"Some of these poems are spooky," Marion Stocking, editor, speaking of poems published in The Beloit Poetry Journal.
"This is spiritual poetry," Jack Driscoll, poet and teacher, speaking particularly of "Three Meals Two Miles from Tacambaro."
"Great poem with great images. . . and important topic," KAC Judge speaking of "After the Blizzard."
"I'm a slave to your clean style," Dex Westrum, teacher and writer.
"Spare, stark, unadorned language. . . very skillfully understated," Stephen Meats, editor of Midwest Quarterly, speaking particularly of "Sins Against Daughters Unto the Fourth Generation."
"This is overwhelming. Just overwhelming. It is my favorite of all your books." Beverly Lorenz
"Searing images, powerful language--and Reiter never, never, lets you off the hook. Some fine poems here -- I particularly love "For My Thirty-Sixth Birthday," "Growing Up Female" and the sinuous, spare work of "Shorings." Some of the work has appeared in fine poetry journals; other poems appear here for the first time in print. This small volume contains marvelous treasures...though some may not be for the faint of heart. There is great depth in these poems, an appreciation of the beauty of nature, an encounter with the grief of human nature, and a continuous seeking to understand the tension between the two." On-line review (Amazon)
"You never miss anything in nature, and you seem to understand it all. These are wonderful, wonderful poems."
"The language. The language. Even if I'm not sure I've understood exactly, I marvel at the way you've said what you say. I cannot imagine what goes on in your mind to be able to say what you do as you do."
Articles, Reviews, Interviews for Snake in the Cradle
Amy Lorenz, Ph. D., Loras College, Interviews Reiter on Snake in the Cradle
Dr. Lorenz, Professor of French and History, earned her degree at the University of Chicago. Her major work has been on Samuel Beckett and Francophone literature. This interview occurred in Ottawa, July 4.
July 19, 2008
Q: I've read your poems, and I like them a lot, but I'm wondering how you feel about bringing out a book of poetry. It seems to me that a lot of people aren't interested in it. Do you think you'll have an audience for it?
A: Well. I have to hope so. I know more people read mysteries or science fiction or non-fiction than poetry. Still. I used to read it, as a girl and young woman, and I grew up to write it. So surely there must be some people out there who'll give it a whirl.
But your point is well taken. Poetry does require special attention and the willingness to go along with what the words are saying, just to let the poet try to create an experience for you, and you, as reader, go along with it. I think that takes some special trust and vulnerablility on the part of the reader. Reading poetry isn't easy.
And I think lots of folks aren't accustomed to reading slowly, maybe even reading aloud. And poetry requires that, too. Poets are very attentive to the language they are using. Like a good cook, they're trying to create flavors and aromas that blend or contrast, tastes that are fresh, original. It takes a receptive and trusting person to try curry or mutton or sushi especially when they already know they love pizza and roast beef. Still, millions of people love those special flavors, and if we're willing to try them, we may discover we like them, too.
That's what poets hope for--to create a little universe in the poem, a place and an atmosphere that may be strange and should certainly be new. Then they invite readers in to see what it's like. It's just that with words you don't have an immediate taste bud to give you the flavor. You have to go through the process of reading, hearing, understanding, putting parts together--all that is inherent in the reading/comprehending process. Only then can you have the experience. And that takes some effort--some "suspension of disbelief," as Coleridge might have called it. And it may mean that you have to read the poem several times, maybe aloud, before you can quite catch it.
I think people are afraid they won't catch it, won't "get" poetry, so they sort of give up before they make the effort. My understanding is, though, that poets very much want to be understood, and they make every effort to communicate themselves as clearly as their minds and skills will allow them to. At least I do.
So I hope no one will be put off by the fact that this is a book of poetry before they actually open it up and give it a try.
Q: There's such variety in this book. Do you have any favorites? And do you think this book has a main focus or something we might call a theme?
A: Thank you. I appreciate it that you've taken the time to read my work and that you like it.
Favorites? I suppose I may like "Shorings" a lot because it took me twelve years to complete! And "Before Sunrise" is a poem I especially like.
As for focus or theme, probably not. I know I have some concerns or ideas about things that may tie lots of the poems together, but, you know, a collection is just that: a bringing together of lots of diversity, and I don't think we could talk about a focus or a theme. I know that my love for natural things,everything from animals to landscape, comes into play pretty often, but it's rarely just a matter of description. Usually I'm trying to get to some insight--with an image from nature as the starting point.
Q: For example?
A: Well, for example, the openng poem which is called "October." It's kind of like a painting, in a way, as it tries to talk about all the beautiful colors of that month--which is my personal favorite. But then some strange things happen. For instance, one line says that "an anaconda could repose on any lawn." That's unexpected in a Kansas landscape--and the poem goes on, then, to suggest something about human excess and maybe immorality--in what may turn out to be a very curious view of Eden.
Or if you look at "Holography in the Mountains," you start with the picture of a mountain jay. But somehow it isn't there. And the poem becomes a reflection on the mystery of growth and aging, how we're always sort of fragmented into the intervals of our life--the way the jay is not there but the trembling branch proves that it was.
Q: Snake in the Cradle: That is a terrific and scary title for a book of poetry. Could you talk about it a little?
A: Sure. It's actually the title of one of the poems. For me, that poem treats such an unusual event--the discovery of a king cobra in a baby's crib--in India--and it also develops one of the concerns or values that do recur in my work, so I wanted it to be the title poem.
Such matters are always hard to talk about, but, for me, being civil (some may call it being polite or being kind) and being interested are two profound values. They may be pretty closely related, too. I think they are essential to us, but we don't manifest them very often or very well, it seems to me. We are so routinized, so fearful of what is different, so accustomed to destroying what we don't undertand, we find it difficult to drop our guard or take the time to explore before we judge--or fight. Out of all the harshness and pain and prejudice, somehow we have to muster interest in what is different from us or frightening to us. When we do, when we are civil enough to try to be interested, sometimes calm and grace, which are potential in all the posturing and distrust, find ways to manifest themselves. Civility and interest can change our feelings of antagonism or hostility to feelings of commonality and trust.
This poem is an experience of that kind of change. What appears horrific and violent turns out to be a moment of pure serenity, I think.
A lot of my poems develop that sense, I think. Of course, some don't, and they end in the threatening or ironic where they begin. But ultimately I hope for the serene and shared, and this poem offers that. "Snake in the Cradle" is a way to call attention to the possibiities of peaceful, maybe even spiritual relationship with what is powerfully different from us--if we are civil and interested enough not to box ourselves away from possibility.
Q: On another tack, is this your first book of poetry?
A: Yes, it is. These are probably about a third of the poems I've written. I'm not sure the others will ever see print--or that they should.
Q: You have also written in other genres. I liked your novel, and you have a collection of essays out, too, about animals. Have you done other kinds of writing?
A: Yes. I'm completing a small collection of short stories and another, larger collection of essays. And, of course, as an academic, I've done a fair amount of criticism. In fact, I'm working on a kind of unusual offshoot of criticism now--a study of writing by two rural women, Mother and me. And there's a lot of miscellaneous stuff, too, including a three-act play and a book on writing poetry.
Q: Do you prefer one genre to another?
A: Good question. Tough question. I think essays are the easiest to write, so I like them for that reason--also because you can go any direction you want and not always have to be concerned about themes or characterization and so on.
But fiction is tantalizing to me, too, because you have to (and get to) use your imagination to build the piece. Sometimes that takes you directions you can never quite plan for, and that makes fiction one of the most interesting genres to work in.
Poetry, though, is very special to me. I'm not prolific, and poems are hard for me to come by. When I do get an idea, though, or an image which leads to an idea--which is more often the order poems come to me in--the process is so intense, so compelling, that writing poems is the most powerful writing experience for me. I think part of that is because the poem demands such personal honesty and such language precision. You can't find any place to hide in a poem--nor should you, of course. Of all the genres, it seems to me the one in which you must come closest to what burns or enchants you, what is deepest in your heart and mind.
I'm not saying that I think poetry is confessional or overtly self-revealing. Rather it is that in poems, often without characters or dialogue or narration, you must create images to summon the insights or impressions you believe your central truths. And you work for all you're worth to make those insights and language crystal clear to people you're trying to share with. Then you just have to hope that a reader will be patient enough and hard-working enough to stay with you while you try to help them have the experience of the poem and to share your insight and impression--whether or not they agree with what you're sharing.
Q: Do you think the language of poetry is different, then, than the language of other genres?
A: In a way, yes. Of course we can all cite examples of "poetic prose" and "prose poetry"--as though there were no differences. And of course we use the same words, regardles of genre. But I think poetry is more condensed, more dense, more likely to make us go back to read a second, third, or tenth time. The difference is that density of language, I think, that reliance on imagery (please note that I did not say symbol) which forces us to visualize or hear or taste before we can conceptualize. That makes poetry less direct than prose, even prose that's heightened and complex. Generally speaking, poetry is more subtle, I think. It has to take its shape in the reader, and it has to rely on its language power, not its thesis or plot or character, to force, in a way, readers to want to give it shape. That makes it especially hard to write and, I think, especially hard to read.
Q: I'm thinking of that line I memorized in high school: "A poem should not mean but be." You're talking about impressions and insights. Do you think MacLeisch was wrong?
A: No. Not really. I like what he says. My quarrel with him, if I have one, is rather that he sort of betrayed his own principle by that very direct, summarizing, kind of dogmatic precept at the end of that poem, a piece in which he is attempting to demonstrate that poems must rely on the tangible, the imagistic, for their expression.
Yeats asks, "How can you tell the singer from the song?" In some kinds of art, we cannot distinguish the art from the artist--as in singing or dancing. It's that kind of embodiment the good poet intends the poem to become--to be--and what MacLeisch is urging toward, I think.
Joyce says that the poet must be like God--and his view of God, here, is not of the providential. Joyce here suggests that God created the universe like a perpetual motion machine, then stepped back to pare His nails! So must the poet, Joyce says. The art piece must exist in and of itself without reference to creator or, actually, audience. It must be self-sufficient and self-sustaining. It must be, in MacLeisch's terms, its meaning implicit in, coterminous with, inherent in its being.
I think that's right. I don't, though, think that that belies "meaning." I think the being is or gives the meaning.
"Non-meaning" may be possible in poetry. Simic and some "concrete" poets may argue for that. But that's contrary to my sense of art--and to MacLeisch's, I think.
Q: Do you trace your sense of art--poetry--to any particular poets? I note that you've dedicated a couple to Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds. Are they important to you?
A: Yes, they are. I did my doctoral dissertation on Kinnell's poetry because I found him an especially courageous voice for those of us who love the natural world and come to build our moral systems on the natural order--however brutal it sometimes is. And I've admired Olds--though she's not the poet he is, I don't think--because of her courage in exploring experience of particular immediacy to women.
Both of them are children of Walt Whitman--as am I , though none of us espouses Whitman's transcendentalist ideas. We're more likely to find the spiritual in much smaller, earth-bound epiphanies, little "still points," as Eliot might call them, when the infinite seems present in the finite, and the pairing becomes an intense moment whether of joy, pain, terror, love, or pure calm and comfort.
Q: This conversation is pretty heavy duty, yet many of your poems seem to be so ironic, funny, even joyous. The "Slug" poem, for instance or "Before Sunrise."
A: Good for you! I'm glad you've rescued me.
Yes. For me, the delightful and beautiful and funny, ironic, are central. For me, life is often exuberant and boisterous or just plain lovely, and I want those elements to be as real as any in my poetry. The Dionysian spirit, I guess. I do think love and joy rise out of recognizing and accepting darkness. Often they balance it--or block it altogether. And the poems you mention are cases in point. I want my work to be work of affirmation, not despair. Discovering those marvelous golden slug trails in my front room was a wonderful moment, and I'm glad you enjoyed the poem.
I love to write high energy stuff--as opposed to "intense," I guess. "Road Music"
or "Mexican Yell" let me loose to riot a little. So did "Winter Drive."
Q: Thank you so much for your time and insights. Lots of good luck with this book--and all the others.
A: Ah! Thank you!
"POETRY THAT BURNS AND ENCHANTS"
By AMY LORENZ
A Review of Snake in the Cradle, Poems by Lora K. Reiter
Snake in the Cradle, Ottawan Lora K. Reiter's first book of poetry, is a strong, rich exploration of the human heart and psyche. Whether dealing with love, death, the unexpectedly graced or the eplosively violent, even, sometimes, the comic, Reiter's control of image and language is sure and often exquisite. It makes clear her lifetime of word practice, both as a professor of literature and a woman who has written for at least sixty-three years. It is a collection from a mature writer who has, at last, elected to share some of her poems.
In an interview with me on July 4, she said that poetry is compelling for her because it usually treats what burns or enchants. It isn't hard to find plenty of both here, often in combination, as, for instance, in the title poem in which a king cobra is discovered in a baby's cradle:
It was not on her; It was around her, Sequined, forest gray By morning pink. ............................. Its tongue searched her sweetest breath; Her eyes, its diamond length....
As the poem moves to its extraordinary conclusion, an intense still point, Reiter's vision and language hold us steady in the face of the bizarre and frightening.
She achieves that startling moment in many of these poems. We might expect it in work dealing with murder or suicide, for instance, in "Medea Redux," which treats the actions and possible motivations of a woman (actually a woman who lived in Kansas City) who brutally murders her two sons. The title reference is to Medea of Greek myth whose actions seem repeated in this crime. The poem's narrators are similar to the chorus in Greek drama. Here, the stunned onlookers say,
How shall we stop our ears to her moan As she rubs the blade across her flank, Over her womb, Marking with a thin red line of savaged children Where, shrieking in his arms, She willingly conceived them?
But Reiter creates the same confluence of emotions and movements brought to stasis in far gentler poems, for instance, in "Winter Drive," which is a meditation on aging. Here, the narrator has traced the energy and power of running deer and cleansing snow and brilliant winter-red dogwood shrubs then realizes that she cannot, now, "Praise them with a tongue/As boisterous and pure and young/As they make this world seem." She concludes:
And while I know full well That spring will knell, The golden finch wink and twinkle Behind the yellow holly leaves, He may disguise himself Until I will Have to come within, Quiet, And leave him there, Quick and vivid and unseen.
The enchantment and smoldering which Reiter says she likes at the center of her poems come in dozens of varieties. For instance, she sees Kansas October colors as so brilliant that they cover or cleanse human excess. Without self-consciousness, the lead poem asserts, one "could lie naked on a hill" ("a curious version of Eden," Reiter says). Or in a poem about the excavation of the stone army in Xi 'An, China, "The Terracotta Soldier Fallen Forward Against His Smiling Comrade's Back," Reiter imagines the consolation the broken stone soldier gives hmself for eternity as he accepts his predicament:
I will pretend that I am she [Jinquey, his love] Come up behind me in the stable, My eyes down, My face against him, Smelling him forever, His sandalwood, The leather And the horses.
Whatever the source, these qualities center these poems. Whether anger or despair or joy or panic obtain, and there's a lot of each, Reiter's poetry constantly achieves this apex where bursting silence is either announced or imminent.
Other pieces are more comfortable than the ones I've chosen to highlight. "Before Sunrise," for example, is a gentle, almost pre-creation piece which describes cattle still sleeping in the dawn:
The grass by them is silver. The sky by them is pink. When they shall be moved to rise, themselves, Shake and stretch themselves into proportion,
.................................................. They will leave black spaces in the grass And low in pleasure as they slake their long night's thirst.
"The Old Red Barn" is an ironic view of changes brought by frost. "Road Music" and "The Slug's Alive! The Slug's Alive!" or "Mexican Yell" and "Six Bird Poems" seem to turn Reiter loose, as she says, let her riot a little. And that spirit of fun and affirmation is clearly alive and well in this collection.
But the poems, as a whole, suggest that joy is wrung from recognizing that the darker tides run freely, strong enough to insist, always, that we must guard against them and seize the bright moments from whatever instant offers them.
A sample news release is included in articles/reviews for the Animals Galore book. It includes comments on Snake in the Cradle.