry and other excellent literature courses, ranging from world literature to post-World War II American fiction. I chose nothing at random; everything I chose was with an eye on creating a solid background and foundation for my writing and for making me what I considered an educated person. I wanted to learn as much as I could. The writing courses were various, and some of the teachers were better than others, but most of the courses and teachers were surprisingly good. Also, the fact that CCNY was a prestigious school located in Manhattan was advantageous (for the school and for me) because many well-known professional writers, some of whom lived locally, came in to teach for a term or two, so I studied with writers such as Denise Levertov, poetry writing; Eve Merriam, short story writing; James Leo Herlihy, playwriting; Jack Gelber, playwriting; George Tabori, screenwriting; and Konstantinos Lardas, poetry writing. Plus, I took the social science sequence, which included psychology, sociology, philosophy and political science. I considered this more helpful to me as a writer than the four terms of Latin that were required of English majors then. My English-major boyfriend had told me to start taking the social science sequence in freshman year, not to wait, so that when I finally declared as an English major it was too late to start the Latin sequence. I also took art history, film study, and history and psychology courses beyond those that were required, all with an eye to what would benefit me as writer.
So my four years at CCNY provided a very good background and foundation for a young writer.
These days there is a proliferation of creative writing programs and MFA programs. When I was in school that was not the case. Both were rare. I had found a creative writing concentration for undergraduate work, and for graduate work, I considered going for an MFA but decided against it because, though I definitely wanted to do more writing, I didn’t want to only do writing. I wanted more literature, too, more foundation for my writing. I was following a definite Do-It-Yourself pattern, figuring out what I needed and how and where I could get it. I found exactly what I wanted at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. When I went there for graduate work, though my courses were primarily literature, I also had a once-a-week one-on-one creative writing tutorial that enabled me to get a lot of writing done there, which was the whole idea: more literature as background/foundation for me as a writer, while still getting the writing in. I wrote both prose and poetry in that course. By that time, I had become a singer-songwriter, so I was also writing songs, but I didn’t use any of them for the course.
Since it was formative, it’s important to add that, in addition to formal education, I read a lot from the time I was a very young child, across styles and genres, sometimes reading multiple books at the same time, and I always read as a writer, studying the way it was done, what worked and why it worked, and similarly, if I came across something that was poorly written, figuring out why it didn’t work and what could be done to make it better. I’ve always been interested in how things work, from a watch to a car to a story to a poem. I think reading like that, more than anything else, taught me about writing, that and just doing it and refining what I was doing and working in a variety of genres. I realized that each genre supported the others, each informed the others. I realized that all writing is a continuum, that the same elements, such as sensory language, characterizing words, figurative language, eliminating all that’s unnecessary, having the right words in the right order, paying attention to the rhythms and sounds and how they go together, are important no matter what genre you’re working in, that it’s just the emphasis that changes. Song writing helped my poetry become tight and lyrical and imagistic and musical, and it helped me both feel and sense poetic line breaks; poetry helped my prose become more focused and more vivid and more alive. And so, when my novel J.W. Valentine was published in 2015, its readers noticed the poetry in its prose, that added richness.
Just as I had always read as a writer, getting inside the writing to figure out how it worked, I got inside music and lyrics. I took a music theory course in college to try to understand what I was doing better. Later, I took voice lessons, which helped me as a performer and also helped me understand musicality better. It was all about how the sounds went together, singing the melody and not the notes. In writing, poetry in particular, one must have that same awareness, since it is not just the individual words that matter, but how they go together: the poetry of the words and the sounds and rhythms they make. So, writing songs and my involvement with music taught me about the rhythms and musicality of language and also how to end with resonance, leaving something, a sound, a word, a phrase, an idea to linger in the air, in the listener’s/reader’s mind after the song, poem, story, novel is done.
When did you write your first poem, and what prompted you to write it?
I don’t know when I wrote my first poem. I do know I was always writing something. From the time I was three, I was reading, so probably from the time I was three, I was writing as well. I recall that we had an old Royal manual typewriter that would probably bring a lot of money these days as an antique, but it was acquired then from a second-hand store for probably just a few dollars. I loved typing on that typewriter, crafting words and seeing them become real, in printed form, on a page. I’m sure that I wrote poems on that typewriter, since poetry was very present in my life.
What are your sources of inspiration? Did you decide to become a poet or did it just happen?
These days I find great inspiration in nature, and many of my poems are nature oriented. I also find inspiration in science and, often, its strangeness, black holes, quantum physics and the like. I once wrote a poem based on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Schrödinger’s Cat, and it was about a wedding! (Deciding whether to be alive or dead and observers making the difference.)
A major source of early inspiration, when I was in high school, college and graduate school, and a key one for the development of my poetry, was the music of the era: folk music, folk rock, British rock, California rock, blues and R&B, Simon and Garfunkel and The Beatles. It inspired me to write songs, and I wrote many, many songs. I played the guitar since high school, and beginning in college, I was a singer-songwriter. Writing the music and working with the musicality of language in the lyrics may well be what actually turned me into a poet.
The songs of the period were sophisticated, musically and structurally inventive, with highly imagistic, poetical lyrics (my boyfriend would type out the lyrics to the songs by writers and groups we liked, and we’d study them, read and appreciate them like poetry), and so my songs were poetical, too. In fact, one, “Quest (The Long Ride),” was published as a poem twice, first in a literary journal and later in an anthology.
By the time I began teaching in college, a year after graduate school, I was writing a considerable amount of poetry. Writing songs enriched and influenced my poetry and without a doubt got me writing more of it, and I’ve never stopped writing poetry. I did, however, stop writing songs. The more I got into long-form fiction, the more I realized I couldn’t work in music at the same time, since both were all-consuming, constantly filling my mind. I found I couldn’t give each the deep focus needed when I tried to keep working on both. So I went with the novel, since it was a story that already had and would continue to engage me for years in a variety of forms. I missed and still miss the meditative quality of working in music, but poetry, to a great extent, has filled that gap, and I was then and am now able to work in both poetry and long-form fiction at the same time, since poems are discrete entities. Writing poems is like baking cookies, each one on that baking sheet is an individual item. Writing long-form fiction is like baking a cake: you have to first bake the layers and then you fill in between those layers and then you put icing on top and add more interesting things to that, and then you have to smooth out all those separate aspects so they seem like, and become, a unified whole.
Which poets do you admire?
In college, I was introduced to Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Donne, both of whom I loved then and still do for their open and honest passion. Hopkins, too, for the immersive rhythms in his work and its musicality. Other poets I regularly turn to are Billy Collins and Mary Oliver, but I particularly enjoy discovering poems by poets I didn’t know before and then familiarizing myself with their work. Also, I’m fortunate that on Long Island there is a vibrant poetry community, and it has many very good poets whose work I appreciate. I’m additionally fortunate that, through the Poetry Events at Molloy College reading series I founded as Writer-in-Residence and host, I get to experience many more wonderful poets.
What obstacles stood in your way?
My poetry is precise, uncluttered, the lines clean, the images sharp. It was different from a lot of what was out there, and it took a while for it to find its audience.
Why do you write poetry? What does it do for you spiritually and personally?
There’s an immediacy to poetry that I appreciate. It can capture moments and intensity in a way no other art form can. That’s why, after 9/11, there was an outpouring of poetry. The books, stories, plays, and movies all came later. Poetry was there from the first moment.
In that way, poetry is always there for me. It captures moments and feelings, it transforms the ephemeral, and it frames the metaphorical. It may well be the truest, purest expression of me and the way I view the world and my existence in it.
How do you go about writing a poem? What exactly do you do?
There’s no magic formula I follow each time. Often, when I get an idea, I’ll write in longhand on whatever is available, frequently revising on paper before I put the poem up on the computer screen to rework it further and save it, with the possibility always of reworking it even further now that it’s on the computer. Other times I’ll get an idea and just throw it up on the screen and work it out there from the start with the ease of computer revision. Whether it’s with pen and paper or on the computer, when I get an idea, I follow where it goes. And then I revise. Sometimes I’m still revising a poem years later. Not always consistently, though. I’ll come across a poem, a hard copy in a work folder or a document on my computer, that I wasn’t completely satisfied with, and I’ll see possibilities I didn’t see the last time I looked at it, and I’ll play with it a while, exploring those possibilities. Maybe I’ll be satisfied this time around, maybe not. If not, I’ll put it aside for a time and then look at it again. And, if necessary, again. And again. Sometimes a poem may be done quickly and it just needs a little tweaking; other times, it takes time to get it right. A lot of my poems are short—that’s just the way they turn out—but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re done any quicker than the longer ones. As simplistic as it may sound, it’s very important to have the right words in the right places, to have nothing in the poem that’s extraneous (I’m always looking to tighten the writing), and to have the line and stanza breaks work dynamically. Basic things, but very important.
What is the single most important thing for a young poet to know about writing poetry?
It’ll have to be two things: Find your voice and be succinct. The first pertains to being true to who you are and what matters to you, and the second to realizing that more is not always better, and there is no need to go on and on. Poetry’s gift to us as writers is that it allows us to express deeply succinctly. Each word matters.
What is the title of your most recent collection and where can we buy it?
My most recent collection is Dancing on the Rim of Light (Blue Light Press, 2020). It is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
Barbara Novack is Writer-in-Residence and member of the English Department at Molloy College. She founded and hosts Poetry Events there and, off-campus, presents highly regarded creative writing programs and workshops. Recent books include the novel J.W. Valentine, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and finalist for Pushcart Press Editor’s Book Award, full-length poetry collection Something Like Life, and chapbooks Do Houses Dream? and A Certain Slant of Light, both finalists for the Blue Light Press Poetry Prize.