Thursday, November 01, 2012

Interview with Donna Lewis Cowan

Donna Lewis Cowan’s debut collection, Between Gods, is out from Cherry Grove Press. The poems weave elements of spirituality was it figures in everyday life with characterizations of mythical figures, among other things. Cowan was kind enough to answer a few questions about the collection, about her writing process, and about the life of the writer.

CB: How did you come to writing?

DLC: According to my mom, my first poem, about snow, was published in Highlights magazine when I was in first grade. But I really began seriously writing poetry after my brother, a year older, started writing it in high school. I think I just thought it was what you were supposed to do at that age. We also had to do a senior project for English class - one play, three short stories, or twenty poems - and after trying unsuccessfully to write stories, I opted to write the poems. I then didn't write poetry much until my senior year of college, when I took three poetry electives at the same time, and it really got me going again.

CB: Would you mind telling me a little about your writing process: do you write every day, do you have a specific routine, etc.?

DLC: I definitely don't write every day, though I probably jot down ideas or lines every day. I don't write poems in a linear way; many times I'm cobbling together lines from different pieces of paper, like making a collage. It takes me a long time to write a poem; I'll let lines sit for a while until the meaning becomes clearer. It's rare for me to write a poem in one sitting.

CB: One of my favorite poems in the book is “Thaw” because of its liminal feeling – you manage to capture a tight scene that is rife with pathos and meaning. What was the impetus for this poem?

DLC: I wrote a number of "cold weather” poems in the summer of 2007: "Thaw," "Snow," and "Thingvellir, Iceland" are kind of a trilogy. I was very affected by the shootings at Virginia Tech that April; that's where I went to college, and as an English major I'd taken classes with some of the professors most affected. I realized later that those poems - which just started out as my dreaming about winter during a humid D.C. summer - were trying to make sense of that event; they were all in some way about the earth shifting beneath your feet, about those seismic changes we can’t control.

"Thaw" (the full text is here) describes the feeling of ice skating, with a partner, on a lake. Skating for me is very sensory - the wind in your face, the speed, the constant need to rebalance your body, the drag of the ice on the blade and how you can feel yourself cutting into the ice. With a partner you're experiencing all those feelings, with the added complexity of trying to stay in sync, trying not to fall and take him down with you. I never realize what a poem is doing when I'm writing it, but now I can see how much it is about risk, faith, the "accidental healing" that happens all the time in relationships.

CB: Many of these poems (like “Thaw”) seem autobiographical; what are your thoughts on telling the truth as a poet?

DLC: A number of the poems are derived from direct experiences - places I've visited, relationships I have or had - and interestingly, I think those poems are more opaque than many others in the book, particularly when compared to the mythology-based and persona poems. I think when I assume a role, as in the dramatic monologue in "Penelope" or the reframing of the myth in "The Siren," I can act out aspects of myself that I wouldn't want to admit to in other formats. It's me, but not-me. It seems like many female poets write persona poems early in their careers, and I wonder if is because in finding your voice, you're still not sure if you're really allowed to say exactly what you feel. (What will your mother say?)

CB: What’s your favorite poem from the book and why?

DLC: Probably "Transplant." A few years ago I read an article in the Washington Post, about how many people who have organ transplants experience personality changes. It made me think of how technology is becoming so integrated into our lives, and the poem tries to get at the ramifications of that. As in "Thaw," it has that struggle between science and faith.

CB: What’s the significance of the title “Between Gods?”

DLC: I took a photo years ago in Croatia, that always moved me and I wasn’t sure why. It was an image of a simple white house on a tiny island – literally, the house wasn’t much bigger than the island – and I liked the balance of the blue sky above it and the Adriatic sea below it, they were in perfect symmetry. It made me think of water gods, versus the gods in the sky, and how the little house was between them - vulnerable to them but at the same time protected by them – and it seemed a good metaphor for many of the issues in the book. I thought about using that photo for the cover, but then found one I liked better.

CB: What’s your experience with Cherry Grove (and publishing a book in general) been like?

DLC: I’ve enjoyed it. I started a Facebook group for authors from my publisher, which has allowed us to find each other for readings and networking.

I also started a website,, which started out as a means of blogging about the publishing process, and evolved into every-Monday posts about finding poetry in everyday life. Whatever is happening that week, I find a poem that fits, or expands on, that experience.

CB: You make many references to gods in the book. Which god/goddess do you relate to most? (Or find the most interesting?)

DLC: I realized that the mythological characters in the book are all trapped by their circumstances -there’s Daphne, Calypso, the Sirens. So that’s something that interests me, what you do in that situation when you’re paralyzed, how do you reframe your world? Probably because I have a hard time keeping still.

CB: Who are you reading? Who are your inspirations?

DLC: Right now I’m reading Nabokov’s collected short stories – I try to read one every night, as I’m trying to figure out how to write fiction, trying to understand that different rhythm. “Lolita” is one of my favorite books, and it is interesting seeing how his fiction writing evolved.

Writers I always return to for inspiration are T.S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, Margaret Atwood, H.D. Rilke, David Brendan Hopes, Mary Karr, Annie Proulx.

CB: What are you working on now?

DLC: I’m working on some war-related poems, which I think will end up being a chapbook-length group. I want to start writing fiction; I started a novel earlier this year that I scrapped after thirty pages, thinking that I need to start smaller since it’s such a different process. And I’d love to write children’s books as well.

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