The poems of Betsy Sholl reveal the habits and motions of an active human mind: the fluid unwinding of thought, the pushing forward into the space ahead, the dance of logic—sometimes stately, sometimes playful. Each measure of sound is delicately honed and flows purposefully into the next. Poems of intellect, history, and theology, her works nonetheless make their home in the natural world. Her canvas is the created order, with special attention to the small, overlooked things: dunes, weather, finches, the glint of mica in rock, rain dripping from trees, the actions of children, the movement of time. She inhabits the natural world fully, meeting it with graciousness, curiosity, and energy. And though she deals in the territory of ideas, she often takes us to the very edge of thought, where active cognition dissolves into a meditative stillness.
Betsy Sholl has published seven collections of poetry, most recently Rough Cradle (Alice James Books, 2009), and Late Psalm (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004). Don’t Explain won the 1997 Felix Pollak Prize from the University of Wisconsin, and her book The Red Linewon the 1991 AWP Prize for Poetry. Her chapbooks include Pick A Card, winner of the Maine Chapbook Competition in 1991, Coastal Bop (Oyster River Press, 2003) and Betsy Sholl: Greatest Hits, 1974-2004, (Pudding House Publications). She was a founding member of Alice James Books and published three earlier collections with them: Changing Faces, Appalachian Winter and Rooms Overhead. Among other awards are a fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, and two Maine Writer’s Fellowships. She lives in Portland, Maine, and teaches at the University of Southern Maine and in the MFA Program of Vermont College. In 2006 she was chosen to be the Poet Laureate of Maine, a five-year position.
Last fall, I finished a new book (Rough Cradle, Alice James Books), so after revising much of the past year, I am happy to be open to new work, letting poems come as they will and suggest their own concerns. What moves me into words usually is something actual—an encounter of some kind with the natural world, a person, a book or music (mostly jazz). To be more precise, what starts a poem is usually the experience of paradox or contradiction, two equally true perceptions or emotions co-existing: beauty and pain, love and fear, life and decay. I love Auden’s comment that poetry is the clear expression of mixed emotions, and Czeslaw Milosz’s notion about poetry as a “passionate pursuit of the real.” Of course “the real” eludes us, but the pursuit enlarges us and keeps us aware of the ultimate reality, God. For me, poems exist between the extremes of pure subjectivity (no outside world) and pure description (no self), in the enactment of relationship, the encounter between self and other, where contact occurs, sparks. I think that means relinquishing as much ego as possible, being attentive, willing to be changed by the encounter, and not knowing as much as knowing. I’m speaking in general terms because I have a lot of new work in process, poems that aren’t fully shaped yet and I don’t want to solidify what they’re about too soon.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.