An Interview With Bernadette McBride
Co-Poetry Editor of the Schuylkill Valley Journal
By Grant Clauser
GC: Was there a moment in your life when you decided to make a commitment to poetry? What was that like?
BM: Yes, I did have an epiphany of sorts: one Christmas night many years ago I was sitting on the couch enjoying the tree lights after everyone had gone to bed. I wrote a pretty lame copy-cat poem after Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” I had always written poetry from childhood on through the various stages of my life and stuffed everything into folders that no one would see. But on that night something clicked about the way poetry can evoke thought, memory, emotion, action, and I decided to get serious about my writing. Somehow, that few moments sparked almost a sense of urgency—why haven’t I done this before? I went back to grad school for Creative Writing with a focus on poetry and that really crystallized my commitment to my writing
GC: Where did the impulse for your book, Food, Wine, and Other Considerations—an Alphabet come from? Was such a project book more or less challenging or fun than your previous collection?
BM: In spring, 2011, I was recovering from an illness—grateful to be home from the hospital —and its meals. Out of the blue an idea struck me to jot down all the natural foods I could think of (mostly vegetables and fruits initially) and I began an alphabetical list in my notebook. Then over time joined that to the idea of the centrality of food in human experience beyond simple sustenance—the traditions that build up around memories (Proust’s madeleine, for example) and the celebrations, both religious and secular in which food is an important focus. I then began a few poems and the idea simply expanded into a book on the topic. I found it mostly fun because it seemed to flow very naturally. Some of the poems are light and a bit humorous, while others are nostalgic and serious. As an artist myself, I write a lot of Ekphrastic poetry, so several of the poems also call attention to great still-life works from world masters, both well- and not so well known. Of course, since it’s alphabetical, the placing into order was a breeze this time!
GC: That book ends on a “Z” food, Zweiback . I love how the last poem of the book includes so many references to beginnings. Did you plan that from the start or did it just happen that way?
BM: A little of both. I wanted in some way to create a “full circle” sense of the entirety of the book that evokes the cycle of life—that every ending introduces another beginning. As I neared the end of the manuscript, knowing of course it would end at “Z,” along with the fact that the first poem, “Apple” speaks of Eden, I did want the final poem to take us back to Eden. But the content of the poem came later. Because Zweiback is a food often associated with teething babies, it eventually seemed natural to consider babies as coming here from an Eden-like place.
GC: Your poems are both lyrical and narrative. How do you balance the impulses of figurative language with the needs of exposition?
BM: I love story and naturally lean in that direction because I think we all share most of the same experiences through life in different specific detail. And like all poets, I love the play of language and the way it can spark recognition in the reader. One of John Keats’ remarks in a letter to John Taylor is my main guiding principle: “[Poetry] should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance…” I love that. For me, usually the story comes first, so sometimes I make preliminary notes that highlight the important details, along with considering some universal application that might resonate with readers, and begin there, often writing a bit prosaically, then cut, cut, cut to create, as you say, the balance that crosses into poetry. Sometimes the words come first and I build a story around them. For example, I wrote a poem entitled “On a March Morning.” I’d been driving to work and noticed a thin, flat layer of cloud hovering over a field on my right. It made me think of the way a sheet looks in the air when one shakes it over the bed while making it. And the phrase “stilled in shake above the bed” came to me and I built the poem around it.
GC: Many of your poems, especially your food poems, but others as well, have an element of praise or celebration. Do you believe that people in general don’t recognize the pleasure in their lives as much as they should?
BM: Well, I think we’re all like that from time to time. Like every generation of toddlers, we all used to squat on the lawn to study a busy ant hill. Then the business of growing up and taking on more and more responsibility tends to add layers of numbness to simple pleasures. I think we are aware of them on some level—like the lovely sigh of finally lying down at night, or a breathtaking moonrise. But I think the difference lies in whether or not we consciously notice and register these things. I give my writing students exercises to this effect and they report the most insightful experiences and love the idea of conscious noticing. This is the “job” of the poet, I believe—so we not only “tune in” to what is all around us, but receive it reading other poets as well and, in turn, offer it back in our own work.
GC: Do you have any habits, strategies or practices to help you get into the writing mood?
BM: Oh, yes. Number one, I read other poets for inspiration. When I was in graduate school, for a poetry writing class project I emailed ten national poets laureate requesting they respond to three questions (all but two wrote back and one had her assistant let me know she was on a book tour and was unable to respond). In any case, over the years I’ve shared with my students Ted Kooser’s response to one of my questions: “I tell my students for every poem you try to write, read at least 100!” I think that’s very wise advice. I also keep a folder on my desktop of “interesting poetic phrases,” words or lines that came to me while writing but that just didn’t work in any given poem I was trying to complete—but Aha! maybe they’ll work in the future, so I often check that folder. Another habit that helps is to go back over older poems and edit. If that’s all I get done on a given day, at least I did something.
GC: What do you look for in poets you read for pleasure? Are there some poets you read for pleasure and some for study?
BM: When I read for pleasure, I look first for accessibility and within that, vivid language, surprising turns of phrase—work that reads clearly and at the same time, stretches me to view ideas in a poet’s singular, interesting light. Poets such as Edna St. Vincent Millay, Marge Piercy, Ross Gay, Kay Ryan, April Lindner, Theodore Roethke, Joseph A. Chelius, Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson are some of my favorites. Some of course are a cross between pleasure and study—poets such as Ellen Bryant Voigt, Christopher Bursk, Mark Doty, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Levine, Pablo Neruda, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gerald Stern; Irish poets, Nuala ni Dhomhnaill and Seamus Heaney, British poets Tennyson, Blake, Donne, Keats. Far too many to name, but I like reading different voices and styles—they all inspire me emotionally as well as “craftily” (and of course, I mean that in the best possible way!).