Poetry was my first genre. The pleasures of metaphor, compression of expression, and the controlled line appealed to me in ways that prose did not, and when I first began writing—and then publishing—I never thought I would write anything but poetry. Of course, critical essays and book reviews were part of my work, but those always felt as though they came from a different quadrant of my brain. Poetry was my genre.
My first poems were also very personal, and my early books, taken together, are almost a memoir in verse. Those poems felt urgent, needing to be written before I could do anything else creative. Maybe it was therapy; maybe it was self-discovery; maybe I was using my own life as a way of understanding what cultural imperatives do to an individual personality. Maybe all of the above. I don’t know, but what I do know is that I was also feeling my way through my own narrative, in tight, often quite short, pieces.
Writing about the self has its limits, though. By the time I was writing my most recent book of poems, The Gold Thread, I was writing about historical people and situations, using characters and situations from my scholarly work in Early Modern British literature. The shift happened during a trip to Wales one summer. I had a grant to investigate the recipe manuscripts left by seventeenth and eighteenth-century women in the National Library at Aberystwyth, and my intention was to get as much information, for my teaching, about domestic life from that period as possible. And I learned an enormous amount—but what came of my time in Wales was not an academic book but a series of poems about those women, some largely imagined and some based almost entirely on details that they’d recorded. That experience changed my poems. Continue reading