Poetry is Anne Whitehouse's first love; she is also a skilled writer of fiction, book reviews and feature articles, as well as proposals and reports for the development sector. Her poem, "High Summer", was featured in the inaugural issue of Agave Magazine, and the equally graceful "Poet in New York" will be showcased in Agave's upcoming issue.
AGAVE: "High Summer" is elegantly simple. How did the poem take shape?
ANNE WHITEHOUSE: “High Summer” is a poem that came to me as a recollection—I wrote it not in the summer, but last autumn, as I was thinking back nostalgically on Vermont summers in the past, when my husband and I used to rent a house in a valley in the Green Mountains. And while I love the revolving wheel of the seasons of the year, and I love each season for its unique gifts and qualities, I have a particular intensity of feeling for summer, because I grew up in Alabama where summers are brutally hot. What is wonderful about Vermont is that even when it is hot, you can almost always find a cold body of water where you can cool off. Simple thoughts like this brought forth this simple poem.
What do you believe is the key to transporting a reader in so few words?
I love the haiku form, which achieves its effects through suggestion and nuance. Sometimes feelings are only expressible obliquely. Although “High Summer” is not strictly a haiku, I was thinking of the aim of haiku when I wrote it—to make meaning clear through the least means, to use everyday language to get inside the commonness of life. In the poetic traditions of the Far East, empathy is extended to things, not only to sentient beings. A haiku poet does not describe, because description introduces a division between the poet and the experience. In a haiku, poet and experience are one. That, I think, is the key.
What motivates you to write poetry?
When I feel inspiration to write a poem, it’s very peculiar—it’s like a physical reaction to something I am confronted with. I don’t try too hard to understand it, because that might kill it. It’s more important to learn how to recognize it and use it. The fact that it’s different for every poet is a realization that came to me a few years ago. I was having a conversation with another poet about the emergence of the 17-year cicadas that I had recently witnessed in Louisville, Kentucky. He was disgusted by what seemed to me a most miraculous phenomenon and, indeed, I ended up writing one of my Blessings in my Blessings and Curses series about it.
Do you write by hand or on a computer?
I often start writing by hand. I prefer writing with soft pencils on unlined paper. I also love my blue Waterman fountain pen. Writing with a soft pencil or fountain pen takes less physical effort and my hand doesn’t cramp so quickly. I admire beautiful handwriting. When I grew up, handwriting was actually a subject that was taught in the schools. We started printing in first grade and cursive writing in second grade according to the Palmer method. It is an accomplishment that is all but lost now. Today many students are only taught how to print, and even their printing is not very legible. Perhaps it’s not important anymore since they type everything on a keyboard. Perhaps only in countries like China or Japan, where calligraphy is so much a part of the cultural heritage, are children still taught how to write beautifully by hand. I remember when my daughter was in fifth grade, the members of her class were paired with Chinese students who were learning English. The handwriting of the Chinese students writing in English was much better than the Americans. Something has been lost, and it’s sad, but maybe we ought not to lose too much sleep over it. Probably it’s inevitable, like many other skills that technology has rendered obsolete.
And all that being said, even though I often start writing by hand, I quickly switch to the computer. It is just so much easier. I can’t imagine not writing on a computer. I love my MacBook Pro. I am writing these words on it now.
What poets have had the greatest influence on you?
I don’t think that writers are aware of their influences at the time that they are being influenced. If one is aware of the influence, then it’s not really an influence. It might be a model. But influences are more mysterious and unconscious.
I fell in love with the music of poetry before I understood what it meant. I didn’t grow up in the musical household. When I was a pre-teen, I discovered popular music and rock music, but long before that, I had fallen in love with the music of words. One of my favorite nursery rhymes began:
“One misty moisty morning
when cloudy was the weather,
I chanced to meet an old man
clothed all in leather.”
I recall coming across Ariel’s song in my children’s Shakespeare:
“Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made…”
More than favorite poets, I have favorite poems, poems that I come to again and again, that I have memorized, that have become a part of me. They have influenced my love of poetry and my awareness of what poetry can be, but have they influenced the kind of poetry I write? I don’t know, and I don’t think I want to know. Writing is matter of faith and intuition. You’ve got to trust it and not question it too much.
The next issue of Agave Magazine will be published in February 2014. To receive a copy delivered directly to your inbox, subscribe here.