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Writing on clouds

Poet Carla stout discusses family, astronomy and rhythm while opening up on process and inspiration in an interview about her upcoming book of poetry, Remote Fishing and Sassafras Tea.

'Sassafras Tea is another story about inspiration. I took a moonlight walk with a friend – barefoot – and we were drinking hot sassafras tea and honey, which I had never had before. I don’t know, the whole experience really hit me. It wasn’t necessarily anything we said, but there was something in it that I realized I had to live my life more creatively.' –Carla Stout

Interview by Katie Saffell​, Bethel University

Carla Stout is a writer and an artist with a degree in biology. She studied avian physiology while working toward a Master’s degree, and has written two novels. She enjoys astronomy, gardening (her favorite vegetable is the pumpkin), reading, and painting. Stout currently lives in Omaha with her husband, Randy.

When someone asks you what you do for a living, what do you say?

“For a living? I don’t make a living at this. I just kind of – I say I’m a writer. Most of the people I know, know that I do a lot of other things. I like to paint, and I like to read, I like to garden and cook and bake. I have all kinds of interests like that.”

How do those influence your writing?

“I think it started out with my reading. And my family, of course, influences my writing. And I have all those interests: astronomy or astrophysics…”

Do you write novels or poetry about those subjects?


“There are a number of astronomical poems in there. I like to fuse things. In one of my poems I fuse a little bit of biology with a little bit of astrophysics. I like to do that a lot. I read novels and nonfiction, so I kind of have a wide range of interests that influence me.”

Not all writers have that breadth of skill and knowledge.

“I don’t know. I kind of like to get outside myself and see what other people think and how they speak, and how the world works. You know, something outside of myself. I really like writing series’ of poems, I’ve discovered. Included in the book I have a bunch of what I call ‘man poems,’ (which sounds very sexist) but you see these people and you see them talk and I kind of wonder, well, what do they think about? What’s going on in their head?

“And the same thing with the birds. I did a whole series on birds. I anthropomorphize them but kinda try to put their natural habitat and behavior into human terms.”


That’s very approachable.


“I just like to do something diverse. Something not everyone expects a poet to write about.”


How do you write a persona poem?


“The first man poem I wrote that’s in the book is called “After Life Without,” and that one has a little story...


“One day in February I had read in the paper that a homeless man had died in the snow. I just thought that was so horrible. And then I was coming home, I was out in the snow, I was coming home, up to my porch, and I could hear geese – not just geese but little birds, you know, twittering – and I thought, ‘that means winter might be over soon.’ And so I wrote this guy’s situation, what I thought it would be like. I wrote it from his friend’s point of view. That’s the first one I wrote and then I sort of got into it, seeing other situations and people that would suit a persona poem.”


Could you tell me about someone who’s influenced you, whether another writer or someone in your life?


“My father was an amateur writer.”


Did he write poetry too?


“No, he wrote novels and articles. He was actually a surgeon. My family really influences me and inspires me a lot. They constantly challenge me. The remote fishing poems are the only ones that I wrote personally about them, because it’s very hard for me to write personal poems. So one year for Mothers Day my oldest son gave me a black box with two black pencils, black photo mounts, a black journal, and a black and white disposable camera (in the days of iPhones, you know).


“He wrote a little note in there. He said, ‘see what you can do with that.’ I took it all up to the (Black) Hills with me. I knew they would fight me on taking their photos, so I had to kind of perch myself up on a hill or kind of get them from the back or something. So they’re all done remotely and kind of written remotely, you know, not really close up, because to get too close to my family is just so full of emotion that I can’t write it.


“So then I put it all together in the journal and my son wanted to see it and he took the copy and he had it printed and designed a cover for it and everything, so that kind of made it real. I have had a number of little boutiques in my home, and I think I sold quite a few of them in my home.


“My other son – I’ve written two cookbooks/memoirs you know, and never intended it to be published but my son keeps pushing me to write another cookbook or design the cookbooks and add stuff to them. So I’m kind of saying ‘no’ at this point.


“And that son is a poet. He has another job, but he’s a poet. Probably better than me.”


Why did you choose Brighthorse?


“They kind of chose me. I wanted to enter a competition so I submitted my manuscript and I really didn’t expect anything to happen and they let me know that they liked it and wanted to publish it.”


When you were writing “Remote Fishing and Sassafras Tea,” were you writing with a collection in mind?


“I probably pulled them out of 150 poems. They were ones that I thought would be approachable to people and that I like, too. It’s just kind of a combination of different things. And the Remote Fishing, I had never submitted that to anybody, and I bookended the book with the two of them.

“And then the Sassafras Tea is another story about inspiration. I took a moonlight walk with a friend – barefoot – and we were drinking hot sassafras tea and honey, which I had never had before. I don’t know, the whole experience really hit me. It wasn’t necessarily anything we said, but there was something in it that I realized I had to live my life more creatively. And that was a long time ago, but you know, I had to look at things differently, and I had to experience different things.


“It was pretty special.”


How do you tell when a poem is good?


“I kind of have to let it cool off before I make a decision on that. Some of them I like in the fury of writing, but then I look at them later and (think), ‘This is not gonna fly.’


“I don’t know. Some of them, I Road Under Taken, I like the rhythm of it, that fast pace of it. And it’s kind of a complaint, but it’s kind of interesting, that fast pacing: I can feel the car moving along the road. That’s one of them I can specifically say that I like.


“And I do like – it’s kind of an unusual man poem – Wormholes, Vivaldi and Iris, I wrote as a man poem, and I like the reflection of... they say that astronomers are very philosophical. So I wrote that in mind with just an astronomer reflecting on his life, and then relating it to the stars. And then I read it later on and I thought, ‘it could be a woman that’s an astronomer, why did you say it’s a man?’ I could read it either way.”


What do you find challenging about writing poetry, or about certain poems?


“I don’t think I’m really a poet. I don’t really think I’m very good at rhythm. I like some elements of poetry that I feel like I can do well, but I’m not very good about extracting just the core of the poem. I have a tendency to probably put in too many words. And again, it’s hard for me to write things that are personal.”


You have a beautiful way with words.


“Thank you. One of my favorite – I call him a poet – is Shakespeare. They say, ‘he’s not a poet, he’s a playwright.’ But I think his writing is so lyrical. Every line is just packed with images. I think, ‘what better example of good poetry is (there than) that?’”

You’ve written unpublished two novels. What are they about?


“Actually, I’m trying to finish my third, but I’m having a hard time. My first novel was about a doctor who had two children, and she was very busy with her work and everything, and she kind of toiled with this idea of staying home. You know, it’s not something that you do, and she liked her work and everything, but it’s like her children were beckoning her, and she just made a decision that she would stay home with them and she was very happy with that decision.


“And then the second one is kind of about a family-run pumpkin farm. You know, one of those places that puts out their sign and sells pumpkins. And I had a lot of characters in it, too: different kinds of characters that would kind of come through the plot, you know.


“And then my third one is about a woman who lives alone. She’s kind of afraid to go out of her house because of the tragedy that was in her life. She winds up saving this guy, this young man, and he winds up saving her.”

You mentioned gardening, how has that influenced you? It’s a personal activity, isn’t it?

“Well, it is. And I mean, how can you go out and see that sky – whether it’s gray or brilliant blue – and not be inspired? This fall was just an amazing fall to me for having nature inspire me, all those painted lady butterflies – just beautiful.”

“You know, all of these things took years for me to improve and perfect – which, nothing is perfected, in my book.”

When you say nothing is perfected, do you feel that way about your poems?

“Mostly in the sense that they might not be taken in the right vein. Or again, that rhythm thing; I don’t think I have that down. I like to write for myself, but really I want other people to be able to like my stuff, too. I do write for people. I know if I read something for somebody and I see no reaction, it’s gonna go in the trash.”

How much would you say you write, typically?


“I go through phases when I’m working on my novels and poetry, I’ll write every day. But the last couple years or so I don’t write as frequently because I get involved in other things, and family issues and everything. This fall I would step outside and look at the garden, and I would write in my head, and I guess what I say is I write on the clouds, and I wasn’t committing them to paper because (they’re) just these little lines here and there, you know. And now I have to try to recapture that.”


Do you have a closing thought?


“When I started out writing, I set out to actually write something, and now even when I’m not totally engaged in writing, I can’t help thinking about it. I think in terms of writing. I’m not gonna quit.”

Contact poet Carla Stout.

Edited by Katie Saffell, Bethel University.

Submitted photo.
Submitted photo.
Published in October 2017.
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