This winter, I will haul out summer / from the chest freezer / tart cherries to suck on, to make pie. // You and I are omnivorous– / even bitter fruit, somehow, / sustains us.”
~ from “Give Me a Bushel of Tomatoes” in The Salt Before It Shakes
I fell in love with the poetry of Yvonne Stephens at first glance. I was skimming through submissions for Family Stories from the Attic, and her piece, “Syl,” stopped me short. A found poem, she turned lines in a letter from a Grandfather she did not know into a piece that stays with you. Her writing is intimate, it’s pure and sweet, heartbreaking and hopeful, all at once.
Her new chapbook, The Salt Before It Shakes, offers the same level of intimacy and strength and more. Poems like “As a Dignity” and “To Build a Sauna” (and “Give Me a Bushel of Tomatoes” quoted above) center the reader, giving pause in the mix of uproar or discord or simple worry to show what matters in the moment. Other poems take a light-hearted look at coyotes and porcupines and even mops to build on the idea that poetry is for reflection both in earnest and in fun.
Rita Dove says “Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” The poems in these pages are true to the form; they are good for the soul.
I’m honored to host Yvonne today to talk about her new chapbook, released by Hidden Timber Books last month. After the Q&A, CLICK HERE to enter the book giveaway for a chance to win a copy of The Salt Before It Shakes (courtesy of Hidden Timber Books).
Now, welcome Yvonne!
Christi Craig (CC): The Salt Before It Shakes is a lovely collection of poems, several of which couple the human experience with nature–from the outside looking in or the inside looking out. I’m thinking of “Tomato Hornworm, a Study” and “Imminent Rain” as two examples, the first a poem of relationships in a way; the second, one of mood. Nature and sense of self. I love this pairing. But which serves to inspire the poetry in you first, the introspection or the walk in the woods?
Yvonne Stephens (YS): Mostly the walk in the woods first, which is a great exercise for getting me out of my head and being present. I think being clear headed and in the moment is an ideal, even idealized way to be ready to write a poem. But, my life is generally chaotic, so I’ve been learning how to write, and write well, in chaos, too. On my walks I am collecting images, fragments of lines that come to mind, or just getting my blood pumping (because I can be so sedentary).
My poems tend to be written late at night, when my family is asleep. If I’m working on something and I’m stuck, I’ll take a walk in the woods to mull it over.
“Tomato Hornworm”originated from a writing prompt, from an online poetry course that I took in 2013 with Holly Wren Spaulding–and also very much my backyard garden. “Imminent Rain” originated in an approaching storm.
CC: I have so many favorites in this collection, one being “Eleven Mops”…the language, the images, the play in lines like this, “As I work a mop around my feet, there it is: a microphone, the urge to sing.” I know this is a formal Q&A, but :D! Tell us a little more about those moments “Eleven Mops” came into form.
YS: “Eleven Mops” was written from an assignment from a class I took in 2009 (again, Holly Wren Spaulding), to emulate “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens. I remember choosing to focus on mops. It was September, and I had just left from helping a friend do some cleaning. A mop is so simple, and just silly. Could I think about it in a multitude of ways? Why, yes! So it started from a place of play, of wanting to have fun. I especially like the last line because it incorporates a blackbird, a final connection to Stevens’ original poem.
CC: Speaking of play, last year you did #100daysofplay and #31daysofsnailmail projects.What did you love most about these projects, and what might be on the docket for 2018?
YS: What I loved most about these projects was the permission to prioritize things I love to do, and the accountability of posting about it in order to keep at it.
Play is essential to a thriving imagination, and letter writing is a way to slow down, reflect, connect with people I care about–all of these things enrich a life. They were so good for me. I was inspired to start this project by my friend, Jeannie Voller, who had done 100 days of dance, and invited others to do their own projects.
With “The Salt Before It Shakes” in print, I’m taking my first-ever book tour. I’m also working on a second book, with the working title, “These Hands Can” due out mid-2019 through Hidden Timber Books.
I enjoy collage work, sewing, and spotlighting the work of others. I might make these into projects I track on my blog in 2018–but no specific plans. Thanks for asking! You may have just started something.
CC: Which poets/books of poetry do you keep close at hand?
YS: Suzanne Buffam, Diane Seuss, Jane Kenyon, Fleda Brown. “Contemporary Greek Women Poets” translated by Eleni Fourtouni, Thelphini Press (1978).
Yvonne Stephens lives with her husband and two children in Northwest Lower Michigan. She has worked as an assistant in the fields of mycology, forestry, and neurology research, volunteered for two year in the AmeriCorps, and most recently was an Artist Residency Coordinator for the Crosshatch Center for Art and Ecology. An award-winning poet, Yvonne was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2015, and her poems have appeared in the Dunes Review, the LAND Creative Writing Journal, and Family Stories from the Attic. Visit her blog at poetwith40eyes.com.