5 Over 50: 2017

From the November/December 2017 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Tina Carlson

Age: Sixty-four.
Residence: Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Book: Ground, Wind, This Body (University of New Mexico Press, March), a poetry collection exploring the vestiges of war and redemption as a traumatized soldier returns home from WWII carrying a legacy of violence and abuse.
Editor: James Ayers.
Agent: None.

I watched Lucille Clifton, well into her fifties, perform: “these hips are mighty hips. / these hips are magic hips / i have known them / to put a spell on a man and / spin him like a top!” She danced and swayed and made the words into music in a small auditorium at Pacifica University in the late 1980s. I did not yet consider myself a poet, but I could not forget the sensual power of her words.

Ground, Wind, This Body began with the last poem in the book, “Embryo of Light,” which consists of dream fragments from the two and a half years it took to adopt my daughter Mia from China. The dreams came feverishly and took the form of my “pregnancy” with her. A beautiful poet and mentor, Laurie Kutchins, encouraged me to let the language and poems be as strange as the dreams. That permission allowed me to begin the book. I was in my early forties and just beginning to feel I had something of value to say. I am amazed at younger poets who find their voices early and are so strong. My voice, like my life, was fragmented and numbed for much of my early adulthood. In order to find it, I had to begin the long hard work of trauma and substance abuse recovery. My daughter, with her fragmented history, encouraged me to look at mine, and I started to write about how the war that lived inside my father was a force in our family.

This book was written over many years. It was made possible by community and endurance. New Mexico hosts a vibrant and active poetry community, and through workshops, readings, and writing groups, the poems were born. I sent out poems and most were rejected, as was the manuscript, multiple times. It was the power of communal work and exploration that encouraged me to keep going. It is so easy to give up, especially as an older woman with little confidence. I honor my teachers: Joy Harjo, Laurie Kutchins, Joy Jacobson, Valerie Martinez, Margaret Randall, Lisa Gill, Hilda Raz, Lynn Miller, and many others both at the University of New Mexico and in private workshops who bore witness to my efforts and encouraged me to keep going.

Writing and publishing are not competitive sports. Writing is the most important, but reading aloud brings the writing to life and allows for an audience. Listen to and read as many other poets and other writers as you can. Join a group that will root you on through the muck. Keep working on the craft with good teachers. Submit to paper and online journals, newspapers, art shows. Find local presses by talking to poets you know, noting which presses are publishing the books of poetry you love, and doing online research. I was able to publish my first book through the University of New Mexico Press, which has an honorable history of publishing books related to the Southwest. Encourage other poets to publish, to read aloud, to be heard. Buy their books when they come out, go to their readings. We live in a culture that doesn’t read enough poetry, so invite those people who don’t know poetry to go with you to readings. Send them poems you love. Animate the world with your words.