Thursday, April 1, 2021

Hope Whitby’s “Love Letter to a Stranger” is #273 in the never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM

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***Hope Whitby’s “Love Letter to a Stranger” is #273 in the never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem.  All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece. 


Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form?  On June 10, 2013, I had a heart attack and spent three days in the hospital where a stent was put in. Five days later, I had a second heart attack and was rushed back to the hospital where another stent was put in because the first one failed. I have 48% heart damage. During my second stay in the hospital, someone passed away from the same condition I had, and she received the same treatment. Even though I felt very fortunate to be alive, I suffered from terrible survivor’s guilt. 

For a few months afterward, I was not writing, so when a friend offered me a spot at her writer’s retreat that November at Porches in Nelson County, VA., I went. I needed the stimulation and the encouragement. During a group journal writing session, I wrote of this person who I did not know but was in the same cardiac critical care unit and she passed away at the same time I was waking up from my procedure. 

Every morning, I would thank the powers that be for keeping me here, but I would also question those same powers on why they kept me and not her. I felt a release of some of the weight I had been carrying by writing about it and then sharing the experience aloud with other writers. When I returned from the retreat, I began pulling the poem out of the journal entry. I didn’t know at that time that it would become one of my most requested poems to be read at poetry readings. (Above Right and Left:  Writer's Retreat at Porches in Nelson County, Virginia.)

Where were you when you started to actually write the poem?  And please describe the place in great detail. On some Sundays, pre-Covid, I would take my laptop and have lunch at the café at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. The Best Café (Right) has a lovely view of sculptures, water, and mature trees. You will often see writers there writing because it is a pleasant environment. 

What month and year did you start writing this poem? I wrote the first draft of this poem in December 2013. The white Christmas lights at the museum and around it seemed to add to the spirituality of the poem. (Left: and the two below are Hope Whitby's journal entries.  Credit and Copyright by Hope Whitby)

How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? (And can you share a photograph of your rough drafts with pen markings on it?) I found the original journal entry from the journal writing class. I can share those pages. What I remember about writing this poem, was how I wrote all around the poem before I found its core or its heart. I wrote about things that didn’t happen to try to make the poem sometimes appear more dramatic or sometimes less dramatic. 

I took a break and let what I had written rest and looked at some art, and by doing that, the poem, the true poem came off the page as soon as I opened the document. I deleted everything around those lines because they were merely lines of me just talking myself through the process rather than actual lines of poetry.

Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version?  And can you share them with us? After I found the poem, I wrote the poem in 7 syllable lines so I could tighten up the language. With that version, I shared it with a writing group I belonged to at the time, where a few minor changes were made with punctuation and one line changed to 6 syllables and another one to 8. Those small changes didn’t disrupt the flow of the poem. (Right: Hope Whitby's writing space in her home.  Credit and Copyright by Hope Whitby)

What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem?
I want the readers of my poem to come away with an understanding of my release of survivor’s guilt because I don’t have the answers to the big questions. What I would like for a writer to take away from the poem, is form. "Love Letter to a Stranger" is one stanza with twenty-three lines. I didn’t break the lines into stanzas or couplets because I didn’t want the reader to take any pauses. I wanted this poem to move along quickly as if it was happening in real-time. 

Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? The most emotional part of this poem for me to write was visualizing the stranger departing from this world and ascending to another. I am always aware that the roles in this poem could have been reversed and I could have departed. My hope is when that time comes, I would transition in a beautiful way as she did in this poem.

Has this poem been published before?  And if so where? Love Letter to a Stranger was first published in the 2015 Women Artist Datebook published by Syracuse Cultural Workers and then it was reprinted in 2019 in my first volume of poetry, Traveling the River, published by Life in 10 Minutes Press. 

Love Letter to a Stranger

 By Hope Whitby

I was later told that at

the same time my heartbeat, lost

for moments, came back in a faint

green bleep, that you, the woman

in 4C, took your last breath.

I saw you dancing under 

the oak as the sun streamed

golden through its leaves and, Wow,

you were so happy as you

twirled while raising your arms high

above your head. The light, so 

inviting, felt warm on my 

face. And the closer I moved 

toward you, the farther you

danced away until I could

only see your figure bathed 

in white, then you were gone.

I wanted to ask, who are you?

But before my voice made sound,

I felt gentle fingers on

my shoulder bringing me back

to a room with monitors

and intravenous tubing. 

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