Now Booking for my Fall Haven Writing Retreats!
September 10-14 (one spot left)
September 24-28 (one spot left)
October 8-12 (almost full)
October 22-26 (almost full)
Contact Laura: Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com
I read a lot of poetry. I think it’s because I don’t write poetry, so there is absolutely no inner critic clamoring around in my head saying “why can’t you do THIS?!” Instead, I’m usually just in a place of awe. Poetry shows me that every word needs to count. It shows me the music of the written word. The musical bones. I used to be intimidated by poetry, thinking I needed to know all my Greek gods and a little Latin, and probably be a bit better travelled to understand it. But that’s not true. I’ve learned that poetry is a feel thing. It’s a sculpture of words, images, and meaning, and in my opinion, a good poem shouldn’t feel “hard.” And if it does, check in a bit deeper– you probably understand it more than you think, in more of an intuitive way. So what you don’t know what the word Bard means?
I start each day with poetry. It breaks things down and sets me on a more pure course than reading a book on writing, or longer form prose. And at my Haven writing retreats, we work with poems to help us see the glory in simple nouns. The Big Lesson becomes small, and the small moments become the song. I love this about poetry.
What seems like a long time ago now, twenty-five years or so, I was buying an espresso in Seattle where I lived at the time. I was talking with the café owner about the book I was writing, and he said, “You ought to meet my niece. She’s a poet.” Immediate intimidation. But within minutes of meeting Christine Johnson-Duell, I knew I had a sister in words. We were in a writing group together for five years and she continues to support and inspire me by being exactly who she is: in love with words and all heart. She’s also a smarty-pants…but don’t let that intimidate you. Oh, and she makes a mean pasta sauce.
One of my favorite poems in the collection is called, Recipe for Sicilian Sauce in America. Her quote (and she’s being humble): “The sauce is really just called Red Sauce. It’s not exotic, but it’s what everyone in my family gravitates to when we need comfort. It must have three kinds of meat (sausage counts, even if you’re already using pork; ditto meatballs, even if you’re already using beef) and it requires cooking on a Saturday afternoon so it can simmer slowly. The poem is really about what comes before the sauce, what the sauce represents; its roots (my favorite thing, really, to consider: roots).”
I’m proud to feature her here at Haven. She has a poetry chapbook coming out called Italian Lessons, and I hope that you will pre-order it now (it debuts in September) and look forward to enjoying every word! Even the ones you don’t understand. Look for what lives in-between then. You will find my friend there holding your hand. And if you’re lucky, feeding you pasta! yrs. Laura
Your poetry collection is a chapbook. What exactly IS a chapbook?
Historically, a chapbook was a booklet that addressed a single topic. In recent years, it’s come to mean a short collection of poems, as short at 15 pages or as long as 40, that has a theme or arc that connects the poems. In the past few years, though, prose has been making a comeback in chapbooks. I like chapbooks for the distilled thinking they offer.
Your chapbook is called “Italian Lessons.” Why did you choose that title? Is it about learning Italian?
It took me some time to get to the title. It’s not about learning to speak Italian—which I can do, though I am rusty!—though I think there are lessons in it.
My mother’s family is Sicilian and I studied Italian in college and in Italy. My Italian heritage and education have always made appearances in my work—because it’s what I know and love.I realized that there’s a lot of Italian and Italian culture in my work. Once the poems were assembled, it turned out the collection was a perfect chapbook length and—more importantly—made sense. I studied Italian in college because I wanted to know more about my heritage. Italian Lessons just came to me—I like the double entendre: the literal roots of my ability to speak Italian and the roots of my personal culture—and my writing life, really.
Your writing? Aside from your family, how is Italy at the root of your writing life?
I went on a month-long study tour in Italy in college, to study il rinascimento—the Italian Renaissance—and Italian language. There were twelve of us, nine students and three professors, one of whom was the niece of Italian artist Modigliani! It was a dream trip; we spent a week in Rome, studying Classical Antiquity, two weeks in Florence, with the High Renaissance, and then back to Rome for the unwinding of Renaissance into the Baroque.
So much of what I learned on that trip has stayed with me. At the end of it, the professors asked me to write an article about the tour for the college’s alumnae magazine. It was my first publication—about Italy! So, even the roots of my writing are in Italy!
Can we find any parts of that study group in “Italian Lessons”?
Yes. It’s in many poems. My cousin Fred, who is in the book, was also traveling in Italy the same summer I was there and we met in Rome. Fred and I were two halves of a wonderful whole—and we figured that out in Rome. We’d known each other a little, growing up, but it was during that summer that we connected. When I started writing poetry, I sent all my poems to Fred first.
Was the study group the only time you went to Italy?
Oh, no. My husband and I went there on our honeymoon and then we went back with my family about ten years ago, to celebrate my parents’ 45th wedding anniversary. There are pieces of both of those trips in the book. But, there’s also Isabella Stewart Gardner, Mozart and his librettist, DaPonte, and my daughter.
Isabella Stewart Gardner? How did she get in there? Did you visit Venice?
No. Curiously, in three trips to Italy, I have never been to Venice. I grew up in a suburb of Boston and discovered the Gardner Museum when I was a teenager. The Gardner was unlike anything I had seen or experienced. I think it primed me for the study tour in Italy—possibly it prepared me for the life I have, as an artist. At the risk of portraying things as tidier than they actually are, I might even say that Italian Lessons is like my own Gardner Museum—things that might not seem to go together are next to each other—and it works.
Well, then, let’s diverge to something different. On your blog, yellowwallpaperwriters.com, you recently wrote something like an obituary for Seamus Heaney—in it you say he was part of your childhood.
Yes. He had a cameo appearance in my early life.
What do you mean, a cameo appearance?
Heaney—and other Irish writers and musicians—spent time at a home in my neighborhood that was owned by people who were early—and probably major—supporters of Ploughshares Magazine, which was, I think, among the first US publications that took Heaney’s work. He often visited but it wasn’t until I was in graduate school in the early 1990s that I really understood who he was. I love his work and I can say, honestly, I respect the man.
So he didn’t have a hand in your training as a writer?
No, no. His host, Ann Graham, was probably my first teacher. She and her husband were from Scotland and Ireland, respectively. They went to Glasgow and Dublin every summer and returned with books we couldn’t get here, which she lent to me regularly. I think she knew I would be a writer long before I did.
Well, we have strayed far from Italy!
Yes, but not from the lessons!
What do you mean?
Italy and things Italian have informed my life—so far, anyway! Italian culture and my Sicilian family have been touchstones for me—I even married another Italian American! And in my life there have been so many lessons, derived directly or indirectly from Italian.
Thanks for chatting with me about your book! It’s available for preordering, correct?
Yes, anyone can reserve a copy from Finishing Line Press. It will ship on September 20, 2014!
Praise for Italian Lessons:
n Christine Johnson-Duell’s deft hands, Italian Lessons don’t just teach us how to speak. They teach us how to sing, how to go. These poems are hungry but patient, curious and wise, like travelers anticipating well-earned meals that will further confirm what they learned on their journeys: to have a body is to discover the ways one becomes a figure of joy, a keeper of memory, a vessel of sorrow, an instrument of art.
–Kate Lebo, A Commonplace Book of Pie
In this debut collection, Italy, art, and tomatoes combine to create a luminous meal of memory. From Sicily to Boston, childbirth to Mozart, the poet turns her trenchant eye “to pray to primary colors and their offspring.” As we travel by train, across a life, readers listen in: “I want to lean out / of this tight frame” and in these well-crafted lyric poems, Christine Johnson-Duell achieves just this; the music of these words live on in this reader’s mind well beyond the page.
–Susan Rich, Cloud Pharmacy and others
Christine Johnson-Duell’s first collection ricochets, if one can use that verb with such understated work, between Italy and America. These poems attend to the refractions of language and art, but are firmly rooted in family and friendship. And at their best, they unflinchingly lean out over the rails of love and loss, between what was and and what will be.
- Sean Bentley, Fine Madness magazine