Poetically Speaking with Terra Elan McVoy

poeticallyspeaking1Terra Elan McVoy is the author of numerous books including her Edgar Award Finalist Criminal and After the Kiss–a verse novel. In Deep, her most recent YA novel, was published in 2014. Terra’s middle grade debut, Drive Me Crazy, will publish later this month on April 28, 2015. Terra also works as a bookseller at Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, GA. (Terra is also the first author I ever interviewed on this blog and a long-time supporter of my efforts to dedicate Aprils here at Miss Print to talking about poetry. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my blog wouldn’t be what it is today if I hadn’t met Terra at a signing in 2011.)

Today, Terra is here to talk about her deep and abiding admiration of Emily Dickinson’s work.

When I was in high school and college, I prayed to Emily Dickinson.

I didn’t really think she would answer these prayers, but I said them to her because there was comfort in offering my hopes, fears, and wishes to someone I revered so much. Emily, after all, embodied exactly the kind of writer I so badly wanted to be: groundbreakingly serious, intimidatingly smart, overwhelmingly prolific, famously odd, and keenly able to see the glorious in the common. That she possibly had some kind of strange unrequited love (at least according to what I was reading about her then), and was often perceived as too intense made us, in my mind, even closer kin.

These personal things I learned only after my obsession had already begun, however. Because when I first heard Emily Dickinson read out loud, it was the deepest, truest kind of love at first sight.

It happened while I was watching “Sophie’s Choice” with my mom, which one of Emily’s poems plays an important role. I won’t spoil the movie if you haven’t seen it (because you should—though also read the book, because it’s even better), but here it is:

Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair
Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.

My spine still tingles with pleasure, reading over those lines. I don’t know if the gut-wrenching final scene in which its read helped cement it my mind, but I did know these were some of the simplest, yet most wonderful lines I’d come across yet in my young life.

It became the first poem I ever voluntarily learned by heart.

Photo: Jerome Liebling, Mt. Holyoke Art Museum

Soon after, I checked out books on Emily Dickinson in my library, and read through a collection of her letters. Though the thickness of that volume ultimately proved to be too dense even for me, I uncovered enough to make her my idol for a long, long time. Certainly I was intrigued by the wardrobe of all white, her reclusiveness, and the deceptively simple, dark content of her poems—but what truly made Emily a kind of god to me was the larger lesson I gleaned from the arc of her writing life.

That takeaway isn’t the one you might expect, either. Not, “The weird girl triumphs in the end,” or “Stay true to your style no matter what anyone else tells you,” although those are both important things you could certainly gain from her. Rather, for me, Emily’s life was a testament to the truth: that it’s the work that matters, and nothing else. Being a serious writer who is taken seriously means dedicating your life to shaping your writing into its highest, purest, most powerfully beautiful form, and all else is distraction.

I still get goosebumps thinking about it.

I prayed to Emily Dickinson while I was furiously writing poems myself, because those 1800 unpublished poems her sister found upon Emily’s death proved that Emily refused to quit, even while writing in a perpetual state of being misunderstood. I sought her guidance, because by continuing to hone her craft without much encouragement from the outside world, she became one of the greatest and most important poets in the entire English language.

My own writing life has taken a different turn now. Instead of writing poems, I’m writing novels, and, thanks to readers like you, I’m lucky enough not to be completely obscure. But when I get mired in the self-doubt and feelings of futility that so often come hand-in-hand with this writing life—when I feel like quitting because of any number of perceived failures—it still helps to turn my eyes skyward and think of Emily Dickinson, dropping yet another poem into that dresser drawer.

–Terra Elan McVoy
April 2015

Thank you again to Terra for this great post to kick off Poetically Speaking and for offering encouragement when I began planning this series last year.

If you’d like to learn more about Terra and her books, be sure to visit her website: http://www.terraelan.com

You can also find my reviews of After the Kiss and Criminal (and my interview with Terra) here on the blog.

2 thoughts on “Poetically Speaking with Terra Elan McVoy

  1. Terra (and Emma), I’ve always felt like I’m missing something because I don’t spend time really reading poetry, especially by the ones more well-known. I don’t know enough about their styles to get into them, really : / I don’t like cryptic poems and I’ve just never taken the time out to see who writes beautifully without me having to decipher meaning. Thank you for this look into Emily :)

  2. Wonderful post! I think there’s something about Emily Dickinson that makes her accessible to young readers (and writers). When I was a kid, my mom gave me an illustrated collection of her poems, and I remember reading it over and over. Because her work is so deceptively complex I feel like I get something more out of her poetry every time I re-read it–but at the same time, I think that’s what makes it accessible, too.

    I’ve always meant to explore more into her life as a writer. Thanks for sharing this!

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