Interview with Roberta Senechal de la Roche


What is a current project you are working on?

I am working to put the last finishing touches on my third chapbook, After Eden, which recently won the Heartland Review Press 2018 Chapbook Contest.

What is the piece of writing advice, good or even bad, that you have received that has impacted you the most?

I have little contact with those in the field of literature, and very seldom ask anyone for writing advice.  I think the most important element of poetry is creativity, and who can help anyone be creative?  The only one I know is sociologist Donald Black who theorizes that creativity flourishes most with social isolation, which increases the intensity of one’s involvement in one’s work.  The less one is involved in other people and social activities, the greater is the likelihood one will get new ideas. Those who live normal lives have normal ideas.  They are less creative.

What are some of the greatest influences upon your writing, whether other writers or outside influences?

Some of the writers would include John Keats, Geoffrey Chaucer, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Leo Tolstoy, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Charles Wright.

I also believe that my family had an impact on my aesthetic evolution.  My mother was a painter and art teacher, and my father a fanatic about music of all kinds.  As a child, I often stayed with my maternal grandmother who would leave beautifully produced volumes of Victorian poetry strategically placed where I would see them. The first poetry book I ever opened was her copy of Alfred Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, bound in bright green cloth with ornate gilt letters and trim.  I think I came to take it for granted that appreciating – even making — beautiful things is what one does in life.

These pieces have very vivid and at times dark imagery – what was your inspiration behind them? Is this a common thread through your writing or are these pieces experimental in that way?

Most of my poems are darkly lyrical – even elegiac, as one poet acquaintance put it.  Many express a rage against transience, a sense of alienation from nature, and a search for the lost supernatural in a secular age.  I think some of this originated with my father. He was part Micmac – a Native American tribe in Canada.  From the time I was little, he taught me how to shoot a rifle and bow and arrow; taught me how to hunt and fish and to identify animal tracks; how to identify trees and plants; how to handle a canoe, a knife, and more.  In the woods he would point up and say, “This is God’s real cathedral.”  I eventually came to realize that his world was irreparably lost and broken and his lessons futile.  When his bad moments came, he would go off in the woods by himself and sing.  I sometimes overheard.  My poems in part continue his dark songs with their sense of disconnection from this world and their longing for a way to transcend our inevitable losses.

However dark my poems may be, though, I do not regard them as experimental.  I regard them as realistic.

I think poet Dante Di Stefano captured a little of the essence of my work when he said that reading my poems “is like dancing on the empyrean edge of a strange, unrelenting, barbed, and beautiful horizon.”

Do you have a favorite place to write, or are there any habits, rituals, inspirations, etc. that help you write best?

I generally do most of my drafting on a computer, but I find that many of my most creative moments come when I am isolated for long stretches and far away from my desk.  I live in the Virginia woods, and I find being outdoors especially helpful.

As for habits, I never in any way force myself to “work” on my poetry.  I feel that if it ever comes to feel like work to me, I ought to give it up and move on to something else.  John Keats once said that if he got stuck in the middle of writing a poem, he did not struggle with it.  Instead, he would begin one or more new poems, then go back to the stalled one later.  I find his practice works well and spares me needless frustration.

The matter of inspiration is most difficult for me to address.  I feel as though the poems – titles, lines, stanzas, sometimes whole poems — come to me from out of nowhere.  They do sometimes begin with an overheard scrap of conversation on a street or the sound of water in the middle of a storm.  I am always on the alert to catch something on the wing.  But I do not really feel I can control, channel, or in any way conjure up inspiration.  It comes and goes as it pleases.