Interview With Poet Sharon Whitehill

In September 2018 Cosmographia published a chapbook by poet Sharon Whitehill. Through the prism of personal crises, Whitehill’s poems mirror the flawed human search for connection. At the core of this collection are poems about a mother, her daughters, and the clash of competing realities—obligation to children versus the impulse to self-actualization.

This interview with Sharon Whitehill was conducted in July 2018 by journalist Colleen O'Brien.




CO

Sharon, you've published biographies and a couple of memoirs and now poetry. How long have you been writing?


SW

Since I was a girl—I was a great reader of animal stories, which I tried to emulate. I loved writing in classes. And I wrote professionally during my college-teaching career. But not until I retired was I comfortable calling myself a writer. Let alone a poet, that only within the last 2 years.

CO

With published books to your credit, you could not call yourself a writer?


SW

Once out of academe and part of a serious writers group, I finally could. Though “poet” still feels risky. But our group insists that we write each week—which makes a writer out of you no matter what you call yourself!

CO

You have said in the past that you could not write poetry. What prompted you to attempt it now?


SW

My writers group was critiquing a really good poem by one of us, who was taking a poetry-writing class. I was envious but reluctant to sign up myself. Afraid to make a fool of myself, to tell the truth. Poetry: I knew the best of the best! I had studied Shakespeare and Tennyson and the Victorians—I knew too much about good (and bad) poetry to try any myself. That would be presumptuous; poets were gods and goddesses. Prodigies. Unreachable by the likes of me.

CO

You now have an entire collection; when was it you decided that you were doing okay writing poetry rather than prose?


SW

Well, my first attempts were pitiable, at least to me. But I got encouragement, saw I could possibly get better, and I persisted. Each poem I tried was an improvement. Honestly, as much credit for this goes to the feedback I received from my writing group and poetry teacher. The group is a demanding (although appreciative) bunch; they let me know what doesn’t work.

CO

What poems have you published separately?


SW

Not many; 3 online, a few contests. But the first poem ever accepted, about my cat Winston (just euthanized today, I’m sad to say), was “Night Visitor.” It won me, along with several others, a reading at the Alliance for the Arts in Ft. Myers, Florida. Afterward, one of the others poets remarked, “This is your first poem? Keep writing!” Who doesn’t thrive on such reinforcement? So I happily took his advice.

CO

What is the most rewarding aspect of writing poetry?


SW

Finding a focus you didn’t anticipate. Getting words to say what you want them to say. Often these things just pop out of my fingers on the keys. Other times I never do find them.

CO

Your inspiration?


SW

One’s closest emotions, good or bad, are tied to family—that’s the emotional connection that drives many a poem. I also use my journal—which I’ve been keeping since high school (with breaks between). Now I mine it for lyrical prose, thoughts, memories, impressions. The process of writing itself also leads to inspiration – the more I write, the more connections and images appear. It almost feels like magic.

CO

What’s next?


SW

My Michigan life, I think. Though I grew up in Milwaukee, Michigan was home to me for 50+ years. The Big Lake connects the two places and connects me to them both.



Read Sharon Whitehill's artist statement on guilt of not being a "good mother" and how writing this book of poems freed her.

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