Donna Baier Stein
In Conversation with
Donna Baier Stein is an award-winning author of poetry and prose and founder and publisher of Tiferet Journal. Her books include The Silver Baron's Wife (PEN/New England Discovery Award, Bronze winner in Foreword Reviews 2017 Book of the Year Award, more), Sympathetic People (Iowa Fiction Award Finalist), Sometimes You Sense the Difference (poetry chapbook), and the newly released Letting Rain Have Its Say (poetry). She was a Founding Editor of Bellevue Literary Review and has received a Scholarship from Bread Loaf, a Fellowship from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, four Pushcart nominations, and prizes from the Allen Ginsberg Awards, Poetry Society of Virginia, and elsewhere. Her work has been published in Virginia Quarterly Review, Writer’s Digest, Saturday Evening Post, New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, and many other journals and anthologies. www.donnabaierstein.com
Marie-Elizabeth Mali: I love your book! So let’s start right from my first perception of it. The cover image beautifully holds the intertwined themes of love and loss, hope and grief of these poems. Please talk about how you knew it was right and how you connected with the artist, Budi Satria Kwan.
Donna Baier Stein: Budi Kwan’s deer felt perfect the minute I saw it—the sense it gives that rain, or sorrow, can be fruitful, that something can grow in the aftermath of a difficult time.
I had asked a friend, Tom Schneider, to design the cover of the book. Tom sent me one option that included this exquisite image of the deer. I thought it was the ideal visual symbol of unexpectedness, of the lush growth that can occur after a storm, whether of emotions or weather.
Unfortunately, we could not find an artist attribution and did not want to use it without credit. I posted my concern to a group of writers on Facebook and, using a reverse image search, they found the artist’s name: Budi Satria Kwan. I then did a Google search and found many images attributed to this artist but no website or contact information. Finally, I found him on Instagram. He is a very talented young man who lives in Indonesia. I messaged him asking for permission to use the image with a credit line and offering to pay. He generously declined payment and also allowed my designer to modify the original image a bit, adding more rain.
MEM: I also appreciate the idea of letting the rain have its say and its fall as the fulfillment of its own nature. Please tell more about your relationship to the nature and say of rain.
DBS: First, I enjoy occasional rainy days because they turn us inwards. Rain can mean a cessation of our daily running about and can provide a container for the quiet, private, and sacred act of writing. A rainy day also feels like a cleansing of whatever has recently transpired, a release of fresh, new energy. It can feel like forgiveness and grace. Ever since my days at Bread Loaf when I would listen to water running through the pipes behind the walls of my room and feel “in the zone,” I have connected water with the sacred. Water is symbolic in many religious traditions; it purifies, protects, and heals. It is life-giving. In Genesis, God says, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures,” and in the Koran human beings are created from water. From baptism to bathing in the Ganges, water is vital on a spiritual level and, of course, today it is increasingly apparent it is essential to the sustainability of our planet.
Rain can also be connected to sorrow, and I think our culture too often tries to ignore the fact that sorrow is inherent in human life. We are inundated with promises that the next shiny thing—whether that be a new car, relationship, hairdo, job, etc.—will bring us lasting happiness. That has not been the case in my experience. I struggled for a long time thinking that my down times, periods of depression after a loss, for instance, were something to be ashamed of, that I was weak and flawed for suffering from the blues. I’m not someone who gets over people, or animals, quickly. So I’ve had to learn to accommodate sad periods in my life and in a sense, welcome them rather than pretend to the outside world that they don’t happen. The title of my book, Letting Rain Have Its Say, acknowledges the importance of accepting an uncomfortable emotion rather than hiding it away. I think our whole culture would be healthier if we all did that. Oddly enough, those words appeared in a poem written many years ago, when my then husband and I were living in a cabin in Virginia:
Letting Rain Have Its Say
We listen to the crickets’ shivaree,
the breathless calls of whippoorwill.
We call back: a stereo of thieves
(bird and human voices) echoes
against the walls of the cabin.
We hear the whippoorwill name itself in three syllables.
Imagine him perched on a limb, kin of the nightjar.
Rain taps the tin roof until,
cuddled in half-sleep, we fear
it will wash us away, send
our home down the side of this mountain.
There’s something to this—
letting rain have its say,
being carried away, intact.
Later I dream of white tigers and raccoons.
At the time I wrote the poem, I wasn’t necessarily connecting rain to sorrow—more to a sense of letting life play itself out.
MEM: The book moves from recollections of a Midwestern childhood in the first section, to marriage, motherhood, and divorce in the second section, and to inner and outer travel, a larger reflection of life journey (while staying true to the particulars) in the third. Tell me about this movement through time, how you put the book together to tell this particular story.
DBS: The poems were written at different stages of my life. It was definitely a challenge to order them, and I want to thank Adele Kenny, my friend and Poetry Editor of Tiferet Journal, which I founded and publish, for helping with this task. What emerged from the work with Adele was a manuscript that begins with, as you say, my Midwestern childhood, leads into my move to the East Coast and the joys of marriage and motherhood, then through divorce and loneliness, and finally into a sort of acceptance of the fact that what I was always longing for might be found internally or spiritually rather than externally.
The poems were usually written in response to an emotion or experience I hoped to better understand. As Edward Albee said, “I write to find out what I am thinking.”
I’m also reminded of a recent interview I read with Jamel Brinkley in LitHub. He said, “Everything is always happening, all the time.” This is truth. Hence, two of the epigraphs I used to begin the book are:
The way that you remember your life, it’s never linear.
You have flashes of different moments of your life,
and the flashes aren’t equal; they have different styles.
… you could easily argue that the past, the present,
and the future all occur simultaneously.
Tommy Lee Jones
MEM: I'm struck by the sense of lineage through the women in your family. What do you feel was handed down to you by these strong farm women we meet in the first section?
DBS: Only my great grandmother was literally a farm wife, but my mother spent her childhood summers on the farm. As in all family lineages, both strengths and weaknesses were handed down generation to generation. The women on the maternal side of my family were all very loyal wives and mothers who devoted their lives to their husbands and children. They were extremely ethical people; they were kind to others. The downside of this loyalty and kindness is that these women did not necessarily nurture their own lives beyond their roles of wives and mothers. Other than cooking and handwork like cross-stitch, quilting, and crochet (all gifts made for others, by the way), there wasn’t a lot of individual creative expression. Those generations didn’t bemoan their restricted fates or turn to therapy either, though I did. A privilege of having time and money early farmwives certainly did not have.
MEM: The marriage poems have a sense of foreboding throughout. As the couple travels to beautiful places and has a child, a dream brings a warning, the water carries something away, and footprints in the sand make patterns of losses. Tell me more about how you use well-placed images to reveal emotional truths.
DBS: At the time I wrote some of those poems there were difficulties in the marriage but also an overriding hope that those difficulties could be overcome. Like the women before me, I could not imagine being other than wife and mother. Some of the ominous notes may stem from my own darker nature, I fear—a distrust that everything will always be wonderful.
When I wrote the poems I simply wrote what I saw or dreamt. At the time, I didn’t see those images of the blank card, the bug-eaten leaf, as prophetic. I was very fortunate to travel to beautiful places during my marriage (and after). I’m sure I wrote the poem “Family Argument, Dawn Beach” to help process the contradiction of having a difficult moment in an idyllic setting, and because it was a sad moment, I focused on “the bug-eaten leaf,” “the salt-bitten words,” the “ocean just out of reach,” and “the footprints in the sand from other fights and other losses in a pattern only they can see.” If I’d been in a happy mood, I wouldn’t have interpreted what my eye fell upon in that way.
MEM: In the poem, "You Asked What Sustains Me," one of the speakers says, when asked what depression respects, "Endurance." There's a bracing clarity in this poem, as well as a recognition of desire, abandon, and beauty as elements that also sustain. Say more about what has sustained you through the ups and downs of your life.
DBS: Certainly the strength my mother and father passed on to me. Their love and support. The love I have for and receive from my children. The support of beloved friends, therapists, medication, spiritual practices and community. I’d give anything not to have a depressive personality. Depression is a bear, truly. It has kept me from doing many things I might otherwise have wanted and been able to do. It has also, on the plus side, made me what I hope is a sometimes kind and empathetic person. In today’s troubled world, I’m not sure any thinking person won’t have at least glimpses of despair. Meditation and yoga are very important to me and provide a broader, or higher, perspective. Exercise helps. Writing and reading help. My dog helps.
MEM: You've published historical fiction, short stories, and poetry. Do ideas announce their proper forms to you as you begin to write? How do you know when you want to approach your material through the fiction or the poetry doorway?
DBS: This may not be ideal, but I generally decide what form I want to write in before I begin. Early on, I turned to poetry because it can be a shorter, manageable form. Then I turned to short stories because I think they are wonderful exercises for preparation for writing a novel. Both poems and stories can offer an earlier sense of completion than a novel does, though I tend toward endless revision, even after a book is published! But I enjoy going back and forth between genres. And I always pay attention to language, sensing poetry even in the prose I write.