Love and Art: Q&A with Christopher Jane Corkery

We recently spoke with author Christopher Jane Corkery about her new Slant book, Love Took the Words

Various locales appear in your collection – Italy, Ireland, Spain, to mention a few. Have you always been a traveler?

Though I was born in Spokane, Washington, I spent much of my childhood and adolescence in Europe and Mexico. I lived in Ireland as a graduate student in the 70s and have for the past decades spent a lot of time in Italy. As for childhood, my father was an official in the precursor to the UN’s Refugee Relief Administration (UNRAA). My siblings and I went to Germany  and the family lived there (and intermittently  in Austria and Switzerland) until summer of ‘52. In high school I was the only American in a large girls high school in Mexico City; then spent half a year in France and over two years in Dublin as a grad student at Trinity College. Each of the places I’ve lived has affected me, of course, and they show up in my work.

Who were your earliest influences as a poet?

Keats, Yeats, and Frost were my first poets, and all of them came to me through my mother.

My family is of Irish descent, and one of the earliest books I remember reading about Ireland was a copy we had at home of Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger. And it was Ireland that drew me for graduate school. Seamus Heaney, Medbh McGuckian, Eavan Boland, Paul Muldoon, and the extraordinary Ciaran Carson all are captivating poets, and I was and am indebted to them. Heaney, Carson, and now Boland are recently gone and they leave behind a huge poetic presence, and absence.

Going beyond Ireland: Auden, MacNeice, and Ruth Pitter, as well as the contemporary Carol Ann Duffy, whose work I love. Also, my time in Italy and my own slow study of Dante has made me find him more and more fascinating. I’ve thought a lot about the Vita Nuova in the last few years and am working on a series of poems about that work.

And what about American poets?

l have mentioned Frost. The first poem of his I read and remembered—you can’t forget it once you’ve read it—was “Out, Out!”: that set me back on my heels, and made me realize how much poetry can contain—the terrifying, for example, and the tragic. Elizabeth Bishop of course has influenced me. I had the pleasure, when I was at The MacDowell Colony, of being given as a studio the one in which she had stayed once. I happened to be pregnant at the time and awash in morning sickness. Bishop’s strict “Sestina” was a lifesaver and the source of a sestina I wrote then called “The Song,” which appears in my first collection, Blessing.  My sestina is about birth (from the point of view of both the baby and the parents) and very much needed the scene around the stove in Bishop’s “Sestina” in order to be born itself.

In addition to Bishop? Anne Bradstreet, Maxine Kumin, Marilyn Hacker; lately I’m enjoying

Brenda O’Shaughnessy’s work and that of Ada Limón, among many others. And I am always a fan of Baron Wormser’s poems.  And I must mention another Anne—the wonderful Anne Carson—I’ll read anything she writes. I love her lyric voice and her very trenchant humor.

But in some ways the most significant poet in my life was so because he gave me, when I was first writing and trying to publish, the gift of his friendship—William Stafford. He was unfailingly kind to almost any writer, so I was hardly alone, but over the years we kept in touch and I was every year more impressed and moved by how he lived his life and kept faith with his art. I met Stafford through the poet Gary Miranda who lived in Massachusetts in the 70s and conducted a small poetry class. I had no idea what a “workshop” was then (which may have been fortunate!). After that I just kept going.

What is the inspiration for the title of your book?

The title is half of the first line of the first poem in the collection: “Love took the words right out of my mouth.” I have changed the title from what it once was—As in the Days of the Prophets—though that phrase explains, in a way, the line; in several Old Testament books the narrating voice asserts that God brought out the prophecy. (There’s some irony in that this is a statement both modest and self-inflating for the prophet!)

In any case love does seem to me to be the source of art, broadly. Something comes out of us when we create, and it’s clear that it comes from beyond us, somehow. The “acts of days” referred to later in that poem refer to the labors of love, of each lived life. In the case of this book and me, a great part of that life was family life; another was the artist’s.

What was the process of writing this book like? Why have there been many years between publication of first and second books? 

The process was that of living and writing as I lived, so that the poems were created in absolute relation to the parts of my life I was living then. And those parts too, as is the case with many poets, are often simultaneous. The spirit makes simultaneous submissions! My first book came out in ’85 and then I kept publishing poems in journals through the 90s and into the 2000s. In the past ten years publishing has changed and made the submission of poems and manuscripts so much easier.

I understand you are a rower? Has that affected your work?

Rowing is related to writing poetry, for me, in a lot of ways. I took up the sport late in life (that is, not in college…) because I love the water and had for years admired crews and scullers on the Charles in Cambridge, somewhat uselessly thinking “I wish I could do that!” Useless because I did not act on the wish for a long time. It takes courage to start but, if one is meant for rowing and rowing for one, it can happen. I really am a sculler (two oars, not one) and row a single. The demands of rowing are to practice practice practice until you begin to understand the sport’s complexities. Then practice more. As with poetry, rowing demands a fidelity; you  have to keep doing it until you begin to experience the thrill of doing it, in various ways, right. Poetry is like that too.