Interview with Theresa Boyar
RSP: Theresa, you've mentioned that certain teachers, such as Terri Witek, have had an incredible impact on your motivation and growth as a writer. How did these teachers influence you, and how do you feel you've helped the elementary children in your poetry classes?
TB: My academic career has been pretty spotty. I dropped out of high school and then went back the following year to finish it up, dropped out of college and then went back. I've done a lot of stopping & starting over, a lot of life-editing. In my final year of high school, I was lucky enough to have an English teacher, Debbie Clark, who was so incredibly smart and fun and wild and just really, really good. She read my stories out loud to the class and gave me that initial boost of confidence I think I really needed at the time.
In college, I took a class with Terri Witek and was an absolutely terrible student. I skipped class more often than I attended, I never spoke, and I wrote crummy, dreadful poems. I think she probably helped me most by encouraging me in spite of all that. She would find the one decent line or phrase in a crappy poem I had written and make me understand why she thought it was good. She made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile, something important.
The year that I taught poetry at our community school, there was a pretty big age range – from 5 to 8. At our first meeting, I read a poem by Russell Edson and everyone just sat around staring until one kid finally said in this low, awed voice, "Wow." We spent the next weeks writing and reading and I was amazed by the poems these kids could produce. It was a blast. I like to think that I helped them a little in terms of having a positive initial experience with poetry. I've talked to friends who were first exposed to poetry in middle school or high school, and it was all Shakespeare and Donne and the Romantics. It was very intimidating and a lot of them were turned off right away. They couldn't relate to it and so poetry became this snobby, difficult, and scary thing, something they had to get through. With the elementary students, we had fun with it. We read contemporary poems and the kids wrote about things they liked, things that were important to them. About a year after the class ended, I ran into one of the students at a community event and when he saw me, he immediately started making up a poem on the spot. It absolutely made my week. I'd love to do something like that again.
RSP: Can you walk us through the development of one of your poems, from the first inkling of an idea to the final draft?
TB: I am so going to regret admitting this, but my poem Weight of Sundays started about five years ago with the idea in my head that I wanted a poem to be titled "Weight" and I wanted it to begin with the word "feathers." I can't remember why this was so important to me, but I've been obsessed with weight almost my entire life, and I guess some weird part of me thought it was funny. The final version of the poem doesn't resemble these early versions at all.
--Here's the first rendition, which has been generously scribbled on by my son Tristan. About halfway through, I started going off on some weird tangent about my father and the Cousteau documentaries he used to love watching. I have no idea why.
–Second version: Okay, the feathers stayed, the Cousteau left. I still had no idea where I wanted to take things – I just had this image of a married couple sitting in their backyard eating cherries. I'm a horrible scribbler and I guess I started jotting down an idea for another poem in the upper right hand corner while I was revising this one. I liked the phrase "thin medical jam" and had spent a lot of time in doctor's offices around the time this version was written, so I guess at some point I was looking for a way to work that phrase in too. And I apparently found the word clammy very offensive.
– Third version: All of a sudden a deer appeared in the poem and the couple had children. I started to get the feel for some of what I wanted to go after – that heavy feeling of Sundays, the do-nothing mornings, the inertia; but the couple wasn't right. There was something I wanted to say and I was struggling with how to say it. I also went off on a pretty lengthy tangent about Fun-Dips (I think that's what they're called), those candy fence-post things that you dip in colored sugar.
Feathers are everywhere.
The neighbor's cat curls
beneath your lounge chair, licking his teeth.
We have been here before,
the morning rising against our necks,
a basket of cherries between us,
a bowl of water for dipping stained fingers
You say love
until it hurts to see your mouth move,
while a lone doe grazes in the field nearby,
the tall grass hissing every time she startles
at your voice.
Inside, sunlight is stretching through the rooms –
the sun of children's voices,
unmade beds, and newspapers that
lose their centers, unwind
through our living room,
and idle for days.
Out here, our wooden fence is failing. Each post, painted
white by earlier tenants, softens in the sun, like
the edible candy sticks we used to dip into colored sugar
as children, growing up in separate towns,
licking it clean again and again until the stick itself
dissolved, giving in to the sweet weight of our mouths.
Our backyard thickens with the noise
of a passing car and narrows again into silence.
It is early still, not for the farmers
peddling berries and corn downtown,
not for the paperboy or the neighbor
girl who jogs religiously in white sweats
in predawn dew.
But after the cherries, we have bread
inside and it's still warm, wrapped in tea towels.
It's early and we're only
on our first course.
We lean forward, reaching
simultaneously for the bowl,
and when our fingers
beneath the surface,
the water magically reddens.
--Fourth version: I finally got around to changing the title and a lot of other things about the poem began to snap into focus as well. This is the couple that I was aiming for – the inertia of those lazy Sundays mimicking, almost mocking, the inertia of their marriage. There's a darkness, here, I think, that was absent from earlier versions. I was still clinging to that last stanza here though. That happens to me a lot – I get attached to certain ideas, images, or concepts and it's really hard for me to let them go. The editors at DMQ Review suggested cutting that last section and it took an outside party saying that for me to realize that it was true, that those last lines had to go. I think the final version of the poem is stronger because it ends earlier, on that note about passivity and destruction.
THE WEIGHT OF SUNDAYS
Feathers are everywhere. The neighbor's cat
curls beneath your lounge chair, licking his teeth.
We've been here before: the morning rising
against our necks, a basket of cherries between us,
a bowl of water for dipping stained fingers between fruits.
You say love until it hurts to see your mouth move.
The doe grazing in the field startles the tall grass