Updated: Jun 1
Inside the Amazing Brains of Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas, Gloria Mindock, and Charlotte Digregorio
Carol Lynn Stevenson Grellas is a recent graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts, MFA in Writing program. She is the author of sixteen poetry collections, including several chapbooks. Her latest full-length collection Alice in Ruby Slippers was a grand prize finalist in the 2021 Eric Hoffer Book Awards. In 2019 her book Epitaph for the Beloved was nominated for the Northern California Book Awards. In 2018, her book In the Making of Goodbyes was nominated for the CLMP Firecracker Award in Poetry, and in 2011 her chapbook Before I Go to Sleep was the winner of the Red Ochre Chapbook contest. She is an eleven-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a seven-time Best of the Net nominee.
BLM: Tell us about a moment where a shift in your thinking made you really shine as a poet.
CLSG: Reading Larry Levis’ book Elegy had a dramatic impact on my writing. I am in such admiration for how he skillfully wove personal narratives into universal themes. His poems are emotional yet full of imagery and metaphor while maintaining a story that captures a moment in time. Experiencing his work feels intimate to me, the way dear friends might sit together and chat about something meaningful. I am especially enamored with his poem “The Two Trees.” I find that when I write with a more conversational tone yet incorporate poetic devices, the poem seems as though it’s speaking directly to the reader and has the potential of living beyond itself or the page. At least that is my hope that someone reads a poem of mine, and it will linger or haunt them, the way a poignant memory lives within a retrievable space, that space being the heart, and that it later can be remembered and experienced again.
BLM: Who was your first celebrity crush, and did you try to contact them?
CLSG: I don’t recall having a celebrity crush other than maybe Davey Jones of the Monkeys. When I was about fifteen, I had one of those old-fashioned portable record players, and every day after school, I would listen to the songs on the album, Hey Hey We’re The Monkeys. My grandmother had given it to me, and I’ve saved it, not for the crush on Davey but more for a keepsake of something special she’d given me for Christmas that year. I never wrote him a fan letter or tried to contact him, but had I tried, I don’t think he would have been interested in meeting me, lol.
BLM: What do you feel is your best or favorite poem, and why?
CLSG: This isn’t easy for me to choose as I write in many different styles and themes. Still, my poem “Conversations at Midnight” from my book In the Making of Goodbyes, published by Clare Songbird Publishing House, is a poem I am very proud of. It was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and speaks to the issue of rape and the impact of emotional suffering that plagues a victim long after such a violation occurs.
Confessions at Midnight Since it isn’t rape if you've asked for it, if you’ve left your bosom half exposed to light, the other a hidden promise to come or an invitation to an unwanted admirer, your chest dabbed with mineral oil and Shalimar. Since everyone knows good girls don’t find mischief, and mischief doesn’t find them; love being so complex and all, a moment of passion easily confused by at least one of the two parties, especially the one who didn't hear, no. Since making a call to 911 isn’t easy in the midst of having your body pressed against the cold glass table he used to set his tumbler on five minutes earlier, before things got out of hand, just after you'd offered him a cocktail. Since, pretending nothing happened made it go away for the first few years, until the night you gazed beyond your window hoping to see the moon's face but instead
you saw a lie in the moon’s place,
like an arrogant intruder in the dark.
Since you’re older now and have
daughters of your own, and you need to break your silence, let them know once you were vulnerable, once
your fury was hushed by fear,
fear of judgment by the ones you loved
and especially the ones you didn’t,
fear you'd be unbeautiful, undone and you realize how much was taken from you so long ago, on a night you’d hoped forgotten and a memory you’d wished erased.
So, you picked up the phone and dialed RAINN. (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network) Since the woman that answered the phone sounded a little bit like your mother and you almost hung up ashamed to give your name, and part of you wished she was your mother, encouraging you to do the right thing and then you said, "I want to report a rape that happened 40 years ago” and you felt the light of the moon pierce through the darkness like some kind of otherworldly intrusion of truth: sweet as your mother’s kiss soft against your face just as you remembered it, even though she’s been dead for over a decade. So, you hung up the phone and wept a little, not for the telling, but for the not telling, the years
of keeping it between you and god,
tucked inside your heart’s pocket
of old stories never shared. And then you wept for all the years of being ashamed, about something so heinous… that was never your fault.
Charlotte Digregorio has authored seven award-winning books including Ripples of Air: Poems of Healing and Haiku and Senryu: A Simple Guide for All. She was honored in 2018 by the Governor of Illinois for her decades of achievements in the literary arts. Digregorio has won sixty-six poetry awards, and was nominated for four Pushcart Prizes. Her poems have been translated into eight languages. She has organized national writer's conferences and gives workshops at them; is a writer-in-residence at universities; teaches poetry in the public schools; judges national writing contests; and speaks regularly at libraries/chain bookstores. She hosted a radio poetry program on public broadcasting, and was an executive officer of the Haiku Society of America. She blogs about various genres of writing, and posts "The Daily Haiku" and other poetic forms, short stories, and essays by global writers at charlottedigregorio.wordpress and writes a poetry column for Winnetka Kenilworth Living, a lifestyle magazine in Illinois, with the goal of making poetry more visible to the public.
BLM: What do you feel is the most common mistake people make when attempting to write haiku?
CD: First, thanks for asking this question, as I hope my answer will help people begin writing the best haiku they can. In general, there are so many mistakes that people make when writing haiku, that I can’t just name one. The basic problem is that there are many misconceptions about haiku that keep floating around. People tend to think that anything in three lines that is thoughtful is haiku. They think haiku are just random thoughts. Incidentally, I shudder when I hear someone say “haikus.” The word haiku is both singular and plural.
What I teach people in my workshops and in my book, Haiku and Senryu: A Simple Guide for All, is that anyone can learn to write haiku, but they have to be willing to read a lot of it each day and study the basics. In reading a lot of it, you have to be selective in what you read. A lot of the haiku online is either not haiku at all, or it isn’t very well written.
I’ll start with just some basics below. Incidentally, haiku’s focus is on nature, while senryu is written in the same form, but it focuses on human nature, human weaknesses, or human struggles. Senryu can be either humorous or sad, but many people like to write humorous ones as a release from life’s challenges.
When I use the word “haiku” below, it also applies to senryu.
There is meaning and insight in haiku, sometimes a few layers of meaning. Haiku can be enjoyed at face value, and then taken at deeper levels. One often finds life’s meaning in a haiku. Haiku is a meditation through which the poet’s underlying emotion can be understood. Often, there is a juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated images in haiku, and the reader finds it’s a puzzle to figure out the correlation between the two.
Haiku is usually written in one to four lines. When written in three lines, the most common way, it has 17 syllables or less. (I’ve even written haiku with only four to nine syllables.) Haiku doesn’t need to follow the traditional pattern of a certain number of syllables in each line. Your grade school teacher told you there were five syllables in the first line, seven in the second line, and five syllables in the third. Actually, there are very few people writing haiku in English today that follow this pattern anymore. Most English language haiku doesn’t follow a certain number of syllables in each line. Further, a haiku has no title, yet I often judge haiku contests and am surprised at how many people use one.
Haiku captures a moment in time. It’s written in the present tense, but I see so many erroneously written in the past tense. A haikuist strives to capture the moment, even if that moment took place years ago. So, you write a haiku in the present tense to capture the immediacy of it.
Haiku contains sensory images.
Haikuists should focus on “showing” the reader, rather than telling the reader, just as if they were painting a picture. (This is true of all poetic forms, of course.)
Haiku is an exercise in saying something meaningful and perceptive by using the fewest words possible. (I see so much repetition when I judge haiku contests. This often occurs when people try to follow the 5-7-5 syllable pattern in three lines, and they pad their lines with words to fulfill that syllable count.)
Haiku often juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated images, somewhat like a metaphor. But, simile is avoided. The word “like” or “as” isn’t used. (I see a lot of haiku written with the word “like.” People should remember that haiku is subtle, so you don’t “explain” something to the reader.)
Moralizing and judgmental statements are avoided in haiku. Haiku is stated objectively, matter-of-factly, even understated. Haiku that is understated is all the more powerful.
Punctuation and capitalization are used sparingly, if at all.
Adjectives are used sparingly, if at all. (Adjectives often describe too much.)
Abstractions are avoided.
Rhyme is avoided.
Haiku is written in simple, not flowery, language.
The last line of a haiku often contains a surprise/revelation– the “aha” moment.
I have been running my blog with The Daily Haiku for several years, at www.charlottedigregorio.wordpress.com. If you read the blog, you’ll find haikuists from sixty-one countries and you’ll get a feel for what haiku is. If you have any questions about it, you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BLM: Top three celebrity deaths that devastated you, and why?
CD: I guess most people would mention actors, singers, or politicians and leave out writers and poets. For me, I’ve regretted the passing of three famous poets who died in recent years who’ve impacted my writing, even my non-fiction. They are Mark Strand, Donald Hall, and Richard Wilbur. I love how all celebrate life, and write with grace about both life and death. No matter which genres of writing you’re interested in, these three poets are so inspiring and teach you to write precisely. I wish each of them had lived longer, so I could continue appreciating their work and learning from them. They each write with wit and compassion, and their observations about life and nature are evocative. Their style is elegant in its simplicity. Among my favorite collections of their work are: Blizzard of One by Mark Strand; White Apples and the Taste of Stone, by Donald Hall; and Richard Wilbur: New and Collected Poems.
BLM: What do you feel is your favorite or best poem, and why?
CD: Since I’ve commented so much about haiku in this interview, I’ll pick one senryu that defines my life, and probably speaks to many people as defining theirs. Since senryu is short, I’ll sneak in a longer poem, too. Both poems are in my book, Ripples of Air: Poems of Healing. The second poem speaks to us as writers who live mostly solitary, contemplative lifestyles, and whose work is often inspired by other forms of art.
the bonsai . . .
my knotty life
At The Museum of Contemporary Art
Seeking quietude on a foggy day,
I visit the Museum to drift and dream,
with watercolors, collages, montages, and tapestries.
I happen upon worn scraps of metal, wire,
bits of broken glass, and splintered plastic.
Perhaps they are castaways culled from a hidden dumpster
in a deserted Chicago alley.
I visualize a sculptor in his cramped studio with a large window.
Under skies donning infinite grayness,
he watches languishing birds in autumn’s breath.
Brittle poplar branches wave in whispering wind.
His eye glimpses fluttering scarlet and gold.
Inspired hands bend, chip, and polish refuse into delicate,
shining pieces, with soothing shades.
With agile fingers, his drab finds, a reflection of our gritty lives,
become graceful art, as if by metamorphosis.
He realizes sculptures of oddly-shaped people
and animals, almost unidentifiable,
yet bearing equilibrium and harmony.
In solitude, he finds lyricism
in trifles surrounding him.
Gloria Mindock is the editor of Cervena Barva Press, the author of 6 poetry books, 3 chapbooks, a children’s book, and a forthcoming play. Her recent book, ASH, has won the International Impact Award, the NYC Big Book Award, the Firebird Speak Up Talk Radio Award, the International Award-The Princess, Noble Poetry Skills, from the Art Club of Ragkonik, in Smederevo, Serbia, Independent Press Award-Distinguished Favorite, and the Pacific Book Award. ASH is also being translated and published into Montenegrin. She was poet laureate in Somerville, MA in 2017 & 2018.
BLM: What are some of your favorite themes in poetry?
GM: I love reading poems that were written under communist rule in the Eastern European countries. Once communism fell, I discovered so many writers/translations that were incredible. Reading poetry from war torn countries influences my writing. These are my favorite themes in poetry. There is never a lack of poetry because of so many wars and atrocities committed. It is just finding the writers that speak to me and make me want to write.
BLM: In what ways are you like your Mother?
GM: I have a love for books and reading so many different things such as biographies, art books, fiction, plays, and poetry. I love reading about painters and their background and received a strong art education from my Mom. My Mother and Dad dealt with rare books so it was a dream to have a bookstore for me. Even though it closed last year.
I don’t worry about what anyone thinks of me. My Mother was definitely like that. Don’t get me wrong. of course, I want to be liked but if not, so be it. I know that in life, the right people always come into my life, as long as I remain kind, compassionate and loyal. I still am very close to my friends from grade school and high school. Even though they are in Illinois, it feels like I never left when we talk or get together. They are the best.
I have a love of fashion because of my Mother. We were always up to date with clothes and looking at Vogue especially the fall issue when I was growing up. Today, I still love finding clothes that are really different.
My mother loved reading true crime, watching forensic shows and documentaries. I definitely have a love for all of this from her. We would share true crime books with each other and watch forensic shows when I was home.
Another way, I am like my mother, is my love for music. I grew up listening to music from all over the world. I really loved hearing music from different cultures. Hearing records by Diana Washington, Dean Martin, Al Martino and many Italian singers and later in her life, opera singers such as Pavarotti, was always playing since my Mother was Italian. My grandfather (My mom’s dad) was an opera singer but lost his voice due to the war and mustard gas. I grew up with the Italian culture from her and my grandparents and Irish and Eastern European from my Dad’s side. I am grateful for both sides of the family and how I was raised.
Even though the question is about my Mother, I want to say I am like my Dad in many ways too. I am so happy that both influenced me so much in my life. I consider myself to be very lucky to have learned so much from both of them.
BLM: What do you feel is your best or favorite poem, and why?
GM: My favorite poem is one about the atrocities concerning the civil war in El Salvador. I do not consider this poem my best poem, but it means so much to me. I have written about the atrocities committed in so many countries and speak out to be a voice for those who can’t, and for those who were slaughtered. It must be written about so the world does not forget. This poem, “Life Mourns,” shows a horrible side of brutality. Body parts were hung in trees to shame the villagers. Before the civil war, hanging fruit in the trees to shame the trees to produce fruit, was done by the villagers. Other than this, the poem does not need to be explained. This poem was in my first book, Blood Soaked Dresses, published in 2007 by Ibbetson Street Press. While all this was going on in El Salvador, I spoke up and protested the role the USA took. I spoke up for the people so this poem will always hold a special place in my heart.
Parents, you carry your children’s coffins well.
Along the road, see the little gifts
left for you: blood stains, teeth, shoes.
The clouds gather up all the tears you cry
so everyone feels them when it rains.
The military buttons up its coats.
Children, you gather the bones of your parents quickly.
Identified by a piece of cloth, a shirt, a guess…
Sometimes you find bones at the front door, but never
where you hid. You were lucky.
But even you are the already dead
dying slowly from brutality.
Husband, body parts hang in the trees.
The Earth is sad today. Trees as sacred
as the lives of those whose hands,
heads, fingers, organs, eyes touch the branches
with their longing…
Husband, I know you are on the first branch.
In this procession of sadness, I stand and console life.
Life, embarrassed, cries out to the Death Squads.
They do not hear.
Their ears are filled, and their hearts drowning.