Feature Poet:
Carolyn Martin

Carolyn Martin has been a Roman Catholic nun, an Associate Professor of English, a management trainer, and business writer. Throughout, she has been a poet, and Soul-Lit is thrilled to have her as this edition’s feature. Since retiring from forty years in the academic and business worlds, Carolyn Martin has adopted a Spanish proverb to serve as her daily mantra: “It is beautiful to do nothing and rest afterwards.” “Doing nothing” includes gardening, writing, traveling, and playing with friends. Her poems and book reviews have appeared in a variety of publications throughout the US and UK and her second collection, The Way a Woman Knows, was released in 2015 by The Poetry Box (www.thewayawomanknows.com).

Carolyn responded to questions from our journal’s co-founder and co-editor, Wayne-Daniel Berard.

W-D: Why poetry? What is it about this particular art form that speaks to you, propels you, real-izes you?

Carolyn: Great question! The answer is simple: Poetry is the way my mind interacts with the world – in images, rhythms, sounds, intensities of language. After years of writing academic papers, business books, and magazine articles, I’ve settled into the joyful challenge of translating experiences into as few words as possible. For fun, I recently took a class on the personal essay. For one assignment, I wrote about a particularly difficult family dinner. I had written a poem about this event years before and used it as a springboard. What I realized was that my poem – with its short, intense lines – was so much more powerful and satisfying than three pages of prose. Poetry is my great real-izer!

W-D: Soul-Lit is a journal of spiritual poetry. I understand that you were a Sister of Mercy for twenty years. (Relate! I was a Franciscan seminarian, but only for five!) Please tell us about your spirituality, especially as it relates to your poetry?

Carolyn: Those twenty years were an important step on my journey through this lifetime. The women whom I entered with and came to know are still dear friends who care about and support each other. However, the impulse that led me to go from Catholic schoolgirl to Catholic sister has transformed over the years. (The poem “Oh, must we dream our dreams/And have them, too” addresses the very personal reason for moving on.) For the past thirty-four years, I’ve let go of old dogmas and dabbled in many paths of spirituality. Along the way, I’ve come to see that Spirit, Source, Energy, Universal Mind, God –whatever we call the Great Unknown – is the creative force behind everything from galaxies to goslings to poetry. As I say in “You do not have to be good,” I’ve let go of  “every bite of stale theology” and cheer on “imperfect/nakedness with disheveled glee.” For me, there’s great freedom in not-knowing and in approaching each day with curiosity. My morning prayer is simply, “Surprise me today.”

As for my poetry, I believe that everything in the material world is Spirit wearing a mask artists are invited to remove. I’m right there with Charles Baudelaire when he says, "The natural world is a spiritual house. We walk there through forests of physical things that are also spiritual things; they watch us with affectionate looks." Isn’t it lovely to think that all the trees and flowers blooming this spring are looking at us with affection?


W-D: Your poetry has been described as possessing an “everyday holiness.” What does this mean to you? Could you quote us an example or two from your work?

Carolyn: A poet/teacher/friend used those words in her description of my second poetry collection, The Way a Woman Knows. Perhaps I should get in touch with her and ask her what she meant!

For now, here’s my take: if everything on the planet is Spiritual Energy manifesting itself in material form, then every experience has holiness potential – or the potential to be held sacred. The cat in the poem “Elusive” that stops by each morning is sacred to me. So is the fact that my memory is not as sharp as it used to be! All the places I traveled to as a business trainer described in “In Praise of Retiring in Pacific Standard Time” are sacred as is the garden I’ve retired to. In the poem “What I Know of ‘Good’,” the everyday things I mention  – from perennials to lab tests to my computer and phone – help me experience the world and, therefore, are sacred.

W-D: What writers, especially poets, do you feel have influenced your own work? And what contemporary poets do you particularly love?

Carolyn: Among the classics, I’ve been influence by Robert Frost and Elizabeth Bishop. Among the contemporaries I love – and find inspiration in – are Billy Collins, Natasha Trethewey, James Wright, Kay Ryan, and Patricia Smith. I’ve just started to study Wislawa Szymborska and James Richardson and have already written some poems based on their work. I’m always searching for new approaches to poetry that will keep mine engaging and fresh.

W-D: What words of advice would you give to younger poets?

Carolyn: This may sound counter-intuitive, but spend some time writing about what you do not know. Read works on science, art, music, cosmology, world religions, etc. to find images and ideas that will enrich your work. I remember reading articles that claim the sun rings like a bell, that North America moves closer to Japan by three inches each year, and that there’s a species of frog that listens with its mouth. Each of those images delighted me and worked their way into poems.

Secondly, try ekphrastic poetry: using a work of art as a springboard into a poem. This will open new doors of inspiration for you.

Or take a line from another poet’s work and use it as a title or epigraph. Write a poem in response. In “You do not have to be good,” I stole Mary Oliver’s line and in “What I Know of ‘Good’,” I used Ellen Bass’s line – Bad things are going to happen – as a springboard.

Finally, keep paper and pen nearby when you’re watching TV, listening to music, or reading anything. You never know when words or ideas will pop out and be useful to your writing. I just finished reading an interview with a book critic published in Poets & Writers and jotted down some language that I certainly will incorporate into my own work down the line.

There are possibilities for poetry everywhere if you’re attentive to them. They’re waiting and wanting that attention. If you don’t grab them, someone else will!