By Kristin Rath
My first introduction to Myra Shapiro was at IWWG’s 2012 Summer Conference at Yale. In our short conversation, as I led the way to her assigned dorm on check-in day, we found commonalities in place—Tennessee (she raised a family in Chattanooga; I attended university in Nashville)—and in our current residence of New York City. I was instantly drawn to this quick-humored woman with a lively step and a southern tinged accent that belied her Bronx, New York origins.
I entered her classroom that week with an adolescent experience of poetry, but exited with a deep appreciation for the genre and some valuable tools upon which I have continued to build. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that was the beginning of my poetry life. I not only unearthed my need to write poetry, I established the goal of bringing poetic language into everything I write.
Myra’s influence on the lives of many aspiring writers like myself has been profound. As a long-time IWWG faculty member, she has mentored and inspired dozens of women writers—many of whom return year after year to continue working with her. So, it was a delight to have a chance to interview her recently, in advance of this year’s summer conference, to understand more about the influences and ideas that shape her poetry and teaching.
One of her most important influences is place, and the one at which we met is especially so: Poet’s House, a national poetry library and literary center at the southern tip of Manhattan. In a room with a view of the Statue of Liberty, chatting poetry with the woman who had contributed to unlocking my poetic freedom…well, the congruence of time and place was not lost on me.
Undeniably, poetry and Myra made a wonderful match—once they discovered each other. Myra’s awareness that she is a poet didn’t come until she was in her mid-forties. Like another IWWG instructor, Susan Tiberghien, (whom Kelly DuMar recently interviewed), her chance at building a writer’s life materialized after her children left home and domestic demands lessoned. Once Myra realized she could be a writer, her life dramatically changed into “the life that fits.” When I asked if she could write in any genre and be wildly successful, what it would be, she replied, “Poetry. It just suits me. It’s not about the content. It’s the world it places me in.”
Living A Writer’s Life
As the author of two books of poetry, a memoir, and many pieces that have appeared in literary journals and anthologies such as The Best American Poetry (twice), it is clear that Myra has shaped a writer’s life that suits her needs. She uses her mornings to write new pieces or edit works in progress. (It is also why you won’t find her workshop in the first morning slot of our conference schedule!) I was surprised to learn she doesn’t experience writer’s block. She attributes this to being able to find the way to herself. Within her, and within all of us, she believes, is a whole world about which to write. “What turns you on? What makes you happy?” she asks anyone who is blocked. Whatever “plugs you into your source” is what will inspire your words to flow, she explains.
Myra doesn’t have a concrete process in how she writes her poetry. If anything, her approach is “living like a poet.” Experiencing her life through this lens keeps her paying attention to the details that feed her writing.
Another way Myra keeps her writing life strong is by surrounding herself with those who share her love for words. She is drawn to earthy people who have a sense of humor, a passion for poetry, and understand at heart “what fools we mortals be.” One such person was American author, poet, and translator Robert Bly, who edited her first book of poems, I’ll See You Thursday (Blue Sofa Press, 1996). The two bonded through their similar qualities, one of which was scrappiness. Myra recounted one example of the dynamic discussions she and Bly had over her poetry:
“[Robert said:] ‘Why don’t you put in something about your child here?’ And I said, ‘I can’t do that….I cannot write anything that is scary that might happen because I wrote it.’ Well, he listened to that. And he talked about it later. He said, ‘Myra feels the power of words to the extent that she thinks if she writes it, it will become so. And so she wouldn’t let me talk her into writing that.’ I wouldn’t dare write anything that would put a person in jeopardy….And he understood. That was a wonderful thing because he could listen.”
Listening is a skill enhanced by studying poetry, which Myra considers essential in this highly visual world. “Going back to poetry increases our ability to hear what’s going on. It slows us down. That’s so important to know what you’re tasting.” A lesson all writers could use, for inviting every one of our senses into our craft will inevitably result in richer writing.
Listening is a key aspect in Myra’s workshops. For every Summer Conference session, she brings in a poem for the group to read together every day. “Poetry forces you to use the word you mean to use,” Myra explained. “Not just in meaning, but in sound.” Hearing those poems read out loud results in a greater understanding than only silently reading it on the page. By the end of the week, the class is reciting the poem by heart, which Myra believes is of great value. “A poem is embodied. When you memorize a poem, you’re taking in the breath of the poet.”
[Note: Myra Shapiro’s workshop, Poems of Joy and Grief (and what’s in-between) at the 2015 Summer Conference, July 24-31 will be using the poem, “The Black Hen” by Robert Bly for the daily class reading.]
The (Old) Age of Inspiration
What inspires Myra’s poems these days? Old age. “Now, I’m obsessed by old age,” says Myra, who was never consciously concerned about getting older until recently.
“I have a poem that starts, ‘My job is to live’ and that was always the case. What’s next, what’s next, what’s going on now, what’s next….So it surprises me…and it doesn’t surprise me because I’m getting old, so no wonder. If you can open your eyes at all, you’re going to realize one of these days you’re going to die. No kidding! But that’s how it feels. Surprise! No kidding! You mean Galway Kinnell died last October? If Galway Kinnell could die, I can die. I can’t believe it!”
Myra writes about what is happening to her and what she experiences through all senses. So it is natural that she is bringing her awareness of and questions about growing (chronologically) older into her poetry. “Now, [old age] is real. And what is it about? And what do I think about it? And how does it feel to think about it? And what does it want of me? What am I supposed to do about it? That’s what’s coming into the poems.”
One such poem—that placed in the top four in the 2014 River Styx International Poetry Contest—talks about how she’s living this time of older age with her husband, titled, “Put the Kettle On.” Myra explained:
“It’s about putting the kettle on and asking my husband if he wants tea in the evening. He’s not a tea drinker and I never used to ask him but he’s begun to say yes,” Myra said with a laugh. “The second stanza starts with, ‘It’s an old marriage’ and [goes on about] how we’re beginning to merge. It starts with the tea….and ends with, ‘...the new year. March/ is here, and we’re living it.’ ”
Another of her poems that addresses her age is “In a Room at the Marriott Marquis” (June, Rattle #48). Myra wrote the poem about being in a room high up in NYC’s Marriott Marquis hotel looking down at the activity of Time Square: “To die/ in Times Square/ is a fact to contemplate/ since I am old and here/ on 44th Street in a vast hotel/ 40 floors above the earth." While Myra observed some people “sitting fixed like a star” in the square below, she had the thought, “stars never die.” In the finished poem, she declares instead, “There is no death. Wake up!”
While humor is a common thread in her poetry, she also addresses the sadness of loss that accompanies older age. One example is “The Alteration of Love” (Rattle #43, Spring 2014 Tribute to Love Poems), which is accompanied by a recording of Myra reading the poem.
A Legacy of a Well-Lived Life
I asked Myra what impact she wanted her poems to have on readers, what legacy she hoped to leave behind:
“That I lived,” she replied with no hesitation. “That I was lucky to live now, not my mother’s time…. it’s what I wrote in the beginning of Four Sublets, I owe this book to the Women’s Movement. That the Women’s Movement happened when I could take advantage of it. When the world could be different so I could be different and give myself the life that fits.”
The women of Myra’s time—no matter how smart or energetic they were—couldn’t take for granted the opportunities and new life/career choices that became available. Women gained the vision to see their roles differently. Myra realizes how hard it is for younger generations to understand the importance and gains of the Women’s Movement, and the struggles women writers such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton had to face, their work deemed too personal and domestic (usually by male critics). “I feel very lucky to have lived at this time and I want my writing to convey that. To tell its story.”
Myra has accomplished that goal. Even if I hadn’t the pleasure of knowing her face-to-face from my years at IWWG, I would still feel I knew her. Myra’s spirit is in her poetry.
“It’s alright to be whatever kind of poet you are passionate about being, and for me….I call [myself] ‘A poet with a life.’ Whatever is happening in that life that I think is good to convey….whatever conveys a life that happens to be my life…. I don’t shy away from the personal and maybe I wish it could be even more honest than it is, but, you know, I’m not over with yet so maybe that’s what one tries for—to be better and better at what matters, to get stronger and stronger. What matters to me may not matter to the next person, but you count on it mattering to enough people that it matters.”
Isn’t that what we all strive for as writers? That our words mean something? That others connect to us? That we matter?
This is why IWWG is home for me, Myra, and the many others who make up our community of women who write. It’s not just about the quality of our instructors and workshops. It’s about the connection among women where everyone’s voice matters. Women who value words, value your words. Women who are experienced in their writing, believe in your ability. Women who have lived, recognize you have lived and have something to say.
We all have something to say. The risk of honest, intimate writing is that people will know who you are. This can also be the greatest reward. To write is to be brave. So write on. And, as Myra Shapiro shows us, seek out the poetry in life.
[For more about Myra’s latest book, 12 Floors Above the Earth (Antrim House, 2012), including samples of her poetry, visit http://antrimhousebooks.com/shapiro.html]
About the author
Kristin Rath, originally from Florida, has loved living in New York City for 15 years. She has a background in Communications, East Asian Studies, and Japanese language.
In addition to her work with IWWG as Director of Operations, she is a freelance consultant and holistic health and wellness writer for online websites, including her own site Words Are Food. Kristin is well into writing her first novel, and is also working on a memoir that she was inspired to start during her first IWWG conference. Following Myra’s workshop at the 2014 Summer Conference, Kristin wrote a poem that was published by an online magazine, The Voices Project.