I am happy to host today's Poetry Salon for Debra Bruce. I first met Debra on the Wompo Poetry Listserv. I then had the pleasure of meeting her in person at the West Chester Poetry Conference when we both served as panelists on a critical seminar exploring undervalued women poets. Debra's latest poetry collection is Survivors' Picnic, a collection filled with a variety of masterful form poems. Debra is also the author of three previous collections. She lives in Illinois and is a professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University.
Debra is going to speak with us about Survivors' Picnic.
DL: Tell us how you went about writing these poems and assembling them into a collection.
DEB: I wrote the poems over a period of 15 years, along with many others that didn’t make it into my book. I’m an embarrassingly slow writer, and during these years I was busy teaching full-time and raising my son. Sometimes I wrote in direct response to the events of my life—mothering, breast cancer survival, and the end of a long marriage. Sometimes I would get an idea for a project-poem or series—a sequence about the six wives of Henry VIII, for example, which budded while I was teaching the court poets of the 16th century—especially Thomas Wyatt. I wrote two of the poems—two wives—but couldn’t find a way to do the other four. Sometimes I wrote poems just to exercise in a specific form, which I love to do, trying my hand at the ballade, villanelle, and a few pantoums. And as I read during these years, I fell under the spell of writers like Kay Ryan, whose example enabled me to write some of what I consider my strongest poems. Reading Ryan made me feel that I’d been given permission to bask in sounds—internal rhyme, assonance, and alliteration—something that had been frowned upon during the “plain style” decades. Ryan also showed me how to be more oblique rather than direct or explicit—a good lesson for someone who had studied with Anne Sexton back in '73, as I was just starting out.
When I decided to put the manuscript together, I discovered poems that didn’t hold up, some that didn’t fit in, and a general repetition of sounds, images, and subjects. Several poems, even some that I’d published in good literary journals and that I personally liked, had to go. I’m glad I waited as long as I did because it enabled me to do this kind of winnowing, and I think the book is stronger for it.
DL: Tell us the story behind your cover.
DEB: When I published my earlier books, first with the University of Arkansas Press, and then with Miami University, I had a helpful staff to design covers for me. This time, with Word Press (Word Tech Editions), an independent press, I was on my own. Clueless, I started asking other poets, and someone suggested I check out the collection at Woman Made Gallery in Chicago, a great venue for women poets as well as visual artists. Suzanne Keith Loechl had done a series of empty dresses on clotheslines set against deeply colored, swirling landscapes. I had looked at hundreds of images online, and when I found her work, that was it. I was thrilled when she agreed to let me use her image. As it turned out, this painting, “I Dreamed I Could Dance,” had become part of a website Suzanne created to honor friends she’d lost to breast cancer. No wonder it spoke to me.
DL: How did you select the title for your book?
DEB: Titles have always been difficult for me. When I was married, my then-husband often came up with titles for individual poems and even books. My previous publishers had editors who had a knack for it, too. This time I was on my own. One of the poems in the book, “Annual Survivors’ Picnic,” felt like a “title poem,” but the wording wasn’t quite right for the whole collection—“annual” pins it down to a single event. Survivors’ Picnic sounded good, suggesting the shadow of fear that all survivors live with, and the deepening of life’s meaning and pleasure created by that shadow, as shade can deepen the beauty of color.
DL: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
DEB: I hope readers will take away a phrase or line that they can’t shake out of their heads—the music of it as much as what it says. And if a reader has experienced something I’ve written about, I hope she or he will feel that I’ve articulated the experience just right—nailed it.
DL: Please choose a favorite poem for us and, if you like, tell us why you chose this one.
DEB: “Plunder” is a poem I would choose as a favorite because it makes music, which is of utmost importance to me. (Frost famously said, “All the fun’s in how you say a thing.) And it’s also a poem that can speak to many different experiences, though I had a specific experience in mind when I wrote it. I love poetry when it’s clear but not confined. Emily Dickinson has a powerful poem that starts, “I’ve dropped my Brain—My Soul is numb—,” which describes some kind of emotional or spiritual dark place or psychic freeze, describing it vividly and concretely without specifying what caused it.
Now that your surgery’s
savagery’s smoothed over
and the calm you’ve put on is balm
for all, and in the interstices
between catastrophes you find yourself
now that your Why?
is wisely subsiding, knowing no one
knows why one grows gold
slowly and one’s bright green gets torched
in this intensely present
tense, in its rush
of cherished perishables, you might splurge
your colors in a freefall
never dared before; or
with minimal fanfare slip
into the life you left, the least
predictable most delectable,
in whose midsummer noon you pop
a flip-top in thirst, and think…
and though you simply sip,
Let's listen now to Debra's wonderful reading of "Plunder."
Please stay for the Reception. Help yourself to a glass of Malbec, some brie and cheddar on crackers, fresh fruit, and don't forget the Belgian chocolates.
Overheard at the Party: “Debra Bruce's poetry is a secret treasure—to be discovered and read and re-read. Every lover of language can partake of Bruce's passionate picnic.”—Molly Peacock
Before you leave, be sure to pick up a copy of Survivors' Picnic.