“Do not discard any of the little things, those tactile, sensory, daily experiences; they are like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs leading the way home.”
The Consequence of Moonlight (Paraclete Press, 2018)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem from your book? Perhaps a poem that introduces the work of the book, or one that invites the reader into the world of the book?
Imagine one magnolia in the yard,
a solitary grosbeak out of reach
on a solitary branch—
the season’s final archive of ascent.
Imagine that it drops a leaf.
Your glance catches it,
forgoes the arbor and the drift-wing
and the extent to which they live,
to reconcile the iris with one sky,
one tree, one mortal bird.
Intent, it’s all about intent—
as with the eye, no more surveyor
but a lover in the momentary light,
or with the moon, drawn resolute
when tugging at the mist,
the immaculate lagoon, the girl
At last, she stirs, full weight on little
feet, her focus on the door….
How green each word outside her room.
Why did you choose this poem?
This poem is, as its title indicates, an invitation to the reader to enter into the book. Each poetry collection creates its own landscape—spiritual, physical, mythical—wherein the reader must be made welcome. In this case, the mystery of that poetic landscape (and there will be much mystery throughout the book) seeks to be offset by simple hospitality, expressed through the archetypal character of a girl, emerging into life. The emphasis on the word “intent” is meant to recognize that things are not so much what they appear to be but what they are called to be, in other words: things (and we) are known for their (and our) intrinsic purpose. We spend much of our life figuring what that purpose is, in other words, our identity, as individuals and as part of the human race.
What obsessions led you to write your book? What is it about?
This “being called by name” is something of incredible importance to me. It is vital. It sustains our worth. So, this would be the underlying obsession that led to the poems. However, the catalyst that allowed them to unfold as a unified body was my attraction to the moon. Why the moon? Well, the moon has no light of her own but lives on borrowed light, as we do. She fulfills herself in absence. She is both luminous and obscure, generous and aloof, source of knowledge and evidence of mystery. She is all this, because she must be here and there, orbiting the earth but not of the earth. Whether I wished for it or not, the moon kept appearing in my work, obsessively. I had to give her the place she had earned, allowing her qualities to radiate into our own paradox: our being both temporal and atemporal, out of sorts with the reality of death, not yet filled with the reality of living.
What’s the oldest piece in your book? Or can you name one poem that was the seed for the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
I don’t recall exactly which poem I wrote first, but one of the earliest—if not the earliest—was “Elena Leaves Home.” Elena is the girl of the initial poem “Invitation” and she takes us through the book, threading her way amid the other poems to hold them together. She is out on a search, a journey—a perennial theme in literature—in a Spirit-saturated world that never ceases to be intensely physical as well. Her need to answer the question “has anyone called me?” guides her motions, and I hope those of the reader as well.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your book?
When I’m writing the poems, initially, I’m merely allowing my current “obsession” to find its expression. Eventually, I sense that I have no more to add to it, that the next poems will be but a repetition of earlier ones. And I stop. It is time to look at the poems as a whole and to figure out their narrative, how they might reflect an emotional movement, a transformation in thought, from one poem to the next.
All of my full-length books thus far have been organized in three parts (it seems I am Trinitarian, not only in faith but in poetic outlook), and The Consequence of Moonlight is no different. The poems in the first part reflect the emergence of Elena (she could be any of us), her initial venture into life. The second part situates us in that place (or time) of life, somewhere between becoming and being, when we experience a loss of identity. Already too far from our initial home, yet not close enough to our destination: who are we after all?. Hence, there are no Elena poems in the second part of the book. The closing section is one of rediscovery, of coming home to the name we have been given, our only name. Elena re-emerges to personify that experience.
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
“Elena Faces the Fire.” The scriptural quotation that accompanies it is, “For our God is a consuming fire”(from Hebrews 12:29).
When I was a child (decades ago!), we lived in Manila, the Philippines. Not too far from where we lived there was a horrific fire which killed an entire family, except for their smallest child who was somehow saved. My father knew the parents, distantly, and one day we drove by to see the charred ruins, which I never forgot. I wondered about that child, on and off, over the years; she was survivor and victim all at once. I thought, too, of the God who spared her—or allowed her to be spared—while the rest of her family were not. The poem is in the child’s voice, now grown, and yet it could be any of us, facing the mystery of suffering.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
Tough question. If there is one, it could be “And His Name Was Clemens”, because it is the only poem in the book that refers to a specific, historical person: Mark Twain, who was unflinchingly merciless to himself, bore a name closely akin to “mercy” (Clemens: clement, clemency). I wondered about him, his creative genius yet his painful inability to experience mercy, when experiencing the loss of his loved ones, especially his beloved wife.
What was the final poem you wrote or significantly revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
The last poem I wrote was “Invitation,” which is, as I’ve noted above, the first poem in the book. Having already determined, more or less, the trajectory of the poems and where each was likely to go, I found myself needing an entry into them, something to hint at a central character (Elena, the archetypal creature). The collection begged for an introduction, and so “Invitation” emerged. Fortunately, the poem did not require too much “handling.” When poems are driven by need, channeled by purpose, and steeped in an already existent poetic scene, they come more naturally to me. It is as if half the task were already done; that is, the task of rooting the words, recognizing their landscape.
When poems come easily, one does wonder whether they’re “done.” I worried about “Invitation,” but it was soon picked up for publication by ARTS and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I was very grateful that and felt that the poem was a gift to me.
Did you read straight through your book out loud during the revision process or while finalizing revisions? If so, how was your experience of the poems different? How were your ideas about their individual meanings changed?
I always read each poem aloud when I revise it, and I try to listen to it as someone would at a reading—for the first time. I find that the ritual of hearing the words, as if they were coming from someone else, is important. It reinforces the identity of the poem outside the poet, where it must survive unassisted. It lays bare any flaws in the poem’s cadence, a word or phrase that may not flow smoothly. However, having done that, I do not read the collection aloud as a whole, when it’s done. You might say that I whisper it to myself, from beginning to end.
Describe your writing practice or process for your book. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I can only write in one place: at my desk, by the window, overlooking the quiet street we live in. There are dog-walkers, and children, and a few cars, and large trees—pin oaks, pines, maples—visible from my perch. I need that setting. I do not write while I’m traveling or anywhere else. I do not make notes, or scribble verses that come to my mind unbidden. I do not journal.
I’m not picky about the time. When I’m in the middle of writing a poem, any time is good; when I’m struggling, no time seems to work. I do not wake up at the middle of the night with a poem, or part of a poem. I can’t rely on that. (I sleep too soundly.) I do force myself to stick to a ritual: the place (by the window, as I’ve just mentioned), the time, evening hours. I believe it was Richard Wilbur who said (and I’m paraphrasing): “It’s the muse who writes for us, but she must know where to find us.” The muse knows where I will be and approximately at what time every day.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your book been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
Paraclete Press has been extraordinary. Once I had submitted the final version of the manuscript, their design team set out to create the book. I was asked for some input, mostly if I had some preferences for the cover, as well as a priori objections. I shared some ideas… and waited. When the cover arrived, I was allowed to comment on it (I liked it!) and then we worked on the proofs: several rounds, in which I was allowed to make further changes to the poems. The same process applied for the back cover, the endorsements, the brief bio, etc. It was the smoothest process I could have envisioned, with a staff that was and continues to be genuinely supportive.
What are you working on now?
Every full-length book is followed by a fallow time, at least for me. A time to listen, watch, wait to be called, while continuing to abide with words. I remain open to whatever may be next. Every poem must fulfill a need, must respond to an urgency, something that had to be said or shared. There is no need to clutter the literature with unnecessary poems. In the meantime, I have been doing extensive translations of art essays, from Spanish to English, and am mentoring several writers through Creative Writing Critiques, an editing service I provide which brings me enormous satisfaction and (I hope) is of value to the writers with whom I work.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Definitely music. Perhaps a classical guitarist. Unfortunately, it takes an enormous amount of work, between being a neophyte and an accomplished musician, and while you’re not yet good at it, you have to put up with your own inadequate, painful-to-the-ear playing, before anything gratifying can emerge. I would need to be a different “me” to fulfill that alternative dream.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing? What wisdom do you think you may have arrived at?
Do not shy away from the big questions of meaning; they are at the heart of how we experience the little things. Do not discard any of the little things, those tactile, sensory, daily experiences; they are like Hansel and Gretel’s crumbs leading the way home—but strive to set them in a larger landscape. Forgo easy gratification. Just because writing is language and we learn language as toddlers does not mean that writing is easy—even when it seems to be. In my experience, the more we write, the harder it is. People will tell you to believe in yourself. I agree, but I would add that we need to believe in something, someone, outside ourselves, so that when the going gets tough (as it will), we have a lifeline to pull. Cynics and nihilists do not write genuinely creative work.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
Questions that relate to being—and to meaning. Big questions whose answers might be found by following little things, minor events, daily occurrences, to their ultimate consequences.
Sofia M. Starnes, Virginia’s Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014, is the author of six poetry collections, most recently, The Consequence of Moonlight from Paraclete Press; she has also edited two poetry anthologies. Her first collection, The Soul’s Landscape, was selected by Billy Collins as co-winner of the Aldrich Poetry Prize. Her first full-length book, A Commerce of Moments, won Editor’s Choice in the Transcontinental Poetry Prize competition and was named Poetry Honor Book by the Library of Virginia in 2003. Another collection, Corpus Homini, was awarded the Whitebird Poetry Series Prize. In addition, Starnes is the recipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, the Rainer Maria Rilke Poetry Prize for “A Poem for Single Flesh,” the Christianity & Literature Poetry Prize for “Provinces,” and the Marlboro Editor’s Choice Poetry Prize for “The House that Bled,” as well as five Pushcart Prize nominations. Her poems have appeared in such journals as The Notre Dame Review, The William & Mary Review, The Laurel Review, The Southern Poetry Review, and been anthologized in the Virginia Writers Club Centennial Anthology, The Hawai’i Literary Review Best of Decade edition, and in Poems of Devotion, an Anthology of Recent Poets. In 2013, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters degree by Union College, Kentucky. Currently, Sofia Starnes serves as Poetry Editor and Poetry Book Review Editor of The Anglican Theological Review; she is also a translator of art essays for Galería Cayón (Madrid, Spain) and the Ayala Foundation (Manila, Philippines). She lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, with her husband, Bill.