Poetry and the Magic of Sheep Shearing
Sherry O’Keefe is “a poet with a day job” who has done many remarkable things. I asked her about some of them.
Kathleen Kirk (Poetry Editor for Escape Into Life): I recently learned (on Facebook) that you went to college on a music scholarship. Can you tell us how playing the viola in the past relates to writing poetry now?
Sherry O’Keefe: When I was nine I went into each classroom at our school to play Christmas music with a handful of violinists. There I was with my rented viola, playing my heart out with all these other violins playing the melody. I had no idea my viola was playing counter melody. Only after I played for my family at home did I find out I wasn’t playing the melody—no one recognized “Silent Night.” A normal kid might have been embarrassed with such belated learning, but I was thrilled to discover I’d been given the role of finding magic within the melody! I loved that beat-up viola all the more.
Decades later when I started writing poetry, I was also late to learn that apparently much of what I write is musically driven. After so many writers and poets would ask if I was a musician because of the way I write, I came to realize music did influence the way I string words. In addition to an added focus on duration, music pays attention to phrasing. The viola has a fun role in a full orchestra because it gets to take the melody apart and run with it right when you least expect it and in a magical way: Slant.
When I write, I sense the baton and feel the moment when the down bow should bow up, when the bow should dig in deeper and when the bow should skate. Then there is that sense, not so much of the down beat, but a wonderful sense of the up beat—that moment before the song begins, before the movement starts.
KK: I notice that you’ve served as a poetry editor or guest editor for numerous publications. What has editing poetry taught you about writing poetry? Or submitting poetry?
Sherry O’Keefe: I’m learning to listen better. Both outside of myself and within. Every poet has a story going on and there is more than one way to tell it. The story is inside each poet’s voice—has the poet discovered his own voice? Has she learned how to unlock that voice? And what a great experience as an editor to come across so many voices! Each journal I’ve worked with has its own separate view of the universe. It truly does make a difference on a poet’s acceptance rate if the poet spends time discovering which journals are a good fit for her or him. I’ve seen good poems and good poets receive rejection letters only because the poems did not fit what the journal had in mind for that particular issue. When editors write, “Not this time, but please submit again,” now I know they mean it. Gosh, it makes me want to go back and read all my rejection notices again. Some of them had asked for more of my work, but I was so sure at the time they were just trying to be kind.
KK: I understand you have a new book coming out soon. What is it? And would you tell us a bit about your previous books, too?
Sherry O’Keefe: Out later this year, I hope, Cracking Geodes Open is a collection of poems steeped in the magic of earth, sometimes through the point of view of a girl who is learning how to speak star, and sometimes through the POV of that same girl years later who has spent some time cracking geodes open and finding the power of life where we are least likely to look.
My first book of poems, Making Good Use of August, came out in 2009. Late last year The Peppermint Bottle, a collection of creative nonfiction essays and poems, was released as an eBook and a perfect-bound paperback. The title piece in this book was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
And finally, I am working on a collection of creative nonfiction essays, tentatively titled The Fisherman’s Trail. Such a narrow trail requires one to pack lightly and to know what all can be left behind.
KK: You’ve had experience with both print and online publishing. Can you compare and contrast the two for us?
Sherry O’Keefe: That’s a great question! Two of my poems were published by a beautiful print journal, Fifth Wednesday Journal. I love those two poems and am honored to have these FWJ issues on my bookshelves at home. But when it comes to those poems getting read by as many people as possible, as many times as possible over the years—I realize poems in a print journal would have more “air time” had they been published online. Conversely, the poems published online will never have shelf-space anywhere, and what is a poem or a story if we can’t touch the page? But what is a poem’s life-span without readers?
Some of the best journals are online and I appreciate that both as a poet and as a reader. Because of online journals I am able to read much more poetry, and enjoy more diversity in the world of poetry and art. EIL is a favorite of mine for this reason. Your pairing of art and photography with poetry is especially stirring.
KK: Thank you! And what can you tell us about sheep shearing and its possible relationship to poetry?!
Sherry O’Keefe: You are a fellow-magic-believer, or you wouldn’t have asked.
Poetry doesn’t start with pen and paper. It starts with a walk across a dark farmyard toward a quiet, red barn. It deepens with the sensation of a muffled rumble—something is waiting to be found.
I learned this from my sister whose sheep’s fleece I gathered beneath the floorboards of the shearer’s trailer: If you lead sheep into a barn with the far door open at the top, sheep are willing to enter because they see the barn as a passage, rather than a holding cell. As long as they see an opening on the far side, they aren’t likely to balk.
And isn’t the process of poetry more about the open possibilities rather than the limitations of a holding cell?
And then there is this: After the sheep are sheared, they run about the barnyard a little bit shocked and startled. Not so much because of what happened to them, but because of what happened to the others! Until they run around and smell each other, they no longer recognize any other sheep. We depend too much on visuals. Close your eyes and tune in to your other senses and you’ll realize how much more you “know.” And you’ll learn you have more than five senses.
I had been warned to never turn my back on the black ram, because he knew I was a stranger and he’d want to charge after me. But really, what sort of advice is that? Where were my shield and my staff? Instead I was told, if the ram charges, stomp your feet and charge him back. Believe in your own fierceness. If you fake it, it won’t work.
Don’t you think that’s the best advice for everything? I love my sister and her sheep advice!
To read some of Sherry’s poems, see her feature here at Escape Into Life. To read more of her daily wisdom, see her blog, Too Much August Not Enough Snow. To see more of her photographs and learn more about Montana, check out The Peppermint Bottle here, or the Kindle version here. And keep an eye out for those geodes and that fisherman!
The art paired with Sherry here and in her poetry feature is by Michal Giedrojc.