-The following is reprinted from a February interview profile done by Sherry Blue Sky for Poet’s United.
Oh, we have a wonderful feature for you this week, my friends. Buckle up, as this time we’re flying cross-country to the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The song is running through my mind as I type. We’re going to pop in on the talented Colleen Redman, who writes at Loose Leaf Notes, a wonderful mix of poetry, prose, photos, and incidents from her jam-packed-with-fun life. I am so looking forward to this! Let’s hop aboard. Keep an eye out for the peaks!
Sherry: Wow, Colleen, looking through your site to prepare for this interview, I got such a glimpse of the rich, eclectic life you live, your beautiful surroundings, and the way cool people you live with, and among. Give us a peek in, if you will. Tell us about the beauties of living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
Colleen: In Floyd, we have homebirth, homeschool, homegrown, and homemade. I guess I fit in pretty well here, since I’m a homebody.
I live with my husband Joe in a cabin off the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway in Floyd County, VA. Floyd is a rural county known for its mountain culture, traditional music, small farm homesteads and a flourishing art scene. The Friday Night Jamboree at the Floyd Country Store and Floydfest music festival are world renowned.
Moonshiners and the back to-the-land-transplants that started arriving in the ‘70s and ‘80s have been part of Floyd’s colorful mix. In 2005, I wrote an essay about Floyd titled Homegrown that I read on our local Public Radio station. In the essay, I described the independent spirit and grassroots talents prevalent in Floyd, “where locally famous farmers, artists, potters, wood carvers, writers and musicians live alongside well diggers, saw millers, herbalists, midwives, hunters and home builders.”
Sherry: I love your cabin! It all looks and sounds wonderful! I love small, alternative-energy towns. I spent my happiest years in just such a one.
Colleen: In my friend Randall Wells’ 50-chapter e-book about Floyd called Floydiana, I recount coming to Floyd in 1986. In the essay, titled Hippies are from California, I write: “I came to Floyd looking to learn the skills to live a more self-sufficient life, and I did. We learned from the locals and from each other. In some cases the newcomers may have brought back old traditions that weren’t being practiced anymore, like when my friends and I became interested in herbs and started wild-crafting local plants for medicinal remedies. Today, along with the garden, we have chickens and a hand pump for easy well water access. My husband keeps the shed filled with firewood and the freezer stocked with venison, which is my idea of being rich.”
I raised two sons in Floyd and now have two grandsons, who live down the mountain in Roanoke and who I regularly help care for. Before having children, I worked as a day care teacher. I’ve held a number of jobs in Floyd, including making and selling my own jewelry, working in my friend’s bead shop and providing foster care for an adult with disabilities (for 8 years). For years, I taught a creative writing class at Floyd’s independent Blue Mountain School, where my sons went when they were young.
Sherry: Sigh. What a wonderfully rich and fulfilling life you lead!
Colleen: Today I contract with the local newspaper on a part-time basis, covering events and contributing photos and feature stories. My husband is a licensed counselor and co-founder of a project-based high school here in Floyd. For seven years I was a member of the Floyd Writer’s Circle (a writer’s workshop group). We hosted a popular Spoken Word Open Mic monthly night at a local café that also lasted for seven years. We have two excellent literary journals based out of Floyd – Floyd County Moonshine and Artemis Journal – that have featured my poetry.
Sherry: A culturally rich existence. You could not find a better setting for a writer. Now let’s go back. Tell us about your childhood, and where you grew up. Did you begin writing as a child? Is there something you feel, looking back, had a significant impact on your becoming a writer?
Colleen: I grew up in the South Shore of Boston, MA, in an Irish Catholic working class family of nine siblings. I’ve always maintained that jump rope jingles, nursery rhymes, and the songs from the 40’s that my father taught me were some of the early influences that contributed to my love of language, rhythm, and word play. I also attribute my Irish heritage as an influence in my poetry, and my inclination towards small poems (about limerick in size). The Irish side of my family is rich with storytellers; some poems and a song have been published, and there are a few unpublished novels still floating around.
In high school, I always liked composition more than True and False test questions, and language far more than math. I liked history that gave insight into how people behaved and how the world works far more than trying to memorize battle dates and state capitals. I wasn’t awakened to writing while in school, but was later inspired by the lyrics of the music of my generation (Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan etc.) While working at a hip boutique in Boston in 1969, I distinctly remember hearing Leonard Cohen singing “Suzanne” on the radio and thinking that I wanted to be a poet.
Sherry: A defining moment, that began a wonderful poetic journey.
Colleen: As a fledging poet, I recognized my poetic line in the work of Richard Brautigan and the performance art poetry of Yoko Ono. My influences range from Rumi to Erma Brombeck, a humorist/columnist who I recognized as a teenager as someone who had something to teach me. The fact that I’ve plugged away for all these years, spending countless hours fiddling with poems without much compensation to speak of, is a strong indication that I was made to write.
Sherry: Yes, we write because we must. And thank heaven for online, and for having readers willing to read and encourage us! You are talented in both poetry and prose. Which do you love most? And what is it about poetry that keeps you writing it?
Colleen: I have said that prose is like my day job and poetry is the rest of my life. Writing poetry has been my writer’s foundation and a good training for developing a sense of structure that can translate into other kinds of writing. Through writing poetry, I learned the importance of opening and concluding lines, sound and rhythm, bridging thoughts together, and creating meaning. I’m good at looking at one thing and seeing how it is like something else, and reading and writing in ways other than from left to right.
Ultimately, the technical part of writing can always be worked on, but you can’t invent a voice. My writer’s voice is stream of consciousness language that I can trace back to my childhood. It’s untamed and comes with a level of authority that my other thoughts don’t have. I’ve learned to yield and listen to it. It’s the raw material of writing, that once collected I have to make something of.
Sherry: You have said it well. You cannot invent a voice, it comes from within.
Colleen: I like the balance of going from the accuracy it takes to document or report, to the freestyle self-expression of poetry. I’ve described writing poetry as taking my psychic blood pressure. I use the pen to get a diagnosis as well as for the treatment. There’s something satisfying in distilling a feeling or thought down to an essence.
Sherry: This reminds me of your quote: “A blog is to a writer as a canvas is to an artist.” I believe you are right. Smiles. When did you come to the world of blogging, and how has that impacted your work?
Colleen: I had been writing a lot of political commentary – especially during the U.S. invasion into Iraq – for the Roanoke Times, Common Dreams, our local Free Press and other publications, but I got burned out doing that. Ready to turn over a new leaf, I wanted to have more fun with writing. So, I posted a photo of me in Ireland with a shamrock pinned to my sweater, drew on my Irish storyteller roots and started my blog, Loose Leaf Notes, in 2005.
Blogging has given me a forum and an incentive to keep writing. I like the directness and self-sufficiency of not having to submit work or look for publishers. It’s like having my own magazine that I can post to every day, a poem, a photograph, a commentary, a formal or informal piece of writing. I also reprint my published print features, which gives them a longer shelf life. I like the inter-active aspect of blogging and through blogging I’ve made virtual friends from all over the world.
Sherry: I love that, too. I never would have dreamed anyone outside my family and friends would ever read my poems. Or that I’d meet such a talented and diverse community of poets the world over. It is a gift I never take for granted.
Colleen: One of my favorite things about blogging is that it acts as a writer’s filing cabinet. I can access everything I’ve written by searching a word or clicking on a category or date. Blogging is a good form of documentation that allows me to organize and cross reference my work.
My blog can be personal, but I think of it more as universal. I believe that writers have been sharing the personal in print novels, non-fiction or poetry since the beginning of the written word and that blogging is just another writer’s medium. I always keep in mind what Robert Frost said ‘all the fun is in how you say a thing’ and that each blog entry posted is a published document. I do my best to make sure I can stand behind it.
Sherry: Well said, Colleen. I read on your blog that you have a chapbook titled “Packing a Suitcase for the Afterlife” (great title!), and that you are seeking a publisher . Good luck, and keep us posted, wont you? How does it feel, to have a book completed and ready for print? What are your thoughts about the differences between being published by a publishing company or self-publishing?
CoIleen: I actually have self-published and have several home-made chapbooks of poetry that date as far back as the early ‘80s. When my brother Jim died in 2001 and I wrote his eulogy, it was as if all my previous writing was practice that brought me to that one point. When my brother Dan died a month after Jim, my writing turned into a book, The Jim and Dan Stories. It was part a recounting of the last few weeks of my brothers’ lives, part a humorous re-telling of growing up in an Irish Catholic family of 11 during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and part a chronicle of the day-to-day living and writing my way through life-altering grief. (More HERE.)
Sherry: Colleen, I am so sorry. I cannot imagine going through the loss of two siblings within a month. I am so glad you wrote your way through.
Colleen: The book was used for years in a grief and loss class for counselors at Radford University, where I was a yearly guest speaker. Three runs of 350 copies were printed at a local publishing company, and I sold all but about half-a-dozen of them before the book went “out of print.” Writing a book was a leap that taught me that the more you do what you were made for, the more it grows in you. I invested the proceeds from The Jim and Dan Stories into a 2004 printing of Muses Like Moonlight, a collection of poems and essays about writing, and I still have copies of that.
Since then, I have put together a homemade chapbook collection of haiku inspired Tea Poet poems. I also have close to 100 haiku-like moon poems that are looking for a home. Right now, I’m researching small press chapbook publishers for Packing a Suitcase for the Afterlife, a collection of poems that asks ‘how much does the essence of a psyche weigh? Is the soul the one carry-on we can actually take with us? What do we value enough to embody and what do we let go of in the end?’
Sherry: Your poems are asking the best questions! I look forward to reading more of your musings.
I love the poem “I Look Up,” and I would love to include it here, if you agree. It really speaks to me. It sounds as if it was written for someone very dear.
Colleen: “I Look Up” was written this past December for my sister Kathy who died from cancer in November. After going to her funeral, and once I got back into my own home routine, it was the first poem I wrote that tapped into another layer of grief and provided an opening for me to have a deep cry.
I Look Up – For Kathy
I look for her
on the tops of trees
I think she’d notice
that the poplar pods are empty
That they’re shaped
like baby tulips
cups for the mysterious
drinks that keep me small
and made her so big
My eyes search the unseen
and when I lose what I need
I know she knows
there are holes like portals
where things can fall through
There are places of comfort
at the tops of trees
where the tulips turn like bells
but never ring
where the lost and found mingle
but don’t tell their secrets
They hang like our childhood
just out of reach
Sherry: So moving and poignant, Colleen. You have learned much about grief and loss. I am glad you are sharing that with us and with others. Would you choose three of your poems to include here, and give us your thoughts about each one?
Colleen: The first poem I’m sharing – “In Answer to ‘How Are You?’” – was written after reading a Facebook update from a young woman I know who has a life threatening condition. She was explaining to friends how hard it is to answer the every day question, ‘how are you?’ I’ve always had trouble answering that question. It’s so general and I’m not one for rote answers. Also, I have been living with a variety of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) for a few decades and some of the standard answers, like ‘great,’ usually don’t apply to me.
In Answer to ‘How Are You?’
I’m starting to like sauerkraut
I’m worried that the water
in the chicken coop has frozen
I need a haircut
And ever since I saw that serrated spoon
in the silverware drawer this morning
I’ve been thinking about grapefruit
Awesome is for narcissists
and fine is for china
Today I ordered a hat pin from Amazon
and googled “psychopaths that don’t murder”
Good is for those absolved of sin
and well is for water
I watched the Golden Globes
and wrote a poem about slicing onions
that flew from my knife like origami doves
I’m afraid we’ll never agree on the cause of autism
I still want to see the Northern Lights
Sherry: I love these responses to the rote question! I might try this. Also, I have lived with CFS for many years as well, so I understand as only a CFS-er can.
Colleen: “I Put You on Speaker Phone” was published in Floyd County Moonshine. It was written about an exchange I had with my mother, who currently lives in a nursing home. After talking with me on the phone, she wasn’t physically able to hang up. We ended up spending about an hour in silence. It fed me in a meaningful way through the distance and because I knew any exchange we have could be our last. I found myself as the child who wanted her presence and to have some control over that.
I Put You on Speaker Phone
Your room is yellow
quiet with a window
no peanut butter crackers
You love the nurses
but want to go home
You thought your granddaughter
gave you a sponge bath
I laughed when I asked you
how many fingers I was holding up
but was really thinking
How many daughters do you have
and do you know which one I am?
When I was an infant in the hospital
I was separated from you for a month
And now it’s me asking you
What do you need?
You said “Bye honey
I love you” three times
but couldn’t manage
to hang up the phone
Just pretend I’m sitting
in the chair by the window
You can forget I’m here
and take a nap”
“I wonder if it’s still snowing”
you said after a long pause
and then “Now you sound gone
Are you still there, Coll?”
Holding the phone like a baby monitor
I heard you cough
I heard your amplified beating heart
as the omnipresent sound
a baby’s life revolves around
What kind of voodoo is this?
I wondered if I was intruding
and briefly felt intruded upon
remembering being the child
who tried not to bother you
Maybe its time to navigate
those faraway connections
those unseen and blurred lines
where the dead and living mingle
That’s the story I told myself
as I fixed my lunch and watched
the conspicuous phone
on the living room chair
until the connection timed out
Sherry: So moving, Colleen. Truly, this is the stuff of life. Your work really resonates with the human condition, as we live our daily lives through these amazing and important passages. I can’t wait to read the next one.
Colleen: “The Collector,” is a morning poem about attuning oneself to quiet reflection and the ebb and flow of natural cycles. It was published in the 2014 Artemis Journal, which was dedicated to and featured poet Nikki Giovanni. I wrote about the journal re-launch, in which Nikki spoke, here. Nikki teaches at Virginia Tech, not far from where I live, and I audited some of her classes years ago.
Leave me alone
to press my thoughts
in a hardcover book
Give me time to write lyrics
to the melody of morning
to pray on a rosary of silence
I need to measure each day
by the stretch of light and shadow
see the moon as a bowl
fired by the sun
I want to make a fossil
impressed with a feeling
until its innate memory shines
Let me steal a few moments
to collect an intuition
to look an untold story in the eye
Sherry: Sheer beauty! Such lovely visuals: the melody of morning, the rosary of silence. Gorgeous writing, Colleen!
What other activities are you involved in when you aren’t writing? Do you have other creative outlets?
Colleen: I’m a child of the ’60s and have always loved to dance. I’m happy to say that I live in a town where there is great music and I can dance on a regular basis, as I did as a young woman in my peninsula beach town at The Surf Ballroom. I love taking pictures and never go out without my camera and without expecting to be delighted by something that catches my eye.
I cover events for our local paper on a part time basis and blog about life in Floyd. I like to garden. Lately, I’ve been exploring my inner life through solitude, poetry and a women’s dialogue circle that I belong to. Spending quality time with my grandsons always puts a smile on my face. I like traveling with my husband. The last trip we took was to the French Quarter in New Orleans (with bicycles).
Sherry: You have a beautiful life and family, Colleen. Is there a cause you are passionate about? What concerns you the most, about this old world of ours?
Colleen: My writing has never been removed from the rest of my life and has almost always been directly related to issues close to my heart. Whether it’s writing political commentary against the Iraq War, starting a Caesarean Prevention newsletter with a friend, or The Bell: A Call to Peace newsletter with another friend, I write to synthesize what I’m learning at the time.
The majority of my writer’s training ground took place within the pages of A Museletter, a homespun community newsletter that was cut, laid out, pasted, and collated by volunteers from the Floyd alternative community every month for more than two decades. I first began writing for and co-editing the Museletter when I moved to Floyd in 1986. In the early days I wrote a monthly home-schooling column, but soon my subjects branched out to include those on gardening, herbs, self-health, woman’s issues, environmental issues and travelogues. I use to refer to the Museletter as “kitchen table democracy.” My poetry contributions were a mainstay within its pages.
Today, I like to spotlight the talents of others and have written many feature profiles for our local newspaper. I’m a documenter at heart, feeling that our stories are what endure after we’re gone, so we might as well set the record straight. I like to touch on our human commonality and tell the back story of life. When I’m writing a story about someone, I’m not looking to know what they don’t want to tell me, but I am interested in the inner life that drives their outer story.
In 2015, I contributed an essay to a locally published book called Floyd Folks: Collective Wisdom from a (One Stoplight) Mountain Community. In it I talk about “Living My Version of a Successful and Happy Life,” as well as my long standing struggle with CFS. I summarize what I believe to be my best contribution to the world: Just as I could fill notebook pages on the alternative supplements and therapies I’ve tried over the years to overcome CFS, I could also fill pages on the workshops I’ve taken, self-help books I’ve read, practices I’ve undertaken and progressive thought I’ve explored over the years.
These days I’m not trying to change or better myself. I’m just trying to understand what’s already there. I realize that the best thing I can do for the world is to be myself. If I can be myself, keep my conscience clear and respect the authority of my inner voice, I know the rest will fall into place, and that makes me happy.
Sherry: Your life wisdom informs your writing, my friend. Is there anything you’d like to say to Poets United?
Colleen: I look forward to sharing poetry with Poets United poets via our mutual blogs and reading their comments. It’s been my experience that poets write the best comments on the internet.
Sherry: Thank you so much, Colleen, for allowing us to get to know you better. We are happy to have you join us at Poets United, and look forward to enjoying your work in the months and hopefully years to come.
Well, my friends? I told you we were in for a wonderful visit. As our plane lifts us up and away from the big blue hills, I give a big sigh, not quite ready to leave this beautiful place. Do come back and see who we visit next. Who knows? It might be you! – Visit Poets United HERE.
Photos: 1. Colleen in 2015. 2. Our cabin on three acres of land. 3. Our town during the Friday Night Jamboree. 4. My two sons, Josh and Dylan, and two grandsons, Bryce and Liam. 5. Me and my siblings. Boys: Jimmy, Johnny, Joey and Danny. Girls: Sherry, Colleen, Kathy and Tricia. 6. Me reading poetry at Café del Sol in 2007. I blogged about a more recent reading (2014) in Floyd HERE. 7. Me in Ireland, 1999. 9. Jim and Dan Stories. 10. Muses Like Moonlight. 11. The Girls. 12. U.S. Senator Tim Kaine playing harmonica at the Floyd Country Store. 13. My husband Joe and our grandsons on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a few minutes from our house. 14. My friend Triona Bason at downtown loft overlooking the town. I wrote a feature story on Triona for the newspaper recently. See HERE. 15. Floyd Folks book.