Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Anna B. Sutton

Poet Anna B. Sutton
Anna B. Sutton is a poet and publisher from Nashville, TN. Her work has won the Pocataligo Poetry Prize, a James Merrill fellowship from Vermont Studio Center, and has appeared in or is forthcoming from Third Coast, Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, Pinch, Superstition Review, Weave, and other journals.

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. 

Anna B. Sutton: Where I write has been a source of a lot of strife—not for any other reason than that I am out of shape and pushing 30. For years, especially during graduate school, I chose to write on my laptop in bed, either leaning back one of those pillows with arms—boyfriend pillows?—or sitting up cross-legged. Turns out this is the exact wrong thing to do for your back. Let this be a lesson to all you writers out there. After years of hunching over my laptop on a soft surface, I developed sciatica, which I had previously only associated with the elderly folk that my mother and I delivered Meals on Wheels to when I was growing up. But there I was, 26, unable to lift my laundry basket or really even my head. The plus side of developing sciatica is that they give you a bunch of the best kinds of drugs—heavy duty painkillers, muscle relaxers. The down side is the fact that you have to face your own weakness and mortality on a very immediate and visceral level. For those of you who don’t know, sciatica is when, over time, you train your lower back muscles to clench around the bundle of nerves at the base of your spine. It takes many months of drugs and hot and cold therapy and downward facing dog to work it out. So after that, I spent a ridiculous amount of money on an office chair, sold my laptop so that I wouldn't be further tempted to hunker down in the sultry embrace of my bed, and now I write on a desktop at a desk pushed up against a huge wall of windows. And that’s working out pretty well, but what I wouldn't give for an eight hour marathon day of writing in bed. (see photo below)

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

AS: My process is always two-fold. Generally, I get a line or image stuck in my head and the first draft of the poem—if I’m able to get to writing quickly enough—just sort of tumbles out. I can write a first draft in a matter of minutes. The second part of the process is where all the hemming and hawing and circling around a phrase comes in. Once I begin to revise that first draft, I can stare at the page for days, weeks, sometimes returning to a poem for years—change a word, change it back; add a line that sometimes accidentally opens up an entirely new meaning that has to be explored; erase and rewrite stanzas; format, reformat… When I was in my MFA program, workshop would get me really fired up for revisions and I could knock them out within a week. These days, left to my own devices, I’d say it takes me about four months on average to feel like a poem is “ready.” Of course, there are always those moments of pure magic, like when I wrote a recent poem called “Conservation.” I wrote it quickly at Vermont Studio Center, after having read some really heartbreaking articles about whooping cranes. I wrote it quickly, it felt finished, and I tagged it onto a few submissions I sent out, just to see what might happen. Almost immediately, Pinch picked it up for publication and I am so thrilled about that. I love their journal and it’s very rare that we get to give birth to a complete idea.

LD: What writing implement do you wield and why?

AS: I’m a computer girl, all the way. As much as I hate staring at a screen, I really love the deftness of a word processor. My initial process is so quick and fluid, and I’m a fast typer—Mavis Beacon taught me well. I've tried to hand-write because a lot of my writer friends say it allows them to connect more to the words, but to me it just feels clunky. My hand can’t keep up with my head. And when it comes to revisions—copy, paste, undo, redo—these commands are all essential to me. Plus, using a computer to write has allowed me to save terrible drafts that I revisit and reshape years later; drafts that would have no doubt been buried had I written them by hand in a notebook.

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

AS: I envy people who can listen to music while they write, or write in a coffee shop. I would love to feed from that energy. Unfortunately, I go into a sort of Tommy trance (See me, feel me, touch me, heal me, not fat guy in a little coat) and need absolute silence. I also really need to be alone, which means no fun writing parties and also causes some problems now that I’m living with my boyfriend. We've devised a “curtain system” to block off the sun room where I write, but even so, just knowing someone is somewhere nearby can often prevent me from opening up entirely. Plus, I tend to read aloud as I write, and if anyone is around, I become pretty self-conscious about mumbling to myself. I think all of this points to the fact that I need to feel safe enough  when I write to open up parts of me that I keep pretty tightly sealed otherwise.

LD: Beverage of choice?

AS: All beverages, great and small. In my life outside of writing, I’m the kind of person who can end up with four different glasses at brunch: water, coffee, juice, cocktail. But it’s not the case when I’m at work on a poem. This is another instance where I wish I could do what many writers I love do—write poetry while drinking a big glass of red wine or a few fingers of bourbon—but I just get distracted. Similarly, too much coffee and I get buzzy and anxious and start writing terrible poems about how NO ONE UNDERSTANDS MY PAIN. Now, I try to stick with tea. Right this moment, I’m sipping on some iced red chai—naturally decaf, y’all! Oh god, drinking decaf tea alone with sciatica. Maybe I am elderly after all.

Photo below: Here is my very expensive chair and very cheap computer, then, from the lower left and moving clockwise: 1.) A few lit mags I've received in the mail lately, including the new Tar River Poetry, which I am just thrilled to have a poem in. 2.) A Hallmark bag filled with actual spells from Sarah Messer, a former professor/current boss at One Pause/cheesemaker/life mentor. We haven’t found the right place for all of them, yet. Plus, unlike most houses in Wilmington, where I lived for three years and met Sarah, our current home in Winston-Salem is decidedly not haunted. 3.) A picture of a few of my favorite fellow writers, taken at Chicago AWP, likely while very hungover. We all look pretty cute, though. 4.) Fried and True, which I’m about to review for my blog in an effort to actually have a blog/because my boyfriend loves nothing more than fried chicken—not even me, not by far. 5.) Two monkey candle holders from my grandmother than are super weird and possibly my favorite things in the world. They’re wearing Victorian era powder blue tails and tawny top hats, because why not? 6.) old lady tea.

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