Arts and Entertainment

Through a poet's eyes

Linda Bierds gleans poems from paintings in “The Seconds,” a collection of new works inspired by visual images.

Pictures by Vermeer, Holbein, Chagall, and other artists prompted Bierds – an author with a Guggenheim Fellowship and a MacArthur Foundation grant to her credit – to write the poems she reads at Eagle Harbor Books Jan. 10.

“One might be a poet who takes inspiration from the ear – a snippet of the cadence of language,” Bierds says, “but I am a poet who takes inspiration from the eyes, so I am naturally drawn to paintings.”

Bierds also looks to the works of filmmakers like Ermanno Olmi (“The Tree of Wooden Clogs,” 1978) and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (“Night of the Shooting Stars,” 1982).

“Movies like these have images that start poems for me,” Bierds says. “I go to theater, too, but it’s the sets I’m in love with, the visual backdrop.”

For Bierds, the painting – or map, movie or other art form – is just the starting point. She invokes others’ art to cast through those forms new works completely realized.

“I make an immediate exit, move into my own imagery, and, finally, circle back to the painting,” Bierds says.

She moves in time as well, shifting from the 17th century to the 20th.

Castrato Farinelli sings beneath the window of mad King Philip V; Zelda Fitzgerald, sequestered with her insanity, begs her husband to come.

Bierds writes to meld past and present, a seamlessness she believes can only be achieved through language. She supports this precise art with meticulous period research.

Bierds’ fine rendering of detail tells in the lines that open “Vermeer in Winter”:

To my daughter, Elspeth, two loaf-sized coffers.

To my sons, the pastel seascape.

And the peat chest. And the Spanish chairs,


And the ivory-capped cane at rest on my


And the sheets, and the ear cushions.

The new collection is Bierds’ sixth book, and the second penned on Bainbridge.

She moved here from Seattle in 1994, purchasing a home at the south end.

“I liked the Lynwood Center area, because of Walt’s (Market),” Bierds says. “We found a house we fell in love with there, and I’m near a country store. It’s the first time I’ve lived in a small place, the first place I’ve lived where I’m known in the grocery store – not known, as in Linda Bierds, poet, but just known.”

Bierds says she finds Bainbridge an ideal place to live and to work.

“Every year I love it more and more,” she says. “I have everything I need here – my ancient encyclopedias, the library systems here and in Seattle.”

She writes in her study on the third floor each morning, using the noon meal as a kind of psychological transition back to the world. Although she believes the the subconscious mind has precedence in the morning hours, she set the habit for practical reasons.

“I was working for the University of Washington’s affirmative action program,” Bierds recalls, “and I chose to work there in the afternoon and write in the morning, because I knew that if I came to work in the morning, they would find things for me to do and I wouldn’t get any writing done.”

While people may regard poetry as an odd or mysterious profession, to Bierds, shaping verse is a calling.

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says. “I am content to be where I am, to be involved with an art that is seen to be quirky and eccentric.”

However, Bierds admits that when she meets a new person, she responds generically to the initial question – “What do you do?” – mentioning teaching and writing before broaching poetry.

“We stair step slowly down to that,” Bierds says. “I’m aware that the vast majority of people think that giving one’s life over to a task that has no monetary reward is nuts.”

Her father, in particular, worried about her future.

“He kept talking about my starting an IRA,” Bierds says,“and given what poets get paid, he was right.”

He would approve of the job she has now, she says, heading the University of Washington’s creative writing program.

Though Bierds also appreciates the security of the tenure-track job, the academization of creative writing occasionally makes her uneasy.

The Catch-22 failure built into a system that encourages student writers to emulate their professors, and then graduates them into an world where tenure-track academic posts no longer exist, bothers her.

The fact that teaching is more consuming than her part-time job has not been lost on Bierds, who observes fellow faculty trying to fit a year’s worth of writing into three summer months.

Her own work process doesn’t allow for even a mental sabbatical.

“The books are thematic,” Bierds says, “As soon as a book goes into galleys and I finish proofing, I already have the germ of the next one.”

Bierds feels she does not fully know a book until after it is published, however.

“When it’s complete, and bound and set forever and I start to read it aloud to audiences,” she says, “then I become fond of it – but it takes a long time.”

* * * * *

Poet Linda Bierds reads from her new book, “The Seconds” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001) 3 p.m. Jan 10 at Eagle Harbor Book Company. Call 842-5332 for more information.

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