I first met Wendy Drexler at Barbara Helfgott Hyett’s table in the early 2010s. At the time, she had just come out with her first full-length book, Western Motel. Since then she’s gone on to publish two more full-length books: Before There Was Before and Notes from the Column of Memory. Wendy’s career is living proof that it’s never too late to become a poet. After years working as an editor, she started writing poetry in her 40s. Since then, she’s gone on to collect a plethora of publication credits, including RHINO, The Threepenny Review, and Mom Egg Review. Her poems have been featured on Verse Daily and WBUR’s Cognoscenti. A four-time Pushcart nominee and a Mass Cultural Council Fellow, her poetry has also appeared in unusual venues such as on the sidewalk in Mass Poetry’s Raining Poetry project and a sculpture installation in Southborough, Mass. I got to know Wendy better during poet educator training, a joint venture with Lesley University and Mass Poetry. I’m proud to call her a friend.
Frances Donovan: Tell me about your new collection, Notes from the Column of Memory.
Wendy Drexler: Notes from the Column of Memory explores the hinge of memory–what we remember and how our memories change, dive, and surface as we reinvestigate the past at different stages in our lives. The past, it seems, is always informing the present. My title poem, which won the 2021 Juror’s Prize at Art on the Trails at the Beals Preserve, Southborough, is written in the shape of a column; it begins, “See how time breaks us / and still we stand.” I’ve placed a crown of sonnets at the center of the book, interrogating rituals of burial and grief (“I hear your silence working its way through the ground”) by interweaving the shamanistic burial of a woman who lived 10,000 years ago in the Levant with the death of my mother when she was 56. I also recall and extend concern for other living beings in a world in which many species are being diminished–from the pet red-eared slider I lost in the grass when I was a child, to the giant Galapagos turtle, and from a rose-breasted grosbeak “called in” by a birder replaying the bird’s own song on a speaker to the groundhog I ran over in my car. Much of this book was written during the pandemic and in my poem “And I Say Yes to the Grass,” I affirm “Yes to the time we live with / because we’ve got to live with it, / yes to loving better, to coming in / from anywhere.”
Donovan: What first brought you to poetry?
Drexler: I’ve always loved words, and while I worked professionally as an editor for many years, I didn’t discover until decades later that I might have something of my own to say and a way to say it. In high school I wrote a poem or two, and read a little poetry: I remember John Lennon’s In His Own Write, and in college, Kahlil Gibran, which everyone was reading then. I came to writing poetry when a friend gave me Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and I began to keep “morning pages,” three notebook pages written with a fountain pen first thing in the morning. The idea was not to look at what you’d written for six weeks so you wouldn’t judge yourself. After that I would feel the urge to write when I was inspired by the natural world, for example, watching a blue heron trying to swallow a huge frog or finding dozens of sand dollars washed up on a beach. After these forays, I began to take poetry workshops with Susan Donnelly and then with Barbara Helfgott Hyett, who became my longtime friend and poetry mentor.
Donovan: Tell me a little about your development as a poet. Did you pursue formal training or are you self-taught? Do you belong to a workshop or writing community?
Drexler: My primary mentor has been Barbara Helfgott Hyett, who also became a dear friend. I joined her PoemWorks workshop in 2001 and continued until she stopped teaching a few years ago. From Barbara I learned free writing, which I still practice many Monday mornings with a cohort of former PoemWorks poets. I’m also part of a weekly poetry discussion group and a weekly leaderless poetry workshop with former PoemWorks friends and other poet friends. All of these groups are on Zoom. Other mentors include Susan Donnelly and all the wonderful teachers I’ve studied with at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA: Marie Howe, Nick Flynn, Martha Collins, Gabrielle Calvocoressi, and Carl Phillips.Continue reading “It’s Never Too Late: A Conversation with Wendy Drexler, Author of Notes from the Column of Memory”