The Bookshelf: Poet Shelley Girdner

Apr 15, 2016

The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State.  All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. 

If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features poet Shelley Girdner. Her debut collection of poetry covers a lot of territory. There are poems about youth, love, loss, faith, parenthood, and finding one’s way in life. And these poems come in a variety of forms: free verse, prose poems, villanelles, and even one triolet. The book is called You Were That White Bird. Scroll down to read a list of the top five books on Girdner's bookshelf, listen to her conversation with Peter Biello, or read the transcript.

Shelley Girdner's Top 5 Book Recommendations:

1.   Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughren. "We risk losing something important when we fall out of touch with the children we were. This book is both a depiction of that danger and a balm against it. Neverland is beginning to fall apart at the seams, and Wendy and the Old Boys (FKA the Lost Boys, before they became adults and professionals on the London scene) must find a way back, despite the fact that they have grown too big to fly, don’t know any fairies and are distant from the joys that used to levitate them. You’ll have to look for this in the children’s section of bookstores and libraries, but it’ll be worth the hunt; Peter Pan in Scarlet is funny, charming and psychologically true at every turn, as it investigates the wages of growing up and leaving a whole world behind."

2.   A Wizard for Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin. "LeGuin notes in her afterword that she wrote this book for young adults. Her attention to magic and the time spent at a boarding school (one that’s downright monastic when compared to a certain other school for the aspiring wizarding set) might speak to that, but the complex study of the power of naming and the deep meditation on the place of evil in the world make this book an absorbing read for anyone 11+. The story is about the young wizard Ged who, struggling with a power he can’t completely control, unwittingly releases a terrible shadow into the world. Part of becoming an adult is accepting just how badly we can mess up and living with the consequences, and so it is in the world of Earthsea. It’s also worth noting that LeGuin’s vision of the afterlife as a place without wind or movement, a sky whose constellations never set, is at once stunningly original and somehow familiar enough to be true."

3.   Selected Poems by Mark Strand. "Everything about this book is a pleasure to me, from the cover—all those vessels lined up, waiting to be filled, a visual metaphor for the poems inside, to the author photo—spoiler alert, Strand looks like Clint Eastwood in the iconic black and white headshot. But mostly, it’s the poems themselves, which stunned me as a nineteen year old encountering them for the first time, and which stun me still. Strand is adept at making surreal, emotionally resonant images. In his landscape, bare winter trees become “lungs of light” and gramophones find themselves stranded on a beach, accompanying nostalgic professors. One of the secrets of the strange tension of Strand’s poems is that he so often expands and releases what we know to be small and contained.  He is always playing with perspective and as a result of reading him, you can’t help but expand your own.

4.   What the Living Do by Marie Howe. "Howe is a real counterpoint to Strand in this collection, offering in place of the strangely out-of-proportion in Strand, a study of the finite details of life. In Howe’s poems, everyday things like ham and cheese sandwiches become talismans, reminders that we only have so much time to “sort of look around” and we better get busy and pay attention to it all.

5.   Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson. "Kate Atkinson’s more recent novels, A God in Ruins and Life After Life are both more achieved and more devastating than this debut, but all the signs of her talent are fully on display—braided narratives; a radical twist at the end that is exquisitely prepared for; the war historian’s expertise. What’s most surprising here is the humor.  The novel is a story of five generations of women, culminating in Ruby, an exuberant narrator who introduces herself by offering a play-by-play of her own conception. Her mid-20th century storyline is full of characterizations that are hilariously scathing—from the tomcat father to a beautiful but vicious older sister. The book provides glimpses of post-World War II Britain leaving behind rationing to enter the prosperity of the suburbs, ice boxes and tellys, while navigating the consequences of loss and the way a truth withheld always finds a way to make itself known."

Tell us a little bit about that white bird in both the title of this book and the title of the poem inside the book. What is this white bird all about?

The white bird in the poem is a particular white bird, and it’s a story that’s associated with Nicola Tesla, the inventor who worked on electricity. And a friend of mine was reading his biography and was really interested in this part where he was in love with I think it was a morning dove or a pigeon, but it was a white bird. And as she was talking, this line—she was speaking about him—and I just heard this line, “you were that white bird,” when she was speaking, and the poem just started to write itself in that moment. So, that’s one white bird. There’s some other white birds that started to appear just from that point on in my life. I just started noticing them, they started to feel like they were coming for visitations.

Birds coming to visit you. Okay. Well, I’d love it if we could hear this poem, “You Were That White Bird”. Could you read it for us?

I will, yes:

You were that white bird, the one that came to him
and which he knew to be his love despite the long
distances you’d traveled and the metamorphosis
from expected form as human woman into pigeon dam.

The moments between you as bird and him as man
fit into a barely parted beak; they were that slim,
but when you died, he stopped working, dreaming,
loving anything else. He once held you in his hands.

You’ve wished as a woman now that he might be
on the front porch one morning, the magnolia bloom
he carries as a creamy pale as your feathers had been.
But it doesn’t even have to be that big.

The real moral from your life as the white bird
and the love that sprang from barest concurrence
is this: All love is really crumbs
to be scattered and retrieved.

That’s a beautiful poem

Thank you.

I was curious about where the white bird came from, in part because a lot of the other poems in this book draw on stories that cultures or religions may know pretty well. Like you reference Kali the Hindu goddess, you have stories from the bible Cain and Abel, Adam and Eve. It made me feel like you were drawing from a very deep well and I was wondering what part of the well the bird came from. What is about these centuries’ old stories that inspire you?

I think that they are stories, right? Just that they’re stories that last, stories that stick around, and that you can feel that power in those stories. I come from a family of I would say women storytellers. A lot of time spent listening to my great grandmother, and my grandmother, and my mom telling stories of their lives. And so, I’ve just always been listening and always been hearing. I also was raised in the church and spent a lot of time on Sundays in the pew listening to versions of the stories. And I think I’ve just always loved a good story.

You said you grew up in Virginia?

I did, yes. Well, I grew up in Texas first, and then we moved to Virginia when I was a little bit older.

Two places where religion may figure more prominently than it does in New Hampshire.

That’s right, yeah.

And your references to God here aren’t necessarily tied to a particular faith. There’s one poem I’m thinking of, hopefully I can find it quickly, it’s talking about… here it is “The Shore”.

Before God made the shore
he divined a woman walking there
her sorrow a deep hurt she could not name.

And it goes on to just so perfectly capture this woman’s feelings and her relationship to the natural world, feeling as almost it was put there for her not as a cure, but as an answer. An answer with no cure. 

Yeah. I think I learned that actually, or I found that comfort in the environment actually up here in New Hampshire. And, in particular, I have a peer poet, Kimberly Cloutier Green, and her book is The Next Hunger, and that’s something I feel like I learned through her, is finding actual comfort in the landscape, finding that knowing. I think we want other people to prove that they somehow know us in a way we didn’t know ourselves. And to me it’s very often in this book that God figure is the person who knew you in a way you didn’t know yourself. And I think I learned through Kimberly that sometimes the world itself was the place where you could find that knowing, that recognition of “I know who you are,” or “I know what you need right now.”

This book contains a variety of poems of different forms. There’s a lot of free verse, but there’s also prose poems, there’s a villanelle. How do you as a poet tell when a poem needs a strict form and when it sort of needs to take its own shape?

I think the ones that are really strict form like the triolet in the book— it just always was a triolet. And I actually owe my students. I teach writing classes at UNH and sometimes I teach poetry classes, and I gave my students an assignment to come up with writing prompts, and I did have these two students several years ago who brought me this form of the triolet. And there was just something about it that I thought was really elegant, and just the way it works with repetition of words. I think technically it’s also supposed to include rhyme. Mine does not. I really struggle with rhyme, and so I seek to avoid it and just work with what I can in the forms.

So, that poem was always in that form. There is a poem where I read this Dennis Overbye newspaper article on this astronomical discovery, and that poem I knew I loved his language and I knew I was seeking a shape for it, and it just worked out that after I tried out several different forms that I found one that worked.

The triolet is not something I really have ever seen before, so it stood out to me. Is this the only triolet you’ve ever written, or?

I try to write a lot of them, right?

Really?

Because I do love the form. They don’t, the content is really important I think, because you have to get those lines right, since they’re going to be repeated and because it’s such a short poem. So, I do think it takes a lot of experimenting. And I still have a lot of really bad triolets, or a lot of unfinished triolets, but that really I think is the only one that’s done.

For listeners who haven’t ever seen a triolet, they are an eight line poem, sort of two stanzas with three lines each and then a couplet at the end. And there are, as you said, repetitions. So, it follows an ABaAabAB pattern, but it’s a little more complex than that too, hard to convey over the radio, you’ll just have to take a look at the book to figure out what this triolet is all about.

Are they often about grief?

They’re from the French, and they’re from songwriting. So, I’m assuming, I don’t know this at all, but because it’s from the French I’m assuming they’re normally courtship songs.

I was going to say love.

Yeah.

How long did it take you to put this book together?

Well, it took many years to write the poems. Some of these, there’s a poem in here that I think is over 16 years old, and then there’s a poem in here that’s not even a year old. So, there’s a real range of time in there. And I do think that was part of the issue—I had a lot of trouble pulling it together.

Pulling the collection together?

Pulling the whole collection together, and figuring out what the order was. Because it did seem like there were several different threads, and I wasn’t sure which thread to follow. When it came time, when I was sort of under deadline, the pieces started to fall into place pretty quickly, and I saw that actually they’d been there all along, and that there had been this arc all along that I was following.

So, when did you discover that you were a poet?

I taught myself to read when I was very young, and I was writing pretty quickly thereafter. I wrote, I just have this— my parents kept it— it was this short story I wrote. It was very short, because I was in kindergarten. So, it was the front page of one of those really big spaced out sheets of paper, but it was about people who ate ice cream that turned them into chairs. That was the story. I found that when I was much older. I found that when I was in high school, and I thought, “Oh, this has been a part of my life for a very long time.”

In high school I was in creative writing and I loved it. When I went to college, I sort of—I don’t know why I didn’t immediately start taking poetry classes, it took a couple years—but then as soon as I got into a workshop, I had a really incredible TA, and she just said, “This is what you do, and this is who you are.” And it felt true to me, and I’m really appreciative that I had some really wonderful teachers along the way.

And now you are a teacher.

I am, yeah.

What kind of advice do you give the students who show that same kind of promise?

I just tell them to write a lot, right? Just write a lot. What I want more than anything is that they actually don’t listen to me. That I’m there, and that they use the prompt I give them to write, that for the most part they’re really trying to write something new, that they’re trying to take some kind of risk, and that they’re not worried too much about if it works or if it’s not going to work, that they’re just out there taking a chance. So that’s what I push them towards, but I just push them to write as much as they can and to read as much as they can. I always want them to read more than they’re reading.

Is there anything that you think that they should read?

Well, it’s hard. I think about the poets that were so important to me, and they’re always the ones I recommend first.  Mark Strand and his Selected Poems—it’s a touchstone book in my life. So, if they come into my office, I’m going to give them that or I’m going to photocopy— there are several poems that I end up photocopying from that book and giving to them. I just think he’s a really important voice in American poetry. And he connects really well with 18, 19, 20-year-olds, in part because one of his poems, the first book in that collection, he wrote when he was 21. So, it’s nice to be able to say, “He did this, you can do it too. Just keep going.”