Friday, May 27, 2011

Poetry Salon: Sherry Chandler

I wish I could meet poet Sherry Chandler in person, but she lives in Kentucky and here I am in New Jersey. However, we share the same publisher, Wind Publications. I recently read Sherry's first full-length collection, Weaving a New Eden, and really loved it. It's full of women's voices, history, story, and terrific poetry. I felt transported to the Kentucky of years ago. But since I'm not there then or now, I've invited Sherry to join me here for an online Poetry Salon. So please pull up a chair. 

Sherry will first talk to us about her book.

Diane:  Tell us how you went about writing these poems and assembling them into a collection.

Sherry:  I had a twofold purpose in writing these poems. One was simply to preserve my mother’s voice and some of the stories she told me about her rural childhood between World Wars I and II. This is work I began with my Finishing Line chapbook, Dance the Black-Eyed Girl. I am always struck by the contrast between the cultural modernism of history books and the rusticity of life in our rural and small-town backwaters. In many ways, when my mother was born in 1917, life for farm women in Kentucky hadn’t changed a lot since Rebecca Boone’s day.

The other purpose was to use these persona poems to create a balance to the romance of the farmer that runs strong among Kentucky’s men of letters (gender use deliberate). Reading a book called Pioneer Families of Missouri, I found an anonymous quotation that I stole and put in Rebecca Boone’s mouth, “The men and dogs have a fine time, but the poor women suffer.”

Eventually a friend suggested that I could take the poems all the way back to Rebecca Boone. So I wrote a grant that was funded by the Kentucky Foundation for Women. It allowed me to work with Leatha Kendrick as an editor and guide to assembling the manuscript. It was Leatha who urged me to keep a lyric presence in the book along with the persona poems. One model was Natasha Tretheway’s Native Guard and another was Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie. My treatment of Rebecca Boone was highly influenced by Maurice Manning’s previous treatment of Daniel Boone in A Companion for Owls.

The rest was a matter of reading copiously and finding tidbits about women that could be used to create a character. For my grandmothers, I leaned heavily on genealogical work generously shared by others. Form played a tremendous role in helping me differentiate so many voices. Rebecca Boone speaks mostly in the best approximation I can achieve of blank-verse dramatic monologue. I think of her as my Shakespearean character, the Chorus who steps to the edge of the proscenium and comments on events. She knows more than she could possibly know.

Other characters speak in Ginsberg’s American sentence (a form I think I learned about on your blog), a ghazal, a triolet, and acrostics. The constraints of form forced me away from my own voice and provided me a way to give each speaker her own rhythm and mood.

Diane:  Tell us the story behind your cover.

Sherry:  Because the title is Weaving a New Eden, I had at first suggested that we use something like a landscape as a tapestry coming off a loom. That turned out to be a better idea in theory than in execution. Then Wind publisher Charlie Hughes suggested that we turn to Suzanne Stryk for suggestions. We were still looking for landscape, and we tried several, but they were too Edenic in the Biblical sense, with trees and snakes and such. Then Suzanne suggested floating this nest on a near-black background and it was just perfect – there was the weaving, the wilderness, the disconnectedness. I could not be more pleased with the cover of this book. And I urge everyone to visit Suzanne’s website and experience some of her art.

Diane:   Why did you title the book Weaving a New Eden?

Sherry:  When Kentucky was being settled, it was promoted by land speculators as a New Eden, and, as I’ve said, some of the romance lingers. Kentucky is still a beautiful verdant place, though mountaintop removal mining is ruining our mountains. Nevertheless, the New Eden aspect was always a part of the story.

When Maurice Manning reviewed a selection of the poems, he suggested that eventually, as I kept writing, an over-arching metaphor would emerge. That metaphor was always weaving. Early on, I knew that I wanted Rebecca Boone to be a weaver. The Boones had been cottage weavers in Wales and carried the skill with them to the United States. And, of course, weaving was an essential skill for women on the frontier. In one source, I read that worn-out clothes were a major hindrance for men who came into Kentucky to claim land. Nakedness caused some of them to turn back. So when “Rebecca Boone’s Loom Has Its Say,” what it says is that “My cloth provided cover for a conquest.” Further, weaving is as mythic as Eden itself.

And finally, I use weaving forms of poetry – pantoum, sestina, sonnet crown – so you might say the title was inevitable. What you might call the title poem, “Rebecca Boone Weaves a New Eden,” is a monster sestina that took me weeks to get right. At one point I had to just scrap it and start over. And yet, I felt I had to get it right, had to have it in the book.

Diane:  What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

Sherry:  Friends and acquaintances who have read this book have compared it to a saga. Some even say they can’t put it down, so on the simplest level, I want readers to find this book a good read. Others have said it’s a history book, and I would like readers to learn a little bit about the complexities of history and the cost of U.S. expansionism. Although Kentucky is a backwater now, the move to cross the Appalachians was the first very important step in accomplishing Manifest Destiny. I wouldn’t mind if readers finished the book with a new respect for the possibilities of form as a way to create dynamic poetry. Most of all, I want readers to hear these women, to hear the woman’s side of the story. These grandmothers of mine are individuals, but I hope they are also everywoman.

Diane:  Please choose a favorite poem for us and, if you like, tell us why you chose this one.

Looking Over into the Promised Land

When Rebecca stood on Big Hill and gazed
over into Eden, into a land
of salt-lick springs and canebrakes,
did she snap
with her strong teeth the skin of an apple,
a Northern Spy or Summer Winesap,
suck its juice onto her tongue as it ran,
as streams along that savannah,
into the palm of her hand?

As she gaped at flocks
of pigeons that blacked
the sun, herds of brown-black
bison whose trampled traces made her highways,
was she amazed
or did she just eat an apple?

Sherry:  I wrote many long serious poems in Weaving a New Eden, but from time to time I did try to strike a lighter, more whimsical note. I wrote a limerick, a roundeau, a triolet; I wrote a poem in the voice of a cat, but of all the lighter pieces in the book, this nonce-form, rhyming poem is my favorite.

For one thing, it is just mouth candy. I wrote it for sound, to chime and rhyme. But I also like this notion of Rebecca as a reverse-Eve, who eats the apple and enters Eden. Has her cake and eats it, too.

I think I got a brilliant inspiration when I thought to equate the apple juice running into the creases of her palm with the streams running through the Bluegrass savannah, identifying Rebecca’s body with Kentucky. I was eating an apple myself at the time.

Winesap and Northern Spy are legacy varieties of apple, but I don’t know if their legacy stretches back to the 18th Century. I’m also told that people in the Boones’ time didn’t eat apples the way we do, but rather used them for cider and cooking.

But I think humans have always snapped their teeth into apples.

Diane:  Now let's all gather round while Sherry reads her poem for us.

Party Time! Sherry has put together a delicious assortment of Kentucky goodies. Please help yourselves to fried apple pie, moonshine juleps sweetened with maple syrup and sprigs of peppermint, and hoe cakes drizzled with sorghum molasses. Sherry says, "Not exactly dainty fare, but all these foods are mentioned in the book."

Overheard at the Party:

“Few poets can move, dazzle, and enlighten us in a single book, but Sherry Chandler can—and does—in this volume of poems.”—Leatha Kendrick

“Weaving a New Eden is personal, historical, political, inspired—a thoroughly satisfying work of art.” —Maurice Manning

Before you leave, be sure to pick up a copy of Sherry's book. You'll be glad you did. Then while you enjoy your snacks, please feel free to leave some comments or questions for Sherry in the Comments section.

Click Cover for Amazon


  1. Thank you for the introduction to Sherry Chandler's poetry. Excellent interview with a poet of distinctive voice. I look forward to reading her work.

  2. Maureen--I know you'll love Sherry's book.

  3. Really enjoyed the interview and how you included the reading for our listening pleasure. Wonderful job.


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