Feature Poet:
Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon was 2019 Ohio Poet of the Year. She has three poetry collections: Portals (Middle Creek 2021), Blackbird (Grayson 2019), and Tending (Aldrich 2013). Laura edits books and teaches writing classes. Her background includes teaching nonviolence, leading abuse survivor support groups, and writing collaborative poetry with nursing home residents. Connect with her at lauragraceweldon.com 

 Soul-Lit is thrilled to welcome the illuminative Laura Grace Weldon as our Summer 2021 feature. Wayne-Daniel Berard, Soul-Lit’s co-founding editor, conducted the interview.

W-D: Laura, let me start by saying that we love your poetry at Soul-Lit! With your first submission a number of issues ago, we immediately knew we had to invite you to feature!

Let’s begin with a question that we ask all our features: Why poetry for you? What is it about poetry that called you or insisted to you or otherwise led you to become a poet?  Tell us a bit about how you got here?

LG: Thank you for asking me to take part, Wayne-Daniel. I’m honored to have my work welcomed by Soul-Lit, a publication I adore. 

Why poetry? I’m not entirely sure. Poetry brings me home to my whole being. It’s a place to explore my wonderment, confusion, fury, and awe – basically my ache to glimpse some larger Awareness just beyond my small human awareness.   

One of my early memories of poetry’s power is thanks to my father. My dad let us kids help when he did repairs and other household chores, always saying afterwards that he couldn’t have gotten the job done without us. Once he was trying to fix a badly behaving hot water tank and said, for the first time, it wasn’t a task safe enough for my assistance. He quickly added that it would make the job go faster for him if I’d sit at a safe distance to read poetry aloud. The only such book I had was an illustrated book of children’s poetry. I still remember him sitting back on his heels after a few of the poems to say, “Ahhh, that was a good one.” Maybe it was the look of complete peace on his face, but that moment lit poetry up for me. 

I wrote poems as a worried child and angsty teen, then tore them up afterwards. Too personal, too full of my own fear. I grew up to write articles and essays, with a few short stories published here and there, which morphed into my work as a book editor. But I never left poetry. I wrote collaborative poems with nursing home patients, used poetry to teach nonviolence workshops, shared poetry with support groups I led. I didn’t get back to writing poetry until my mother’s last difficult years. It was hard to keep my attention on writing or editing. Poetry felt like breathing deeply after holding my breath too long.  

My first poetry collection was published in 2013. I remember taking the manuscript to our small rural post office. The clerk asked in a friendly way what I was sending. I dismissed it with, “Oh, just some papers.” I felt faintly ashamed, as if admitting I squandered time that could have been devoted to more useful purposes. (An internalized Protestant ethic is hard to unlearn.) 

That collection and the books that followed have introduced me to the kindness of the writing community. I still feel like that child perched on a footstool, reading poems aloud, astonished anyone else wants to hear my words.   

W-D: I must confess to being one of those insufferable Northeasterners for whom nothing exists west of Boston and New York (perhaps with a layover in Chicago?) until one gets to the West Coast! Please forgive me! I see that you have been an Ohio Poet of the Year. Can you speak about how being in and of the Midwest may have influenced your poetry?

LG: I enjoy the energy of NYC, Portland, and Albuquerque. I have a particular fondness for upper New England. Yet I’ve lived in Ohio my entire life, here on Kaskaskia tribal land.  I was born in Cleveland in a hospital perched at the edge of a deep river valley and grew up a few miles from Lake Erie. Roots mean a great deal to me. I’m grateful to live less than an hour away from most of my family members. I can’t speak to the influence of the Midwest (check Midwest vs. Everybody on Twitter for that.) I can speak to the importance of place. I was shaped by playing in the woods, streams, and fields of this region. 

For the last 24 years I’ve lived on a small homestead. Rural life is ever more complicated by political divisions, but we have built barns and planted fruit trees here. We are staying. I hope those of us who remain rooted have something to offer this ever-faster world. I pay attention to the vegetable gardens, the beehives, to redwing blackbirds clamoring from treetops. Changes I see are those that take place slowly and noticing them is part of the pleasure I find in being completely here. To me there’s soul-drenching nourishment that comes of contemplation, quiet, and service. You'll know where to find me. I’m right here.

W-D: Who are the contemporary (and otherwise) poets and writers that you love to read? Who are the can’t-live-without authors in your life and why?

LG: I hope you realize this is an impossible question to answer without giving you pages and pages! I’ve copied out favorite poems for decades. I used to do so in blank books, by hand, noticing as I did that the simple act of copying a poem lets it sink in more completely. I’d flip through these books when in search of a certain poem, often when seeking a poem to share with someone experiencing loss or joy or confusion. And again, with each reading, the poem opened itself up just a little bit more. Now I have a bookshelf full of poetry books as well as an ever-expanding Word doc with favorite poems. Nothing is organized, so when seeking a poem, I end up bumping against many others. It’s a delightful excuse to re-read some favorites. Here are just a few of my go-to poets. 

First, some of my favorite Ohio poets: Maggie Smith, Diane Kendig, Susan Glassmeyer, Kari Gunter-Seymour, George Bilgere, Amit Majmudar, Karen Schubert, Hanif Abdurraqib, Paula Lambert, Cathryn Essinger, Barbara Sabol, and Phil Metres. 

On to those who fall in the non-Ohio poet list: Ada Limón, Kay Ryan, Ellen Bass, Li-Young Lee, Caroline Bird, Kristen McHenry, Jeannette Encinias, Tracy K. Smith, Alison Luterman, Dorianne Laux, Matthew Olzmann, January Gill O’Neil, Jane Hirshfield, Joy Harjo, Sarah Lindsay, Jericho Brown, Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, Sonia Greenfield, Donna Hilbert, James Crews, Lisa Bellamy, Katie Bickham, Naomi Shihab NyeDanez Smith, Sarah Lindsay, Tony Hoagland, Melissa Studdard, Linda Pastan, I could go on….    

W-D: As you know, Soul-Lit is a journal of spiritual poetry. What does the term “spiritual poetry” mean in your view? Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual poet and if so, how would you describe this? And tell us something about your own spirituality, whatever that might mean to you?

LG: I’m coming to see we’re all in a continuous process of becoming – just like viruses, forests, whales, and black holes. I am learning about meaning from the body, from stories, from dreams. I am learning to see it’s about connection, including connections we hide from ourselves.
I continue to learn that everything, seen and unseen, is Spirit. 

W-D: Speaking very personally, one of the things I love about your poetry, Laura Grace, is what I’d describe as its quality of “recovered illumination” – and the completely disarming nature of many of your poem’s final lines! When you write about your father soothing babies by taking them outside and introducing them to the grass – well, you recover that illumination for the child in each of us. Then the poem closes with:

I learned from my father 
it's a matter of walking
inside to out
with someone capable 
of truly seeing. 

It’s like the opposite of a taser – you zap us with a soft enlightenment! 

Please tell us a little about your process of writing? How do you create such pieces? Are you a “wait for the inspiration to strike” type of poet?  Do you sit down at the same time each day and attempt to write no matter what? Some combination or something else altogether? 

LG: Thank you for your kind words, Wayne-Daniel.  

I don’t have a writing process, let alone writerly discipline. The most naturally freeing poems sneak out from the edges of other work I’m doing. Often when I’m reluctant to keep my attention on a manuscript I’m editing, I let myself slide sideways into writing poetry. I stretch, yawn, look out the window or stand on the porch, and a poem calls me. (This is why too many of my pieces are set at the window or on the porch.) I don’t pay close attention to how a poem is built or how it moves line to line as I’m writing. Instead, I try to let it through from that endlessly generative creative source available to all of us whether we’re riffing on a recipe or reimagining our lives. I say “try to let it through” because, of course, the critical mind wants to intrude. Writing works best for me if I let what fills me take over. Maybe body memory, or playfulness, or wonder at a scientific discovery, but often it’s just quiet awe at the planet we inhabit and the moment we’re in. Letting a poem become more fully itself is what I hope to learn.

W-D: I understand that you’re a teacher. What advice would you offer to younger poets today? And can you describe a favorite writing lesson or exercise you do with your students? 

LG: I teach community classes on writing and creativity. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I’ve never encountered anything that builds authentic connection more rapidly than sharing our freshly written words with strangers. Unlike typical conversations, we get right to universal experiences like regret, grief, embarrassment, triumph, and joy. This can’t help but foster understanding. Many of my former classes continue to meet independently as writing groups. I’m pretty sure writing together is downright magical.  

Advice? I’d say to any newly emerging writer that it’s about reciprocity. Keep up with other writers’ work, share your admiration for it on social media or wherever you encounter friends, and be an involved member of the writing community. Whenever possible, stretch yourself to read beyond what’s familiar and comfortable. (I rely almost entirely on the public library but do my best to buy books and subscriptions as gifts.) It’s common to think writers huddle over a laptop in the corner of a coffee shop until, voila! they have a finished product the world is eager to read. But the “world” for your writing project is the world you participate in. Basically, be the reader you write for.  

I don’t have a favorite lesson or experience I do with students. But one that comes to mind is asking them to approach a situation or emotion that is particularly hard to write about by putting it in a different form. Write it as a fairy tale, a mystery, a police report, a to-do list, a cartoon panel, a science experiment, a myth, a farewell letter, or any other form that helps to free them. This may not be the final form, but it can help us step back to see it in a new and often wider way. Sometimes this is downright transformative.  

W-D: Finally, many thanks for responding to these questions. Is there one that you wish you had been asked here? If so, please ask it and respond! 

LG: Do you need a bio? Website? Social media accounts? Blood type?