Interview: Pamela Winters

All questions by Nathan Leslie


Pamela Murray Winters’ first full-length collection of poetry, The Unbeckonable Bird, was published by FutureCycle Press in 2018. Her poems have appeared in Fledgling Rag, Gargoyle, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Gettysburg Review, Beltway Poetry, and numerous other journals and anthologies. She received an MFA in poetry from Vermont College of Fine Arts and was awarded a 2017 Maryland State Arts Council grant for her poetry. She’s a lifelong Marylander but a new resident of Bowie.

Congratulations on the publication of your first book of poems, The Unbeckonable Bird. It’s a terrific collection, really—rich, witty and insightful.  Also your work offers a wide range of subject matter. There are several themes interwoven throughout this collection. I’m wondering if you can highlight a few that stand out to you.

Well, there’s music: the making of it, the reaction to it. There’s observing and being observed—the poem “Watching Game Shows” is one of the oldest poems in the book, from when I was beginning to think about the implications of being seen by a camera or an unseen audience of indeterminate size. That’s something that’s almost de rigeur in our culture now, but the tension of innocents on ‘50s TV is visible and nearly palpable; they’ve never been looked at like that before.  

Another theme is desire, even greed. The “me” in this book is the me who spent, and spends, much of life missing out on things because of fear or deprivation or other demons and therefore revels especially gleefully in whatever falls out of the one-armed bandit. It was a hard moment, about a year ago, when a trusted mentor accused me of being “greedy” as a poet. He might have been right! Too many words, too many images, too many lists. I know where I came from, so I know why I’m greedy.

I have a very deep belief in God, and I’d like to think of the book as being spiritual, but I suspect that’s not the way a lot of people would see it.

Greed and grace, I guess?

Who are some of the musicians and poets who help inspire your work?

When I discovered Richard Thompson’s work, in my late 20s, I began to feel like things within me were aligning a certain way, like I’d found some part of myself. I won’t drone on about this; I wrote a blog post for Charles Jensen that goes into it in a whole lot more detail ( 

A few things I love about Richard: he’s not afraid of the dark, of the deep deep dark, but there’s always a belief in the light. “Hard on Me” is a brutal song about, possibly, an overbearing father, but there’s one point when he sings, “Hard on me / Like they were hard on you.” He moves away from that, but it’s this wholly unsentimental, un-lampshaded moment of empathy that elevates the song. He’s also one of the first musicians who hooked me with music that wasn’t necessarily beautiful: a voice that could moan like old machinery, some seriously demented guitar. It felt real to me. I wasn’t raised by musicians or with any intention of being a musician. I was raised with everyday music as everyday life: hymns, silly little songs, whatever my father might whistle. Some part of me perceived music as more like walking than like dancing. That didn’t really hit home until I started to listen to Richard.

I love low voices. Richard’s isn’t that deep sort of bass, but it has a sonorous quality. Norma Waterson. Joan Armatrading. Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. Maggie Roche. Hearing the Roches sing the Hallelujah Chorus on “Saturday Night Live,” way back in the day, was another cell-altering moment. I still begin a lot of my creative-process workshops with their recording of the song.

I always loved Emily Dickinson. I think I was a bit in love with the Emily image in my youth, maybe more so than the poetry itself, because I was a ridiculously romantic and introverted teenager. I outgrew some of that. Anyway, Emily’s odd word choices, her cosmos-ranging mind, and her nettle-like humor—a beautiful sting—meant, and mean, a lot to me. Later, in what I think of as my second phase of poetry, I was really taken with the work of Adrian Blevins. She’s from the same part of the country as my mother, near Roanoke, Virginia, and there’s something in her naturalistic loquacity that feels really right to me; it gave me a sort of permission to indulge myself in words. David Wojahn’s Mystery Train, which contains a number of poems inspired by pop music, was revelatory and also led to my decision to attend the low-residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where I got my MFA. Then there’s Deborah Digges, my requisite “favorite poet.” She can be both elegant and fearless. Her poems are intelligent and rich, and they have tiny roots or fingers that just dig in. I did my critical thesis on her work for my MFA. Vesper Sparrows and Rough Music—twin pillars of brilliance. Eh, that sounds pompous. She’s just really good.

Music is so immediate—the listener is really confronted by a song unless he or she leaves the room or presses “stop.” Do you ever find yourself, as a writer inspired or, on the contrary, daunted by this kind of immediacy?

A couple of Februaries ago, I was on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, in a theater on the cruise ship, listening to a concert by the North Mississippi Allstars, when I found I had to leave to write. I whispered something to my husband and slipped out, and I went back to our cabin and wrote two poems: “Born in Deep Ellum” and “Relinquish.” The first was inspired specifically by what was happening onstage immediately before I left, and the second had been percolating over the previous few days of a really wonderful vacation with Rob on the Cayamo music cruise.

If I really loved music, wouldn’t I have stayed? But at that moment, my need to create took primacy over my need to hear more of a really spectacular set.

How many of me—people suddenly leaving—would it have taken to affect Luther and Cody Dickinson and their friends up on that stage? How did I matter to their music? (What does it mean that it is only this very moment that I thought to wonder whether they’re related to Emily?)

I was once backstage interviewing Richard Thompson (sorry, I know) before a show in Oregon when he had to step out for a sound check or something. Here’s what I did, alone in his dressing room. (1) His guitar case was open, and empty, and I took a photo of the inside of his guitar case. (2) I ate two of the strawberries on the food table. He had offered them to me earlier, so that was OK. (3) In retrieving the strawberries, I saw a note, open, on the table, next to a plate of cookies. I read the note. It read something like this: “Dear Richard: Please enjoy these cookies. I am here because my husband Mike was your biggest fan. He bought the tickets for this show. He died two months ago. I hope you’ll play his favorite song, ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning,’ in his honor tonight. Sincerely, Mary.”

I don’t know whether Mary knew this, but there is seldom a concert where Richard doesn’t play “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” Although he changes his set list along the way, from time to time, he was almost certainly going to play “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” anyway.  And he did play it. How was the world changed by Mary’s note? Would she hear it and think Richard had granted her request? Would he feel different playing the song, maybe thinking of Mike and Mary? Was her request fulfilled no matter the intentions behind the result?

I don’t think I’m answering your question very well.

I can be hit by a poem upon reading it, or upon hearing it read, but seldom does anything, even poetry, move me like music. I imagine we have different sorts of receptors for art; God knows I know a lot of people who are unmoved by poetry, and musical tastes differ.

I would like to be able to do as a poet what certain musicians and painters do—something beyond words. Something that involves tones and colorations—it’s not impossible in poetry; it’s just a whole lot harder to do. 

This is your first collection of poems but you have been quite active publishing in magazines and reading your work at readings for years. When did you know that you had a collection of poems you wanted to share with the world?

I was a serious-to-a-fault poet in high school and college—really, so terrified of the world that I got in my own way—and I somehow lost my faith in poetry after that. I’d dabble in it here and again, but it wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I went back to it in any real way. Then I felt like I had to make up for lost time, so for years it was a matter of trying to hit the right spot between rushing things into print that I wasn’t quite sure about, or with a publisher I didn’t really respect, and trying to be as brilliant as humanly possible and holding out for a big-deal publisher and probably choking on a burrito and expiring upon a heap of unpublished poems. 

I was writing from, let’s say, 2006 to 2016 before I really tried to put a book together. I take that back—I actually have two small, self-published chapbooks that enjoyed a blessedly minute circulation. I found that as soon as I finished them, I hated half the poems in them, and that made me wary of rushing into anything. And I had a creative thesis as part of my MFA in 2015, but, as with the chapbooks, I was sure right away that this was not a manuscript I was ready to stand behind long term.

I got to a point where I had enough good-enough poems, and then I worked on making them better, and then I found (after a few unsuccessful attempts) a really good publisher, Diane Kistner of FutureCycle Press, who liked what I was doing. FutureCycle had published my friend Melanie McCabe’s second book of poems, What the Neighbors Know, and that’s where I got the idea to submit there.

In case the timeline is useful to anyone: I started sending out copies of an earlier manuscript, on a very limited basis, in 2016. I sent out a version of the book that became The Unbeckonable Bird in the spring of 2017—just as I’d come out of several months of major depression—and got an acceptance within 72 hours. The book came out about 14 months later.

Can you talk a bit about the title of your collection (The Unbeckonable Bird) and the wonderful cover art?

As with so much of my artistic life, the title has its origin in Richard Thompson (I know). Around the time I was looking for a title, I was having some kind of discussion on Facebook, probably about a recurrent dream in which I’m trying to get to a Thompson concert and can’t find the venue or my tickets, and this friend—who happens to be a childhood friend of Richard’s—commented, “Ah, Richard—the unbeckonable bird!” Having no idea what he was talking about but loving the word “unbeckonable,” I asked for more info and found out about Lawrence Durrell’s poem “Echo,” which presents music as a sort of unbeckonable bird. (My spell-check is still redlining “unbeckonable,” by the way.)

The artwork on the cover is called “The Taxi.” It’s a woodblock print by Olivia Moore ( The image is of a nuthatch who is delivering passengers to their home in a sweetgum pod. I love that the piece has its own weird little story. I don’t know Olivia, but I know she’s a Christian, and I expect that she and I are both taken with this dream of deliverance from an uncertain world on the wings of something greater. 

Your collection includes a few prose poems. When you sit down to write how or when do you know if the given poem will be a prose poem or if you will write a more “traditional” poem?

The biggest influence in getting me to wherever I am as a poet from wherever I was 10 years ago—let alone 40 years ago—is my longtime teacher Stanley Plumly. He’s got this group of students who’ve worked with him for 5 or 10 years or longer; we meet up whenever we can. He’s got strong opinions about things like form. Between those ideas and the concepts I learned in grad school, I’ve got good underpinnings.

But—and I know this isn’t much help—when I sit down to write, it takes whatever form it wants to. Sometimes, and I blame Stan, I’ll start thinking, “This could be a sonnet.” Often, and I’ll blame or credit Stan for sure, I know to lop off the beginning or the end—he’s a big believer in “start in the middle, end in the middle.”

“Dave and the Wolverine” became a prose poem because there was just so much of it. A manic excess. It suited what I knew of Dave Carter, who I interviewed a number of times before his sudden death at 49 and who was a pure creative. He talked about his songs beginning as parts of dreams and how he’d get on his bicycle and just pedal out the songs, effectively—his whole being becoming a sort of engine for the art. This is not to say that a free write should become a poem or song without editing, but with what I wrote of Dave one day, thinking about a dream I had not long after his death, I couldn’t conceive it as anything but a prose poem. Same with the two vignettes that became “Two Texas Folk Films”—one of which, probably coincidentally, is also about Dave and his partner Tracy Grammer. These were all somewhat effervescent language poured into a straight vessel.

You have lived in Maryland for years. Do you think there is something inherently Maryland-y about your work?

Although I was born in D.C., my parents were living in Takoma Park when I was born—why didn’t they just go to the hospital down the road?—and I’ve lived nearly my whole life in Maryland except for a few years in northern Virginia. When I moved back to Maryland, I was surprised by how subtly familiar it seemed. That Maryland accent, which is still thick in the more rural areas, was part of it. 

Maryland doesn’t have the stereotypical associations of other places. I imagine my work would be different if I’d been raised in New Jersey or California—I’d be fulfilling or reacting against such stereotypes. Because of its diversity, Maryland has been called “America in Miniature.” (That is, I’ve heard that it’s been called that. I’ve never heard anyone call it that.) We’re also a place that’s neither quite north nor south. So there’s a stealthy, hard-to-pin-down quality about Maryland.

I’ve worked as an election judge on a number of occasions in both Maryland and Virginia. I love the attitudes at the polling places in southern Anne Arundel County, where I lived until recently. (Lots of male voters in shorts, even in November!) I was horrified at the results of the 2016 presidential election, and in the days afterward, I kept flashing back to my fellow workers at my polling place, a selected bipartisan group, upholding what we perceived as small-d democratic values. I hated the result—my precinct went solidly for the “winner”—but I couldn’t hate the people. I still can’t hate the people.

My perception of Maryland includes a wry sense of humor and a basic decency.

A lot of my sense of Marylanders, those people in coats in the parking lots going from point A to point B because that’s how life was, went into my poem “Maryland Yellow.” It, and a number of other poems in the book, now that I think of it, came about in late 2016 and early 2017, when I had a very serious episode of depression. (The election, while it didn’t help, wasn’t the cause; I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety my whole life.) The visit to the City Winery in New York that inspired the Joni Mitchell poem was for a last-minute-scheduled Richard Thompson (I know!) concert about 10 days after the election. Then the job interview mentioned in that poem. I think I visited the Building Museum with my friend Jesse around that same time, just before I really began to have trouble just getting through the day. I was just grabbing onto whatever would help me, as John Irving put it, keep passing the open windows.

You are a wonderful reader. As a poet what do you get out of reading your work in public?

Thanks! I always have to tell the story of how I burst into tears at the podium and ran from the room at a reading I was supposed to give in college. That story is self-abnegating or self-aggrandizing depending on how you look at it, I guess.

I learned to read when I was very young, and in kindergarten, the teacher had me reading to my classmates and was impressed that I could hold the book, open and facing the audience, and look down on it and read upside-down. She wanted to move me up a couple of grades. My mother, wisely, wouldn’t let that happen, and it’s a damn good thing, because although I was also tall and could have passed for a second- or third-grader, I was nowhere near that in emotional or social development. I was just a good reader.

But I was a ham. I’ve got poems about “tap-dancing” in my room to “Give My Regards to Broadway”—I was pretty much that Gilda Radner character Judy Miller when I was a kid. So there was this tension between my extreme shyness and my desire to be heard that, once I got my equilibrium, has made reading exhilarating.

Three days ago, I tripped and fell, face-first, on the sidewalk a block from a reading in Chevy Chase. I mopped the blood off my face, pointed out the injuries to everyone I saw so they wouldn’t assume I had something contagious, and did the reading on what I imagine was a wave of adrenaline. It made me feel almost badass.

Now, that said, I think my best poems, or at least the ones I like best, tend to work a lot better on the page than as performances. It can be frustrating. Some of my stuff demands multiple exposures before it really works, and I still don’t know how you get people to sit down for that in the first place.

Tell me about your new work, if you can. What have you been up to lately?

I’m well into a second manuscript. I workshopped it with David Wojahn at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Conference in August 2018. It’s not well-sequenced yet—we had to submit a workshop manuscript, so I pulled together whatever I had that seemed ready, and I’ve been writing a lot this year, so there was a lot. There are more poems about music, unsurprisingly, but I aim to get more in there about my childhood and family and about my experiences with mental illness. The fact that writing such poems is difficult for me to do, or to do well, suggests to me that that’s what I need to be doing.

There are also two sets of poems that will probably be standalone chapbooks. One is about my longtime love affair with New York City and my ongoing mild adventures with the friends I have there, who are superannuated bohemians with day jobs. (“There are dozens of us. Dozens!”) Another is about Andy Warhol. I never expected to write about Warhol. A month after I got my MFA, my husband and I went on a driving vacation that included the Warhol Museum, and I just started writing Warhol poems like mad. A lot of them go back to an incident at a long-ago job: I worked in the library of a modern art museum when Warhol died, and there were people who were jubilant over his death. That’s been marinating in my mind for a long time, maybe around questions of sincerity and intention in art. I dunno.

I’m also working on poems about the Fruitlands community, a utopian plan by Bronson Alcott that went dreadfully wrong. Louisa May Alcott writes about it wonderfully in Transcendental Wild Oats: “About the time the grain was ready to house, some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away.” I mean, what would Bronson have worn to his philosophical discourses if his wife Abba hadn’t sewn the hairshirts?