Writing can be anything, from self-discovery to incorporating pain to establishing direction, according to poet Caroline Goodwin, who featured in The Dewdrop a couple of weeks ago with her poem, Not I’ll Not, from her book, Custody of the Eyes. Here, she tells us about her writing process, about the importance of structure, and how grief, powerlessness and confusion can be the driving forces of creativity. Originally from Sitka, Alaska, Caroline lives on the San Mateo coast with her two daughters and Jimi Hendrix the Pug.
Why do you write?
It depends. I think I’ll quote the poet Carl Phillips and say I sometimes think of writing as “a form of — or perhaps the record of — a resistance to difficult realities.” Also, writing can be “the enactment of a restlessness of imagination.” Sometimes, writing comforts me by helping me incorporate a painful experience. Sometimes I write to discover what I think and feel. Other times, it’s pure desperation and a loss of direction or hope and an effort to regain some structure, somehow.
How do you write?
Lately I’ve been challenging myself with some formal constraints. I am working on a long series of poems called Seedhead. I begin with the morning’s coronavirus death count and the date (two numbers at the top of the page, for example: 19,764 3/25/20). Then I randomly choose a piece of text from Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, The Northwest. Then I challenge myself to write a 17-line poem that repeats this exact piece of text three times. I know it sounds arbitrary, but without some sort of scaffolding I tend to wander too much. And this way, I get to invent my own scaffolding! I aim to explore that difficult reality: we live in bodies, we are vulnerable, our lives will end.
How did your latest collection, Custody of the Eyes, come about?
This book was drafted while visiting a friend off the grid in Mount Shasta in the summer of 2018. I was struggling with the grief over my husband’s sudden death in 2016 and the impending death of my 89-year-old father in Southeast Alaska. I felt so far away from him, so powerless to do anything (including let him know how much I loved him). There were fires everywhere. Everything felt incredibly precarious and thin. I came across some text in a catalogue called Recent American Sculpture, October 15 – November 29, 1964: The Jewish Museum. In the “Introduction to be read as a Postscript”, Hans van Weeren-Griek quotes Baudelaire: “The rules of poetry are written after the poem.” I started a series of connected poems that revolved around this idea. I was just trying to find my feet, and it really felt like the “rules” were being written after my losses, or re-written, or something like that. And it didn’t feel fair at all. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t know how to figure it out. “Custody of the Eyes” is a religious principle that was practiced by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889); it asks the practitioner to guard their vision from temptation or pleasurable objects. I needed some rules like this but I didn’t know where to find them. I felt completely powerless over myself and everything around me. And I wasn’t a big fan of people at the time, so I incorporated some of the language from Robert de Niro’s misanthropic monologue in Taxi Driver.
What aspects of your own life contributed to the poems in Custody of the Eyes?
See above. Grief, confusion, powerlessness.
Which themes do you find yourself coming back to?
I return to our human connections with the natural world. How are we nature and how are we not-nature? What binds us together and what separates us? I think this goes back to my childhood in Anchorage, Alaska, where I pretty much connected with the seasonal changes for my spiritual survival. And I love plants. I find that if I just pick up a field guide from the shelf, I will find scrumptious language to work with: cow parsnip, stipule, stolon, anther, beach greens, sandwort, sorrel, snapdragon, honeysuckle… you get the idea.
Who has inspired you?
Early on, it was Louise Gluck, Ai, and William Carlos Williams. Today, it’s Louise Gluck, Ai, and William Carlos Williams, along with Erin Moure, Donna de la Perriere, Tonya Foster and oh so many other wonderful contemporary poets. Also, artists from The North: Richard Van Camp and Ishmael Hope.
Do you share your work in progress with people who are close to you?
Nope. Never ever.
What is the most difficult thing to write about?
If you could chisel one poem onto your tombstone?
Outside my father’s room at the Sitka Pioneer’s Home is a stone next to the sidewalk which displays: “A green thought / in a green shade” A. Marvell.