Petaluma poet Terry Ehret on creativity and survival

Terry Ehret of Petaluma is an award-winning poet and former Sonoma County Poet Laureate (from 2004 to 2006) who admits that, at the moment, she hasn’t found the urge to write much original poetry, and that she is not alone. “I have found, from my conversations with other poets, that some are very energized to write every day, and some are simply not writing at all,” she says. Even so, Ehret - the founder of Sixteen Rivers Press, and the recipient of the California Commonwealth Club Book Award, the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize, and four Pushcart Prize nominations - has found that poetry continues to be a significant part of how she gets through these long weeks of sheltering at home. With April designated as National Poetry Month, we spoke with Ehret on a recent sunny morning, discussing a range of topics from what she’s working on these days, to the power of poetry in times of personal and national crisis.

The conversation began with Ehret’s description of how she is doing under the state imposed lockdowns.

EHRET: Oh, some days I get a little anxious, with all the uncertainties and all the unknowns. And some days I’m okay with that uncertainty. It’s a little bit freeing in some ways. It comes and goes.

ARGUS-COURIER: Has working on projects been helpful during this time of staying at home?

EHRET: Yes, actually, but not in the way some people might expect. I’m working on a long term project, a translation project, that is very labor intensive and time intensive. What I have found is that I suddenly have much more time to work on that project. Rather than meeting with my translation partners twice a month or so, we meet twice a week now, on Zoom, and we do our work together. It’s work that drops me into a very different place in my writing, because I’m entering someone else’s work, someone else’s culture and language and intimacy, instead of mine. Reading somebody else’s poem takes you into a very intimate place. It’s like inviting someone else into my life. I suppose that many people who are drawn to a particular writer may find themselves going back deeply and intimately into that writer’s work. That’s been something of a gift to me.

AC: But, at the moment, you aren’t writing about the current situation yourself in any of your own poems?

EHRET: I’m not feeling particularly ready to write about this experience. I teach creative writing class at the junior college, and that’s moved into a kind of online instruction, and I always do the writing exercises with my students, and that continues to generate some new material for me. I also have a writing group I meet with regularly, now in a Zoom format, and we do some impromptu writing together. I did give myself a personal project.

I realized I wasn’t turning to my journal in the same way that I usually do, so I gave myself a homework assignment. I decided to use Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird,” as a prompt for a poem that would respond to different aspects of this COVID-29 crisis we are in. So I’m calling it, “19 Ways of Looking at a Corvid,” though blackbirds are not corvids, and nor is a corvid a virus.

In some strange leap of imagination, this became very productive for me. I try to write every day, just a little, in the style of Wallace Stevens. It’s a quirky blend of irony and almost-parody of the Wallace Stevens poem, blended with current events, statistics, things that are coming up for me, or for our society in general right now. That’s been an interesting project, for. It’s actually been fun.

AC: How do you account for those writers, like yourself, who are choosing not to delve too deeply into their own voices and feelings at the moment?

EHRET: I think that what we are collectively experiencing is grief and fear, some mingling of those two, and those are very isolating feelings. Those are feelings that tend to cause us to withdraw. And on top of that we have this mandate to shelter in place and practice social distancing, so there’s another form of isolation on top of the emotional isolation of grief and fear.

AC: And reading other authors’ writings, or stepping into their shoes to emulate them a bit, that helps?

EHRET: There’s an old adage that we read to know we’re not alone. I think I heard that in the movie “Shadowlands,” about C.S. Lewis. “We read to know we’re not alone.” I think many do turn to reading at times of crisis. We are alone, and reading doesn’t change that, but it allows us to make some kind of peace with that isolation, that aloneness, or at least to get to know it. To open that door inside ourselves and say, ‘Oh, this is my aloneness. This is what it is.” One can write out of that knowledge of one’s aloneness, but it may take time to really understand its music, and its language, and what part of you it represents. I think reading allows a person into that place of isolation and aloneness, just to feel it, or maybe to wrestle with it. Maybe it’s not about making peace with it. Maybe it’s about wrestling with that particular angel.

AC: Grief and fear, loneliness and isolation have, over the centuries, inspired some of the world’s greatest poetry. So one might assume that is a perfect, ripe time for the creation of some potentially great works of art.

EHRET: We will have to wait and see what comes from it. For some people there’s an immediate generation of response, but I think, in the same way that some are predicting a baby boom in nine months, there be something similar coming creatively, though it might take a similar gestation period for the deeper explorations of this crisis to manifest themselves and be ready to be born.

AC: Why do you think people turn to literature and poetry during times of crisis?

EHRET: It’s always been true. There was such a wave of poems and magnificent writing of all kinds, making the circuit of social media in the wake of things like 9-11, or the mass shootings we’ve had. In times like those, people do turn to poetry. I was just reading in the American Academy of American Poets, which sponsors National Poetry Month, that they have doubled their readership of their Poem a Day program. People signing up to have a poem emailed to them every day have doubled since all of this began. Something like 80,000 people have visited the part of their website they’ve established called Shelter In, which are poems people recommend, that they’ve found consoling, comforting, or in some way apropos of this crisis.

It’s pretty clear that people do crave at times like these. I think that’s because poetry is generally written in that interior space of aloneness. It speaks from that place, to help others identify and recognize what they themselves are feeling.

Have you experienced the nightly 8 o’clock howling? I love it. The howling strikes me as a metaphor for what happens when people tune to poetry. I might be alone in my own experience, but hearing someone else’s experience of aloneness can be very comforting and moving. There is a camaraderie that grows out that moment. It’s very primal.

I go walking almost every day, and sometimes I am joined by a friend. Of course, we have to maintain our social distance, so each time, I’ve brought along a cord ribbon that is six-feet long. She holds one end, and I hold the other, so we can continue to walk together, and communicate with each other, but there’s that thread that separates us and joins us at the same time.

I’ve found that, like the howling, it’s a metaphor for what poetry does. Poetry makes that connection so we can continue to walk in our own isolation, but without actually being alone.

(In celebration of Sixteen River’s new 2020 publications, Ehret is hosting a live, Zoom-based book launch and reading, on Sunday, April 26 at 3 p.m. Ehret will be joined by Patrick Cahill, author of “The Machinery of Sleep.” Also appearing will be Eliot Schain (“The Distant Sound”), Nancy J. Morales, John Johnson, presenting “Plagios/Plagiarism: The Poetry of Ulalume Gonzalez de Leon.” Visit for information about attending the virtual event)

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