I met Laura Van Prooyen at Poetry at Round Top when she was promoting Our House Was on Fire. I still remember seeing her cast in the warm stage lights of the Round Top concert hall, reading these poems about uncertainty, illness, and motherhood. Her new collection, Frances of the Wider Field, was released in March. While I was sad that we couldn’t celebrate her new release in person at Round Top this year, I did enjoy the online workshop I took with her in the online version of the festival. I’m excited to share this interview that we conducted via email over the past few months, while dealing with the Texas freeze, teaching duties, family responsibilities, and the work that goes into a book launch. That we wrote our questions and responses amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life reflects something that I admire about Laura’s poetry: our other work, our obligations, do not take us away from poetry. They are the stuff of which poetry is made.
[AW] My favorite lines in “Against Nostalgia” are “What defines me is constancy
of place, / and my urge against it.” Like you, I’m from the Midwest, and have made a life in Texas. I find that the longer I am away from Ohio, the more the tension of being a native of one place but choosing to live in another comes through with more intensity in my poems. Has being of a particular place but then making your life in another place influenced your poetry in a particular way?
[LVP] Thanks for this question. It is hard to be away from home, but when I visit my parents it is also hard. So, yes, that inherent paradox informs my poems. I grew up in a house my grandfather literally built. I never met him, but I have a picture of him with a crew digging the basement. My grandmother lived next door to us, and my great-grandmother next to her. My mom has never moved in her life. She’s still there now, at 81 years old and with dementia. Our roots are deep. I opted for sun, warmth, and new experiences, a choice I don’t regret but wrestle with all the same. I feel torn a lot, wishing to be in multiple locations at once. That tension fuels a lot of the poems in Frances of the Wider Field.
As I read through Frances of the Wider Field, I think of my own grandmothers, one who died suddenly 30 years ago, and one who died 17 years ago from Parkinson’s. I often feel that I never really got to know them, and that is its own kind of grief. I see your poems as a way to stay in conversation with people you cannot converse with anymore, at least not in the way you once did. Do you feel there is something special about poetry as a genre that allows for these conversations to happen?
I hadn’t really thought about it like this before, but yes. Poetry allows for all kinds of unexpected turns as opposed to, say, a mode that has some expectation of linearity. It seems to me that poems are not only a way to stay in conversation with people we can no longer access, but that writing into the unknown allows us to converse with mysteries. The Frances poems originated with that energy, of being open to conversations with people I never met, with places that existed before me, with lineage, with ghosts, with concepts of god. The energy was at first an impulse to write toward a very specific absence, but the poems turned into presence–Frances began permeating the landscape, the dailiness of past, present and maybe even future. I’m interested in the continuum of time and memory and how we move long through different planes of experience, sometimes all at once.
Speaking of lineage, I love the ways in which that theme shows up in this collection. One of my fascinations is with the idea of a writer’s lineage, and the ways in which creative lineage can be expansive. We have our family lineage, and we also have the poets/writers we read over and over. We have the teachers that have taught us about craft, or form, or topics that had nothing to do with writing, but nonetheless had a profound influence. Anne Sexton and Natalie Goldberg are part of my creative lineage; so are the Austin poets who have been both mentors and friends over the past 13 years. Finally, that list includes my 9th grade geography teacher (who taught kindness as much as she taught geography), my aunt, and my grandmothers. How do you trace your own creative lineage? What are the different threads or spokes that have come together to help make you the poet that you are today?
One pivotal moment in my life was my first semester at the university. I was a first generation college student. My first semester I took a seminar called “Creating Selves.” I have no idea if we had choices for these seminars, but somehow I lucked into this class taught by a professor who had us read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings, and Helen Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road. She required that we keep a journal, a mix of personal insights mixed with responses to the texts. I have been keeping a journal since that class, since I was 18 years old. I still have my marked up copy of Letters to a Young Poet, and I’m actually still in touch with that professor. She came to my virtual book release just last week. I hold close poems from Louise Gluck, Larry Levis, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Vievee Francis, John Donne, Adelia Prado and Olena Kalytiak Davis among many others, too. I’m also a fan of Lynda Barry. I wanted to be a visual artist before I ever thought about being a writer. I suppose there’s still time.
I love the way you depict work in these poems, specifically, the work Frances performs. “Avenue F” is the most striking example: the work of wringing and hanging laundry, of polishing the baby’s shoes. In “Lilacs Full of Bees,” Frances has cleaned gutters, polished the car, and soaked her feet after a long day. I’d love to hear more about your approach to depicting those daily tasks. Did you have a specific approach to incorporating them? I think some poets are hesitant to bring dailiness into their poems because they worry it comes across as boring. How did you incorporate Frances’ daily, domestic work in a way that made the poems come alive?
It’s wonderful to hear that for you the poems came alive. Dailiness is life. I’m interested in specificity, and if I had a particular approach, I suppose it was to write toward the specifics. I also had to make choices. I had ideas and things popping up, like polishing the car and cleaning the white walled tires with a toothbrush. Not every daily task made the final cut. When I really get into revision, I read my work aloud. What stays is what sounds right. As in, sonically. I ask myself (consciously or intuitively) how the sounds of words play off each other, how can the poem create a sonic landscape that works in relation to the details.
Finally, is there anything you never get asked about your work that you’ve always wanted to talk about?
I love your final question, but I cannot think of anything in particular that I’ve never been asked. I love talking about the creative process and hearing from other makers what they do, what they’re reading, what art they’ve seen or music they’d listened to. I like to talk to people who are curious, because staying curious feels right to me. Learning new things. Being open. That’s part of the work.
Thanks to Laura for participating in this interview. I hope you enjoyed learning more about this engaging collection. You can buy Frances of the Wider Field from Laura’s website (the most direct way to help a poet get paid!), Lily Poetry Review Books, Bookshop.org, major book retailers, or your local independent bookstore.