Laverne Frith and his wife Carol Frith are the authors of Practical Poetry—A Guide for Poets, and frequent presenters of poetry workshops. They are also the co-editors of Ekphrasis, a journal that publishes poems focusing on a single work of art. The couple lives in Sacramento.
Lavere Frith is also monthly poetry columnist for the widely circulated Senior Magazine. He has published numerous chapbooks from Talent House, White Heron Press, Finishing Line Press and Rattlesnake Press. He has been a runner-up several times for the Louisiana Literature Prize in poetry, and his works appears widely in such journals as the Christian Science Monitor, Poetry New York Common Ground Review and California Quarterly to name a few.
Carol Frith is a widely published poet whose sonnets are anthologized in Sonnets: 150 Contemporary Sonnets and frequently earn ‘Finalist’ status in the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award sponsored by Measure. Her work has received special mention in the Pushcart Prize, and has appeared in Seattle Review, Southeast Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review and dozens of other well-known journals.
Zara Raab: Laverne, how did you and Carol happen to start Ekphrasis, a “journal of interpretive critical statement in verse” as you describe it in the magazine? Whose idea was it?
Laverne Frith:, My wife Carol and I are the staff of Frith Press which publishes Ekphrasis,. In the past, over seven years, the Press conducted nationally advertised chapbook competitions. We judge all the competitions, and the winning chapbook and selected others were published by Frith Press.
More recently, instead of the chapbook competition, we have launched an annual Ekphrasis Prize competition, the best of the journal, selected by the editors. Frith Press is an independent small press operation.
The idea of starting a new journal focusing on ekphrastic verse—poems about art works–was due in part to the poor reception of ekphrastic poems by small literary magazines. We figured this out because we ourselves wrote quite a lot of ekphrastic poetry and had the experience of having it summarily rejected. Only a handful of journals in our experience would give it a serious look see. Independently, we reviewed a good many journals, noticing how seldom poems about art works were included.
We were fortunate at the time to know Joyce Odam and David George, a passionate advocate of formal poetry who encouraged our interest in seeing ekphrastic poetry published. We held frequent and protracted discussions on the subject. Additionally, both Carol and I participated in a poetry workshop at which writings about art were carried out. I suggested we start their own journal. Carol really liked the idea. So I resigned as facilitator of the Poetry Center Workshop and editor of The Poet’s Guild., and Ekphrasis poetry journal was born.
ZR: Carol, you work a lot in interesting poetic forms. Would you describe yourself as a “New Formalist”?
Carol Frith: I’m not sure I’d call myself a ‘New Formalist.’ For one thing, I also write a lot of free verse. In addition, I tend often to be a bit of a ‘rogue’ formalist. I like, for example, to write “free” villanelles– unrhymed, unmetered poems with the refrain pattern of a formal villanelle.
ZR: Tell our readers about some of the prizes and mentions you’ve received for your work. Do you have any thoughts about the poetry contest business, which seems to be thriving in America now? Do you recommend to young poets that they participate, enter contests?
Carol: I won the MacGuffin Poet Hunt in 2001, and I’m a seven-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. Both Laverne and I have won many prizes over the years in Artists’ Embassy International’s competition, including two Grand Prizes each. I recently won the Gribble Press Chapbook Competition, and I have finaled in several book and chapbook contests. I was co-winner in 2002 of the Palanquin Press Chapbook contest, winner in 2001 of the Medicinal Purposes chapbook competition, and a published runner-up for the 2001 Bacchae Press Chapbook Award.
ZR: I’d like to ask you to read your delightful poem, “Tritina for a Street with Hollyhocks” which first appeared in The Chariton Review and which is included in your chapbook Keepsake Houses: Crooked Streets from Finishing Line Press. But first, explain what a tritina is.
Carol: The tritina is, of course, based on the sestina, though the tritina is considerably shorter and easier to write. The tritina is a ten line poem consisting of three tercets and a final single line. The lines are of any equal length, with an end-word repetition pattern of 123, 312, 231 for the tercets. The final line contains all three words in 1,2,3 order. The tritina is a lilting kind of form that is very enjoyable to work with.
ZR: Now would you kindly read this lovely poem, so exemplary of your work?
Tritina for a Street with Hollyhocks
There was a street that I walked down
once, past houses that were various,
some with hollyhocks, some painted
green or brown, some scarcely painted
at all, older houses, small, a bit run down,
perhaps, their gardens filled with various
flowers: hydrangeas, lilies, all the various
roses—cabbages and climbers, tea—painted
ladies in shabby yards, a little down
on their luck, and variegated ivy coming down
off its trellis, old houses with various
gardens, a street my memory has painted
down the years, painted various as a dream.
ZR: Tell us, Carol, about your most recent book Two for a Journey. Many of the lovely poems seems to be about a couple’s path through life, relationship, aging, even illness, a journey told with such delicacy and such beautiful language. Describe how you came to write the poems in this book?
Carol: Thank you for your kind words about my book. The poems in Two for a Journey were written over a period several years. In reviewing some of my work, I had begun to notice that I had several poems written in a conversational format–two people communicating. I began to collect these poems for a possible manuscript, and Two for a Journey was the result. As I put the manuscript together, it appeared to be a progression of conversations tracking a partly real/partly fictional couple.
ZR: Two for a Journey has a lovely photograph—taken by your husband—of two yellow roses on the cover. That makes a good segue to Laverne. Laverne, let’s being with your wonderful collection of poetry and photographs, Celebrations: Images and Texts, published by Rattlesnake Press. Tell us about your work as a photographer.
Laverne: Photography has been a big influence, an important tool in seeing the world, offering perspectives not otherwise available to me.
ZR: Laverne, you write effortlessly, it seems, about the natural world, especially plant life, flora. How did you come by your knowledge?
Laverne: Emerson’s influence is very much with me today; he’s a part of my every encounter with nature. My sensibility, I believed, is derived from knowing as well as having the capacity to feel. Experience, of course, plays a role, and an enlarged sense of the world, and some real sense of being in the world. Sense matters, words matter, and an enlargement of all of it matters too. Poetry is still the highest use of language.
ZR: You also have a book from WordTech: Imagining the Self. Here, too, you use floral imagery so beautifully:
It seems so natural now, how the bare-bark
of the crape myrtle precedes the blooming
of the bottlebrush, the heavy leafing of the
apricot and the birch. But there was nothing
to prepare me for the way you preceded me
in the leaving. [. . . ]
. . .
how all the vacancy in the world can hinge
on one isolate turn, something surprising
opening up, while everything that is regular
disappears into a void. [“Sequences, Now and Then, 27]
ZR: I’d like to talk about what drew both of you to poetry, and how you came to write.
Carol: I have been reading and writing poetry for many years, but I did not begin to write seriously–and for publication–until the early nineties. I write poetry because I love to experiment with language. The relative formalism of poetry as compared to prose provides that opportunity.
Laverne: I was born in Oklahoma, an African American, in a time of segregation. My family took a special interest in my education. My parents were very supportive. An aunt schoolteacher introduced me to learning at an early age. I attended schools that bore the insignia of achievement—such as Phyllis Wheatley Elementary and Paul Laurence Dunbar Junior High School. Not only was I exposed to poetry, but I also had to memorize poems and recite them in the classroom. I first attended the University of Denver on an honors scholarship, but was forced to leave due to a family medical emergency involving my father. After military service, and a move to California, I began an intense lifetime encounter with the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson’s influence is very much with me today; he’s a part of my every encounter with nature. I feel that reading widely is an essential part of what I must do to encompass what the world potentially offers, especially in poetry. And I have been afforded the unique opportunity to share my thoughts on poetry in the column I write that is shared with so many people.
ZR: Questions for both of you: Who are your favorite poets? Do you think there are certain poets we have neglected, poets we should be reading, but aren’t?
Carol: My favorite poets? That is the most difficult question you’re asked. Well, I must say T. S. Eliot for Prufrock and The Waste Land. These are the poems that have most influenced me, and, of course, Yeats and Frost are huge favorites, also. In the tradition there are so many great names, but John Donne and Thomas Wyatt stand out for me. I think Gwendolyn Brooks stands out in twentieth century poetry. She was, in my opinion, greatly overlooked as one of our best modern formalists as well as a gifted free-verse poet. Her fine free-verse poem, The Bean Eaters, somehow defines American life in the forties and fifties in way few other writers can match.
Laverne: Because of the intensity of her conveyance of nature and the humanity of her locale, I am very much interested in and read regularly the poetry of Amy Clampitt. I also love to read Wallace Stevens, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost, Charles Wright, Mary Oliver. He reads widely in poetry, literary criticism, philosophy, and art, history.
ZR: What are you reading now?
Carol: I am currently reading S/Z, by Roland Barthes, the twentieth century French literary critic. I read literary criticism as an adjunct to reading poetry. I find it extremely helpful in interpreting other poets’ work as well as editing my own.. I am also reading the current copy of Lyric magazine.
Laverne: Currently I am reading Rilke, Schopenhauer, Mary Kinzie on poetry subjects, and the letters exchanged between Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov. Also the letters of Wallace Stevens.
ZR: How do you decide what poets and other books you will read?
Carol: Often I will encounter a poem that interests me in a literary journal, and I am sometimes inclined to locate and purchase a book by the person who wrote the poem. Sometimes Laverne or others will recommend a poet or a book of poems. In addition, I am in a poetry book club. Each of our members has an opportunity, at least once a year, to assign books for the group to read.
Laverne: I decide what books to read largely by looking at them, the subjects, the blurbs, the table of contents, and make a determination of how the book would fit into my scheme of things. But please remember, I have so many books. (Of note: I met Carol in a shopping mall. I had a poetry book, The Coney Island of The Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, tucked under his arm. She inquired about it. That was over thirty years ago. And now it is poetry on demand, everyday.
ZR: Do you have advise to give aspiring young poets?
Carol: My advice to aspiring poets is, I think, the standard dictum: read, read, read. I recommend reading in the tradition as well as reading contemporary poets. In addition, I strongly advise reading literary criticism. It provides excellent framework, background and context for any poet’s work.
Laverne: I second that, Carol. Never subordinate opportunities for learning. And practice!!!!
Zara lives in Berkeley and is one of the first women to graduate in architecture from UC Berkeley. She grew up along California’s North Coast, attending school in Portland when she was fourteen, and later Mills College and the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) for college and graduate school. In her twenties, she traveled, living in Paris, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., where she made a living as a freelance editor and writer, participating for a time in the Capitol Hill Poetry Group, before returning to the West Coast to raise her children.
Early California is a subject of her book Swimming the Eel, just as the drama of family life is the subject of The Book of Gretel. In leaving behind the rural counties, she became a part of the human potential movement of the 1960′s, and that movement perhaps more than anything, shapes her life and her work. Since she was a teenager, she kept journals, and sometimes returns to those early notebooks for ideas. Her poems appear in many literary reviews and magazines, including The Dark Horse, The Evansville Review, River Styx, Crab Orchard Review, Nimrod, Dos Passos Review, Arts & Letters, and others. She also review books and writes essays on literature for various publications, including the Redwood Coast Review, Poetry Flash, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Colorado Review, San Francisco/Sacramento Book Reviews, and The Boxcar Poetry Review.