North Carolina poet and speaker Terri Kirby Erickson is the 2013 Leidig Keynote Poet for Emory & Henry College in Virginia, and the author of four collections of poetry, including A Lake of Light and Clouds (Press 53, 2014) and In the Palms of Angels (Press 53, 2011), winner of three international awards.
How would you describe what you do?
Mostly what I do is watch, listen, and remember. Only a small part of the writing process for me, actually involves writing. First comes the inspiration, then the words flow from that image, idea, or feeling.
Also, I like HGTV. It’s like visual valium. The worst thing that can happen on these shows are mold and termites.
Is this different than what other people think you do?
Probably. People often ask me if I have a “set” time to write every day, and my answer is always, “Um…no.” In fact, I sometimes go for weeks without writing a single poem. Or I might wake up in the morning with a poem in my head and work on it for hours—maybe even write two or three poems in succession. So, I tend to be a binge poet rather than a disciplined, “I’m going to sit here until I write something,” sort of writer. Trying to write poetry when I don’t feel like it seems to stifle my creativity.
How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?
When I’m on the right track, there is nothing else but the words in my head and how fast I can write them down. Time has no meaning and I am completely in the moment…no worries, no distractions…just me and the “world” I’m creating in a poem.
How do you go about making choices?
That really is an indescribable process. Why I choose one word over another has to do with sound, meaning, rhythm of the line, how the word looks on the page…so many variables.
If you’re talking dessert, however, I’ll choose a piece of chocolate ganache cake from Whole Foods every time (since my Grandma’s famous chocolate poundcake is no longer available), unless my mother has baked cookies. No contest there.
How do you know when you’re done?
Reverting back to poetry (!), when the poem says exactly what I want to say, the way I want to say it.
What’s your workspace like?
I have a small home office with cheerful yellow paint on the walls, a writing desk, and a computer; photographs of people I care about; artwork that moves me, including a painting my husband did from a photo we took on our honeymoon; a rocking chair where I rocked my daughter for hours when she was a baby; various momentos from friends and family, including a gorgeous needlepoint picture of blue sky and clouds, with clothes hanging on a clothesline. A very kind reader made this gift for me, which I absolutely cherish, as a tribute to my poem, “Thread Count.” And of course, the room is overflowing with books, books, and more books.
What are your essential tools?
All I need are my five senses, heart, intellect, memory, and a computer. It’s nice, also, when my husband, Leonard, is in the house. Hearing him puttering around is very comforting to me, and I’m one of those people who writes better when I’m happy.
What’s the most surprising tool you use?
Honestly, after over half a century on planet earth, not much surprises me, anymore. I did write a poem once, using a brown eyeliner pencil and a torn napkin, while driving to Winston-Salem to meet a friend. I did most of the writing at stoplights, but still, I don’t recommend it.
What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from?
My biggest mistake as a young person, was imagining that everything and everyone I love would be around forever—that we were all immortal. I took a lot for granted until my brother, Tommy, died suddenly when he was twenty. Now I do my best to enjoy life as much as I can, to live mindfully in the “now,” and to cherish the people I love and the time we have together. Also, I don’t generally hold back from saying anything I need or want to say as long as it isn’t hurtful to anyone, and I do things even when I’m afraid of doing them. Perhaps in some ways, I’m trying to live both my brother’s life and mine—to somehow make it up to him for missing out on so much.
What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“Go ahead. Pet the neighbor’s puppy. Their electric fence is turned off!” said an actual adult blood relative when I was four years old, who thought it would be funny to see a little kid get an electrical shock. My parents told me never to touch that fence around the puppy, so I knew better. But I didn’t listen to my inner voice and paid the price for it. Now, I listen. Also, I glow in the dark.
What’s the best?
Whatever else you do in life, get an education. Oh, and use sunscreen on your face every single day, even when it’s raining.
What do you wish that you would have known earlier?
How fast your children or in my case, child, grows up. It seems like my daughter’s childhood lasted about ten minutes. I regret every bedtime story I didn’t have the energy to read as slowly as she wanted to hear it, every second with my little girl that I didn’t savor to the fullest because I was too exhausted. I should have taken more vitamins and photographs, and let housework and other stuff slide more often. At 31, she swears I was the “greatest mother in the world,” but the synonym for “mother” has to be “guilt.”
What are you working on now?
At the moment I’m putting the finishing touches on my new collection of poetry, A Lake of Light and Clouds, which will be published by Press 53 in the spring of 2014. I got a call a few days ago from my uncle, visual artist Stephen White (who does the paintings for all of my book covers, and whose work has been in MoMA). He told me that the painting for my new book cover was “finished and drying.” I can’t wait to see it!
I’m also working hard to keep from eating, out of a sense of deprivation, entire sticks of butter. I discovered recently that my cholesterol is a “tad” too high, so my previous addiction to chocolate ganache cake is not going to work for me, anymore—at least, not on a regular basis. Now snacks consist mostly of fruit, Melba toast with a tiny dollop of sugarless peanut butter, and rice cakes, sigh. I refuse, however, to give up my mother’s carrot cake cookies. And thankfully, poetry is fat-free…
For more about Terri and her work, check out her website at http://terrikirbyerickson.wordpress.com