Interview with Barbara Crooker and Marjorie Stelmach

Barbara: So, we met almost ten years ago, November of 2010 at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (the VCCA), and, amazingly, we’ve not only been friends ever since, but have been each other’s best editors. Since we’re such very different writers, how do you account for this? And did you realize, when we first met, how intimidated I was by you? I was already familiar with your work (we’d appeared in a fair number of journals together), and then you got an acceptance while we were there from Image, a journal I’ve longed for but who have always turned me down, so I thought you were out of my league. But then someone suggested that the poets who were in residence do a round table workshop of poems we were working on, and in my recollection, something just clicked.  And has continued to click. 

Marjorie: I had to look up the date of our first meeting. It seems simultaneously that it can’t possibly have been that long ago and that I’ve known you all my life. But yes, we’ve been editing each other’s poems by email for ten years now. I’ve learned so much from your work and from your suggestions on my own! It’s hard to think about how different my process and product would be without this decade of back and forth. 

For the record, I found you pretty intimidating, too, at first—have you read the blurbs on the back of your books lately? But, as you said, at our first “workshop” at VCCA, we definitely clicked—it was pretty instantaneous—and yes, it was helpful that we admired each other’s poems. But I think, too, that this wouldn’t have lasted had we not gradually come to know each other’s lives: what things in this world worry or cheer us, what drives us to rage or breaks us up laughing (or crying, on occasion). This didn’t require that our lives were similar, any more than it required that we write a similar kind of poem. Your life has been busy with your husband, your children and grandchildren, your travels, your community, and I’m in awe of your gardening and cooking (thanks for sharing your recipes). Yours is a generous, outgoing nature that involves you in many other lives, while I’m more of a hermit. For me, without children of my own, it has been a lifetime of teaching followed by rather intense caregiving and a long marriage to a wonderful man who puts up with my disappearing into my writing room for hours at a time. 

Which makes me want to ask you about your writing habits in a life so full. I know you write in a nook you’ve carved for yourself, but there’s no door to close. How do you do it? How did you manage over all the years of your writing and raising children to write those luminous poems?

Barbara: First, let me comment on your answer.  You do know I can’t read reviews, can’t read blurbs (other than to check them for accuracy). I just can’t. And I wrestle with self-doubt every day. . . . But you’re right, it’s not that our lives are similar (although we do share a fondness for martinis and an obsession with Game of Thrones) or that our writing styles are similar, but it IS that our work habits are similar— We both actually read the journals we’re in, and we buy and read poetry books from other writers (and take notes)  We’re both similarly obsessive with our work habits and keeping track of things. What’s fascinating to me when we edit is how easy it is for me to notice something in your poem that “needs fixed,” as we say here in Pennsyltuckey, when the exact same thing needs to be looked at in the poem I’m about to send you, but I can’t see it. I need your good eyes (and ears).  

But now on to your question. You’re right, I have no door to close.  I work in the corner of the dining room in an open concept house (kitchen open to family room open to living room, then around the corner to the dining room). If someone hadn’t invented headphones for the TV, I probably wouldn’t have survived (or our marriage wouldn’t have, take your pick). I started writing as a single mother with a small child, while I was going to graduate school and teaching as an adjunct at four nearby colleges. So I learned that when I had some free time (thank you, Sesame Street, which was only broadcast at 4 pm every day), to grab it. I went on to fall in love, remarry, and have two more children, one of whom has a severe disability (autism), and so my writing time took different forms: during preschool, then school, or during a therapy session for my son.

In 1990, I went to the VCCA for the first time, and wrote more in those nine days than I’d done in the previous year. I realized that if I could go back, which I have, every eighteen months, then I could continue to be a writer, and I could save my own life. I hope this will continue, but we have no real idea of how long the pandemic will last, and I worry that by the time they re-open, that I might be too old. But weirdly, even though we’ve had to bring our (now adult) son back home, as his group home no longer seemed safe, the writing continues.  

I don’t really know how I write the poems I do; I know that I don’t try to control the process, but let the poems come as they want to come, and take the shape they want to have. And I take as my motto something Wendell Berry once said, which is to “be joyful even though you have considered all of the facts.”

So I’m wondering if you’d like to discuss the importance of VCCA to your work, and also talk about how you approach writing a poem (the terror of the blank page). And also, do you think our mutual editing has changed your work at all? Would it be different without me?

Marjorie: First, I love the Wendell Berry quotation! It perfectly expresses your approach to life as I see it in person and in your poems, and reading this succinct description of your situation, both earlier in your life and now, helps me see more fully what VCCA has meant to you. You wear so many hats, Barbara, and care for so many lives! A studio’s silence must be balm for you. And yes, we need to do all we can to help VCCA and other residency opportunities continue to exist for women like us who desperately hunger for a room of our own. 

More than privacy, though, it’s time to myself that I’ve craved –thirty years of full-time high school teaching, then teaching prospective teachers for the “How To Teach English” course in the graduate school at Washington University, and summer school. And the grading! To schedule 45 minutes on Friday afternoons, I’d  dash home, kick off my shoes at the door, and hit the desk while my husband did the grocery shopping. Never enough time. I finally summoned the courage to apply to VCCA in 1990. I was 41 years old. At dinner my first night there, someone asked me what I did and I answered, “I teach high school.” I was corrected: “No, what’s your art?” It was the first time I ever spoke the words, “I’m a poet.” 

You’ve introduced huge questions, Barbara–my writing process, the effect on my poems of our work together, self-doubt. This will be a long answer, I’m afraid, but I would like, when it’s over, to send those same huge questions back to you.

About self-doubt: Isn’t it odd how cratered we can be by a rejection when we’ve received in our lives surely thousands of them? The doubts go so deep, and the feeling of having written something worthy is so ephemeral. Maybe that kind of bone deep self-doubt is part of a poet’s tool kit. You and I seem to share it, and I’ve seen it in my seminars of Howard Nemerov Scholars at Washington U., despite the fact that they’ve been told all their lives that they are amazing writers. Maybe it’s some equivalent of Beckett’s injunction to “fail better” or Stafford’s advice to simply lower our standards that allows us to pick up the pencil and scribble down yet another first line. 

I have never learned, even after all these years, how editors choose the poems they accept, so I’m lousy at po-biz. I’m frequently surprised when I get an acceptance: “Wait! I sent them five poems and they picked this one?” You and I also share a discomfort with reviews and video readings, though I’ve had far fewer occasions to worry about either than you have. This discomfort, interests me. I wonder whether the person who writes the poem might, on some level, be a stranger to us, a person we don’t really want objectified by an outside view–even our own outside view. Just a thought. Is it nuts? The thing about writing poetry is that it’s intensely private despite the fact that its ultimate goal is to cross the threshold of another’s mind and find a place there, however briefly. I think it’s scary, all the things that can happen to a poet’s intention during that crossing. When it’s out of my hands, it seems safer not to rethink it. What I love is the work itself. So many choices. Perhaps the self-doubt is part of what makes the work such a rewarding struggle.

As for our disciplined work habits—obsessive editing, redundant record keeping, studying favorite poets’ books, devotion to the little magazines—well, I think we both may overdo it a bit, but it feels like a service we can offer to the art itself. 

Another service to the art is the serious editing of a fellow poet, and I’m so glad that the poems I am privileged to edit are yours. I’m proud of us that we’ve managed to do that largely by email. I think we’ve refined both our friendship and our editing practices so that the one grows and deepens and the other stays solidly honest and encouraging. I know I want to read your drafts respectfully; I want, if I can, to help them thrive in what you have set out to accomplish. 

You asked what I’ve gained from our exchange, what has changed in my own work as a result. I don’t have enough space to answer that adequately, but to start: In general, the strengths and occasional weaknesses I see in your poems make me better at strengthening my own weaknesses. For instance, your work has taught me that my poems are often overly cerebral, removed from the senses. Your poems lick and savor the world, which means when I read a draft of yours, I’ll notice if a line fails to offer some exactitude of observation or quirky bit of word choice. I know that a limp line or a repeated word bothers you because you find these weaknesses in my drafts. First lines and ending lines are important to you, so if, in a draft, they don’t seem to be up to your usual standards, neither can they be up to mine as an editor, and I’ll suggest that you look again. In time, this has brought me to habitually look harder at my own drafts: “What would Barbara see?” 

Another strong point in our joint practice, I think, is that we share a love of verbal music. One of the first things I noticed at our VCCA roundtable meetings was that you actually noticed when I had labored over consonance or assonance or rhythm or …. You heard 

it. Clearly, you valued it. Teachers know that it is often more important to point out what’s working than what’s “wrong.” We all need to be told what we’re doing right. I love complimenting your seemingly effortless music because I know it’s not effortless, and I know that Plato was right in saying “What is honored in a country is cultivated there.” 

Okay, process: I think we differ most strongly in our subject matter. For me, poems of personal history seem to vie for prominence with more cerebral poems—poems that stem from my reading. My last book spent considerable time on my four years of intense caregiving for my elderly parents, both of whom suffered from dementia. Those grief poems were interior, personal, painful. 

My more externally focused poems are most often triggered by my reading. I’ll read anything—fiction and poetry, of course, but non-fiction, too. Just now: a book on the Kalahari, another on ravens, a third on the concept of scientific unknowns. A collection of essays on painters. A book on the Gnostic gospels. A book about the horrors of the current administration. A biography of Julien of Norwich. I always read four or five simultaneously, highlighting obsessively. Next, I go back and copy the best of the highlighting into my notebooks. Then, in the notebook, I highlight kernels that might become poems. I love epigraphs. I love facts. I love evidence of odd expertise or quirky bits of history. I love most anything I don’t (yet) know. Currently I’m drafting poems on painters in old age, so I’m reading a lot about art. You’ve been doing ekphrastic poetry for a long time, but it’s new to me, so add this to what you’ve added to my poetry life. As we’ve commented before, it feels good that neither of us needs to “own” any territory. Rather than competing, we cheer each other on.

Both categories of poems seem to begin with a line from a notebook or from my personal journals. I copy it at the top of a page and begin playing in that sandbox until something snags me, a path I need to follow to find out where it leads.  (Terrible mixed metaphor, as you would point out if this were a poem, right?) And for me, many–most–of these drafts go nowhere. Either I abandon them or I send them out for years of rejections before realizing they aren’t the poems I thought they were. Final point: I work on most of my poems for years.

Now, back at you, my friend. Part the curtains and reveal how you work your magic. 

Barbara: Again, I’ll comment on your answer first. I hadn’t realized you’d also gone to VCCA for the first time in 1990. What if our paths had crossed then, I wonder?

I relate so much to what you said about “bone deep self-doubt [as] part of a poet’s tool kit.”  It doesn’t seem to be part of the intrinsic make-up of younger writers, though, does it? I wonder if this is a result of coming through MFA programs where they are highly praised? I say this as an outsider/outlier, who never got to study with anyone because of my complicated family circumstances.  Whenever someone who is not related to me or among my circle of friends seems to know my work, I am flat-out amazed.

I loved what you said about our editing process, that you want to help my poems thrive in what I’ve tried to do with them. Alas, with others that I’ve tried to do similar exchanges with, often it seems that they try to make my poems like their poems, which never works (for me). And I try, always, to do likewise with yours—we are very different writers in terms of style, but yet it seems instinctive to me where to suggest small edits (we never really do suggest radical revisions, do we?) that somehow make everything click into place. Why that’s so hard to see in my own work remains a mystery! 

I’m so pleased you pointed out my (our!) love of verbal music! So much of what I read (I come to my writing desk as a reader, someone who wants to write the sort of poems I want to read) these days seems to me to be flat and uninteresting in terms of this, no attention paid to sound, or rhythm, for that matter. Yours never fail to delight!

Now, to answer your question. It’s interesting that you seem to think we’re different in terms of subject matter, when actually I think in both subject matter and process we are twins separated by birth! I’m laboring in the same fields: poems of personal experience (which, for me, includes gardening and nature) and poems that come out of reading. And like you, that often includes non-fiction, besides poetry, poetry, poetry. (It’s the thing I never seem to be able to stress enough to my students, that it’s 90% reading, 10% writing). I take pages and pages of notes and, like you, often begin a poem with a line I’ve jotted down somewhere (unlike you, though, I’ve not been able to do anything as organized as a journal). I also keep a folder of lines cut from poems and poems in draft that go nowhere, and sometimes those are useful in jump-starting something new. But then ironically, I have, at least 5 or 6 times, begun a poem with a “saved line” (or included it in a new draft), and then, in the end, had cut it out again! I also have a drawer of shoulder pads, in case those ever come back into vogue!

I also work on poems through many, many drafts, sometimes for years. How do you know when a poem is finished? “You don’t, you simply abandon it,” to paraphrase Paul Valéry. I mostly work on instinct, trying to let the poem lead the way. I write in longhand, draft after draft (I’ve often found that re-writing the poem from my messy crossed-out drafts is useful. Also re-writing the poem from memory without looking at said drafts—that seems to allow the best parts to surface, and then I give it a hard look to see if the rest isn’t just dross. And I try to not send anything along to you until I think it seems finished (or if I’m stuck—I have sent you an occasional one like that, where I can’t see my way out of the thicket).  

One other thing that I believe in is “the dark desk drawer” (Donald Hall), putting poems that just aren’t working away for a while.  Sometimes, magic happens, and when I look at the poem again a few months later, the way forward suddenly seems clear. In my dim subconscious, the parts that are cooking and the parts that should be excised mysteriously reveal themselves.  

Having said all that, this week I wrote a draft about murder hornets, typed it up with few changes, sent it to you (you had no suggestions), and it got snapped up by Light for inclusion in their Poem of the Week feature. They did make a couple of spot-on editorial comments, for which I’m grateful. But this is the exception. Usually, I’m wandering around, taking a ridiculous number of notes, writing “shitty first drafts” (Anne Lamott) that go nowhere and are mostly a whole lotta bad prose, waiting for lightening to strike, or a line, an image, a musical phrase, or something (anything!) remotely resembling poetry to surface, to give me something to grab onto, and then the poem (I hope) takes off. Why some of what I write turns into actually poetry, something that can leap off the page, get out on the floor, and dance, and some of what I write, although resembling a poem, is really DOA, is a total mystery. Which is where I’ll let it remain, except I’d like to say that when it does, I’m utterly grateful, as I am for your friendship, and your poems.


Barbara Crooker has published twelve chapbooks and nine full-length books of poems.  Some Glad Morning, Pitt Poetry Series, is her latest.  Individual poems have recently appeared in One, Poet Lore, The Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Lullwater Poetry Review, and Presence.  She lives, writes, and gardens in rural northeastern Pennsylvania, where voluntary isolation is not that different from her pre-pandemic life.

Marjorie Stelmach has published five volumes of poems, most recently Falter (Cascade, 2017). Her sixth book, Walking the Mist, will be out this year from Ashland Poetry Press (pandemic permitting). Individual poems have recently appeared in Gettysburg Review, Hudson Review, Image, Notre Dame Review, Poet Lore, and Prairie Schooner. She lives and social-distances in St. Louis, Missouri, faithfully wearing her mask.