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Four of the eight movements of secular requiem How to Go On set texts by poet Laura Foley. Her poems alternate between the intensely personal and something more akin to the gentlest of instructions: a way to live one's life, even when it becomes incomprehensibly challenging.
However difficult you think it might be,
it is yours, this life,
even the failures
even the garden, though it be unkempt,
—Laura Foley, excerpt from “Autumn Musings”
Throughout How to Go On, soloists from within Choral Arts Initiative narrate text in the first-person—questioning, learning—with the choir as a whole taking the part of a reassuring, wiser voice.
In the following interview, Trumbore and Foley discuss how writing can become a spiritual act, Foley's connection to fellow How to Go On poet Barbara Crooker, and the real-life locations that inspire Foley's vivid poetic imagery. Foley is the author of five poetry collections, including Syringa and Night Ringing. Her poem “Gratitude List” recently won the Common Good Books poetry contest and was read by Garrison Keillor on “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Dale Trumbore: At the mention of the “wide, high plain” in your poem "Sometimes Peace Comes," I imagine the setting where I wrote that movement at the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts: these vast open spaces in Saratoga, Wyoming. I know that line is part of a metaphor within the poem, but real or metaphorical, that and the other places described in your work strike me viscerally real. The frozen river in "Relinquishment" is so vivid, too: “pale blue ponds of melted ice / on a frozen river / and in them perfect clouds passing.” Do you have literal, real places in mind when you write these poems?
Laura Foley: I love this question because it reawakens in me what happens when I write a poem, which perhaps I wasn’t fully conscious of at the time of writing. Yes, I always have a real, literal place in mind, and dig into it to create a poem. The “wide, high plain” you refer to takes me back to Peru, traveling with my late husband and our three young children. We were in a van, and stopped for a picnic, I think. We looked for condors, and did see one, soaring. Poetry allows me to flesh out a place and time from the past, to make it real again.
The frozen river, on the other hand, was what I saw from my window every day. I lived in a house overlooking the wide Connecticut River; I received much solace and inspiration from its presence, noticing how it changed through the seasons, or even in one day, reflecting light in different ways. Such a helpful contemplation at a time of grief and change, after my husband’s death, my daughter’s autism diagnosis, my teenage son’s unraveling.
DT: In all of the poems set in How to Go On, there's a secular sense of spirituality, as if we can find what we're seeking—love, warmth, community, acceptance—in an embrace of what we already have, rather than seeking it from any other source. Can you speak about that sense of spirituality in your poems—of seeking / finding the spiritual in nature, and how that concept plays into your writing?
LF: Writing, to me, is a spiritual act, a quieting of the mind and a dipping into some greater source. This may be nature, or the breath, a stream of something larger than myself, a life force, beyond my own limits. I trust the process of writing to bring me there, and it always does. There’s a greater wisdom that my own small mind, my left brain, if you will, cannot grasp. It is not about grasping, but about letting go. And in the letting go, the whole world enters.
DT: You know Barbara Crooker, one of the other poets set in How to Go On, which is how we first connected. How did you get to know Barbara? Can you speak a little bit about that friendship? I love that there's a little bit of community here through that connection. You, Barbara and Amy Fleury are all poets whose work I've set in other capacities before (and will hopefully work with many times again)!
LF: I know Barbara Crooker through her writing, which inspires me. I often use her poems in my writing classes, because they are so visually apt, her metaphors always fresh and astonishing in a satisfying way. Also, I know that she has a son with autism, about the same age as my daughter, who is also on the autism spectrum. In addition, Barbara, like me, is fully devoted to the process of writing and publishing, yet is not associated with a university. We met and had a lovely lunch when I was in Pennsylvania to see my daughter. I feel we are comrades-in-poetry.
DT: Finally, can you give some insight into your writing process? Is there a time of day when you prefer to write? Is there a sense of routine or ritual that accompanies your writing process, or is it a matter of sitting down and doing it whenever you can?
LF: I discovered the creative in myself late in life, age 45. Before that I only wrote academic papers. It was a thrilling discovery to write my own poetry, and I resolved to give it my full attention. Now, thirteen years later, I have published widely, received national and international awards, authored five books of poetry, a new manuscript in the wings, a seventh well on its way. During that time, the writing process has changed a few times. I used to walk in my favorite woods every day, notebook, pencil in hand. Now I am likely to write in coffee shops, often drawing from memory. In any case, the common thread over the last thirteen years is giving the creative my full attention, clearing my life from distractions, allowing the open space in which poetry can emerge.
Order tickets for the July 16 & 17 concerts of How to Go On here and pre-order forthcoming album How to Go On: The Choral Works of Dale Trumbore, to be released in January 2017.
Lorraine Joy Welling