An Interview with Jackie Bartley

1. I recently finished reading your book, Ordinary Time, and I enjoyed it immensely. Your poems are so diverse in subject matter; they constantly keep the reader on her toes! Where, or in whom, do you find inspiration for your poetry?

In the sense that inspiration implies an intake of breath, I suppose I try to breathe in all experience. Among the experiences that surface in and inform my poems are the sciences, particularly biology, the ritual language and imagery of Roman Catholicism, relationships with people I care for, and the visual arts—to name a few.

2. When did you begin writing poetry? Did you enter contests to get your foot in the door? If so, which ones and what were the results?

I didn’t begin writing poetry until I began reading it outside the classroom. I was thirty-four when I came to it—or it came to me.

3. What is your favorite poem that you have written thus far? Do you feel more connected to a poem if it contains something you experienced personally, or something that you imagined you experienced?

My favorite poem is usually, like I think many writers will say, the last one I wrote or the one I’m currently playing with. An acceptance or a positive comment at a reading about a poem can make it my favorite for a while too. Some poems feel more “right on” in the way the language continues to surprise and sing.

4. Is there a subject that you have always wanted to write about but haven't yet?

I’m always reading non-fiction, hoping that the language of other fields will penetrate my thinking, that it will sneak up on me in poems in a surprising way.

5. What poets do you look up to? Do you have any favorite poems?

Oh, that list is always growing. I’m reading Marianne Boruch’s latest book, Grace, Fallen From and have always admired her work. I turn to Linda Bierds often for the way she turns research into music and vivid image. I love Jane Hirshfield and Naomi Shihab Nye and Louise Glück and have had a fascination of late with a book by Steve Gehrke, Michelangelo’s Seizure, that’s composed entirely of Ekphrastic poetry. Oh, and there’s Gregory Orr and—lots of others!

6. How has your writing style evolved over the years? I noticed in Ordinary Time as the book began to draw to a close, the poems became wistfully beautiful as opposed to earlier in the book when they were more content. Did you write poems especially for your book, or are all of your poems withstanding and arranged inside the book?

I write the poem that happens on the page. When I’ve accumulated a “significant number” (critical mass?), I look them over to see if there are connections. I try to keep “beginner’s mind,” though I hope that I’ve learned a little about language along the way.

7. What do you mean by the "beginner's mind"?

It's Zen mind. See Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind written by Shunryu Suzuki. A shortcut version of the term is on the fly leaf: "The innocence of . . . first inquiry—just asking what you are." That is, it's an open and inquired mind, a way of being which is the zen way, the poet's way, if you will.

8. Are you planning on writing any other books? Do you have a favorite place to write your poetry?

More books would be nice. I’ve got a tentative manuscript circulating now called Sleeping with a Geologist. It’s gone through several revisions and is about to get another. I usually write in the upstairs spare room—the “sewing room.” It’s painted yellow, has windows that look out on oaks, and plenty of morning light.

9. Do you have any advice for young poets trying to start their careers?

Poetry isn’t really a career for me, though acquiring an MFA did give me a chance to work with other literature lovers and writers. I prefer to think of poetry as a way of living, a way of seeing the world and being in it. My advice, I guess, would be to read lots and just plain pay attention, and to keep the element of play, of exploration, in whatever you do.

Works by Jackie Bartley

Through the 3rd Eye was supported in its inception by the Grand Rapids Humanities Council and is currently made possible by continued volunteer effort and private support. Copyright 2013.