Rumor has it you have two Masters degrees, one in Chemical Engineering and one in Poetry. That's quite unusual! What's the explanation?
Literature and languages have always been my first love, and I've written poetry since I was eleven years old. However, the British schooling system requires specialization at an early age when one is still hugely influenced by one's parents, and mine were anxious for me to find a "good" (well-paid) job, so they persuaded me to specialize in the sciences. I don't regret it—I think it gives my work a texture it might not have otherwise, plus it gave me lots of technological savvy which I find useful in designing websites etc.
You recently released a chapbook, The Stolen From: Poems About Memory & Alzheimer's. Could you say a little about how you came to write it and share a few poems from it along with their origins?
For the last two years I have been working on a monthly basis with a group of older adults with memory loss who live in a residential home in Moorestown, NJ. The experience can be both inspirational and at the same time incredibly frustrating, which makes it hard to communicate in straight prose, so I decided to write poetry about it. In the chapbook I intersperse topical formal poems—my usual mode of writing—with predominantly free verse portraits of individual residents. I wanted to honor them as people with distinct personalities and stories, and I hope that comes across in the poems. Here's the title poem, "The Stolen From":
The Stolen From
"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."~ T. S. Eliot
All spring I have prepared themed
bouquets of poems—snow, love, Ireland,
poetry, flowers—helped the residents pluck
single blooms to press into the frozen art
for the listener who listens in the snow
of the cento. I hold the master copies to snip
into petals of lines, but when Helen steals
my papers from the table, unprepared,
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
I coax and cajole. Helen backs
away as I approach in a strange tango
of thwarted desires., and reach
I hear it in the deep heart's core
out my hand. Striking like a cobra,
Helen grabs my wrist and twists,
lighting my nerves up with shock
for all the history of grief
and pain. I fear the brittleness of her bones,
and whimper for the aides,
who come to prize her off
so I can resume my thievery:
and every stem a lengthening shadow casts
Stealing is one of the themes of the book, naturally. Alzheimer's patients often have that sense of outraged loss one feels as the victim of property crime, but the property that has been stolen is literally part of themselves. In "The Stolen From" the italicized lines are themselves stolen—they are part of the centos we were creating at the time of the incident, which actually occurred, although Helen is not her real name. Helen's outrage found its focus in me, although it was not directed personally at me. But such incidents are very rare. The place I work is designed according to the latest principles of Alzheimer's care with the aim of creating a relaxed, homelike atmosphere. Unfortunately, it's still a care facility for people who would likely endanger themselves living alone. Here's another poem, "The Facilities."
Comfy chairs encircle a coffee table
spread with books—it could be a hotel foyer,
till you see that the door is locked by keypad:
Bright and cheerful the well-lit, eat-in kitchen,
child-lock tight on the large refrigerator,
plastic knives and forks in the padded basket
brought out at snack time.
Picture bingo or large-print, word-search puzzles
take up the time that once was filled with talking,
thinking, doing—nobody ever asks them
for an opinion.
This poem is in Sapphic stanzas. I felt the jaunty rhythm was appropriate as it mimics the tone the aides tend to take toward their charges, whom they treat rather like overgrown kindergarteners. One of the things I try to do is provide the residents with the opportunity to have opinions, even if it's only to tell me which one of the poems I've brought they like best.
You chose to bring this chapbook out using your own imprint, Barefoot Muse Press, which also published Quincy R. Lehr's latest collection, Shadows & Gifts. Could you tell us a little bit about the press and your decision to self-publish?
In the fall of 2011 I turned my online journal, The Barefoot Muse, into a small press—a micro-press really—with the aim of using Amazon Createspace's Print On Demand technology to provide publishing opportunities for predominantly formal poets. I run an Open Reading period every April and publish the best manuscripts I receive. I wouldn't self-publish my own full length manuscript this way, but I felt that a themed chapbook of mixed formal and free verse poems (always difficult to place) was fair game. I also publish my own translation chapbooks. Last year I brought out Saint-Pol-Roux & Other Poems from the French, and later this year I'll bring out the Selected Poems of Marceline-Desbordes Valmore. Of course, the best thing is that these books are automatically available on Amazon.
Who on earth is Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, and however did you come to translate her?
Good question, and one which speaks loudly to another project with which I am very heavily involved, the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline. This project, launched in 2010 by Dr. Kim Bridgford, will eventually be the largest database of women poets in the world. I am the Essay Co-ordinator for the database, and while I encourage other women poets and scholars simply to propose an essay on a woman poet whom they particularly admire, I often go against that suggestion in my own subject choices, as I did here. Basically I wanted to write about a woman poet, from an under-populated segment of the Timeline, who was neither American nor English. Being a fluent French speaker, France was the obvious country choice for me, so I just grabbed my Penguin Book of French Poetry 1820-1950 and looked for a woman I hadn't heard of. The problem I then faced, of course, is that very few of Marceline's poems are available in good verse translation, and so before I could really write well about her, I had to translate some myself. The chapbook contains 20 of her poems alongside an essay by Paul Verlaine in which he credits her with breaking the Alexandrine, a feat that contemporary scholarship accords, naturally, to him. She's a damn fine poet, and you can find a few of my translations dotted about hither and thither online, as well as two below. The Timeline is full of such under-rated women poets.
How do you find the time to translate, run a micro-press, and edit The Raintown Review? Wait, don't you also teach and haven't you got two kids?
I don't sleep! Seriously, the translations were mostly done at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts where I was awarded a two-week residency last summer. But yes, all of the above and I truly don't sleep much!
So when's the full-length collection coming out?
Ah, if you know me, you'll know that's a sore point. I have been a finalist or semi-finalist in numerous book contests over the last five years, but there my manuscript is stalled. I try to be zen-like about it these days. I recently won the Rattle Readers' Choice award for my poem, "Zeitgeber," included in The Stolen From, and I get highly positive comments—both publicly and privately—on my published poems surprisingly often. People like my poetry, and those people aren't always poets either. I'd still like a book, so if any publisher reading this wants to see my manuscript, tell them to get in touch! But on balance, I think the fact that people enjoy reading my work is more important (and more likely to mean my poems have a chance of lasting a hundred years or so) than having some glossy little book that will fade into oblivion. I want to be read and remembered. Much of everything I do is about believing in those two simple things.
Anna M. Evans’ poems have appeared in the Harvard Review, Atlanta Review, Rattle, American Arts Quarterly, and 32 Poems. She gained her MFA from Bennington College, and is the Editor of the Raintown Review. Recipient of a 2011 Fellowship from the MacDowell Artists' Colony, she currently teaches at West Windsor Art Center and Richard Stockton College of NJ. Her chapbooks Swimming and Selected Sonnets are available from Maverick Duck Press. Her poem, Straight Talk," appearing in Kin is from a chapbook, Saint-Pol-Roux & Other Poems from the French.