Today, I have the pleasure of continuing yesterday’s conversation with Janet Grace Riehl author of Sightlines, a Poet’s Diary, and the audio book, Sightlines, a Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.
JMH: Janet, as I listened to your audio book, I was impressed with the way you tell your family story in poetry, music, and casual conversation. It is uniquely honest and touching. You and your father found a way to confront terrible grief as well as to enshrine the memory of your beloved sister, mother, and a way of life that is unfortunately disappearing. Your poems have helped me process losses of my own.
"Scribbler," in which you describe joy you found as a child in your father's writing is one of my favorite poems from you book. How has his influence rippled into your adult life as a writer?
JGR: Completely. It was hard when I was an English major because my father’s writing is pretty straight-ahead story telling. But, as a Recovering English Major, I can now see, once again, how good his writing is. We’re starting to get some of his 40 books into print.
His lack of self-consciousness is what allowed him to be so prolific. During the time of writing “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary” it was that same lack of concern about how the book would be received by the literary community that allowed me to be so productive in a short period of time.
Last year we read together for the Alton High Creative Writing Club annual meeting. He’d co-founded the club. We’d just found and replicated an early edition of their magazine. He read first. For my turn, I read “Scribbler” in homage to him and his influence and encouragement.
JMH: In “String Bridles” (p. 42 in “Sightlines) your father tells a story about his relationship to the Bluff House, a place that remains a source of refuge and solitude for you. What does the Bluff House mean to each of you?
JGR: For Pop the Bluff House was a working chicken house for Spring, built to get the early warmth of the sun’s rays. The Bluff House was designed as a passive solar building before anyone spoke of such a thing. He also used to play there with simple toys he made. The poem is slightly adapted from a letter to his mother who lived at a distance in Rushville, Illinois. Pop wrote this letter when he was 13 in 1929. His mother died the following October the same day the same day the stock market crashed, both crushing blows to the family. The naturalness and clarity of his voice in the poem show his writing talent at an early age.
Seventy-six years later when Pop and I were taking care of Mother, he told me this spot on the property could be mine. I took old furniture down there. It was a place to rest in solitude for reading, writing, and contemplation. It was a place separate from the family’s activity which I sorely needed at that time. My brother cleared a path to it and hacked out a view of the river down the bluff. We mucked it out and trimmed back scrub trees grown in the cracks of the cement floor. By that time the chicken-green house had been vandalized, with all the glass long gone.
JMH: Do you see your childhood differently as a result of writing these poems and returning to the Midwest?
JGR: Certainly. The decision to be directly involved with the family struggles and be in contact with Midwestern culture brought my entire life into stronger, clearer focus. I’d spent many years living in California. Two different worldviews could not be found. I could now see how my family viewed my life there. By being in my childhood home and working with my parents in a new way in a different role, made me confront certain illusions and delusions I’d held. My father and I forged a more mature relationship. I saw my Mother differently as she became more fragile and a transformed person in her illness.
JMH: You include two poems written from your great niece's point of view. I lost my beloved grandfather at the same age that your grand niece Amelia lost her grandma Julia. The loss was treated very differently. When I was eight, the death of my grandfather was never talked about in my presence. I was not allowed to attend his funeral. Thus I had no way of understanding and processing it.
In the poem "Amelia's Double Rainbow" (p. 16) Amelia says, “the more I talk about her, I'm crying less." I believe it is vitally important that children be given a framework in which to process and talk about their own feelings and memories. I'm thankful that your grand nieces were. It seems to be more acceptable to talk about these days than it was in the fifties, when I first encountered the loss of someone I loved. I just wanted to thank you for including poems for Amelia in your memoir. What were some of the things you did to support your great nieces Amelia and Margaret in their loss of their “Grammy”?
JGR: I cared for my two great nieces for four days after Julia's death. That story is told in "Just Like You and Me” (p. 13).
I wrote condolence notes to both children. After my sister’s death I began to become expert at writing these notes. I developed a style that broke the usual template to become more clear and direct.
Later, I made a book for Maggie, then three, who was afraid she was losing her memories of her Grammy. We titled it “Maggie’s Deep Well of Memory” with each memory starting with the prompt: “I remember the times….” She’d dictate these to me and I wrote them down. I made these into a lovely bound book with illustrations.
Last year after we buried Julia's ashes, I wrote Maggie a letter using a similar form telling Maggie how I’d always remember her at that ceremony and ending with: Grammy Julia’s world is the world of love and it is the world of yes! That world lives in you, Maggie.
It’s been a pleasure to know you through the years as a result of our Women Writing the West connection. Thanks for this insightful interview.
JMH: Thanks, Janet. The pleasure is mine as well. I feel as if you are a true sister. I guess it’s the sisterhood of “Janet.”
As I announced yesterday, Janet’s internet tour continues July 10th on Susan Gallacher Turner’s http://sculpturepdx.blogspot.com and Mary Cunningham’s WOOF! (Women Only Over Fifty) on July 15th. Her guest post will discuss how to use collaboration to reach your dreams as an over-50 woman. http://www.woofersclub.blogspot.com/
And don’t forget to participate in the drawing to win a copy of Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music?Watch the featured video of the week. Leave a comment underneath the post. Janet will run a drawing among the comments.