Monday Jun 22, 2009
Janet Riehl’s Blog Tour
Note: This blog tour interview was scheduled for June 23rd—here it is a few hours early.
Janet Riehl, author of an outstanding book, Sightlines: A Poets Diary, has more recently expanded the scope of her book by producing a first-rate audio version (a 4-CD collection) titled: Sightlines: A Family Love Story in Poetry and Music.
Sightlines is deeply personal and its themes are universal. The poems are the literary fruit Janet managed to cultivate out of a family tragedy.
I first connected with Janet last year (2008); she featured a selection of my artwork and my book, An Artist Empowered, on her website riehlife.com. She was also compassionate with her time, good thoughts, and deeds as it related to my mother, Adele, and me. At the time, my dear mother was suffering with the intense pain of cancer; I was her fulltime caregiver; and Janet well understood the demands and dharma of being a caregiver herself.
To help promote Sightlines, Janet is on a blog tour that runs from June through July 2009; on the tour, individual blog hosts engage her from their unique perspectives. Janets previous blog stop was a dialogue with Sarah Luczaj: Who Owns the Poem?—hosted on Change Therapy by Isabella Mori.
I am pleased to introduce you to Janet Riehl—a person imbued with deep family traditions, eclectic talents and connections, and universal Buddhist sensibilities. What follows is a brief yet penetrating interview with Janet, providing further insight into her process, and how and why these projects developed over time.
To learn more and purchase Sightlines, visit these links:
Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary is available on Amazon with 31 stellar reviews.
The audio book Sightlines: A family love story in poetry and music is available on Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary is available on CD Baby with an online bonus: listen to as much as you desire online.
Treasure Hunt: for those so inclined, there is a treasure hunt contest; winners receive a free audio book. Details available at the end of the interview. Good Luck.
Note: The bookstore link on Janet’s site contains the blog calendar, Treasure Hunt clues, and reviews.
Click more for the interview—enjoy!
Eden: Having read Sightlines: A Poets Diary, I was struck with the added dimension the professional audio version brings to the experience. Hearing your story poems reminded me of a well-produced NPR segment that embraced the ethos and pathos of life. Your audio version also had another parallel as it finessed the difference between reading a play and then watching a performance of it.
Janet: Oh, Eden! I really like the parallel you point out. My cousin Suzy Bogguss also said that she could imagine it as a series of segments on NPR.
I feel that reading the poem in the book and then hearing it on the audio book would be the ideal way to experience these project in one complete wholefiring all our senses: audio and visual (photos and printed poems in the book).
Eden: What specifically initiated the audio version of Sightlines?
Janet: I’d been doing talks and readings around the country after the poetry book came out. Folks said how much my reading added to the meaning and their enjoyment. Early on, then, I held this small dream for a follow-up audio project. The book project stemmed from a small retreat I went on in 2004 after my sister died. There was a directive of: Clearing/during this quiet time. The audio book project flowingly began triggered by a trip to Nashville to visit two blogging buddies. I feel both projects were blessed. It was hard work, but everything fell into place with no major obstacles.
Eden: Is there a reason your recollections came through as poems instead of prose?
Janet: Perhaps because my time and attention were condensed during the time I cared for my mother. Also, my emotions and my familys emotions were so intense then. Poetry worked better to express and contain the situation and feelings of that time following my sisters sudden death in a car accident.
Eden: How did your poems evolve? Did you plan them, or did they arrive spontaneously?
Janet: A bit of both. The project started with the directive of intuitive guidance from [the] retreat. I was used to morning journaling. Somewhat spontaneously, without too much thought, the form of the story poem emerged. The majority of the poems in Sightlines: A Poets Diary flowed from morning journal entries. As the project progressed, I began to talk notes on topics and lines that came during the day. That way, in the morning I had something to prime the pump during my morning sessions. That method worked like a charm. Id start with those notes. Often one poem naturally flowed into one or two more poems.
Eden: Your readings are wonderful and peaceful, yet brimming with a sustained energy and surprise, as if you were reading them for the first time. How did you find your voice, the tone for these readings?
Janet: Since Id been reading many of these in talks, I had a sense of how I wanted the poems paced and presented. I wanted them read like ordinary speech. One of my major goals was to reach regular folks. My family is composed of welders, truck drivers, teachers, and lawyers. I wanted everyone inside the family and outside in the wider family to access these story poems. The way to reach that goal in reading was to have no pretence or drama. I was scared when we began taping. But, this gradually faded. Your readers can watch video 3, Sightlines Blog Tour Video #3: Stage 1Recording here to learn more.
Eden: We live in a society all too often strewn with feelings of victimhood, psychological pathology, parent bashing, and sibling rivalry. Your poetry is devoid of such pettiness. You admire and respect your parents. Being a caregiver for your mother, who had dementia and had been seriously injured in a terrible car crash [the one that had also taken the life of your sister, Julia], didn’t induce bitterness, either. How did you avoid the pitfalls of resentment when it came to caregiving, which is demanding and intense on many levels?
Janet: Mostly because caregiving is demanding and intense! There just wasnt time or energy for that kind of pettiness. Pop served as Mother’s main caregiver. He was her night nurse, a job that would have crushed me. Here is a man in his early 90s caring for his wife and living a life of constant sleep deprivation. During this time Pop and I developed a new, more adult relationship. Again, if there was a misunderstanding or quarrel between us, the only sensible thing to do was to just drop it and move on. This, of course, echoes Buddhist teachings Id often received, but never put into practice so completely. I couldnt take things personally, becausethey just weren?t. If my father was snappy with me, I understood all too well why. Id come to him after a gap, apologize regardless of perceived fault, hugged him andwe pulled the wagon as a single team again.
My father was a model and inspiration to me. He taught me good ways to do things with Mother who suffered from dementia as a result of a stroke. We used humor, imagination, and songs to communicate with her and each other. Then, too, I was with my parents only six weeks at a time and then commuted back to N. California for three weeks to regroup and recuperate there.
Eden: Your descriptions of your older and accomplished sister, Julia, who died in that mindless car crash, speaks of your esteem for her and that you dedicated Sightlines to her. It’s refreshing not to hear envy in the sibling camp. How did you manage this?
Janet: I can’t say I never felt jealousy in regard to Julia. I was the younger sister, and we had 180 degree divergent gifts. Julia was the scientist, and I was the artist-poet. But, we loved each other deeply, even when we didnt see each other for long periods of time. We appreciated each other?s gifts and talents. Even when she was crazy-busy with her world-wide physics empire she made time for me. I was so grateful to her for all the ways shed enriched my life.
After a deathespecially a sudden deathmany emotionsmany BIG emotions roil inside the bereaved. I had those. But, my father has a motto: Let history be kind. I wanted to book to be useful to a wider public. I didnt want it to be a record of a pity party.
Eden: I love the music and asides from your ninety-year-old plus father, Erwin. One remark, in particular, stuck with me in?Kings Sake(p.36) when his doctor, commenting on your father’s latest ailments, said Well, Mr. Thompson/you will die with it, not of it. Is there an overriding life lesson you’ve learned from Erwin? What is it?
Janet: Oh, gosh. My father and I have spent so much time together in the last five years since Julias death. As you’ve heard on the audio book, he has this gravelly, in command voice. Hes a patriarch, a former Army sergeant in World War II, and one of the most talented men youd ever care to meet whether working with his hands or creating a book, a piece of music, or a carving. My father has taught me so many things from how to sweep and fish electrical wires, to how to be loyal and fearless. His life purpose, I feel is best summed up in the first line of Treasure Chest? (p. 52): He labors in the grove of service.
Eden: The songs, mandolin, fiddles, and guitar invigorate your poetry by grounding your words in time and placeof a time past blending into the experiences of a time present containing tinges of nostalgia without becoming maudlin. Your family homestead goes back to the 1860’s. The old house is still standing. Most people, however, do not have such ties to their past. How has your history helped you? Hindered you?
Janet: I spent the first five-and-a-half decades of my adult life running away from the constraints of strong family and defining heritage. What grounded me always, though, was that when I took these leaps and risks around the world and the U. S., I knew there was always a family and a home place to come home to, should all else fail. This was my emotional insurance. I had something to resist, and I had something to catch me.
My relationship to the family, the place, and our shared heritage deepened and changed after Julia’s death. In my later 50s, then, at a time when we tend to look to family, heritage, and security, I deepened and revised these relationships inwardly and outwardly. I now work with my father to preserve our family stories and our heritage as part of his legacy.
Eden: In your poem, Five-Horse Hitch (p.134), there’s a great metaphor: It’s not the passenger that weighs so much. / It’s the baggage. Did these two Sightlines projects help you and your family members unload any unnecessary baggage? How?
Janet: For me, writing about this most emotionally charged time in my life saved me by giving me something that was mine and that I could shape myself during a time when there was nothing I could control. I made decisions—like the decision to return home and care for Mother. Then, I responded to situations and outcomes. To have a project with a deep purpose saved my inner life as well. My life had more direction and meaning as a result. Its hard for me to say how my family responded to the book. My father was nuts in love with it once it came out. He sat down to read the book cover to cover in two hours once we received it.
Certainly, the two projects moved me and my life forward. They also were part of my deepening, more mature relationship with my father.
The audio book was a more communal project with my father fully involved in choosing and providing the musical interludes. Because we taped the segments including my father in his parlor with a minidisc player running, we picked him up being completely himself: telling stories and joking. My sound engineer integrated these moments seamlessly between the poems.My father was even more nuts in love with the audio book, if that?s possible. The family loves the audio bookpartly because more time has passedand, partly because we all feel how Pop is there, completely present in these four discs.
Eden: You manage a fine balancing event in your poetryyou are emotionally involved, close, yet you maintain and objective eye without getting mired in undue sentimentally. How did you learn to do this?
Janet: I’d been a Buddhist practitioner since 1990. But, at that time I was a lapsed practitioner, not actively practicing or following the teachings. Yet, what better training could I have had in compassion and wisdom that in this crisis before me that I responded to with as full a heart as I could manage? In this case, too, my father was a model and guide. Hes Midwestern to the core. He speaks laconically and often tersely when hes not telling a story. Emotions are often deep inside and I had to learn how to decode them. This was kind of funny, since I was coming back to the sensible and matter-of-fact Midwest after almost twenty years in California, a place where emotions and emotional expression are Queena fulsomely dressed and expressed Queen. I suddenly saw with great clarity how my family viewed me and my life.
I suspect that it was the tension between these two regional cultures that led to the simple language of the story poems. Again, at the core of my mission, I wanted these poems to be useful to others, not another dead sister or ailing mother book. I reached towards insight and wisdom, in a very human way.
Eden: What one overarching lesson did you learn from Sightlines?
Janet: That I could survive and prevail. That I could find my way. That I could achieve my dream of completing and publishing a book. That even our darkest times contain great gifts. That out of suffering can come greater wisdom and compassion. That the four noble truths of Buddhism are working in the world, especially the truth of impermanence.
Eden: What is your dharma?
Janet: In the three jewels of Buddhism dharma refers to the teachings and methods to uphold, support and further ones spiritual path. For me, now? My dharma is to continue to clear space for my life as a creative person who can bring forth work that helps people. Theres a quote from Sogyal Rinpoches book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying that continues to inspire me:
The first way [to direct your compassion and make it active] is to pray to all the Buddhas and enlightened beings, from the depths of your heart, that everything you do, all your thoughts, words, and deeds, should only benefit beings and bring them happiness. In the words of one great prayer: ‘Bless me into usefulness’. Pray that you benefit all who come in contact with you, and help them transform their suffering and their lives.
In a very ordinary, everyday way, I aspire to follow this prayer: ?Bless me into usefulness.
Treasure Hunt—You’ve come this far. Go for it.
Your clue is:
1) Watch Sightlines Blog Tour Video #4: Stage 2 (editing) & Stage 3 (technical) in the top post on riehlife.com.
2) Answer this question: “How did Scott, Janet, and Pop decide which music clip to share between her poems?”
3) Contact Janet using the contact form on riehlife.com.
4) Winner receives a free audio book of Sightlines.
End Note: Janets blog tour continues with Antona Smith on June 30.
This print interview is a good representation of what an in-person interview would be like between us.
Thanks for your searching questions which allowed me to go deeper in search of answers and context.
I’m glad you’re on this blog tour…and, more thankful for our connection.
Very exciting interview. It brought up many issues of family for myself. I had no idea about blog tours. Great concept.
Thank you so much for introducing me to Janet—I will tell my friends about her book and audio.
Thanks to Jon and Soho Chick for their comments.
(I like the image of a Soho Chick. Interesting place to roost
I knew that Eden would have good soulful friends.
Eden did a smashing job with his questions and Janet sparkled as she answered them. Great Interview!
Janet is a doer—a great role model for young women, heck, all women.
Thanks to Hal and “Poet Diva” for your sweet comments. Always good to have a few fans! That keeps the doing engine revved.
Coming from the Midwest stoked the Doer in me. Even while on Buddhist retreat, I was always one of the doers, moving the retreat forward.
Eden and Janet,
Wonderful, insightful interview.
I love the way you describe using ‘bless me into usefulness’ as a way to be creative and live creatively. So much of our society sees creativity as a non-useful endeavor. I do not but carry that albatross idea around my neck at times. Your words helped me remember my own desire to use my creativity/art/writing to help others see the world around them more clearly.
I look forward to interviewing Janet on my blog Susan’s Art & Words http://sculpturepdx.blogspot.com and until then, I hope you’ll check out my new website devoted to people who are living their lives creatively at http://www.voicesoflivingcreatively.com
Yes, I’m looking forward to our interview next month.
I first heard “bless me into usefulness” as a prayer in the early 1990s in N. California at a retreat. A man who would die soon, stood up and spoke directly to Rinpoche, ending with that prayer. It’s never left me. Later finding out it’s ancient origins. But, still loving its power and simplicity.
We all, as creative people, must work to re-define what creativity is through our practice.