Barbara Mitchell writes:
I first became interested in writing poetry during Junior High School. Perhaps what appealed to me most was the way it helped me to sort through the emotions and angst that teens can go through and gave me an outlet to share some of those feelings with friends in a nonthreatening way. Writing became an integral part of my being and I found myself seeking out friends who would share this interest with me. With the few I did find, we would talk for great lengths about where our ideas came from and share in private poetry readings between us. Faith issues especially (next to love—or rather love abandoning us) were a huge topic and we integrated God and our belief in Him into the snippets and jingles we jotted down on paper. We discovered it was easier to influence people by the non-threatening written word than it was to convince them otherwise, by live conversation.
When a poem was accepted for publication in my highschool years, in the international Teen Magazine I felt elated. I think it gave me the encouragement I needed apart from my family's enthusiasm for my writing.
Returning to writing
Getting married in 1978 and raising two young children took me temporarily away from poetry, but by June 30, 1985 I was totally involved in writing again when I won an Honorable Mention for a short story submitted to the ACWF (Alberta Christian Writer's Fellowship) annual contest. I joined their writer's group and participated in conferences for years to come.
I count it a blessing to have run into that writing group (which is now an international writing organization) and feel a deep gratitude and fellowship with so many of the friends and acquaintances I met within that circle. The expertise and craft one can learn from the numerous conferences and speakers has been my joy and has spurred me onto publication myself.
Success does not come easily
Beginning with my first credit in Esprit magazine in 1986 and continuing for the next 10 years, my poetry and stories were published over 320 times in publications in North America and around the world and I had the great pleasure of winning poetry contests through various outlets. This did not come easily, but rather from the continuous and ongoing support and encouragement from many people who believed in me and helped me take the steps necessary to make myself a better and more articulate writer.
One great experience was seeing my poetry translated into Braille for distribution by the John Milton Society for the blind. My poems have also been distributed in Eastern Europe after translation into a variety of other languages.
Awards for poetry
In 1991 a poem was nominated for the International Associated Church Press Awards for work appearing in a Christian publication. In the same year, Christian Single magazine commissioned me to write the feature poem for its Christmas issue. ( I have twice won first place for poetry in the Canadian Church Press Awards which are awarded for the one poem judged the best of all work appearing in Canadian Christian publications in a given year.)
A new door swings open
My friend, Nathan Harms, and I premiered our first Poetry/Photo Feature, a multi-media presentation titled, "I Know You, Lord," in 1991. This appearance led to more than 100 public appearances, and two subsequent Poetry/Photo Features titled, "In the Presence of His Keeping," and "If I Was Like Stone," which were viewed by thousands of people.
I have always lived in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. I share my life with my two adult children, Jennifer and Cory, and numerous friends and poets.
A Poet's Places
Over the past 5 or 6 years I've developed a passion for my yard and garden.
Writers' conferences and poets' gatherings often include theme nights, where costumes encourage us to "step out of ourselves."
|My good friend, Mary, and me in West Edmonton Mall, purportedly the world's largest shopping mall. Friends are a huge part of my life.|
This is just one small corner of my office.
An Interview with Barbara Mitchell
Utmost: You've been published hundreds of times. How important to you is the publishing of your poetry?
Barbara: It is always a compliment to have my work accepted for publication. I think it lends credibility to us as writers, especially at the beginning of a writing career. There is something about knowing that editors from publications around the world see a value in our work that is not—or might not—be recognized in quite the same way by family or friends.
Utmost: How important is it currently?
Barbara: Probably not as important. My focus for the first ten years of writing was to be published and to build up credibility. Now my focus leans towards finishing this second book-length manuscript of poetry and working on writing-related projects such as workshops.
Utmost: Barbara, your poems are powerful, personal and human in their touch—reading them is like embracing a friend who isn't afraid of physical touch. You seem to eliminate the distance between the reader and the poem. How do you think that happens?
Barbara: I cannot say that I set out intentionally to communicate in a certain way, though certainly I want my writing to be clear and concise. I think the love, care, sadness, grief, that I know from my own relationships and life experiences filter into my ideas, issues and thoughts that are then developed into the poem. Hopefully the combination delivers a reality that others can embrace as well—thus shortening the distance between what a reader expects and what a reader gets.
Utmost: The distance between what a reader expects and what she gets. That's an interesting thought. I bet a lot of poets never even consider that a reader "wants" anything from a poem. What do you think readers "want?"
Barbara: I think people embrace poetry for many reasons....entertainment possibly being the first and foremost. They want to read something that is going to grab them and underline some feeling or experience that they themselves might have gone through. The delight of poetry, though, is that it often takes us deeper than we expect. It supplies some element or feeling or connection that we did not know we needed and thus enlightens, stirs or motivates us to further thinking. I think poetry often delivers more than we anticipate, especially as we become more aware and open to its simple beauty and voice.
Utmost: Tell me about favorite poets you admire, especially Christian poets. Do you have any favorite poetry books?
Barbara: I can't say I have any favorites, or perhaps I'd need to say they are all favorites. There are so many styles, themes, and types of poetry that it's difficult to pinpoint one thing I like better than others. The Christian poets I know personally—Nathan Harms, Mary Lauzon, Ev Heffernan, Violet Nesdoly and others—all these have blessed me tremendously over the years.
Utmost: I've heard that some readers assume that your poems represent your own true-life personal experiences? How do you feel about that?
Barbara: I think having readers feel that I've lived through every single thing I write is a wonderful compliment. It demonstrates that my poems feel very "real." So I do appreciate the fact that it happens. It brings it's own surprises though.
Utmost: Such as?
Barbara: Well, I once wrote a poem about an extra-marital affair and a friend phoned me and hummed and hawed and finally told me they had read my poem in Our Family magazine and um, well yah, had my husband had an affair? After being momentarily taken aback at her boldness—which I did appreciate later on—I told her how the poem came to be. It had nothing to do with my own marriage.
I have a poem about abuse in a marriage—and also child abuse—and because I write all my poetry in the first person it's almost inevitable that some people will believe it's specific to my life. I've had to tell numerous people that I've not been in abusive situations, but because I've been in very very good relationships (marriage and growing up) I can imagine or empathize with the other side. Perhaps there is some power in that.
Utmost: Some people hold the view that only a person who has a "hands on" relationship to a subject has the authority to write about it. They say that a writer who isn't in poverty shouldn't write about poverty issues, for instance, or that a poet can't write with authenticity about Alzheimer's unless she has personal experience with it. What do you think of that?
Barbara: I wouldn't claim to understand something firsthand if I did not live through it, but poetry is not meant, primarily, as a claim of expertise. I choose issues or thoughts or ideas that are close to my heart, whether I've lived through them or not. Then I mesh them with the people I do know who have come through experiences, be they good or bad. The combination makes a poem. We can all empathize to some degree and if we are able to take someone's pain and make it realistic on the page so that others actually feel the grief or torment too—or the happier things if we choose a sunnier topic—then it is a good and positive way to write.
I do not have anyone in my immediate family with Alzheimer's for instance, but I do know families who have shared many details from their experiences. Then I take my own mother who I love very much and turn the power of that love towards the mother in my poem. Hopefully it creates a realistic situation that others are then able to draw from or identify with.
Utmost: How do ideas for poems come to you?
Barbara: First I get a feeling. Either I see something, hear something or am moved by some event or person—and the experience carries this sort of afterglow that I want to capture. The poem might be sparse at that point, but putting down words helps make it concrete. After that step I can always remember the exact feeling when I return to work on the poem, even if it's two or three years later.
Utmost: Are all your poems "feeling based?"
Barbara: Not at all. Sometimes I see a picture in my head such as happened when I wrote "Alzheimer." I could quite clearly see a flock of birds creating this deep blackness and it symbolized memory loss or disorder to me.
At times there is some sort of "theme" inside me that I have to get into the open. If I'm struggling with it, I surround myself with only that kind of poetry. When I wrote my "father/war" poem, I read only war poetry, sense of loss poetry ... and it kept me in the right frame of mind. If I feel a sort of sway or music to my poetry—which happens often to me—I read Carl Sandburg who has an extremely lyrical magical quality to his work ... or Karen Connelly ... and most definitely I read some of the European poets who write in a sort of mystical run-on-sentence manner. Reading the right kind of material while I'm writing helps to keep me on track.
Utmost: When you write, do you find you finish one poem before you begin another one?
Barbara: It is only recently that I'm able to finish a poem from beginning to end and be satisfied with it (after some rewrites). It's not unusual for me to work on twenty poems at once, sometimes for as long as two years. My poetry binder currently holds two hundred unfinished poems. When I feel the need to write, but am not sure exactly where my focus is, I take out my binder, flip through the poems, and find myself writing a verse or two for various poems. When a particularly solid thought or idea comes to me, then it's possible to get it all down in one sitting. That's rare for me though.
Utmost: Can you give some of our less experienced poets—for example those who have not yet been published—a 5 cent lesson on how to improve their work?
Barbara: Never be afraid to ask for outside help or opinions. Often you know exactly what you want to say, but once you give it to someone else you discover that your meaning is not clear. Be authentic and write what is real and sincere to you, not what you think you "should" write.
Utmost: What is the greatest thing anyone ever said about your poetry?
Barbara: So many people have blessed me with their words or feelings about things I have written, that again, it's difficult to pinpoint one single thing. I can try. Recently a lady told me how when she cannot sleep she takes my book of poetry and reads it cover to cover. It soothes her and offers her a comfort in those wide-awake or bleak hours.
Utmost: Poetry has a rather stern reputation in most places. Events sponsored by Utmost Christian Writers Foundation are always lively and entertaining. Do you think it's disrespectful of the art to have so much fun with it?
Barbara: Poetry does carry rather a heavy feel to it, or at least it did while I studied it in school. Especially in the Christian field I think poets are thought of as rigid, scriptural message-writers. But as I've gotten to know more poets I find most of them are open, wildly funny, eccentric and love to have a good time. This includes our wild and crazy poetry parties. I think its disrespectful to not be ourselves.
Utmost: This feature is called "Poets Places." Can you tell me about some of the physical places that have changed who you are as a poet?
Barbara: When I think of certain places I always get the "ahhh" feeling. It is most important to me. Because the feeling of awe or ahhh is often what induces some ambience or mood into me first—then I create from there. Or I have an idea or thought I just have to express, so I need to find the perfect place to write.
My living room at Christmas is my favorite. The tree lights on, casting their soft colorful hue around the darkened room, my villages set up with all the people inside and the lamplighter outside climbing his ladder to set the tone of the night. This all gives me a very keen sense of wonder. I can sit by my tree and truly be inspired.
My office with its ochre yellow garden theme on the walls and the candles burning, the scent of wisteria in the air or whatever scent I choose ... yes, this is a place I write in often too.
Where I write changes my words. Places flood me with feelings that are often carried into my work. I can look through my poems and know exactly where I wrote it. Of course very quiet outdoor places inspire me too.
Utmost: Aside from poetry, what other hobbies or interests do you have? Do they work their way into your poetry?
Barbara: My passion for gardening now equals my passion for words. I cannot say the actual gardening theme has worked it's way into my work much, as yet, but sitting in my yard with its hundreds of twinkle lights and the grace of the flowers all around me inspires me to writing. The peace of a beautiful setting like my garden settles into me from the inside out. I love that it comes out in my words.
I also love photography, a desire I've inherited from my father. Composition and arranging people in photographs so they're never boring is an inspiration to me. I probably enjoy seeing good photographs as much as I enjoy seeing a good poem. It is my hope that one day I can incorporate the two into a book.
Utmost: Tell me something surprising about yourself—something people would never guess.
Barbara: I memorize all my poems, continually and constantly. I have this fear of being left somewhere desolate and isolated with nothing to keep me going except my faith in God and my own poetry. God has given my own words back to me, to bless or encourage me, more times than I can count and it is imperative to me that I always know who I am by what I write.
Utmost: Do you have a favorite food or any favorite recipe you'd care to share with Utmost? How about a "home improvement" tip?
Barbara: My favorite food is pizza or pasta. Sorrentino's Restaurant is good. Do I cook? What is cooking? In fact . . . what is a recipe?
mama never knew why the birds came every day
to flock inside her head
why thunder rolled from the tips of their wings
syllables loud behind the eye
she never knew sometimes
who she was
all she knew was flowers
and the peace she found in gardens
how for some short time they freed her mind
as daybreak brought her silence
she lured each frenzied whirl of black
with simple song and subtle craft
called them forth
from swirling thought
to feed upon
the open hand of morning
mama no longer finds peace in gardens
her mind sits at an odd angle
and the birds stay firmly nested in her head
content to feed off slanted thoughts
and dream of roses
while mama wanders many gardens
forgetting why she came
Copyright©1998 by Barbara Mitchell
The Keeper Of Birds
You have delivered me from the tangled stem
of a day messed with gray
for I flutter in my uncertainty
and You lift me up from the density of briar
Though I wound myself on the sharp blade of wind
and my frail wings beat against the ritual of despair
You offer consolation
Your Hands are my Sanctuary
and I winter in their Presence
until strong again I am set out into clear open space
and though I circle error
time and again
charting the skies for Truth
still You do not cage me
I fly free in Your grace
content in my migration
Copyright©1998 by Barbara Mitchell
thirty years fidget in the air between us
candlelight cannot camouflage
the vivid glare of our differences
and our words
maneuver on the nervous edge of this moment
your eyes shift to mine
like a duty rehearsed
then slide away
hands embrace the glassed stem
and we mime tradition
while our tongues circle tedium
on the rim of crystal
you and I are the blank stare of old linen
a setting tarnished and dull
our eyes search the room for a story we can adopt
to embellish our own meagre union
and the hour lies deflated between us
while all our syllables
leak into empty space
Copyright©1998 by Barbara Mitchell
she has wanted to speak for a long time now
but her lips are a broken hinge
and illness has strapped her tongue
to the roof of her mouth
when I call her name
she turns inward
enters herself through the back of her mind
to pace the empty corridors of her bones
struggling behind the frenzied spasm of outstretched arms
she forges through 80 age-glossed years
as she seeks clarity in the thin light
leaking through her eyes
knee-deep in memory
she stoops to lift the edge of each new day
searching for a way
to bring herself
back to me
Copyright©1998 by Barbara Mitchell