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The Habitual Poet: Sherry Chandler

Installment #55

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The Habitual Poet is an ongoing series of contributor interviews. If you are a Poemeleon contributor and would like to participate copy & paste the Q's from below and e-mail your answers to: editor@poemeleon.org. 

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Q: Where do you prefer to get your books?

A: I like to buy books from local independent bookstores or, in the case of chapbooks especially, directly from the publisher or the poet. I often buy books at readings, conferences, or book fairs, etc. Sometimes I buy them from the local library’s used-book store. I’ve only ever bought one e-book and that one was written by a member of my family and wasn’t available any other way.

If I can mention book stores I patronize: The Morris Book Shop and Black Swan Books in Lexington, Kentucky, Poor Richard’s Books in Frankfort, Kentucky, and Carmichael’s Books in Louisville. All are very supportive of local poets and writers, down to the most humble of us.

Also I’d like to give a shout-out to Mac’s Backs in Cleveland.


Q: How many poetry books do you think you own, and what percentage of these have you actually read?

A:  I really have no idea. The notion of counting is daunting. Two bookshelves full and then all the tumbling stacks. Maybe 200, counting chapbooks, of which I may have read about 75%. I get poetry books from the library when I can.


Q: When, where and how do you usually read? (i.e. at bedtime under the covers, cover to cover, etc.)

A: I read poetry early in the morning while everyone else in the house is asleep and everything is quiet. My mother, who was a devout Christian, began every day with Bible reading and meditation. Though I would call myself agnostic, I like to think that I am continuing her practice of morning devotion.

I also keep a poetry book or two on my desk at work, to pick up in odd moments of downtime. And one or two in the car.

I save bedtime for detective novels.  I tend to nod over my bedtime reading.


Q: What books of poetry have you read this month?

A: Strange Girls by Joanie DiMartino, Heathen by Lesley Wheeler, Rail Splitter by Richard Taylor, Bar Napkin Sonnets by Moira Egan, The Common Man by Maurice Manning, and Motif 2: Come What May, an Anthology of Writings about Chance, edited by Marianne Worthington.


Q: What other books/magazines/backs of cereal boxes have you read recently?

A: In print: Kestrel, Tar River Poetry, Massachusetts Review, and  the New Yorker. Online: qarrtsiluni, soundzine, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, umbrella, poemeleon (of course). Also the books Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff, All the Living by C. E. Morgan, and a couple of mystery novels.


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Q: When, where, how do you write, and why? (i.e. at dusk on a dock, longhand in a notebook, because...)

A: I write anywhere and everywhere and all the time. I often write while I’m driving or washing the dishes or doing some other mindless work that occupies my hands and lets my mind run free. I recently heard some one say that writing is a physical act and, and although I don’t think it’s exactly what the person had in mind, it’s true that my poetry brain seems to work best when my hands are otherwise occupied. I doodle a lot.

I am not at all disciplined and I have even been known to wait for inspiration, but I’m not one who has to write a thought down in order to keep from losing it. Only occasionally have I lost a poem or a line because my hands were busy and I couldn’t write it down. I figure those were maybe not the best lines anyway.

I carry a notebook around, of course, and usually make a first draft in longhand using the narrowest point roller ball pen I can find. Black ink.

Once I get a complete first-draft in longhand, I key the poem into the computer and work with electronic text.


Q: How many first drafts do you think you complete in a week? A month?

A:  One a week, three or four a month.


Q: How long do you wait before revising a poem?

A:  I begin to revise when I start to key the poem into the computer. Which most often is later the same day or the next day after I write the draft.


Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

A:  Never. I usually revise myself to a standstill on any given poem and then begin to send it out. But sometimes after several months, or even a year, I’ll suddenly see big flaws in a poem and make revisions. Some poems I never considered finished enough to send out into public. Unfortunately, they’re often poems I’ve worked on hardest of all. I think it is possible to overwork a poem.


Q: Have you ever given up an invitation so you could stay home and write?

A:  Probably, though I can’t point to a specific instance. I‘m an introvert and will use just about any excuse available to give up an invitation.


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Q: What is your system for sending out work?

A:  I don’t have one. I try to keep everything out but I don’t do it systematically. When rejected poems begin to pile up or I’ve accumulated several new poems, then I bestir myself to get them all back into circulation again. I don’t do a lot of simultaneous submissions, mostly because I find it difficult to keep track. May be why I don’t have a huge publication list.

I do a sort of double-entry bookkeeping about where I’ve sent my poems – one spreadsheet organized by publication and one organized by individual poem.


Q: What have you more recently received: a rejection notice or an acceptance? Was it what you expected?

A:  Acceptance, and yes, in this case I did expect to be accepted. Most of the time, though, I figure on rejection if only because the number of poets submitting work to any given magazine makes for long odds.


Q: Where do you generally publish: online, in print, or a mix, and do you have a preference?

A: A mix. No preference. I love print because I love to see my work – and the work of others – on a page. I am more comfortable reading print books, and it seems less ephemeral. Print journals are indexed, for example. But I love online because of the possibilities for a wider audience, for accompanying the poem with a drawing or photograph, a reading, or even a video.


Q: What is the worst (or weirdest, or best) experience you’ve had with a journal/magazine/press & its editor(s)? (No names, please!)

A: Oh best, for sure. Last year I was working on my book manuscript, a book of persona poems about farm women in Kentucky. These were very specialized poems and I was having trouble getting journals to take any of them. It was discouraging. But then the poetry editor of this one journal just got it. She became a real fan and published about 7 of the most difficult and longest poems in the collection. The journal gave me financial support to make a road trip for a reading. That was a unique experience for me. The faith in my work was heartening and I’ll be forever grateful.


Q: Have you ever received any fan (or hate) mail? If so, what was that like?

A:  No. Not even an e-mail. I tweet micropoetry as @BluegrassPoet and I get a lot of favoriting and retweets, but that’s a different sort of feedback.



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Practical considerations


Q: What is your day job, and how does it affect your writing?

A:  I edit medical writing, an occupation that has forced me to learn the structure of a sentence because physician scientists tend to write long involved (and not always terribly coherent) ones. My occupation may prejudice me toward a sort of logical content in my poems, my bent toward formalism. Certainly scientific papers are put together by formula.


Q: How does your significant other’s occupation affect your writing life?

A: My significant other is a wood carver who works at home so I am immersed in artistic process, the notion of finding the shape in the medium rather than imposing it. Which would seem to tell against my use of forms, but my thinking about that is reverse. If I start with a form, I discover a poem. If I start with an idea, often, I just tell an anecdote.


Q: Have there been periods in your life when you couldn't write?

A: Not that I remember. But there have been periods when I couldn’t write well. I spent several years trying to write short stories before I discovered that that just wasn’t my medium.


Q: Do you have a “poetry budget”?

A:  Nothing so formal.


Q: Have you ever suffered (or made someone else suffer) in the name of your art? (i.e. picked up your kids late from school so you could finish a poem, forgone lunch to buy a book, left a relationship because the other person just didn't understand, etc.)

A: Probably. Though I made up my mind fairly early on that I wouldn’t write much about my children because I figured they deserved their privacy. I wasn’t so sensitive about my S.O. until he grumbled at me – he is the most gentle of men and a grumble is rare – and I decided I needed to rethink a bit. For the most part, my friends and family have been remarkably tolerant. And I am obsessively responsible.


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Random nonsense


Q: Do you have any superhuman abilities? (i.e. can you tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue, or write a double sestina with both hands tied behind your back?)

A:  I am way too earnest to answer a question like this. In fact, earnestness may be my superpower. I can miss a joke faster than a speeding bullet and stumble over irony in a single bound.


Q: You write a scathing poem about your mother and she learns about it. You:

a.) Move to South America and leave no forwarding address

b.) Delete the poem and insist it never existed

c.) Show it to her (she’s already written you out of the will anyway)

d.) Do none of the above; instead you: _____

A: I need to phone a friend on this one; I have no reason ever to write a scathing poem about my mother.  If I HAD written such a poem, I’d probably choose a.) My mother could shoot a squirrel out of a tree with a .22 rifle. Best to get out of range.


Q: If the best medical specialists in the world told you that if you didn’t give up your poetry habit today you would die in six months, would you get your affairs in order or would you leave that up to your family?

A: I plan to leave that up to my family anyway. They’ll need something to keep them busy for a while. I hereby put my children on notice that I expect them to read every page of my numerous journals, then throw them in the landfill if they can.


Q: If you could be a vowel, which one would you be and why?

A: O. Perpetually astonished by the world’s small daily miracles.


Q: Finally, what piece of advice would you most like to share with our readers? (This can be on writing, the writing life, or anything else...)

A: Floss and brush after every meal. 



Sherry Chandler’s first full-length collection of poems, Weaving a New Eden, will be released in 2011 by Wind Publications. The project was completed with financial support from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council. Poems from the collection can be found at Umbrella, the Louisville Review, Kestrel, The Other Voices International Project and forthcoming from Calyx, Verse Wisconsin online, and Southern Women Review. Qarrtsiluni nominated her poem “Relics” for a 2011 Pushcart Prize.

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