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.