The Hippo


May 29, 2020








Meet Shelley Girdner

Website:, @SRGirdner; book is available at local indie bookstores
Poet’s Showcase Reading: Monday, April 11, from 5 to 6 p.m., Barrington Public Library, 105 Ramsdell Road
Book launch: Friday, May 20, from 7 to 8 p.m., at RiverRun Bookstore, 142 Fleet St., Portsmouth

Writing poetry
Girdner on process and You Were That White Bird

By Kelly Sennott

Seacoast poet Shelley Girdner kicks off National Poetry Month with the April 5 release of her first poetry book — You Were That White Bird

Published by Peterborough-based Bauhan Publishing, the book has been 15 years in the making, with the manuscript finalized in October.
“I think that maybe the theme or controlling idea is an interest in reincarnations, or re-animations,” Girdner said via phone. “It’s about the idea of stories sort of returning to people in a time of need, and that stories have different things to tell you at different times in your life.”
This idea is evident in the piece “Sometime in April,” which evokes imagery and the emotion present when, finally, spring wakes up from winter, and also the title poem, “You were that white bird,” focusing on a man recognizing his lost love in another form.
Most of her poems, she said, are generated from a concrete thing, moment or story — for instance, a bridesmaid dress Girdner thought made her look like the Tooth Fairy, which inspired the poem, “In defense of the tooth fairy,” confirming there are far worse creatures to be in the fairy kingdom. (“At least she has a job./Unlike some other bits with wings we could mention,/those most likely found loitering/at the babbling brook, their nonsense peals/indistinguishable from the river’s notes.”)
Some of the poems drew from Girdner’s experience with the Portsmouth Poet Laureate program in 2014, which involved group work with other artists — writers, musicians, dancers, visual artists — and monthly prompts that were normally one word. The poem “Cain” came from one of those prompts (the word was “outlaw”), and so did “The Persian Poets” (“beloved”). One poem came to her while she was walking around one day and is almost word-for-word what she held in her head before it went down on paper.
Girdner said the writing process she’s developed over the years is initially very messy; it starts with ideas on napkins, scrap paper or, if she can get there in time, notebooks she keeps in her car, dresser drawer or work bag. By the third draft, it’s on the computer, and by the fifth, it’s in a writers workshop. She usually knows in the pre-writing stages if it’s an idea that will sustain itself, but sometimes it takes weeks to find the right ending.
Girdner said she has learned to trust the process while teaching poetry, creative nonfiction and English at the University of New Hampshire in Durham for the past 16 years. 
“Teaching others to write poetry taught me not to invest too much. As a grad student, I remember slaving over these individual poems and asking, am I worth anything this week or not? I have these piles of poems that didn’t end up anywhere,” Girdner said. “It taught me to keep moving forward, keep writing. The only thing you can do is trust all the stuff you’re learning.”
It’s not enough to write more drafts, she learned; it’s important to write more poems, too. Eventually, if you keep looking for it, you’ll find what it is you want to say. Whenever she’s in a rut, she experiments with different forms and styles, or she’ll partake in one of her own in-class writing prompts.
“It’s hard not to write when I’m around my students, who are writing so much. There’s a lot of writing in class that happens, and a lot of times, I would just write along with them. There’s this energy, with their heads bent over, writing away, that’s exciting,” Girdner said. “It’s a really incredible, creative time, to work with 18- to 22-year-olds.” 

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