I admire Carolyn Martin, and I admire her poems; they take me places. Anchored to the ground of truth, soaring into the ether of wisdom, Carolyn’s poetry invites me more deeply into myself — more expansively into the rudderless realm of the human. These poems have an authority about them that is suggestive to this reader of mountains — as if they had been here for all time, and we are simply stepping into their landscape to commune with them as we read. Queen of Wands Press, a little publishing house I founded in 2007, has had the good fortune to publish Carolyn’s first collection of poetry, Finding Compass this year. (Check out the critical acclaim from poets and authors including Paulann Petersen, David Biespiel, Debbie Applegate and Penelope Scambly Schott.) Carolyn has indulged me here in a conversation about her life and work.
What called you to poetry, and what has kept you engaged with writing poems over the years?
I never wrote anything resembling poetry before I was twenty-two. Even then I could claim only one line that approached the poetic. I’m not really sure when I “got it,” but I published my first poem at twenty-nine.
Several things called me to poetry. I love Tennyson’s lines: “To have the deep Poetic heart/Is more than all poetic fame.” I think I grew up with that heart but had no means of expressing it until I started to teach literature. Then I discovered the beauty and potential of language.
Secondly, mine is a poetic imagination that revels in image, intensity, brevity, and musicality. A friend of mine recently told me that after reading some of my narratives, she felt she had read a novel on a page. Being basically lazy, I liked that! If I can get a novel on one page, that saves months and years writing hundreds.
What was your most interesting or surprising poem-writing experience?
The most surprising experience occurred in 1982 when, for the first and last time, a poem arrived fully formed in one sitting. I was teaching creative writing and wanted a poem to share during the final class. “Cinderella” appeared in the college library one evening. It wasn’t until years later that I realized the poem was about my own glass slipper life in a world that no longer fit. The next year I hopped over the wall and left the convent.
You have had an incredible career ranging from Roman Catholic nun to keynote speaker. How has this trajectory influenced your writing?
After a rocky start, I found my essence in teaching. For an introvert, being forced to stand in front of high school freshmen in 1968 was the boot camp for the energetic acting it took to be a keynote speaker. During my twenty years as a Sister of Mercy of New Jersey, I was immersed in literature, theology, and natural beauty (There’s a lot of the latter in NJ!) and they fed my poet’s heart. My first published poems were persona pieces about biblical figures. (I wanted to rewrite the bible from a woman’s point of view. Still working on that!)
After I left in 1983, I spent the next 24 years teaching all kinds of business topics from organizational development to management skills to generational diversity. While I did a great deal of business writing, poetry was put on the back burner until I retired in 2008 and met you! You introduced me to a literary world in Portland I didn’t know existed. And that’s began my journey back to poetry.
You are one of the most spectacular public speakers I have ever experienced. What do you learn about your poems — or poetry in general — through performing to an audience?
Thank you for that compliment. During my first poetry reading in 2009 with Kathleen Halme’s Attic class, I had an epiphany: I could apply the same platform skills I’d honed over the years to my poetry: pacing, humor, storytelling, passion, connecting with an audience. Business audiences want to be delighted and inspired—so do literary ones.
Also, I believe poetry is “spoken music,” so I’ve practiced at open mics this past year to see which poems sing and which are better left on a page. There are some I wouldn’t read aloud again; they’re just too complicated for an audience who will only hear them once.
In addition, I’m able to hear where a piece needs revision. While I do practice out loud at home, it often takes an audience to tune me into the bumps that need smoothing.
You are president of the board of directors for VoiceCatcher, a publication and a literary community very dear to my heart. Why did you step into this role, and what is your vision for women writers in Portland?
I became president in 2010 when the organization was thinking of folding after four anthologies. The original founders and editors thought they had reached their goals and were rightly proud of their accomplishments. However, new leadership arrived who believed this enterprise was too important to shelve. I was retired and had the time, energy, and respect for this organization to take on this role.
We’ve just published our sixth anthology and have scheduled a series of readings and art exhibits during 2011-2012 to celebrate our 69 authors and artists. Readers can keep updated at www.voicecatcher.org.
We’re now re-thinking how we can best serve a larger audience, engage more local women writers and artists in our community events, find donors to support our 501(c)3 organization, and do all this in a way that doesn’t burn out our dedicated volunteers.
What is the most significant wisdom that has guided your writing life?
This is fun: I’ll often ask a poem to tell me what it wants to say and what form it wants to say it in. Giving up left-brain control is difficult but the surprises that flow are lovely. For example, I was struggling with a piece about Sophocles’ character Ismene when she told me I should write about her not in her own voice but in her sister’s. The poem is now called “An interview with Antigone before the premier of Sophocles’ play.” It works! Who knew?
How did you choose Finding Compass as the title for your collection?
For several years I had another title firmly stamped in my mind. But then I wrote a poem called “Intrusion” that ended with …find compass in the words at hand. There it was! I have been lost so many times in so many ways in my life, that the theme of finding is important to me. Robert Frost’s line in “Directive,” …if you’re lost enough to find yourself…resonates. I’ve often found the deepest truths when I’ve been lost. How do we find and then listen to our own internal GPS when there’s a world of static out there telling us what to do and where to go? I realized that a good number of my poems examined that predicament and this was the right title.
Where can readers purchase Finding Compass?
I’m my own distributor, so just email me at email@example.com.[Editor’s note: Purchasing Finding Compass will not only uplift you–it will uplift others. We donate 30% of each purchase to Mercy Corps.]
What are you working on now?
My friend/teacher/poet/editor Kathleen Halme told me that, as soon as the first book came out, I should get started on the second. I’m following her advice. It’s trying to find its compass!
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About Carolyn Martin
A former Roman Catholic nun and Associate Professor of English, Carolyn became an international management trainer and keynote speaker. Co-author of four books on generational diversity, she has written articles for numerous business publications including Global HR, Community Bank Notes, and Nursing Management. Her work has also been cited in dozens of periodicals around the world—from Beijing to Montreal, Buenos Aires to London.
Retiring in 2008, she returned to her first love: poetry. Her poems have appeared in Christian Century, Drash: Northwest Mosaic, Naugatuck River Review, Science Poetry, Sisters Today and Verseweavers. Her second collection is already searching for its compass.
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Learn more about Carolyn, her new poetry collection Finding Compass, and upcoming readings! Come join Carolyn and me when we read together with Kathleen Halme at Annie Bloom’s Books on October 20 and get your signed copy of Finding Compass. Get the details here!