Here at Kutztown University, Dr. Heather Thomas is a professor in the English Department. She has taught students for 25 years in Creative Writing Exploring Forms, Creative Writing Poetry, Modern Poetry, Major Modern Poets, Theory and Practice, English Composition, Journalism, Introduction to Mass Communication, Archetypal Women in Literature, Creative Writing Short Story, and Introduction to Literature.
Dr. Thomas is the author of six books of poetry, including Blue Ruby (FootHills Publishing), Resurrection Papers (Chax Press), and Practicing Amnesia (Singing Horse Press). Poems she has written have been published in more than 40 journals and anthologies including the Wallace Stevens Journal; American Letters and Commentary; Cardinal Points; About Place; Press1; Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania; Only the Sea Keeps: Poetry of the Tsunami; Liberty’s Vigil: The Occupy Anthology; and Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets.
Dr. Thomas has translated and published her poems into Spanish, Lithuanian, Bosnian, and Albanian. Throughout the years she has contributed scholarly essays that have appeared in books and journals including Approaches to Teaching H.D.’s Poetry and Prose; We Who Love to Be Astonished; Experimental Women’s Writing and Performance Poetics; The Emily Dickinson Journal; and The Writer’s Chronicle.
Her work has been recognized by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Academy of American Poets, the Gertrude Stein Awards in Innovative American Poetry, and as Berks County’s Poet Laureate 2008-2010.
Dr. Heather Thomas was nice enough to answer questions I have asked her
1.When did you first start to write poetry, how old were you?
I recited poetry long before writing it. My Scottish grandmother, a drama dialect coach in Reading, used to recite Robert Burns while cooking and cleaning. She encouraged me to memorize poems for family dinners. She taped my voice to send overseas to our relatives. Hearing the playback, I’d flee the room and hide under the bed, reading books like Shackleton’s Valiant Voyage with a flashlight. My stepfather used to recite sea poems in his den after a few drinks. He would phone his friend, Larry, and hold the phone receiver to the stereo speaker so Larry could hear the whaling songs on the record player. Poetry was in my blood well before I picked up the pen. I started writing poems in college during a creative writing class.
2.Did you have a reason to start to write poetry? What inspired you to write?
Well, I had to write my assignments for the course. The poets we read, the so-called confessionals such as Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, and the feminist poet Adrienne Rich inspired me. They appealed to me because I had a difficult family history that I was just beginning to grapple with. I saw how a poet could amalgamate language with any experience to make a poem. In another course, I was introduced to the English Romantics and loved Blake, especially his idea in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that without contraries there is no progression. I puzzled over the mysteries of Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, H.D., and Marianne Moore and came to love them. Later I found out that I had lived as a little girl in the Reading row house where Stevens was born and grew up. In grad school I read the women writers of French écriture, including Kristeva, Cixous, and Irigaray; a wall fell down. I wrote my dissertation on contemporary American women’s long poems, focusing on Alice Notley and Anne Waldman, and this also inspired me creatively.
3.What does poetry mean to you? Can you remember the first poem you wrote?
My first poem was a limerick in fourth grade. I aspire to humorous poems, but they haven’t visited me since then. Poetry is a companion, a rebellion, a keeper through life’s ups and downs—like a house you carry in your chest, as I recently heard Hisham Matar, a Libyan writer, say. A poem is a force for inquiry and healing. I have lost and found myself, my selves, through writing poems. I remember who I was and what was happening in my life.
4.What inspires you to write a poem?
A phrase, an itch, an image, something I’ve seen, heard, felt, or read will get me going. When I began writing poems years ago, I was trying to hear some silenced voice in myself. Now I’m more interested in the place I inhabit. As the poet George Oppen wrote, “The self is no mystery, the mystery is / That there is something for us to stand on.”
5.How do you write your poems? Do you just sit down every day and try to write or do you wait until an idea pops into your mind? How long does it take you to create a poem?
I like to wake up early, get a cup of coffee, read a little, and then write. But this is not my usual routine while teaching; I write bits on scraps while running from one thing to another, or while driving. Usually I rough out a poem by hand in my journal before getting to the computer, so the journal is full of these scraps. Then I play the writing game. This involves thinking a poem is done, realizing it’s not, and then revising over and over until it feels right. This takes me a long time. My drafts need to rest out of sight before I can clearly re-see them and revise. The writing always goes best when I do it every day; my words can stay limber.
Stay tuned for more about Dr. Heather Thomas in our next post.