"SOME NOTES YOU HOLD: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS" by Rita Sims Quillen (Madville Publishing, 84 pages, $17).
Some books serve as fuel to replenish our spirits; others spark fire to mobilize our actions. While both types are needed to face the trials of this world, Rita Sims Quillen's "Some Notes You Hold" is the former type. Through precise details and crafted metaphors with a focus on the Appalachian landscape and family memories, the poems in this collection remind us to pause, breathe and see the beauty around us.
Quillen answered questions from Chapter 16 by email.
QOne of the book's finest achievements is its ability to convey a love for life despite its hardships. Is this something that you intended from the outset, or did the act of writing the poems lead to the transformation?
A: No, not really a conscious thing. The book began with the poems about my dad as I tried to write my way out of grief. Over time, as those poems seemed to stop coming, I began to write the series of poems about music: why I love it so, why it makes me so happy. I realized then that I was trying to write my way to a better place and to become reconciled to this new world I was living in, where loss and grief would now become a fixture of the landscape.
QOne delight in the book is the attention paid to nature and how the landscape can help center us. Gardening, too, has an almost redemptive power. Are you an avid gardener? How does nature soothe in ways that are different from writing?
A: When I was a kid and Dad would make us help him work in his garden, I wasn't a fan! But as I got older, I enjoyed having a vegetable garden and fruit trees, putting up all that bounty in the freezer or in jars to feed my family during the year. It's so satisfying seeing rows of jars full of food you have grown and preserved yourself.
Gardening gives you a feeling of accomplishment like nothing else: no pressure or judgment, really, nothing to prove. You see the immediate rewards of your work. Physical work is seriously underrated in general as therapeutic, as spiritually uplifting, as character-building. Philosopher Simone Weil wrote extensively about this idea, that physical work done thoughtfully and purposefully offers a kind of transcendent experience where "work occupies its rightful place it becomes a point of contact between this world and the world beyond."
QTell us about the verses from the ancient Chinese poets that are offered at the beginning of each section of the book. How did you come to choose these poems as doorways into your own poems?
A: I feel an enormous affinity with these ancient women who were obviously so keenly aware of how it was through a connection with nature and words that they could ascend to some higher place spiritually and creatively. When I read these poems that I used, it amazed me to think they were living in a time and place I can't imagine, over a thousand years ago in some cases, yet their voices sounded real and intimate in my ear as if they were sitting nearby.
QThe book deftly discusses grief in a variety of ways. What did you learn about the process of grief that you did not know when you began this book?
A: How dangerous grief is. How insidious. How multidimensional it is. If a person has lost a spouse, parent, child, anyone who was a very important part of their life and deeply loved, be prepared and on guard for a tsunami of effects that may appear to have nothing to do with the loss itself. It could be with regard to your health, your money, your job, your personality, your relationships with those still living. Anything.
The other thing I learned: The cliché is true. It does get better with time. Take this opportunity to learn true patience.
QWhile there is so much wisdom offered in your new book about how to take on grief's "tsunami of effects," there is also so much love of life in these poems. Why do you think poets often avoid writing about joy and focus on tragedy instead?
A: I think it's just the thing in this post-modern world we are living, writing and publishing in. It's the same reason we've killed humor in poetry. Poets used to be called "wits" back in the day, but too much joy and humor these days will get you dismissed as a lightweight in a hurry in some circles. I don't care, fortunately, since I've never had to worry about having a "writing career" or anything like that. I can do what I want.
If you are not writing toward wholeness, healing, love, happiness, purpose, wisdom, compassion and serving others, then what are you doing? And who are you doing it for?
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.