For Betsy Sholl, poetry is an exercise in ventriloquism. On the pages of her notebook—she starts each draft with pen and paper—she channels a voice different from the one that carried across the table to me in her cozy Portland kitchen. I had asked, perhaps unfairly, to what extent the voice of her poems is her own.
“I would hope on some level the voice is mine,” she laughed. “But I do try to get the first person pronoun out of my poems—I want to be an ‘eye’ more than a capital ‘I’.”
Sholl has not always emphasized such an observational voice. In her earlier years, her mouth overpowered her eye.
“When I was younger I adopted a tough voice as a way to get through the world,” she explained. “As an older poet I don’t want to be fake; I don’t want to just be a style. I want it to be the self whose bedrock is humanity.”
The expansive voice Sholl channels in her poetry came to her through years of filling notebooks and relentlessly revising for publication. She is the author of seven award winning collections and chapbooks, and her work has been included in numerous magazines and anthologies. She has been awarded a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and two Maine Writer’s Fellowships, and in 2006 she was named the Maine Poet Laureate, a position she held for five years.
Before poetry could was a career for Sholl, it was a means of expression.
“I was a stutterer, so writing was always a way to be fluent,” she said.
Sholl came to writing at the end of several other career paths. She worked toward a Ph.D. for a few years, then tried her hand at teaching before realizing her true passion was in the written word.
However, she couldn’t completely leave teaching.
“I tend to believe that the muse will come to you if you have a schedule,” she said. “I write in the mornings…my friends know not to call then. And then I do most of my teaching in the evenings.”
Sholl has taught literature at the University of Southern Maine and poetry in the MFA program at Vermont College.
“I think teaching has stretched me,” she said. “I have to read more. I have to articulate things more. If I didn’t teach, I’d be more intuitive; I’d think out concepts less. And it’s probably a good thing to think those things out.”
Though Sholl structures her writing schedule and her teaching approach, her process of poem-crafting is less regimented. She explained how she connects thoughts, phrases and images intuitively.
“I’ll have two different strands at once that don’t seem to relate but somehow in my mind they do. The poem is figuring out how these things go together,” she said.
When at last the poem brings the disparate strands together, Sholl is able to inhabit her poetic self.
“I try to get away from what I already know,” she said. “I try to force myself out of what my prosaic self would say. I’ll put strange things together and then stay with it until it has a purpose. I try to undermine that ordinary self who lives in my head—to get away from that conventional self.”
This transitioning from the prosaic to the poetic, from the conventional to the unique—takes time. And many discarded drafts. For Sholl, the revision process begins with a game of hide-and-seek. She stores her notebooks away in various locations and when she comes across an old draft, she pulls out her editing pen.
“I’ll hide the notebook for any amount of time,” she explained. “A week…a month…This past week I came back to a poem I started in August. The first draft is like any pleasurable activity. You do it and its over. The real work is revision.”
Sholl is part of a local peer-editing group that meets once a month. They have dinner and spend twenty minutes workshopping each poem. Sholl also get useful feedback from an old friend from graduate school. They have been sending back and forth poetry for over twenty years.
“You always get caught up in your judgment of your own work,” she said. “People ask me how I know a poem is done, and sometimes it’s just when my friends tell me.”
Sholl’s kitchen extends out into a study, and I admit, I was tempted to peek inside and unearth a few hidden notebooks. I was curious to know what she’d been scrawling lately across her pages.
“Right now I’m working out of alternate impulses,” she said. “One is to bring in historical or cultural concerns…to bring in more of a world that exists in history and time and thought and social concerns. Another impulse is to mix a sort of discursiveness with a sort of surprising language. I would like to find a way to write about ideas and tensions in the world in a way that remains surprising and open ended.”
Sholl has recently drawn inspiration from jazz musician Thelonious Monk.
“I’ve been trying to [evoke] a more political situation,” she said. “I’m not interested in the personal right now. After writing for so long, you just get tired of yourself.”
Monk has served as subject matter for Sholl’s recent poetry, and inspiration for her creative process.
“There’s a great line from Monk: ‘A man’s a genius to look like himself,’” she said. “The work is not about you, but it’s bearing all of you. The sound has to come through a unique individual.”
This is the voice Sholl hopes will come through in her next collection of poetry, which will be out in the spring. She is currently in the process of surrendering her pen, and letting the poems stand as they are.
“There’s that saying—‘A poem is never finished, only abandoned.’ Right now I’m having to make peace with abandoning a work before it’s perfect, which, of course it will never be,” she said.
“Whenever you finish a thing, it’s like you’re casting about in some stream, waiting for what’s next, she said. “It’s fruitful and horrible at the same time. Right now I’m just trying to be very loose and see what comes out of it.”