Interview with Chris Longenecker
“I used to call it writing. Now I try to remember to call it composing.” – Christine Longenecker
Lining the streets of Lancaster, in its parks, the country surrounding and expanding away from it—everywhere there are trees. In Christine (Chris) Longenecker’s newest collection of poetry, How Trees Must Feel, readers will certainly find more trees, and maybe even some of the same ones. The trees around her, their names, and their personalities, show up all over her poetry. She tells us, “I now prefer trees to poetry. They aren’t as much in a hurry as I am and not nearly as talkative. They slow me down, but they also surprise me. They could (if I let them) fill my entire life and imagination.”
Chris has long been involved with performance arts and theater, finding the stage a frightening place in 4th grade while reciting Ogden Nash. “I had to have each line fed to me by a teacher from behind the stage curtain,” she says, “Thankfully my friends teased me, and I got over it.” Luckily for us, this did not dissuade her, and she’s been involved with theater groups ever since, including ones in Washington D.C. and in Lancaster. Her poetry has been rediscovered through this medium. “My “in” with the Lancaster literary community, has been through theater. Even my poetry has found its connection to the literary community through theater. When I first moved to Lancaster in 1986, I lived across the street from the Independent Eye Theater on E. King Street and I got involved right away…Eventually the people I met there became my community within a community,” she says.
Chris’s ear for poetry is obvious from the first time you hear her. She makes beautiful use of cadence and subtle rhythm. Readers often do not notice the structures of her pieces, but once she finishes, they are left with the feeling that they could sense the form subconsciously. Her poems do not bounce and they do not come straight for you. Rather, they flow in a sort of patterned dance. She says, “I honestly don’t value the written word nearly so much as the aural/oral word when it comes to poetry. My favorite poetry is poetry I can understand on first hearing yet still sticks in memory and makes me want to hear it again.” While Chris understands that poetry written in books “spreads” faster and wider to audiences everywhere, she feels poetry’s true power is in the ear.
As the current Poet Laureate of Lancaster, you can find Chris at monthly readings, open mics at Dogstar Books, and even Poetry Aloud. At some of these events she doesn’t perform, choosing instead to simply sit and listen. “I like to be carried along by the sound of the voice and the idea behind it effortlessly into a discovery of some sort, especially if it makes me laugh or gasp,” she says.
The work of Robert Frost is a tradition to which Chris will readily tip her hat. The work she has done with words, sounds, beats, and rhythm tends to stem from the work of one of America’s most beloved modern poets. Last year, she and her husband, actor Rick Shoup, performed “The Myriad of Roads Not Taken,” a performance of Robert Frost’s poems (or as Chris calls them, “mini-plays”) set to a score of Frostiana music sung by a men’s ensemble. “We tried to give an overview of Frost’s life through his poetry,” Chris says. The event took place at the Ware Center and left a great enough impression on audience’s memories to prompt a follow-up performance this year called, “Two Roads Converged: Robert Frost’s and Mine”. In this show, premiering February 19th, 2014 at the Ware Center, Chris and her husband will be reading Frost’s work and weaving in Chris’s original work to highlight Frost’s influence, giving context to not only her impressive body of work, but to poetry at large.
With this event, her participation in various local readings and performances, and the recent “Three Distinct Voices” reading with past Poet Laureates Daina Savage and Barbara Buckman Strasko, Chris stays fully involved with her writing community. Looking forward, she wants to continue to hear more poetry that was composed to be heard, and that material which has stood the test of time. She also notes the push and pull of writing as a solitary act, and as an art that begs to be shared, understanding that, “Composing any kind of written product (poetry, drama, novels, etc.) is a very personal, private process. On the other hand, the goal is always to be heard and to find an audience that “gets it.” So even when we’re alone, we’re thinking of the community. It’s a weird dance… this need for reflection (time alone) and this need for support (togetherness),” she says.
Lastly, Chris calls for honest criticism, advising poets to seek feedback from non-poets to see how words hold up in different contexts, for different groups of people. This embracing of diverse audiences can be detected through her other, non-Frost influences as well. She tells us, “I’m trying to deliberately expose myself to new influences these days. I’m especially intrigued by rap and hip hop styles that seem, like jazz, to have taken traditional forms of poetry and “syncopated them.” Being such an integral component of our current literary community, Chris reflects on what we know to be important about community in any setting: diversity is a challenge that should be embraced and leveraged for growth, exploration, and understanding. She says of Lancaster City, ” Now that I’ve been here for 26 years… I’m beginning to feel settled. But still I love the diversity here.”