Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, we welcome Barbara Costas-Biggs who reads Jane Kenyon for us and offers a moment of solace and emotional check-ins through poetry during an exceptionally chaotic time. Thank you for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Jane Kenyon for Lyric Essentials?
Barbara Costas-Biggs: My mind immediately went to her. I read her a lot—for inspiration or to find a moment of calm in this crazy world. I feel a connectedness to Kenyon’s poems, the way she works things out with particular attention to the natural world. When our children were very small, my husband and I moved into his grandmother’s old farmhouse in eastern Kentucky and thought we’d make a go of it as (very) small scale organic farmers. Really, we had a large garden and a few cows and chickens, enough to keep friends and family in eggs and vegetables. It felt very foreign to me, this new way of life we had chosen. I think that’s when I really started to want to understand her work better. In prepping for this interview, I read a lot of old articles about her, went back into her books and her own words. One thing I think that people who aren’t more familiar with her think is that she wrote nice little poems about nature, and that her work might not stack up against the work of her husband (which is a crazy notion that I hadn’t really thought about myself, but the idea is out there). Here’s one of Donald Hall’s responses when asked about their stylistic differences: “Yeah,” he’d say, “her style is a glass of water – a 100-proof glass of water.” I think that sums it up pretty well.
EH: Was there a particular reason you chose the poems “The Pear” and “Heavy Rain” from Kenyon’s expansive oeuvre?
BCB: It might be a bit of a cop-out, but I think I chose The Pear because I recently had a birthday, my 44th, and there is so much in this poem that resonates with me right now. This wild year has had me all over the place. I’ve spent 2020 all over the emotional charts, and I know many others have, too. This poem, 10 lines & 53 words, is a powerhouse. In it, I read desperation and fear, but also a warning of sorts in that last stanza. I spend too much time worrying and thinking on the things that I have lost, and when Kenyon writes “and you may not be aware/ until things have gone too far”, it gives me pause. It’s a reminder to me that the desolation she also speaks of in the poem can be stemmed with a bit of self-preservation and emotional check-ins. I know that this is a deeply personal reading, and that not everyone might see it that way, and that’s ok.
Heavy Summer Rain might be my very favorite poem, so choosing that one was easy. I think again, she is working with the natural, looking for ways that the world (and ourselves) can “right itself”. And also again, her work with vowels is just so lovely: “Everything blooming bows down in the rain”. It’s almost an incantation, asking to be repeated in a holy way. The images in this poem are just so clear to me, like my own backyard. Knowing where the deer bed down, watching the poppies that my husband’s grandmother planted fall in a storm. And that middle stanza, the one that takes a personal turn, is just too perfect. “I miss you steadily, painfully”, exactly like the falling rain.
EH: Your simple, almost anecdotal yet powerfully emotionally resonant poetry style seems to share some of those elements with Kenyon’s work. Do you find a particular inspiration from her poetry?
BCB: Oh, yes, and that is really much too kind. I think I have probably answered this question before getting to it officially. There are two writers that I feel a special kinship with. Kenyon, obviously, and also Barbara Kingsolver. I think it’s because they write so much about place and relationship to that place. I have spent most of my life in Appalachia, and I don’t think you can live here without feeling a strong connection to the hills and dales. I can’t imagine trying to write without bringing in mayapples, river trout, sycamore trees. For me, like Pound said, the natural object is always the adequate symbol. I met and studied with the poet Cathy Smith Bowers while I was working on my MFA, and she gave me wonderful advice: Always go back to Jane. And I do. When I get stuck in a poem or in my head, I pull out Kenyon and try to get back to work.
EH: Lastly, is there anything you are working on now that you’d like to share with readers?
BCB: I’m slowing putting together a second collection of poems (which seems funny since the first one is still unpublished!), and I’m also expanding a chapbook that I wrote which contains poems about my father and his death. It’s called The Other Shore, and was recently a finalist for the Washburn Prize from Harbor Review. My father was a music fanatic and a guitarist, and the title comes from an arrangement of Good Shepherd by Jefferson Airplane. Music plays a large part in those poems. I also have 4 poems forthcoming in The Appalachian Review.
Jane Kenyon is an acutely midwestern American poet, born, raised and educated in Ann Arbor Michigan. In her lifetime as a translator, poet and essayist, she published four collections of poetry and championed the art of translation, translating Anna Akhmatova’s poems from Russian to English. The wife of poet Donald Hall, Kenyon’s poetry is distinctly focused on rural and naturalist themes while addressing depression and melancholy, as is famously outlines in her acclaimed poem “Having it out with Melancholy.” She was the poet laureate of New Hampshire when she died of leukemia at just 47 years old.
Read this review and short biography of The Poetry of Jane Kenyon from The National Book Review.
Purchase The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon from Graywolf Press.
Watch this extensive profile of Kenyon and her husband, poet Donald Hall, from Bill Moyers.
Barbara Costas-Biggs is a poet and librarian from Appalachian Southern Ohio. Her work has appeared recently or is forthcoming from Appalachian Review, Lost Balloon, Northern Appalachian Review, Mothers Always Write, Glass, Ghost City Press, 8Poems, and others. Her poem “Naked in the Macy’s Changing Room, Trying to Think About Anything Other Than the Election” won the Split This Rock Abortion Rights poetry contest in 2017, and her chapbook, The Other Shore, was a finalist for the Washburn Prize from Harbor Review. Her MFA is from Queens University of Charlotte, and her MLIS is from Kent State.
Read Costas-Biggs poem “Naked in the Macy’s Changing Room, Trying to Think About Anything Other Than the Election,” winner of the 2017 Split This Rock Abortion Rights poetry contest.
Read Costas-Biggs’ blog on her personal website.
Follow Costas-Biggs on Twitter to stay updated with newly published works.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/