Poet Angela Shaw ’90 Speaks on Recent Book

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On April 22nd, Angela Shaw, author of the recent collection of poems The Beginning of the Fields and alumna of Swarthmore, will read selections from her book at the Swarthmore Public Library. In the past, Shaw has taught the Advanced Poetry Workshop on campus and The Beginning of the Fields is Shaw’s first book. The Gazette had the opportunity to speak with Shaw about her poetry and experience at Swat.

Gazette: Many of your poems seem to grow from distinctly rural settings. How have your past homes influenced these descriptions? Is it ever difficult to write about these landscapes with immediacy when you live elsewhere?

Angela Shaw: For most of my childhood I lived in rural West Virginia, so I tend to be drawn to that particular landscape in my writing—mostly because this was my formative visual vocabulary, the images that flashed past the backseat car window from my earliest memory. I was lucky to go to grad school in Ithaca, NY, a town whose surrounding rolling farmland reminded me of home, but allowed me to write about it from what was, at the time, a necessary remove. I’m endlessly fascinated by the image of an open field, but not an endless field—one bounded by barbed wire or mountains. I love the tension of this visual, the pull between openness and boundary; I love that the boundary can be both threat and protection.

And I guess that particular image and its tension between expansiveness and containment has come to stand in for a variety of things in my poems.

I’ve lived most of my adult life, though, in non-rural settings, so sometimes I find I do need some sort of visual cue or crutch to get what I hope is a sense of immediacy when writing of my native landscape. I wrote the three poems that open my book while I was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts but longing for the landscape of my childhood. I turned to the work of Fairfield Porter—his Long Island landscapes—as a source of inspiration for my writing. I was reassured, too, in my reading about Porter, to learn that he had turned down a teaching post in Carbondale, IL, because, as he put it “there was nothing to paint.” I imagine that for other artists there would have been plenty to paint in Carbondale—but not for Porter. Somehow that anecdote gave me permission to forgo using a visual vocabulary that wasn’t comfortably my own at that time. Oddly enough, these days, living in Swarthmore, I’m beginning to feel quite at home with the vocabulary of the suburban backyard.

Gazette: The first three poems of The Beginning of the Fields have titles that correspond with paintings by Fairfield Porter. Later in the book, you quote musician Loretta Lynn and painter Anne Packard. How do other artistic mediums inspire or shape your poetry?

AS: I think the beginning impulse for me in writing poems is often a longing to imitate or approximate something that I love. I may become entranced by a particular poem (William Matthews’ “Mood Indigo” and Keats’ “To Autumn” come to mind) and write my own poem or poems while under that other writer’s spell. Or I may write under the spell of something that captivates me visually like those Porter landscapes. In the case of those particular poems my goal was not so much to be descriptive of the paintings themselves, but to create voices that seemed to speak from within the moment of the paintings.

As a young writer, it came as something of a relief to realize that I could (and should) look outside myself for sources of inspiration—not inspiration exactly, as that was already there, but for sources of language and imagery. I guess I finally realized artists are allowed to do this. I look to poems, and paintings, and songs, as you mentioned, and to movies, catalog copy, wildflower handbooks, and my neighbors’ spied-on daily rituals and routines (suburban backyards) for that sort of material…And the Anne Packard quote that appears in my poem “Electric” (“They have something to do with forever, the space behind the sky and the space behind the shadow”)—I borrowed it rather shamelessly. It’s a beautiful and mysterious description of her own paintings, but it also felt right as a way to get at the enigmatic quality of the marital relationship described in that poem.

Gazette: Themes of femininity and marriage circulate throughout your collection of poetry yet you say that the tones used in describing them are not indicative of your personal experiences. Where do these voices come from?

AS: I rarely write poems that are autobiographical in the sense that their events or their circumstances actually happened to me. But the poems do arise out of my own emotional experience. I try to find a voice or a character or a situation that can express an emotional truth—which for me works better than writing about my own past or day-to-day life. I may choose to write from the perspective of a single person, a married woman, a mother, a courtesan, a prostitute as a way to try on a certain kind of vulnerability, a certain kind of power.

I’m reminded of a line I love from Eudora Welty’s story “June Recital” in which three young piano students have just heard their otherwise unremarkable teacher play a piece with wholly unexpected passion and intensity. “Coming from Miss Eckhart, the music made all the pupils uneasy, almost alarmed; something had burst out, unwanted, exciting, from the wrong person’s life.” Sometimes I like to think of myself as that wrong person from whom the poems emerge.

Gazette: Since you wrote most of the poems in The Beginning of the Fields, you have become a mother. Have you continued to write poetry? Have you seen a shift in the subject of your work?

AS: For better or worse, since my son and daughter were born, I’ve made a conscious choice not to worry too much about writing poems. Before I had children, I would never have believed that this would become an acceptable state of affairs, but it’s the solution that seems to have worked best for me. I’ve certainly had intervals of time since I became a mother—stretches of weeks and months—during which I was able to get a bit of writing done nearly every day. But those sorts of intervals have been the exception rather than the norm.

I also find, since having children, that my mental processes have become fragmented in a way that I wholly didn’t expect; the internal silence from which my poems previously emerged has been shattered. Lines from Rachel DuPlessis’ “A Poem of Myself” (from her book Wells which I first read here at Swarthmore in Nat Anderson’s Contemporary Women’s Poetry class) ring in my head nearly once a week: “When am I going to come into the room?//“Come in, come in I say to all the fragments.” I loved this poem when I first encountered it at twenty, but at my current stage in life, it’s taken on a whole new meaning for me…As I look to my new writing, I think I need to allow the work itself to become more fragmentary to reflect my present experience and emotional life.

Gazette: How has teaching poetry workshops at Swarthmore and other schools influenced your poetry?

AS: My stance as a reader of poetry often swings wildly between disgruntled bewilderment and inarticulate love; my natural inclination when confronted with a poem is often to behold rather than to discuss. So teaching challenges me to put words to those strong feelings of distaste or adoration, and that helps me to become not necessarily a smarter reader, but a different sort of reader than I’m comfortably inclined to be. And, in time, this allows me to approach my own work in new ways. Looking at, say, Spencer Reece’s beautifully constructed book The Clerk’s Tale or Quan Barry’s masterful Asylum with my Advanced Poetry Students here at Swarthmore helped me to make choices in structuring my own manuscript. Exploring the importance of place in the work of Rita Dove, James Wright, and Carolyn Forché in a Haverford seminar reminded me of how important place is in my own writing. And it’s also energizing simply to be engaged on a regular basis with young writers who are newly excited about the power of language and the process of making poems.

Gazette: As an alumnus of Swarthmore College, how do you think that your time at Swat shaped you as a poet?

AS: I was fortunate to take a poetry workshop with Nat Anderson during my freshman year, and that exhilarating experience shaped my sense of myself as a writer for years to come…And, as you can see, I’m still luxuriously haunted by the authors I read here as an undergraduate; those readings have continued to motivate and inspire me to make poems to this day. So I’m endlessly grateful that I had the opportunity to study Chaucer with Craig Williamson, Shakespeare with Susan Snyder, Keats with Harry Pagliaro, Plath with Nat Anderson, and my beloved Eudora Welty with Peter Schmidt, just to name a few.

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