A Chat with Feature Lauren Schmidt
by Jacqui Morton
How did your relationship with poetry begin?
My mother saved poems I wrote about the zoo, trees, and birds [from] when I was really little, [though] I was more aware of my relationship with poetry [beginning] in the fifth grade because that was when I won my first contest.
We had to write a poem called “The Wish.” My poem was about everyone having a place to go to, and food, and people to take care of them. I can still remember the last line: “If everyone had a little time for people who need our help, my wish could come true.” This is funny now because of the nature of my first book, [Psalms of The Dining Room]—a series of poems about my volunteer service at a homeless kitchen in Eugene, Oregon.
Last year, when I returned to New Jersey, I lived with my 93-year-old grandfather for about six months, and one night, he came up to me with two poems I’d written for him and my grandmother when I was very little. They were awful, of course, but he said something really sweet about how I’ve always been a poet. I’d like to think he’s right.
What is your writing process?
I don’t know that I have a writing process so much as I try to do something writing-related every day. Some days are harder than others, but what I find, like most people who write, is that reading keeps me going. I make sure to read poets I love often, and I am very conscious of how I let the work of other poets influence me. More often than not, my poetry comes from practice.
This is a difficult question because I feel like I’ve been fumbling through the process myself. That’s been good for me, though, because I learned an awful lot about it. So perhaps that is some advice: commit to the process and figure out how your voice fits into the literary world. The more leg-work you do in trying to find editors that will uniquely appreciate what you’re trying to do as a writer, the better off you’ll be in the long run.
For instance, my first full-length book is being put out by a publisher (Wipf & Stock Publishers) that doesn’t normally publish books of poetry; they largely publish academic works for Religious Studies courses. I haven’t checked with the editors why they accepted my book—why pull at THAT thread?— but my feeling is that they agreed to publish the work, at least to some extent, because I made it clear to them that they were part of my vision for the manuscript. The publisher is in Eugene, literally one block away from The Dining Room, the homeless kitchen where the poems in this collection take place. I really wanted the project to be local and perhaps that’s why they got on board with the work.
If what we want as writers is an audience, then we have to be willing to think of creative means of getting our work out there in a way that is consistent with our own sensibilities.
Many of your poems seem to take on serious issues, as demonstrated in “The Volunteer” and “Her Name is Sarah.” How have these poems found you?
I lie a lot. My poems often start with observation—literally writing down what I see and hear—but that’s not always enough. I find that writing poetry allows me to wonder and ask questions, and that’s what I was doing in these two poems [inspired by The Dining Room], a place that was rife with material. I have become much less afraid to invent things for the sake of poetry, but it always starts with some truth.
You also have poems like “My Grandfather’s Balls,” which seems to be based on an unfortunate, but hysterical, personal experience. It seems like your muse experiences mood swings. I’m kidding, but it does seem like tone – and humor – are very much at play, yes?
I am fascinated when poems turn, when poets set up in one spot and end up somewhere completely unexpected, and “My Grandfather’s Balls” is an attempt at that. I love poets who can leap and surprise, and it’s a skill I want to keep working on.
You returned to your home state of New Jersey within the last couple of years. How much does where you are influence what you write?
I don’t know that place has much to do with where I write, but I do know I couldn’t have written Psalms of The Dining Room in New Jersey. There was something very special about that place and that time in my life. The last three years I spent in Oregon were transformative years: I discovered, through a dear friend of mine, that writing was more important to me than I realized; I went to my first poetry conference where I worked with Kim Addonizio; and then I started my MFA at Antioch, which was life-changing for many other reasons. So much of those three years was about building the confidence to say, “I can do this.” Looking back, I think I needed to be there for any of this to happen.
Who would you share your poems with, if you selected your readers?
High school-aged children. There’s no better audience than a high-schooler, in my opinion. Perhaps that’s why I have loved being in the classroom for this long. They’re old enough to have a sense of the way the world works and yet young enough that they can still be enraged by things they deem “unfair.” High-schoolers are much more empathetic than people give them credit for, and poetry is a great way to tap into that.
What are you reading now?
I’m in school right now to earn my credential in ESL, so lately I’ve been reading materials related to that. In terms of poetry, I have been reading a lot of anthologies. I’m into Being Alive by Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books, 2004) right now, a sequel anthology to Staying Alive (Miramax, 2003). They’re wonderful collections.
Last question, as a fellow child of the eighties, I’m wondering, did you peg your pants or have a favorite color jelly shoe?
I didn’t peg my pants, but I was way into stretch pants and oversized sweaters with puffy paint and glitter on them.
Lauren Schmidt is currently featured on our site. You can read her poetry here.
Jacqui Morton is an associate poetry editor. She will receive her M.F.A from Antioch University, Los Angeles June 2011. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband, Chris, their wonderfully active toddler, Benjamin, and disgruntled cat, Sadie. Concerned about a growing number of issues in our society and on our planet, Jacqui finds poetry is key to her survival.