Poets at Play--an Interview with Tania Runyan

With Tania at AWP Conference--Seattle WA
     Some poets' work take your breath away or stop you in your tracks with an 'aha'! Some will challenge you to see the world a different way than before.
     Tania Runyan's work does all that. Of her many works, her two volumes of poetry based on Scripture prompts intrigued me the most. "Second Sky" is full of Pauline-Epistle-inspired musings,  "Thousand Vessels'" pays a powerful and provocative tribute to 12 women of the Bible.
     When I found out Tania would be in Seattle last Spring for the AWP Conference (Assn. of Writers and Writing Programs), I took the day off and got a free pass to attend the poetry panel she was participating in. (say that 3 times fast).
     She let me hang out and drink coffee with she and her panel mates who were delightful as well. Then we schlepped about the books, visited her publisher's table and I headed home.
I contacted her a few days later about an 'interview' for the blog and she was game.
Herewith the first installment of 'Poets at Play--the Interviews'
1. “A Thousand Vessels” is filled with poetry prompted by your reading of particular women in the Bible.  What was the catalyst for this volume?  Any particular idea or incident?

While pregnant with my second daughter (and busily parenting a toddler), I decided to create a "non-materialistic" Christmas for my extended family by writing a suite of Nativity poems as a gift. I wrote each poem from the point of view of someone present at the Nativity and the days immediately following--Mary, Joseph, an angel, a shepherd, Anna, and Simeon. I was especially drawn to writing from Mary's perspective and continued writing in her voice after Christmas. Then I moved on to Eve and Sarah, again drawn to their experiences with pregnancy and motherhood. At that point, I got the idea of writing an entire book arranged around women in the Bible. I determined to finish the manuscript before Rebecca was born--then went on to revise it several more times!

2. How do you start a poem? For example, in ‘Queen Esther’s Name Change’ (p. 42)
“With one word they have hurled me
 To the heavens. I cannot believe…”

I don't remember how I started that one, as it was written around a decade ago. But even with that excuse, it's generally a hard question to answer! I usually start the process by freewriting rather stream-of-consciously and getting a "skeleton" idea of a poem. Then I isolate phrases I like and start forming lines and structure, changing, moving and sculpting as I go. It's intuitive but not arbritrary, even if I have trouble explaining it! When it's how it needs to be, I just know. Then when I look at it several months later, I change the lines all over again.

3. What about form?
Regarding the example above, it’s set in couplets.  Then in ‘Children of Near Death’ (Jairus' Daughter) you begin, “Edward, Drowning” with triplets (and they’re not rhyming triplets). How does one decide such a thing?
I tend to write a lot in nonrhyming couplets or triplets, but again, I'm not entirely sure why. I just know when a poem needs one or the other (or something completely different, like no separate stanzas at all). Sometimes thoughts cross my mind--is there some sort of dualism here? Or a trinitarian theme? But usually my gut makes the decision, then a person smarter than I points out how it all works together. I like it when that happens.

4. How do you find the TIME to write, given you’re a mom of 3 and have a more-than-part time tutoring job?

I've always tried to squeeze in some time, whether it be before the kids wake up or after they go to bed (though I'm not a great night writer). The biggest help arrived in the form of an NEA grant, which helped me pay a sitter to watch my two younger kids a couple afternoons a week as I worked on Second Sky. Now all three kids are in school all day, but it's still tough to fit in quiet writing time. Always so many distractions, and it's easy to get distracted from the hard work of poetry. Retreats and conferences do give me little boosts throughout the year. Often I generate several rough "skeletons" at a place like the Glen Workshop then work on them at home in the following months.
5. Many people write prose and poetry both.  How did you decide (or what lead you) to go the route of poetry?

I started off wanting to be a playwright but found myself obsessing over the rhythm and sound of dialogue over anything else. Plot stressed me out. As I became more deeply immersed in poetry, I ended up choosing it as an emphasis for both my undergrad and graduate degrees. That said, I've been writing quite a bit of prose this past year or so, experimenting with flash fiction and writing creative nonfiction regularly for Image Journal's Good Letters blog. I released How to Read a Poem, which, though about poetry, is prose. My wheels are turning again about writing another nonfiction book.

Any last words or thoughts?

Read poetry. Read it slowly and savor it, even if you don't think you "get" it. The words will slowly infiltrate your bloodstream and enrich your life.
Please visit here to order 'Second Sky' and 'A Thousand Vessels'.  Tania's book for teachers, 'How to Read a Poem' (Tweetspeak Poetry) is a great classroom resource.  I wrote about my experience with middle schoolers using it here.  

1 comment:

  1. Glad to discover you have another blog, Jody. :) And happy to meet Tania and hear about her poetry. May poetry make a revival!