by Susan M. Ellis
Janet Buck has a Ph.D. in English and teaches
writing and literature at the college level. Her
poetry, poetics, and fiction have appeared in
hundreds of journals world-wide. In 1998, 1999, and
2000, she has won numerous creative writing awards
and been a featured poet for Seeker Magazine, Poetry
Today Online, Vortex, Conspire, Poetry Café,
Dead Letters, the storyteller, Poetry Heaven, Athens
City Times, Poetic License, 3:00AM e-zine, Poetry
Super Highway, Carved in Sand, PoetryMagazine.com,
Beachfire Gathering, and Café Society. Two of
Buck's poems have been nominated for this year's
Pushcart Prize in Poetry and she is a recent
recipient of The H.G. Wells Award for Literary
Janet is one of ten U.S. poets to be featured at the
"One Heart, One World" Exhibit at the United Nations
Exhibit Hall in New York City opened in April 2000.
Her poem "Acrylic Thighs" was translated into five
languages and paired with original artwork. The tour
will travel to France, Australia, Vietnam, Brazil,
When I thought of who would be the best choice for
my first interview in Moondance, Janet's name came
immediately to mind. Her online presence is
far-reaching and her poetry powerful. What follows
is an in-depth of an artist whose candor will
surprise and delight you.
prompted your first poem and how old were you when
you wrote it?
Janet: As a
great many English majors do, I doodled a little in
terms of writing poetry when I was in college, but I
couldn't call any of those efforts a serious piece
of art. Four years ago, at age 40, between the close
of a summer quarter of teaching and autumn's
starting gate, I made a decision to write. I suppose
you could call it a slight case of a pen in the
throes of male menopause. Something struck me
inside: the use it or lose it epidemic, I guess. A
very dear member of our family had died three years
prior, but no one spoke of her much, or at least
enough for me. My aunt was adamant that there be no
funeral, no service of any kind. I felt cheated; her
scent was disappearing from the closet of my life
and I wanted it back.
I wrote a poem called "Assumption,' which was
devoted to her memory. In retrospect, I was
preserving the organs of her mind and heart and
airing the mohair sweaters of my grief, as well. I
wrote the piece in a matter of thirty minutes and
did very little in terms of revision. Three weeks
later, at the insistence of a close friend, I sent
it to a print periodical called New Thought Journal
and it was published a few months later. When one
wound is opened, you start looking around the body
of your world for other sore spots, other infections
of silence. This led me to examine the plight of my
disability; there is where my writing found its
initial wings. Candor is like poison ivy; you don't
just get a little patch, a little spot. Before you
know it, you are covered with things that itch and
need to be addressed.
you find it difficult to discuss your disability
openly in your poetry? If yes, what drove you to
continue to explore it?
simply, yes; it was very difficult. I spent the
first forty years of my life living as if I had no
missing pieces in the puzzle of human completion. I
was born with a plethora of congenital deformities
and they amputated my right leg above the knee when
I was seven. All of my energy was directed at
"fitting in," at necessary adaptation, at jumping
the hurdles of so-called normalcy. My roles were
Barbie Dolls and stoic bricks.
Before I began writing four years ago, I would have
told you that I had no "issues" with my shape, just
an ordinary clothesline of challenges to meet. I
come from a long line of silent grievers, where
emotion is circled in bubble wrap of dismissal and
tears are not tolerated or understood. When I wrote
my first two poems about disability (titled "Phantom
Pain" and "The Leg-less Dance"), I was absolutely
adamant that I would never send them off, that they
would never see the light of day.
Interestingly enough, I wrote those poems while a
close friend of mine was in the hospital for two hip
surgeries only eleven weeks apart. Jeannette was
justifiably terrified of both the emotional and the
physical trauma. I wrote those poems about my own
experience under the auspices of helping her feel
less alone in her plight. When I read them to her
over the telephone, I told her: "These are for your
eyes only; no one will EVER see this summary of
self-absorption and shame and hidden anger." I was
terribly afraid that my work was too "confessional,"
boringly so; I worried that it had no intrinsic
value in terms of that noble quest of understanding
and transcending universal grief. A pool-side pity
party was not my idea of a good poem. Jeannette's
reply was a forceful one: "You little brat," she
chided. "Think of all the amputees in the world and
their parents and loved ones who are struggling with
this coping process. You're being selfish by
refusing to send them out."
I gathered my nerve and sent them off. After they
were published in an anthology put out by Outrider
Press, I submitted them to a disability list. One
woman wrote me back: "You have taken five years of
my life and put it in a single stanza; I thank you
for your courage." My readers have challenged me to
rethink the purpose and the process of writing. It
is not about mastery; it is about admission,
exploration, and sensitivity. We live like skeletons
under mink coats of secrets, all of us do. Every
human being has his own sense of vacancy, his own
sense of loss. My "stump" (and it took me two years
to even type that word) is just a tiny symbol of
inadequacy and dread, one which we all share, no
matter its brand. When one person comes clean in
terms of candor, the door is opened for others to
follow. A poet who fails to take emotional risk is
limited to trite summary and speculation. Individual
grief is the clay of human acceptance, it has to be,
or we learn nothing from our suffering.
mentioned the confessional nature of your poetry.
Did you read other 'confessional' poets, i.e. Sylvia
Plath or Sharon Olds? If so, did they influence your
college, I read my share of Sylvia Plath and
Adrienne Rich, both very powerful voices of the
twentieth century. I felt then (as I do now) that
they were tortured by their lives in a manner I
could not fathom. The poignancy of their haunted
voices is something to emulate, but my own tremors
of discontent are not nearly so full of hate and
dejection. I think confessional poets have had a
"bad rap" in a sense. Intellectually, as scholars
and writers, we give credence to the confessional
poet, but emotionally he/she makes us extremely
nervous. One of the reasons that I hesitated at
first to write about my disability is that in the
past I have not had enough patience for any type of
writing that could be loosely called melodramatic or
full of histrionics.
You have to understand that I grew up in an
environment where emotions were almost naughty
words. That brand of dismissal was never
intentional; it was a matter of one upbringing
defining another and then another and another.
Removal, distance, and humor were safety valves; I
applied those ethics to my writing and to my
personal life to some degree. The cosmic irony here
is the fact I had to write honestly to be taken
seriously; and in some ways, I had to be given
permission to write by that reception itself. It's
all about validation to some extent. Like most
poets, I can write about things that I can't
actually talk about. Paper is like a surgical mask
that gives me the distance required to examine
things thoroughly. It is a processing tool rather
than the format of complaint, or least I hope it
When I first began running a quill over bitter
topics such as shame and deformity, I was absolutely
convinced that no one would be interested in that
private cache of emotion unearthed. What I
discovered was just the opposite. In every tough
topic we address, there is a center, a yolk, where
the rest of the world lives...or at least recognizes
a part of itself in. It's almost as if a
confessional poet with a strong sense of universal
grief can encourage every man to look in the
bathroom mirror. The honest voice I used for
disability I've also applied to alcoholism, family
issues and the grieving surrounding divorce. Meryl
Streep said it best in a recent film called Marvin's
Room: "My feelings for you are like fish hooks; I
pick one up and they all come at once."
Writing "confessional" poetry has educated me. I
think a writer can be both a mentor for cleansing
malaise and a disciple of the sunlight. People have
an odd reaction to my writing after they see a photo
of me. When they have read a number of my disability
poems, they expect to see a dark, sullen, wrinkled
face, full of anger and distress. The funny thing is
that I'm not that way at all. Actually, I'm
flippant, excitable, bouncy, and happy. I can travel
through despair in a poem, address it, pigeon-hole
it, swat its cobwebs down, but I don't let the pain
of my life ruin a day. This is very difficult to
explain. A stanza is my exorcist. Playing with the
tension of the deep, I feel, can actually delegate
suffering to a less hellish place. I think it is the
ghosts we don't address that eat us.
Every poet has his/her own method of getting
to the finished piece. What process works for
Janet: An answer
to this question is only useful in so far as it
helps other writers, so let me gear my response with
that motive in mind. The biggest hurdle most writers
have is self-doubt. We worry that the little engine
of "could" is actually a "can't" dressed up in need
and determination. You have to begin every writing
adventure with a sense of your own innate ability to
transfer emotion and image to a context of
embodiment and purpose.
My writing process is usually a four-step limp:
grab, gather, think, and revise until it's musical
enough to be put away for the evening. After a piece
sits overnight, I can usually spot its flaws. The
writing process is not all that different from
cleaning the kitchen floor: you pick up the salient
chunks of a messy life, sweep its attending dust
into a pan, soap down the floor, rinse it, let it
dry, then buff it 'til it shines.
However corny it sounds, the key here is getting
down on your knees. And the more you do it, the
easier it is. Many people ask me if I have a
"special formula" or a place I withdraw to. While I
do the actual assembling of stanzas in my study, on
a keyboard, I am "writing" in my head just about
every waking hour of my day. I'm always jotting
things down in the middle of doing something else,
and I always bow to the luxury of recording an
observation or an image or an idea. Writing, to me,
is not a habit that is reserved for a time of day,
or a certain room in the house. I've been known to
compose four or five lines of a poem on the back of
a bank deposit slip, while I'm sitting at a stop
light or even driving through town. I collect words
all day long and then force myself to sit down and
create a context. The practice of doing this day
after day has taught me that the well of inspiration
is not a dry entity.
I think of a pen as a clothesline for sensitivity,
where the wrinkles and the liquid of sadness in life
hang out to dry. I am not writing about my life or
my feelings; I am just recording the process of
surrendering to their experiences. Too many poets, I
believe, tend to wait too long for that so-called
crystal voice to scream in their ear. Relevance and
poignancy are inside our souls; just about every
detail of our lives has the potential of being a
I'll give you an example. A few months ago, I was
driving to the pool to swim my laps and ran across
an empty motorcycle helmet rocking back and forth on
the gravel of a three-way stop. I pulled out a scrap
of paper, wrote down the following words that came
to me: rocking helmet, muddy crust, question mark,
oddity, etc. More details and descriptors buzzed
around in my head as I was swimming and I added them
to the list while I was dressing to go about my day.
That evening, I sat down with my notes and this poem
Witnessing a Question
A grimy helmet on center strips
of beaten road
was a surprising symbol
for a poet to grab.
mud-caked. Tipping back and forth.
Rolling like a coddled egg
in plasma of eternal fire.
Where was his head? In surgery?
In Disney dreams distilled in ether?
Business meetings with a bottle?
Fate and fact were question marks.
Beside the helmet sat a shoe.
A lampshade minus wired light.
Its laces tiny syllables
in stanzas I could not arrange.
Painted with spray from passing cars
that underlined impending dark.
Fifty feet from busy junk yards--
urban's tally of defeat.
His isolation captured there
woke me up to my insides.
Loneliness meets loneliness.
Despair rear-ends intact despair.
My ears grew cold, exposed, and blue.
Time between the traffic spurts--
Big Big Ben with slow clock pulse.
I was a silent witness now
seeing more than I deserved
like perky maids who
change the sheets in cheap motels
where love had slept
but time escorted to its grave.
by Janet I. Buck
For some reason I can't explain, I trust words to
beget words. Often times, if I have no project
haunting me, no precipitator of a poem, I open up
the dictionary and just start grabbing words I like
the sound or meaning of. It sounds crazy, desperate,
and disjointed, but I use that as a starting place.
I suppose the most important elements of the process
involve confidence concerning creativity and
relevance. If we tell ourselves that have nothing in
our heads, then the trap door to the attic stays
shut and we cannot pull down the cob webs and
examine their threads. Writer's block is usually a
frame of mind that we nail ourselves to. It is a
matter of locking ourselves outside ourselves, and
it pivots on the faulty assumption that we have
nothing worth cleaning up or investigating.
I spent plenty of years going to school. Not a
single minute of that grind prepared me for the
writing process, except for the fact that reading
exposed me to words and my vocabulary increased. The
process of writing itself is the real teacher and
inspiration is the logical result.
What benefits do you feel society reaps from
Janet: The manna
of poetic expression, to me, has the following
ingredients: brutal candor, heart-felt emotion, and
searing relevance. For way too many centuries,
writers have been considered oddities, reclusives,
and personalities on the fringe of culture. It is
the duty of the contemporary poet to yank poetry out
of the classroom and hurl it in the face of the real
world. I grew up in a mind-state where a quill was a
hobby horse to ride when you had nothing else to
occupy your time with. When I told my parents I
wanted to teach writing, they shrunk from the
thought like argyle socks in a hot dryer. "Do
something practical," they said. Unfortunately, this
myopic notion of a writer's purpose and perspective
is exactly what thwarts it as a vehicle for social
I believe that the most profound voices of our
century are those who consider words as a lining for
the human spirit, one that offers warmth, support,
and comfort. They may drop grenades in our ditches
of certainty, but the enlightenment they bring is a
Internet poets have new avenues for reaching a wider
audience, and it possible for poetry to become more
than an unrewarded pastime. We often see dozens of
cultures penetrated and revealed in the context of
one cyber-journal. I have learned far more about the
spirit and struggles of Israel from Elisha Porat and
Moshe Benarroch than a history book could ever
offer. I see poetry as a swinging bridge over a deep
moat of confusion.
When I was in college, I was irritated that my
teachers seemed to consider all the "outsider" poets
like e.e. cummings and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and
Ezra Pound to be the greatest spokesmen of our
century. Frankly, I found most of their work to be
rather illusive and inaccessible. I feel it is the
duty of a poet to make sense of senselessness, not
add to its pile. Writing is about taking off masks,
not putting them on.
When I focus my pen on disability issues, I am
hoping to do something I consider very practical,
not esoteric or "artsy." Twenty percent of the
world's population will, in fact, become "disabled"
before they die. It's both a frightening and a
leveling observation. But that 20% (and the 80% who
live rubbing up against their plights) deserve both
knowledge and hope. When I write about alcoholism
and its grievances, I am a bill board like Mothers
Against Drunk Drivers. A testimonial of suffering is
a halfway house to change. Sylvia Plath brought
mental illness out of the closet to a degree; Alice
Walker, Rita Dove, Maya Angelou (and many others)
have given us the puzzle pieces of "Blackness." Put
simply, when we understand a culture's pain, we can
improve its health.