Poetry is Good Company: A Conversation with Wendy Carlisle on Her Second Poetry Collection Discount Fireworks

Doubleback Review Social Media Intern, Bethany Milholland, asked Wendy Carlisle to participate in an interview about her poetry collection Discount Fireworks. A hymn to the landscape of Carlisle’s native Arkansas, the subjects of these poems range from Greek myths to motherhood to a high school shooting. Timeless yet personal, Discount Fireworks is an ode to self-discovery and the beauty of finding one’s home.

Bethany Milholland: What does the poetry collection Discount Fireworks mean to you? 

Wendy Carlisle: This collection was my second, completed five years after I had finished my MFA in Vermont, and after a fruitful residency on the West Bank of New Orleans. My wonderful publisher Jacaranda Press folded immediately after it was published, alas. I love this book because it was a watershed for me. It marked, I think, my passage into poetry-for-sure.

BM: How long did it take to write and what was the process like?

WC: These poems were collected over almost 8 years. I found poems that I believed spoke to one another, and added to the sum of the book, then sent them to my editor. She weighed in, and we began again. This process took about 6 months. The final book opens with thinning glaciers and closes with Hurricane Katrina but in-between, it contains everything from vampires to Bible stories. I am surprised now by how many forms are here, from faux sonnets (the precursors of my Ozark Sonnets) to syllabics. The thing that clinched the collection for me was that the individual poems said something I wanted to hear.

BM: Who or what do you find inspiration from? 

WC: I am inspired by other Arkansas poets, Jo McDougall, Arkansas’s poet laureate, my first teacher Miller Williams, and that giant of Arkansas letters, C.D. Wright. I just discovered Laura Kasischke, that was like finding gold. Kim Addonizio continues to be an inspiration and my poetic practice has been built on the foundation of my friendship with the late Phillip Dacey,who continually reminded me about the bone work of poetry, showing up.

BM: Can you tell me about the front cover? 

WC: The cover is Discount Fireworks, a 1985 painting by a first-rate Arkansas artist, Robert McGehee, from Paris, Arkansas. I lived with the painting for over a decade when it occurred to me it would make a great cover for my book-in-progress. After that standing at the kitchen counter, I wrote the first draft of the poem “Discount Fireworks” in a flash.

BM: What is poetry to you?

WC: Poetry is good company. Poetry is hard work. Poetry is laughter. Poetry is a soul stretcher, a teacher of compassion. It animates wit. I seek poetry out, and we have a cup of coffee. We walk in the woods and look for morels. Outside of my family, poetry is the great love of my life.

BM: Do you consider yourself a regionalist author? Why? 

WC: In Discount Fireworks, the subjects of the poems range from Greek myths to motherhood to a high school shooting, but I’ve lived in Arkansas for 45 years and everything I write is touched by its wind and water, its patois and the rocky Ozark soil. Its people speak through me. I can’t say if I’m a regionalist, but I expect so.

BM: Do you have any advice for beginning poets?

WC: Don’t come to poetry expecting to be noticed. Come expecting to work hard for no money and meagre rewards. Come because you cannot help yourself. Come for the sheer joy of making something that didn’t exist before. Read and read and read poetry. Don’t worry about being influenced by other poets. If you can write like Emily Dickinson, do that. And don’t be above the scut work of poetry—the mishigas of submission and rejection. In the end, expect to give everything you have to poetry, but don’t expect poetry to give you back anything but jubilation.

BM: What was the most meaningful poem to you in the collection and why?

WC: That question reminds me of, “who is your favorite child.” But, if I have to say, the book contains one of my first love poems to my husband, “La Bamba Dance Club.” It was a nice surprise to write that.

Bethany Milholland is a senior at The University of Evansville majoring in Creative Writing. She is the former Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Evansville Review. She is also a former intern for her university’s magazine The Crescent. In her spare time, she enjoys earning a cat’s love and shopping at every thrift store within a thirty-mile radius.

Wendy Taylor Carlisle was born in Manhattan, raised in Bermuda, Connecticut and Ft Lauderdale, Florida and now lives in the Arkansas Ozarks in a house she built in 1980. She has an MA from the University of Arkansas and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the author of The Mercy of Traffic (Unlikely Books, 2019), Discount Fireworks (Jacaranda Press, 2008) and Reading Berryman to the Dog (Jacaranda Press, 2000.) Chapbooks include They Went to the Beach to Play (Locofo Chaps, 2016), Chap Book (Platypus Press, 2016), Persephone on the Metro (MadHat press, 2014), The Storage of Angels (Slow Water Press, 2008), and After Happily Ever After (Two River Chapbooks, 2003.) Her work appears in multiple anthologies.


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