“All we can do is make ourselves vulnerable and open to receive what words and surprises come to us, then pass them on to the reader in our original voice.”
Candescent (Iris Press, 2019)
Could you tell us a bit about your growing up and your path to becoming a writer?
Reading as a child launched me into love of language, story, and writing—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Little Women, Little Men, The Bobbsey Twins, and my greatest love, fairytales. I don’t remember being read to until my stepmother came along, when I was 7, but I was a good speller and quick learner, reading on my own. Alice escaped a ho-hum life down the rabbit hole, but I read to escape the drama of life with my mother. My childhood was a mix of insecurity and uprootedness and angels (maternal grandmother, stepmother, father) lifting me above the fray. I knew, even in the midst of it, that I was living my own “fractured fairytale” (Rocky and Bullwinkle TV program in the 1960s), with a loving stepmother and a troubled mother. My parents divorced in the mid-1950s, a rarity then, and my mother and I moved often in east Nashville, my grandmother’s house the only anchor. After my father remarried, I visited him and his new wife on weekends, adding both a saving grace and a stark mirror to my mother’s shadow. My stepmother was nine years younger than my dad and full of joy, playfulness, and music. I left my mother and stepfather to live with them in Knoxville when I was 11, moving toward one mother and away from another, a choice that has ricocheted my entire life. My mother was ultimately diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but not until her early 70s, decades after I had built a life separate from her. I lugged this torn baggage around for years, until I forced myself to write directly about our experiences together and apart in my second poetry collection, Mother Land (Iris Press, 2008).
In grade school, I loved writing book reports and illustrated them with collages and drawings. My urge to write began in high school, studying T.S. Eliot and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I was the editor of the features/editorial page of the school newspaper. I read my way through the school library and especially loved the novels of John Steinbeck. As was the norm in the early 1970s, I married (too) young, craving my own home, and had my first daughter just after turning 21. With my second daughter’s birth five years later, feeling an urgency to tell my stories, I tried my hand at short stories, then plays, as whole scenes played out in my head. It was a race to get them down on paper (a typewriter in those days!). Around that time, I was discovering the literature of the southern Appalachian region—Wilma Dykeman Stokely, James Agee, George Scarbrough—and loved listening to cast albums of Broadway musicals, so I was grounded in both the written and the spoken word on stage. I struggled to balance this hunger to write with my “homemaking” duties—mothering, cleaning, cooking, shopping, gardening, chauffeuring, traditional women’s roles of the time. Ultimately, writing poetry answered the need to claim my voice and was easier, at least a shorter form, than attempting stories and plays. Poetry, as Knoxville Poet Laureate Marilyn Kallet says, became me. It became my primary way of understanding my past, fitting those jagged pieces together, shining light into a well from which I emerged questioning and longing for self-determination. Also a way to understand my parents—with me on a tightrope between them—a mother who burned many of my baby pictures and tore me from family photos, a father who traveled during the week with a complicated, somewhat distant love when home—our tumble and bumble of circumstances. Although I’ve returned to playwrighting over the last 13 years, poetry—and Buddhist meditation—have allowed me to finally make peace with all that came before and to reach an enormous gratitude for “the whole ride,” as one of my meditation teachers says.
How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?
I love this question! On my desk, I see symbols of transformation and spirit—swan, cardinal, butterfly, a small Buddha, amethyst (my birthstone), buckeyes for luck, my angel collection in a bookcase, and the number 9, symbol in numerology of a cycle completed, which appeared mysteriously on my porch when I started traveling several years ago. I never considered previously why I’d gathered these symbols around me as I create my writing world, so thank you for the nudge to look closer at the objects and their meanings and layers.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
My current poetry collection, Candescent, is a particular journey of conscious healing and transformation. Losses were building up on the threshold of this collection: an elderly dog who was fading fast, my father’s descent into vascular dementia, then the end of my second marriage. Each loss was devastating and, combined, stripped me of the entire structure and foundation of my life. I sought counseling and was told to “honor my grief.” I knew tai chi classes had helped a friend process the grief of her husband’s sudden passing, so I signed up. It takes months for that “muscle memory” to kick in—108 moves, one flowing into the next. It was hard! Tai chi is called “moving meditation” and was exactly what I needed to bring me to the present moment, to focus solely on movement and balance for an hour or so twice a week. I was surprised to learn the practice is as healing emotionally as physically. After over a year of classes, I eased into mindfulness and meditation, which I’d been interested in for years. Meditation, classes, sanghas (group meditation), studying Buddhism—and, of course (mostly) daily practice—became both vehicle and path along the road to understanding how I’d gotten to my present reality and to looking deeply into the self. In writing through the grief of my life’s structures and hopes/dreams disintegrating, I also wrote meditation poems that serve as islands, or steppingstones, along the book’s healing path. I didn’t want Candescent to be solely about grief and so wrote my arc of healing from aloneness and loss to wholeness and strength, dragging my emotions along. Experiences of life’s inevitable losses are universal, and I feel the work speaks to many readers in their own healing process. I didn’t have a title for a good while, then stepped back and noticed numerous poems with fire/burning imagery. I realized how I’d been burned down to ash and was rising phoenix-like to new life, hope, possibility. When I saw the word candescent in my reading, I knew it was the perfect title, meaning glowing from within, my losses tempered and alloyed into new being and spirit.
What’s the oldest piece in your book? Is there one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
The poem that opened the door for Candescent is “Fallen Idols.” I had three wooden structures in my gardens, bought by my then-husband: an arbor, a bench, and a planter. Seemingly overnight, each one listed, popped its nails and joinery, fell apart, crumbled back to earth! It showed me life will always reveal the metaphors and connections I need to examine in my writing. When the poem was accepted quickly by the beautiful online journal One (Jacar Press), I knew I was indeed capable of writing this journey of loss and enlightenment—that I must write it. The poem illustrates how we think life as we know/expect it will always be so, only to realize the people and relationships in our lives are always subject to change and falling away. The cornerstone of Buddhist teachings is impermanence, something I never considered before these deep losses. Now I carry that understanding in my being and spirit, this universal truth that everything changes and dies, that every ending, sorrowful as it is, carries the seed of a beginning.
Which poem in your book has the most meaningful back story? What’s the back story?
A tough question since all my poems spring from some core experience, memory, or observation. Many have interesting back stories, but I’ll choose “At My Father’s Hospital Bedside.” The last year of my father’s life (he passed in August 2018), he was in the hospital twice for falling and urinary tract infections (which make dementia even worse). I managed his healthcare and financial matters for assisted living and then the nursing home and so stayed with him in the hospital. Of course, hospitalized dementia patients don’t know where they are or why they have IVs, etc., so sometimes he was restrained or I had to be watchful to keep him from ripping out the IVs. It was exhausting and unsettling because nothing I could do or say would calm or comfort him. While he slept during one visit, I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. I easily saw how my dad was like one of McCarthy’s “greenbroke roans,” wild and confused, not knowing his own strength—and I the one breaking, or trying to break, that fear and wildness. When I later wrote the poem, I returned to the novel and made notes of McCarthy’s particular language to use in the poem. It wasn’t until much later that I remembered my father’s name, Phillip, means “lover of horses.” So it was all a circle turning back on, completing itself. The physical world blending into creation on the page. The child becoming the parent, the parent reverting to some feral self.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
Another difficult question since I worked hard to focus and shape the manuscript to my journey and to cull any poems that didn’t support that arc and path. The last poem I wrote and decided to include is “The Buddha Gives His Fire Sermon at the Retreat Center in Tazewell, Tennessee.” In the poem, I impose the historical Buddha on the owner/teacher of the retreat center as a buddha who led our meditation and satsang (spiritual discourse) sessions at my retreat. It affirms the book’s theme of fire and burning, and uses the word “candescence,” but in hindsight I see the exclusivity of the poem, using the meditation experience and language that not everyone will understand or be able to enter. Still, it’s a poem of silence, of opening and waiting, of transformation: “I remove my shoes, my blame. / I slip from the body I thought I knew.” I feel it belongs in the book, despite its possible obscurity to readers.
Did you have any rituals while writing these poems? What were you listening to when you wrote these poems?
If I have any rituals (besides procrastination!), they are gardening and my meditation practice. Both provide a quiet focus that frees my mind to make connections that may or may not become poems or appear in my plays. I walk/jog every day with my dog, so that’s also a freeing activity, literally jogging loose ideas and allowing them to rise to the surface of my mind. I work in quiet and live in quiet and can’t imagine writing in a coffeeshop as some writers do. And although I enjoy writing workshops, and feel we’re all lifelong students, I find it difficult to write from prompts in a group setting. If I get some good notes or a framework to expand later, I’m grateful. In writing Candescent, I knew the path I was walking—loss, grief, illumination, resurrection. It was a matter of fleshing out that path, with its turning points and realizations along the way. When I quiet my mind and pause, that’s when connections emerge and ask to be born and shaped.
What was the final poem you wrote or revised for the book, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
The final poem I wrote isn’t the poem that gave me the feeling of ending. It’s either “No Grief” or “With Me.” The latter is actually a summation of the whole book and appears last. I use images that have come before—the threshold of change, my father’s descent, false idols fallen to paste, smudging the house of ghosts, etc. It’s a fitting ending to the book and is preceded by “No Grief,” also fitting as a counterbalance to the earlier poems of loss and grief. The epigraph for this poem is from Leonard Cohen: “You have to sit in the very bonfire of distress, / and you sit there until you’re burnt away. / And it’s ashes, and it’s gone.” The poem ends with these words: “my body burnt through, unbent,” an anthem to struggle and resilience.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
Any prompt I use (except in workshops) is the shimmering seed, that connection I mention, the spark that opens the door to the poem’s world and invites the reader in. I’m a professional editor and worked at the University of Tennessee as an editor for almost 30 years, as well as being a freelance editor/copy editor. In revision, I zero in on articles and prepositions and pare down accordingly, editing with an eye to fresh verbs and images. But you still want the music, the flow, the sound, the tension of language and placement, the unexpected enjambment, the surprise or forceful end. An equally important component that’s difficult to put into words, the overall light of the poem, is the illumination it brings, the magick, if you will, that transports and changes the reader, that carries us to a new place of imagining. I tend to be orderly in my life, the result of my unsettled childhood, so I’m learning to be freer in my language, to open up and allow the poem to take me—and the reader—beyond the beyond.
What has the editorial and production experience with your press been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your book?
I had a wonderful experience with Iris Press. Candescent is my second book with Iris, and the publishers, Robert and Beto Cumming, are longtime friends, produce handsome books, and have helped build a strong literary community in the southern Appalachian region and beyond. Beto is the designer and was very patient as I made several rounds of revisions after the manuscript was in the design program. A designer/photographer friend, Deb Hardison, created an incredible cover image, a vase of burning lilies that’s truly candescent. Beto and Deb worked together to design a stunning cover. I’m fortunate to be in the Iris family.
What question do you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?
Not sure how to answer regarding the book. I can answer about myself: Why did I define myself by loss for so long? We all have our defining story(ies), and mine was leaving my mother at 11, choosing another mother, which resulted in a lifetime of resentment, jealousy, struggle, separation. Her diagnosis freed me tremendously, but mother loss goes to our core and shapes our very being. Buddhists speak of “the happy dark,” the place of true growth. Without the dark night of the soul, there can be no growth. This holds equally for my more recent enormous losses expressed in Candescent. The Buddhists also say we must be grateful for everything, the deepest hurt, the worst wound. Again, the happy dark. I’ve written through my defining stories in my five books and, although I allowed them to define me in the past, finally, at last, I point myself toward the light, both within and without. I’m learning compassion, for myself and others. It takes as long as it takes.
What are some of your favorite books or chapbooks—perhaps some that have influenced you?
The poetry collections I love are too numerous to name! I greatly admire the work of Jesse Graves, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Ted Kooser, Charles Wright, Stanley Kunitz, Linda Pastan, Galway Kinnell, William Woolfitt, James Dickey, Connie Wanek, Jane Hirshfield, Ron Houchin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Stellasue Lee, Ron Rash, Theodore Roethke, Mary Oliver, on and on. My favorite novels are The Great Gatsby, A Death in the Family, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Their Eyes Were Watching God.
What might these books or chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
Many of these writers are connected to the natural world, which informs their work as it does mine. Many have their feet in childhood, writing toward understanding and healing. These poets are grounded in the particular—whether in Western Carolina, the Nebraska prairie, or in a florist’s greenhouse—then move outward to the universal, wrapping us all in the larger human experience. I try to do the same in my work, moving from the small to what touches and moves us all, so that my work is accessible and shines a lens onto the everyday, moving wider and wider. The former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser advises his students to never tackle “big ideas,” such as war or patriotism or prejudice, but to start small, what’s right at your feet or in your own backyard, and let it grow and bloom from there.
What are you working on now?
I have a great start on a new manuscript, about 35 poems, what I initially thought would be an exploration of travel and home. Now in the time of pandemic, travel is on hold indefinitely. Over the past several years, I’ve traveled to France (twice), Cuba, and California, with upcoming plans cancelled. My exploration of travel/home will continue regardless; home, with its many meanings and slippery slopes, has long been a theme in my work. I think the crux of it goes beyond this opposition, however, into the liminal, that in-betweenness, and who/how we are in both settings. I’m intrigued with the French idea of entre chien et loup, the time of day between dog and wolf, the known light becoming the otherworldly dusk or gloaming. Obviously, I’m still drawn to explore the threshold of change, moving past my old boundaries and comforts.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, etc.) what would it be and why?
Many moons ago, I sketched with pastels and charcoal and enjoyed drawing. Now my daughters are wonderful artists—the oldest an amazing potter and the youngest an illustrator—and my two granddaughters (11 and 8) are following well in their mother’s footsteps. My grandfather used to sketch a bit, and a brother is a painter, songwriter, and musician. So it’s in the blood. Gardening is equally an artistic pursuit, and I consider my gardens my palette, my canvas. Gardens are ever changing, and the gardener must evolve with them, shaping but not completely controlling. They’re most beautiful and interesting when some disorder thrives and flows within the imposed order. Plus, my gardens are an endless source of metaphors for my writing.
How has your writing and writing practice evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
I’m trying to open up my writing more, both in language and varied form. My love of order lends itself to sonnets and pantoums, but it’s also important to loosen up, which I feel makes the work more accessible to readers. My writing can be dense sometimes, so being more conversational and perhaps less concise is good practice—fighting against my editorial nature and experience!
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Read, read, read—classic and contemporary poetry, novels, short stories, creative nonfiction. And see plays. Plays especially allow us to notice what’s unspoken as much as what’s spoken, that tension, those oppositions. Beginning writers, especially, have a huge hunger to be published, that affirmation being understandable. Read online and print journals to see what’s being published and submit work to student publications—but understand that writing is a craft, a lifelong apprenticeship, and every writer must face a blank page or screen for every new poem or project. We must begin again, have a “beginner’s mind,” with the scaffolding and architecture of what we’ve read and learned as underpinning. Publishing credits will come in time. Find a writing/critique group to share your work and see what works and doesn’t in others’ work. Be kind and diplomatic! Having a writing group (or open mic) not only allows you to test new work, but also provides motivation and encourages discipline. Attend writing workshops and conferences when you can, even online, to experience different teachers and connect yourself to the writing community—locally, regionally, and beyond.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
It’s easy to feel that, whatever level your writing is, you’ll never be in the stratosphere of writing, the Mary Oliver or the Yeats of writing. But it’s all a continuum, a landscape, a constant and shifting song of which your voice is a stream, a tune, a note. Comparing yourself to others is never useful and only holds you back. All we can do is go deeper and deeper within ourselves and our experiences in this beautiful and damaged world. All we can do is make ourselves vulnerable and open to receive what words and surprises come to us, then pass them on to the reader in our original voice. Our stories and styles are unique to us, our own fingerprint—and heartprint—on the page.
Whose work helped you write this book? What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
After my last book, This Shaky Earth (Texas Review Press, 2016), I was uncertain of my direction in poetry. Then my life suddenly changed, and my direction chose me. Looking back on my four previous collections, each is some kind of journey—through family history, struggle, aging, change, grief—into discovery, balance, renewal. The work that helped me write Candescent was the personal, inner work necessary to rebuild my life and release what had naturally passed or no longer served me. Grief and loss were the drivers, and awakening and peace the rewards. This collection is my best, deepest work. I’m grateful for the “whole ride,” though sometimes wrenching and heartbreaking, that brought me to this place in my life and work. Grateful I can honor the grievous path and the journey.
Collaboration inspires me. I’ve been fortunate over the last several years to collaborate on writing and producing plays for Flying Anvil Theatre in Knoxville and for the last year to coordinate WDVX-FM’s WordStream: The Weekly Writer’s Voice with Stellasue Lee, now suspended during the pandemic. I’ve become more extroverted in my later years, and these public, interactive efforts in service to the community counterbalance the solitude and introversion needed to hole up and write, to just be. It’s as important to support and celebrate other writers in their work and development as to produce your own work.
I don’t write daily, and my plays often take precedence over poetry in being longer-term projects with ongoing revisions, rehearsals, marketing/promotional efforts, among other tasks. When I’m away from poetry too long, however, I feel a homesickness, a hunger to return to the page just for poetry, that juxtaposition of word and experience, that poignancy of memory, the trail of breadcrumbs leading to the amber lights of home. When I return, I feel relief and peace that I’m fulfilling my purpose once again. I’ve written several pandemic poems (I predict volumes forthcoming!) and feel an urge to do so. It seems especially important to document and sift through complex emotions at this strange time—since things have “all changed, changed utterly” in how we live together on Earth.
What question would you like to ask future writers featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Have you written pandemic poems, and how have the pandemic and emergence of COVID-19 changed your work?
Linda Parsons coordinates WordStream, WDVX-FM’s weekly reading series, with Stellasue Lee and is the reviews editor at Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. Her poetry has appeared in The Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Baltimore Review, Shenandoah, and Ted Kooser’s syndicated column, American Life in Poetry, among many others. Parsons is the copy editor for Chapter 16, the literary website of Humanities Tennessee, and she writes social justice plays for Flying Anvil Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. Candescent is her fifth poetry collection (Iris Press, 2019).