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C. T. Holte on Writing Poems About Blended Families and Their Unique Mix of Holiday Traditions

Capsule Stories Winter 2021 Edition laid flat and open to the poem “Christmas Cookies” by C. T. Holte on a white marble surface. Red and white cookie cutters surround it, and a nearby tim holds several unfrosted sugar cookies.

C. T. Holte grew up in Minnesota without color TV; played along creeks and in cornfields; went to lots of school; and has had gigs as teacher, editor, and less wordy things. He recently migrated to New Mexico and got a cool electric chainsaw for Christmas. His poetry has been published in Words, California Quarterly, Months to Years, Pensive: A Global Journal of Spirituality and the Arts, Mediterranean Poetry, The Daily Drunk, and elsewhere and has been hung from trees to celebrate the Rio Grande Bosque.

C. T. Holte’s poems “Christmas Cookies,” “Honey,” “Evolution,” and “Giving Thanks” are published in Capsule Stories Winter 2021 Edition: Sugar and Spice. The poems explore holiday traditions and meals, baking like Grandma used to bake, and relishing the taste of good food.

Capsule Stories: What are your favorite recipes to make in winter?

C. T. Holte: I have always liked to do things on the grill, and lived in California for many years, so I could cook outside all year. New Mexico is cooler than California in winter, but I have a natural-gas grill and don’t even have to worry about changing tanks—so my favorites all year are burgers, chops, and grilled asparagus (a little garlic, some olive oil, a dash of Worcestershire, and Bob’s your uncle!). And for the holidays, since I am The King of Gravy (with a little help from The Joy of Cooking), that’s a must-have whenever there’s a turkey or a nice roast on the menu.

Capsule Stories: What draws you to writing poetry about food, cooking and baking, and family traditions?

C. T. Holte: Basically, I love food—both the making of it and the eating of it! Visits to my Norwegian grandparents in North Dakota when I was little provide a large pool of memories, from kitchen aromas to Grandpa’s pipe to a twenty-year stash of National Geographic to old Sears catalogs in the outhouse. A new and evolving second life with a partner I had known in college long ago has given me plenty to write about—from food to quiet times at a small cabin to picking up my dirty socks. And she also likes to cook, so there is joy in the kitchen!

Capsule Stories: In “Giving Thanks,” you write about blended families and the mix of traditions: “Different house, blended families, / similar but different histories, / same prayers, new love and thankfulness. / And big bowls of everything.” How do you approach exploring themes of blending old and new family traditions in your writing? Why are you drawn to them?

C. T. Holte: I’m a second-generation “second chance” beneficiary: my father married my mother’s college roommate after both of their spouses had died young. So working with poems about my own good-luck story is also a way of remembering and appreciating the blessings my father had in his later years. Themes and images often reveal themselves through concrete objects—like deciding whose tablecloths to save, which ones to give to the children, which pictures should be hung on which walls—a bit like finding a new, exciting recipe and looking for the ingredients in a big pantry.

Capsule Stories: In these poems, you explore passing on recipes and traditions from generation to generation. In “Christmas Cookies,” you write: “We smiled at thoughts of times / as kitchen helpers in our youth, / and our own children helping us in turn, / wondered if the tradition held in their new homes.” Can you talk about the importance of passing down traditions and recipes and why you wanted to capture that in these poems? 

C. T. Holte: Basically, I tend to consider “change” to be a cuss word! As we have all seen in the last couple years, the world is spinning wildly, perhaps out of control, and even before COVID-19—unlike my Midwestern parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc.—I moved around the country and had a number of quasi-careers. So holding on to a few traditions provides a bit of an anchor—especially when they smell and taste good! And it has been marvelous to discover, in the course of building a new life with a new partner, that we had quite a few traditions in common.

Capsule Stories: In “Honey,” you slip into this philosophical second stanza, pondering how much honey you’ve inadvertently wasted throughout your life. You write: “I wonder how many units— / dabs, globs, spoonfuls, pounds— / I have unthinkingly squandered / how many bee-hours I have devalued / with overspreading, sloppy eating.” What drew you to writing about squandering honey? What do you hope readers will take away from it? 

C. T. Holte: This poem emerged from some sticky fingers one morning, and started out as mostly play, but the reality that the world is in a bee crisis crept in. And then “honey” wanted to be a metaphor for all the foods we take for granted, and waste, when there are millions of undernourished people in the world. I try not to preach, but if this poem were a sermon, I would love people to feel motivated to send large donations to Hearts for Haiti, Feed My Starving Children, Feeding America, and/or their local food bank.

Capsule Stories: These poems have such a strong voice—humorous and heartfelt, ready to dip below the surface and examine the deeper emotional layers that go into food and tradition. How have you developed and strengthened this voice in your writing?

C. T. Holte: The answer to this question has to circle back to the beginning of my second life. After my wife died too young and too tragically, I made a conscious decision to withdraw from things that involved feelings—whether writing or relationships or giving a damn. And then serendipity struck, and I discovered that in spite of my curmudgeonliness I was madly in love. What could I do but execute a 180 and begin to share my good fortune with anyone who would listen! So I know I have written a whole lot of mush in the last ten years, but every now and then . . .

Capsule Stories: What other writers have influenced you, and specifically, these poems?

C. T. Holte: Yikes! I’ve been a word person forever, sometimes an academic (PhD in English and all that jazz), sometimes a wannabe theologian/ethicist, so the list is long. I don’t know of any specific influences on these particular poems, but if I could have only one shelf of books, it would include Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver, Wendell Berry, Ted Kooser, Jim Harrison, T. S. Eliot, Mark Strand (my mentor), e. e. cummings, and Anthony Burgess.

Capsule Stories: What are you working on next?

C. T. Holte: So far, no full-length books or larger chapbooks, but there is always hope . . .

Capsule Stories: Where can readers follow you and find your work?

C. T. Holte: As a semi-troglodyte contrarian, I refuse to do social media. Googling my name (as C. T. or Carlton) provides links to a few published poems, or you can drive along our segment of Rio Grande Boulevard in Albuquerque pretty much any morning around 8:30 when we walk the dog.

Read C. T. Holte’s poems in Capsule Stories Winter 2021 Edition: Sugar and Spice.

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