Virginia poet laureate visits RCAH

April 25, 2014 - Kelsey Block

“What I like most is following the words, following their sounds. A poem for me always starts as a phrase, a couple of words I hear together that just intrigue me,” Sofia Starnes, the poet laureate of Virginia, said. “Where will this word take me? It might open up a memory, something you’re concerned about, something you haven’t resolved inside your heart. And you start following that word through that emotion and through whatever it wants to include.”

Starnes said she started writing at a very young age, at the encouragement of her mother.

“My mother had four daughters. I’m the second one, and she named me for a great aunt she had who was a writer,” Starnes said. “So I think she decided that of her daughters, I was going to be the writer… I didn’t write poetry at that time, always short stories.”

Starnes said she turned to poetry when she and her family left the Philippines for Spain.

“It seemed like poetry became my best medium because it’s so concise. The same way I couldn’t take my country with me, I couldn’t take people with me, I couldn’t take a lot of words with me,” she said.

Starnes studied English Philology at the University of Madrid. As such, her poems are written in English, a language her mother could not easily read.

“She would say, ‘I am touching the poem, now you tell me what it’s about,’” Starnes said of reading her work to her mother over the phone. “She would understand more than anyone else the kind of world that I wanted to create.

“I love words so much,” Starnes said. “Words don’t just define – they suggest. And that is a big difference … English is particularly rich because so many of the words are made by connecting words: knapsack, kneecap, ribcage. So you have little poems in the making because you already have the relationship.”

Starnes said it felt like “coming home” when she was named the poet laureate of Virginia.

“My writing career really grew very much in Virginia, and my husband is from Virginia,” Starnes said. “This was the place where the community welcomed me enough to say, ‘You’re a Virginian.’”

The next thing Starnes decided to do was to get to work.

“I said, ‘Okay, I’ve got two years, what can I do?’” Starnes said. “They’re going to listen to me in these two years in ways they haven’t listened to me before… I decided immediately that I wanted to focus on the reader. If we don’t have a reader, it doesn’t make any sense. I wanted to tell [readers] there’s a poem for you – even if you don’t like poems. Everybody has a poem in this world that was written for them, they just have to find it.”

Starnes’ newest anthology, The Nearest Poem Anthology encompasses this idea.

“A poem is not finished until it finds a home in a reader, and I wanted to have a book that would show how valuable the reader was, how the reader gave a poem a new life,” Starnes said. “So the focuse of the book is not so much on the poets, but on the response of the reader.”

The collection of 112 poems was published in early March.

As far as her own work goes, Starnes she deals with things that are universal, rather concepts than specific to a certain time or place.

“You’re so used to reading things that are specific,” Starnes said. “But for me, it’s the opposite. It requires something of the reader the other poem may not require – it requires that you participate in the poem. I am putting some burden on the reader that other poems may not.”

Starnes’ work also focuses on spirituality. As a catholic, she places a lot of emphasis on ideas like the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation.

“Trinity for me is all about relationship,” she said. “It’s the God I know of, it’s a family, a father a son … You look everywhere and there’s a trinity. The moment the two connect, there’s a creation, that’s the third thing. There’s always a third. It’s the underlying thing that I’m writing that will influence the way the poem is going to unfold.”

Still, Starnes said she does not believe in writing to preach. Rather, she believes spirituality is just something from the inside that comes out in her work.

“It’s just in you. It imbues the way you look at things, it colors the way you look at things,” she said.