Star Coulbrooke

Star Coulbrooke

Star Coulbrooke is responsible for Helicon West, a bi-monthly open readings/featured readers series in Logan, Utah. Her poems appear in journals such as Poetry International, Redactions: Poetry and Poetics, and Sugar House Review. Her poetry chapbook, Walking the Bear, published by Outlaw Artists Press, is a tribute to the Bear River. Star directs the Utah State University Writing Center and lives in Smithfield with her artist partner and their two heeler-mix mutts.   She was recently appointed Poet Laureate in Logan, Utah. We interviewed Star in April and May, 2015. Her poem Aerobics by God  is at the end of this interview along with two youtube urls to Star in performance.

R&R: You’re now Poet Laureate at USU. What’s your reward? What are your duties?

What’s my reward as poet laureate of Logan, Utah, and what are my duties. It will take a bit of background to get to the “reward,” in which the duties play a part.

As the first-ever poet laureate of Logan Utah, I’m inside a story I never would have written for myself, not because I didn’t want it (I do), but because it was so unlikely. I’m a farm girl from Idaho who left my family’s culture and religion at eleven (when my dad died and I could stay home from church without getting the butter paddle), and who without walked out of high school the day I turned sixteen.

As with most poets I know, angst and yearning were the spurrings of my early poems. At thirteen, I lived in Montpelier, Idaho, a town of perhaps a thousand people, with a sister who was old enough to be my mother, who kidnapped me because she thought our mother couldn’t handle me (she couldn’t). I wrote my first poem (what I thought was my first poem until recently—more on that later) in speech class. It came out all of a piece, ten minutes start to finish, in rhyming quatrains, a poem about my dead dad. I handed it to the teacher and sat back down. She called me up to her desk and asked where I had gotten the poem. “I wrote it,” I said. Yes, she said, but who wrote it first? “I did.” When I finally convinced her I’d written it on the spot, she made the whole class stay after the bell rang to read my poem to them. Who could not become a poet after something like that?

After my sister returned me to our mother, two years later, I went on to write more poems, mostly love poems for my friends to give to their sweethearts, and emotion-riven poems about being jilted by my own boyfriends (some of whom were men with wives at home). Marriage was the only option for a bored and love-starved farm-girl in 1960s rural Idaho, no matter how their husbands behaved, so when I met a boy from Logan Utah who asked for my hand, I jumped. He was eighteen; I was sixteen. 23 ½ years later, 23 years after he hauled back and slugged for the first and last time, in a drunken moment he regretted but never sufficiently made up for, as he channeled his physical anger into throwing things and employing verbal and emotional abuse, I left him. With three grown kids and only twelve poems to my name, I left the marriage and enrolled at Utah State University.

Going to college became possible through a scholarship I received from my employers at the nursing home where I worked weekends (I was also a waitress and a hardware store clerk). I had taken night courses to pass the high school equivalency exam in 1986, the year my son graduated from high school. When I found an apartment and registered for classes in October 1991, my daughter’s boyfriend told me I should take a poetry writing class with him. I was hesitant: Can a new freshman take a 300-level course? Having been such a rebel in my youth, I was fairly rule-bound by this time, afraid to make a move that might compromise the new life I had carved out for myself. But he convinced me, I took the course, and my poetry writing life began in earnest.

It was actually in the summer of 1991 that my poetry trajectory was launched. I had started hiking every night, taking a notebook along to write out my frustrations and describe the mountain scenery I loved. I had started an additional job at a sandwich shop and the owner told me he knew a poetry professor on campus who would give me some comments on my writing. I was intimidated, but the owner insisted. He gave some of my work to the professor, Dr. Kenneth W. Brewer (who later became poet laureate of Utah). My poems came back three months later with some nice comments and a gentle question or two. Scared the hell out of me and I didn’t dare take a class from him until I was a senior in my last semester.

By that time, my marriage was well behind me and I had a new partner who loved my poems and went to readings with me. I was ready to claim poetry as my lifetime career. I was writing poems regularly, working with peers in a poetry group and taking as many literature and writing classes as I could. I had a supply of poems with which to start Ken Brewer’s advanced poetry writing class. He liked my work enough to let me teach a class for him, and by the time I was in grad school, I was established. I had written my undergraduate Honors thesis in poetry, wrote another sixty pages of poetry for my Master’s thesis, and taught poetry writing classes for the next ten years. I only teach occasionally now because I’m the USU Writing Center director. It’s a full-time job, and though it keeps me in the administrative mindset far too much of the time, taking me away from writing poetry and stealing energy from revising and submitting, it also gives me just enough flexibility to keep connected with the world of poetry.

I still go to weekly poetry group sessions–I’m the leader of Poetry at Three, now more than two decades old, with fifteen annual public readings and thirteen anthologies to our name. I’ve been conducting poetry writing workshops since 1999. I’ve organized Beat Poetry Night events and community river festivals with music and poetry readings. In Fall 2005, I started a featured readers/open readings series, Helicon West, which has won prestigious awards, draws a good crowd, has a big following. We video all the events and publish broadsides which include pieces writers have read for the events, along with artwork by college students and community members. The Logan Library, our venue for the last three years (we grew out of all our downtown café venues), proclaimed us their first-ever official partners in literature. It was for these types of service projects in the literary arts as much as for my publications that I was chosen as poet laureate of Logan.

I’ve had a few dozen of my poems published and have won some finalist awards for my manuscripts. I have two chapbooks which are out of print and three self-published chapbooks (in addition to the self-published Poetry at Three anthologies). I have periodically resisted sending poems and manuscripts out because it takes so much time, money, and energy. When the expenditures start to break me, I step out of the race. I’ve never been competitive, never cared for games and prizes, though I recognize the need to send work out into the world in order to have credibility as a writer. I consider myself a regional poet, and perhaps that is a detriment, but I believe there is enough obscure and inaccessible poetry out there in the wider world that to have poems which speak intimately to a particular audience is a credit to my reputation. Although it is nice to claim publications in national magazines, I like being recognized locally. I would rather be Logan Poet Laureate than State Poet Laureate. I would rather be Logan Poet Laureate than U.S. Poet Laureate.

And my reward for becoming Logan Poet Laureate: I have official permission to write, to spread poetry everywhere I go. The monetary reward is secondary. A thousand dollars at the end of two years. A thousand congratulations from the people I care about at the outset of my term, at the announcement of my being honored—this means more to me than ten times the dollar-amount I will receive. I’ve never had much money. I worked for minimum wage most of my life and am far from being remunerated for the work I do now. I know this will seem like blasphemy, with Utah women the lowest-paid in the nation compared to men, with the literary arts scandalously low in monetary recognition, but until someone else fixes the problem, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing, for free if I have to.

My duties as Logan Poet Laureate? To keep doing what I’m doing. Plus, I get to visit schools, open a few city council meetings, and write a commemorative poem about Logan. I’ll make it a collaborative community commemorative effort, inviting lines from everyone I meet and stitching those lines into a poem (or a few poems) of local voices to present to the city. I’ll do poetry walkabouts, taking groups of students and others on mini-tours of the town, stopping for poetry prompts and spontaneous writing. We’ll visit community gardens, plant the seeds of poetry. We’ll sit on the steps of Old Main Hill and write about the sunset. We’ll gather at cafes and bars, at churches and parks, wherever poems might be lurking. My official swearing-in will be May 19, 2015, at 5:30 PM at the City Council chamber. I hope to have a few walkabouts accomplished before that official date. Another duty I’m tasked with is to help celebrate May Swenson Day, May 28. Swenson is from Logan. She and Ken Brewer are Logan’s claim to literary fame, so I will be ready to honor them in whatever way the City decides. It’s all very exciting.

R&R: How do you get to be a poet?

In the house of my childhood, there were books of Mormon doctrine, the Bible, a dictionary, a set of encyclopedias, and a few books of poetry: Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, and a few other of the old dead white guys. Perhaps some Blake, some Tennyson, I don’t remember, but I assume, because of the metrical feet and rhyme scheme that came naturally to me when I wrote that first poem at thirteen. But here’s the next thing about that: November 2, 2013, I got a letter from my brother, with another letter inside, one I had written to him when I was nine years old and he was a Mormon missionary. It contained, in my scrawly cursive handwriting, a poem, all anapestic and iambic, six lines about missing him. So I found that I had started writing “poetry” earlier than I thought. Reading those few books of poetry we had at home, over and over again, and likely reading some some poetry in elementary school, made those rhymey metrical lines stick to me like glue. But I didn’t become a poet until I went to USU, found my mentor, Ken Brewer, and learned free verse, lyrical poetry, narrative poetry. Even then, up until the time I started teaching poetry, I didn’t know enough to claim such a prestigious-seeming title. Now I realize it isn’t the title, it’s the life.

R&R: A very narrow question—What is poetry?

Out of the mouth, straight from the gut, as Wordsworth describes it. A way of expressing the stories I can’t stop myself from re-enunciating in every kind of delicious sound that comes into my mouth. Finding then organizing the sounds to make the breath-moves, the line-lengths, the stanzas that carry emotion into each room of the house of poetry—where did I read that stanzas are like rooms in a house, each one having its own purpose, but all of them fitting the architecture of the whole. Maybe it was Steve Kowitt. Poetry is beauty, emotion, story—and it must be read aloud.

R&R: Do you write in a tradition?

Perhaps lyrical narrative confessional, sort of. I like humor. I like to tell on people who do funny or outrageous things. I like writing about nature, the mountains, the farm, the town, animals. I wish I could write the kind of philosophical people-poems that Stephen Dunn writes. His poetry reading at A Book Store in Logan Utah in 1993 was the first one I ever attended. Ken Brewer had organized it. He was always bringing poets to town. That’s where I got started with the literary readings I’ve organized all these years, I guess. Maybe that’s my tradition, not any sort of “school” or poetry “tradition,” but the perpetuation of community readings, the mix of academics and literary-minded small-town folks. I think I fit both types.

R&R: Would you take a shot at defining “modern poetics”?

No, I won’t take a shot at defining Modern Poetics. The Poetry Foundation has a nice discussion about that in a biography of Robert Frost. Frost was my favorite poet for most of my young life. Now I’m 64, still young, but with too much admiration for too many poets to claim favorites anymore.

R&R: Do you think poetry can be taught?

Certainly the craft can be taught, as long as the poet is already able to write from the gut. That has to happen first. The elements of poetry must be examined, surely, but inspiration is the method that matters. Once it comes from the heart and the tongue and the breath, you can sort out the parts that have meaning, strength, pizazz. You can teach revision up to a point. It takes understatement, respect for the poet’s intent, and a willingness to get out of the way.

R&R: What’s your view on “broken prose masquerading as poetry?”

“Broken prose masquerading as poetry” doesn’t appeal to me. Neither does “google” poetry or “language” poetry. Sometimes I like found poetry or erasure poetry, but usually not. It isn’t often that you can take some lines of prose and form them into emotionally-satisfying poetry. Sure, you can find places where the breath breaks a line, where the music might be composed, where there’s an inherent voice or tone you can pick up on. It can’t be forced. It must be inspired; it must be meaningful. Yes, maybe you googled it, but what does it do for you at the intersection of all that google traffic? It can really turn out to be a cluster-fuck, no beauty: not even ambulances and tow-trucks can help.

R&R: What is a poetic line?

A poetic line? I’m thinking of traffic again. Breaking the line at the wrong place can get everything snarled. If a line of traffic gets held up by a bad driver, a slow tractor, a pedestrian, well, nothing goes right. Inexperience is usually the culprit. Not enough reading, especially reading aloud, slowly. Or not enough revision. Lines usually work themselves out if the breath is right and you don’t rush them.

R&R: Is there something beneath the line the drives it? If you know what it is, can you put it in words?

I need more time to think more deeply about this. I have lots to say about the way my lines are driven—but I really want to answer questions 10-13.

R&R: In your view, thematics aside, is there a “male poetry” and a “female poetry?” However you choose to talk about it, do women write a different kind of poetry than men?  We’re thinking of your poem Aerobics by God. Can you imagine a man’s cut on that? Especially these lines:

They were looking sharp, feeling

like they could conquer the world.

One ran for public office, two divorced.

I burned up a new pair of shoes

every six months, got so tight and sinewy

I stopped my cycle, no more monthly

bleeding, just energy, energy and power.

I could carry six bags of groceries

to the car myself, no cart, no sweat

Yes, the view from the inside can’t help but make them different. I don’t necessarily see different “kinds” of poetry coming from women and men; each era or school of poetry seems broader than gender difference, and includes the many voices of that age and culture (yes, mostly privileged white males, we must concede), though the themes may be varied. I didn’t study contemporary poetry until 1993, but everything I’ve read since that time (and it’s hellaciously hard to catch up with the amount of poetry out there since I started) strikes me differently depending on whether the author is male or female. But I have to back up and think more carefully about this, about why I’m affected that way, because of certain poets who go by initials instead of a first name. I’ve read poems in magazines that seem female when they’re written by a male author, and vice-versa. When I’ve gone to the contributors’ notes, I’ve often been surprised.

Still, I can’t imagine a man’s cut on “Aerobics by God,” although Ken Brewer, my formerly-mentioned mentor and Poet Laureate of Utah, loved reading it to audiences. He had a poem titled “Concession,” which was about the woman inside him, and he liked “Aerobics” for the way the speaker gains power—“energy and power”—and eventually “decks” her husband for complaining. He loved the build-up to that part, and the quieting-down at the end, where the speaker sort of says, “See there, you go to this gentle class for women-only, and see what happens?” My poem acknowledges that women can overpower men, which is what the woman inside Ken always tried to do. In his largely autobiographical poem, he had to make concessions for the “coquettish hand-wave,” the “tears at funerals and movies,” the “constant dieting and undieting.” He gets even, he says, by not letting her do what she wants (Aha! The male perspective) … “no squash blossom jewelry,/no ballet lessons.”

A man wouldn’t brag about the things my “Aerobics” speaker does. He wouldn’t have to. Men already conquered the world eons ago; holding public office and lifting weights—and how could they have any idea how liberating it might be to stop monthly bleeding?

R&R: You do a lot of public reading. How do you prepare? I asked you to re-record Aerobics by God because the youtube recording is a little bit spotty but you told me you had to be standing to do it right. Explain what you mean by that.

To prepare for readings, I stand in front of a mirror and practice. When I teach or present to audiences, I stand up so I can breathe, enunciate clearly, use my hands and arms to emphasize the words and lines I want people to really “get.” In Ken Brewer’s advanced poetry writing classes, students were required to record themselves reading every poem they wrote. It changed my voice from farm-girl drawl and gave me a fair amount of confidence (after the initial revulsion of hearing how I sounded to others).

R&R: When you perform, do you go verbatim? Do you memorize poems? Do you ever change a text on the fly?

When I read my work to an audience, I have it all planned and practiced in advance, even the ad-lib parts in between poems, so that I don‘t embarrass myself with hems and haws or inane remarks. I always bring a spare poem or two to substitute in case the audience isn’t what I pictured as I practiced. Reading the audience is vital. I can feel it when they aren’t engaging with me, and I switch it up, or I try to. I’ve had times where the pizazz just isn’t there. Memorizing a poem? No. I have some memorized, but I have an aversion to test-taking, which is essentially memorization, and which manifests itself in the delivery, prepared or not, so I don’t chance it. I have my script in hand so the stage fright doesn’t set-in and make me seize-up. That happened to me once when I was thirteen, giving a singing performance. I couldn’t even get a squeak out.

R&R: Several poets we work with tell us that they have to read a poem in public a half a dozen times before they get it clear—they mean: see what the poem is and what the poem is about. The question for you is—does the audience shape your delivery? Does the audience help you find a deeper poetics?

So yes, the audience shapes my delivery, to a certain degree. But the reading doesn’t give me what the poem is about. It doesn’t clarify anything for me. That happens in my poetry workshops and presentations, or in the classroom, where students and participants ask questions about my poems and then proceed to tell me what they think about them. They always bring things up that I wouldn’t have imagined in the writing, even after years of reading the poem in public, which illuminate some aspect inside the work. They take it beyond craft, into a deeper meaning, a deeper poetics, as you say.

R&R: Thank you, Star, for taking the time to dig into our questions.

Thank you for these questions. I haven’t taken time away from the teaching and administrative mode to think and write about my poetry for years. I was feeling pretty rusty. This gives me energy—“energy and power, no cart, no sweat.”

AEROBICS BY GOD

It was a class for women-only,

women in the same church

honing their bodies for husbands

who told them God said

it was good to be fit,

and ever since birth control,

women could be.

So every Tuesday morning

they followed a church-approved leader

through ladylike routines

in new leotards and ballet shoes,

embarrassed at the sight of butts

and legs they’d never seen before,

their shapes always having been covered

in Sunday pleats and gathers.

Gradually, as confidence crept in

with dance steps mastered

to such easy routine they could have

walked it in their sleep, their thoughts

began to wander, endorphins

they hadn’t owned since puberty

pushing them into loving their muscles,

liking their new form–such energy!

A few of the ladies quit, went off

to the fitness center in town

and started working out with weights.

They bought cross-training shoes,

aerobics and lifting on alternate days.

Made excuses for not going out with

the family on weekends, went running

on Saturdays, hot-tubbing Sunday.

They were looking sharp, feeling

like they could conquer the world.

One ran for public office, two divorced.

I burned up a new pair of shoes

every six months, got so tight and sinewy

I stopped my cycle, no more monthly

bleeding, just energy, energy and power.

I could carry six bags of groceries

to the car myself, no cart, no sweat.

I could stay up until midnight baking,

doing laundry, cleaning the bathroom.

I’d fall into bed, sleep hard until five,

get up and go like hell. One day,

my man voiced his usual complaints,

and I decked him. All from a  church-ladies

gentle aerobics class, ordered by God.

Star Coulbrooke

Published in Logan Canyon Blend,

Blue Scarab Press, Pocatello, Idaho, 2003

 

 

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