Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed poet Janet Ruth Heller about her life, what inspires her writing, and the work that went into her new poetry book, Nature’s Olympics.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am the president of the Michigan College English Association. I have a B.A. and an M.A in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago. I have taught British and American literature, creative writing, women’s studies, linguistics, and composition at eight colleges and universities.
I have published four books of poetry: Nature’s Olympics (Wipf and Stock, 2021), Exodus (WordTech Editions, 2014), Folk Concert: Changing Times (Anaphora Literary Press, 2012), and Traffic Stop (Finishing Line Press, 2011). I am a founding mother and former editor of Primavera, an award-winning literary magazine. The University of Missouri Press published my scholarly book, Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (1990).
My essay “A Visit to Isle Royale” was aired over Michigan Public Radio (1999) and published by the Toho Journal in 2020. A chapter from my memoir, “Returning to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin,” appeared in Midwestern Miscellany (2008). My play The Cell Phone won fourth place in a national contest and was performed at the Fenton Village Players One-Act Play Festival in Fenton, Michigan (2011). My play Pledging was performed at Triton College in Illinois as part of the Tritonysia Play Festival in 2017.
My fiction picture book about bullying, How the Moon Regained Her Shape (Arbordale, 2006; 6th edn. 2018), has received many awards, including a Book Sense Pick (2006), a Children’s Choices selection (2007), a Benjamin Franklin Award (2007), and a Gold Medal in the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards (2007). I have also published The Passover Surprise (Fictive Press, 2015, 2016), a middle-grade fiction chapter book for children.
When did you first WANT to write poetry?
My mother read me a lot of good poetry when I was a child. I especially enjoyed the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson from A Child’s Garden of Verses. He has a poem called “The Land of Counterpane” about a child who is sick and who plays creative games. That piece really appealed to me because I had terrible allergies that were not diagnosed, so I was often sick.
I also loved Stevenson’s poem entitled “The Swing” about a child on a swing because it captures the experience in a very imaginative way. I wanted to write as well as Stevenson.
When did you take a step to start writing poetry?
My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Messias, did a unit on poetry for the class, and she urged us to make up our own poems. She was surprised that I created many verses. She liked a poem that I wrote about flying a kite with my father, so she dittoed it for the class. That really encouraged me to write.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
My first published book, Coleridge, Lamb, Hazlitt, and the Reader of Drama (University of Missouri Press, 1990) was a revised version of my doctoral dissertation. This work is a scholarly history of the idea that tragedy should be read, not performed from Plato and Aristotle to the late twentieth century. Because I covered such a wide range of literature and many centuries, it took me six years to complete this book (1976-1982). Then I had to find a publisher, and the University of Missouri Press wanted me to make some revisions. I made these revisions in 1988 and 1989, and the book got published in 1990.
If you are asking about my first book of poetry, the process was more complicated and more time-consuming. I finished my first poetry manuscript in 1976, but I could not find a publisher. So I revised the manuscript over and over and over. My writers’ groups in Chicago, Illinois and in Kalamazoo/Portage, Michigan made suggestions for improving my poems. In 2005, my poetry manuscript was a finalist for the Richard Snyder Memorial Poetry Prize of Ashland Poetry Press. The judge for that contest was Robert Phillips. I found this result very encouraging, and I kept revising my work. Finally, Finishing Line Press liked my chapbook Traffic Stop and named it a semi-finalist in the Finishing Line Press Chapbook Competition of 2010. The press published my book in 2011.
Traffic Stop contains some of my best poems written from the 1970s to 2009. Themes include being an assertive nontraditional woman, having close relationships, teaching college English and women’s studies, loving nature, traveling, being involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, mourning my father’s death, experiencing folk music at different stages of my life, and being an artist/entertainer/writer.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
I began serious work on my most recent poetry book, Nature’s Olympics (Wipf and Stock, 2021) in 2012. I assembled all of my good poems about the natural world written since I was an undergraduate. I revised many of the poems repeatedly with the help of my Michigan writers’ group. I kept sending out the manuscript, but I had trouble finding a publisher. In 2018, Word Works informed me that Nature’s Olympics was a semi-finalist in their Washington Prize poetry contest. That gave me a lot of encouragement to keep revising and sending out Nature’s Olympics. In 2021, Wipf and Stock accepted and published my manuscript.
Nature’s Olympics is a book of concise poems about plants, trees, animals, and birds in wilderness areas and in cities. Nature’s Olympics has four sections dedicated to the different seasons. Poetic forms include haiku, tanka, sonnets, and free verse. Nature’s Olympics has an accessible style and approach to poetry.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Nature’s Olympics?
I have always loved the natural world. My father used to take me for long walks when I was a child, and he showed me the different kinds of trees, plants, birds, and animals. He also taught me about star constellations. I liked helping Dad with his garden.
I find nature a source of comfort and healing. When my life seems full of problems, deer, owls, flowers, butterflies, full moons, and other aspects of the environment delight me and help me to cope with grief and anger. I also feel a kinship to the natural world that grounds me and calms me.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Nature’s Olympics?
Because I have been writing about nature since I was a child, I had to decide which of my hundreds of poems belonged in Nature’s Olympics. I chose poems that seemed most fully developed and original. With the help of my writers’ group, I revised some poems to strengthen the imagery, structure, and word choice.
Most poetry publishers want a book manuscript between sixty and eighty pages long. When I wrote new poems that I considered powerful, I added them to the collection and deleted poems that I felt were not as strong. For example, in 2020, I added a poem about COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the natural world, “Spring 2020.” I felt that this poem made the book up-to-date.
Do you keep to a theme with your poems, or just go where the mood strikes?
Nature inspires me with a variety of themes, and I want to allow spontaneity in my writing. So I allow my imagination leeway to roam. Themes in Nature’s Olympics include the different seasons of the year, the prowess of various birds and animals, resemblances between humans and creatures, nature’s ability to comfort people, the beauty of the natural world, and tragedies in nature and human life.
What is your favourite poem in Nature’s Olympics about and what inspired it?
I like all of the poems in Nature’s Olympics for different reasons. For example, the title poem, “Nature’s Olympics,” emphasizes that the natural world has birds and animals as acrobatic and skillful as Olympic athletes. “Picking Raspberries: Learning Perspective” develops the idea that people must be willing to see life from different viewpoints to be truly wise. “Unveiling” is an elegy for my father and highlights the importance of nature in his life. “Deer” tries to capture my fascination with this animal, which frequently visits my backyard. “Growing Up on the Other Side of Lake Michigan, An Ode” focuses on the key role of Lake Michigan in my life.
Does music help you write or is it a distraction?
Music helps me to write. I especially enjoy classical music and folk music. I studied piano for eleven years, and I have sung in choirs and done solos since I was six years old. In the 1990s, I would often listen to Jean Redpath’s renditions of Scottish ballads and then go write new poems. I have a poem about the influence of folk music on my work in my book Folk Concert: Changing Times entitled “Folk Concert, Kalamazoo, March, 1996.”
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Nature’s Olympics need?
I have a Ph.D. in English, and I have done a lot of editing for students, friends, and literary magazines. I am a very good proofreader, so my manuscripts rarely need editing from my publishers. I follow any guidelines that the editors provide.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write poetry?
Be as specific as possible. Give readers details that appeal to the five senses. Remember that readers have not lived your experiences, so help them to imagine what you are writing about.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I’m already writing on a fifth book of poetry that will have more than one theme. I’m also working on a memoir. I have published two chapters of this memoir. Midwestern Miscellany published “Returning to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin” in 2008, and Toho Journal published “A Visit to Isle Royale” in 2020. In addition to being a writer and editor of literary magazines, I participated in the anti-war movement during the conflict in Vietnam; co-founded the Rape Crisis Center in Madison, Wisconsin; and served on the board of Friends of Poetry in Kalamazoo. I also co-founded the Professional Instructors Organization union at Western Michigan University. I served on the women’s advisory board for the public television station WGVU in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I am a Past President of the Ladies’ Library Association in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and a Past President of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Yes, I’m very proud of my hard work on revising and finding publishers for my seven books. I have grown as a writer over the years. I’m glad that I persisted in my career.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
Website URL: https://www.janetruthheller.com/
Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/JanetRuthHellerBooks
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