Interview: An Interview with Poet Elizabeth Kirkpatrick Vrenios

Book Name and Description: Special Delivery

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This is a book about the loss of our son on the Pan Am 103 Flight that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988, the events surrounding it that impacted the family, and our grieving process.

This book is available in print on Amazon: Click Here.

 

Back at the Music School Office after Christmas Vacation
by Elizabeth Kirkpatrick Vrenios

I climb from the car,
stretch my legs like a wintered spider,
and blink to accustom myself
to the new slant of  light.
The leaves in the parking lot rush to greet me,
brush against the tops of my shoes
and swirl around my ankles.

As I push through the heavy glass doors,
I see the secretary’s desk
empty-
too early for her arrival.
No sound
save the driving arpeggios
of a lone pianist in the distance.

Only a month gone.  Who am I?
Who is this grey mouse
who drags her wet wooly heart behind her,
and now tiptoes down the long hallway
as if walking were a sacrilege
and breathing a sin?
When did the block walls fade to grey?
When did the rooms grow so far apart?

The last month has curled up and tumbled away,
yellow giving way to brown,
to black,
leaving me startled at the jumble of unopened letters,
the piles of red-pocked term papers
stacked on my desk,
the tethered phone
blinking incessantly.

I remove the sign on my door:
DO NOT ENTER: MUSICIAN WORKING
and scrape off the sticky remnants
of tape that still outline the now empty square.
I take down the helter-skelter posters,
and the out-of-date notices
that jostle each other for attention,
leaving the nude cork raw,
stubbled with thumbtacks.

The clock snaps to attention at 9:00.
The students begin to arrive
in streams of loopy yellow,
barging through the front doors,
red knots of giggles
and unintended rudeness.
I feel ragged and soft,
unfamiliar in this familiar world,
still trying to shake off  images of a burning plane,
and a fog-shrouded bagpiper climbing the hill
next to an empty hole in the ground.

How strange it is to be here,
for I have returned  like a prodigal daughter
from a distant shore,
having been garroted by the cruelty of the world. 

The first student of the semester
knocks sharply on the door and as she enters
lowering her self-conscious eyes,
I swallow deep into my bones.
I straighten my skirt,
look up
and smile.

 

What gave you the idea for Special Delivery? 

Special Delivery was a result of the experience my family went through when we experienced the Pan Am 103 crash over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988.  It has taken me many years to be able to speak about the tragedy and to write about our experiences beginning with his phone call before we left to pick him up, through experiencing the tragedy, watching the reactions in the airport and dealing with the overwhelming crush of press and grief we experienced from those around us. Originally  we thought the loss was completely ours, but discovered very quickly it belonged to the world.  The title comes from the discovery of a large picture of Nicholas, which miraculously escaped the fire, explosion and torrential rain that accompanied the crash, only to be snatched from the air by an Umbrian hunter 300 miles away and sent to Lockerbie.  The picture is on the cover – a self-photo of Nicholas sitting on a precipice of a Scottish crag,

 

What got you into writing in this genre? 

One day, a few years ago, I participated in a group conversation in which the question was asked, “What would you be in your next life?”  People answered in the usual way: “I’d be a famous tenor who gets all the girls”, “I’d be a famous movie star” etc.  I thought a bit, and astounded myself when I answered “I’d be a poet.”  Everyone laughed, but I began to think: “Hey, I’m not dead yet!  Why not?”  That is when I began to seriously put myself on a self-study campaign to take classes, read poetry voraciously, and write every day.

 

How long have you been writing?

I have written all my life, but not seriously – I was a musician -a singer who taught and concertized all over the world. When I was a little girl – about 5, I believe – I wrote what I think was my first poem – written while I played the chords on the piano. “Cracking nuts by Candlelight, on the very darkest night.  It’s so fun for me you see, because it’s by our Christmas tree.” I wrote poems secretly in diaries but hid them as they expressed my personal thoughts.  As a singer I always felt I was a re-creator, singing other people’s poems and thoughts, but always wanted to be a creator, expressing what I felt in my own words.

 

Tell us about your past books and stories? 

I began to write about being raised in Northern California in the 50’s and about my mentally ill, abusive mother.  I collaborated with my brothers in this memoir in a book called Party Line.  This is a collection of short stories – before my full transition to a poet.

 

What is the writing process like for you? What is your writing day like? What have been the biggest influences on your writing? 

Whew!  Those are three big questions in one!  My writing process has to come first from silence.  I need full quiet and solace to fully access what I have to say.  The stiller I am (and the earlier in the day I access this) the easier the words appear.  I begin my day with coffee (!!!) and sit to read whatever new poetry book I have garnered.  I usually read for about an hour or more and then begin to write in my journal.  I don’t try to write poetry – just whatever is in my mind, and in whatever form it decides to appear.  I try to write without stopping – sometimes for a half hour, sometimes longer.  I put this away to return to later.  I always write a “bad poem a day”,  perhaps 5 or 6 lines – a free write, giving myself permission to be crazy.  These I return to periodically for ideas as well.  Later in the day, I peruse some of my past writing to see if I can garner an idea for a poem.  I spend some time every day editing something – either someone else’s poems, or my own. The evenings are reserved for reading sites on the computer and sending out poems.  The biggest influences on my writing have been Bach, Mozart, Rachmaninoff, Lorca, W.A. Merwin, Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, Ellen Bass, Ocean Vuong, Paisley Rekdahl, and sometimes the last poet I have read.

 

What is your favorite book (other than your own book, of course) and why? What book disappointed you and why? 

This is perhaps the most difficult question you are asking.  It is like asking a chocoholic her favorite bon bon, or picking out your favorite tune when you love music passionately.  It often is the latest book I have read, such as the latest issue of Rattle, Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay or Black Country by Liz Berry. Then I pick up Jane Hirshfield or  Brigit Pegeen Kelly or Hailey Leithauser and I am in love all over again. Books that disappoint are those that purposely obscure meaning for a posture or an experiment, or those which employ self indulgent writing by poets who don’t give the reader the benefit of the doubt that we will feel something.  I enjoy well-crafted poetry just as I enjoy well- crafted music.

 

How do you think you’ve evolved creatively? 

I have studied and read extensively, taken many writing courses, (I try to remain in one constantly),  write daily and have begun to be more observant of the wonder in the world around and beneath me.  I have learned economy, brevity, color and form.

 

What tools do you feel are must-haves for writers? 

I truly appreciate writers who have craft and who can write emotionally without being self-indulgent, employ image and metaphor that move me beyond the words on the page.  Craft is essential – to have control over meter, music, internal rhyme, know what a volta is, how to begin and end a poem,  how to break a stanza and when to use punctuation and when not to use it.  Tone, color and voice are important as well.  Tools are important in any craft – the more you have, the subtler you can be and the easier you can induce the reader to feel what you feel. As a matter of fact, the more I write poetry, the more I realize how integrated all art is – these qualities are important in music, art, and sculpture as well.

 

What is the best piece of advice you ever received from another author? 

Let go of your little darlings.

 

How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre?

At the moment I am seeking publication through the journals on line and submitting as much as I can.  It is important to have an audience if you write – and acceptance or rejection helps me to perfect my voice.  The more often the voice is “out there” the more people will begin to seek you out, and the more you may have a reason to write.  We cannot express art in a vacuum.  I now have many friends on Facebook who follow my poetry – a huge surprise, given that no one knew I wrote until a few short years ago.

 

What piece of your own work are you most proud of? 

At the moment it is my chapbook – but there are numerous poems that (self indulgent as it may be) I truly enjoy.  Perhaps the work I am most proud of at the moment is my son, Christopher who is finding his creative life writing words and music and producing in the Reggae vein.  It is a great privilege to observe a beautiful blossom.

 

For those who haven’t read any of your stories, what story/book of yours do you think best represents your work and why?

Heavens – much of my work are on e-sites.  Some is in print in anthologies (but I am not so certain about those) and for goodness sake – don’t read Party Line.  At the moment – the work I am most proud of is Special Delivery because it reaches into my depths of feeling about loss and how I was able to come up on the other side after losing my 20 year old son.  People have said that it helped them through their own grieving process.

 

What are you doing next?

I am compiling a book about my abusive childhood.  I have several projects in mind and that is what drives me to work every day.

 

What advice would you give aspiring writers? 

Write! write! write!  Study the masters and find your own voice and style.  If you have something to say – say it!

 

Bio:

Elizabeth Kirkpatrick-Vrenios’ poetry has been featured in such online poetry columns as Form Quarterly, NILVX , Passager Journal, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Hollins Critic, Foliate Oak, Scissors and Spackle, and in issues of Poeming Pidgeon, Unsplendid , Stories of Music and The Edison Review. Her prize-winning chapbook, Special Delivery was published by Yellow Chair Press in the spring of 2016.  Elizabeth is a professor emerita from American University in Washington DC, having chaired the vocal and music departments. She has taught workshops throughout the US, and is well known for her interpretations of contemporary music, having premiered  over 100 works, many of them composed for her. Vrenios’ solo recitals throughout the United States, South America, Scandinavia, Japan and Europe have been acclaimed. As the artistic director of the Redwoods Opera Workshop in Mendocino, California, and the Crittenden Opera Workshop in Washington D.C. and Boston, she has influenced and trained students across the country. She is a member of the international Who’s Who of Musicians, and is the past National President of the National Opera Association.

 

Links: 

Elizabeth’s Facebook 

Elizabeth’s Official Website 

Special Delivery on Amazon

 

Links to Poems:

See Saw Marjorie Day  

Practice Makes Perfect 

Spring’s Birth Announcement Issue 50 on HaikuJournal Collaborative Poem

Two poems on Beltway Poetry Quarterly

Two More Poems: Practice Makes Perfect and Communion

Alternate Truths 

While Eating an Apple

Dark Star 

When Death Splits the Air, Dandelion, Hi, Noon

Elegy for Mother 

Sorrows

Singing Villanelle to a Collage of Pleated Cows

Piano at Five (Contributor)

Departure

Ode to a Purple Onion, also on Poemingpidgeon.com

 

Poems without Direct Links (only viewable by members of these sites):

I Hold My childhood Picture is on passagerjournal.com

Song of the Suomalainen is on NILVX.com

The Oldest Living Thing in Maryland is on Hollinscritic.com

Sealed Casket is on scissorsandspackle.com

Darling Icarus, Diabolical Clock is on Thebinnacle.com

The first Year Without You is on pilgrimagepress.com

Every Other Thursday, on Femininecollective.com

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