Celeste Lipkes

"Moon-face"Celeste Lipkes
Winner of the Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry, 2009
Selected by Naomi Shihab Nye  

What is your biggest challenge as a writer?

If only I knew! I’m not sure I can answer this question for another 20 years.

Do you structure your writing before you write, or do you begin by writing freely?

I’m just now learning that every poem demands a different approach. Generally, though, I like to begin with a central image or line and build a “world” of vocabulary around it. I love the doubleness of images, and in this case the idea of the moon as both a satellite and a symptom intrigued me. It often helps me to do “research” before I start writing. Most of the time this just means I spend inordinate amounts of time on Wikipedia reading about (in this case) lunar eclipses, corticosteroids, and the history of barium. Of course only about 1% of this information actually makes it into the poem, but it seems to help my process—if only by putting it off. A teacher once told me that even if I briefly describe a house in a poem, I should still know the name of every nearby street. Trying to understand ideas and images that seem only tangentially related to the poem’s topic is my way of mapping out the world I hope to create.

Does others’ writing contribute to the development and craft of your own writing? What writers have inspired you?

Most definitely. The list is long, grows every day, and includes just as many non-fiction authors as poets. Currently, I’m more than a little obsessed with Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Richard Holmes, Keats, Lauren Slater, and Robert Hass.

What motivated you to write “Moon-face”?

Like a lot of poems, I began writing this for selfish reasons. I have Crohn’s disease and was put on Prednisone halfway through my freshman year of college. Prednisone is the drug we love to hate, but (and? because?) we can’t live without it. Like a lot of patients, I had a pretty rough experience with side effects. In pictures that were taken of me from that period, I can’t pick myself out in a crowd. It’s terrifying to not recognize yourself in the mirror; I physically separated myself from other people and emotionally distanced myself from my body. The duality of the phrase “moon-face” intrigued me, and it became a door into a poem I might otherwise be afraid or embarrassed to write. Though the events in this poem are not necessarily true, the emotions of the situation are decidedly my own.

Did you plan to use this rhyme scheme, or did it come along as you were writing?

It developed as I was writing. I always try to let the topic dictate the form instead of imposing a meter or rhyme scheme initially. In this case, I realized quickly that I wanted this poem to have a sort of off-kilter breath of its own. The couplets, rhymes, and rough iambic lines felt right.

How did you come up with the title for your poem?

Originally this piece was titled “Luna.” Pretty awful, no? The title “Moon-face” was suggested to me in a workshop. This was definitely a case where a comment made in workshop felt very much align with what I was trying to accomplish. On the flipside, there were a few lines in this poem that people suggested I should alter (“sacrificial sheep,” etc.), and I chose to keep them in. I’m getting better at listening selectively in a workshop setting—it’s a real art in itself!

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