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TRENDER: Poet Lisa Starr

Tuesday, April 01, 2014


Lisa Starr wears many hats, but follows her main passion of expressing the fostering language through poetry.

Who are the Rhode Islanders leading in arts, fashion, food, and style? They're Trenders, and GoLocalProv offers a glimpse of the people you most want to know on the scene. Today's Trender is Lisa Starr, a former Rhode Island Poet Laureate and the founder of the Block Island Poetry Project.

Starr somehow manages to balance all of her roles as a mother of two teenagers, an innkeeper of Block Island's Hygeia House, a teacher, a coach, and a poet. She served as Rhode Island's Poet Laureate from 2008 to 2013, and she is the two-time recipient of a Rhode Island Fellowship for Poetry. She is the author of three full-length collections of poetry, which have appeared in a variety of journals and publications over the last two decades. Her Block Island Poetry Project is in its 11th year, taking place from April 10th thru the 13th.

This is an annual gathering of poets, thinkers, musicians, and ordinary folks from across the country that are invited to spend a weekend at Starr's island inn. During this springtime getaway, the participants are asked to share their work and to engage in fruitful workshops and discussions about their careers, their poetry, the arts, and their necessary place in the world. For anyone interested in learning more about the BIPP, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the Project's ten-year anthology, Where Beach Meets Ocean. This book contains 130 poems featuring writers like Billy Collins and Coleman Barks, but it is the poignant introduction to the collection which struck me most of all.

Much of Starr's poetry is reminiscent of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself,” in that it demonstrates an overflowing exuberance about the joy found in the simple moments of ordinary life for those who are acutely attentive to the finer details. She also demonstrates the ability to feel intense and palpable grief during times of loss, and her readers are able unite their own suffering to hers as they take part in Starr's personal struggles. Her poetry spans the full gamut of experience and emotion found in human existence, and readers everywhere should hope that she continues sharing her gift. Her most recent poetic collection, Mad With Yellow (2008), can be found on Amazon and more information on her Block Island Poetry Project is available on the event's website.   

A conversation with Lisa Starr

When did your interest in poetry first develop? How did your education affect your decision to become a writer? Over the years, which members of the American literary circle have served as your greatest sources of inspiration?

I started reading and writing poems when I was a little kid—probably 6 or 7. In elementary school (shout out to the Ledyard Center School), my teachers encouraged my creativity. They even allowed me to write the school plays, which were all composed in rhymed verse. At Ledyard High School, I was very fortunate, once again, to have a couple of teachers who completely encouraged me to go on trying to find my voice and to keep on writing.

I single out these events because my experiences in several colleges and universities were entirely different. As an undergraduate (in schools I won’t mention here, in case they’ve gotten any better), I had several instructors encourage me to stop writing—as if my poems were just a waste of my time and theirs. So essentially, I kept dropping out of school. Some part of me has always needed to write, and it seemed to me more important to do that—to write some books of poetry, than to sit in a classroom deconstructing William Carlos Williams and post-modernism.

My greatest sources of inspiration come from a variety of worlds, not just the American literary circle, though if I had to choose a few they would include the incomparable Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye (one of the all time great teachers and the kindest, surely, of all poets), and my dear friend and companion, Coleman Barks. I have been greatly moved and inspired, from a distance, by the work of Gary Snyder. And then there is Galway Kinnell, and Robert Bly, and Marie Howe…and so many others. And while many of these poets are part of our contemporary literary canon, my respect for them is more based on my personal experience knowing them as friends, admired poets, but also inspiring teachers. It’s not worth anything, you know, if you haven’t figured out a way to share it.

How have your experiences in the Rhode Island area, and specifically on Block Island, influenced your work?

I write about what I know and what I see, so they have both influenced me in different ways. Block Island in particular—and my own yellow house, even more particularly—has become the landscape for much of what I write. That said, so do airports, diners, and creekbeds, when I’m in or near them.

Why did you decide to become an innkeeper and how has this occupation shaped your life as a poet?

My decision to become an innkeeper was more a result of my love for an old, abandoned building that I convinced my (then) husband we had to purchase and renovate. I was called to the building, not the profession. So let’s just say that I’m not particularly well-suited for inn-keeping, though the chasm between my two vocations as a writer and an innkeeper lends itself to some pretty colorful writing.

When did you decide to start your Block Island Poetry Project?

I decided to start my series in 2003 on the way home from a week-long writing conference at a very well-respected retreat center with some very fine writers. I spent the week watching their program fall apart—participants were becoming less rather than more engaged, teachers and poets were idolized and they kept their distance, and a few particularly needy folks were derailing the whole thing.

I was driving home, and thinking about how I would have done things differently—what is that called? A Monday morning quarterback, or something? And as I was thinking about it, it just took shape. I pulled over, made a bunch of lists and assigned numbers to them, and also a list of the teachers I had worked with over the years that I felt earned their titles as both poets and teachers. And then I got to work. I launched he first annual BIPP about 5 months later.

How do you prepare for your Block Island Poetry Project each year? What work must go on behind the scenes so that this event runs as smoothly as possible? What do you hope that the participants take away from this weekend? How do your predict that this upcoming Poetry Project will be different from past years?

The poetry project is in April of each year (to coincide with National Poetry Month). As soon as it’s over, I transition into my busy season at the inn. By October, when things quiet down again, I generally have a few ideas swimming around—whether it’s a teacher I am intrigued by or a topic that keeps coming up that it seems we are being called to explore.

The behind-the-scenes work is so relentless that I refuse to give it any additional time or attention here. It is its own beast but I have tempered it these last few years by enlisting a support team (like me, it is all volunteer-based; no one except our visiting poets/artists are paid). Also, there were years when I offered 5 or 6 separately themed weekends (poetry and revolution, poetry and music, poetry and publishing, etc.). We have toned that down tremendously.

This year’s series will be different than the last 2 because for one thing, it will be considerably more intimate. Instead of 60 participants we will have about 25. Workshops will be smaller, our genres are more broad-reaching—photography, rock-building, the joy of movement, poetry and names, poetry and bird-watching, etc. So our work this year is as much about rekindling the spirit as it is writing better or more poems.

You have published three collections of poetry over the course of your career: Days of Dogs and Driftwood (1993), This Place Here (2001), and Mad With Yellow (2008). Over this fifteen year span, how did your writing style develop and how did your subject matter change?

My writing style is really just an extension of how I speak, when I am trying, as I always have, to name what I see in the world through the medium of language. Neither my style nor my subject matter has changed all that much—joy, grief, nature, beauty, more joy, more grief. And dogs. Lots of dogs. I would hope that my skills have gotten a little sharper over the years but essentially, I think my voice and my material have remained the same. I write what I know. On good days, I write it well.

A couple of your poems which had the greatest effect on me after reading were "Quilting" and "Waiting to Meet the Visiting Nurse." These poems seem intensely personal, yet they are extremely relatable to a modern American individual. Could you comment briefly on your personal experiences that inspired these works of art?

Good ol’ grief at the heart of both of those, of course. In the former, my grief at the loss of my soul’s best companion, so far in this life—my golden retriever, Brother, who died at the age of 8 just before Christmas of last year. In the second poem, I was trying to find a language for something that was difficult to name, mostly because of it was so painful. The issue was my mother’s rapidly advancing dementia. But do you see how “rapidly advancing dementia” is not the right language for what it is like when one’s parent begins to lose mental faculties, and memory, and orientation, and the Ziploc bags are in the oven, and the food you leave her goes uneaten, and there are bruises on her body she can’t explain, and you and your siblings have decided to take her car keys from her and so on…that’s when you need poetry—it provides the vessel for a language that is closer to its topic.

Interesting that in both of the poems you’ve chosen, the almost unsayable grief becomes the final grace, and the lasting beauty.

Speak a little bit about your time served as the Poet Laureate of Rhode Island. What was your initial reaction to this exciting news? What were some of your duties during this period of deserved distinction from 2008-2013?

I was informed by the Governor’s office of the appointment on April 12, 2007. If my mother hadn’t died in January of that year, this auspicious day would have been her 70th birthday. So I somehow felt I had finally received my mother’s full blessing; many of my choices—dropping out of school, say, and moving to “that God-forsaken island” hadn’t gone over so well with her, and in many ways she felt I was wasting my life.

In my capacity as Poet Laureate, I worked with as many varied populations as I had time for, both in and out of academic settings: assisted living facilities, senior centers, shelters, the prison, etc. Of course each place requires a different method or plan, but essentially, at the heart of it is the desire to re-teach people, all people, that their own voices are unique, and authentic, and necessary. I am proud to be a member and one of the founders of Ocean State Poets, a team of volunteer poets that continue their work in these circles in various communities around the state.

How do you believe that writing, and specifically poetry, can positively shape our society? What message, if any, do you hope to convey in your lines of verse?

I really try to not take myself too seriously as a poet, and I continue to hear myself saying (and believing) that getting the living right is more important than getting the writing right. That said, there are times, moments, when I am desperate to get something down on paper—it could just be a moment with one of my kids, or the way that water has of rippling. Or it could be what it is like to go through my days without Brother. When the feeling is urgent, so is the need to get the language right. I guess that’s what I try to convey—that feeling is okay. In fact, it might be the final glory.

How often do you sit down with the pen and paper to write your poems? Do you have any future publication plans?

I sit down whenever the mood strikes, and I write what comes, and if I have time or I particularly like it, I type it up and send it to my sister or Coleman, or one of a handful of friends who seem to really love, maybe even need, my poems. Every 7 or 8 years, I make a book out of them. Right now I have thoughts for three new collections—one is a book of poems about daughters, another about sons, and the third a collection of poems tracking the last 6 or 7 years of my life which include settling into middle age, raising teenagers, going through a divorce, and experiencing the tragic loss of way too many friends (of all ages).

If you could offer one piece of advice to a young writer, what would it be?

Don’t let anyone try to convince you that you are not “good enough” to be a poet. If you love to write, and you feel a particular calling to do it, then honor those impulses. Find teachers and other writers who are supportive rather than critical. Read other poets, and read them out loud. And write because you want to, because you love to, because you know that you have something to say that might just make a difference in someone else’s world.


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