Celeste Helene Schantz was a finalist in the Cultural Center of Cape Cod’s poetry competition, judged by Naomi Shihab Nye. She was also a finalist in a contest sponsored by Poetry International Rotterdam. In June, she was mentored by Marge Piercy in a juried poetry workshop in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. A graduate of the University of Toronto, she lives in Upstate New York and is writing her first book.
Geosi Gyasi: How long have you been writing?
Celeste Helene Schantz: Since I could read and write. Age four, maybe.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you recognize writing as a “real” profession?
Celeste Helene Schantz: Well, it’s real in the sense that I must do it. A profession means you profess something. If you look it up, you’ll see it comes from something like Old French and Latin meaning “public declaration,” “to declare openly” or profess. The definition of “occupation one professes to be skilled in” didn’t come in until the early 15th century or so.
Geosi Gyasi: As a graduate of the University of Toronto, could you share with us what you studied?
Celeste Helene Schantz: I studied English and American Literature with minors in Classics, Medieval Studies and Film. I also spent a lot of time at The Upper Lip on Yonge Street drinking Moosehead beer, and at the St. Mike’s pub writhing on the floor with friends to The B52s’ “Rock Lobster”. I hold a graduate degree in English Education from the University of Rochester and I’ve taught English as a Second Language for 26 years.
Geosi Gyasi: You were the finalist in the Cultural Center of Cape Cod’s Poetry Competition. Which of your poems was entered into this competition and how did you feel as a finalist?
Celeste Helene Schantz: I entered a poem called “Psalm of My Son”, which is about my child’s autism and synesthesia. It was ironic that he was getting marked down in art class (as a toddler!) for not paying attention and yet he was born with the ability to hear colors in music…yellow in Mozart, turquoise in Wasis Diop’s Senegalese guitar. He sees and hears things most people can’t. So I wrote a poem about that. Being selected as a finalist was really encouraging. Give me a little earned validation and I will run with it for a very long way.
Geosi Gyasi: You were once mentored by Marge Piercy in a juried poetry workshop in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Could you tell us anything about Marge Piercy?
Celeste Helene Schantz: She’s a strong, important, original poet. She’s a generous teacher. She doesn’t take crap from anybody. She has a great smile. She’s passionate. Going to visit her on her porch in the woods was kind of like entering the hut of Baba Yaga or Mother Nature: a little scary and you’re surrounded by herbs and vegetables and wildlife and cats. You don’t know what’s going to happen in there as you walk in alone for her critique. But it’s very transforming in a good way. And your poetry really improves. Piercy gives solid criticism and gets you down to the visceral elements, the flesh and bone of a poem. She makes you look at poetic anatomy: how the work’s constructed and makes you figure out how sound, sense and form work symbiotically. Oh- and her guacamole rocks! She’s an awesome cook, and a very authentic person.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Black Box” as published by One Throne Magazine?
Celeste Helene Schantz: I was very moved by the tragedy of the downing of the Malaysia airplane over the Ukraine last July. It’s stayed with me ever since the actual event. So I was moved to write about how the thoughts passing through my brain were similar to investigators searching the crash site for the black box…a synaptic scan repeatedly analyze how human beings can do these things to each other, to search for answers. I kept asking why. I was interested in One Throne, which was brand new at the time, as a place that appreciates diverse voices and narrative poetry. They were intelligent and interesting and I knew I wanted to submit my work there.
Geosi Gyasi: How long does it take you to write a single poem?
Celeste Helene Schantz: Well, of course that can vary greatly. For a rough draft, perhaps a few days. However I often do between 20 and 40 revisions over the course of ensuing weeks, months, years. And even then, it’s never really done, you know. You just happen to stop with a variation you’re currently satisfied with. I’ve changed poems I wrote eight or ten years ago.
Geosi Gyasi: What has been your greatest challenge as a writer?
Celeste Helene Schantz: Having a regular writing regimen. I’m a single mom raising a child with social and communicative challenges and I work three jobs. So it requires a lot of energy. Also showing up at the page regularly and not waiting for magic inspiration. Just doing it, like Nike advises. Cutting unnecessary lines that I love. Loving a poem I’ve created and hearing harsh criticism. Rejection is pretty tough too, for about a day. Then you get over it and start again. For no money and very little recognition from anyone. The general public is not clamoring to rip the latest poem out of your hand as you fight paparazzi getting off of an elevator. But it’s how you live, you know. To write a good line and to have someone appreciate it at a reading at a coffee shop.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a particular “style” in which you write?
Celeste Helene Schantz: I blatantly imitate poets I love. So far I’ve had a Sylvia Plath phase, a Charles Simic phase and a Yeats phase. But I think recently an original voice has started to emerge.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific theme you often write on?
Celeste Helene Schantz: I tend to be serious and my area of interest to explore has largely been childhood, family, coming of age and death/transformation. A leider cycle or life cycle, I guess.
Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you write for?
Celeste Helene Schantz: Myself. But myself as a separate being… as someone I don’t know. A projected me who lives somewhere else…who’s intelligent, empathetic and enjoys expression through the medium of poetry. Someone I’d be friends with if we met on the street.
Geosi Gyasi: Who are your favorite authors?
Celeste Helene Schantz: Too many to name. For fiction, off the top of my head, Harper Lee, Shirley Jackson, definitely Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. And Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes. Hill’s book is an important addition to slave narrative and authentic revolutionary war social history. I love science fiction. For poetry, Marge Piercy, Robert Louise Stevenson for sheer musicality and youth, Elizabeth Bishop for pristine revision, Sylvia Plath for mouth feel, Philip Levine for story, Wislawa Szymborska and Charles Simic for keen wit, Terrence Hayes for vision. For nonfiction, Antonia Fraser. David Oshinsky. Eli Weisel. And for pure creative inspiration, Neil Gaiman. I’m also a fan of intelligent, well-researched, well-written historical fiction.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you hope to achieve with your writing?
Celeste Helene Schantz: I’d like to publish a book of collected poems and a book of fiction. I’d like it to be good. I’d like people to occasionally browse through it and say “Yes! That’s how I feel, too!” I’d like them to share a few memorable lines with a friend. Or find it at a library and actually read it and copy a phrase or two and have it have some meaning in their life. Or make them feel better or give them an insight or give them something cheering and fun to recite. I’d like to communicate with them and make them smile, years from now. I’d like to make enough money from the book to take my son to visit England or New Zealand one day.
Geosi Gyasi: Does your family approve of your writing?
Celeste Helene Schantz: My son’s actually attended a reading and gotten up himself and read a poem. And he did it so well! Some family came to a poetry event once and it was great to have them there. A couple of siblings and nieces usually offer congrats on their Facebook pages, if I get something published. I have a sister-in-law who has asked to read some of my work and I appreciate that. Of course we all want people who witness our time here…who take some interest in what we are doing with our lives; our passions, and letting you know that they are supportive, that cheer you on. If they are not interested you don’t want to “bother” them or force them, so naturally you seek out another kind of family or village. I’m fortunate to have worked with a couple of excellent mentors and workshop participants who have been really good editors, and hopefully I for them as well.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you continue to live in Upstate New York and how is the literary culture there?
Celeste Helene Schantz: Yes, I live in a very modest little duplex behind a dairy farm. The cows and sheep and particularly the goats seem to enjoy poetry. The donkeys, not so much.
Seriously though, I belong to a group called Just Poets of Greater Rochester. They are a super not-for-profit organization creating events in Western New York which celebrate diverse voices in poetry. Through a program called 59 Days of Independence, with the help of a gentleman named Brian Bailey, we put on a fine program celebrating the Poetry of South Africa. A group of lovely South African expats each got up and read poetry dealing with Apartheid, racism, suicide…a lot of critical topics. It was a wonderful day. They were my teachers.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently reading?
Celeste Helene Schantz: I usually have at least four or five books going at once. Right now I’m reading The Color of Water by James McBride, Primo Levi’s If Not Now, When?, Jan Jelinek’s The Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Evolution of Man, Philip Levine’s What Work Is and Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence. Forsyth teaches you a lot about writing in a really entertaining way. I also use a lot of glossaries and field guides and stuff that I find browsing little used book shops. And I’ve taken to listening to stories on CD in the car. I just finished hearing the short story Tobermory by Saki. I’m always listening to poems on CD, too.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you get ideas to write?
Celeste Helene Schantz: They just coalesce. It’s thought.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you want to say anything to end the interview?
Celeste Helene Schantz: Yes. We need to get back to our poetic roots. There is a rather newer pseudo-intellectual school of poetry sucking the life out of poetry in a portion of the literary journal community right now, and in some highbrow magazines. And it has to stop. You are killing poetry. We need to get back to honest well-wrought poems which inspire, which people want to read and recite and share. Let’s get back to what made us fall in love with poetry in the first place. Let’s keep it real. And teachers: let’s please take a course in how to enjoy poetry and share poems with students. If you don’t know how to enjoy a poem you can’t expect your students to. Newspapers: give a damn and start publishing poetry again. People actually die in other countries to defend the journalistic freedom of expression yet here in the states we’d prefer to keep up with the Kardashians than read a moving poem in the paper. Poetry is the sister of music and narrative. Poetry must live long and prosper, because if we lose our poetry, we lose our soul.