Penny Harter

Penny Harter

1. What can you tell our readers about your new eBook One Bowl?


One Bowl (Snapshot Press, England) is a short collection of haibun, a genre that began in Japan. Haibun is a mixture of prose-poem-like paragraphs with haiku. A haiku can appear before the prose; several haiku can be inserted between several paragraphs; and a haiku can follow the last paragraph, closing the poem. Haibun can be as succinct as one paragraph with one haiku, or several of each. The best haiku in a haibun do not directly continue the narrative, but relate in mood or theme, opening up further circles of association. The poet links to the prose narrative, and shifts away from it at the same time. This interweaving texture of prose and haiku fascinates me. The haibun in One Bowl continue to reflect my having lost my husband, William J. (Bill) Higginson in 2008. In a way, those pieces are a sequel to the work in my most recent print chapbook, Recycling Starlight (Mountains and Rivers Press, Oregon), poems I wrote over the first eighteen months after Bill died, processing grief and working toward healing. But they are less raw and more contemplative, showing that time does heal.


2. You run writing workshops, can you tell us a little bit about these?


Over the years, I have worked as a poet-in-the schools in all grades; with senior citizens; with community writing groups; and even one-on-one with individual students. In the schools I meet with the teachers to discuss whether they want me to just "do my thing" and engage the kids in writing poetry, or whether they want me to relate what we will do to some aspect of the curricula under study. Some teachers prefer a more academic approach, others just give me free rein. With any group, I use my own and others' poems as models, talk about them with the group, and/or sometimes give them a "starter" to bounce off of, a phrase perhaps, or a photo or painting (evoking what we call "ekphrastic" poems). Then we write / share / and move on to the next. I like workshops to be interactive, organic and informal, and I always try to find something positive and encouraging to say about a participant's piece, along with suggesting possible revisions.


3. You started writing after the death of your husband, how has writing helped you through this?


Actually, I've been writing for over forty years. I didn't just start when Bill died. I began to write poetry in my mid-twenties. I've written poems of childhood memory and young adulthood experiences, including childbirth and raising my two children, a girl and a boy, who are now all grown up; poems about going through a divorce, and a book of love poems; poems in praise of the Earth---the natural world---and the cosmos; poems that stare mortality in the face and ponder the riddles of love, time, and loss; all kinds of poems. I wrote my way through losing both my parents in one year. And writing through the grief after Bill's death was extremely healing. I dared to stare right at the whole thing, from the time he went into the hospital to his death two months later from inoperable cancer. And then I continued charting my way through the first year after his death. Those poems captured my journey through grief and showed me that I was slowly healing. And, of course, it was cathartic to write them. Overall, I think writing poems (or even a journal) as we go through life's varied experiences, all the ups and the downs, is a way of translating to ourselves what we are feeling---and sometimes leads to our discovering things we don't yet consciously "know".


4. You have written The Beastie Book for children, so how does writing for children compare to writing for adults for you?


Well, the poems in The Beastie Book are very whimsical. And they rhyme, whereas most of my writing for adults is in free verse or Japanese-related genres like haiku, tanka, and haibun. I think the five-year-old in me wrote the poems in The Beastie Book. I'm still a child at heart, regardless of what life has thrown at me---as it throws at all of us. It doesn't take much for me to remember being a child. And in those poems, I play with words and thoughts, dare to be silly. Some of my Beasties are mildly scary, and some are friendly. I made up all their names, and half are male, half female. (Interested readers can visit the publisher's site [], or see sample pages and poems on The character visited by these Beasties at night is a curly-headed little boy, and he and they appear in every full-page / iconic colour / beautiful illustration by the talented artist Alexandra (Sasha) Miller.


On the other hand, when I share with children even as young as 3rd grade some of my so-called adult poems about our deeply human experiences, and talk honestly about these, the students come back with astonishingly moving pieces---even if the teacher and I have to help them get their words down. They can make good Beasties, too :). Here's a link from my blog to some sample 2nd grade Beasties:


5. Who have been your main poetic influences throughout your life?


Ah, so many! Of course my late husband, Bill Higginson, himself a poet / critic / translator / essayist / and editor, certainly was also my muse as well as a helpful critic / editor. And I've read poetry widely for years. I love the work of Galway Kinnell, William Stafford, James Wright, John Haines, Ruth Stone, Sharon Olds, Jane Hirshfield, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver--and so many more I can't begin to list them all. I like what I call "clear water" poems, poems that are musical and well-crafted and say what they mean. Perhaps that's why I'm also drawn to Japanese genres like haiku. Of course all the poetic devices like metaphor, simile, etc. can be there in free verse, but must be skilfully used---and not overused. I find "language poetry" interesting but not where I want to be going in my own work. I have also been drawn to some surreal poets and love work by Lorca, Neruda, and other Latin American poets. And I admire formal verse as well, have written occasional sonnets.


I also have several shelves of nature-related books: essays, musings, and some more scientific works. I love the work of John Hays, Chet Raymo, Barry Lopez, Joanna Macy, Susan Tweit, Linda Hogan, Gretel Ehrlich, Annie Dillard, Thomas Berry, Peter Mathiessen, Loren Eiseley, etc. etc. And I also read in world religions. All of these and more have inspired my work.


6. Whose poetry do you most like to read?


I think I just answered that above. And I know I left tons of people off the list. I could go to my three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves of poetry (out of maybe 20 of these shelves, just of poetry, that Bill and I had before I moved) and probably list at least fifty more poets, male and female, including my contemporaries, whose work I admire and learn from. Maybe I'll go do that and add some more names here before I send this off to you.


7. What is next for you?


More of the same: writing free verse, haibun, occasional formal verse, writing for kids, and hopefully more teaching. I have a new manuscript of adult poetry (half haibun, half poems I wrote in 2010 during a writing residency at Virgina Center for the Creative Arts) accepted at Mountains and Rivers Press, the publisher who brought out Recycling Starlight, and am about to go back and forth with Ce Rosenow, the editor and publisher, on that collection. She's a wonderful poet in her own right, and a fine editor to work with. It's also time I begin to think about getting together a "new and selected"---since I have so many books already, some of which have gone out of print. And though we are focusing on poetry here, over the years I have written any number of short stories and published over twenty of them in various journals. I may return to some more prose. I do like exploring writing prose-poems and mini-stories.


8. Can you tell us a little bit about your previous publications?


I mentioned above some of the kinds of books / poems I've written. I would say that I moved from my first manuscript (never published) of rhyming poems and rather surreal work, through childhood memories and other more personal poems---including a book of divorce poems (Hiking the Crevasse) and a book of love poems for Bill (Lovepoems), both probably out of print now---moved from these out into a realization that I needed to write about more than self. That brought me to Turtle Blessing, Lizard Light: Poems From the Earth, Buried in the Sky, and The Night Marsh---which collection has many kinds of poems in it, including those written through my grief after losing my parents, and to Stage and Views, a book of poems in which I never say 'I' once---poems written while contemplating the Japanese woodblock prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai. (It's out there in the used book market). Readers can visit my web site [] and click on "publications" and then on book covers for sample poems. Or they can visit my more recent blog, Tide Lines []. Since after Bill died in 2008, I haven't been able to update my web site that much---he was the administrator of it---I started my blog in 2009 to keep track of publications as they happen.


9. What do you enjoy most about teaching?


I really am honoured to be able to encourage / enable the children I work with to create something they can "own" and be proud of. I still remember a 7th grade boy saying, after one such class, "The only poems I like is the ones I write myself." Yes! Or having a 5th grade girl bound into the room saying, "This is fun!" Or seeing a high school student decide to risk sharing something with the class that came from his or her heart, maybe a poem about a parent's illness, and break down in tears. I guess I mostly love being able to help students discover / uncover a genuine piece of themselves they may not have known was in them.


And in the regular English secondary classroom, I loved teaching seminar style rather than lecturing. I tried to link the literature under discussion to creative writing ideas. I got a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to do that with American literature students. When we studied Poe they wrote horror stories and then compared their process and results to his. Same for Emily Dickinson---they wrote poems either in her style or on her themes. I also did the same with British Literature. When I taught in the 1980s in a suburban high school, every Friday we had "journal day" . I occasionally run into students from those classes, adults themselves, now, who tell me that those days were among the most meaningful in their high school experience---and some of whom tell me that the stories or poems they wrote then were the "only things" they've every written that they still remember and care about. In these days of over-emphasis on test results, which can force teachers to teach to the test, it's important to remember that learning is more than skills.

Female First Lucy Walton

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