Thursday, September 19, 2013

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Ruth Foley

Poet Ruth Foley
Ruth Foley's work has appeared in The Bellingham Review, Yemassee, and Weave, among others, and been nominated for the Pushcart prize and for the Best of the Net and Best New Poets anthologies. Her chapbook Dear Turquoise is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. She serves as Managing Editor at Cider Press Review, and you can find her online on her blog.

Laura Davis: How do you begin writing? Do you just dive in? Warm-up exercise? Daydreaming? Any strange rituals involving smelling a drawer of fruit?

Ruth Foley: I now wish I had a drawer of fruit, but I'm afraid I have to say that I usually just dive in. Often, I begin writing by reading, and my reading can trigger strange responses. Recently, I was reading a book of poems that I found to be deliberately obscure, and I really wanted to put it down forever and pick up something else. Then I realized that every time I picked up that book, I ended up drafting a new poem. I think it was a reaction to the obscurity, a drive for clear expression. Lately, for me, beginning to write requires crawling into bed with a book (and a notebook on the bedside table), but it has in the past required obsessively listening to a particular song or artist, waking myself just as I'm drifting off in order to capture on paper whatever was floating around in my head in the moments right before sleep, and/or driving by myself with the radio off. Or any number of other things. A ritual works for a while, and then it doesn't, and I move on.

LD: Describe the process of making a recent poem or story. Lightning? Slow-dripping faucet? How long did you work on it?

Foley's manuscript while sequencing
RF: I recently finished putting together a full-length manuscript I'm really happy with. I had a lot of material that I wasn't sure what to do with, but that was driving me to work with it. I've written several poems of grief over the past year and a half or so, and it was very important to me for multiple reasons that I handle them well and find the right way to present them. Some of them appear in the chapbook Dear Turquoise, but I knew the chapbook wasn't the end of things. I spend a week every summer with the same group of poets at a self-organized conference in Connecticut, and one of my goals for the week was to get a start on getting the manuscript together, but I had no idea how to begin. Sometime mid-week it occurred to me while talking to some of the genius poets there that I could use the Turquoise poems to anchor the manuscript thematically, and I started spreading poems out all over my room—on the bed, on the floor, on the desk, anywhere there was space. I got a good start at the conference after I got home, my husband put one of the big leaves into our giant dining room table and then left the house for the better part of two days. It was sort of like having a pipe burst, but it a good way: for about a year, everything was frozen, nothing could move. And then everything exploded at once. The real moral of this story is to surround yourself with genius poets and partners who support you wholeheartedly.

LD: What color is your writing process? Do explain.

RF: I think it's probably the grey-green of the northern Atlantic. Lots of colorful stuff can hide under there, and the ocean itself can pretend to be blue or white or even black for a while, but we all know better. I regularly try to turn away from the ocean and find that I can't. A friend of mine likes to say that we need to write away from our obsessions and find new topics because our obsessions will find their way into our work anyway, and I tend to agree with him. My process has the kind of false honesty of the ocean—a poem often starts out looking like one thing, like something very straightforward, and turns out to be something else entirely.

LD: How do you decide that you are finished working on a story, essay, or poem?

RF: In general, I think poems decide they're finished working on me. I have gone back to poems after years—after they've been published, when I think they're long-since done speaking to me—and found that they have other things to say. So I don't tend to use the word "finished;" instead I say, "quiet" or "resting." Poems are resting when I no longer feel driven to work on them anymore, when they seem to be satisfied with the shape they're in. I try very hard to think of them as their own creatures, with their own needs, and to listen to what they want from me.

LD: Let’s talk about your writing soundscape. Do you listen to music? Cafe rumblings? White noise? Utter silence?

RF: Silence is good. There's usually some noise—from the street, or, if I'm in my office on campus, from the other people in the library. My favorite soundtrack when I'm writing is the quiet presence of my two greyhounds, who are almost always asleep. I don't want music while I'm writing. I don't tend to want any outside input at all. And if I'm working on something larger, like a series of poems, I'm often very careful about what I listen to even when I'm not writing. I'm superstitious about setting the right mood, or maybe about accidentally breaking the mood and not being able to get it back. It's an almost physical reaction, sometimes, my aversion to the "wrong" kind of noise—and what's "right" or "wrong" tends to vary. But I can always count on the dogs. 
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