Thursday, August 8, 2019

Sliced Dark: An Interview with Ohio Poet Wendy McVicker

Sliced Dark: a collaboration of poems and pictures
by Wendy McVicker & John McVicker
Sliced Dark: An Interview with Ohio Poet Wendy McVicker

Wendy McVicker is a gem in SE Ohio. She is a poet and Ohio Arts Council teaching artist. Wendy is the author of several books, including her most recent, a collaborative book project with her husband, John McVicker, Sliced Dark.  Spending time with Wendy earlier this year at a local poetry workshop was inspiring. She has a handle on writing poetry; it comes from deep within, the place where all great poetry resides. 

Sliced Dark is recommended reading and one of my favorite poetry collections. Recently, I caught up with Wendy and we talked about her poetry and much more.

Welcome, Wendy!

GM: At what age did you write your first poem?  
WM: I started writing stories for my younger brothers as soon as I learned to write. I think my first poem was a celebration of horses, written in the 3rd grade. I’m sorry I can’t share it with you, but that’s probably just as well. I remember writing a Poe-like poem in 9th grade about an abandoned mansion deep in the woods near my neighborhood — I was working on it in science class, and my science teacher called me in after school and told me I wouldn’t amount to much if I didn’t focus better in class! In high school I wrote moody pieces I called “thingies,” which I realized much later were prose poems. They’re all lost, too, thankfully! I only shared them with my two closest friends. 

I went on to college and majored in philosophy, so I wrote a lot of abstract papers, and letters to my friends far away. I took lots of English classes: I was (and am) a fiction junkie. My dream of writing, as old as my awareness of books, went underground, but if I thought about it at all, I assumed I’d write fiction.

After college, where I met my now-husband, creative- and life-collaborator, we moved to French-speaking Switzerland, where he had a teaching job. Fumbling through a new language, I turned to dance for my creative expression, and did that for a few years until we had our first child and decided to return to the States. Our second child was born in Kansas, where John was in grad school and I was falling in love with English all over again. This is when I started writing poetry, in secret, in those brief moments of quiet that were naptime. The first poem I remember completing was about the silvery olive trees outside the Friends Meetinghouse window — sadly, I’ve lost that notebook in various moves. I did write my first published poem, Evening Dishes, there.

We moved to Athens in 1985, when John got a job teaching English to international students at Ohio University. I was still a closeted poet, but when the clerk of the Friends Meeting arrived on our doorstep with flowers and tomatoes from her garden, I wrote her a thank you note that was really a sort of poem. She immediately called me up, said, “You’re a poet!” and pulled me out of that closet for good. She turned me on to the publication Friendly Woman, where I had my first publication, to a poetry workshop at Communiversity (remember that??), to Wayne Dodd’s graduate poetry workshop at Ohio University: to a whole new world I’ve been exploring ever since.

GM: You collaborated with your husband, John, on your current book, Sliced Dark. Tell us about the process...
WM: John was a Fine Arts (painting) major in college, but as you’ve seen, life took him in other directions. In retirement he has returned to this first love, and to photography, which had always been part of his creative process. Our first collaborations were in the form of “poem cards,” for which we paired a poem with a photograph he had taken. At some point, he began to feel that these were too illustrative, and he wanted to “riff” more on the poems. He was also interested in honing his skills in digital collaging. Thus, this project began: with his asking me for poems to meditate and “riff” on. First came broadsides, and then the book collection.

GM: Do you have a favorite poem of your own? 
WM: I always feel that poets say their most recent poem is their favorite: it still has the sheen of birthing on it! Thank you for mentioning The Names of Things; I love it, too, in part because I am deeply grateful to my father for having passed on to me a love of language and literature. But another fave is oh it’s snowing, in part for the memories it evokes for me, in part because I am happy when I feel I have (as Alicia Ostriker said) “pressed the most matter and spirit into least space” — or at least come within sight of this goal. I am fond of the lines “When you have become cloud/I will wait for rain” in Seawalls. They were a gift, dropped from the sky, and I continue to be grateful for them: my muse is rarely so generous!

GM: How do you maintain thoughts and ideas?
WM: Well, of course, I don’t always, like anybody else! But I do carry a notebook and pen with me, and I try to note down things I hear, things that come to me, phrases, images. I used to be much more casual about this; now I know that this is my toybox, and I need to keep it filled!

GM: What are you currently writing?
WM: I have been involved in a residency in Cincinnati, at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center, for the past month, in collaboration with my friend and gifted fabric artist, Nancy Gamon. Our project is called Common Threads, and we invited people to write and then get their words (stories, poems, thoughts) onto an already-existing garment, thus creating wearable art and (we hope!) connections. I have been working on several poems about hands (all that hand work! not my forté, exactly); a poem about aging; and reworking a couple of older poems. I’m not ready to share any of these just yet! But here’s a piece:

These hands 
have work to do:       
Grabbing hold  
and getting to know,
taking notes, recording:
This is their work

and they won’t let go

GM: Beautiful, Wendy. I love reading your poetry. In your opinion, what makes the perfect poem?
WM: Oh my gosh! I love a poem that is economical in its language, touches my senses, speaks to something deep — without being heavy, without telling me what I should think or feel. I love rich imagery and the sounds of language — I want these to play off each other in a poem. Some poems touch me at a particular moment, and then lose their power — others stay with me, reading after reading. These become favorites.

GM: Who is your favorite poet? Do you have a favorite poem?
WM: I never know how to answer this: there are so many poets and poems that speak to me at different times. Poets I return to over and over are William Stafford, Mary Oliver, Mark Strand, Anne Carson…for different reasons, but all because they can go deep with apparently simple language, and with rhythms and imagery that stir me.

GM: Do you have advice for novice poets and those looking to put their thoughts on the page?
WM: Two of my favorite writers have what I consider to be great advice: Grace Paley said, “…if you say what’s on your mind in the language that comes to you from your parents and your street and your friends, you’ll probably say something beautiful,” and William Stafford said, “Each poem is a miracle that has been invited to happen,” and “Poetry is language with a little luck in it.” I encourage people who feel compelled to put their thoughts, musings, words, on paper or screen, as many of us do, to trust that impulse, and trust the language that comes to them. Also: read, read, read! Read what you wish you could write, read to learn as well as for pleasure. Carry a notebook. Scribble. Let your hand and your mind develop the habit of writing. When it gets scary or hard, know that you are really doing it, and the rewards of living a deepening life are well worth it.

About Sliced Dark (from
Poet Wendy McVicker and artist John McVicker have created a collection of twenty-one poems, each with an accompanying digital collage on a facing page - each image is a sort of meditation on the poem with which it is paired. The book explores love, loss, and roads not taken, and the poems and images are intended to invite repeated reflection, producing thoughts and visions that weave themselves into your dreams. 

“The choreography between the words and images in this quietly visionary project is luminous and unsettling. Look, then look again.” Claire Bateman, poet, author of The Bicycle Slow Race 

“The waters run deep in this modest, evocative tome and it deserves to be read and read again, with each new reading providing new revelations.” John Zorn, musician.

Order your copy of Sliced Dark here.

More poetry from Wendy...

1 comment:

deni said...

Thank you so much for sharing this interview. Wendy is typically so busy building up others that her own story is too often hidden. It was a pleasure to learn more about one of my favorite people in Athens!

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