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"It is the encounters with people that make life worth living..." - de Maupassant

…with Ethel Rackin

October, 2018
Dr. Ethel Rackin
, poet and revered professor of Language and Literature at Bucks County Community College, currently in residence at the MacDowell Colony where she is working on a new set of poems, agreed to an interview with River Heron Review and answered some of our must-know questions. Here, then, is an inside look at her practices and craft.

 RHR: Tell us about your writing process.

 ER: I generally try to "trick" myself into writing by scribbling in a notebook at cafes, circling back on previous pieces in the notebook to recopy and revise. Once I've filled up a notebook or two and have let them sit for a while, I begin typing up the most promising pieces. Then, I keep revising on the computer, sometimes a little, often a lot. At some point, I share my work with friends whose work and opinion I value.

 RHR: How do you center yourself prior to writing? 

ER: I find that walking or meditating before writing helps to shake loose unhelpful distractions. Feeling loose mentally and physically is key to the process for me. Though, that being said, I've also written a lot when I've been sick in bed.

RHR: What is one piece of advice you offer to all of your students that you feel is most valuable? 


ER: Separate your process into two parts, and erect a mental firewall between the two. First, write whatever you like, without criticism or critique. Banish the voice that says "I can't do this" or "this is awful." Second, go back to the work once it has sat for a while and revise continually until it feels complete. In order to revise, use strategies you've learned (in class or elsewhere) and consider constructive critique you've received from others.

RHR: What inspires you to write? 

ER: Nature. Politics. Spirituality. Relationships. The work of writers I admire. So many things! Most importantly, something has to be nagging or haunting me a bit for me to write about it. 

RHR: Whose name(s) do you invoke at your shrine to poetry? 

ER: Emily Dickinson. Gertrude Stein.

RHR: When you sit down to write, what fears nag at you? 

ER: I try to banish fears when I'm writing, and reserve my judgement of my work until much later. It's impossible to tell whether my work is any good when I first start.

RHR: How do you determine what makes a poem successful? 

ER: At a certain point (about 25 years after I began writing), I started to get an intuitive hunch when a poem is complete. In general, I believe that a poem is successful when it has lived up to its own implied promises. For example, if the poem is a narrative, we can ask whether the story seems satisfying. If it's a poem that relies heavily on images, we can ask whether those images are evocative. In my opinion, all poems should offer an experience, take us on a journey, and move us. It sounds mystical, but I do believe that if we listen, poems tell us what they want to be.


...with Katherine Falk

July, 2018
Katherine Falk
, the current Bucks County Poet Laureate, considers museums her sanctuaries, cooks by color, and works for underserved populations. We are not surprised that her life is as wonderfully diverse as her work. Here, she takes time from her busy day to answer a few questions about her craft. 

RHR: What rituals do you repeat prior to or during writing? 

KF: The only ritual might be when I go to bed at night, to make sure that I have a journal and pen on my bedside table, within easy reach, or ideally right on my bed.  Then when I first wake up in the early morning, when ideas are new, clear and plentiful or a dream offers itself for a poem, my journal is near enough to access without requiring me to move far from my sleeping position. 

My experience has been that when I get up or move too much from my original position, I lose the ideas, whereas, if/when I am able to stay in, or reclaim, the position, I remember the ideas. I believe our bodies have cellular memory and that is why it works for me to return to the position to regain the ideas. 


RHR: Does an idea for a poem haunt you or do you hunt for an idea? 

KF: Both.  I get ideas and then let them germinate until I can sit down and work on them.  Some I carry around for a while. Others demand that I give them attention more quickly.  I am struck that the poems that come my way are usually not about the subjects I think I should be writing. Often, wayward, lost poems arrive on my doorstep looking for a place to live and some nourishment.

I am an art lover and regularly hunt for ideas in museums while viewing art. Music inspires and so do other people’s poetry, nature, animals and comedy.

Basically, though, poetry is the vehicle by which I process the world, the way I understand it and the way I think. It’s not a choice.  As a result, often, rather than hunting, finding or being haunted by a poem, I am just thinking my way through life with lines of poetry in my head. I consider it a process for seeking to make sense of life and the universe. Shared human experience, connections, understanding of a new way of looking at something are what I am after.

RHR: Notebook or paper or computer? Pen or pencil?

KF: All of the above. Just as J. Adams Lagana writes encouragement for us all to use any or all in the GBH – The Great Blue Heron, A Blog, I use any method that I can and usually it’s determined by where I am and what’s available. I used to hand write all my poems until a few years ago. Then, I started to use a computer too, though hand writing still prevails especially in the middle of the night when I awaken to write something down. There was a period of about ten years when I wrote every morning, in bed, from 3:30 a.m. – 5:30 a.m. In my earliest poetry writing years, I wrote on scraps of paper or napkins and then took them home and tried to make sense of them. 

Also, back then, I used only pencils so that I could erase. Then I got comfortable with crossing out which opened up the possibility of pens and I eliminated pencils until late last year. I was in a hotel that had the loveliest pencils and I was inspired to let them back in. Some years ago, my husband gave me a little recorder as a gift so I could dictate poems or poetic fragments when I was in the car or on the go and couldn’t actually write thoughts down. I didn’t use it enough to make it a habit then but am ready to find it and use it now.

RHR: When you sit down to write, what fears nag at you?

KF: That what I write will be stupid and embarrassing. 

For most of my adult life, making a living has competed and won over the time and respect it requires to write regularly so I have been making a concerted effort, especially this past year, to make changes. Before, old fears included work or volunteer deadlines, phone calls and emails that needed responses, family responsibilities and even laundry. They competed for attention and nagged at me to complete my to-do list and interrupt my own writing. Over the years, my poems have been like children waiting for their mother to come home from work. Now, I have several series of poems I have started and I have to push aside the fears and just forge ahead.

RHR: Whose ghost hovers in the background when you write?

KF: The Verb Ghost hovers and encourages me to search for verbs with muscle. The Editing Ghost reminds me that for every word I take out, I might gain a reader. These “ghosts” call out regularly when I write.

And, if I may substitute angels for ghosts, as in relatives or dear friends that are no longer here, or deceased poets whose work I respect and from which I have learned, I can say that I strive to consider traditions -- literary, philosophical/religious, artistic or family – and to bring them into my work. Thoughts of Pamela Perkins-Frederick and Herb Perkins-Frederick, and lessons they taught, often propel me forward.

RHR: What items do you carry with you in your “tote bag” of poetry?

KF: On the literal side, I always seek to carry a writing implement and something on which to write.  If I go into a museum and want to lighten my load and check my bag, I might bring a couple of sheets of copy paper that I will fold into quarters.

I research subjects about which I write so my tool kit contains research materials: A dictionary, book on the subject of the poem or access to the internet. I check definitions of words and strive to use the first definition of a word.

Books or information on poetic forms. I want to work my way through traditional and more modern forms.

Books by and about other poets as well as poetry journals. My daily poetry fix is to read other people’s poetry.

RHR: In your tenure as Poet Laureate thus far, in what area do you feel you most make an impact?

KF: The poet laureateship is an ambassadorial position so an area of potential impact, thus far, has been to encourage people who may not be as familiar with poetry to read poetry and to create their own poems and to encourage young people that are writing poems. Part of the Poet Laureate job description is to judge the annual High School Poet of the Year contest with the Poet Laureate from the preceding year, in this case, 2016 Poet Laureate, Laren McClung. At the Poet of the Year reading, I met the winners and finalists, heard them read and offered support and encouragement. Subsequently, I was able to invite a few to join me at a special event to read their poems to a different audience.

An especially fun experience this Spring was the opportunity to teach and offer writing prompts to 100 fourth-grade students, in their classrooms, and to hear them read their poems aloud. A student named Kyle, in response to one of the prompts wrote, “I used to be a bored balloon and now I am popping with ideas”.


...with Christopher Bursk

BCCC-Chris Bursk.jpg

April, 2018
Dr. Christopher Bursk
has influenced and inspired poets for more than 45 years as a professor, mentor, and fellow poet traveler. Author of 14 books of poetry, his boundless energy and love for the genre astounds his grateful following. He generously agreed to answer a few questions.

RHR: Whose ghost hovers in the background when you write?

CB: Pamela Perkins-Frederick hovers near me as I write. For over four decades I met with her once a week; she was the only one to whom I dared show my poetry. Her spirit is with me still, even as I grieve her passing. However, the other ghosts that haunt my poetry are my parents --and my brother Timothy -- though Timothy is a fictional creation of my mind. And the ghosts of the man who smelled of forest fires on the Boston city  bus and the football coach who  taught us Sex Ed and the cops that put handcuffs on me and the girls who voted me best girl in fifth grade.

RHR: Tell us about your writing process.

CB: I do not wait for inspiration. I turn to the page the way I turned to my toy soldiers. I'd wait for the Arabs and Grenadiers, the outlaws and pirates to decide what we'd play today. The only rule was that the game had to be different from the game the day before. Some days I watch the page until a few words come -- and then I find myself inside the world they invite me into. Some days I come to the page with something pressing on my mind -- a longing, a grief, a puzzlement, and then get a line or two. Then I repeat the lines I have until I have the next few lines and that process continues. Then I type the poem up and wait for days to revisit it.

RHR: What rituals do you repeat prior to or during writing?

CB: I have no rituals --except if I am home and anyone else is in the house I put on Pachelbel and keep playing him over and over -- the same c.d. over and over until I am done.

RHR: Notebook or paper or computer? Pen or pencil?

CB: I write with precisely sharpened 6 or 7 #2 Ticonderoga pencils right next to me -- though once I get started I tend to stick with the same pencil and keep sharpening over and over. It's got have a fine point. The words want that and so I oblige them.

RHR: If you could bequeath a skill or attitude to your students, what would it be?

CB: I write because I can not write; I wish I could live without the need to write. I do not wish that on anyone. I do not consider anyone in the Spring poetry workshop my students; they are the generous companions who have agreed to go on a journey with me. As a kid I played alone most of the time. It's nice to have someone now -- in my advanced years -- to play with. I think the gift I have to offer is my faith in the journey -- in poetry itself, the risky play to which it invites us.

RHR: How do you know when a poem reaches its end?

CB: Ah, the poem tells you when it's done. And if it doesn't on the first draft, it does on the second or maybe the seventh.

RHR: Whose name do you invoke at your shrine to poetry?

CB: It's Pamela whose name I invoke -- and Beverly Foss Stoughton and Doug Hughes and Bob Fraser and Gloria DelVecchio and my beloved David Kime and my beloved Herb Perkins-Frederick. Much of my poetry is written out of the grief. The rest is written out of longing.