Bookpleasures.com is pleased to have as our guest today, Virginia Slachman, Ph.D.
Virginia is the author of three collections of poetry and an award-winning chapbook in addition to her novel, The Lost Ode, a literary mystery set on a thoroughbred breeding farm in Kentucky, and Many Brave Hearts, a memoir recounting her family's struggles with PTSD.
Former poetry editor of Aspen Anthology and associate director of the Aspen Writers Conference, Virginia's work has received numerous fellowships and awards. A Pushcart-nominated poet, her work has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, both in the U.S. and the U.K. She has served as professor of creative writing and literature for over twenty years.
Norm: Good day Virginia and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going? As a follow up, What draws you to express yourself through poetry and what drew you to poetry?
Virginia: I’ve always written, even from early childhood. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been scribbling something down in a journal or, later, on the computer. I think we all have unique ways of expressing ourselves—some people are more visually oriented, some are attracted to music, some to athletics . . . it’s always seemed very natural to me to express myself in language.
In answer to your last question, I think I’m most authentically a poet; it’s the rhythms, music, and fluidity of language that captivates me as a writer.
As for what keeps me going . . . well, it’s not the pay I get for writing poetry, that’s for sure! As I said, it’s the activity—for me—where I can be most authentically myself.
Norm: Is your work improvisational or do you have a set plan?
Virginia: Oh I never, ever have a plan! At least when I write poetry. It’s always an act of discovery. I do have friends who consciously decide to write “about” something, or to write a poem that “describes” some experience. I never do that. To me, meaning resides in the language itself, so my work as a poet is never “about” something. At its best or most successful, it’s an act of being that the reader can participate in. I think that’s the difference between a lyric poet –and I’d put myself in that category—and a narrative poet.
Norm: It is sometimes said that people in times of need turn to poetry. Is this true and if so, why? As a follow up, what is the source of your poetry? From where do the poems come?
Virginia: As a culture, I agree with you. Our best poets from age to age have reflected their era’s heart and soul. I think of William Butler Yeats during World War I—some of those poems are still heartbreaking. And the Beat Generation’s poems of the 1950s-60s also reflected the state of our own tumultuous times.
Too, I think people turn to art that’s essential when they’re in times of need. Mark Rothko’s huge paintings, for instance, envelop viewers in a word of vibrant color and it’s said people have been moved to tears in front of them. Why is that? I think the best art, of whatever sort, touches us in a deeply essential place, a place where all the accouterments of society are stripped away and we’re all simply and profoundly human.
As for my own work, I know I spend a lot of time cultivating a silence from which can emerge language that reaches into that deeply human place. So I hope my poetry extends from that silence in a way that’s communicative.
I’m not interested in telling stories in my poetry; rather I’m interested in allowing the reader to participate in an experience of being human that’s beneath the surface of our day-to-day existence. I think this interest is why I love Kant and Heidegger so much; they’re both such meticulous thinkers and, at least it seems to me, they both have interest in exploring ontological (as well as epistemological) experiences where all the surface differences fall away and only what’s most essentially human remains.
Norm: Would you say you get clarity about a subject from writing a poem about it? If so, please elaborate.
Virginia: I don’t really think a lot when I write poetry—it’s mostly about listening. And then following authentic language as it, more or less, unfolds itself. I’ve heard it said that the entirety of a poem is contained in the first line. I think that’s true. Once I begin with a genuine “nugget,” the poem unfolds from that, if I can be quiet enough to listen and follow.
My memoir is a different
story entirely. My family’s experience with PTSD made for a very
rough childhood for my brother and me. I knew from a very young age
that I’d have to write our story at some point. When it came to
that moment, I expected it was going to be a horrid, painful, hellish
experience because our family life had been pretty tough. But as I
wrote, I was surprised.
Yes, there was horror and pain, but what I didn’t realize until I wrote the book, was how much love there was, and how powerfully healing that love was. So it took the act of writing for me to see my family’s experience clearly. And I published the book because I think it could be of great help to contemporary veterans and their families. You can’t underestimate the power of love—I definitely learned that was true in our case.
Norm: How would you define a good poem?
Virginia: Oh, Norm, that is a very good question! Well, what I’ve come to understand is that there are lots of types of good poems, and each has its own set of characteristics. So, for instance, a good formal poem’s attributes are different from a good lyric poem’s; a good narrative poem has value in a way that’s different from a successful elegiac poem, and so on.
That’s not to say there
are also some general rules for successful poetry across the board,
but I’ve seen too many students dismiss poems that aren’t to
their “taste” without understanding that perhaps they are
valuable in ways the student isn’t quite grasping.
Since I’m most familiar with the lyric, I would say that –and again, this is just for me—I admire lyric poems that make the most of the emotional overtones of our language, that elegantly work with those tonal qualities in tension or concert with the rhythmic qualities of the language, and that make use of these in the context of line breaks, pauses and word placement throughout the poem. And of course, a vibrant, honest, pure image is essential. This sort of poem is more like music or painting to me than it is like prose, and just as in a symphony or complex abstract painting, the complexities of emotion, sound, rhythm, and movement all come into play.
Norm: How do you feel as to the way language and words are used today?
Virginia: I think language is often used cavalierly today. Part of that is the instantaneous nature of our world—everything’s available immediately, leaving little time for contemplation. As well, the impermanence of our publishing outlets also contributes to the problem. If what you’ve written either isn’t going to be “posted” for long, or can be deleted at will, there’s little reason to devote yourself to expression. And we’re so rushed today; there seems little time for quiet contemplation.
Norm: Do you feel that there are some subjects that are more important than others to write poetry about?
Virginia: I don’t think the issue is the subject so much as an issue of respect. There are some poets who seem more concerned with their own persona as a poet rather than the poem as a work of art. And that shows in the shallowness of the poetry. So to me, authenticity is the key to a “real” poem, rather than the subject matter.
Norm: What motivated you to write Many Brave Hearts and could you tell our audience a little about the memoir.
Virginia: As I mentioned earlier, writing our family’s story was something I was compelled to do; it wasn’t a choice, really. The hardships our family endured stayed with me, leaving wounds that needed healing. PTSD is an insidious condition; its corrupting influence affects the sufferer and all who come in contact with him or her. It’s an isolating, destructive condition that makes one unable to trust, or love. The fear inherent in PTSD is something that must be penetrated if there is going to be progress.
In my family’s case, my mother was the afflicted one. Like many returning veterans, she entered the service prior to World War II with an idealist motivation: she wanted to serve the country she felt had give so much to her family. She enrolled in nursing school, and became a nurse anesthetist, serving in Patton’s Third Army in the first evacuation hospital just behind the front lines in Germany. I did a lot of research to find out about what her service might have been like since she never spoke about it—couldn’t, as it turned out—but there is very little published about women’s’ experiences during WWII. Even with the help of an army archivist, I found only meager amounts of information. But what I did find was harrowing. My mother stood in the operating room sometimes days on end, seeing horrible wounds, watching young men die a painful death . . . it was too much for her. There’s a photo of my mother as she graduated nursing school; it looks nothing like the broken, alcoholic, abusive person who raised me.
My father, who was a Lt. Commander on submarines in the South Pacific, spoke about his war experiences continually. There was an incredible tension in our family derived from how the war had been a defining moment in my father’s life, but had destroyed my mother—I think the memoir was my attempt to understand that. Ultimately, to my surprise, I saw that it was my father’s unrelenting love for my mother that finally accomplished what electric shock, decades of psychotherapy (including a stint on a locked psychiatric ward) could not do—it healed my mother.
Norm: What would you say is the best reason to recommend someone to read Many Brave Hearts?
Virginia: If my family’s story had turned out to be merely a grim one, I wouldn’t have published it. But I do think it’s evidence that, no matter how debilitating the mental turmoil or condition, the love of family can be a powerful healing presence. That’s the main reason, I think, to read the book. Thought I thought I was writing about how my brother and I survived an abusive childhood, what I came to see was that I actually was writing a love story—chronicling the love my father had for my mother. And the love they both had for my brother and me. It’s the story of triumph, not defeat.
The second reason that the book may be of interest is that it’s a first-person account of naval battles fought during WWII. I gave my father an audio recorder toward the end of his life and asked him to recount all those war stories he told during my childhood. The book is structured as a dual narrative—my recounting of our family life interspersed with excerpts from my father’s audio-taped reminiscences. So there is a lot of primary source material about WWII that you won’t find elsewhere, including my father’s experiences at Pearl Harbor and in battles with the Japanese. It’s very graphic and the Naval Academy, where my father went to school, wants copies of his audiotapes for their archives. I know my father would be very pleased that his experiences will be a part of the official history of a war that was such an important part of of his life.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Virginia: A long, long time ago, someone said to me, “If you don’t have to write, if you’re not compelled to write, then you’re not a writer.” I think that’s true. It has nothing to do with being “good enough”—there are always fads and trends in what’s published. Historically, many who we consider great writers today were overlooked in their own era. Writing is more about identity than anything else, I think. If you have to write, then you write.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your work?
Virginia: There is a lot
of information about me on my WEBSITE
There is information about all my books, excerpts from a radio interview and a print interview, and links to purchase the poetry, memoir, and novel on Amazon. And a small smattering of info at Amazon and on Goodreads.
Norm: Are you working on any books/projects that you would like to share with us? (We would love to hear all about them!)
Virginia: Oh, yes! The second edition of my literary mystery novel—The Lost Ode—is just now out and available on Amazon.
It was so much fun to write! I love the mystery genre and always have one on my nightstand. But I don’t enjoy the bloody, twisted “thrillers”—my taste runs more to intellectual puzzles, so that’s what I’ve written. As well, I enjoy research and this book is full of authentic details about the lives of the British Romantic poet John Keats and his brother George.
The book also involves my other love—thoroughbred horses. I have worked a lot in the thoroughbred rescue industry, caring for and re-training ex-racehorses who have come off the track due to injury or just not making in the high-dollar racing world. So this book is set on a stud farm in Kentucky. I was able to live on a working stud farm in Kentucky to do research for the book, so all the “behind the scenes” information about breeding (and doing away with!) racehorses is accurate.
The book’s been so well-received, I’m now finishing up the revision of the second book in the series—look for that one out soon, too!
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors
Follow Here To Find Out More About and Purchase Many Brave Hearts: A Memoir