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Interview with Janet Grace Riehl
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Interview with Janet Grace Riehl

1.  Although many of our readers have considered writing poetry, most shy away because of the difficulty in selling a volume of poetry. What advice do you have for those would-be poets?
I believe it’s important to follow our hearts and do our best to flow our hearts onto paper into words to share with the world in whatever form they want to come. I’ve written in all genres in my life and I find that different stories and sagas want to come out in different forms—whether fiction, essay, myth, or poetry. If we stay awake to ourselves, we’ll know what needs to be written, in what genre, and when. If we, as writers, are thinking first of the commercial viability of our work, we stop our creative flow based on spiritual purpose working through us. Just write and see what happens. Perhaps your poems never become an entire volume of poetry. Perhaps you may even decide to keep such a volume private. Whatever happens, these poems you write—anything you write with authentic intent—provide fuel for everything else that wants to come through you…including the creative gestures of ordinary living such as cooking or writing your next thank you note. All of our creative acts are gifts to the world. Just give, and don’t worry about the return on your investment.
2.  Your inspiration for Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary came out of the tragic death of your sister. Do you think you would have pursued this avenue had that event not occurred?
Because of my sister’s death in the car accident, I was more open and raw. Most importantly, I came back to the family homestead that had been with us for six generations. Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary is a down-home love story. It tells of re-connecting with my father, caring for my mother, and coming to terms with my sister’s loss. I feel, often, that Sightlines was a gift from both my sister’s death and my mother’s incapacity as I partnered with my father and came to know him and myself and my past in a new way. I would have written something else without this course of events. But, yes, Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary definitely came out of the choice I made to go back home after my sister’s death, despite my fears. A friend reassured me by saying, “Everyone deserves to know the truth about their lives.” That truth, as it happened, was the gift of my choice to return to our homestead in the family’s time of need.
3.  Our readers love to hear about other author's writing habits. What's your typical writing day? Do you write every day, write a certain number of hours daily, or only when the muse visits?
My father is a muse-only writer. He’ll be out clearing brush and then grab a paper bag to scribble down a poem when it hits him.
I spent decades as a professional writer, and so I do both—set up a structure and follow the muse. During the six months I wrote the poems in Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary, I mainly wrote in the morning, sitting up immediately when I woke up, drinking tea out of an antique shaving mug. I spent most of this time in Illinois. As soon as I heard my parents stirring below, I dashed downstairs to help my mother get ready for the day, since my father was her night nurse. During the day I jotted down ideas and lines that I could mine for the next morning’s writing session. I like to write longhand first and then transcribe into typed form. I kept my poems close to me, not offering them for critique, but just checking in with a few friends to confirm that what I was doing had value for others. The structure I set depends upon the project I’m working on and what my everyday life requires in the way of cooking and errands.
4.  What advice do you have for a person who wants to try their hand at poetry, but isn't sure how to start?
Mostly, have an open mind about what poetry is. Don’t get too hung up on “Oh, now I’m writing poetry.” There’s no need to make it too precious. On the other hand, it’s not poetry just by making it look like poetry on the page.  The main requirement in my definition of poetry is compressed language. There are many poetic devices we can use to compress language, and these can be studied. If the germ of what we said has merit, these words can be revised and improved later. Just open your heart and let it rip. Be as precise as possible. Abstraction isn’t very interesting.  I feel poetry’s purpose is to listen to the language of our hearts and souls. Our poems are first and foremost for the person who writes them to know and measure their own depth. If you are writing at this depth, then chances are, something you say may be helpful to others.
5.  Do you have more volumes planned, or will Sightlines: A Poet’s Diary be your only volume of poetry? Do you ever think about switching to a different genre?
Although I continue to write poetry, as it comes to me, I consider myself primarily a prose writer, and have been widely published in literary journals in prose.  I expect Sightlines will be my only full volume of poetry, although I could see myself putting out a chapbook someday. I like having a theme for publications, not just a collected works. My father, Erwin Thompson, is inspired by the success of my poetry book to put together a family poetry anthology that includes six generations of family poets. We’ll publish this in 2007. My father has also edited a collection of verse by a man who was his friend and musical mentor, Bee Lewis, titled Gems of Yesterday. We’ll be publishing this in 2007 as well. I’m working on both books with him. I’m also editor of the Thompson Western Series. We’ve just published the first book Cattle Country and Back Trail: Two Tales from the Thompson Western Series. There are twelve tales in all, so this is just the beginning of the trail on that project.
For my own writing, I’m working on a memoir that will be creative non-fiction with the working title White Girl Passing as White. There’s another fictional memoir, told in letters, titled The Barcelona Letters: My Life As It Might Have Been that I’m revising.
6.  What have you found to be the best audience for Sightlines? Any particular demographics?
Members of slightly older audience—Boomers and Seniors—who have experienced a death of someone close to them, or have cared for a parent or spouse—relate strongly to the stories told in Sightlines. These are plainspoken poems filled with Midwestern voice and imagery, so people who grew up in the Midwest enjoy the time and space travel back to the 1950s and beyond. Conservationists and people who love the land and its creatures appreciate my poems about birds, birdwatching, the pine rows, and our hills and woods. Most of all, these are poems for anyone seeking inspiration, honesty, and humor during hard times. People have told me that they read Sightlines through like a novel. A reader told me just today, “Your poems have that grab your heart and twist it till it comes up into your throat feeling.” I wasn’t going for that, but there it is.
7.  Do you do readings?  If so, where?
Last year I gave readings in California, New Mexico, Colorado, and Illinois. My readings are really talks with music and poetry integrated into them. I pick a theme from Sightlines such as “memory,” “home,” “place,” or “heritage” and then craft the talks around this theme, selecting poems to read, songs to sing or music to play, and blend all this with commentary based on the theme. The text of these talks are available on-line at
8.  Any last advice you'd like to give our readers about writing poetry?
Be a poet of earth, fire, and water rather than a poet of the air. Poetry is a place for real life, real thoughts and feelings. Poetry isn’t all starlit nights and fairy dust. Go beyond the clichés you may have been exposed to. Write truly, from your depths. Only then, with your passion, clarity, and precision revealed will you and your readers benefit…and soar, without being told to.


A beautiful collection filled with 90 poems, 190 pages, 25 photos and tribute to a loved family.
Sightlines offers a frank portrait of a family not only coming to terms with its grief, but also celebrating its past and difficult present. Although deeply personal, these poems strike poignant and universal chords. They offer a vision of life filled with little treasures that carry us back to what is truly important in our lives.
As the author of this book, I want to share some of the creative process behind writing Sightlines. The book evolved over a year, following a secluded retreat, in response to my sister's death in a car accident.
During this time, I came to a strong sense that the world is charged with meaning, and that is a poem. The only trick is to tease out the meaning. That is what I proceeded to do as I moved back and forth between my Midwest home to my Northern California home.
Putting together this poet's diary was a little like assembling a 1,000 piece puzzle. Mortality became keenly real to me as my parents and I aged together. The sorrow of life's fragility, and joy at its tenderness, form the sightlines of all five sections in this collection of 90 poems as I examine and share the people and places of my life.

Following a family tragedy, Janet Grace Riehl returned to her childhood home in the Midwest. There, through her craft, she discovered a new sense of connection reuniting her, and the reader, with life. Janet Grace Riehl is an award-winning author, artist, performer, and creativity coach. Her poems, stories, and essays have been widely published in national literary magazines and the newly-released anthology Stories to Live By: Wisdom to Help You Make the Most of Every Day. Her life moves between two great bodies of water—the Mississippi River in Southwestern Illinois and Clear Lake in Northern California. You can visit her website

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