Rappahannock Review Poetry Editor: “The Hermit” feels both very personal and universal. How did you approach creating the poem’s balance of specificity and relatability?
Sherre Vernon: “The Hermit” is part of a larger project that meditates on the archetypes offered in the Tarot’s Major Arcana and explores how those archetypes are manifest in our lived experiences, in the people we know and the stories that we carry. This poem in particular asks what it is to be The Hermit in today’s world—and also, what the journey toward that sense of self might unfold. For those of us who have spent any amount of time in individual sports like swimming or running, the introspection and reflection of the Hermit are so resonant. With swimming in particular, the water shuts out almost all other sounds, and the shape of the lane and the pool create a bit of a monastic cell where we are alone with our thoughts, sometimes for hours on end. In a larger sense, I think it is the work of poetry in general to use specific moments, as conveyed through imagery and metaphor and the various other tools of the craft, to offer up a space for empathy: how much more can we appreciate those who seek solitude if we can imagine how they got there?
RR: We’re interested in the use of “you” in this poem. Can you tell us about how you developed the voice and point of view? What did you hope to convey with the use of “you”?
SV: The power of direct address is that it assigns an experience to the reader. It makes it personal and asks the reader to see themselves in the narrative. It asks the reader to listen, and to believe what’s being said is true. After all, who is a more reliable narrator than you, yourself? The second person can also convey a sense of being at the whim of some force outside oneself—maybe fate. Given the conceit of this poem, offering the narrative in second person, also allows it to be the script of what memories might be circulating in the Hermit’s head as he swims those last laps—he’s talking to himself about how he got there, watching himself almost from the outside and meditating on his own life and choices.
RR: In your bio, you write that you are a “believer in the mystical power of words.” Can you elaborate on that? How does that school of thought inform your writing?
SV: In a world saturated with information, I think we sometimes forget that words were humans’ first magic. Words bless, they curse, they build histories and destroy relationships. Because they are so powerful and dangerous, institutions of power have been trying to contain them since time immemorial: we are told which words are profane, and who can hear them; there are grammars, created by academics, that tell allow and disallow phrases and sentences in our language—all this before we discuss censorship of books or authors. These efforts to contain language are testimony enough to what it can do when unleashed. As a poet, I believe that part of my work is to remind us that language can occur in unfamiliar sequence, that words can do work we’ve forgotten they’re capable of, and if we let it, language can inspire in us a state of deep connection to others that challenges the current state of isolation so many of us find ourselves in.
RR: We’re drawn in by the momentum and immersive feel this poem creates. What is your writing process like? Do you finish your first draft all at one time or is your writing more spaced out?
SV: Yes. Meaning that each poem decides how it wants to be written. Some find their way to the page more fully formed than others. Some begin as a recurring phrase or image that I can’t get out of my head. Because this poem belongs to a larger collection of poems, I did approach it with the intent to write it, and a premeditated strategy that goes something like this: I began with a study of the archetype named in the title. I looked at a variety of images—as many as I could get my hands on—and about 8-10 different written interpretations of those images. I took notes in the form of a list of words and phrases. I included images that were key or common to the archetype, in this case, the staff, the lantern, the robe. I also included concepts that were resonant, associations that came to mind, or images that caught my eye. I then let that study sit while I passively meditated on how those notes might reshape themselves into a moment in someone’s life. For some poems in the collection, the notes stayed in my notebook for weeks with no momentum. With this poem, I knew in my muscle memory that I’d be talking about a swimmer. I got the first draft in a single writing and was pretty happy with it. I then workshopped it a couple of times with a friend and fellow poet who helped me identify a couple of spots in the poem that were serving me but not necessarily the poem itself. I revised and drafted, drafted and revised. Throughout this process, I read the poem aloud several times, listening to how the words fell against each other. At some point I stepped away and let the poem be.
I don’t know if this gets to your first statement though—I could be wrong (death of the author and all), but my hunch is that the momentum in the poem comes from the particular choices in the poem—direct address, the diction that’s used push the reader forward decades in time even though there’s only one entry into the pool and one exit—rather than from the process I used to write it.
RR: In addition to writing, you also work as an educator. How has your experience in education impacted your writing?
SV: Wow. In every way. I’ve taught creative writing, so at some point I had to take what I was doing implicitly and try to offer it as explicit to my students. That’s one piece. Another is that I’ve read abundantly and widely. I can’t overstate how important it is for writers to read both in and out of their genre. It has also made me truly believe that writing gets better with collaboration and revision. I know that others see what I’m blind to, and I’m grateful for that. What’s surprising is that I’ve written very little about what it’s like to be a teacher or leader. I feel so responsible for the vulnerable people I work with that I never mine that space for inspiration. I accept it when it happens, as it did in one poem of this collection, “The Hanged Man,” but I don’t seek it out.
Sherre Vernon’s work in Issue 6.1: