Below is an interview with the incredibly talented winner of our National Poetry Day Competition:
The Random Section
1.What’s your name?
Rachel R. Baum
2.What’s your favourite colour?
Grey but always with another color – orange, yellow, black, white, etc. It’s a strong foundation color that holds up well to other colors.
3.What’s your favourite animal?
Dogs, but as a professional dog trainer, that shouldn’t come as a surprise!
4.What’s your favourite food?
Samosa chat. The start of a perfect meal, which includes chicken do piazza, basmati rice, paratha, and iced spiced tea. Coconut cake or key lime pie for dessert. Or both.
5.What kind of hobbies do you like?
Fishing from my kayak – in good weather I’m out there every morning and every evening. I live on a lake in the summer so I am pretty spoiled. Crocheting and knitting. I started an organization called the Saratoga Peace Pod. Pod members create warm items like scarves, gloves, blankets, and baby things, and donate them to our partner organizations – a domestic violence shelter, a breast cancer resource center, a home for teens in crisis, and others. I play pool a couple of times a week. I do some other crafty things like decoupage and book repair. Being able to travel again would be life-affirming, but health-wise, it might not happen soon.
6.What’s your favourite time of year?
I love the cold! I like to cross country ski and just be outside in the snow. I lalso ove sitting by the fire with my dog and cat buddies, my slippers, a lap blanket, a cup of tea, and some knitting. So winter is my favourite.
7.Do you prefer tea, coffee or none?
Both depending on the time of day. Iced Americano in the morning (all year, even in winter), herbal teas in the afternoon and evening.
8.What’s your lucky number?
Ten. I have my 10th dog now, named Tennyson, of course!
The Writing Section
9.What would you say poetry is?
Poetry is a story told from the heart in a way that speaks to all of us. It is a revelation of a place, a person or a feeling, using language that makes us want to know more.
10.How long have you been writing poetry?
I am very new to writing poems. I started in March 2020 when I got sick with Covid-19 in the first wave of the disease here in the US, and never got better. I was surprised at the vehemence of the words that exploded from me, a declaration that this illness might have taken everything from me, but that I still had a voice.
11.What inspired your winning poem?
I recently retired after working for some 45 years. I was afraid I would not be able to fill the hours, that I would lose my identity and my sense of purpose. In fact, retirement has been wonderful! I feel like I am learning things about myself I never knew. The poem is about that discovery. I tried not to be banal and trite, but it is also about appreciating the small moments of everyday life and the choice we make to be happy or not.
12.How do you normally find inspiration?
Inspiration finds me. I’ll see a word or an image or follow a random thought to a memory, and a poem comes naturally as a result.
13.Do you know the title of your poem before you write it, or do you write it and then create your title?
I almost always start with a title. It might not be that title by the time I finish the poem though. I am very careful to save my poems in Word documents. The title is more of a place holder so I can return to the poem for editing.
14.Do you write your poems with pen and paper or on a device?
Both. I start by writing the poem in a notebook with a pen or pencil. I might do some editing on this first paper draft, just so I can read it. The poem can be almost illegible when I am scrawling it out in long hand. As soon as I can, I put the poem in a Word document on my laptop. Sometimes I share it with my iPhone so I can edit it when I can’t get to the computer.
15.Who’s your favourite author?
It’s impossible to name just one, so my current favourites are Carol Shields, Thomas Hardy, Larry McMurtry, John Irving, Jerzy Kosinksi, James Baldwin, Laurie Colwin, and Jim Harrison. Oh, and Bobbie Ann Mason and Anne Tyler.
16.Who’s your favourite poet?
That would be like asking who is my favourite child! I would say my top 10 are Valentina Gnup, Nicole Cooley, Natasha Trethewey, Ellen Bass, Erin Murphy, Hannah Straub, Alan Walowitz, Michael Blumenthal, Meg Day, and Michael Mark.
17.What’s your favourite book?
When I was 11 years old, I read The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico so my relationship with the book has had many years of staying power. It’s a very short fable or legend yet incredibly rich with grand themes like courage in the face of impossible odds, overcoming your disabilities and physical challenges, giving unconditional love, helping others selflessly, even people you don’t know. I’ve tried to live my life with that book as my moral code. It’s my favourite book to give as a gift.
18.What’s your favourite poem?
Now, Voyager by May Sarton. I used to be able to recite it by heart, along with Remember by Christina Rosetti. I gravitate towards sad, reflective, very personal poems. When I was a librarian, I put together a collection of that genre of poetry titled Funeral and Memorial Service Readings Poems and Tributes (McFarland, 1999). The title is still in print through the publisher and Amazon.
19.How do you go about writing a poem?
I don’t typically sit down in a deliberate way to write. I always have paper and a pen or pencil around, especially in the car, so when I see something arresting or an idea comes to me, I can get it down quickly. I scribble whatever my hand and my brain have decided needs to be said. Later, I will type it up in a Word document and begin to edit the poem, a process that is more revising or reimagining. The finished poem will sometimes have only one word or phrase in it from what was on paper originally. I edit over a series of days. It is very hard to stop and declare a poem finished.
20.Why do you like poetry?
The poet Ellen Bass said that poetry is the most intimate of all writing. Poetry saved my life, and continues to give me a way to express frustration, anger, joy, passion, love, sorrow and grief.
21.Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?
Take classes and workshops to help you establish a good foundation in technique and form. Then find your voice and be true to it.