Claire Stuart is a graduate of Fairmont State College (Biology) and West Virginia University (Entomology). She writes a column about insects (“The Bug Lady”) for The Martinsburg Journal, one about people for the WV Observer (“Getting Acquainted”), and she is a contributing editor for The Shepherdstown Good News Paper. She also writes poetry and short stories, and her work has appeared in the anthology of Appalachian writers, Poetry & Prose: An Anthology Featuring Writers of Jefferson & Berkeley Counties, WPFW (Washington DC) Radio Poetry Anthology and other publications. She and her husband live in Back Creek Valley in Berkeley County, WV.
(“Coffee with the Poets” interviews are conducted
MIP: Hi, Claire! You come from my neck of the woods, so to speak, and the weather here has been rather fluctuating of late. On that note, I’d love to begin by asking, what type of weather (or which element, for that matter) is most likely to get your creative faculties flowing, and why?
CS: I’d have to say it is winter or when it rains, simply because I am an outdoors person & avid gardener. I spend as much time outdoors as light permits, so I don’t actually write much in nice weather. And I guess I suffer from “seasonal affective disorder” because I tend to be edgy & rather unhappy when days are short. But that is a GOOD thing because I am not very creative when I am happy!
MIP: I understand! I like to say “poets need sunlight” but they pen more from the heart when they don’t have it. Do you have a preferred writing spot within your home, and if so, what draws you to that location?
CS: Usually sprawled on my bed – a habit I picked up in my teens – that’s where I did my homework. It’s also where I find the most sun in winter. Sometimes I write at my big computer but it’s in a room with lousy natural light (I don’t like to type on laptop) but I always copy my poems into my notebooks by hand.
MIP: I became acquainted with your descriptive poetry through your contribution to Wee Witty Whimsies, and I was an immediate fan of your sophisticated simplicity (that’s no contradiction in your case). Who or what has inspired you to deliver your poetry in the mode that you do?
CS: Quite honestly, the answer is nobody and nothing. When I am inspired, I write. It’s as simple as that. I don’t sit around and labor over writing because it does me no good. My writings seem to just pour out of “someplace” full-blown, when they are ready, in their own time. Sometimes I don’t think I have created them at all – I am just transcribing.
MIP: It’s admirable to me that you don’t play with words so much as simply write them and accept them as they emerge. When you don’t feel that words come from within yourself, who or what do you feel delivers them to you, and when in your life did this “connection” firstly manifest?
CS: I’d better clarify that – it sounds too mystic & I don’t think of it that way. I just mean it pops out of my subconscious, like when you “sleep on” something & your subconscious works on it & hopefully delivers a solution in the morning. But I don’t do it deliberately and it doesn’t work that fast! I just observe things and sometimes a poem or story pops out, a day, a week, a year later–or never! I have always had that ability and took it for granted. I thought everyone did this, until I learned otherwise!
MIP: Yes, you are fortunate in that regard! Your work is generally very concrete and engaging, particularly to the sense of sight in a very matter-of-fact sort of way. Do you feel that your education in entomology served to condition you to separate from your subjects, or to connect more deeply with them through your understanding?
CS: Hard question. Probably both. Training in science honed my skills as a keen observer, but I think I always was, even as a small child. I’ve always watched people, animals, plants, things and written down what I saw, very much as simply an observer. On the other hand, sometimes I really connect with someone/something and feel I am writing from the subject’s point of view. Again, that is not deliberate–it just happens.
MIP: What was your favorite thing to observe in childhood, and what is your favorite thing to observe today, and what drew/draws you to it?
CS: I always loved insects, birds, flowers, clouds, flowing water — all natural things. I still do. I am just fascinated with life.
MIP: When you find the time to read poetry, who is your favorite poet or what is your favorite genre of poetry, and why?
CS: While I appreciate the work it takes to create rhyme & meter (& I admit to occasionally penning a rhyme just to show that I can do it), I prefer free verse because the subject matter is not limited by the form it has to be stuffed into! I like the beat poets. I like Charles Bukowski because he is so gritty. I love Gary Snyder – his poetry is so simple & clear. He has a wonderful connection to the earth & simple things, yet he can write about anything in any form. I don’t like poetry that is embarrassingly personal (poets using poems as psychotherapy–that belongs in their therapy groups!) or so obscure so that I have to do research to understand it! I like to assume that the poet is actually trying to communicate something to the reader and not just showing off. I don’t want to have to guess what the poet was trying to say–I want to read, understand, see a mental picture.
MIP: How nice! I hear a lot of praise for the Beat poets, and I fully understand and appreciate what you are saying. Have you considered compiling a book of your poetry?
CS: Oh, I’ve “considered” but that’s about as far as I get! I don’t see much hope for books any more, let alone books of poetry. I have given more serious thoughts to compiling my insect columns or even collecting my people columns, altho the latter would probably only have local interest.
MIP: You mirror my own conclusions to some extent, but we must hope that the value of books is re-realized up the timeline, and that more people will come to appreciate the efforts of those who are gifted with creative expression. Back to your poetry, though: It is obvious in your work that you do enjoy your surroundings. Do you recall the first poem that you were inspired to write regarding the surroundings of your home? Would you care to either share it or tell the story behind it, or both?
CS: Actually I was at work when I wrote this–scrawled it on a scrap of paper. My work at that time was setting insect traps in apple orchards.
Sometimes it’s enough just to be alive.
Thanks, God, for apple trees–
for making them bloom just for me,
just when I needed them.
Fragrant world of white beauty, serenity,
affirmation of life.
In the orchard, silence–
the same silence that blankets the world
after a fresh snow.
Depression blows away
with the snowy petals taken by the wind.
Petals touch my face, my heart, and
give me back my sense of joy and wonder.
Thanks for letting me know you’re here
in apple trees.
MIP: Ah, that’s beautiful, and I sigh over the sensations from the senses to the soul. Tree blossoms after a snowy winter are a reminder that life’s cycle always returns sweet breezes and soft beauty.
CS: Actually “Apple Trees” was the first poem that I put in my notebook as an adult. My very first poem was an illustrated, rhyming “epic” poem I wrote at age eight about the cats in our neighborhood that would yowl and fight under the windows at night! It was called “Pussycats, Yowling Cats.”
MIP: We can relate to cat population issues, and wow! Eight years old, you say? Would you care to share a few of your favorite lines of it?
CS: Twas the middle of the night,
the moon was shining bright,
when the cats upon the fence began to yowl
MIP (Smiling): It is my understanding that your benign expressions in Wee Witty Whimsies is but one facet of your body of poetry. I admire that you are comfortable sharing your entire self (minus those internal psychotherapies!); that’s a real sign that you are contented with yourself as a person. Where can we read “the full picture” of Claire Stuart (online or in print)?
CS: I really don’t have much poetry in print–I’m mostly a journalist and occasional short fiction writer. When I write poems, I read them in my poetry group and occasionally in local public readings, then stash them away again, primarily out of laziness. My husband and I used to do a lot of performance poetry in pubs but haven’t lately. However, I have been contributing to the Bookends Poets page in the Shepherdstown Chronicle for 20-some years. I was on Grace Cavalieri’s radio show “Poet and the Poem” and in her WPFW-FM (Washington DC) 1992 Poetry Anthology; in the 1989 Boarman Arts Center’s Public Hanging! anthology; “The Best of the Good” (Shepherdstown Good News 10th Anniversary Edition); and a few poems are in obscure journals (Psychopoetica, Visions).
MIP: That’s excellent, and I expect that your words will continue to flourish. Thank you for your delightful conversation! It’s been a real pleasure.
[Christina raises her mug and nods respectfully to Claire, who takes her coffee with cream or milk.]
Some of Claire’s poems can be read in Wee Witty Whimsies through Middle Island Press.