Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
My routine always starts with clustering, putting a word or two in a central bubble (most recently “Possibilities” from Wislawa Symborska) and then writing associations around it. I teach a lot, and I always introduce people to this brainstorming technique. I’ve found having a good generating technique, whether freewriting or making a list or clustering is really useful. Typically my cluster evolves into a draft and jotting down chunks of language. Continuous with my new Buddha in the Garden book, once I have a workable start on paper, I’m likely to go outside and ruminate while I flip over my compost pile or plant some runner beans before I come back to the poem.
I’m old school, so I like to get a mostly complete draft on paper before I type it up, which tends to formalize the poem and make it harder for me to do radical revision. The last thing I do when I have a working poem is to revisit my cluster and see if I’ve included everything that should be there. This is so obvious it’s easy to overlook. I don’t think I need to include everything I brainstormed, but what’s in the poem should be a conscious decision based on all the possibilities I started from.
Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
I see poems that grew from all these things in my recent book. Most important for me is sitting (meditating) which I try to do for half an hour every day. If I can find my way to a deeper place, encounters, experiences, may resurface, one thing will connect to another, whole lines and phrases may emerge. Things suggest themselves to me and even specific language to describe them may float up.
Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
Yikes, that’s like asking what kind of food I like to eat. William Stafford, Ross Gay, Ada Limon, John Berryman, Danez Smith, Marie Howe, Rilke, Neruda, Keats, Yeats, Vievee Francis. I have a soft spot for female poets who were true originals, who had no precedent for writing the poems they did: Emily Dickinson, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks. Sharon Olds said when she first sent out her poems the publisher said we publish poems about men, not about children! They recommended she try the Ladies’ Home Journal. A couple of decades later, I had the same experience with my first book With Child. A manuscript editor who hadn’t bothered to read it said no publisher would touch a poem about pregnancy and having a new baby wiith a ten foot pole. I put the ms in a drawer until I did a workshop with Marie Howe who went ballistic when I told her that story. She convinced me to pull it out and get it published and many women since have told me they really connected with it.
Other women I take to heart include Solmaz Sharif, Leslie Harrison, Alice Oswald, Angie Estes, Sandra Beasley, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. Few people seem to know Margaret Atwood has written marvelous, astute poems.
Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what’s the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was it a project book? Etc.
I am a Desjardins, translation: of the garden so it was kind of a set-up I would want to write a garden-centered book centered. My working title for a long time was The Muse in the Garden. There’s a poem titled “Failed Invocation to the Muse” about the problems I ran into with the muses. They don’t want to get their fingernails dirty and, even though they’d look great on the cover, they seem more like cis guy fantasies. The book cover ended up showing my actual backyard concrete Buddha and the title poem is about him.
I felt an urgency writing this book and getting it out there as we become more and more tethered to our devices. My pile of poems organized itself into a year in the garden, a four season sweep through what still seems to me to be the REAL world, not the timesuck virtual world where we increasingly dwell. May Sarton said that in a garden There the door is always open into the “holy”—growth, birth, death. To me, nature and the garden are authentic in ways we desperately need now and are increasingly forgetting.
There’s also a middle section in the book where I pay tribute to some of the Grandes Dames of gardening and a part where plants speak in their own voices. My experience putting the whole book together was that the generosity I encountered from our Poetry Tribe was just astonishing. Wonderful poets who really did NOT have the time gave it careful attention that helped me enormously. A friend of a friend demystified layout, fonts, etc. for me. I don’t think I could have manifested this book by myself.
Most poets start to put a book together by collecting poems they’ve gotten published. I was that kid in fifth grade who, when we had to do outlines, wrote the essay first and mapped backwards to do the outline. When the book was mostly done, I got on Submittable and did enough research to get a respectable number of poems into print so I could have that previously published squibbie in the book. I haven’t been back on Submittable since. I’m mostly a dud at publishing individual poems. I teach at Grub Street and do workshops from my home and, quite honestly, I think of people sharing in a workshop as a kind of personal publishing, a meaningful way of getting your poem out there and giving you an instant, attentive audience.
What are you working on now?
I’m starting to writie poems about learning and teaching. I’m a lifetime educator, certifed K-12, and a literacy specialist and Reading Recovery teacher, which means I‘ve worked intensively helping failing first-graders learn to read, mostly through the power of story and learning to write meaningful messages. I have piles of records of interactions. A while back I was working with kindergartners then getting in my car and driving to a senior assisted living community to do a writing workshop. There’s a poem in what was the same and different in those interactions.
I teach because of what I learn and then there is that big thing that people learn things other than what we think we’re teaching them. Teaching poetry to kids is also a great leveler: that special needs kid can shine. There’s no greater pleasure for me than taming a wild child with the power of story, the power of words. Can that go into poems? Worth pursuing: Learning By Heart.
What art, writing, or media is moving you right now?
I just had the chance to participate in a Plein Air (outdoor) poetry event at Old Frog Pond Orchard in Harvard, MA: 25 poets had been matched with 25 outdoor sculptures. We did a trek a couple of weeks ago and each of us read next to our art. I had Yin Peet’s giant fuzzy egg. Each poem and all of the art were remarkable in a completely different way. Personal sorrows, imagined stories and political upheaval were all woven in. I was so knocked out I’m having my poetry workshops all write ekphrastic poems now.
Read an excerpt from Buddha in the Garden:
Buddha in the Garden
Buddha is where you find him.
I found mine at Pool City on Route One
near Saugus, among the birdbaths
and inflatable floatingchairs
with twin cupholders. He’s the standard
concrete model with pincurls, a topknot,
a Mona Lisa smile.
Brought up Catholic, I talk to him
as if he were a saint, someone who
might intervene on my behalf.
Buddha, I say, the weeds are winning,
overtaking the garden. What can I do?
Or Buddha, no one sees my garden,
the showy lilies, the new dahlias
I call Bordello Fire and Sunset Feathers.
The children are grown,
the grandchildren don’t visit.
Should I post pictures
of my flowers on Facebook?
Do I need to get on Instagram?
In spring: Calm among Bright Blossoms Buddha
In summer: Overgrown by Bearberry Buddha
In fall: Leaf in Lap Buddha
In winter: Sno-cone Head Buddha
I circumnavigate Buddha.
No mud, no lotus, I imagine him saying.
The ground under him has settled
so he leans towards me, a little askew
as I talk on my phone.
My friend is worried about her adrenals.
My grown children are seeking therapists
in the changing healthcare market.
I put them on speakerphone
so I can rip out weeds with both hands:
purslane, chickweed, twitchgrass,
hoping the neighbors won’t over-
hear Trauma Drama.
I assemble little heaps of weeds
and find them days later,
small piles of brittle branched paper.
Cathie Desjardins has been serving since 2017 as Poet Laureate of Arlington MA. Her first book With Child is available on Amazon. Buddha in the Garden is her second book for Tasora Press.
Her writing has been published in numerous journals including Pulse, The Christian Science Monitor. and Cognoscenti, WBUR’s online magazine. She is a lifelong literacy educator who has taught in elementary and high schools; at Lesley, Suffolk and Boston Universities and UMass/Boston and UMass/Dartmouth; at Boston, Cambridge and Arlington Adult Education centers and at Grub Street. Through summer 2020, you can see her poem “Home/April” next to the First Floor elevators in Boston City Hall.