I first “met” Cara Holman on the poetry blog Poetic Asides. Robert Brewer, the editor, posts regular prompts (every Wednesday, for those of you who would enjoy a regular source of inspiration, not to mention interaction with the interesting and supportive community that hangs out there) as well as periodic challenges/ contests. When I first read one of Cara’s poems, I was stunned. I hadn’t read haiku since I was in grade school, and her poem was a revelation: the sense of the first two lines launching the reader into space, and then the third line gently landing at the poem’s end. I realized that I had missed something important about the form, and when started looking at other haiku online, gosh, Cara’s name kept appearing, as the author of one beautiful poem after another. So naturally, with a new blog that gave us an excuse to interview her, I jumped at the chance. I know after reading her interview, you’ll want to sample more of her poems, so in addition to some of the journals we discuss in the interview, head on over to her blog, Prose Posies, to read more. [ina @ IOB]
IOB: Cara, for people who haven’t yet met you, can you introduce yourself and your work?
CH: After a breast cancer diagnosis in 2006, I was looking for a way to reclaim my life when I discovered a stack of flyers in my oncologist’s waiting area, announcing the formation of a writing group for women cancer survivors. It seemed very serendipitous. Never mind that I had not written a word, besides journaling, since college. Never mind that my undergraduate degree was in mathematics, and I did graduate work in computer engineering. And never mind that I had no idea what I wanted to write about. I just knew that this was something I had to try. Our facilitator guided us into writing gently, with prompts that were sometimes visual, sometimes a word or phrase, or sometimes guided imagery. And somehow, in that very nurturing environment, the words just flowed. Every session began with us reading poetry, round robin, from one of the Garrison Keillor anthologies, and soon, I found myself writing poetry, in addition to narrative prose. I stayed with that group for almost four years. Sometime in 2009, I was poking around online looking for sharing sites, when I discovered Poetic Asides. It’s been a wonderfully supportive community for poets, and I can’t say how grateful I am to have discovered it. Around the same time, I also tapped into the online haiku community, and am now totally hooked on haiku, senryu, haibun, rengay, and the occasional tanka. This is where I focus most of my writing efforts these days, but I still try to keep my hand in prose poetry and creative nonfiction as well.
IOB: Is there a poem that you’d be willing to share with us here?
CH: I wrote [this] back in August of 2010 for a poetry sharing site called Big Tent Poetry.
Pineapple Summer by Cara Holman
The secret of pineapple upside-down cake
is that the pineapples have to start at the bottom
in order to end up on top. Eventually.
Life can be like this. Or not.
Some things start at the bottom
and stay at the bottom. Like fish.
Some start on top and fall. Like Humpty Dumpty.
Others just drift. Like milkweeds on the breeze.
Or summer days, which slide one into the next,
smooth as corn silk.
IOB: This is beautiful; thank you for sharing it with us. What inspired you to start writing poetry?
CH: I received my first poetry book as a gift from my cousins, when I was 5 years old—I still have that book, in fact, although it is a bit worse for the wear. It was the Big Golden Book of Poetry, and I delighted in the poems of Rachel Field, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hilaire Belloc, Lewis Carroll, and others.
I also remember reading John Ciardi’s You Read to Me, I’ll Read to You, Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, and a big green poetry anthology we owned, whose name I unfortunately don’t remember. My 3rd grade teacher had us memorize poetry for recitation, and also copy out poetry for handwriting practice. So poetry was always a constant force in my life. In high school, we had a wonderful poetry unit in AP Lit where we read a tremendous amount of classic poetry, and I encountered The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock for the first time. It wasn’t until I joined the writing group, though, that I actually tried my hand at writing any myself.
IOB: I recently read a post by Tien Ansari on the blog Write Anything” in which she says
I’ve pointed out before that the medium is part of the message, and the form is part of the content; if we didn’t believe that, we wouldn’t write poetry in the first place. The same argument applies to writing formal poetry: You use a form when the form is an appropriate part of the message.
You specialize in Japanese forms (including haiku and haibun) – what is it about these forms that attracts you? How do these forms help you to write, or to communicate ideas, or do they provide you with something completely different?
CH: You know, I think I was initially attracted to haiku because the 17 syllable count was very precise and mathematical. However, I was soon to discover that syllables are rarely counted anymore in contemporary haiku. Still, there is something very clean and precise about haiku: a haiku generally consists of two images juxtaposed in a certain way. While I’ve certainly read some very “poetic” haiku, haiku poets, in general, tend to avoid overly flowery language. Instead, they focus on capturing images or feelings, without overtly expressing them, while still leaving something to the reader’s imagination. It fascinates me how in 6-12 words, so many different possibilities can be generated, and yet how each can still faithfully reflect the poet’s voice. I also admire the brevity inherent in the Japanese forms, and enjoy the challenge of keeping the prose and poetry crisp.
IOB: How do you combine your working life with your writer’s life?
CH: Well, sometimes I don’t, very well! However, being a mother for almost 27 years has honed my time management skills and self-discipline. I am learning to juggle all the components of my life (home, work, volunteering, and writing, which is not my profession, but rather, a hobby). Submission deadlines for haiku journals tend to fall quarterly, and at the end of a month, and those times can be very hectic, especially when lots in going on in my life, as it is now. I have had to cut back on some of my writing and other commitments. My family is always my highest priority, so I adjust other aspects of my life accordingly. I’m very excited to not only be attending, but also to be a presenter at, a local haiku retreat next month, which means that there’s lots of non-writing things I need to get under control before then, so I can go with a clear mind.
IOB: Sometimes I see what I think are glimpses of your life or the lives of those around you in your work – how does real life influence your work? Do you have any advice for poets and writers on how to balance reality and creation in one’s writing?
CH: I think everyone’s got to find their own way, but for me, my direction was suggested by the way I got into writing in the first place: for its therapeutic value. I almost exclusively write from my own life, and observations of the world around me. I of course tweak details of my writing for privacy—my own, and others—but everything I write has intrinsic truth and I try to focus on publishing only those things that I think others will find relatable. Most of my haiku, for instance, focus on the natural world around me, my cancer journey, dealing with my parents’ deaths, and raising kids. The more universal the theme, it seems, the more feedback I get on my writing, and the more dialog it generates. The other upside of writing from reality is that everything I do becomes fodder for my writing, so I am always thinking of what to write next while I am at the grocery store, the gym, driving around, and even at home washing dishes and doing laundry. I carry index cards with me everywhere I go so I can jot down ideas when they occur to me, and I get some of my best ideas at night as I am falling asleep and have released my conscious mind, or first thing in the morning, before I have to start my day.
IOB: A lot of readers, having read the poem you’ve shared with us, are going to want to see more of your work – where should they look ?
CH: I discovered early on that tracking submissions and publications is often more work than writing them in the first place! Thus, I trained myself to become very organized about tracking my publications. On my blog [Prose Posies], I keep a comprehensive list of all my publications, organized by type (Anthologies, Haibun, Poetry, Haiku, Rengay, and Tanka). These categories can all be accessed from the top level page of my blog, and contain live links for my online writings.
IOB: Can you direct readers to other places on the web where your work is available?
CH: Online journals that I have been published in include The Heron’s Nest, A Hundred Gourds [note from ina: one of my personal favorite online journals], contemporary haibun online (cho), Daily Haiku, Haibun Today, Notes from the Gean (which is sadly now defunct, but the archives still exist), Four and Twenty, Sketchbook, Prune Juice, and Multiverses. Links to the actual issues can be found on my blog pages. I also have a dedicated page on The Haiku Foundation’s Haiku Registry.
IOB: What do you have planned by way of future poetic projects?
CH: I periodically assess the journals I read and submit to, and make adjustments accordingly. This year, I finally felt brave enough to submit to cho, Daily Haiku, Haibun Today, Acorn, and Modern Haiku. I’m pleased to have work appearing (or that will appear) in all of them. I also periodically re-adjust my writing focus. I started writing rengay and renku (collaborative verse) last year, and this is going to be a big part of what I focus on this year. Also, haibun. I have (literally) hundreds of short pieces that I wrote while in writing group, that I want to come back to with fresh eyes, and see if I can’t adapt some of them to haibun. And of course putting together my first haiku chapbook someday has long been a dream of mine.
In addition to actually writing, as I’ve become more involved with the haiku community, I have looked for ways to give something back. This year, I took on the role of maintaining the Haiku Oregon blog and also created a Facebook page for it. I plan to make the Seabeck Haiku Retreat an annual event, and look forward to attending my 2nd Haiku North America conference next year. There is always something new on the horizon…
Thank you, Ina and Andrea, for allowing me to be interviewed for your blog, and for your thoughtful and probing questions.
IOB: Cara, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat virtually with u s- it’s a pleasure to introduce others to your work.