May 14

An Interview with Charlotte Mandel

CharlotteMandel. jpg

Blotterature is grateful that respected poets, like Charlotte Mandel, are sending us their work for review. In yesterday’s review, Elizabeth Mobley examines Mandel’s Through a Garden Gate and quickly identifies her strongest attributes as a poet: imagery and space. We hope you enjoy our little Q&A below and learn more about this outstanding woman.

Blotterature has a strong connection to our place – industrialized Northwest Indiana – and it is reflective in our writing. Tell us where you are and how your place fits into your art.

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. Coney Island was my seashore, Prospect Park my landscape of trees, meadow and lake. New York City’s policy of free tuition colleges enabled me to graduate from Brooklyn College. Eventually—married with children—a G.I. mortgage enabled us to move to a split-level development in New Jersey, commuting distance from the city. When I began, not until midlife, to write poetry, the feel of the gentle salt surf with view of the Statue of Liberty came into my poems. Still later, awarded the privilege of resident fellowships at writers’ colonies such as Yaddo, Millay, VCCA and Villa Montalvo in California, those natural landscapes became integral to my poems.

Who/What has impacted your work the most and how does that come through?

Certainly, life experience has had a great impact on my work. So many feelings insist on seeking form as poetry—emotions involved towards parents, husband, children, close friendships—depths of love known and grief at loss. Nature comes directly into my poems—I like to walk with notebook and pen in hand, like an artist with a sketchbook, setting down sensory details of what may be found. Then there are humanitarian causes—effects of war, tsunami, 9/11, hunger. I have felt the need to explore untold inner lives of women in the bible, and have written two poem-novellas of feminist revision—The Life of Mary and The Marriages of Jacob, as well as a verse play, The Gardener’s Wife.

And definitely I learn from poets who matter to me, past and present. I went “back to school” for a Master’s degree in English and Comparative Literature where I was introduced to the work of poet H.D.(Hilda Doolittle). I have since published a series of essays on the role of cinema in the life and work of H.D. Movies have surely influenced my sensibility which comes into my work, particularly in the long poems. Research and writing of critical essays on H.D and other poets such as Muriel Rukeyser, May Sarton, Dylan Thomas, Thomas McGrath, deepens and broadens my themes and language. A workshop seminar with Robert Bly at Centrum helped me discover new sources for my poetry.

How do you generate new ideas for your work?

Quiet meditation sometimes brings the blessing of a thought, or a line, or phrase. Haiku is a form that generates mindful attention to detail. I may go back to free association scribblings in a journal to find something that may ignite words towards a poem. I love to work with received forms such as sonnet, sestina, ghazal, terza rima, or create a form of my own with rhyme and syllabics. My latest book, a collaboration with Vincent Covello, of poems written in response to the stunning color photographs of the beautiful garden he has created and photographed, was inspired by this calm haven. Published this year by David Robert Books, Through a Garden Gate is a rare interweave of three arts—landscape design, photography, and poetry.

CharlotteMandel andLucca

When have you been most satisfied with your work?

In general, I believe one’s most recent publication is the one closest to heart—that, of course, is Through a Garden Gate. At a book launch last week, I gave a reading of the poems in tandem with the photographs projected on screen. After the long period of work on this project, to have the well-made book in hand gives much joy, and the audience response has been very rewarding.

How do you know when a piece is finished?

Likely I will not know where a poem may be going. I must trust the language to lead me to discover meanings I had not known in advance. So when (or if!) that moment is reached, I may realize “aha”—that’s what the poem and I want to say. Then I go back and work towards fulfilling the necessary words and images. A book-length poem may be written in sequences. The Marriages of Jacob knew its ending when biblical Jacob’s beloved Rachel died. I was at Yaddo then, and walked out into the woods and cried because Rachel whom I’d lived with in thought had died, and because my book, after two years of work, had ended.

Individual poems may end up being revised many times, especially after being left to lie fallow for a period of time.

What has been your biggest failure and what − if any − lessons were learned?

Actually, I believe my “biggest failure” has been my not having recognized my need to write poetry until midlife. There are experiences I would have wished to explore in words at the time they were happening. On the other hand, memory in maturity may have been beneficial.

Tell us about your commitment to the writing community. Outside of your work, what else do you have going on? Or what do you see starting up in your future?

In 1981, the year my first book was published, I founded the Eileen W. Barnes Award as editor/publisher of not-for-profit Saturday Press. I set up the first national contest to publish a first book by a woman over 40. Maxine Kumin was guest judge one year. The response from hundreds of women showed how important this opportunity felt for so many who had delayed their writing careers owing to family and financial obligations, as well as to cultural expectations. Poets & Writers Magazine featured the press, as well as an article in The New York Times. And I have found teaching adult women at Barnard College Center for Research on Women, an enrichment for poetry and ourselves.

Where I live now, in a retirement community, I’ve been able to encourage people to spend more time reading poetry and going to poetry readings.

I hope to continue my contact with members of the H.D. International Society, and a women poets listserv (the internet is invaluable). And I’ve always been active in work towards peace and justice. Though not able to be as personally active as in the past, I’m a member of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and New Jersey Peace Action. I’m on the current events planning committee for my resident community.

What is your biggest pet peeve with the writing community, trends, etc. today?

I am concerned about some of the so-called avant-gardism given prominence as the “best of the new” where obscurity seems to be the principal goal of a work. It is still difficult to break into certain established journals. Fortunately, the internet and grass roots energy of a variety of voices makes today’s poetry world wonderfully diverse and open to innovations.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on new individual poems towards an eventual collection. Many of these are memory poems—this is a time of looking back, taking stock, mining old journals. But also meditative poems dealing with time’s passage. I’m continuing to write in forms. Attention to structure and rhyme often can distract the judgmental part of the mind, allowing unconscious material to come forth.

What are you reading right now?

I’m immersing myself in the poetry of W. S. Merwin. He is a poet remarkably able to write poems that open to awareness of cosmic mystery. And his wonderful work of creating a palm forest on previously barren land in Hawaii cheers and inspires us all.


Blotterature would like to thank Charlotte Mandel for making herself available to our readers. You can find out more about Charlotte’s writing projects on her website at http://charlottemandel.com/.



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  1. Blot Lit Reviews: Through a Garden Gate by Charlotte Mandel » Blotterature

    […] An Interview with Charlotte Mandel » […]

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