"Thus must it always be we learn what we love by what we lose," offers Deborah Pope in "The Last Lesson," a poem in her series The Angel Poems.
Reading Pope, or better yet, hearing her read, is a reflective, tender, even intimate experience. In person she's witty and charming, courteous to her audience and students. But her spoken and written words seek to disguise nothing. She's not offering answers, or even posing simple questions, rather noticing, marking emotional moments, and carefully measuring her words.
One of my favorite spoken-word community moments occurred several years ago--a real writers-in-the-midst revelation. At a local reading, Pope presented a new poem she'd just published, shyly describing it as "a little different than what people expect from poets." One month later Fred Chappell was reading his latest work and paused to announce that he really wanted to read a poem by another poet. This selection turned out to be the same poem we'd heard Pope debut the previous month!
The author of three books of poetry from Louisiana State University Press, Pope teaches English at Duke University and is on the planning board for the upcoming conference on poetry and medicine, "Vital Lines/Vital Signs" at Duke, April 23-24. She has been awarded the Campbell Brockman Award for best book published by a North Carolina poet and announcer Garrison Keillor has read her work on his daily poetry program, The Writer's Almanac.
In 1998, Pope won The University Distinguished Teaching Award at Duke; the following year her most recent collection of poems, Falling Out of the Sky, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.
We talked about her writing, her teaching and her family, as she juggled it all during what she so aptly calls, "this moving-crazily-to-conclusion part of the semester."
The Independent: To quote the publishers of Choosing the Right College: The Whole Truth About America's Top Schools, "According to faculty and students, the best teachers at Duke include Peter Wood, Bruce Kuniholm, James W. Applewhite and Deborah Pope." Students I've talked to are very loyal to you, very enthusiastic about your classes. What's your secret?
Deborah Pope: I don't know if that's true, though I am deeply honored and grateful for the wonderful, gifted individuals I have worked with over the years. I would hope I have helped them toward insights or stages that have been meaningful in their lives, and it is toward these moments of growth in themselves that I think they are feeling loyal. Students don't always express this to me, but I would say I feel very loyal to my students, certainly. I'm a Virgo after all--we're loyal to the death, and not always wisely. But I tend to feel that when I have taught someone, been invited into their writing or their thinking or their moment of encountering the world for the space of time they are in my class, that I have a privileged relation with them, and they with me.
I think both good teaching and good writing call for a very acute kind of listening. I would say that my best writing arises from situations where I have a strong sense of a listener. There is someone to whom I am deeply, searchingly, bravely speaking. And I teach best this way, too.
You donated your poem, "As the Children's Carpool Departs," to Voices 2002, the journal of the Duke University Woman's Center. With the demands of teaching and raising a family, when do you write?
I have to say that whatever time and energy and focus raising two boys has taken from my writing--and it would be disingenuous to say it has not--it has been more than recompensed by the incalculable significance of what this intimate bond of experience, revelation, love and life knot has meant, and continues to mean, for my writing. I think it is really the case that being a mother has given me my poetry I have written.
I certainly don't mean this in some '50s-throwback sense that in its most cliched formulation said women's real creativity were children, or a woman needed children to be fulfilled. I don't think that at all. What I mean is that, having had a life that turned out to have children in it, I cannot really imagine, nor do I wish to, a life or poetry from which they were absent. They have taught me too much, brought too many of the most deeply cherished things into my life.
I have also accepted that I am not someone who can write everyday. I am someone who tends to write in intensive "submersions." I am as susceptible as anyone to the admonitions and promises that writing every day will change your writing life, will separate the real writers from the posers, etc., etc., and part of me does probably believe I'm a fraud if I don't put myself through the paces at continual intervals, especially when I am castigating myself for not writing more.
Part of my maturing as a writer has been to accept the writer I am, and how my own processes and thinking tend to unfold. I have found it hard to countervene these rhythms, or overlook the fact that poems often begin for me when I am not consciously thinking about writing, or when I am intently engaged elsewhere. So, I do not have a regular writing schedule that is set by the clock, but I have learned to be acutely attuned to the mists that rise up, or the roots that reach down in those intuitive, inner spaces.
I usually have paper with me wherever I am. I'm a pull-over-to-the-side-of-the-road writer. In fact I love to write in cars. Cars are great for a certain rhythm, a kind of stillness-in-motion that I like to write from.
You've been very active with the upcoming Vital Lines/Vital Signs conference. (poetryandmedicineconference.mc.duke.edu ) Would you share your enthusiasm?
My literary/scholarly work with poetry for a while has been directed toward exploring interconnections with medicine. The conference next week will be bringing doctors, poets, and scholars together. Among the poets attending will be Lucille Clifton, Mark Doty, Li-Young Lee, Sharon Olds, and doctor-poets John Stone and Rafael Campo. There are many dimensions of healing, of patient encounters, of medical practices, doctor's training, and ethical processing that can potentially draw on the resources offered by poetry, as well as by the kinds of critical techniques and attentiveness to language and meaning acquired through interpretive practice. It has been gratifying to see the enthusiasm and respect for poetry and other expressive arts, come forward from doctors and health-care professionals I have worked with. This is certainly a conjunction of interests and programs that will be building a presence locally and nationally.
Contributing Writer John Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excerpt from Falling Out of the Sky
By Deborah Pope
The Angel Is Yet to Come
What it must be like
to be without
the shawl of illusion,
to be past
all past consolations,
the difficult arts
of belief and blame,
by a means of falling,
a hauling up
of hands and voices,
unwinding the lifeline
that is scar and seam,
through years like rooms,
where to be motherless
is not to be unmothered,
and to be loved is not saved,
nor saved, spared
either burning bed or holy fire,
where truth is older, harder,
with no power to undo
and even bread is easier to share --
what must it be
ever to choose
solace, or cease,
the stubborn stone
of the human.