Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Etymology of Spruce: an interview with Joyce WIlson

Joyce Wilson, editor and creator of The Poetry Porch, a literary magazine on the Internet at, teaches English at Suffolk University. Her poems have appeared in literary journals such as Poetry Ireland, Ibbetson Street, and online at Mezzo Cammin ( Her first book of poems The Etymology of Spruce has just been published by Rock Village Publishing, Middleborough, Mass. A chapbook “The Spring House” has been accepted for publication by Finishing Line Press, to appear in November 2010.

GL: The title poem for your first book, The Etymology of Spruce, catalogues the definitions and the historical meanings of the word spruce. The poem is, in some ways, the most anti-poetic (it almost acts as a found poem) in the whole collection. The poem’s form, part litany, part lexicography, blends the word’s uses(s) with its beauty—to demonstrate, in other words, how so many histories, cultures and sounds converge and survive in it. Which makes an interesting and challenging choice for an opener since this is such a memoiristic/meditative collection. In Etymology of Spruce “personal” disclosures abound and yet you start with such an impersonal poem. Why? And how did you see the concept and symbol of spruce as interacting with the narrative, meditative and anecdotal poems in this collection?

JW: The preface poem IS a found poem. When I first saw the list of spruce words in the OED, I had already written at least two of the “spruce” poems. I found the list of spellings and changing pronunciations a riveting source of material. I still can’t keep from chuckling with delight every time I see those words on a page. The list I present as an epigraph has been selected. What drew me was the first spelling “sprws,” which doesn’t even have a vowel!, and sounds so earthy and graphic as if out of the granite hills of Great Britain. Then the introduction of “sprusse” transforms to “Prussia,” a fully formed national identity. It all ends with “Sprutia,” which could be a country or, even better, a state of being. This preface poem sets up a pattern in the book, from individual to universal, from the day the couple must deal with the remains of the felled tree to the more challenging demands of impending war, social integration, environmental destruction.

The idea for “spruce” as a symbol suggested itself when I knew I had more than one “spruce” poem that worked. The “etymology” part of the title refers to the definition's “true sense of the word.” In parallel, these poems present the true sense of the life or experience. And I should also say that the poem “Spruce Down” was inspired by an actual tree in our yard, of which there were five, and I’ve written about three.

GL: There are a number of poems in this collection that address/are concerned with personal, emotional and political violence. The sequence of poems at the beginning of the second part of the book charts an interesting and thematically varied line of antagonisms, and I’d like to ask you about how you see these poems working with each other. Could you tell me a little bit about why you decided to place the poems “Fences,” “Brooch,” “One Cow Stands Quietly” and “School Bus” in such close proximity? Was there a larger meditation at work here during the composition of these poems? Or did you simply juxtapose those poems that happened to be thematically similar, thereby allowing the reader to make her own connections?

JW: I tried a number of ways to order these poems. Most were written during or shortly after I was taking classes and poetry workshops as a nontraditional, older student at Harvard (Special Student was the category; Robert Frost was also one), so they were spilling out as a result of many prompts and inspirations. At one point I wanted to make the principle of “etymology” more of an ordering factor, and I had headings according to divisions of etymological study, such as “origins,” “reconstructing roots,” and so on. But after a while I felt that these categories distracted from the poems themselves. So I divided the book into two parts after Blake: the first group presents poems of innocence, the second poems of experience. This more general frame allows the poems to relate to each other more freely on an intuitive level.

GL: You turn to mythological sources of inspiration both at the beginning and at the end of the collection. “Persephone,” the third poem in the book, is a dramatic monologue that recalls the day the titular speaker returned home to see both her vernal welcome and her mother’s lasting grief. “From the Land of the Lotus Eaters,” the final poem in the collection, portrays different facets of the speaker’s travels (along with her companion) toward some nameless sea-side retreat, where she contemplates the relationship of “indolence” to art. Could you tell me about why you chose to use these mythological scenarios as a secondary framing device, in a sense, for your book? And how do you see these mythic themes interacting with the etymological, meditative and memoiristic work in The Etymology of Spruce?

JW: In the poem, “Persephone,” I wanted, first, to write about a moment I experienced with my mother, which I describe in the last line, so I “seized” the Persephone myth to give the moment context. In the case of using mythology, I rely on the details from my own life to give the narrative its uniqueness. Doesn’t every woman write a Persephone poem? The challenge is to write the myth the way no one else has.

Then the notion of joining a colony of pleasure seekers (lotus eaters) and losing one’s way has cautioned me for quite a while. Again, I did not plan to include the final sequence of poems with the rest of the book until two of the poems were accepted for publication. The way a book falls together, for me, has a great deal to do with what happens when a poem seems finished, when it is recognized by an editor who wants to publish it, and when I feel quite sure that I will not revise it again. I have a great many other poems in the works that have to do with this collection, but they just didn’t make it.

I like the way Michelangelo distinguished between the two processes of working with marble: one in which he has an idea of the finished sculpture, takes a solid block, and carves the image; and then another, in which he finds a block of stone that has something in it, a flaw or shape that inspires him, so that the material guides his creation and informs the finished sculpture. You might call this working from the inside out. When I can approach a poem this way, when I find something in the poem itself to guide the process, I usually come up with a better poem.

Looking now at the last sequence of poems, “From the Land of the Lotos Eaters,” I am reminded of the years raising our daughter and how I was tired most of the time. The conflict between being busy and being productive does not bother me so much now as it once did. Yet, I ask my students, isn’t it ironic that in order to read and to write, you are usually sitting still, or even lying down, and for all appearances to those around you who want your attention, you look as though you aren’t doing anything? It seems as if you are not doing anything, yet the work is exhausting.

GL: Let’s talk influences. Who were the writers you were reading while cobbling together The Etymology of Spruce? And how did those influences manifest in your work and/or change during the book’s composition?

JW: I was reading Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and the modern poets covered in Helen Vendler’s class on Modern Contemporary Poetry. I also liked the work of the metaphysical poets, especially George Herbert and his use of symbol and metaphor. Then I was lucky enough to take a workshop with Seamus Heaney. I was completely taken with the concrete element of his writing. After that, I helped a local group bring seven Irish poets to Boston for a series of readings. There I heard Eavan Boland, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Paul Muldoon, Paul Durcan, Medbh McGuckian, John Montague, Derek Mahon. And I heard about Thomas Kinsella, Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill, Chris Agee, Ciaran Carson, Michael Longley. And I bought all their books. I loved the approach I saw them taking, what Heaney calls putting feelings into words, where individual words resonate the way the hazel stick stirs in the hands of the diviner when held above a hidden source of water. I liked seeing a poem as a thing that is made, rather than an idea that is argued, that puts the thing in the center rather than keeping it as a detail on the periphery. I’m doing a great deal of experimenting with the concrete aspect of words in these poems. My favorite example is “My Father’s Dreams.”

GL: In addition to writing poems, you’re also an editor of Poetry Porch. Could you tell me about the history of that project and how it has impacted your work as a poet?

JW: After I left my position at The Woodberry Poetry Room, where I was also managing editor of Harvard Review, I saw that my husband had a book about designing Web sites. So I set up The Poetry Porch to keep in touch with the many poets I had recently met and to publish those who were having trouble placing their work. I saw the Internet then as a big chaotic library and I wanted to organize a place in it, a journal with cyber extras. I have thoroughly enjoyed experimenting with thematic issues and matching visual with the written works. I thought someone might approach me one day with a reward for all my efforts, a big monetary reward, or a financial commitment of some kind. I’m still waiting.

GL: So what’s next for Joyce Wilson? What kind of poems are you writing these days? How have things changed for you since the publication of The Etymology of Spruce?

JW: I am working on a long version of a chapbook, “The Spring House,” which has been accepted by Finishing Line Press to be published in November 2010. I also have a third manuscript in the works, in which I’m thinking a great deal about the formal and informal ways of presenting verse. This summer I am presenting The Etymology of Spruce on the First Books Panel at the Poetry Conference at West Chester, Pennsylvania, and will take a workshop there to revise my many lumpy, lop-sided sonnets. I also have ideas for some prose pieces. And I’ll be teaching at Suffolk University again in the fall. Since the publication of The Etymology of Spruce, I am busier than ever. But then, I was very busy before.