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Writers on Writing, Volume 10: Caroline Goodwin

Caroline Goodwin moved to the Bay Area in 1999 to attend Stanford as a Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry. She teaches at Stanford Continuing Studies and in the undergraduate Writing and Literature program at California College of the Arts.

Born and raised in Alaska, she holds a BA in Biology from The Colorado College and an MFA from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. From 2013 - 2015 she served as the first Poet Laureate of San Mateo County. Her poetry books includeTrapline, Peregrine, and The Paper Tree (2017).

Caroline is at work on a nonfiction book about the life and death of her second daughter Josephine in 2002 and the sudden death of her husband Nick in 2016.

This spring she will be teaching a workshop at Left Margin LIT called "Writing through Grief." The class begins on March 17th.


From 2014 to 2016 you served as the first Poet Laureate of San Mateo County. Now that your tenure is over, can you reflect on that two-year experience?

I absolutely loved being my county's Poet Laureate. San Mateo County is quite a place. It has a population of over 700,000 and is incredibly diverse. I launched a county-wide poetry contest called "Poetry Is," and we had a couple of different themes per year, for example "Poetry Is Love" and "Poetry Is Heritage." I had so much fun I actually served for three years! My favorite event was held at the Woodside Library after my "Poetry Is Nature" contest. Three young men who were residents at Camp Glenwood came with their Corrections Officers and read the most powerful nature poems. My two oldest friends from Alaska happened to be in town, also, and it was absolutely pouring rain that afternoon. A wonderful experience.

I enjoyed reading at the Board of Supervisors meetings quarterly in Redwood City, meeting many working poets throughout the county and beyond, and visiting schools, jails, churches, senior living centers, and libraries among other venues. It was inspiring, demanding, and a great honor.

What is the inspiration behind your last book of poems, The Paper Tree?

The book was written slowly, in spurts (which is how I tend to work), between 2012 and 2017. I have an undergraduate degree in Biology, so I often work with the sounds and images of nature to bring an experience to my readers.

Some of the poems, I hope, explore the theme of gender-based violence and the ways in which women are still victimized and silenced. I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska in the '60s and '70s. At that time, it was a pretty rough place and, for me, a deep connection to nature offered solace. The willows behind my house always turned green again in the spring, the ice always melted, and this seemed nothing short of miraculous to me. So the landscape of my childhood definitely inspired parts of the book.

Another part of writing this book was my own attempt to come to terms with being a descendant of white missionaries. Part of our shared history is the undeniable genocide of Native Americans. What particular shame and responsibility do I still carry? How does this hurt me and the people I love? What does it teach me about compassion and truth-telling? Also, where is the complexity? A central poem titled "Fireweed" was written for my friend Jennifer Brady-Morales, who was a beautiful Tlingit artist. She died way too young, such an unfair loss to the community of Sitka where she was born and raised.

I have learned about healing and friendship from my community in Sitka, and this learning has held me in good stead in recent years. Everything passes. While I finished The Paper Tree before the sudden loss of my husband in a cycling accident in August 2016, much of the book explores the experience of living with the reality of grief. In 2002 Nick and I lost our year-old daughter Josephine, and she figures into some of the poems also. Really, we are all grieving, to different degrees. It's not possible to be human without grieving. The Paper Tree explores my particular experience of grieving a number of different things, I think.

The Paper Tree is divided into four parts, each of the named after a different tree. Can you talk about those sections in the book: Fireweed, Black Oak, Marigold, and Birch?

Fireweed is a lovely, dark pink flower in the evening primrose family that grows in tall stalks across the Pacific Northwest. It's one of the first plants to come up after a disturbance to the land such as a road or a fire. I was thinking about the cyclical nature of loss and renewal. In the Black Oak section, you'll find several poems that are based in California. I love the oak trees, and the sound of "black" and "oak" together was pleasing to me. The black oak, in particular, grows mostly in Northern California and I often admire stands of the trees when traveling up Highway One through Sonoma County. Marigold is a sequence of five loose sonnets entitled "Text Me, Ishmael". I wish I could explain this! I know I heard someone say "Text Me, Ishmael" one time, and I thought it was hilarious. Perhaps the poem explores the many new experiences we are faced with in the Information Age, as opposed to the age of scrimshaw and whaling. Lastly, I have a long-standing love for the birch tree. In childhood, they seemed magical with their papery bark and the black marks that looked like eyes. I live on Birch Street. I collect birch bark baskets.

What do you find most challenging or exciting about writing?

The biggest challenge is carving out the necessary time. I have two beautiful daughters, a pug and a cat and a bird and a full teaching schedule. Writing demands a certain part of the mind that I find gets worn out after a while if I don't take it easy. I tend to spread myself pretty thin, as I think many of us do these days. What I find so exciting is the way in which, if I show up consistently at the page and let myself explore and "go there" (no matter how strange the leap), things eventually click. It's so satisfying!

I also love being in conversation with other poets and writers, reading widely and deeply, and discovering new ways to bring my own weirdness to the page. I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins lying on the ground, staring at a flower, and I just know that poets are my people and that this art form will keep challenging and fulfilling me for the rest of my life.

What new writing project(s) are you currently working on?

I am currently deep into a new project whose working title is The Trades. My late husband was a plumber; he worked in the trades. He only had fifteen shirts in the closet when he died. Most of them are still hanging there, so I am taking them out one by one and writing to/for/about each shirt. Many of them are Woolrich plaid "American Rag" flannel shirts, which I find evocative just in its sound. So I am doing some research into the history of these textiles, thinking about the different colors of the shirts and the memories associated with them, and allowing myself to follow any strange twists and turns the writing takes. The work is, I hope, a form of letting go while honoring my 25-year marriage and everything it taught me.

In a few weeks you'll start teaching a nonfiction workshop called “Writing Through Grief” at Left Margin LIT. Writing about grief can be challenging, obviously. How do you get your students to open up about their own pain?

I believe in the power of a community of writers. This can provide both accountability and moral support, both of which we need to really dig into our writing. Reading and writing are about connecting with ourselves and with others in order to make meaning out of our experiences.

In a nonfiction workshop it's particularly important to build a sense of trust and safety first. I do this by letting people know a little bit about my own life story and the writers that have inspired me. Then, I like to have students write to a specific prompt during class, for example "make a list of the images that bring you peace" then choose one image to explore in more detail.

In my own practice, I rely upon that old principle of "suiting up and showing up" for the work and allowing the writing to lead me in the early drafts. I let this be extraordinarily messy! I think it's imperative to have a safe space in which to explore the nooks and crannies of our minds, without judgment. We judge ourselves harshly already, I think, and especially when we are grieving. Since our current culture of speed and accomplishment can be hostile to the grieving process, I like to believe that a class about the deeply personal process of grief can also be a political act, and can somehow contribute to healing.

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