Conversations, Leslie Ullman with Richard Jackson, 25 October 2012
Spirituality, Style & Inclusiveness, Travel, Inspiration of Language, Discovery
Spirituality: I was having a wonderful conversation with students yesterday, brilliant freshman. . . . I discovered as I was speaking to them that I had been looking for some sense of spirituality, probably in my life and in my writing, that's not linked to conventional religion. I am a Northerner, and I've also found conventional religions not to be particularly hospitable to women or applicable in some ways, so, I think, without even knowing it for much of my life, I've been looking--looking for something else and finding the actual looking to be sustaining, without finding an answer, although, I suppose, nature is certainly a solace. I had a wonderful conversation with a student afterwards who has been feeling similar things. [Ullman then connects these thoughts to her poem titled "Two."
Style & Inclusiveness: I find it hard, sometimes, to speak with assertion, but I can feel very assertive when I'm allowing myself to speculate. . . . I like those short sentences [in my early work]. . . . I am attracted to momentum. [W]hen I'm composing and I'm trying to find language that's going to surprise me and find connections that are going to surprise me, I think, in the composing process maybe, I let [sentences] go to see how much will creep back, not creep in, . . . jump in. Then when I'm revising, I'm . . . clipping them back a little, but not as much as I used to.
Travel: [I]t's what travel has done to my sensibilities more than my intellect. . . . [F]or me, being in foreign places just makes me that more alert to my surroundisngs, and . . . has helped me cultivate that alertness so I can bring it home, and then really take in where I am. . . . [P]lace just fascinates me--the flavor of life and looking in people's windows at night and trying to imagine what the atmosphere is like in their houses, and what it's like to go back there at the end of the day, and my mind goes into places like that. I suppose we call that voyerurism . . . I want to be voyeuristic when I'm traveling because I feel unmoored, and I want to be moored again . . . moored in that place. I want to blend in with the place, but I'm talking about interior states more than I am about my subject matter. I have written about my travels. It's wonderful to re-visit a place by writing about it. I went to India, oh, about four years ago, and it just gave me so much to think about, so much, not just color and qualities of light and smells and pace of life but . . . textures.
Inspiration of Language: I started wanting to write poetry the summer between my junior and senior year in college. This was in the early '60's. I used to love to go to an underground bookstore in Old Town, Chicago, which was near where I lived. And one day, I was in there, and I was just ready to step into a new way of being by reading, and I bought Evergreen Magazine, and I bought all this stuff that was sort of like buying new clothes, like I'm going to read these things, and my mind is going to be different. And I bought Sylvia Plath's Ariel. I had just heard of her from a brother of a friend of mine, and there was this book, and I bought it. I started reading it, and I couldn't believe what was going on with language. I had read poetry for classes, but I had never read it with a passion of my own, having my own discoveries about it. And the language just bowled me over; it just put me into a mental space I had never been in before. And it made me want to try it. So I started writing poems that summer, and I would read a little Sylvia Plath, and then I would work on something. I didn't write anything like she wrote, but, because my mind was stretching into the new ways of using language that thrilled me when I was reading her, I sat down and tried to make that happen with what I was writing. And it forced me to think of things I hadn't thought of before. And, it was that discovery, that I could take myself by surprise, that just--it made me high. I came back to college that fall with about four poems tucked away, and it was like being in love; it was like having this thing that I felt I would never lose again, that I would always have this; I would always have access to this taking myself by surprise, and also be able to read poetry, that reading poetry was going to be my lifeline. Then I took a poetry workshop, and then the honeymoon started to be over.
Discovery: You can understand something without being able to explain why you understand it. Sylvia Plath was in a realm that was very foreign to me, but I understood--I felt emotionally what was going on. If I had had to write an essay about it, I would have been in trouble, but you can have that kind of understanding, and you can enjoy it without having to articulate it, and that was--you know--the way we were educated, we weren't ever allowed to discover that. I'm not criticizing our education. It's just it's hard to teach that. You have to give people the chance to discover it. So then I realized I can do that with my own writing, too. I don't have to know in advance everything I'm going to say.
For more information about Leslie Ullman, see her bio page.
© 2012, Chattanooga State, Leslie Ullman, and Richard Jackson. Used by permission.
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