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Judith Skillman: Poet Interview

Please welcome Judith Skillman to the Poetic Asides blog!

Judith Skillman

Judith Skillman

Judith Skillman is the author of fourteen collections of poetry. Her latest book is Broken Lines—The Art & Craft of Poetry, Lummox Press. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, FIELD, Midwest Quarterly Review, The Iowa Review, The Southern Review, Cimarron Review, Pirene’s Fountain, and many other journals and anthologies.

Ms. Skillman is the recipient of grants from the Academy of American Poets, the Washington State Arts Commission, the Centrum Foundation, and the King County Arts Commission.

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Here's one of my favorite poems from Prisoner of the Swifts:

Cosmology, by Judith Skillman

The sky pulls you in.
You stand on tiptoe like a child.
Arranged like birthstone earrings
on a card, they've tarnished.
Sirius the dog, Medusa writhing
in her headdress of snakes, Orion
chasing the flock of doves
that later changed to sisters.

These strange stories kept you from sleep.
The bedside glass remains a collection of sand.
The same electron
masquerades as others, speeding in
and out of time
like Mother's needle,
passing through the cloth
she held on her lap.


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What are you currently up to?

Currently I’m working on a manuscript with the working title “Rules and Secrets.” I’m trying to keep this collection thematic, along the lines of the inner and outer worlds we live in—and how the “self” walks a tightrope keeping those in place—while also breaking some rules of language.

Part of the process of putting a manuscript together involves ferreting out content addressed by various pieces. The exciting part is to amplify that subject matter by writing new material. The secrets are easier to identify than the rules.

I’m also shaping a chapbook, or maybe it will become part of this mss, under the working title “Kafka’s Wound.”

Your newest collection, The Phoenix: New & Selected Poems 2007 to 2013 (Dream Horse Press), is actually your second "new & selected" collection. So two questions: First, how do you decide to put together a "new & selected" collection? Second, how (if at all) is that process different than assembling other collections?

Well it would seem as if I could be an expert on this, but I don’t feel like one. I’ve been lucky enough to find publishers who will bring a number of collections into print. So once I have say six or seven of those, it seems only reasonable to pull what I feel are the best poems from each one. Perhaps it’s more of a curse than a blessing, but I like to tinker with manuscripts in progress almost as much as revising a single poem.

To address the “how to”: the process of revision when working with poems from a few volumes and deciding which new poems to include in an “umbrella collection” is different mainly in volume from rearranging a manuscript. But either of these activities can be almost recreational, compared to figuring out where a certain poem went wrong!

In your poetry craft title, Broken Lines: The Art & Craft of Poetry, you talk line breaks, poetry manuscript ideas, marketing strategies, and much more. Since it's in the title, what's your best tip for handling line breaks?

My favorite tip comes from David Wagoner, who said not to end a line with adverbs, articles, and adjectives. Clearly these “little words” belong with the next line. I absolutely agree! And just to throw in one more favorite, listen for masculine and feminine endings. There is more on that in the book.

What was the most difficult part about putting that book together?

This book would not exist without RD Armstrong, publisher of Lummox Press. When I give readings or presentations from Broken Lines I thank him first and foremost. I had an idea of what I wanted to write about but it was somewhat sketchy.

This was the most difficult part—deciding how to integrate various materials from teaching, essays I’d written, and how to express certain ideas such as poetry writing can become insular. RD Armstrong provided a sounding board. He was patient with the work and revisions, which took over a year, and got advice from other writers to assist me.

Which do you enjoy more: the writing, revising, or sharing of a poem?

Definitely the writing. With a caveat—the pleasure varies depending upon how generous the muse feels at any given time. As in, “c’mon baby make it hurt so good…”

One poet most people don't know but should—who is it?

There are so many excellent poets!! I’d like to take the fifth. But Joannie Stangeland has a new book out from Ravenna Press, tilted “In Both Hands.” I have admired her work for years. She tackles tough subjects with aplomb.

On your site, you mention offering manuscript services for other poets. In your experience, is there a common problem poets have with handling their manuscripts?

I would say the most common problem I’ve run into is separating material into “chunks” rather than viewing a manuscript and would-be book as a work of music, in which the theme (or, metaphorically, the refrain) comes in and out and passes through. This adds dimensionality and makes a manuscript far more exciting to the reader.

Who (or what) are you currently reading?

Well, I always seem to come back to Hemingway’s stories. I am reading Kafka, trying to find lesser known stories and books. I loved “The Hunger Artist.” I need to find another alpine book as reading about climbers who write about their adventuring has become a passion. I’ve practically memorized parts of Lionel Terray’s “Conquistadors of the Useless.”

And the poets: there are so many. I tend to read the same ones over and over again until the pages get dog-eared. I love Vallejo, Lorca, and Edith Södergran. I just got Gigi Marks and am looking forward to reading “Close By.” I am still reading “Diadem” by Marosa Di Giorgio.

If you could pass along only one piece of advice to other poets, what would it be?

Another tough question! I’d say listen to the voice inside—snippets of old songs, phrases that sound like titles of poems, memories of tough times, anger and/or any strong emotion. Listen especially for those parts of your “self” that society does not sanction or encourage.

And I have to throw in my favorite piece of advice from William Stafford: “Can’t write? Lower your standards.”

(Interview completed in March, 2014.)


Robert Lee Brewer is the author of Solving the World's Problems and an editor with the Writer's Digest Writing Community. His most recent publication went live yesterday (click here to read). Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.


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