mt. vernon, iowa | interviewed 2-28-2002
Four months ago: picking wild raspberries, thinking of
little else. (No jumbo jets, cell phones, flames,
no waiting to see what "normal" would be.)
That's why I love this fertile shank of alley
leading from my yard to the public park. Why I
thaw the last zip-locked bag of berries
to spoon onto the children's corn flakes.
What fruits toys more with the tongue, distracts
the brain, ruddies the lips, plies fingertips with evidence
of where we've squandered our mornings?
Grab the glossiest, thunderbolt purples, I instructed
my youngest. Shaped like cauliflower caps.
As easy to pry loose as a front tooth
ready to be swallowed.
She swallowed eight, ten berries at a time,
manners aside. Which is the point to life
in this alley, where a little thorn / sweat / nettle
is a small price to pay
for Eden. Here, time passes
a mouthful at a time, while we panhandle
for the crunch and tang of pulp, for the swill
of unfermented sherry.
Next summer? Give me nothing more
than more of the same raspberries
in June, sour pie cherries in July, then
volunteer tomatoes, and stalks of hollyhock
twice my daughter's height. Then compost-sired
pumpkins offering their orange girth,
their well of seeds and sunrise.
copyright © 2001 Barbara Lau | All Rights Reserved
There's that sense of finding the right word next to the next word and the next word, and having an off-rhyme leap up and deciding when to break the linesI mean, all of those kind of artistic choices are luscious. To me, they're hard and they're luscious. I certainly write about themes that matter to me, and so, being able to articulate in a really condensed, crystallized form, this big topic, I think is a feat. And so, I love that concision that poetry demands [of] you. And then I feel wonderful when people respond. That's not why I set out to do it, but when that happens, it just reinforces, I think, the power of saying something in a chiseled down art form.
I went to where I was spending the night with a friend who was raised in Poughkeepsie, New York. And then we just seemed to, like, sit non-stop in front of the TV for hours and hours, just horrified, and wringing our hands and pacing. And then it was also frightening, though, because I was away from my family, I didn't know if there were going to be a series of ten, twelve, fifteen of these things, and I wanted to be with my children. It immediately became apparent I wasn't going to get out of Austin for awhile. The planes weren't going to go off; people were renting cars to try to get home, almost this semi-panic. Also, here we are in the Bush's backyard. So Austin was on high alert, and that felt scary. So for a number of reasons, I think the enormity of it was even greater being away from home.
Two days later, I did the reading down in south Texas, and of course I had to re-write my introduction, because what I was going to say seemed just inappropriate. What I remarked upon was, how the connotation of certain words has shifted so much. I had a poem in my book that I wrote a couple of years ago, and it starts off and acknowledges that I'm in this rural part of Iowa that feels uncomfortable. And I say, I'm 200 miles from the nearest skyscraper. Now when I read the line200 miles away from the nearest skyscraperthere's a sense of, Aren't you lucky, aren't you safe. And that's not what I meant. I meant, I'm missing the city. So, that was interesting that words mean something different, and it's going to skew the whole sentiment, perhaps, of the poem.
October 7 (Bombing of Afghanistan)
I was very concerned aboutwhat percentage are going to die that are civilians and already horribly harmed by what had gone on with the Taliban. On the other hand, I certainly don't respect any of the values, I think, of the Taliban. So those people lived under horrible situations, and I think that to whatever degree they can be liberatedparticularly, of course, the women and the girlsthat is positive. But a big price to pay. And our country, too. The wealth that our country has and the things that we gain heresomebody's got to pay a price somewhere down the line. When there's injustice, there's going to be explosions, and everybody's going to pay a price. And I feel that being an American, and to a certain extent, the life that I've been privileged to live, all of this feeds intoit's a symbiotic stew, and on some level, we all have some involvement in what's happened.
I've had both positive feelings about America and very negative feelings. And having been to Europe briefly and lived a little bit of time in Mexico, I've always felt this sense of a love-hate relationship with America in general. And I think that that's true here, knowing that in some ways the sort of blanket support of Israel has caused some political problems that fed into this. So, I'm conflicted, I would say.
I think the flag-waving is a simplistic approach. Of course, that's comforting to have simple answers for people, and it's comforting for the administration to have simple answers. But most people I talk to, feel that it's very complicated, and the U.S. isn't this simple victim that got sideswiped. It's tragic [for] all the civilians, certainly, but . I'm concerned. I don't buy into everything that's happening.
Barbara Lau was born on Long Island, New York in 1951. She grew up in Philadelphia and Brooklyn until she was five years old, then her family moved to San Antonio, Texas. She has one younger brother. She was an avid reader growing up, and was writing a lot poetry by the time she was in middle school.
She earned a B.A. in English/Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, her M.A. in English from the University of Illinois, Springfield, and her M.F.A. in Poetry from Warren Wilson College, Asheville, North Carolina.
She has taught writing and English in a variety of community college and four-year college settings. Her award-winning poetry collection, The Long Surprise, was published in 2001 (Texas Review Press). She also has published novel excerpts, short stories, non-fiction books (as co-author), articles, and essays.
She lives in Mt. Vernon with her husband and two daughters, writes poetry, and teaches a variety of English courses at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon.
I have lived in Iowa for eight years but was born on Long Island. Throughout my life, I frequently visited relatives in that area, toured the Twin Towers a few times, and in my early 30s lived in Brooklyn for awhile. The vision of the towers crumbling was horrendous and almost inconceivable to me, no matter how many times I watched that achingly sloweven gracefulplummet. Although I, like my parents, chose not to live and raise my children in a large metropolitan center, New York City represents part of my background AND part of America. Historically and symbolically, it stands for a huge chunk of American ideology, promise, diversity, artistic expression, brain power, and inventiveness.
Lots of Midwesterners feel this way. Simply being removed from the sites of the tragedy does not exclude us from caring, nor feeling a deep sense of loss and anxiety about the future.
In "Post September," the speaker is still "waiting to see what 'normal' would be." Thinking back to more carefree, safer times, she opens her last frozen bag of wild raspberries picked in a backyard alley with her children last summer. The rest of the poem is both celebration and wish: celebration of the free bounty (berries, volunteer tomatoes, pumpkins, hollyhock) available in her alley, and the desire (the right?) to live life unafraid, with a positive view of the future. It closes with her vowing to anticipate the pumpkins' annual "offering [of] their orange girth,/ their well of seeds and sunrise."