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Coffee With Barbara Wirkus

Barbara Wirkus is a Jill of all trades and mistress of none. In her lifetime she has been a wife, mother, grandmother, teacher, Emergency Medical Technician, Medical Technologist, poet, tap dancer, gardener, photographer, writer, political activist, birder, and art gallery curator. She loves baking cookies, movies, books, Broadway shows and The Rolling Stones. She resides in “The Little House That Could” in a small New Jersey town. Now 83, she is coasting toward the finish line…

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[Barbara Wirkus has become a dear friend of mine. She’s intelligent and wise. She lets her heart lead the way as she analyzes its silent language. She’s earth, fire, air, and water in harmonious cohesion with consciousness along for the ride…but it’s that heart of hers that overflows onto the paper, finds its voice in metaphor and translates into lush and poignant narrative poetry. I’ve studied Barbara’s poems closely for two primary reasons: their intense emotive power (she seems to mirror my own self—perhaps everyone’s true self); and they are so poetic that they inspired me in a voiceless time to simply “be real” from both the heart and the gut, and then to infuse that “realness” with poetry.

Barbara had published a chapbook, Echoes From the Bell Jar, through Middle Island Press in 2014. This collection is a deep chamber of memories of the different types of love. It reflects a struggle against time, a longing in which she relives moments and crystallizes them in poetry, immortalizing everything within those moments in true form of the magic of poetry.

That said, she takes her coffee—usually decaf—with a tiny splash of low-fat milk and no sugar. “When I can,” she says, “I opt for a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee but that brings me in close proximity to their donuts which I have a hard time resisting!” Ah, yes. Everyone loves a good donut…]

Hi, Barbara. 🙂 Many of your poems are dedicated to particular individuals. Would you mind choosing a few of your favorites and sharing some background on them?

This will require a look back over ever so many years. Let me start with “Reflections”, “Requiem” and “The Departure” which were written for my (ex) husband after his death. Ours was an uncommon relationship, beginning when I was 12. We wound our way through the teen years and finally married in our early twenties. We moved from our home state of Connecticut to Texas, where I gave birth to 2 of our 4 sons. At some point, he began drinking heavily and I realized we had grown apart in every way possible. We eventually moved to New Jersey, and I began preparing myself to live on my own, finally divorcing him after 21 years of marriage. Soon after that, he somehow gave up both drinking and smoking and although we never really reconciled, we became heartfelt friends until his passing at age 62. I shed sincere tears of grief and “…still hear the measured beats of your absent heart”.

I’d like to share “The Departure” if you wouldn’t mind:

You left.
Unwillingly perhaps,
but now
great gusts of time
echo relentlessly.
Reminders I am
unable to escape
keep tears flowing.
Surely the sad songs
will cease and
silence will prevail.
But in the quiet times,
I will still hear
the measured beats
of your absent heart.

“Almost” is a poem dedicated to a man, a writer, who became the clichéd “love-of-my-life”. He never returned my feelings, in spite of my best efforts to convince him we belonged together. (“Your soul declined to mate with mine”). Instead, he held out false hope over a period of three years causing me the loss of my self-respect, self-esteem and self-confidence which I have slowly been reclaiming. And yes, I still “weep for what might have been”.

…and a section from “Almost”:

Shadows of
unfulfilled dreams
move in, occupy areas
in my shuttered heart,
while this wasteland
of wanting reigns unopposed.

I could have gently
lead you to warm places
on sandy, sun-filled beaches.
Lifted you on soft waves
that rolled us back to shore.

But your soul declined
to mate with mine,
choosing instead
to remain
in safe spaces,
reluctant to explore
uncharted waters.

Then there was Randy and Nathan and others whose presence in my life I did not document poetically. They were all the same, however, and “Terminal Fishing” sums it up with “I am too small to keep” which is as good an explanation as any as to why I never loved a man who loved me back.

I’d also like to share “Terminal Fishing” (winner of the New Jersey Wordsmith Competition)…

Turning into you
I meet myself
in the mirror of your eyes.

We do not touch,
deliver only glancing blows
to each other’s hearts.

Swimming through tears
of past years
I surface,
gasp,
twist and tunnel
like some flat-backed fish
you’ve reeled in
on your line of love.

Expectedly
you throw me back.

I am too small to keep.

The poems I feel are my best work are those I wrote for my grandson Christopher: “Winter Walk”, “Beba and Beyond”, “The Visit” and “Grandmother’s Reverie”. I called him “Beba”; he called me “Macca” and “we rode on rainbows…” Experience had taught me however that our bond would be short-lived and so it was. He has since taken “manly strides…away from us” and I rarely hear from him. Because I had anticipated it, the pain is not as great as it could have been.

“Beba and Beyond” makes the eyes mist even now.

You shine with the glow
of a thousand candles,
sparkle like moonlight on wave peaks
illuminating my opaque heart.

You are generous enough
to kiss my dry and straight-lined mouth,
gentle enough to curl against me
when I read to you.

You are a miracle in the making,
an icon for life’s renewal,
an arrow pointing the way to courage.

As my years wind down, I find
all the lost loves of my life
distilled in the purity
of your dark eyes.

You protect me from fear
with the lilting cadence
of your laughter
as we kneel in the street
to find trees mirrored
in the puddles left over
from yesterday’s rain.

You bring tears to my aging eyes
as we explore, hand in hand,
the jungle at the end of the block.

I yearn to transfix you in time
as the sunlight filters
through high trees,
gilding your golden hair.

But you forge forward,
the joy of discovery
urging you on,
leaving me to follow slowly
burdened with memories
until you disappear
into future days
without me.

“On the Death of My Son” and “June 15th, 2004” were written out of untold agony that is still with me some 12 years later. Billy was my first-born and left life after a short 47 years. A series of medical mistakes led to his death and caused me to have a deep-seated distrust of doctors. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, I procure a helium balloon, write “I love you” on it and release it at dusk. This is small comfort, however, to the “hard black knot” that “slowly replaced my heart”. I have not been, nor ever will be, the person I was before I lost him.

Your method of dealing with pain is so romantic. It comes through in your poetry which has such clarity of wisdom. How has your life shaped your poetry?

Interestingly, I wrote my first poem for a class assignment when I was 12. It was included in an Anthology of High School Poetry. Reading poetry and writing my own quickly became my primary procedure for dealing with emotions that often threatened to overwhelm me. My first efforts were predictably awkward but as years passed, I took classes and slowly learned to express my feelings in a more disciplined way. Still, my work has always been dark and frequently focused on death which I came to see as both my enemy and the answer to my pain.
I took refuge in my own words and was thus able to navigate life successfully these past 83 years. Somehow, the work of choosing words, similes and metaphors forced me to focus on the situations I encountered along the way. Writing the hard truths as I saw them, without trying to mitigate them, gave me the strength to endure and move forward.

Yes; things are what they are, and pain is like childbirth: “The only way out is through,” so it’s a valuable insight that your own words have been the “refiner’s fire” that has kept you strong. What else keeps you strong, what takes you away from the pangs of life?

The earth in my yard and gardens. The smell and feel of it in my hands and under my feet. I plant and weed and water till my back aches but the sense of peacefulness I experience gives me respite from my demons. Then, when I’ve coaxed buds into blooms, I take my beloved Nikon film camera to record them in all their colorful glory. In February, when I think I can no longer endure the dark days of winter, I select flower images from the previous summer and display them on a poster board. A feast for my eyes and soul till spring actually arrives. Lastly, but by no means least, is my devotion to dance. I have been tap dancing for well over 20 years and the sound of my tap shoes coupled with the music never fails to lift my spirits. Miss Kara, my wonderful friend and teacher, “tweaks” the steps so they are doable for my arthritis-ridden back. Tap class is arguably the best half hour of my week. My original goal was to tap till I turned 80 but I’m still at it!

I love it!!! I understand that you are grounding yourself, so to speak, from the deep sky of thought and the deep water of emotion. Terra firma lends its own solidity to “Here Now” and has its beauty that pulls one out of the pain, and your tap dancing is like drumming with the feet. I love it! I’d like to go back up to where you said “I took refuge in my own words.” Would you care to shed some light on how you (or anyone, for that matter) can “take refuge” in words, and what value or praise would you give to words in the sense of emotional healing?

I read somewhere that “Everything worth saying has already been said in the Bible or by Shakespeare”. The poems I wrote over the years in times of great stress were comforting to me but broke no new ground in the world of poetry. I still reread my poems because they refer uniquely to myself and say exactly what I was feeling at the moment. The words I chose were a snapshot in time much like the images I make with my Nikon. This affirmation of emotion wraps itself around me, saying “Yes, yes, you were here and there and you are still standing.” I tell my writing students that writing is simply talking on paper. Words give voice to the emotions that so shape our lives. Although when I wrote my poems, they were inspired by specific events in my life, I have discovered that by keeping the words simple and straightforward, other folks have been able to relate them to their own life. These “shared experiences” can bring comfort and healing when one realizes they are not alone.

So true! Your subject is LOVE, plain and simple, and you’ve learned a lot through it and touched the hearts of many with your words. I’d love for you to express what you’ve come to understand about how the power of words and the power of love fuse together.

Love is a kaleidoscopic word! It means so very many different things depending upon who is loved and who is doing the loving. I have experienced many different forms, if you will, of love. And yes, there is power in saying “I love you” or hearing it. Writing poems that define that love can distill it into a pure form that affects deeply both the writer and the person written about. Alas, most of the subjects of my poems will never read them, although I did experience the joy of having my grandson read aloud one of the poems I had written about him! (“Winter Walk”). Love is a primal emotion and as necessary, I believe, as air or water is to life. Being able to “talk” about it through my poetry satisfies a very basic need and although I have ceased writing, I still cherish the words I have written as well as those of others whom have trod the same path. I want to add here, that love does not always need to be expressed in precious words. Giving a gentle massage, preparing tomato basil soup for the loved one, lending them a sympathetic ear can also convey your love rendering the actual words unnecessary.

How beautiful. Thank you so much, and I wish you endless joy and peace. If there is anything else that we haven’t yet touched upon that you would like to share, please do so.

Bringing this wonderfully pleasant interlude to a close, let me thank you dear Christina for the opportunity to clarify my thoughts and feelings about my writing. As I mentioned, I no longer write simply because after a certain age, life is all deja vu. The names, faces and places change, but the emotional reaction remains essentially the same. Therefore, writing something fresh and new becomes exceedingly difficult. Having said that, let me assure you that my creativity has not dissipated, only transformed. I still make good use of my camera, recording images of things, people and places that speak to me. I frequently post them on Social Media and have the pleasure of people’s responses in real time. It is both uplifting and satisfying. I also have joined an online organization of photographers from all over the world who have banded together to promote the use of film rather than digital cameras. They, like you, have become my virtual friends although not quite in the same way you and I have connected.

I must add that I never expected, when I sent my poems to you to be published by Middle Island Press, that we would establish such a close relationship. We are indeed kindred spirits. I knew that the moment I received my copy of Echoes from the Bell Jar. You had executed my vision perfectly and for that I am grateful. The friendship that ensued was a bonus.

In closing, I wish I could say that after eighty-three years of living, I had some great insights to pass along. Unfortunately, all I can offer is that time does heal, and the sharp edges of life soften as we age. Compassion and empathy are easier to come by and one no longer judges oneself or others harshly. Life is, and always will be, difficult. There are no shortcuts or loopholes. My mantra has become “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” The rest is in the hands of the powers that be, whomever they are. One can only hope they will be merciful…

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Barbara’s poetry collection, Echoes from the Bell Jar, was originally printed as a saddle-stitched chapbook, which she prefers for its hand-made charm; however, it is now an Expanded Edition (inclusive of this interview) in paperback form via Amazon.com.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2017 in Coffee with the Poets

 

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Songs of the Mist by Loni Hoots

Middle Island Press just released its third title of poet Loni Hoots. Songs of the Mist (ISBN 978-0-9980732-3-1) is a collection of clear and concise poems in which the poet’s specialty, imagery, continues its starring role alongside personification in the forefront of fine poetic qualities. Loni is a young lady who understands the value of being One with nature for maintaining clarity of mind and heart.

hoots-songs-of-the-mist-cover-jpegFrom page 37, “Made from Nature”:

The sound of the water roaring fills my ears
As the sight of the fog devours the scenery.
The sweet smell from the air captivates my soul,
Making me yearn for it even more.

Although I am certainly lost,
I do not feel that way when I am trapped in the fog.
For the river is the blood I bleed,
The fog is the skin that covers every inch of me,
And the sweet delicious smell has created my heart, mind, and soul.

(Songs of the Mist is available now at the Middle Island Press website and will soon be available via Amazon.com.)

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2016 in Literary News

 

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Every Chicken, Cow, Fish and Frog: Animal Rights Haiku

Robert Epstein, psychotherapist, haiku poet and anthologist, has recently published his sixth Middle Island Press title with the assistance of co-editor Miriam Wald, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and animal rights activist. They poured their hearts and souls into this 218-page anthology with a considerable amount of well-wrought front matter and a lot of selection and arranging of the poetry of some of the most bright, witty and compassionate animal-lovers in the world. I consider Robert Epstein to be a ground-breaker in animal rights awareness (with this current title, Every Chicken, Cow, Fish and Frog: Animal Rights Haiku, as well as his Turkey Heaven: Animal Rights Haiku) and feel that no vegetarian’s library is complete without these books.

epstein-animal-rights-haiku-cover-jpegcrimson dusk–
the cowbells tinkling along
their last journey

~ Shrikaanth Krishnamurthy

a caged chimpanzee
injected with hepatitis
signs hello

~ Allan Burns

Every Chicken, Cow, Fish, and Frog is a special compilation tribute to animals. The magical place where human and non-human animals briefly connect, and share an understanding, is here, in this powerful book.”

~ Hope Bohanec, Executive Director of Compassionate Living, Projects Manager of United Poultry Concerns, and author, The Ultimate Betrayal: Is There Happy Meat?

Every Chicken, Cow, Fish, and Frog presents us with a unique, engrossing and deeply thought-provoking anthology of poetry and haiku from a global authorship for the animal- and planet-conscious reader. The subtle power of this word art will inspire many to think with greater clarity, vision and focus about some of the greatest challenges we face today.”

~ Robert Grillo, Executive Director of Free from Harm, and author, From Farm to Fable: The Fictions of Our Animal-Consuming Culture

 

(Every Chicken Cow, Fish and Frog is available online and will shortly be available also in Kindle format.)

 
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Posted by on December 13, 2016 in Literary News

 

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Jack Phillips Lowe: “A Poet With His Boots On”

I recently received a letter from poet Jack Phillips Lowe, author of Middle Island Press titles Cold Case Cowboys and Jupiter Works on Commission, among several others by this dedicated writer. Attached to his letter was a photocopy of a few pages from Poets International, a print publication from India which published a review of Lowe’s Cold Case Cowboys written by Toledo, Ohio reviewer Teresinka Pereira. Poets are always elated when their works are reviewed; and overseas reviews, whether in print or online, are especially gratifying.

For copyright reasons I cannot scan the pages, but I’ll summarize:

Ms. Pereira seeks to review the work of American poets with truly enjoyable, non-angsty, out-of-the-ordinary subjects, so she was happy to order a copy of Cold Case Cowboys. One of her favorite poems therein is “Think Highly” from which she quoted (in prose formatting), “Prayer tower, I answered him, is a convenient term. I meant this to be a place for free-ranging introspective thought of every creed and idiom…” She also quoted from (my personal favorite) “Cured”: “After the fifth time, I quit seeing the doctor. If my issues were dull enough to lull him to sleep, I figured I must be cured.” Then she commented on another: “The poem ‘Him Alone’ is the most original reference of the 9-11-2001 terrorist attack of the Twin Towers in New York. He remembers (or read…) that ‘in 1974, a French daredevil crossed a tightrope that had been stretched between the Twin Towers,’ and wondered how the acrobat he calls ‘Bastard’ felt when the towers were destroyed… ‘He might have mourned the loss of two giants he’d come to know intimately as they performed the stunt of the century together. And perhaps he mourned the fact that no one would be able to recall their outstanding achievement without it being shrouded in gloom.'”

Pereira, as many readers, appreciates her ability to connect with Lowe’s many references to real-world characters such as J.D. Salinger, John Wayne, John Lennon and so on, which helps to paint clear mental images; as well as Lowe’s ability to make readers laugh, smirk, chuckle. She says, “He satirizes society and comes out clean. Readers always agree with him. I do. I could have written a poem like ‘A Damn Thing At All’ about the use of Twitter, YouTube, etc… His poems express my thoughts in ways I cannot explain.”

So all is well that concludes well!

Cold Case Cowboys and other titles by Jack Phillips Lowe can be purchased at Amazon.com. Ms. Pereira can be contacted at ptereira@buckeye-express.com.

 

 
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Posted by on November 27, 2016 in Literary News

 

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Obsessions: A Novel by Gene McCormick

mccormick-obsessions-cover-jpegObsessions (“A cup of coffee and a walk in the park through the feral cityscapes of daily life”) is a novel written in poetic form and is the latest work of Illinois poet and author Gene McCormick. This is his second title published by Middle Island Press this year.

From the Middle Island Press website:

Obsessions of daily life including passion, mystery, and even a minute or two of off-center romance provide emotional heft to a highly nuanced, uniquely evocative exploitation of minutes and hours ticking by in a multi-layered, thought-provoking, genteel insanity. Obsessions is, on the surface, accessible to the brink of literal transparency but a walk in a forest preserve, being parked in a shopping mall in a thunderstorm, going fishing, rubbing on lotion prove not so routine. As Neil Gaiman has said “Things can mean more than they literally mean.” 

McCormick’s titles are available via Amazon.com and elsewhere online. I recommend Obsessions to people who are naturally curious about humanity and enjoy the humor that abounds through observing the nuances of others. It’s an intriguing read!

 
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Posted by on October 10, 2016 in Literary News

 

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Turkey Heaven: Animal Rights Haiku by Robert Epstein

epstein-turkey-heaven-cover-jpeg

Animal Rights is a theme that California poet, editor and anthologist Robert Epstein takes rather seriously yet sometimes in a playful fashion. Turkey Heaven: Animal Rights Haiku (ISBN 978-1535070829), recently published through Middle Island Press, is witty and wise in its approach and persuasive “food for thought” regarding Epstein’s respect for animals and the vegetarian diet.

what about your shoes / the cheeky carnivore asks? / broccoli

Read the poet’s comments on Turkey Heaven at the Middle Island Press website.

Copies are available through Amazon.com and elsewhere online.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2016 in Literary News

 

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On the Ordering of Poems

(By Christina Anne Taylor)

We’re all familiar with the saying “variety is the spice of life,” and the same can be said for the way in which poets order their poems within manuscripts for poetry collections. My personal preference resembles, by theme, a bag of trail mix, which I’ll explain in a minute. Firstly, a few common approaches:

  1. Alphabetically by title
  2. Chronologically by date of creation

These alleviate the soon-to-be-published poet of wringing hands over which poems are favorites and where to put favorites and so forth; however, it’s my personal opinion that the flow of content is most important, and one of the greatest threats to a collection of poems is redundancy.

As Kathleen Raine said, there are those who pen about a different subject with each poem, and there are those who know their favorite themes and pen about the same subjects over and over again. With the former, the voice, the lexicon, the overall structure can be consistent throughout the book without boring readers; but with the latter, the bag needs to be shaken up a bit. Here’s how I do it:

Say you have four recurring themes: love, nature, children’s poems, and miscellaneous poems.

  1. Create a table with the themes as headings.
  2. Go down your list of poems and place the letter “L” (for love), “N” (for nature), etc., as it applies beside each poem.
  3. Go back to the table and place a tick-mark under each heading as you scan down your list of poems.
  4. Count the complete number of poems, and count the number of tick-marks beneath each heading.
  5. Do a bit of percentage math. (We’ll keep it simple.) Say you have 80 poems total: 20 are love poems, 40 are nature poems, 10 are poems for children, and 10 are essentially “miscellaneous.” You can see that nature poems are half of your collection, love poems are a quarter, and the other quarter is divided among maternal and miscellaneous poems.
  6. Create an ordering pattern that coincides with math results. The above would result most logically as proceeding through the book as follows: nature, love, nature, children, nature, love, nature, miscellaneous; repeat throughout the collection.

What to do about which poem to place where? We know that if you use all of your best poems at the beginning of the book, it begins to fall flat mid-way through. Likewise, it’s foolish to save your best for the end, because then you’ve lost the reader before even getting to the good stuff. With that in mind…

  1. Get another sheet of paper with three columns titled: beginning, middle, and end.
  2. Place your BEST poem of the most prominent theme as the first poem, your best poem within the second theme as the second poem, etc., at the top of the “beginning” column.
  3. Hopefully “second-best” is excellent as well. Go to the end and structure the last few poems of your book with the “second-bests” in theme-order. Draw a line through each poem title as you work them in.
  4. Now jump to the middle with the best of what remains, and then work your way down the list of poems and take turns adding to the beginning, middle, and end columns until all poems are accounted for.
  5. Paste the three sections together.

Now you have a logical order by theme. Order your manuscript accordingly, and then give it a thoughtful read. Look for the following possibilities of that dreaded redundancy (variety being “the spice of life” and all).

  1. You might notice overuse of certain words too close together, such as “passion” or “morning.” Choose a few substitutes (minding syllables, feet, alliteration and all else as much as possible). “Morning” can be “dawn” or “day-spring” or “sunrise.” Spice it up a bit. The thesaurus is a wonderful tool!
  2. You might find certain styles too close together, such as three sonnets in a row when there are only five in the collection. Swap and trade if necessary.
  3. There might be too many shorter poems to the left with long poems to the right. It’s my personal opinion that it’s best to have longer poems on the left. Not only does it look right but it feels right.

Try this: Read a poem while holding it in your left hand and looking to the left. Read it again from the right hand and look to the right (or if on screen, simply turn your head and read from the peripheries). You’ll notice something that’s very telling about our neuro-wiring. You probably absorb more “deeply” what you see to the left! I do.

After you’ve gotten redundancy in check, read the collection again and continue relocating and refining until the end result is a feeling of something fresh and new with each “bite”: a peanut, a raisin, an M&M, a peanut, a raisin, an M&M. It’s time-consuming, but you deserve to let each subject or quality juxtapose against its neighbor to keep things spicy, and your readers are worth it, too.

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(Christina Anne Taylor is the publisher, editor, and graphic designer at Middle Island Press.)

 

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2016 in Articles

 

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