But now that I’ve been plunged headlong into the poetry world, I’m starting to learn how to swim in these waters. One of the delights of this work—and this world—is the words.
I love words. So why have I not embraced poetry before?
Blame it on my high school teachers who forced me to analyze poetry I didn’t understand. I hate feeling like a phony and never did I feel quite so fake as when I was writing analytical essays about poems that mystified me.
Poetry shouldn’t be dissected. It should be savored. Somewhere along the way (probably in high school), I forgot that.
Enter Tania Runyan. When I read a beautiful essay she wrote for the T.S. Poetry blog, I knew she was a kindred spirit and I bought her most recent book of poetry, A Thousand Vessels, a book that reminded me how much I love words when they’re strung together like pearls, beautiful and luminous and perfectly shaped—in short, how much I love poetry.
After reading (and sometimes swooning over) the poems in this slender volume, I emailed Tania and asked her if she’d do a blog interview with me.
She emailed back that she had to check with her publicity people (these poets, they’re a popular bunch, what with all those interviews with Oprah and Kathie Lee, not to mention the Saturday Night Live guest spots and the movie cameos that every director in Hollywood is desperate to land them for). But whew! Her publicity people said yes. (Bless them!)
So now you can call me Oprah or Kathie Lee, because I’ve got Tania Runyan right here for an interview. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
KCI: When did you start writing poetry?
TR: As a kid, I wrote stories and occasional poems. Then I dreamed of becoming a playwright or screenwriter. I won a playwriting competition in high school and got to see my play performed. Something similar happened in college. But I kept finding myself getting frustrated with characters and plot and wanted to stay caught up in the words themselves.
I spent hours and hours on poems, sometimes an entire free class period on just one line or phrase. I loved the obsessiveness of poetry, the self-contained worlds of poems. Teachers and professors encouraged me in that direction, so I ultimately applied for an MFA program in that genre and became a “professional poet.” (Ha!)
KCI: I’m curious about the book’s structure. Many of these poems were published in journals prior to appearing in the book. How did you arrive at the idea of grouping them around different Biblical women?
TR: I became intrigued by biblical women after composing a nativity “suite” for my family one Christmas. Each poem was written in the voice of a person present at the nativity. The poem “Mary at the Nativity” grew out of that Christmas project. Since I was a new mom at the time, Mary, of course, really resonated with me.
Then I started writing about Eve. Eventually, I came to the vision of the ten women represented in the book. Some of the poems were already written and just fit under a section on their own, but the majority of them were written with the intentional structure in mind while I was pregnant in 2005.
WordFarm liked the manuscript in 2008, but the book didn’t come out until 2011, so I had plenty of time to send out poems to journals during the wait!
KCI: Many of the poems are about or in the voice of different Biblical women, but some are not. Was it a struggle to know where to put the poems that aren’t specifically about those women, “My Daughter’s Hands,” for instance, or “The Bee Box” or “Sins of the Past”? How did you decide where they belonged?
TR: Many of the poems that aren’t in the women’s voices were intentionally written to connect with the themes. For example, in “My Daughter’s Hands,” when I become somewhat mystified by her asserting her own personhood and then imagine the negative consequences that will soon arrive as a result, I connect with Adam and Eve’s independent choices, how those were doomed to eventually lead to sin.
“Sins of the Past,” which sits in the Woman at the Well section, speaks to the hold our actions can have on us (in my case, making fun of a mentally challenged girl) until we intentionally set them aside like the woman at the well.
“The Bee Box,” of course, is about how some of us operate as if the world needs our busyness. That one definitely belonged with Martha!
KCI: I’d love to hear about the process behind a couple of the poems in this book. Would you tell us about the seed idea or image of one of your poems and how the poem took shape over the course of your writing/crafting/editing it?
TR: “Child Sex Offenders” grew out of looking on our county’s site at the pictures and addresses of sex offenders. We were planning on moving, and like many parents, I wanted to make sure we weren’t moving next door to someone dangerous. The photos are heartbreaking. Of course what these people are convicted of doing to children is beyond heartbreaking in any imaginable sense.
But I kept imagining these (mostly) men in their daily lives. How do they function, move on? Do they or can they? What happened in their childhoods? Do they have anything happy to remember?
This poem has always made me nervous because I fear someone will think I’m sympathizing with the offenders. My goal isn’t to excuse or sympathize but to make us think about the children we see and how we contribute to shaping the lives in front of them.
[Kimberlee’s aside here: Tania is one of the gorgeous, generous women who are matching my donation to Love 146 and International Justice Mission, to aid their efforts to end child sex slavery and exploitation.]
KCI: One of the most arresting images in the book is the final one, of Mary Magdalene holding “the souls of the nations like a basket of figs.” Where did that image come from?
TR: I don’t remember how I came up with figs specifically, except that they are part of the agriculture of the middle east. (I do discuss figs in one of the Eve poems, I’m just now realizing.) I did want to paint a domestic, “down-to-earth” image to go with these women at the empty tomb—the women who really became the first witnesses and heralds to a change in the history of the world. They weren’t warriors or kings wielding weapons but “simple” women going about their lives. And when we go about our lives faithfully, in love, we too have the power to carry souls.
On the cover of A Thousand Vessels, Jeanne Murray Walker writes, “I found myself turning the pages…as compulsively as if it were fiction.” I did, too, and then I went back and re-read it, slowly, so I could savor the beautiful words.
May I encourage you to do yourself a favor and buy a copy of Tania’s book?* If you do, you’ll thank me!
Let me close with the poem from which that image of the figs comes:
The Empty Tomb
That woman was the first word spoken
must have taken even the angels by surprise,
who were used to bringing their fiery glory
down to the clanging swords of battlefields,
to priests tugging at their beards
in lamentation, to voices thundering in temples
and muscles hefting stones from mountaintops,
not to a trembling woman whose hair clung
to her neck with tears, who for a moment
held the souls of the nations like a basket of figs.
*For those of you who prefer not to shop at Amazon, you can order the book directly from the publisher.