Pamela Murray Winters

Interviewed by Sarah Grigg

One of your blogs says that you write “poems, or ideas of poems, or poem-like material.” How would you define “poem-like material”?

I think what you’ve got there is me hedging about being a poet—or about putting it out there that I’m a poet. I have struggled with this identification for a long time. The poet identity can be very wearing on a person. I don’t mean the writing itself; I don’t mean the creative part. I mean telling someone “I’m a poet” and not imagining what sorts of poet clichés that listener is envisioning. Will I seduce your husband or put my head in the oven? Am I a tiresome narcissist? Will I bring my bongos to your party?

I just saw an episode of Murder, She Wrote featuring Paul Sand as a poet. He’s a sort of eccentric, freeloading alcoholic—with these qualities played for laughs.

Anyway, so I think my remark sprung either from insecurity about admitting that I’m a poet—although now that I think of it, asserting that I write “poem-like material” is probably far more precious and annoying than just saying I write poems—or from insecurity about my poems themselves at the time. That whole “What is a poem?” thing hung over me like a raincloud for years. I try to care less about it these days.

How would you describe your process of revision?

Arduous. I can turn out something that looks like a fully formed poem—and sometimes is one—very easily. Therein lies the problem: it’s very hard for me to see what does and doesn’t work. I think I’m worse at getting past a first draft than most poets I know.

It often helps to put the poem away for a while and then come to it fresh. I have one poem I pick up every few months; I’m chipping away at it slowly, and I’m starting to see the shape. But it’s been years.

I know of people who will make great leaps in their revisions, for example reorganizing all of the stanzas alphabetically or making an unrhymed poem rhyme, just to see the effect it has on the poem. I endorse these tricks, but I have trouble doing them myself. I need to remind myself that I’m not taking an irreversible step; it’s not 1975 and I’m not banging away on a manual typewriter without even Wite-Out for my mistakes or reconsiderations. I need to be more adventurous.

Feedback from others can be helpful when you’re stuck. The teachers, editors, and readers I’ve come to admire most are the ones who can spot a weakness in my poem and elicit from me the instant recognition that I probably suspected that weakness all along. When a writer finds readers like that, she should hang on to them.

Your poem “Avocado” describes the process of growing avocados on a windowsill. Have you done this? You refer to the fruit as “the original hippie”—a wonderful description. What about the avocado reminds you of hippies?

I’m trying to remember the genesis of that poem, and I can’t. I’m also trying to remember whether “original hippie” was one of the first lines I wrote, which would make sense; I can imagine all of those other images and words tumbling after.

I can envision a pit on the windowsill over the sink in the apartment where I grew up, in the late ’60s or early ’70s. I’m sure the thing died quickly; I seem to have a fatal effect on plants.

I grew up in Takoma Park, Maryland; it was a normal working-class suburb when I was born and was becoming a countercultural mecca by the time I started school. So my tiny, conservative nuclear family—I’m an only child—was surrounded by people who embroidered their jeans, made God’s eyes and macramé plant hangers and melted-LP bowls, and so forth.

I went to a head shop called Maggie’s Farm, at about 15, with my mother, who was 40 years older than me. We were there by her choice. She was taking a beaded-flower class from the recreation department, and she found out Maggie’s Farm sold little tubes of beads. So I associate avocados with the sorts of hippiecraft I encountered in my childhood. Then there are the color associations, with avocado being once very much in vogue for kitchen appliances.

You’ve also worked as a music journalist and scientific copy editor. How has this work complemented or competed with your writing (or vice versa)?

I began work as a scientific copy editor in the late 1980s. I’m not a scientist, and I never had any particular interest in science. The head of the journals division, who hired me, told me that the work would kill every ambition I had to write. He was wrong. For the most part, my day job and any creative writing I was doing were compartmentalized from each other.

When I left scientific publishing to become a music and arts journalist, the best thing—besides all those comp tickets—was getting to meet all sorts of creative people, some of whom have become friends and even muses. But sometimes combining your passions with your paycheck isn’t a wise move. (That’s one thing I love about poetry; it will never constitute gainful employment for me, so whether I do it or not is entirely up to me.)

Eventually, the arts writing was drying up for me, and I was finding a need to create for myself and not just try to re-create, in my writing, what other artists were doing. I’d been a serious poet in college, and then I let that drift away for the ensuing 20 or more years. The urge came back, and I started writing poems again. Maybe I renewed my poetic license out of envy!

Then I returned to my editing job, needing money and structure, and was there for another four years. (I just quit to start grad school—an MFA in poetry.) Within a few months of going back to my old job, I’d written a poem based on a case study I’d edited. This had never happened before. I got a few more poems out of the job as well. I think that when I went back, it was easier for me to see that poetry could spring from anything, and it was easier for me to be open to it than I had been when I was a self-conscious, depressive college student.

One thing about editing and proofreading that can be helpful to a writer is that stream of words flowing through one’s head. I hear the rhythms of the sentences; I tap on the computer keys as if they’re part of an instrument. I wish that editing my own work could be so delightful!

What was your first poem about? How old were you when you wrote it?

I wish I had a cute story about this! I’m afraid I don’t. I remember writing songs and stories as a child; I didn’t get into poetry until high school, and even then I don’t remember what possessed me to be a poet.

The first thing of any kind that I wrote was in kindergarten. I wrote a book. Our teacher, Mrs. Enquist, had us tell her a story; she then wrote it out in a booklet of manila pages, a few lines on the bottom of each page, and had us fill in the pages with illustrations. I still have mine—I found it in my mother’s papers when she died a few years back. It was called “Baby on the Doorstep.” Someone left a baby on a doorstep. The people of the house didn’t want it, so they left it on another doorstep, and those people didn’t want it either, and so on…. Eventually (I guess when the pages ran out), the baby is all grown up and goes off and has a life. When I read this to my aunts as we were going through Mom’s stuff, one of them said, “You always were a weirdo.”

Pamela Murray Winter’s poem “Avocado” appears in Subtropics 16.