The Flapper Press Poetry Café: Meet the Poet—Debbie Theiss
Updated: Sep 2, 2022
By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Café features the work of poets from around the world. This week, we highlight the work of Debbie Theiss.
Debbie Theiss (of Lee’s Summit, MO) grew up in in the Midwest and finds inspiration for her poetry in the unfolding art of daily life and nature. Her debut poetry collection, a chapbook entitled Perfectly Imperfect, was published in July 2021 by Kelsay Books. In addition, she has poems published in I-70 Review, Skinny Journal, Kansas Time and Place, Interpretations IV & V, Helen Literary Journal, River & South Review, Postcard Poems and Prose, Star 82 Review, Weaving the Terrain from Dos Gatos Press, and others.
In her debut poetry collection, Perfectly Imperfect, the author explores the transformative powers of lived experiences that create the imperfectly perfect person. The collection is divided into three sections. The first selection of poems, "It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see" (Henry David Thorough), considers not only what a person perceives but how interpretation forms meaning for that experience. In the second section, "We are shaped and fashioned by what we love" (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), poems reflect how love of persons, things, and places shape the person we become in our lives. In the last section, "Sometimes the only way to ever find yourself is to get completely lost" (Kellie Elmore), the author deliberates through the messy and sometimes confusing circumstances that help us accept being perfectly imperfect.
I reached out to Debbie Theiss to ask her about her work, influences, and process.
AN: The artwork cover for your chapbook, Perfectly Imperfect, intrigues. I know that your poetry has been selected for Ekphrastic interpretation in competitions, so I was curious to ask you your process for selecting cover art. Did this choice come after you completed the manuscript, or did you always have this art piece in mind? And the artist is from Missouri, correct? Did this factor into your selection since you reside in Missouri?
DT: Cover art is important to the process of creating a capstone image of your poetry collection. I wanted the image to encapsulate the theme and spark interest and curiosity for the content of the book. About four years ago, my husband and I purchased a signed print of Andrew Batcheller entitled “400 PPM.” Andrew was originally from KC, but he has made Joplin, MO, his home for the last decade, where he has his studio. I love his use of rich colors, evocative images, and how his work arouses an emotional response.
When I received a contract for my collection, I decided to contact Andrew and see if he would be interested in doing an original painting for the cover. He was very interested and suggested that I look at paintings that were already created to see if any were a good fit. If not, he would create an original painting for the cover art. When I saw “Nikki and Her Flowering Swans,” I immediately connected to the painting and felt like it was a wonderful fit for my book cover. He was a wonderful collaborator, and I feel like I couldn’t have chosen a better art piece for the cover. We knew that we had a connection when he sent me a picture of a post-it note that had the same quote by Henry David Thorough on his board where he does his painting that was the heading for section 1 in my collection: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
AN: Debbie, it has been awhile. Do you remember how we met?
DT: Of course! I first met you at a Writers Group at Johnson County Library in Prairie Village. The library advertised that a writing critique group was being held and was open to new members. It was my first experience with a writing group. You are a long-time patron of the library and welcomed me with open arms to the group. You, along with Hannah, our writing facilitator, gave me my first taste of encouragement and mentorship in writing poetry. Later, we went to our first writing conference together at River Pretty Writers’ Conference in Tecumseh, Missouri. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to share with others in the journey of writing and to grow from collaborative experiences of support and mentorship. I am grateful to the library for offering classes that help encourage writers and for you in guiding me toward a writerly life. I feel confident today to say “I am a poet” as a result of Johnson County Library and you, Annie. Salute!
AN: How kind. Thank you so much. Since we have taken poetry workshops and attended River Pretty Writers’ Conference together, I know you as a disciplined writer who is faithful to a routine. Might you share a little bit about your writing process with the Flapper Press audience?
DT: I connect to nature and everyday experiences as a muse for my writing. My husband and I are hikers and are often at national parks or preserves. I find myself fascinated by the relationship between the physical world and how it relates to the everyday challenges and joys of human beings. As I immerse in the experience, an idea—sometimes just a thought—a maybe-poem comes to me, and I capture it (before I forget) either by pen and notebook or record it on my phone, sometimes with a picture of where I am or what it is that caught my attention. The more experiences I have traveling, the more ideas sprout for my poetry.
When I sit down at my desk to write, I copy all the ideas into my journal. Then I take one of the ideas and draft a poem. Some inklings of a poem don’t let me rest. The smidgen keeps churning in my mind until I sit down and write it. I turn on baroque music and write, trying not to stop myself (the edit thief) until I have a rough draft, which completely reforms when I go about revising, then finally going to the computer to type, where it is again revised over and over.
AN: What advice might you offer a novice poet?
DT: Write, write, write. I remember buying my first journal and thinking, I will never be able to fill this journal with writing. A book that really helped me get started was The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. She suggested doing morning pages, which require you to write and fill pages of your notebook with whatever comes to your mind. Before I knew it, my journal was filled with page after page of writing, and some had turned into poetry. That helped me begin to find my voice and build my confidence as a writer. I have so many other authors that have helped me along the way. Two of my favorite are Mary Oliver and W. S. Merwin. Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook is a guidepost for helping understand poetry. W. S. Merwin’s work is mesmerizing, and I love his style. The more poets who you can become familiar with, the more they will help to inform your own poetry.
Go to workshops, conferences, submit your work, even if rejected—you get over rejections and actually celebrate them after a while. A friend, Mary-Lane Kamberg (leader of Kansas City Writers Group), said you aren’t a real writer until you have 100 rejections. Find a group of writers who will help motivate, encourage, and provide constructive feedback. The accountability of meeting with a group helps generate much more writing.
AN: How has your writing changed since you began 7 years ago?
DT: I better understand how to partner with the reader in what they need to immerse themselves in the content, which sometimes means eliminating words or phrases and making better choices of words that clearly show instead of tell. I have also stretched my repertoire to include short story and essay, which I think has made me a better poet. The writing of others in my small-group writing workshops also influences my writing. Currently, I am in a group that has an outstanding poet who writes sonnets (non-rhyming). I have begun experimenting with sonnets myself and find the structure forces the poet to concisely choose words to create meaning within the ten-syllable lines and 14-line stanzas. The challenge (like prompts) helps stimulate new and exciting ideas.
AN: I have great respect for you as a poet because your writing is clear, crisp, and clean while still being magical in how you construct. I know many poets, and you are in the top tier when I think of poets as people who are kind and encouraging and who write not to chase a legacy (they don't need to, as their work stands on its own) but to also advance others. This quality in you is what I call poetic living. I admire you how you conduct your life, Debbie. So with that said, might you share 3 to 5 of your poems and give a brief backstory on each?
DT: Yes, I am happy to.
Tips of her hiking poles mark the ascent
to Crenshaw Ridge. Tiny holes pock the dirt
like inverted ant hills. She pauses,
takes a deep breath, relaxes shoulders.
She scans the expanse of aspen,
dark emerald near the base
capped with jade green and pale yellow.
A red-tinned cabin roof at the highest elevations
ablaze with buttery-orange leaves.
A little early—not quite peak.
She removes her backpack, leans it against
a jutted trunk next to the trail, presses her back
against it, abandons her hat to the scrub grass.
Cool breezes fan sweat-trickled ringlets.
She closes her eyes, imagines she’s perched
on the highest branch.
A flutter of motion beside her—
long tail with short wings, upper body
brown with white and gray streaked breast.
A northern goshawk flits through virgin
forest in pursuit of a tree squirrel.
A good sighting for a hiker in these woods.
Five years ago, she climbed this ridge.
No poles. She needs them now for balance.
Worn calluses line her palms where she grasps.
She glances right and left, the foliage ripe
with autumn’s first blush.
Another hiker passes by, waves
and asks if she’s headed to the pass.
She shakes her head and says,
“I’m already there.”
*Originally printed in Parks and Points and Poetry, May 2021
About the Poem:
A walk in the mountains of New Mexico inspired this poem. It was fall, but the foliage was not quite at its peak. You could see the different layers and how the beginning of winter was changing the colors from green to its first blush and then the brilliant colors of orange and yellow. It made me think of life’s passage—the trajectory of life after reaching the peak, then the descent. The woman in the poem comes to realize that she is more satisfied with the journey than the destination.
"Sometimes you can only say with color what you cannot express in words."
My camera’s shutter clicks a fourth, then fifth photo,
the lens attempts to capture Ghost
Ranch; its burnt shades on folding mountains,
red-brick mudstone, tan sandstone.
But snapshots blur the lone cottonwood,
bent as if quenching its thirst in a spring, wearing a crown
of harvest moon. Autumn foliage hides its branches.
Golden-red and tangerine-yellow leaves blush in the setting sun.
I pick up my journal, write pasty phrases unequal
to saturated hues of the tree. Then, I remember O’Keefe—
her color chart—over 500 colors, always with her as she paints.
I note 395, 397, 398.
*Parks and Points anthology Wayfinding (March, 2021)(originally published in Parks & Points, April 2018).
About the poem:
The idea for the poem “Number 395” occurred when my husband and I were visiting Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. This was the home of Georgia O’Keefe, and much of her work reflects the famous landscape surrounding this area. We were there when the foliage was breathtaking.
In this poem the photographer struggles to capture the beauty.
I May Be Addicted
to the TV show, Hoarders: paper towel
rolls stacked to the ceiling; diet coke pull-
tabs in lidless jars against basement walls.
A dumpster wedged next to piled up worn tires.
Mountains of rubbish mounded in bins, then
everything’s gone, taken away, released.
I am a hoarder, too. But not of stuff.
I hoard words—like Bitch Loser Liar Slut
Words thrash, collect in my mind repeating
over and over, cluttering my thoughts.
If I could hear the right words—I love you?