Monday, April 2, 2012

National Poetry Month: Guest Blogger Pia Taavila

I met poet Pia Taavila last year at the Key West Literary Seminar. We were both in Jane Hirshfield's poetry workshop and I was struck not only by Pia's beautiful poetry, but also her kind and insightful feedback to others in the class. What a joy to find out that she lives close to Washington, D.C., which has meant that we can continue our friendship not only virtually, but in-person. You know, the old-fashioned way where one person says something and the other smiles. And then you take another bite of lunch and continue discussing writing.

Pia Taavila, Ph.D., is a professor of English at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. She grew up in Michigan, and her degrees are from Eastern Michigan University (B.A., M.A.) and Michigan State University (Ph.D.) She has been a professor for 35 years. Moon on the Meadow: Collected Poems was published in 2008, and is a thirty-year compilation of poems that have appeared in such journals as The Threepenny Review, The Southern Review, The Asheville Poetry Review, and College English, among others. Two Winters was published in 2011 and its poems have appeared in such journals as The Bear River Review, The Southern Women’s Review, The Potomac Review, The Birmingham Poetry Review and Measure: A Formal Review of Poetry. A forthcoming poem, “Lost,” will appear in 32 Poems.

Poetry is an Obsession

Poetry is an obsession. It is sweet agony. It leaves me restless, and does not let me sleep until I get up and wrangle with it and nail it to the page. It is a strange bird in the night that sings to me.

I am a lover of snow. I raised six children, now grown, as a single parent, play mountain and hammered dulcimers, Celtic harp and sing, occasionally, in the St. Paul’s Masterworks Choir. I love to write. I’m a member of Beth Sholom Temple in Fredericksburg, where I have lived for 20 years. I have fallen in and out of love. Guilty.

What inspired me to become a writer?

The sense that if I didn’t write it down, I would dissipate in particles of radiance. In the second grade, I wrote a poem that made my classmates cry. In a good way. Then, in the eighth grade, my English teacher had us read the great poets: Keats, Shelly, Tennyson, and various other dead white guys. I found myself holding my breath a lot. Or weeping. In a good way. Then, I wrote a poem that found a home in the school newspaper, then more in my high school literary magazine, then more in my college and graduate school publications then more in serious literary journals and I thought, hey, I can do this.  Maybe it’s just ego: seeing my name in print is a very good thing.

What subjects inspire me the most?

The everyday, the mundane, the humane, the tragic, the ridiculous. The impossibly soft skin at the back of a baby’s neck, witnessing an act of compassion, that cornflower blue along the roadway. Struggling with a decision while weeding. The fragrance of chopped onions under my fingernails. My family… The erotic. The notion that we still open our hearts and love, even though we have confronted the facts and should know better. The smell just before rain.

What impact do I want my writing to have on the world?

When I give a reading and I can hear people sniffling or laughing at the right places, or a fellow jumps up from the back row and shouts, “I love you, Pia!”… when I know I have connected with other humans in this decidedly risky business of living, that is when I have had the impact I wish for… to share our experiences on this earth, to alleviate each other’s sense of alienation and isolation.

Do I remember the first poem I wrote? What was it about? How old was I?

The second grade poem, no. The eighth grade poem that made it into the school newspaper, yes. It was a haiku about the war in Vietnam and it caused my English teacher to decide I was depressed and needed therapy:


Planes zoom overhead
and all in DaNang lie dead.
The silent bomb falls.

This was followed by a rather emotional recitation of a favorite Keats poem, the first two lines of which are, “When I have fears that I might cease to be/ before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain…”

They weren’t accustomed to seeing a poet in the eighth grade back then. It was as if I were a science experiment about to erupt. It was either keep writing or let them give me a straitjacket.

If I could sum up the theme "feminine reflection" in ten words, what would I say?

Ten words. Not possible for a poet.

What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a woman in this world of war, of famine, of poverty, of testosterone-poisoned views of femininity? What does it mean to create our spiritual selves given the hostilities we face? How do we define and enjoy our sexual selves? How do we make our art and our safe havens in and from which we love and wage life? How do we accommodate the needs of those we love without losing ourselves? These are the questions that interest me now.

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