Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Wendy Klein

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Wendy Klein

Born in New York and brought up in California, Wendy Klein left the U.S. in 1964 to live in Sweden and later, France and Germany. She came to England in 1971 and has lived here most of her adult life.  Failed actress and retired psychotherapist, she began to write poetry seriously in 2002 after completing an undergraduate diploma in creative writing at Oxford University, Continuing Education, Kellogg College. She has been mightily helped to hone her skills by two spells at The Writing School in Sheffield, run by Ann and Peter Sansom of Poetry Business fame. Winner of a variety of prizes (Ware, Buxton, Cinnamon Press Single Poem) she is published in many magazines and anthologies. She has two collections from Cinnamon Press: Cuba in the Blood, (2009) and Anything in Turquoise, (2013), and a third ‘Mood Indigo’ from Oversteps Books. Her writing has been influenced by early family upheaval resulting from her mother’s early death when Wendy was nine months old, her own nomadic years as a young mother, her mixed heritage (Russian secular Jewish immigrants and East Coast artsy-literary Bohemian) and subsequent travel. Brought up in a left-wing family (father a member of the Communist Party during the 1930s), her family experienced terrible stress during the McCarthy witch-hunt, and she never felt comfortable in the U.S. She renounced her U.S. citizenship a few years ago, only to find herself back in the midst of a resurgence of ring-wing populism. Nowhere to hide!

The Interview

1. What inspired you to write poetry?

Poetry has been part of my life for as long as I can remember.  My cousin and I used to compete with one another memorising poems and reciting them from almost as early as we could read.  Rudyard Kipling and Lewis Carroll were our original favourites, before we moved on to Dorothy Parker and Edna St Vincent Millay.  It wasn’t long before I tried my hand at writing, but I have always been rubbish at end-rhyming, so my early efforts were filed in the wastepaper basket before they saw the light of day.  My mother, who died when I was 9 months old, was a playwright who had had two plays produced on Broadway, so I wasn’t about to try to follow in her footsteps.  My stepmother and my father both wrote short stories, so I tried my hand at fiction first, but they were both such stern critics that I almost gave up writing altogether, though the odd maudlin adolescent angst began to appear from time-to-time in my sporadic journal writing.  Eventually I began to excel at book reports and, at university, essays, but writing fiction was my first choice until I attended the first-ever under-graduate poetry diploma group at Oxford University, Continuing Education, Kellogg College.  The course was broad-based, and we were required to complete assignments in writing plays, writing prose fiction and writing poetry.  As I was working on a semi- autobiographical novel centred on the first two decades of my life, I chose prose fiction for my first assignment.  My efforts were demolished in my first tutorial with the prose tutor, Angela Hassell.  I was determined not to spend another hour in a room alone with her, so after that I began to choose poetry assignments, starting with a theme-linked sonnet sequence.  I had never written a sonnet, or wanted to, but it didn’t turn out too badly, and I didn’t have to face Ms. Hassell again very soon, so I turned my face towards verse.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Well, I guess that’s a toss-up between my grandfather who bellowed Kipling’s ‘If’ at me when I was a naughty nine-year-old and bought me the entire works of Shakespeare in single Modern Library editions, bound in red, when I was 12, and my father, who bombarded me with poems from the time I enjoyed having words read aloud to me.  He had memorised a lot of canon poetry from Shakespeare, Keats, Tennyson to Dylan Thomas and would hold forth on any occasion when he had an audience from one (me), or twenty plus at birthdays, New Year’s Eve parties, picnics, hikes – anywhere, and a poem for anytime.  He was a high school English teacher, and when he was teaching, I was treated to whatever was on the syllabus.  He wrote quite a lot of poetry himself, which I realised later was not all that good.  In the latter part of his teaching career, he began to teach adults and to read more modern and contemporary poetry. It was then I was presented with his favourites:  Carl Sandberg, Robinson Jeffers, Robert Frost, Denise Levertov, and subtly steered away from the likes of Marge Piercy!

3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?

I don’t think I ever experienced a dominating presence of older poets.  By the time I started writing poetry I was already an older poet myself.  I was daunted by the talent of much younger poets and peer poets who had been writing longer than I, and I had huge admiration for the likes of Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney, and Sharon Olds, who is only a little bit older than I.  No, no dominating presence, though perhaps I was naïve.  I wrote a lot of prose before I began to write poetry, and when I did begin, poetry seemed like more fun, and I thought I had nothing to prove.  I soon learned that the poetry world was just as competitive as the world of short-story writers and rookie novelists, and that I really didn’t know very much at all.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I have drifted away from having a very regular routine.  I keep a notebook, of course, which gets more and more haphazard, and I usually have a poem on the go that I am picking away at.  Revising an earlier piece will sometimes start me in the direction of something new – a germ of an idea in the notebook.  I have a few exercises which I have used to stimulate writing, but more recently this has felt a bit like cheating to me.  Poems that stem from exercises like these tend to feel forced, so I have pretty much stopped ‘chasing’ poems and am more inclined to wait until they find me.  It is perhaps easier to say what is NOT part of my writing routine.  I do not ‘journal’ daily at home, though I have kept travel journals over time which have yielded up a lot of useful material.  At home at my own desk, I can get bored trying to think of things to say. or gloomy going over past difficulties, conflicts, relationships, etc.  Equally I have never found free-writing exercises particularly useful, though I have taken part in them during writing workshops before I became inhibited about reading back first drafts.  Before I was retired, fitting in time to write was difficult.  If I was writing, I was neglecting something else I needed to do, whether it was to do with paid work, house work, tasks relating to offspring, etc.  The fact that I was neglecting something I ‘should’ be doing made writing seem a little naughty and subversive – something I had to sneak away to do and hide afterward.  Once I was retired, I had too much time and found I tended to squander it.  Initially I began to try to shape a writing routine by taking weekly poetry writing classes, which involved having prompts/assignments which were ‘due’ once a week.  That challenge made it necessary to produce at least one poem a week, which I could manage quite easily.  I had a marvellous tutor in the poet, Susan Utting, and her feedback and peer feedback was so useful.  As I began to get some approval from tutors and fellow students, I began to send things out, so part of the time I spent writing was devoted to putting together submissions.  This latter task always takes me way too long, and I get grumpy when I use up my writing time putting together submissions.  Taking time to read the work of other contemporary poets is an essential part of my daily routine, too, and going back to long-term favourites.

5. What motivates you to write?

That’s simple; I don’t know how not to write.  Every job I have ever had I have managed to turn into a vehicle for writing.  As a social worker, my secretaries vied with one another to type up my case notes because they were so interesting – like stories.  They were not meant to be, and I fell foul of my managers.  When I became a psychotherapist, I adopted the ‘narrative’ practice of the Milan group of systemic therapists and the Australian therapist, Michael White, and wrote letters to my clients between meetings reminding them of our ‘conversations’ and slipping in ‘interventions’.  I feel uncomfortable when I am not working on something – a poem, or a poetry project, though I try to forgive myself when it is just not happening for all the wide varieties of reasons daily life demands.

6. What is your work ethic?

What?  I actually had to look this up, a definition that worked.  I fail to see how to make it relate to poetry.  I have just about enough discipline to keep going, and I am dedicated to making my poems as good as I can make them.  I try to behave in a sensible and cooperative manner with other poets even when I feel they may be completely off the planet in what they are trying to achieve.  I enjoy reading and critiquing the work of others, but don’t ask me unless you want on honest opinion.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I think the greatest single influence from my reading when I was young was Emily Dickinson.  She showed me the whole underbody of what a poem is.  Looking at her short pieces full of her characteristic dashes for the first time was startling, a little bewildering, then finding the sting of her truths, uncovering ideas before I was old enough to realise how subversive they were.  I am always concerned that my work is too ‘obvious’.  Dickinson reminds me that it is a good thing to challenge readers enough to make them think, but not so much they become irritated and close the book.  I try not to care too much about simply pleasing readers, to care more about stimulating thought and engaging.  If poems do not engender thought or entertain, on some level, why would anyone be interested in reading them?  Why bother?  Poetry is a great form of communication; surely it is the poet’s responsibility to make that communication possible.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I still admire Sharon Olds, and more and more as we get older.  Her T.S. Eliot winner ‘Stag’s Leap’ was a tour de force in her particular skill:  a hardcore candour that hunts down details and does not spare them.  I know she is loved and hated equally for this quality.  I love her.  I also admire the audacious Kim Addonizio, another U.S. poet:  poems that sizzle with energy, fearless politics, and plenty of ironic undertones.  For a poet who almost always uses form and end-rhymes skilfully and thereby gets away with it, I think you can’t beat Alison Brackenbury.  I love Mark Doty, too.  He gives me permission to write poems about dogs, but for his self-deprecating humour that, in the words of one reviewer ‘reconciles trauma with grace’.  And oh, the late-lamented Tony Hoagland who says he came to poetry out of a thirst for truth-telling!  Oh and Anne-Marie Fyfe for her rare mixture of clarity and mystery.  This is only a very short list with room for Anne Carson – her sheer daring weirdness!

9. Why do you write?

Because I cannot not write.  Much as some days I wish I could stop writing poems, in particular, I know that I don’t really know how to do that.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I think I would ask them first why they wanted to become a writer.  It’s so damned hard, frustrating and brutally lonely.  If they seemed determined, I would say ‘just write and write and write and show it all to peer writers and more established writers and listen to their  feedback and use it, even if at first you don’t believe it; treat it as an experiment and see where it takes you.’ Once you are under way, find a critical group or a mentor you trust.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I have been in the process of moving house, or trying to, for nearly two years, and I am very involved with the care of my two youngest grandchildren:  1 and nearly 3, so I never have enough time to write as much as I think I would like to.  On the other hand, maybe that’s just an excuse for not generating much new material at present.  I have three short pamphlets recently finished, which I am trying to place, individually or as a three-section collection if I can unify it under a ‘Three-of’ title.  I am working on a ‘Selected’ for High Window Press, but not entirely convinced that it isn’t too soon after my last collection ‘Mood Indigo’ (2016).  that’s enough to be going on with for the time being, I believe.

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