Lynda Hull, family trauma, and the fearlessness of the young: 3 questions for Margot Schilpp (from her students)

We thought you might like a break from hearing us yak on in these interviews - which, of course, should put the spotlight on our authors. So this week, we decided to let one of those authors - Margot Schilpp, she of "Lullaby with One Part Missing" - put the spotlight on herself. Which is to say, we asked her to interview herself. Of all things. Then she passed the baton to her students, who in turn popped the questions. Details follow.


To complete this brief interview, I tried to think of questions I would ask myself, because originally, I had agreed to “interview myself” in this space. But, I failed. I had a lot of trouble partly because every time I thought of questions I would ask myself, I suddenly became a challenging, mouthy smartass: “So, just why do you think you can write poems, exactly?” or “In your poems, you sure love the word fire, don’t you? It’s everywhere in your work. Should we be worried about you?” or “What precisely is it you think you’re doing in your work, huh? Huh?” Apparently, my relationship with myself as an interviewer is faulty. So, I decided to turn the question part of this interview over to my students at the Educational Center for the Arts in New Haven, Connecticut. Here are three of their questions for me, and my answers:

Do you consider as favorites any poets whose styles, subjects, or approaches are drastically different from yours? Have they nonetheless influenced you?

I am pretty democratic in my tastes when it comes to reading poetry, and I enjoy poets whose work ranges pretty far from what I consider the territory I ordinarily cover in my work. I love, for example, both Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, and each has lodged itself somewhere in my writing brain, I’m sure, so I imagine that as I’m working, I draw on the experience of reading each of these poets’ work and feeling the cadences of their words in my body, even though neither of them appears, at least on the surface, to have the same obsessions I do. I love T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop and a lot of Robert Lowell. There are some Robert Penn Warren poems I like a lot. I love John Berryman. My favorite poem of all time might be “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden, which accomplishes so much with a great economy and a lot of suggestion, something I’m not always able to do as effectively as I’d like. I also read a number of more contemporary poets whom I admire—Lynda Hull comes to mind, as do Eavan Boland, Bob Hicok, Lucia Perillo, Rodney Jones and Adrian Blevins—and I hope they’ve influenced me, since a couple of them were my teachers.

In your poem “Lullaby with One Party Missing” a parent figures prominently. Do you ever use your own family dynamic as a model for the families in your poems?

Years ago, when I was working on preparing my master’s thesis, I culled through the work I’d done and included in the first draft a number of poems I’d written that incorporated small bits of autobiographical material. Most of the time, in those very narrative poems, I had taken as a starting place something real and augmented it with a lot of not-real. And then, I asked my mother to read my thesis draft. This was, as you might imagine, a colossal mistake. She asked me to remove several of what I considered the strongest poems in the thesis because they contained descriptions of events that had really happened, or because they could be read as unflattering depictions of family members with flaws and failings. I regret now that I agreed to take out those poems, but at the time, it seemed a way to keep the peace. More recently, my daughters and my husband, who’s also a poet, have shown up in poems in various ways. So, yes. I do sometimes weave into poems the experiences or emotions I’ve had as a member of a particular kind of family, both the family I grew up in, and my own family now.

Does teaching poetry, for you, have any influence on your writing? In what ways?

Teaching poetry certainly affects my writing, in ways both lovely and sad. The best way is that I frequently read poems by my students and admire deeply their imaginations. My students at the Educational Center for the Arts (which is an arts magnet school for highly gifted high school artists) are very committed to their writing, and they study in four genres: poetry, fiction, memoir, and playwriting/screenwriting. These students are fearless and I am sometimes a little envious of their willingness to risk so much in their poems. Also, I have written a poem that might be described as an “advice to the young folks” piece, which arose out of my experiences teaching and observing the behaviors of my classes. Sometimes, when I assign a prompt, I will write the poem I’m asking my students to create. The worst way my teaching affects my writing is by making me, sometimes, unable to muster the creative energy to write at all. Sometimes, I’m just too drained from being in the classroom and reading and commenting on poems to create new work of my own. This is not simply a function of teaching, however. I also have two young daughters (4 and 8 ) who require at this stage in their lives a lot of attention from me and my husband. Still, I’m managing. I have a new book coming out this January from Carnegie Mellon University Press.