Sunday, April 9, 2023

Writing Poems from Childhood Memories: An Interview with Jeanne Wagner

This post is an interview with the writer Jeanne Wagner, who has created many powerful poems based on childhood memories.

Jeanne Wagner
Jeanne Wagner’s poetry collections have great titles: The Zen Piano-mover, which won the NFSPS Poetry Prize; In the Body of Our Lives, published by Sixteen Rivers Press; and most recently, Everything Turns Into Something Else, published in 2020 as runner-up for the Grayson Book Prize. She is the winner of the 2021 Joy Harjo Award and the 2022 Cloudbank Poetry Prize. Here is the poem by Jeanne that we discuss in this blog:

A Private History of Light


I was a shy girl who wanted

a soft light, a sieved light,  

the penury of starlight strained

through an infinite sky.

I thought light should be holy,

nestled in small red jars

we lit for a nickel to smell

the sweet paraffin

softening beneath the flame.

I wanted a nun-light

that lived in the convent’s

honey-scented floor wax

so the sisters could apply

the glint of their God

on their hands and knees.

Not those garish palettes

shouting from billboards and

TV screens their technicolor

desires. Not the bright

flit of cardinal wings

launching from the feeder.

Not yet, they all said, not yet.

Certainly not those carnal

sunsets, red as pain.

A woman’s color.


Zack Rogow: What kind of experiences from your childhood seem to lend themselves to becoming poems? With a based on childhood, do you base it on one incident, or on a series of memories?


Jeanne Wagner: Usually I base a poem on an isolated memory – my earliest memories are very intense and visual. In the case of “A Private History of Light,” I’ve based it on memories of lighting candles in church and of once sitting on the convent stairs, admiring the smooth, golden surface of the wood, the freshness and purity of it, which even then I saw as a kind of lovely artifice, like stained glass windows and choir music. Elements that contrasted with the life around me.


Q: In your poems, the imagery is from your childhood, but it feels so immediate. How do you take a private, personal memory and turn it into something a reader can experience directly?


JW: Well, first I trust the memory’s sensuous capabilities, which make it survive. Also, I don’t believe that memories are random, but are created in a binary system of pleasure or pain that is automatically triggered to help us survive. I have to relive the memory, put it under my mental microscope and examine what made it so imperative that it has lasted a lifetime. Then there is usually some more contemporary image I want to pair it with. The motive for the poem. That’s the difficult part, fusing these two worlds without seeming labored and obvious.


Q: You’re skilled at using active and distinctive language that conveys motion. In “A Private History of Light,” I see the words strained, nestled, softening, shouting, flit, launching. How do you find the right word to make a description come alive?


JW: Interesting that you pointed this out. I notice that most of those words are participles or adverbs. I do tend to use a lot of those, rather than adjectives. Adjectives are more static. It’s a way, I suppose, of instilling motion in a scene which is primarily visual.


Q: Would you say there’s an unspoken tension in this poem between two opposing world views or realms of experience: a softly lit religious retreat from the world, and a brightly lit realm of vitality that is also associated with pain? How did those two realms crystalize as the poem formed in your mind? Should a poem create a dialectic between conflicting world views?


JW: When I started this poem, I had been trying to write a poem about the color red, my early experiences and reactions to it. I found myself choosing images from my parochial school background. My poems, especially my childhood poems, often center on the conflict between the sacramental, abstract principles of the Catholic church and the unbalanced, but vivid home life of my childhood. That dialectic is always very near the surface, because religion deals with the primary transitions of life: birth, marriage, death, and everyone’s favorite, sex. A poem doesn’t have to have a dialectic between two worlds, but poems do need a kind of tension or a turning point or an implicit analogy. Even narrative poems, if well done, will find themselves working against the world of ordinary expectations or reactions.


Q: There is a surprising turn at the end of “A Private History of Light” where you describe red as the color of pain, “A woman’s color.” That mention of gender seems to come out of nowhere, and yet it fits the poem. At what point in your writing process did that become the ending of the poem, and how did you prepare the reader for it without tipping your hand?

JW: The writer Stephen Dunn once said that a poet should always know the ending before beginning the poem. Unfortunately, I don’t always live up to that. But in this poem, the red worked as a final image for me because it is the color childbirth and menstruation. That came to me suddenly as the heart of the poem: the inherent wounds of women, which are internal and recurring.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, BĂ©renice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry