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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,, 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 Excellence.

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, and Japan.

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.

Susan: What 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.

Susan: Did you find it difficult to discuss your disability openly in your poetry? If yes, what drove you to continue to explore it?

Janet: Put 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.

Susan: You 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 writing?

Janet: In 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 is.

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.

Susan: Every poet has his/her own method of getting to the finished piece. What process works for you?

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 workable poem.

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 emerged:

Witnessing a Question Mark

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.

Susan: What benefits do you feel society reaps from contemporary poets?

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 change.

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 wake-up call.

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.


Susan M. Ellis is the Poetry Editor for Moondance as well as the Public Relations Chairperson for the annual Houston Poetry Fest. Susan is also a poet in her own right and has been published in Maelstrom, Suddenly II, Suddenly III, di-verse-city 2000, The Northwest College Review, Slate & Style, The Quill, and most recently, the Houston Poetry Fest Anthology 2000.


E-mail Susan M. Ellis at

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