Intro: In her new collection, Rooted and Winged, Luanne Castle uses evocative imagery to explore that which grounds us and that which lifts us up. Her potent descriptions of the natural world give us a guide to understanding the magical ebb and flow that exists as we love and lose, birth and age, live and die. We had the good fortune to sit down with the author, a former GBH contributor, to discuss her latest work.
Self-Portrait as Elegy
An electric ship holds still
at the edge of sea. Hasten. Observe.
Nothing moves but its own glow,
yet it cannot be caught or boarded.
They say even now it sends
messages to captains and skippers
dead before you and I were born.
But what does it wish to convey?
A vessel may travel a long time
on dreams and speculative histories.
It’s so hard to let go of self-plans.
What we have here is a portent
or a moment to watch our lives slip
past, leaving us agape on the deck.
Mindfulness While Standing Agape on the Deck—An Interview with Luanne Castle
GBH: How did formal training (a MFA in Creative Writing and a PhD in English) help you on your artistic journey? Who were your greatest influences, either those you worked with or those you read?
LC: I studied for my MFA at Western Michigan University where my mentors in poetry were John Woods and Herb Scott and in (short) fiction, Stu Dybek, all products of the program at Iowa. John, a brilliant poet, never achieved the reputation he deserved, but I am grateful to have taken courses from him. Herb was a warm and caring teacher, who seemed the heart of the creative writing department. Though not quite a generation younger, Dybek’s influence seemed more innovative as he had already published his prose poem collection Brass Knuckles ten years before I was in his classes, and I found their form breathtaking. After leaving Western, I got my PhD in literature, which—along with teaching during and afterward—expanded my knowledge of poetry and other genres. Even then I didn’t feel that I was fully prepared to write poetry as a vocation.
At that point I began to take online courses and workshops where Caroline Goodwin and Matthew Lippman were particularly inspiring and helpful. Although Caroline was the first female poet who I connected with, I did have the support and encouragement of one of my academic professors, Clare Goldfarb, at Western while I was there and later while I was at Riverside. You might have noticed that my CW professors were all men, so Clare’s feedback on my stories and poems made them stronger. Additionally, I’ve learned a lot from reading other poets.
GBH: In “Self-Portrait as Elegy,” you write, “What we have here is a portent / or a moment to watch our lives slip / past, leaving us agape on the deck.” Did other poems come out of this philosophy? Do you see poems as a way to capture those moments which slip past, or as a way to appreciate life’s transitory nature?
LC: Oh, yes! I have always had problems with mindfulness. My mind races on or goes off in a different direction than my body. If you have ever driven on “autopilot,” you have an idea of what that’s like. I have lived too much of my life on autopilot, missing what is right in front of me. So when I have opportunities to remind myself to be mindful and live emulating Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, I like to grab them. One method I have found is writing down what happens. In fact, the first poem of Rooted and Winged, “Tuesday Afternoon at Magpie’s Grill,” mentioned the need to record what happened. This poem was written in “real time.” As my mind moved through thoughts, I jotted them down. This is a very rare occurrence for me, but it made me so mindful of my surroundings, down to the feeling of a fly on my arm.
GBH: You write about nature so beautifully, such as in “Waterland” with its “invisible hatchings of suckers, perch, of bullfrogs” and “its silent snake undulating on the surface like Jesus” or the single bird in “Superbloom” that “seeks a saguaro / like a mast on a masklike sea.” Do you regularly find the outdoors a source of inspiration and/or magic? Do you see yourself as a nature poet?
LC: Although I do not only write nature poems, I find that nature is a renewable resource for poetry. Nature fascinates me, which is quite remarkable considering that I am an indoor person—meaning I prefer to spend the majority of my time indoors. But I love the outdoors. It’s almost as if being outside for too long becomes “too much” for me. The experience can be overwhelming to my senses.
GBH: Many of the poems in the collection detail struggles with illness and loss. While these poems don’t offer any easy answers to these states of being, they do seem to posit that deliberately seeking out light in the darkness can lead to resilience. As a writer, how do you balance these two ideas in order to create a poem that has a satisfying finish?
LC: That is a fascinating question. Quick answer is that I don’t know. I think I like to juxtapose contradictions and see what will happen. I don’t like mindless optimism, which I think has been ingrained in Americans as the mindset that is socially acceptable. However, I bounce back fairly quickly from sadness as realism seems to be my native state. My husband, who I have been married to for a very long time, is a classic pessimist, so compared with him I appear to be an optimist! When it comes to ending a poem, though, I really like to leave some ambiguity. I can rarely agree on any thought in my head because I am always, like Tevye, thinking “on the other hand,” so anything more certain than ambiguity would be too confining.
GBH: In the collection, you mention the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to discuss fleeting nature. Why is this myth important to you (or for this poem/collection)? What are your other favorite fairytales or myths and how do they inspire your poetry?
LC: Eurydice’s and Orpheus’ story is tragic, in part, because others ruin the short-lived idyllic love. There can be no long-term happiness. Eurydice is particularly interesting to me because she demonstrates how, no matter what she does, she is doomed to have her life completely affected by others. We are all interconnected like the spider web in my poem.
The Little Red Riding Hood stories have long been one of my “personal” mythologies. I’ve studied these tales from many cultures. The details often vary. For instance, in many of the Asian versions, the “wolf” is a tiger. I have a chapbook called Our Wolves coming out in 2023 by Alien Buddha Press. These poems are various reflections on Little Red and the character of the wolf or conversations with the versions by Perrault and the Grimm brothers.
GBH: Where can our readers buy Rooted and Winged?
LC: Rooted and Winged can be purchased at the publisher’s online bookstore here.
Artwork: Christian Schloe, “Sailing the Universe,” 2012