Lena Ziegler is a graduate student in WKU’s new MFA program in creative writing.
Q: As the Department Head of Diversity and Community Studies, coordinator of the M.A. in Social Responsibility & Sustainable Communities, as well as your heavy-handed role in the Gender and Women’s studies program, your work at WKU really focuses on wide-reaching cultural issues. Does your poetry reflect those passions? Can you maybe share some of the themes your poetry touches upon?
A: This is a great question. I am not sure how to say this without categorizing myself in ways that don’t quite fit, but I’ll try. Many of my poems draw on imagery from the plant and animal worlds. The middle section of Seeking the Other Side, for instance, is called “tree forms,” and represents an extended experiment to listen to what amazing trees I have encountered have to say. Since I can’t literally speak for them, I try to use empathy to speak from the persona of a tree, or I let the trees serve as metaphors for things that matter to me—human relations, love, compassion. Trees have a lot to offer us, if we take the time to hear them.
And this is another theme, attending to the minute, the overlooked, that which is assumed to be unworthy, how we are ravaged by obsessions and diversions even while we desperately need balance, beauty, compassion. One poem is about a deer carcass at the side of the road. Divided into 7 parts, I imagine myself watching the decay as I fly by in my car, and why that would matter—to care about what happens to a deer when it’s no longer photogenic. In that poem the skeleton morphs into a sacred space, even while being tunneled by maggots and picked at by buzzards.
Grief is probably the largest single theme. Since many of the poems deal with the loss of our youngest son, who was shot and killed in 2009, the poems talk of loneliness, sadness, mystery, confusion, the meaning of life, violence, the spirit world.
Q: Has poetry been a lifelong interest? How did you get started writing poetry?
A: From a young age I loved to write. My poetry for a long time was trite, formulaic, sentimental, and boring. I remember after my rather bumpy search for the right major and settling on creative writing, sitting with the head of the program as he looked over the final poems for the semester. He nodded, he got a little excited, he said, “you finally found my voice.”
That phrase gets used a lot, as if all you have to do is poke around for awhile and there it will be, tucked in some corner of the body, peeking out every once in awhile to get our attention but inaccessible and unobliging until that moment when we reach in and take “it.”
Since then I’ve gone in and out of writing periods, surrendering for long periods to work or family obligations, personal digressions, and so on. But even during those fallow times when no poem gets written, I’m writing something, or mulling something over that needs only the right time, or right image, or right phrase, to push me to pick up my pen.
Q: Do you write in any other creative genre? Fiction, non-fiction, scriptwriting, etc? If not, have you ever attempted?
A: I write short stories and have had most of them published, but my collection of interrelated stories is without a book home. I may yet get that accomplished. I am currently working on a memoir.
Q: Who are your favorite writers and why?
A: Most of my favorite authors are novelists—I love Barbara Kingsolver for her brilliance in delving into the lives of her characters and addressing our most serious social issues of the day with sensitivity and profound love for the characters grappling with empire, environmental destruction, abuse, cultural appropriation, censorship. So good. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the best novel of the 20th century, and the best novella is Tillie Olson’s Tell Me a Riddle. All of these grapple with social problems in ways that transform the reader—reach in and grab our hearts—for love of the characters and their mighty struggles. In terms of poetry, I’m a big fan of our local writers, Mary Ellen Miller, Tom Hunley, Libby Oakes—they’ve all given me a lot. Sharon Olds is great, I guess because I like the way she examines the depths of the personal, not incidental or indulgent, but far-reaching and keen and unflinching. T.S. Eliot moved me when I was younger, Langston Hughes as well, Emily Dickinson—she for the way an image might be juxtaposed and open a world of meaning, for her depth of perception and analysis. There are so many poets, and I haven’t kept up with the many fine ones who have emerged in recent years.
Q: For a creative writer of any genre, it can be scary to stand up in front of an audience and share work. What advice might you give to a writer who might be a little more hesitant to participate in a reading?
A: It helps to read out loud what you’re going to share. Get used to the sound of your own voice speaking the words. Make sure that you can pronounce all the words and that any complex structures flow. My voice still gets shaky sometimes, especially when the emotional content is strong. Some of us make the mistake of shallow breathing—I know I’ve done this at times when my voice got shakier and shakier. That’s why reading out loud in private can help. Stand up, get used to breathing deeper down.
On another level, presumably you wrote something because you want to share. Writers love to see their work read, to know that someone is listening, so give it up. Tell the ego to go away and mind its own business. Read your own work as you listen to others: to learn, to enjoy the beauty of language, to say what’s pressing on your mind and heart.
And perhaps there’s a little of “pretend” you’re not breaking out in hives. I think of what Maya Angelou said about walking to school in front of white people who exuded hatred and ill-will. She would throw her head back, stick up her nose, and pretend that a single breath from any one of those hard-hearted adults would not crumple her. The strain that being in front of any audience exacts demands a bit of play-acting. Eventually you overcome the dread of judgment, real or imagined. And some people face that burden every time they open their doors.
Q: The world can be both a wonderful and terrifying place. What do you consider the greatest challenges facing coming generations? On the other hand, what gives you hope about the future?
A: The biggest challenge is how not to destroy the planet, ourselves, and each other. We are an ingenious species, but we are lazy, greedy, and stupid. We think short-term solutions will lead to long-term happiness.
That’s delusional. We are killing each other—racism, gun violence, sexual violence, the atrocious assault on immigrant lives—and we are trashing the planet. The magnitude of loss we are going to see (and already see) in coming years is mind-boggling.
We are in desperate straights. What gives me hope? We have amazing capacity to think creatively and solve seemingly insurmountable problems. The dire circumstances of our planet and our social relations should lead us to solutions that don’t further divide. Young people are always part of the solution for what their parents and grandparents have done, but we need all people to change—farmers, artists, teachers, parents, leaders.
Whether it’s big action or small, persistent personal action, what gives me hope is people who resist the negative forces of the status quo with powerful acts of affirmation, connection, love, and healing, people who refuse to “go along” because it’s easier or safer. There is nothing to lose, so people who stick out their necks—they give me hope