Winning poet 'hacks away' at longhand drafts to expose core
Anchorage Daily News
The images in Kimberley Cornwall’s poem “The Myth Makers” seem too fantastic to be drawn from real life. But nearly every line harks back to real people and her experiences.
“I don’t see the point of doing anything unless it helps you evolve as a person,” she said.Cornwall, now 40, graduated with a degree in theater from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. She works as a behavioral specialist at Anne Wein Elementary School in Fairbanks, where she has lived since 2003.
Her work has won awards in the Kenai Peninsula Writers’ Contest and the Fairbanks Arts Association Poetry Contest. She earned honorable mentions in the UA/ADN Creative Writing Contest in 2004 and 2003. “The Myth Makers” took first place in the Open to the Public category for poetry and earned Editors’ Choice in this year’s UAA/ADN contest.
Her responses to the questions below asked during a phone interview have been edited for length.
Q. What would you say your poetry is about?
A. The most true thing to say is my poetry is a love response to the world. It’s no different from a mother who hears her child say its first word, or someone who loves to cook making a masterpiece. Some things I’m very interested in expressing successfully in a poem are gratitude and wonder and survivorship. Alaska is filled, absolutely dense, with those things. In every poem I write, there is something about Alaska, and life here, in its genesis.
Q. How many poems have you’ve written?
A. The ones I feel happy with, perhaps 35 or 40.
Q. What started this poem for you?
A. In a period of nine months, I lost my dad and my grandmother. I was having probably the hardest time in my life writing. The night before I started the poem, I heard my ex-fiance had killed himself, and that sort of hurled me into it. Because I hadn’t written in so long, I was really afraid that I was not going to be able to write again, and I had a sense of desperation about wanting to get it out. During spring break in March, I wrote all seven days, an average of 25 to 30 pages a day, to get to what felt like was the right next line.
Q. Why are myths important?
A. Stories and storytelling help us know and love where we came from, but also where we are and what we’re going to be in the future. Even if we learn some of the things we believed in, or based beliefs on, are flawed, it’s still important to appreciate how far all those flaws got us. You can think of a myth as something that is set in your life, and draw strength from it. But there are also times when the myth needs to be retold, regenerated and relived in a different way. That change is as important as the original story.
Q. How did you choose the myths woven through this poem?
A. I was brought up by some really amazing women in Canada who told a lot of stories and believed in wonderful and strange things. I wanted (the poem) to be primarily based on my paternal grandmother. She was very much into literature and mythology and stories. But I also found small things from other women in my family infiltrating it. The reference to Chinese gods is based on the myth that when a girl child is born, she is connected by a red thread to all who preceded her and everyone who will ever be related to her. My grandmother lost her breasts to cancer, and when I was writing this poem I had a lump in my breast removed. I didn’t know yet if it was cancer, and found out later it was not.
The reference to Aurora is rooted in (Native Alaskan) myth, but it’s also about Sleeping Beauty, whose name was Aurora. In the story, she is asleep, waiting for her life to begin again. In the poem, the person is already awake. They’re in a dark time, waiting for faith to begin, but they’re active, awake — waiting and believing there is a song there.
Q. How do you craft poetry?
A. I buy cheap bulk pads from Sam’s Club and write longhand, all kinds of just absolute drivel. I can spend days hacking away at what might be the underlying idea. After that, it’s one word, one sentence at a time. There starts to be a music or rhythm. If there’s a part of the poem that’s off, I just work on the music of it, and something will happen to fix that part of the poem. I haven’t been in a writing program, except for weekend seminars. But I’ve been part of a couple of really amazing writing groups with writers who are established, magnificent, supportive, nurturing people. They helped me further develop technique and form and clarity.
Q. They say Americans aren’t poetry readers. Why do you think we don’t read poetry more?
A. I think people are just underexposed to the poetry that is out there. There are wonderful, vital, contemporary poets like Mary Oliver and William Stafford and Lorna Crozer who are not afraid to express gratitude and wonder for the people around them, for the world around them. I feel that a hundred years from now, people will still find their poems sustaining.