Interview with Harriet Shenkman

Westchester Review: What motivated you to write the poems “Spokes of Despair” and “It”?

Harriet Shenkman: For “Spokes of Despair” I was motivated by things I had seen repeatedly in the news – all of those situations where someone unexpectedly did some horrific thing that people who knew them never expected them to do. It struck me as that very old saying that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. It’s the sense that we don’t know people, that we don’t know what they carry with them, the sadness and despair. And then you have a child who will take a gun and kill people and the parents say, “I just never expected him to ever do something like that.” And I believe them. I think often despair is very private and people don’t realize it.

 TWR: Your writing is very spare but very poignant. Do you write only poetry or do you write prose as well – and why did you select poetry to deal with these topics?  

I also write prose. I was writing a novel, but after a while I turned to poetry, which to me is a quicker and easier form. Not that poetry is that easy, but I found that I had a flair for it and realized that my poems were being published. I’m still writing my novel and am actually finishing it now. But there is some relationship even though they are different forms. They are related in that they have an acuity for language. There is a sensitivity to language and to honing things down to their essentials, especially in poetry.

TWR: Do you typically write about current events?

HS: No, whatever strikes me. My book, Teetering, is more personal. The chapbook that I published was about my own personal experience growing up with parents who were immigrants, and what they went through. But then I branched out to things that kind of strike me as being remarkable and essential.

My other poem, “It,” was more personal: how we learn about sex. My mother never said a word to me. I think in my generation parents generally never said anything; you just sort of learned and passed it along on the street. That was my experience, and as an aside, I recently re-connected with a friend from elementary school who reminded me that I had told her about “it” around the age of nine and apparently traumatized her. Then I thought of my daughter. How did she learn about “it” and was I as silent as my mother was? I wasn’t quite as silent. I had a picture book that I showed her so I was a bit more open, but still pretty quiet.

TWR: What was the writing process like for these two poems?

HS: There are a lot of revisions to whatever you write. There may be geniuses who can just write it out and that’s it. But I find revision is central. There’s so much to poetry in terms of lyricism, the form, the words. There are lots of essential ingredients. And then there’s a lot of revision. I took some classes at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center with Jennifer Franklin, the coordinator and a very fine poet. I enjoyed working with her and she wrote the blurbs on my book and knows my poetry well.

TWR: Are you a prolific writer?

HS: I wouldn’t say that, but at least ten different publications have published at least one of my poems. I was also poet-in-residence at Boomer Café, an online site for which I submitted one poem a month. I like poetry, but my first endeavor was the novel, so I’ve gone back to that. I’m hoping that it will be published.

TWR: What writing rituals get your juices flowing?

HS: Finding the space and the time to get into the zone is the challenge. I’m not someone who can write while sitting at a café or with noise around me. I need solitude and quietness to get into a frame of mind to write. I don’t have an office. I write on the kitchen counter and I stand. Writing is very intense and if I sit my body stiffens, so I’m better off standing. That’s why a higher kitchen counter is better and allows me to burn more calories.