We are pleased to welcome Cristina M. R. Norcross to this month’s Writers on Craft. Cristina is the founding editor of the online poetry journal, Blue Heron Review, and lives in Wisconsin with her husband and their two sons. She is the author of 7 poetry collections including – Land & Sea: Poetry Inspired by Art (2007) with co-author Irene Ruddock; The Red Drum (2008, 2013); Unsung Love Songs (2010); The Lava Storyteller (2013); Living Nature’s Moments: A Conversation Between Poetry and Photography (2014) with co-author, Patricia Bashford; Amnesia and Awakenings (Local Gems Press, 2016); and Still Life Stories (Aldrich Press, 2016). Her works appear in print and online in North American and international journals, such as Red Cedar, Your Daily Poem, Lime Hawk, The Toronto Quarterly, The Poetry Storehouse, The Avocet, Right Hand Pointing, and Verse-Virtual, among others.
What do you read when you despair at the state of either your work or a particularly difficult manuscript in progress—any “go to” texts?
I actually try to get out of my own head by not reading at all, if I am struggling with a poem or manuscript. My “go to” solution, or therapy, is getting out and communing with nature. Often a long walk or a bike ride, by the lake where I live, will be enough to shift my energy and push sentences into position. Sometimes whole stanzas will be brought into the light. The words will come running, and I will chase after them, like a child trying to catch a kite string.
You’ve done some work with converting visual media into poetry. Can you speak to how that process feels in the generative stages?
Ekphrastic poetry has been a niche genre for me since about 2003. It started when I received a birthday gift, 30 years late, from my grandfather. He purchased a limited edition print of a painting by artist, Ted DeGrazia, in 1971. My parents came across a mysterious tube, and when they opened it, they discovered that it was meant for me. On my 30th birthday, I wrote a poem inspired by DeGrazia’s painting, “Little Cocopah,” as a kind of long-distance thank you note to my Grandpa Bill, who passed away when I was 12. I went on to write a series of 30 poems based on Ted DeGrazia’s paintings. In 2011, after co-organizing an ekphrastic exhibit for a local arts council for 3 years, I was sitting in a chair, while all of the paintings were being taken off the walls. All I had was a blank journal, so I started writing short, Zen-inspired poems, which I then went on to pair up with my own photography. I remember asking myself, “What now?” when the exhibit was over. It had been such a big, all-consuming part of my life. That was when the poem, “Like a Button,” started forming. I paired it with a photo of a single button on my old, wool coat. I’ve been writing poems and pairing them with my own photography since 2011, to create a postcard series called, Postcards from the Eternal. I must have created over 40 designs by now. A selection of these cards are available on my Etsy page.
Sometimes the poem comes first, and I find a photo that matches up. Other times, the image comes first, from my days spent taking photos on trips and walks. The inspiration can go in many different directions. In the early stages, it is a fast and furious pace, at which I write, for these short poems. I try my best just to keep up with the flow!
If you could give just one piece of advice to emerging authors, what would it be?
I would say that the process of writing itself will your best teacher. Keep writing. There is an ebb and flow to creation. Sometimes, we need to let things percolate. There are weeks of input, when your psyche is gathering material. Other times, the flow of words will feel like ocean waves lapping at your shore. Our muses never leave us. All we need to do is show up and listen – and then write.
What is the role of the natural in your poetry? I note many flowers and species of animals in your work.
The natural world offers us many gifts. A turtle can teach us about stillness and perseverance. A dragonfly can teach us about transformation. I often look to the natural world for guidance. Thankfully, nature doesn’t charge a co-pay. I can walk out my back door, barefoot, and walk to the edge of the pond, feeling the continuity of everything. Silence has always brought me great peace, as well as the sound of the wind in leaves and the birds chattering above my head. Our backyard is definitely a sanctuary for me, as well as the time we spend every summer by the ocean. The less populated the beach, the better. In my poetry, I think the natural world plays a big role, because this is the voice I listen to. If there are lessons to be learned, chances are mankind isn’t offering them. No offence to human beings. I love being human and I love many beings. The natural world provides a certain wisdom, which I can’t find anywhere else.
Which poets have influenced you stylistically? Are there any you feel have shaped the way you break your lines?
I grew up reading all of Emily Dickinson’s poems by flashlight under the covers, when my parents thought I was sleeping. I have no doubt that Dickinson is an influence. I am also a fan of the passion of Pablo Neruda and the metaphysical nature of the mystic poets Rumi and Hafiz. As an undergraduate, William Wordsworth was my favorite of the Romantic Period poets. I have visited his home in The Lake District twice. His love of nature is my love of nature. I have always felt close to Wordsworth. To answer the question, I will admit that Emily Dickinson’s line breaks, and use of dashes, have shaped my writing style a bit.
We’ve spoken before about artistic communities and collaborations. What is your favorite collaborative experience to date?
This is a hard question to answer, because I have collaborated with many artists (painters, photographers, digital artists, musicians, and other writers). I love each and every experience for different reasons. The collaboration which felt the most natural and easy, as if we were meant to create and bring new art into the world, was when I worked with artist, Holly Kallie. We created a collection of limited edition giclées (“Poetic Captured Reflections”) using Holly’s original artwork, with an overlay of my poems on the canvas. We had an exhibit at the Griffin Gallery (no longer in existence) in Wisconsin. Our energies melded quite well, and we were able to tell stories of love and acceptance together. We both have a deep affinity for water, and we both lived in New Hampshire at one time, though we didn’t meet until I moved to Wisconsin. There are certain people who you feel you’ve known your whole life. When I met Holly at the gallery for the first time, and went out for coffee, I could feel a strong connection. The air was sparkling with energy. (Learn more about Holly Kallie’s artwork here: http://hollykallie.com)
What role does your editorial work play in terms of shaping your own poetics? As the founding editor of the online poetry journal, Blue Heron Review, have you found yourself influenced by new trends, embracing different styles? Also, how does it shape your time for poetry pursuits?
I think every writer should have the experience of working as an editor, in order to become a better writer. Just from reading hundreds and hundreds of submissions for each issue, your eye becomes trained for what you are looking for, for what any editor is looking for – authenticity, musicality of phrasing, the beauty of truth, that moment when you sigh at a poet’s innovative use of language. There is a certain aesthetic I am looking for, when I select poems for Blue Heron Review. In terms of embracing different styles, I am open to this, as long as the poem is brilliant. I am very open to the ever-changing organism that is language. Does reading the work of other writers influence my own writing? I think that in subtle ways it does, but I always return to my own voice. If a style doesn’t resonate with your own voice, it is like wearing ill-fitting clothes.
The less time you have, the more you learn to muti-task and manage your time extremely well. I learned this when I became a mother 13 years ago. Being the editor of a poetry magazine means that you are always going to be exhausted. There are never enough hours in the day. If you want to write new poetry, and have your own books published though, you will find a way. The urge to create is too strong. You have no choice, but to write. You bend time.
I do. My other new poetry collection, Still Life Stories (Aldrich Press, 2016), deals quite a bit with memory, as many of the poems were written in tribute to loved ones and friends who have passed on. I wanted to preserve their voices, by sharing the beauty, courage, and loving energy of their lives. In Amnesia and Awakenings, I speak to the notion that we are all suffering, to a greater or lesser extent, from a form of spiritual amnesia. Many of us have forgotten what our purpose is. I believe that each soul makes an agreement before having an earthly experience, to give back to the world by sharing his or her special gifts. We are here to love and be loved. Each person is a valuable, essential part of the universe. Many are searching for meaning and purpose. Others have embarked on their paths at an early age. These poems were written over the past 2 years, but there is an awakening going on, right now. As if a light switch has been turned on, many are being called to do good works, in whatever field they have special talents. We must awaken to who we truly are. What we all have in common, is that we are made of Love. There is a unifying energy vibrating. I would like to see more of this. There is more that connects us to others than what separates us. We must not be divided.
As a human being, what is the best advice you have to offer?
I may have answered this question, in part, above, but I’ll add something simple and true here.
You never know what another person is struggling with in life, so always be kind. We are not living in isolation, despite our big cities, our homes with big lawns, or our glowing blue screens, which we stare at for answers. Just be kind and have empathy.
What’s in the immediate pipeline for your readers next? And what are you working on now? Give us a sneak peek.
I am currently working on two, new books. One is a new poetry collection, based on an art exhibit called, Beauty in the Broken Places, featuring the artist, Erin Prais-Hintz and fellow Gallery Q artists. “Beauty in the Broken Places is a thematic exhibition of art that seeks to interpret the ways in which we are all broken but can transcend and mend through this aspect of our humanity.” This exhibit is now on display at Gallery Q in Stevens Point, WI. I was invited to write a collection of poems based on the theme of the show, to provide inspiration for the visual art. I will also be teaching a creative writing workshop at the gallery, with the same theme, on Sunday, October 30th, 2016. Contact the gallery for details (http://www.qartists.com)
The other book I am working on is a non-fiction, companion guide to one of my popular creative writing workshops called, Diving into the Deep. I will be teaching this workshop again in Santa Fe, NM on Saturday, November 12th, 2016 at the Santa Fe Center for Spiritual Living. (Check my website for more details: http://www.cristinanorcross.com/events) I wanted to be able to provide a helpful text for those who are unable to travel to one of my workshops, and also for writers who have attended, but would like to revisit the work we explored together. The basic premise for the workshop is this: “When we give ourselves permission to exist in each moment, just as we are, the world becomes more vibrant, more supportive of our soul’s purpose, and richer in spirit than ever before.” The book will include meditations to start and end the day, useful writing prompts to help writers dig deeper in their work, as well as positive, supportive chapters on living a full and rich life.