an interview with pamela johnson parker

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Welcome to the latest stop on Read Write Poem’s Virtual Book Tour!  To read more reviews, check out the tour schedule at Read Write Poem! 

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Selected as the first place winner of qarrtsiluni‘s 2009 poetry chapbook contest, Pamela Johnson Parker’s A Walk Through the Memory Palace is a gorgeous little treasure–a glossy chapbook with ten poems that sing as if they are 100.   Praising the collection, judge Dinty Moore said, “Whether writing about rich gardens, sagging breasts, or the ink of a tattoo, this poet sees through the obvious to something radiant on the other side, painting a startling portrait of an intimate world. Not a wasted word here: the nouns are like gemstones.”

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As a poet working on my own first collection, I am always curious about the process.  How do you choose the poems?  How do you put them in any kind of order?  Pamela Johnson Parker was kind enough to indulge my curiosity and allow me to interview her about the manuscript process, the final product and what it’s like to hold your first collection in your hands. 

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For more information on the collection, or to order one for yourself, you can visit the A Walk Through the Memory Palace website.  If you’d like to hear more from Pamela, you can visit her blog: Pamela’s Musings

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on the manuscript process

Can you talk about your process of compiling the manuscript? For instance, the collection is comprised of 10 poems. When you sat down to put your manuscript together, how many poems did you start with? How did you whittle it down?

I wanted the poems to move imagistically rather than chronologically. I write rather long poems and I knew that more than 10 poems would be over the limit page-wise.

I wanted the poems to move from an awareness of lust/ache that is a presence to an awareness of loss/ache that is an absence. I wanted a poem that basically worked through one scene to set the stage for the book. I wanted a poem that distanced its subjects through captions and had several memory palaces to end the book. I also wanted to go from the sensibility of being young and unaware to being all too aware of what it meant to lose what’s beloved.

I laid out all the poems that comprise my full length manuscript and pulled out about 25. I scrambled them around until I ended up with 10, which seemed like a good number. I knew what I wanted, but not exactly how to line them up. (I didn’t have my guardian angel, MFA mentor, Brian Barker, to help. He was a great help to me in organizing the first book-length manuscript).

I wanted the poems to resonate but not be too matchy-matchy. I made a list of images–here’s flowers, here’s a pathway, here’s a garden, here’s a fish, here’s water–and then tried to make something organic out of these disparate pieces. I thought of it as planning a garden. The poem about last year’s journals, this year’s yard is pretty much a poetics statement for me.

Did you look at any particular collections for inspiration when you were putting yours together?

I read many collections to think about narrative arc. Two collections that were especially helpful to me in understanding how books might be organized are Animal Gospels by Brian Barker, and The Determined Days by Philip Stephens. These are my MFA mentors, and their books are gorgeously organized. I read Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse in order to think about non-narrative movement.

A Walk Through the Memory Palace is such an evocative title, the Memory Palace such an intriguing destination. Where did the title come from?

If I’m going to be honest, which I try to be, I have to say that that came from a serial killer, specifically, Hannibal Lecter. In the prequel Hannibal, I re-encountered the memory palace, a concept that I hadn’t heard of since Psychology and Philosophy classes in college. How do we remember what we remember? How do we stand to remember what hurts? What do we do with those memories?

On your blog, Pamela’s Musings, RWPer Carolee Sherwood asked you about your selection of the book’s first and last poems. Your answer was fascinating. Can you, perhaps, speak again on that subject, specifically on the “charm bracelet structure” of compiling a manuscript versus the “gardening and pruning approach”?

For A Walk Through the Memory Palace, I wanted to move forward and backward, across and down, meander. For the next chapbook, Other Four-Letter Words, in which the poems are all love poems, I wanted to chime and circle. I think the first chapbook seems more organic and the second more traditionally musical—the difference between a private little jig and a quadrille, maybe.

Tell us about working with qarrtsiluni. Was there much editing to be done after your manuscript was chosen as the winner of their 2009 poetry chapbook contest?

Beth and Dave are the greatest, most tireless advocates of poetry and this chapbook. I am so pleased that they worked so hard on this project. I suggested the cover art, and after that I didn’t have anything to do except read the perfect galleys and admire the finished product. The website was their idea too! I really respect the work that they do with qarrtsiluni and they gave this same commitment to the chapbook, as well. I feel like it is our book, not my book.

The hardest part of the whole process was reading the poems. I don’t have a good reading voice, so I worked really hard on this. My husband Harvey was the other reader, and he’s wonderful. Matt Markgraf was our sound man, and he made the recordings painless and professional.

on the final product

What did you do when you held the final copy in your hands for the very first time?

I cried the second I saw the package on the porch. I was shaking so hard that my husband had to open the box and hand me a book. I am not a sentimental person, but it was truly like holding a baby—shivery and strange and familiar all at once.

If you had to write a blurb for the back of your book, what would you write?

“Pamela Johnson Parker has had the best teachers: Daniel Anderson, Philip Stephens, and Brian Barker. She can never thank them enough.”

The painting on the cover, “Cupid Complaining to Venus,” by Carrie Ann Baade, is gorgeous. How was the cover art chosen? In your mind, how does the painting speak to the content?

I saw Carrie Ann Baade’s wonderful art online and knew that I wanted it for a cover if I ever had a book. I cut a deal with her for a project that fell through. By the time that this chapbook was ready, the image I originally fell in love with was taken. Carrie had new images up on her website that were garden based in theme and graciously allowed us to choose. Beth and Dave helped narrow the images down to two. The one that we chose, “Cupid Complaining to Venus,” reminded me of “any multiplicity of stings” that’s in the “Tattoos” poem. It goes well with the garden poems, and the idea that there is sweetness in sorrow (tears of honey) is really appealing to me.

on the poems

In a recent RWP interview, Nathan Moore asked what line of your own poetry you love the most and you responded, “I’m really fond of my titles. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard” is currently my pet.” Is that still your favorite? If so, what is your 2nd favorite?

I am working really hard in fits and starts on “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackboard.” It’s still my favorite. My second favorite? Probably “78 RPM.” I really love antiques and those old records are so evocative. That’s a time that’s past, another sort of memory palace, music cut into grooves.

What is your favorite poem in the collection? What makes it your favorite? Can you talk about its genesis? What inspired it? How many revisions did it go through before it made it into the collection?

My favorite poem in the collection is probably the first one, “78 RPM.” It was inspired by purchase of antique wicker porch furniture. I sat on the loveseat, and it bit me! I thought I’d been stung by a wasp. I think there were 15 or 20 drafts of that poem over two years.

Are there any poems not in the collection that you wish had been included? Will they make it into a second collection? Are you working on a second collection? Full-length or chapbook?

I am really pleased with this chapbook the way it is. I’m going to have a second collection published in 2010, Other Four-Letter Words. I have a full-length MS out to publishers, but it’s boomeranging back to me with some regularity. Right now, I’m working on a book-length poem, as well as drafting out other poems. My process is very weird. I always have three projects at once.

last words

What poets/collections are you currently reading? Who is on your to-read list?

I am currently reading The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, as well as Nicky Beer’s collection, The Diminishing House. What fine poems Nicky Beer writes—she and Stevens are in fabulous conversation in my mind.

I have a long to-read list: Eavan Boland’s newest collection and Charles Martin’s translation of Ovid are at the top of the stack.

Two collections I read recently have stayed with me: Displacement by Leslie Harrison and Please by Jericho Brown.

Do you have any advice/tips/tricks for poets who are putting together a first collection?

Trust your ear. Read your poems aloud. Have a second reader and really listen. What do you hear that links up sonically? What images seem true to you? Where does a poem need tweaking? Where do you surprise yourself?

11 responses »

  1. Hi Jilly, hi Pamela. I’m thrilled to read this interview because the ms subject is one I’m very interested in. I think others will be, too.

    Thank you both for being clear with the questions and answers alike.

  2. Pingback: yes, yes, here’s another virtual book tour stop for ‘a walk through the memory palace’ « Read Write Poem

  3. What a great interview! Thank you Jilly, and thank you Pamela. It was such a pleasure to work with you and with your poems, especially for a designer/editor like me who is very visually-oriented: the poems themselves suggested what we might do with them. (And my favorite is 78 RPM, too, though I also really like the poem about the koi – again, a very visual poem.)

    We’ll be announcing our second chapbook contest soon at qarrtsiluni, so I hope the poets who are planning their first chapbook take note of your most helpful comments here! We’ll make sure to link to this interview.

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