by Linda Della Donna
Meet Janet Riehl, award-winning writer and artist.
Riehl's artwork, fiction, and nonfiction have been published in Harvard Review, International Poetry Review, and Lullwater Review. Riehl is active participant in the community art scene, and has served on boards. She has given outdoor art performances, produced poetry readings, and performed in theatrical productions such as The Vagina Monologues. Riehl's work has been presented in several Women’s Caucus for the Arts exhibitions, and not once, but twice, Riehl was nominated for poet laureate of Lake County, California.
Today, Little Red Mailbox honors Riehl's recent book, Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary, written after the tragic death of her sister, Julia Ann Thompson. Sightlines is a lasting tribute to Julian Ann Thompson. Moreover, it is a rich collection of poetry and family photos. In Sightlines: A Poet's Diary, Riehl documents her family’s coming to terms with grief--Celebrating past memories--And writing through difficult times leading to the present.
On behalf of Little Red Mailbox, this writer welcomes warmly Janet Riehl and thanks her sincerely for this interview.
Janet, please tell readers a little about yourself?
I was born and raised on the bluffs above the Mississippi River in Southwestern Illinois. In my early twenties I set out to find my fortune, or more accurately, my destiny, and traveled extensively all over the world and lived mostly in Western United States when I returned. Just recently I’ve returned to the Midwest to be close to my father, now 91, who is also a writer.
How has living in the Midwest affected your writing?
The Midwest definitely informs the rhythm and cadence of my written and spoken style. In “Sightlines” the Midwest and our homeplace here (since the 1860s) became not only topic, but also a kind of character in the book.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing one way or another since forever: first as a kid, then journals, then supporting myself professionally, then moving to creative writing as a focus. I had to overcome my English Major Syndrome. There are a lot of us former English majors out there, you know, suffering, and we should probably form a group, because our writing will never be good enough until we recover.
Where do your ideas come from?
Mostly my work is drawn from life. The piece ”The Starling” in the “Harvard Review,” for instance is about my father and what happens at a birdfeeder on a cold winter day. That piece came straight out of a journal. For me the big deal is not the writing so much as times in my life when I focus to really get the work out there into form and into the right hands.
what is the difference between anthologies and literary journals and getting published in them?
The biggest difference between getting work into anthologies and literary journals is time. It seems to take about two years from first submission to publication. At least that’s about what it took for “Stories to Live By,” published by an imprint of Travelers Tales and "Hot Flashes” (light erotica by women) published by the Left Coast Writers. “Hot Flashes” is launching at the end of the month and I’m going out for the reading and party. I’m pretty excited. There’s one in the works, too, called “Women Spirit” that’s been great because I’ve been in communication with the editor through each of her stages with contracts and shopping the collection to publishers and so forth. I was connected to that one through a reader of my poetry book “Sightlines.”
What is special about being in anthologies?
The thrilling thing about being in anthologies is that usually there’s a mix of names and no-names (such as myself) and the writing is often equally good. There you are, reading along, enjoying the other work in the anthology, when you turn the page and shucks, there it is—your piece. What a rush.
Janet, was there ever a moment in your writing career when you thought you just couldn't write?
I’m fortunate in that in addition to writing I’m talented in several of the arts—visual, performing, music—so I tend to go in cycles. I’ll be heavily into writing at a given time and then carve out a season to make and exhibit visual art. This has worked well for me and I never worry or wonder about the writing. I know it’s there for me when I’m there for it.
Do you have a favorite writing tip? A favorite book? Perhaps a favorite author?
Hmmm…. (A) favorite writing tip: Do your best to enjoy your writing while at the same time understanding that it’s work like all worthwhile crafts.
Favorite book? Read Clive Matson’s “Let the Crazy Child Write.”
Favorite author? Whoever I’m reading at the time, maybe. I love the books from my childhood written in the early 1900s such as Gene Stratton-Porter’s work.
Any advice for a writer working at maintaining a blog, creating a website, and writing a first book, care to share?
You know that slogan “Dance as if no one is watching”? Same thing with writing. Write as if only your heart is listening, and in time other hearts will want to hear, too. There’s so much advice out there now.
For a website, that’s a marketing tool, so that requires a sense of clarity about what you’re selling and what the result is that you want.
For a blog, especially a blog that is a face page for your own website, that requires a sense of mission, vision, dedication…because you’ll be doing it over the long haul. You need to decide how often you’ll post and who your audience is, and again, what you want out of it.
Janet, gotta ask, what’s it like to live your dream--book, author, ISBN number?
Your dream is only as good as you are. Whatever weaknesses you have before, you will still have. The dream is like a rainbow—appearing, yet illusory. That feeling of transcendence is a good thing. But, the author still has to live in the world.
How can readers learn more about you?
I hope readers will come visit my father and me at my blog “Riehlife: Village Wisdom for the 21st Century” at www.riehlife.com. They can read sample poems there and talks I’ve given at readings.
Janet, when was Sightlines published, how long did it take to write, and can you describe the feeling?
Sightlines was published February 2006, about a year after I started writing the poems. Publishing a book is really a birth.
The actual writing of the body of work after its inception in late December took nine months. Through spiritual guidance—common sense really—I was shown not only how to begin but also how to protect the work while writing. I wrote with the door closed, so to speak, without much commentary or critiquing from others. I simply wrote from my heart. This is how the form of the story poem evolved.
Why did you decide to write the book, Sightlines?
Perhaps it was more that the book wanted to be written. I felt a spiritual leading to begin the book when I went on a small retreat at the Oblate Fathers of Mary Immaculate. I received this message: “Cleaning. During this quiet time.” The whole world seemed charged with meaning. I resolved to tease out that meaning through writing these poems. This was my 56th birthday gift—the spiritual guidance to write the book.
Where did the words for Sightline come from?
Once I started writing, they just flowed. It was the right thing to do at the right time for the right reasons. I wanted to use the work as an act of healing for myself, my family, and the larger human family.
What about themes. Where did they come from?
It’s a family memoir of six generations told in story poems. As such, it reveals stages in human life, but particularly caring for parents, aging, death—and the bereavement that follows as well as the ways in which that strengthens family spirit. My sister died in a car accident in August of 2004. The book shows how we moved through important stages of bereavement and became stronger as a family.
Janet, what is a story poem? Please expand.
A story poem combines highly compressed narrative, musing, and observation that avails itself of poetic techniques such as alliteration, imagery, and metaphor. I crafted the story poems in this book to be simple and direct to reach heart to heart.
There are all sorts of other names for a story poem, but I wanted to keep it very simple and direct—just as I tried to keep the work itself simple and direct. There were important reasons for that and I stuck to it.
First, I wanted the poetry to be accessible. We have truck drivers and teachers, lawyers and welders in our family. They were my first audience. I wanted everyone to feel welcomed into the world of the poems and not be shut out. That view helped keep the poems down-to-earth and highly readable.
Secondly, what had happened to our family was so traumatic that we didn’t need any more drama. I felt understated language was the language of healing. Lastly, I grew up in the Midwest and spent most of my time there during the year I put the book together. Midwesterners come from farming stock and are a plain-spoken people. I wanted the language of the poems to reflect the language of the people I wrote about.
In the story-poem, as in prose, the sentence is the primary unit, not the line. But everything is highly compressed. The same material handled in a personal essay would cover many times the words. It appears simple—and, I want it to. But, in fact, these story poems are highly crafted.
Frankly, I wondered how this worked. Then, I received some responses which reassured me. A friend of mine who is a fine musician kept saying when he first read the poems, "I hear music here. Would you mind if I put them to music?"
There are varying lengths of poems in the book—short, medium, long. And, there are also some lyric poems as well. But, the story poems are the backbone of the book. Because there was a story to be told—of and for the families of the world.
Once you wrote the poems, where did you get the structure for a book?
I’d thought that my friend and book-coach would do that. But, he told me that was the next stage of my creative work and I’d intuitively know how to do it. I’d never worked beyond the individual written piece before, but he was right.
Putting a book together is very much like putting together an art show. First, the artist must create the pieces. This process, pursued with discipline and focus, eventually grows into a body of work with its own integrity and cohesion. Next, the artist selects the pieces for the show, names it, finds the space for it, and creates the structure.
Making a book is very much like that. After my body of work was completed, I set about to find out what I had and where it would all fit. I got down on the floor and crawled around, placing the poems into piles. I came up with five categories. They were slippery categories in some cases because certain poems could fit in more than one or even two of the categories. But, I had to make a decision.
Then, I worked with the flow of the poems within the sections. And, I had to come up with the names for the five sections that celebrate three people and two places I love. I chose nicknames to make it more colloquial: SKEETER for my sister Julia; SLIM for my father; SWEET LITTLE DOVE for my mother; HOMEPLACE for our family place in southwestern Illinois; and LAKESIDE for my home-base in Northern California.
Was there risk? Inasmuch as you write from the heart, did you find it difficult to put your work out there?
Yes, that’s the work of making art: finding the courage and faith to take that risk. But creating and sharing any body of work brings its own enormous gift. These story poems touch on many themes. In “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary” these themes build throughout the book and weave together. I've been re-reading the book and charting the themes to learn more about what is really there.
An artist does this with an art show, too. That’s when the work comes out of the studio, is seen in a clean space, and is revealed in its essence. It’s important to study the work and reflect on it. I find the same thing here. I want to find out what this author, Janet Grace Riehl, is revealing to me. It’s like listening with the ears of my heart to the other voices of myself.
How did you manage your time to write Sightlines, the book?
I carved out my time in the morning. This was private time of solitude when I felt most open. I believe that creative products come through us more than from us. We have to find a place, time, and way of listening.
Would you say this was your soul baby? Can you describe how it felt to write this book?
Yes. I felt different writing this work than anything I’d done in the past. I felt firmly, totally committed—without question. There were things that needed to be said and I knew I was the one to say them. I stood up for my voice and my view of what I was saying and how I wanted to say it. I stood in the truth of what I was speaking about. It’s a blessed place to be. A place of grace.
I understand that your father contributed to “Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary”. How did that come about?
My father, Erwin Thompson, is a writer, historian, and, patriarch. He’d written some powerful and searing pieces after Julia’s death. I asked him for permission to include these, and he agreed.
Were any other family members involved?
My brother, Gary Thompson, edited letters my father was transcribing for the Riehl-Thompson collection archives at the University of Illinois. Gary showed me the letter that became the poem “String Bridles.” I told my father that there was a surprise for him in the book and I wouldn’t let him see it until we broke open the box of books when I came home after it was published. I immediately turned to that page and read the poem to him.
He then sat in mother’s armchair and read the entire book, with a tear escaping here and a chuckle escaping there. I felt at that moment that all my hard work had been repaid.
Was there a hard part in writing Sightlines?
There are basically five stages to bring out a book. First, you write it. Then, shape it. Third, produce it into an actual bound book. Fourth, you have to promote it. The last and most private stage is reflecting on the work, as I mentioned before. The private parts—writing, shaping, and reflecting are the most natural for me. Producing and promoting are probably the hardest.
Did you receive help? What kind?
There’s a lot of grunt work involved and an author on a small budget has to be willing to do her own grunt work. Although there was a paucity of labor force, I was so lucky that in moving back and forth between Illinois and California I always seemed to be in the right place at the right time for the type of help I needed. During the start of the author proofs I was with a long-time friend in New Mexico. She provided a safe emotional environment for me and also provided practical suggestions and help.
You can see on my “Thanks To” page that so many people helped. They came in and did what needed to be done in small bursts as they were able. One childhood friend who I met walking Riehl Lane—yes, the same one named after my great grand-father—came over to the old family homestead to help me work out instructions to the book designers. She validated that what I wanted was the right thing to want and gave me the language to get it. This is just one example of so many acts of kindness.
At what stage did you start to feel it was really a book?
The first time I printed out the author proofs, I felt a physical sense of thrill with chills running through my body. But, it wasn’t until I tore open the packing crate and held the book in my hand that it became real to me.
You have permission to learn more about Janet Riehl at www.riehlife.com.