Friday, November 19, 2010

Interview with Laurie Wagner Buyer

During the past month, I've been packing up 26 years of living on Starvation Lane as we prepare to move back to Bend, Oregon, the place where Jerry and I met and where we moved from all those years ago to "homestead." As I sort my books I notice an interesting thing: none of the poetry books are being sold or given away; I'm keeping them all. There's just something about poetry to capture change, transition, hope and gratitude.


When people ask me about how I started writing I tell them I wrote "wretched little poems" as a child (I found my old file as we're packing up my office!) sometimes with morbid themes. I remember one titled "I Threw a Dead Flower Away Today." I must have been about six and oddly, as I read that little poem, I can still remember throwing that dead flower into the garbage and feeling a great sense of loss for the faded beauty. Writing helped me capture that grief and now, all these nearly sixty plus years later, the image still comes to my mind. Such is the power of poetry. Many novelists, I think, are closet poets, grasping for just the right word. Poets do just that.


Imagine my delight in meeting a real poet some years ago and following her career. Laurie Wagner Buyer has a distinctive voice that appears no matter what genre she writes in. She's authored three collections of poetry. Across the High Divide won the Western Writers of America Spur Award in Poetry. Her memoir, Spring's Edge: A Ranch Wife's Chronicles, earned her finalist recognition for the Colorado Book Award. Her first novel was published in 2004 and she has a new memoir called When I Came West (University of Oklahoma Press.) She also has a new poetry book, Infinite Possibilities: A Haiku Journal (Filter Press), which was a 2010 WILLA Literary Award Finalist from Women Writing the West. I purchased that precious book following her terrific workshop about journaling and haiku. Laurie lives in Texas with her husband W.C. Jameson, also an award-winning author and songwriter. She's agreed to be my very first poet interview but I don't want you to forget that she also has that new memoir called When I Came West out. After reading what Laurie has to say about writing, you'll want all her works on your shelf.

 JK: To begin with, you look great in a western hat! And your intimate insight into the western landscape through your words makes me think you must have been born to a ranch family with a hundred years of history on the land; but I know that's not accurate. Tell us a bit about how you got from Chicago to the landscape that has captured your soul?


Everyone seems fascinated with the notion that I came West in 1975 at the age of twenty as a “mail order bride” to live with a modern day mountain man named Bill who I knew only through his letters to me. You’re right that I came West from the Chicago area. Before that I had attended fourteen schools in twelve years, plus tucked two-and-one-half years of liberal-arts college under my belt (my father was a USAF M/Sgt so our family moved every few years). I had no experience with life on the land beyond walking in the woods on my college campus and picking wild strawberries by the railroad tracks near our suburban home. Thus I experienced some serious culture shock when I ended up on the Northfork of the Flathead River on Canadian border in a rustic log cabin 86 miles from Kalispell, Montana. Two things about being a “mail order bride”: The man I came West for never wanted to be married, the relationship with him was extremely difficult, and I learned a lot about being independent and self-sufficient. Also, I learned that as the romance with the man faded, my love affair with the land blossomed and endured.


JK: When did you know that the western landscape would hold you hostage and then free you through writing about it?


Six months into my stay on the Northfork of the Flathead River. I arrived in early January and then Bill and I were snowed in until May. There was no “escape,” no easy way out to get back to the real world beyond wilderness living. Well, I guess I could have hitchhiked out with the mailman on those few occasions that our paths crossed when Bill and I snow-shoed out for the mail. But despite the loneliness, isolation, huge life-skills learning curve, I was stubborn and prideful and did not want to give up my dream of a life on the land. By the time the snow melted I knew I needed the rushing river and high peaks to make me whole. You’re right in knowing that writing about my experiences freed me in some intrinsic ways—from fear, from self-doubt, from being alone with myself. My first writings were poems and putting words on paper unburdened my heart by getting the emotions out of my head and gut so I could assess and evaluate whom I was and where I might be going.


JK: Your latest collection of poetry, Infinite Possibilities, A Haiku Journal, you said began with the gift of a spiral notebook calendar and you only had room enough to write a Haiku. Did you write one at the end of each day or the morning? Was that different than writing your memoir or other collections of poetry?


I tended to write in the evening before bed: the old “oh, darn, I still need to keep my promise to myself to write one haiku a day” deal! But sometimes, when out on a walk when I spotted something memorable, I would quickly jot that image down on my return to the house and then later when I had time to count syllables and focus I would turn that into the haiku. Writing haiku was so different because it took so little time. They are a spontaneous and fun-sparking form, one in which you receive some fairly instant gratification for your effort. It doesn’t take months and months, like writing a novel, or years and years, like writing a full-length memoir. Other forms of poetry can be written in an hour or a day, but usually I would go back and work and rework those poems into a more perfect state of being before I considered them done. The revision process for haiku, like the poem itself, tended to be minimal. Once I had the “ah-ha” image the words came fairly easily.

JK: What did the discipline of daily writing 17 syllables – in three lines that make up each haiku -- teach you about the creative process? Could you weave those lessons into writing novels or memoir?


The discipline in this case was as easy as remembering to brush my teeth once I made the commitment to the project. Having the engagement calendar to write in truly helped because I didn’t have a large, blank piece of paper or a computer screen to fill. All I had was a very small area in which to write each day. The lesson here is that I learned to “just do it.” No matter how good it is, or whether or not I believed it was worthy in the moment, I simply write something down. Later, I believe I was amazed, as many writers are, just how special and compelling those tiny captured moments became, important enough really to tell the whole tale of one year of my life. The lesson, of course, if you are going to work in a longer form, is to know that it starts with taking the time to pick up the pen and scribble something down. If you do that often enough you end up with a book.


JK: You worked on your MFA in Creative Writing in far away Vermont while living in Colorado. How did that work? Or should I say how did you fit that in to the rest of your writing, speaking, promoting and teaching life?


Working on my MFA while also being a full-time ranch wife presented some difficulties and eventually led to the break up of my marriage to my first husband. The good part about a low-residency MFA program is that I was only away from home for ten days twice a year at Goddard College in Plainfield, VT. The more difficult part was that I required a lot of alone time locked up in an office I built in a spare room in order to concentrate on my writing and my graduate assignments, including a full-length thesis. While that closed door and “do not disturb” signal fed my creative life abundantly, it also created an emotional chasm between my husband and me. Though I had been performing at Cowboy Poetry Gatherings a few times a year from 1995-1999, I had never had to sequester myself in order to achieve my professional and artistic goals. During my MFA years, I tried not to do too many additional outside engagements (unless they paid well); I really kept an intense focus for two years. After my MFA though I began to teach and speak and attend more writing conferences, plus I began to publish more books. While I flourished in that new environment of creative involvement and social interaction, my marriage, unfortunately, withered despite my attempts to devote enough time to home, hearth, husband, and ranch responsibilities.


JK: Whenever I know you're going to be presenting a workshop at a conference, I sign up! In part because I know I'll learn something new about writing but also about myself. You appear so comfortable in front of us all, so poised while at the same time helping us dig in to our own creative souls. Have you always been a natural teacher? When did you know you could not only write but also engage others in writing for themselves?


I think I surprised myself by quickly becoming comfortable in front of an audience. The first few years that I performed at Cowboy Poetry Gatherings I was extremely nervous and shy, even despondent about having to be in front of other people. However, the more people told me they liked my work, the more they bought my books, the more confident I became. The best advise I ever received was from my first publisher, John Dofflemyer, who told me at my first National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, NV, to “just be your self. Be who you really are and people will be drawn to that person.” That turned out to be so true. Even though I was painfully shy when young, I really did love people and I wanted very much to appreciated and accepted. Thus, naturally, I always gave my best effort. The fact that I had had some public speaking in high school and some theater and dance classes in college also helped me know how to present myself in front of an audience. Other performers gave me tips. I watched with great care how others presented workshops and took notes on what I thought worked and what didn’t work. I was always drawn in by someone else’s warm, easy, “I’m here for you” attitude while speaking and teaching. I tend to be rather open-hearted and giving by nature so the rest flowed forth all by itself. I do think that others know when you’re being true to yourself or putting on airs or trying to show off or pretend to know something you don’t know. It has never been difficult for me to say, “I don’t know” or “I have no expertise in that area.” After the great response I received from the students of my first long-term teaching assignment that was required for my MFA I knew I had the ability to encourage and inspire. That certainly made me happy and hopeful that I could make a career out of my writing life.


JK: A former National Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser, wrote kind words of endorsement for one of your books of poetry by saying “we don’t have to push the poet out of the doorway in order to see what is going on inside.” Yet your poetry is so personal and private. How do you balance that intimacy with a public sharing of your words?


Many people ask me how I can “bare my soul” and not be concerned about what people might think about the level of intense personal revelation found in my poetry. I have never found any one answer for that question except to say that I believe it is easier for me than for others. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe because I’m a Leo and despite my innate shyness there is a part of my personality that is bold and doesn’t mind taking risks. Plus I have always felt that we are all human beings, we all share the same emotional joys and difficulties, we all make mistakes and celebrate successes, so it never seemed to me than anything had to remain secret or unspoken. Certainly it was difficult in the very beginning to “tell all” out loud to an audience, but once I saw the positive response and heartfelt appreciation for my down-to-earth and honest approach to my experiences it became much easier. Writing something personal is one thing. But deciding to share it is another thing altogether. But usually by the time something is both ready for publication (and finds a publisher) I have moved beyond the spark or sting of an event and it no longer has the power to hold me back or prevent me from discussing the situation, no matter how painful or difficult the issue might have been. I know some people are uncomfortable with intimacy, but usually that discomfort stems from their own need for privacy and self-protection. Amazingly I have never had anyone criticize my openness or the subject matters I choose to explore.


JK: Your workshop about haiku in Arizona last month inspired many haiku pieces to show up on one of your websites in a section called "Do you Haiku?" at http://www.infinitepossibilitiesjournal.com/. I even submitted a couple! What's been the response from readers of your latest collection? What does the Japanese form of brevity have in common with the vastness of the west?


I have had such fun with Infinite Possibilities: A Haiku Journal. I cannot thank my publisher Doris Baker enough for having this great vision of the poems being incorporated into a journal format, which encourages others to write. The response, from both genders, from all age groups, has been so positive and uplifting. People who write all the time find haiku freeing because there is so little on-the-spot expectation beyond just three short lines. People who say they have never written a thing surprise themselves by creating charming brief poems. One of my super fun things to do these days is forward email responses to Doris Baker so I can say once again, “You are a genius! You knew the beauty of combining haiku with blank pages and it has worked so well. What a blessing for us all.”


That is an interesting remark…the juxtaposition between the brevity of the Japanese form of haiku and the vastness of the West. I don’t think I had ever thought of that before. Perhaps I see a connection because I tend to look at the West with a close focus, with a telephoto lens instead of the wide-angle lens. Being a poet has taught me to be an observer of small, often seemingly insubstantial or unimportant things. I tend to see the West as a collection of individual snapshots instead of a wide-screen film, as separate pieces of a complex and fascinating puzzle, rather than as the complete picture that appears on the box. My job, then, is to put those snapshots and those puzzle pieces into some kind of beautiful and memorable order.


JK: In one or your reviews, author Candy Mouton sings your praises saying you are "absolutely one of the best writers I've ever read." She goes on to say: "It is hard to even imagine being so lonely that making a puppet from the hide of a mouse, carefully skinned and brain tanned, would lift a woman’s spirits. Yet that was part of the reality of Laurie’s early life in Montana." Did you journal during those years as a "mail order" bride or was poetry your companion? What brought you to create that puppet and do you still have it?


I did journal but briefly, perhaps a few short sentences a day, mostly chronicling the weather, the chores and housework tackled, any particular incident of interest (the birth or death of an animal, what we found on the trap trail, any visitors), and any pertinent news worth mentioning from the outside world (learned via radio or letters). I never had too much time for writing, thus my early poems are quite short. When I did have time for writing, I tended to write letters to family and friends. These missives, in their own way, created the complete story of those early years and most of my friends, my mother and sisters, kept those letters for me. I also kept the mouse puppet for more than thirty years, tucked safely away in a small buckskin pouch within a cookie tin. However, about four years ago, after a great deal of holistic counseling, I decided to “purge my past” in order to move more fully into present moment as well as a new marriage. I gave the mouse puppet, as well as boxes and boxes of letters, records, and memorabilia, a ceremonial release in a backyard bonfire. All that remains of my early years in the West is my memoir, When I Came West, and those early poems in the books, Blue Heron, Braintanning Buckskin: A Lesson for Beginners, Little Dancing Fawn’s Tale of Christmas Joy, and Glass-eyed Paint in the Rain.


JK: A spiritual thread weaves through all your works. In my own writing, I'm always asking my characters where they draw their strength from, which to me is part of a spiritual thread. From where do you draw your strength?


These days my strength comes from my connection to the Great Mother, the Infinite Source of All That Is and All That Ever Will Be, the Source that flows without flaw through our World here on Earth as well as throughout the Universe. Though I was raised a Christian (in the Lutheran Church), I also studied many other religions and found that Native American Spirituality came closest to my own personal beliefs. That intimate connection with the natural world is still my greatest joy and my firm foundation. I have also practiced various kinds of meditation, yoga, Jin Shin, Reiki, and other holistic modalities in my search for peace and harmony, as well as physical and emotional balance. Most recently I have acquired the ability through intense focus and dedicated effort to hear spiritual guidance from Divine Beings, including the Gentle Master, Jesus. This guidance, which works through me from the Highest Levels of Love and Light, directs my personal choices as well as the way I gift my creative energies to our World. For those who are curious about this aspect of my life, more information can be found on the blog site: www.amordelacorazon.wordpress.com


JK: You're married to W.C. Jameson, an award-winning author, songwriter and musician. Without being too invasive, I can't help but wonder how two creative people support each other's work. Care to share insights for the rest of us living with creative genius?


What can I say about WC? I climbed to the top of a very high ridge on a ranch in South Park (Colorado) for three months and prayed for the Universe to send me someone who would love me for who I am, who would appreciate and honor the poet in me, who would support me in my creative work, and who would be by my side through thick and thin. Want to ask me if I believe in the power of prayer, of intentional thought, of the law of attraction? I am the most fortunate woman in the World to have WC as my husband, as well as my incomparable mentor, secret lover and special friend. He has nurtured and encouraged me through some extremely tough times and never lost faith that I would not only survive but also thrive, and go on to be “one of the nation’s best poets.” I don’t know about those high words of praise from him, but I certainly feel very grounded in my art and very sure in our relationship. We discuss our projects, both music and writing. We are first readers for each other and we edit for one another as well. We talk about the business end of this crazy endeavor—everything from websites and marketing, to communication difficulties with publishers and accountants—and keep each other’s spirits up if we’ve had a set back or a disappointment. What I love best about WC (besides the fact that he is the sexiest, most charming man in Llano, Texas—and therefore the world!) is that I can talk to him about anything, even girl stuff, female complaint, and women’s issues. We also support each other’s work by going with the other person to his or her events (whoever books first gets the date), we share domestic duties (I do dishes, he does laundry; I do floors, he does the yard; we both cook), and we never get angry or hold a grudge. Likewise we freely allow the other person alone time to read, workout, write, or to go places on his or her own with other friends. I think it has taken both of us most of a lifetime to find this kind of balance and mutual admiration in a relationship…and we never stop giving thanks to the Power that brought us together (each in quite different ways).

JK: Is there anything you'd like to share that I haven't covered in this brief interview?

For those in your reading audience who have read When I Came West and who asked about the sequel—the manuscript for The Heart of Nowhere: From Hired Hand to Ranch Wife is still under consideration at the University of Oklahoma Press and slated for some revision work before going to the boards for approval. Therefore, I’m hoping that readers who want to know “what happened” to the mail order bride after she left the wilderness life to work on an isolated cattle ranch will have their answers within a year or so. Also, my collection of poems Accidental Voices should be out from Seven Oaks Publishing before Christmas. I’m very excited about both these projects which have waited so long to come to fruition.

JK: Thanks so much for writing with authenticity, for giving us your unique voice and for being a mentor to many.

Thank you, Jane, for asking such interesting questions and for giving me a chance to share my story with a wider audience. Every success and happiness to you (and your characters) as you continue to reveal exceptional stories that illuminate the best within us all.
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