Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Kelly McQuain

Poet Kelly McQuain
Kelly McQuain is the author of the newly released VELVET RODEO, selected by poet C. Dale Young for the Bloom Chapbook Prize. His prose has been published in numerous periodicals, and his most recent poems appear in such places as Painted Bride Quarterly, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Assaracus, Redivider, Kestrel, The Pinch and such anthologies as Between: New Gay Poetry, The Queer South and Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books. Learn more about Velvet Rodeo on his website. Read one of his poems at BLOOM Literary Journal.

Laura Davis: Where do you write? Paint us a word picture. 

Kelly McQuain: My home office is often too cluttered, so I write in coffee shops, on the couch, and on the bed in our TV room. Every time I think of cleaning out the office I think I could be writing instead, and so I write. I have books stacked in all those places, leaning towers of books with papers and old drafts wedged between them. I nest myself in the chaos and I do my best to create. Sometimes I write into the wee hours of the night, and I find words and lines still going through my head as I try to fall asleep. I sometimes get up and write those down. When I’m full-speed on a project, I’ll get up and dive into it when I come downstairs in the morning, sitting with a strong cup of black tea from Taiwan (a neighbor’s gift) or a cup of Earl Gray. Writing is going well if I get to the middle of the afternoon and realize I forgot to eat. For motivation, I remind myself that time is finite—a subject of much of my work. And occasionally a little wine or scotch can grease the wheel. Hemingway reputedly said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” You can't exactly follow that advice and be healthy. I like to temper Hemingway's notion with an idea from Oscar Wilde: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

LD: What is your favorite exercise that gets the words flowing? 

KM: For poetry, I keep files called Word Soup on the Notes app on my iPad. Phrases, ideas for lines, interesting messages people write me, things I read in books, fortune cookies--all that. Basically it's my version of a word bank. These phrases and notes get scrambled together. When I begin to work on a project, I may have an initial idea, but I like to snowball that idea with whatever randomness gets attracted to it. I print out some word soup and grab a legal pad and free-write. It’s a process of magnetism, as well as teasing out the loose thread of narrative I see in random associations. My home office is often too cluttered, so I write in coffee shops, on the couch, and on the guest bed. I have books stacked in all those places, leaning towers of books with papers and old drafts wedged between them. I nest myself in the chaos and do my best to create.

LD: What color is your writing process? 

KM: It’s kaleidoscopic. With poetry, I play with space and form on the typed page, viewing the poem the way I might a painting. How does this phrase look next to that one? How is the rhythm working to both the eye and the ear?  I like to play with the way white space can create both a mental and vocal caesura. Unfortunately, with a lot of online magazines using templates like WordPress, they sometimes can only print poems where each line begins at a flush left margin. Does that mean poems that have a lot of spacing peculiarities are going to be an endangered species? I think the technology will eventually get better, but for now I sometimes feel straitjacketed in terms of where I can send certain poems. I’m a believer, however, in the idea that a poem dictates its own form. When I write in traditional forms, I like to play with the rules and push them. Form sometimes fractures, becoming a kaleidoscope leading to something new.

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

KM: Sometimes I just know when a poem is finished. Not that it's tied up in a neat bow or anything. Rather, it's a sense I have pushed it as far as possible and I'm now finding myself engaged in a new project. For poems that seem riskier, I have a rotating group of readers I can show a draft to. I'll get one or two opinions of people I really respect. Not people who tell me what I want to hear, but people who will tell me what I need to hear. To be honest, I think trying to please a large workshop can deplete a work of its impulse or make a writer feel pulled in too many directions. Who wants to be drawn and quartered? Once in a while I will participate in a workshop at a conference, but that’s largely for the esprit du corps and to get new ideas for forms and techniques. When it comes to polishing a work myself, I read the piece aloud again and again to see if the phrasing, the beats, the line breaks and the pauses all feel right, since I believe sound goes hand in hand with image.  I do the same thing with writing prose.

LD: How long have you been writing? What’s the first thing you remember feeling good about having written?

KM: I remember writing Battlestar Galactica stories in 7th grade study hall with my friend Susan, and writing and drawing my own comics with other friends even before that. A poem in Velvet Rodeo called “Creation Myth” talks about reading my earliest poems in the state capital when I was a kid—twelve, maybe? Thirteen? I had won a state contest and it was a long, cold drive through the West Virginia mountains, where we lived. My whole family went. Those poems are long forgotten, but the fact that my family had faith in me is still remembered.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Writer Kelly Kittel

Kelly Kittel has spent most of her working life as a fish biologist who writes, but is becoming a writer who was formerly a fish biologist. She and her family divide their time between their yurts in Oregon and their house in Rhode Island. She has been published in a number of anthologies and magazines. Her first book, Breathe, is forthcoming in May. She loves to travel and recently watched the film, Gravity, on JetBlue instead of reading a book. As a result, this interview is probably the closest she will ever get to outer space.

Laura Davis: Where do you write? Paint us a word picture. Put us there. And that other place you like. Or just send a real picture. 

Kelly Kittel: My favorite writing space is in our yurts on the coast of Oregon, where my bedroom is also our kitchen, living room, and dining room. In the mornings I wake up to the welcome sound of my preset coffee pot gurgling on the counter across the room. When I’m sure it’s ready, and not a moment before, I slip into my Uggs and shuffle over to pour myself a cup. Having lived in both Jamaica and Costa Rica, one of the sweetest moments of my day is that first hot taste of the tropics. On the coldest of days, I light a fire in the wood stove and wear my colorful alpaca glittens to type until the yurt warms up with the rising sun. My writing window faces east and is actually two layers—clear vinyl and an attached, fine-meshed screen. On warm days, I go out on the deck and literally rip the vinyl from its Velcro frame and all of nature floods through the screen into the yurt. It feels like writing outdoors. From my writing window, I can see the remnant stand of old-growth Douglas fir trees growing on the hillside across the creek that wraps around our pastures. These ancient trees are part of the Siuslaw National Forest that surrounds our property and often I can also watch the resident herd of elk grazing in the rising morning mist. The fir trees range in age from one to four hundred years old and have survived countless wildfires, windstorms, and at least one gigantic earthquake. They, and the slow-moving ungulates, are both excellent reminders to me in my writing career to be patient. To everything there is a season . . .

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

KK: A yurt has thin, acrylic-coated polyester walls, think high-tech tent. When you’re in a yurt, nature provides a peaceful soundtrack for writing that is truly the only one I need. My head is busy enough that I prefer to work in complete silence and relish the lack of noise. But, as I said, since my writing space is also the living room, when my kids come home from school I am subjected to endless episodes of Good Luck, Charlie, which I am equally capable of tuning out. For the most part, when I’m engrossed in my writing, the world falls away from me.

LD: Beverage of choice? 

KK: In the mornings I relish my coffee and, indeed, one of the invaluable supporters I acknowledged and thanked in my forthcoming memoir, Breathe, were the many coffee beans sacrificed on my behalf. I can write for hours with a lukewarm cup of coffee at hand and sometimes have to force myself to get out of my chair and eat in the afternoons before I become dizzy from hypoglycemia. I recently told someone that I live on words and liquids, as I move from coffee, to water, to wine. (no, not every day) And some days that’s truly all I really need.

LD: How often do you write and for how long? What time of day? 

KK: Right now I have the luxury of writing all day, which I typically take advantage of during the week as the weekends are never mine for writing. For decades, with five children to raise, I didn’t have the luxury of uninterrupted time and I only began to write in earnest when my last child, Bella, napped in the afternoons. It has only been three years since Bella started going to school all day, during which I’ve changed my morning routine from working out at the gym to working at writing. I get my best work done in the morning when I’m fresh and free from distraction. (And, yes, my ass is distinctly more chair than gym-shaped as a result.) Once I turn on my laptop and get started, I am off in my own little world and often feel myself inching closer and closer to climbing into the screen and disappearing. I’m usually surprised when my kids walk in the door from school in the afternoon to find me, still hunched over my laptop in my pajamas. Then we’re off and running for the rest of the day, late for everything and wondering what we’ll have for dinner.

LD: What do you like to read before you write? Or after? Or during? 

KK: I was born with a book clutched in my fat little fist and books have always been some of my best friends. Reading is my first true love, even before writing and my husband, and I am never without a current book to read and a pile of them in waiting on my bedside table. I rarely have the luxury of reading during the day, but I read myself to sleep every night of my life. My mother likes to tell how, as a toddler, I would sit in my playpen with a pile of books and read for hours and hours, not wanting anyone to bother me. And that hasn’t changed much, except my playpen is much larger now. I believe in banning televisions from bedrooms, which is why my husband can often be found snoring on the couch. And any bed I sleep in must have some form of reading light and a box of Kleenex. I love to travel and often read a book per flight. I imagine that if I’m ever in a plane that’s crashing, while panic and mayhem erupt all around me, I will simply sit there and keep reading my book as we descend, mostly annoyed that I won’t get to The End.