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The following is the fifteenth in a series of brief interviews in which one Terrapin poet interviews another Terrapin poet. In this interview, Kory Wells talks with Theresa Burns about her use of color, the role of gardening and humor in her book, running a reading series, and persistence in getting a manuscript published.
Kory Wells: One of the first things to strike me about Design is how color infuses this collection. The epigraphs introduce white and green through the words of Frost and Lorca, and soon the reader is drenched in color: the yellow of a magnolia goldfinch, a hosta "blue as a lung," turquoise storefronts, the gray-greens of dreams, a burgundy dress, and so on. You even have several poems with color in the title—“Green," "Embarrassed by Orange," and "The New Black"—the latter of which I want to talk more about later!
So I really want to know: Is color as important to Theresa Burns the person as a whole as it is to Theresa Burns the poet? For example, what colors are in your home? Do your rooms mostly share a palette, or do they differ wildly? Do you dress in bright colors?
Theresa Burns: I love your question about color! It is important to me, and I think it's become more so as I've gotten older. It's probably rooted both in my kids' enthusiasms when they were young and also what excites me in the landscape.
When my daughter was a toddler and we asked what her favorite color was, she genuinely couldn't decide. "I love all the colors," she'd say, helplessly. (Though I think she's now settled on yellow.) The older I get, the more I'm with her on this. Why do we need to choose? My son, when he was young, loved purple most, then orange. The poem "Embarrassed by Orange" is about him helping me get over my adult need to push color away, blunt it somehow; he gets me to share his unabashed joy in it.
Color has a huge psychological impact on me. If I'm feeling a little depressed or dulled, I run out to find some orange to bring into the house. Orange tulips, a bowl of tangerines. And everyone in my house knows that if they spot an American goldfinch at the feeder, I must be summoned immediately. So colors make their way into the book, too.
Kory: The patterns in your poems are not only emotional—you also deftly layer nature with the made world, with relationships, with identity, with memory. I don’t mean to imply that a lot of the poems in Design are set in a garden…they’re not…and yet I feel this sense of garden and design as creation, if you will, throughout this collection. Are you a gardener?
Theresa: I love gardening, but I'm not a knowledgeable gardener. For a couple of years, I wrote a column for a local online edition of The New York Times. The idea was a person like me—recently moved from the city, who knows nothing about gardening—writing a gardening column. Instead of expert advice, I would write about the trial and error. And I could be funny. Over time, I came to see how much I loved the garden in a way that was not really scientific or knowledge based, but relationship based, story based. Stories about failure and negotiation and learning from your neighbors. When the Times dropped the local edition after two years, I needed another place to channel this new passion I'd developed. That's when the garden started entering the poems.
There are several poems in the book that are titled “Design,” and the first one did begin with the idea of garden design in my head—like the rule of three. But the poem quickly evolved and became as much about faith and intention and luck as any aesthetic concern, themes closer to those in the Robert Frost poem, “Design.” When I realized all those ideas could live in one small poem, I knew it could form the heart of a manuscript.
While I don’t consider myself a “nature poet” exactly, I am drawn to the language and rhythms and emotional life I find in the garden, and in nature overall. Because you can make mistakes and change your mind, it has helped me to take more risks. It’s also excellent for those of us in recovery from perfectionism, especially writers! There is no room for perfectionism in a garden; we can start things out, but we are not in control. And it is never finished.
Kory: “Only when I got a little closer to the dirt,” as you say in your poem “Teaching Whitman in the 21st Century.” You are speaking of the passage of time in that poem, but you’re making me want to go dig in my own perennials now!
Another thing that I appreciate in your poems is your tendency toward humor. And that brings me to "The New Black," your poem in which the speaker (can I call her you?) is at a poetry reading, possibly feeling a bit out of place because you're in mom jeans and an orange sweater, "possibly one / with flowers" (I adore that detail!) and everyone else there seems to fit the stereotype of a poet. It’s a super-fun poem and yet it pokes the beast of poetic identity and the sometimes-gatekeeping of the literary community. As the founder of a community reading series (Watershed Literary Events), can you talk more about the intersection of your personal writing practice with the poetry community?
Theresa: I'm glad you asked this question because my knee jerk response might have been a glib one about the gatekeeping and cliquishness of some folks in the poetry community. But that, by and large, has not been my experience. That said, the poem "The New Black" is based on a conflation of two real life events, both of which took place in Brooklyn a few years back when my kids were small, and it took enormous reserves of time, money and guilt capital just to get myself into Brooklyn to be part of a reading.
In one case, the poet introducing me seemed to be apologizing to the audience that I lived in New Jersey, stressing that I used to live in Brooklyn, so maybe that mitigated it. In the second case, the poet introducing me to the host seemed to apologize to him for how I was dressed: "She looks conservative, but she's anything but!" I was wearing a blouse with flowers on it, and it was being read as political or social conservatism. And then I became acutely aware that everyone else there was dressed in black and grey, with heavy black boots, and I sort of wrote that poem on the train on the way back to my town that night, where the next day everything was blooming and lots of folks were dressed in bright colors and kind of drunk on Spring, and I felt perfectly at home.
When I first started Watershed Literary Events in 2019, it was part of a plan in my town to offer some off-site activities while their arts center was being renovated. The town leaders liked the idea of a spoken word series, and I figured well, we could keep this going for a couple years with just Jersey-related people. And what I soon realized was the depth and breadth of the talent out here. It seems every week I learn about another writer I admire who was born here, or moved here, or teaches here. Everyone knows Whitman and W.C. Williams lived in NJ. But Paul Auster grew up in my town, and so did Alicia Mountain, a young poet who I think is brilliant. I'd never heard of Jane Wong or Rachelle Parker before I worked on Watershed—now I'm their #1 fan. I could do this for decades!
Kory: Yes to all of this! As the founder of a local series myself, I understand—and celebrate—that sense of local richness. But I know I also struggle, sometimes, with getting to my own work when there are so many opportunities for community outreach. So, for a final question: How much do you feed community, and how much does it feed you?
Theresa: I'll just say it's probably worth noting that the poetry book I'd been writing and revising and submitting for about 20 years—Design—finally got done during the last couple of years, while being locked down during a pandemic and continuing to work on Watershed with our Program Manager, Anne Wessel. I don't think that's an accident, and it may be why those wise people who give advice to poets trying to get manuscripts published tell them to keep trying, and while they're trying, to practice their poetry citizenship, help poetry happen around them. It changes something, makes you feel part of the whole continuum of poets and poem making. It helps you find your place in it.
Sample poem from Design
The New Black
Because I wore an orange
sweater to the reading, possibly one
with flowers, and had my black
standard-issue MFA glasses
holstered for the moment
in a pocket of my mom jeans,
my poet friend apologized
to the emcee while introducing me,
hand at her throat, assured him
good naturedly that though
I lived in Jersey now, I did in fact
reside in Brooklyn once
and, despite appearances,
belonged among them, the ones
in black leather, black jeans,
Doc Martens, ombre hair, smoke
lenses, each one a small storm
gathering as he took the stage
to read, features illumined
from below, crepuscular,
and I wanted to shout, Am I not
one of you, brother, confrère—
though I’ve taken the train
to this dive, not the subway.
And the trees of the town I just left
were exploding like seltzer
bottles thrown down a stair.
What’s more, I have a garden there,
and the craziest orange azalea
opened just last week,
its color the latest cheesy
devotion I wear on my sleeve.
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Theresa Burns' debut collection of poems, Design, was released from Terrapin Books in 2022. She is also the author of the chapbook Two Train Town (2017). Her poetry, reviews, and nonfiction have appeared in The New York Times, Prairie Schooner, New Ohio Review, Verse Daily, The Cortland Review, The Night Heron Barks, Plume, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee and former book editor, she is the founder of the community-based reading series Watershed Literary Events and teaches writing in and around New York. An earlier version of Design was a finalist in both the Barry Spacks Poetry Prize from Gunpowder Press and the Homebound Publications Poetry Prize for 2021.
Kory Wells is the author of Sugar Fix, a poetry collection from Terrapin Books. Her writing has been featured on The Slowdown podcast and recently appears in The Strategic Poet, The Literary Bohemian, Poetry South, Peauxdunque Review and elsewhere. A former software developer who now nurtures connection and community through the arts, storytelling, and advocacy, Kory mentors poets across the nation through the from-home program MTSU Write and has served as the poet laureate of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.