Poet Profile: Jan Epton Seale
Jan Epton Seale has recently been appointed as the 2012 Texas Poet Laureate. One of those rare writers who’s comfortable in any genre, she’s the author of eight poetry collections, two books of short fiction, three books of nonfiction, and nine children's books. In addition to writing, Jan has worked extensively as a teacher and editor. She does workshops in memoir and life-story writing and places great value on wisdom gained through aging.
Jan lives in McAllen, Texas.. With three sons and four grandsons, I suspect she may occasionally run out of energy, but never inspiration! Her wonderful sense of humor is reflected in her poetry, as is her affection for family. Learn more about her at www.janseale.com.
How did you come to be a poet?
Poetry has a long utilitarian past--being used for remembering histories of clans, instilling important information, calling on the gods for good crops, soothing the ear, and yes, just for the purpose of enchanting. It still does some of these things today, especially in religion and in the ability to enchant.
For starters, I must give credit to my heritage. My father and his father both enjoyed writing poems, and they were good at quoting others’ poetry. I cherish my grandfather’s scrapbook of didactic poems, which he made by cutting out poems from magazines and newspapers and pasting them over the text in an old book.
My memory of writing poetry goes back to when I was 5 years old. I had TB and the only cure for it at that time was bed rest. So I spent a couple of years just sitting in bed, not very sick, and needing to occupy my child’s mind. I was fond of books early on, and my parents supplied me with them. I liked the sounds of the poetry I read so I memorized many poems. This way, poetry got into my ear. I remember very distinctly reading a poem in a book, laying the book down, and saying to myself, “I can do that,” and taking up my tablet and pencil. By the time I was nine, I had a little book of poems.
Do you have favorite poets or poems?
Oh, so many of both. I love the spare language of Frost’s poems. Mona Van Duyn’s artistry in verse forms; Maxine Kumin’s clear, sharp descriptions; Mary Oliver’s passion for nature; Pattiann Rogers’ fabulous metaphysical observations—these all touch and inspire me, as well as many others. We present poets all have a fabulous inheritance from those going before us.
What's the most interesting "poetry pilgrimage" you've ever made?
In l978, I was chosen as one of fifty poets to attend the Aspen Writer’s Conference for two weeks in Colorado. There I met poets from all over the country and worked on my poems in depth with capable instructors. One thing I remember in particular was the complaint of a couple of New York City poets who felt they had to compete too much with other poets “on every street corner.” Because I live in a remote area (the southern tip of Texas) I had been feeling isolated. I came home more appreciative of the wide open spaces I had to compose my poems and present them, without too much concern for overcrowding the field.
In the great scheme of things, where does poetry fit in?
Well, I’d say it’s not exactly a close runner-up with World Peace but, surprisingly, it’s one of the things that has been so enduring that it might be seen as a cultural mainstay against chaos and insanity.
I’m reminded of a funny cartoon which shows two people climbing up a steep mountain. The top person, a sturdy climber in professional gear, is looking down on the lower one, who’s shabbily dressed and extending a sheaf of pages as he queries, “Want to read some of my poems?” So it seems at times.
But I’m an optimist. Poetry has lasted through the ages. It will continue to endure. Actually, if we look at advertising and popular songs, jump rope jingles and street slang, we see that poetry, in some form, is enduring and doing so very healthily. Sadly, in the 20th century and continuing into this one, trends toward obtuse, hyper-personal and inaccessible poetry have alienated much of the potential general audience for poetry. Poetry should grab us, appealing in an inexorable way to the spirits within us that make us human.
Describe your writing routine and/or process.
Early mornings are best for composing, afternoons for revising. I make notes as I go through my day, about anything I think I might need to consider in or for a poem. I also journal. I begin a poem in longhand, with plenty of paper, and at a certain point, I transfer what I have to the computer, then print out draft after draft until I get it as “right” as I think I’m capable of doing. Although I’ve been lucky enough to have many single poems published on different subjects, I most enjoy when I have enough poems to form a book with a theme. I may discover I have 15 or 20 poems on a subject and then I begin to see how I might flesh out that group with poems on the same subject. I am goal-oriented and get much more accomplished when I have a project to complete—the old carrot-in-front-of-the-donkey method.
What's the most absurd thing you've ever written a poem about?
When/where are you most inspired?
A number of absurdities vie for this honor! Maybe one about the pigs of Mexico, or another about Louis Braille’s right hand (buried separately from the rest of him), or a “Postcard wishing you weren’t here” where I did my vindictive best to detail an unpleasant campground.
My inspirations are very quiet and often come unexpected. It helps to be alone and relaxed. When I observe something that I think has not been addressed in poetry, I make it mine. Words have great power over me and I enjoy fiddling around with interesting connotations and sounds. It’s not very romantic but a lot of inspiration has to do with body chemistry—I can feel very inspired after a strong cup of coffee.
Which classic poet would you most like to meet, and why?
Not that I want to write like he did, but I’d enjoy sitting down with Alexander Pope. I’d like to tell him how much I admire him for being able to make such fine, intricate sense using all those rigid rhyme schemes. And I’d make note of his clothing, his manners, his speech, just in case I wanted to write a poem about him.
Is there some consistent trademark or characteristic that you've discovered in your poetry?
I once read a review of a book of my poetry and discovered that in my slim volume I had used some 21 different animal metaphors. I had no idea! Actually, it’s pretty scary to study one’s own work with consistencies in mind, for fear of writing to some preconceived standard. I always want to be in a state of outgrowing my past work. But others have told me that they notice my humor and honesty, and the accessibility of the poems—and I’d like to keep those things.
Anything else you'd like to share—advice, anecdotes, forthcoming adventure, etc?
As the recently appointed 2012 Texas Poet Laureate, I’m getting ready to begin a season of traveling over the state doing readings and workshops. I feel a great deal of pleasure about the prospects of sharing poetry—and championing literature in general—with various groups, from school children to elders.
My thanks to Jan for taking time out of her very busy schedule to share a bit of herself with us. You can read several of Jan's poems in the YDP archives and, if you live in Texas, there'll never be a better time to put a little poetry in your life than during her reign as Poet Laureate!
Poetry is only important in our lives as it touches us in some way. It may be a heavy touch, as it spells out dynasties or death, or a light one, as it causes us to smile and feel exquisitely human. Either way, it’s important and necessary.