While perusing for books in the library, I spotted a large volume entitled The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. In the few moments I took to scan the 700-plus-page book, I felt like I peered into the troubled soul of the confessional poet and author of the novel The Bell Jar. Plath struggled with depression much of her life and committed suicide in 1963.
The intensity of the language in one of the passages from a section dated 22 November 1955 – 18 April 1956 captivated me, and I thought if you rearranged the sentences in verse form, they would construct a splendid poem. I had no sense of context from where Plath’s agitated emotions sprang, and standing in the library stacks, I felt a great sense of loss about Plath’s life and sadness that she took her unique voice with her to the grave.
Here’s an image of the passage I read:
Plath, Sylvia. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000.
Ithaca, New York-area poet and playwright Kathleen Kramer has published a new full-length collection of poems, entitled Planting Wild Grapes(Yesteryear Publishing).
I became acquainted with Kathleen through our mutual connection with the Syracuse writing group Armory Square Playwrights, and I consider her a friend and a writing confidant.
I was honored when she asked me to write a “blurb” for the back of her book, and I read the collection in galley form via PDF. Holding the hard copy now, I am looking forward to taking my time in reading the printed version; I want to sift through each line of text and let the words and their meanings linger in my mind.
Kramer is the author of a poetry chapbook, Inside the Stone (Ithaca Writers’ Association/JK Publications), and a previous full-length collection, Boiled Potato Blues (Vista Periodista). Her poems have appeared in The Comstock Review, Passager, Avocet, a Journal of Nature Poems, The Healing Muse and other publications. And her plays have been presented regionally in central New York, as well as in the Midwest and in Canada.
Here is her biography from the interior of the book:
Growing up in Pennsylvania’s coalmining and farming region, Kathleen Kramer’s early life was influenced by the solidity of the earth and the rhythm of seasons.
At 19, she left for the city and spent five years working in Washington, DC for the Department of Defense. There followed a stint in Maine where subsistence farming took her back to the land. A second marriage brought her to Long Island, where she and her husband Jack reared their three sons in Northport, a small town on Long Island Sound. During that time and over a period of 10 years of balancing classes, family and work, Kathy earned a BA at Empire State College and an MLS at C.W. Post.
Now, following retirement from the Boyce Thompson Institute at Cornell, Kathy lives with her husband in New York’s Finger Lakes area where she writes poetry and plays. Again, the natural world and changing seasons have assumed center stage. It’s these foundational elements and the strength of generational ties which largely inform Kathy’s poems.
And in this interview, Kramer talks about her book and discusses the motivations that propel her writing. I hope you come to appreciate this artist and her work as much as I do.
Can you give a brief description of this collection of poems?
These poems were written over a period of years and each represents a moment in time when something that seemed important was recognized. Most often, however, the actual moment was, on the surface, quite ordinary. It’s the extraordinariness of the ordinary that moves me. I’ve tried to capture that in these poems.
Not all of these poems address this directly, but I view each one as I might a handcrafted bead: each has its own shape and color and when strung together, they create a necklace that, for me, speaks of wonder and meaning, embracing both good times and hard times.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
This collection tries to do a few different things. It explores the enigmatic title, Planting Wild Grapes, which was given to me in a vivid dream. It seeks to illustrate what I think is required of us as finite beings—to engage in our lives as deeply and meaningfully as we can and then, when the times comes, to release them with thanksgiving and grace. It is my hope that the reader will come away from reading this book with a sense of the wonder and meaning in his or her own life.
What do you enjoy most about writing poetry?
For me, writing poetry has been a connection not only to my inner self and to the natural world, but also to something beyond myself. At the risk of sounding grandiose or pious, I believe creativity and the divine are interwoven. When I can touch that moment as I write a poem, I feel exceptionally blessed.
I’m sure it varies with each poem, but can you describe your typical process for constructing poems—from the moment you get an idea for a work until the final revision?
First of all, who knows where the idea for a poem comes from? Sometimes it’s a snatch of overheard conversation. Sometimes it’s a word or line from someone else’s poem or a flash of memory. Often it’s an experience of being with another person and knowing the tie between you is precious. It’s being outdoors and sensing the wholeness. Regardless of where it comes from, there’s a little “thrill,” like a tiny, soundless bell that rings and says, “Follow this one.”
Then I start to write. I write by hand and I almost always go out of my house to write; I especially like to write in cemeteries. (Very quiet and no one interrupts!) When I have a rough sketch of the poem, I go home and type it into my computer, where it’s easier to shape it on the page.
I’m fortunate to be a member of a poetry group, The High Noon Poets. We meet twice a month and it’s there that we each have our poems critiqued. We’re free to accept the suggestions made or to reject them. Often, even if I feel resistant at first, by the time I’m home again, I’m seeing the wisdom of those suggestions.
How does writing poetry compare to writing plays? Do you have a preference?
What strikes me most are the similarities. In my opinion, both demand an economy of language. Every word must carry its own weight. Sometimes, a word might be there simply because it is beautiful, and if that isn’t overdone, it adds to the whole and, indeed, carries its own weight.
I like writing both poetry and plays. One of the pleasures of playwriting is the characters one can create. They become real and will often tell me what they will or won’t say or do.
However, I think I have a slight preference for writing poetry. There’s satisfaction in writing a single, well-crafted poem. It can stand on its own. There’s no need to sustain a long narrative, yet if the poet creates a number of poems, giving each a shape and color of its own, together, they can tell the story of a life or a time.
What’s next for you in terms of writing projects?
I’ll continue to write poems and, occasionally, plays—I must, in order to be happy—but for a time now, my main focus will be on doing readings and trying in whatever ways I can to share my pleasure in this new book, Planting Wild Grapes.
Here are two excerpts from Planting Wild Grapes (reprinted with the permission of the author and Yesteryear Publishing).
Planting Wild Grapes
Every day at dawn I go down to the river,
fill my bucket to the brim and wash stones.
Big or small, I take all that come to hand,
dip them in my pail, rub them between my palms
and drop them back into the river. I listen
for the satisfying sound—the watery thunk—
as they settle among their fellows.
At mid-day I wade the waves of goldenrod
to the center of the sunny field behind the barn.
Beneath my feet, my shadow crouches,
small and black. The candle in my hand
stands tall, like me, its wick waiting for
the match, prepared to be proud of a flame
invisible in the noonday light.
Sunset finds me again at river’s edge, a teacup
cradled in my hands. It holds rainwater caught
in the downpour at dinnertime. I lift it up
to the sinking sun, see the rim turn gold,
then tip the cup, spilling rain into the river.
Tomorrow, if I keep to my course,
there will be time to plant wild grapes.
When we noticed lunchtime voices
in the hall, the ding of a call button,
squeak of rubber soles on tile floors,
we knew the sound of her breathing
had ceased. For long moments,
her shoulder, under my hand,
remained warm. Then a stillness,
profound and deep, came upon her—
not of worldly sleep but
of rest unbounded by time.
All her ailments, her frailties,
fell away and the wholeness…
the holiness… which remained