Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Jessica Piazza

taken by photographer: Rich Prugh
Jessica Piazza is the author of two full-length poetry collections with Red Hen Press: Interrobang (winner of the AROHO 2011 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize and the 2013 Balcones Poetry Prize) and Obliterations (with Heather Aimee O'Neill, forthcoming) as well as a chapbook This is not a sky (Black Lawrence Press.) She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. She co-founded Bat City Review and Gold Line Press and is a contributing editor for The Offending Adam and a screener for the National Poetry Series. She teaches for the Writing Program at USC and the online MFA program at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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

Jessica Piazza: I think I can write anywhere, but I've probably done my best work out in the world; in coffee shops and that sort of thing. I like the white noise. I like remembering I’m not alone in the world, and that these words will eventually belong to people who aren’t me. I like the expectation that I am somewhere for the sole purpose of doing work and I will not go home until I’ve done some.

Of course, like for so many of us, the Internet kicks my ass and distracts me. But there’s a coffee shop called Conservatory for Coffee, Tea & Cocoa in Culver City where there’s no WIFI during busy hours, and that’s really helpful as a buffer against procrastination. (Though I wasn’t able to write my dissertation chapters there! The Internet is key for research in my world.) But anyway, it’s a tiny place with these burlap sacks and barrels with amazing coffee beans and such, and it smells good in there. Also, the chairs and café tables and cramped space are actually a little uncomfortable and – is it just me? – I feel like being slightly uncomfortable in a work space actually helps me be productive. I don’t get too placated or drowsy because of the environment, which makes me remember why I’m there and what I’m supposed to be doing.

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

JP: There was a fun one I did a while back that went pretty quickly, despite a multi-layered creation process. It was a piece for The Book of Scented Things, an anthology project from The Literary House Press. Contributors were sent a tiny vial of a perfume and asked to use it as an inspiration for a poem. The perfume they sent me was called Ophelia, which couldn’t be more perfect for several reasons. The obvious one is, well, Shakespeare! But the other is that I was working on a chapbook at the time, a series of ekphrastic poems based on famous visual artworks, and I love Millias’ painting “Ophelia”. I thought it would be an interesting crossover to write a poem that would work for both the anthology and the chapbook, so I researched the perfume online to discover what the notes were, and tries to incorporate some of that information into the poem about the painting. It was especially fun to try to find a place for the scent notes I loved in the perfume like orange, musk and lily. (And I ended up wearing that perfume at my wedding a few months later, which is pretty cool.) It was fun to use so many bits of inspiration (the art, the perfume, Hamlet) and synthesize them into one piece, especially by turning the different sensory images on their heads, as when I used the orange scent from the perfume to describe the light in the painting. Anyway the painting is resplendent with flora and so getting some of that scent/image synesthesia going was pretty easy.

The anthology will be out really soon, and the chapbook – This is not a sky – is now available for pre-order from Black Lawrence Press.

LD: What writing implement do you wield and why? 

The implement I try to wield the most often is bravery. I’m not kidding. Sure, it’s not physical, but it’s the single tool that most helps me write. 

If you want to get literal, though, I can only write on a computer. I know that sounds super uncreative and not artsy at all. In fact, I have fantastic daydreams of scribbling in a beautiful journal in fantastic and serene settings. But the truth is I have the worst handwriting on earth, and when I try to write stuff by hand I can’t even read it back most of the time. Also, because I so often write in form, moving stuff around is kind of key to my process. I am not a huge reviser of my poetry after the fact; my process is a very intricate and time-consuming process of revision as I write. Once I have a fully crafted piece it generally doesn’t undergo too much change, especially not when it’s a metrical or formal poem, but that’s because by then I will have spent a lot of creative energy getting it right in the first place. And without the computer this process is a mess. On paper I basically end up with pages of scribbles and arrows and a hot mess I can’t make anything of. 

So, I guess you can say that much like the rules of formal poetry itself, the organization that the computer offers me allows my craziness to find a proper shape. 

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

JP: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I won a poetry contest in fourth grade. It was a holocaust poetry contest, in fact, and my poem went like this (from what I can recall): 

The bad ones come bringing destruction and death 
and freely the black spiders roam 

For love is gone in this dreary place 
concentration camp is now your home. 

Jewish people, anyone different, 
Why are you killed needlessly? 

Because of one man, one’s man’s evil, 
You are never the same, you shall see. 

But there is one small glimmer of hope 
that can’t be seen easily. 

If all prejudiced people would learn to love 
then everyone would be free

Deep, right? Who knew that a fourth grader had all the answers to solving the tragedy of genocide? HA! But I remember being really proud of the black spiders image for the swastika, which I though looked like a spider. I think that was seriously my first time being excited about imagery. 

LD: Beverage of choice? In life or writing? 

JP: Okay, well, obviously coffee. Can’t duck the cliché. And wine, to keep it going. A tart and crisp white or a not-sweet red. And lately also a cocktail of St. Germaine with cucumber, mint and club soda; it’s lovely. But ultimately, water. If I’m not hydrated I can’t do anything. My husband makes fun of me for this; he thinks I believe water cures all things…kind of like the father in “my Big Fat Greek Wedding” who sprays Windex on everything. On a side note, the actor who plays that father is the actual father of my fellow Red Hen Press poet Brendan Constantine. And so the word comes full circle.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Sharon Suzuki-Martinez

poet Sharon Suzuki-Martinez
Sharon Suzuki-Martinez is the author of The Way of All Flux (New Rivers Press, 2012). She grew up in Hawaii and now lives in Tempe, Arizona where she created/curates The Poet’s Playlist. She also blogs about weird animals and the poet’s life at Sharon Planet.

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

Sharon Suzuki-Martinez: To write, I have to be able to look out a window or be outside. The random flitting of wildlife facilitates my poetic flights of fancy. To do this, I have a portable writing studio: a TV tray table and a folding chair. My little office camps out amidst my cluttered kitchen most of the time, but wanders all over the house and outside.

LD: How do you begin writing? Do you just dive in? 

SS: Most often, I’ll hear an interesting line in my head or I’ll misread a sign or a headline on the Internet, so I scribble it down or type it into my cellphone along with notes for directions I’d like the poem to move in. I tend to write and revise in short bursts, but spend long periods of time thinking about the development of a poem.
Sharon's portable writing studio outside

LD: What writing implement do you wield and why? 

SS: For the last half a year, I’ve only used Pentel EnerGel pens, 0.7 mm black ink. It’s so perfectly designed, all other pens annoy and distract me from what I am trying to write. Before then, for all the poems in my book, I only wrote with husky, colorful Pilot Dr. Grip pens.

LD: How do you decide that you are finished working on a poem? 

SS: Each poem starts out as a seed that has floated into my hands from parts unknown. I take this seed of a haunting phrase, feeling, or experience and cultivate/revise it to sprout, leaf, bud, flower, and fruit. In other words, I know the poem is done when it feels like it has grown into something able to delight and nourish the reader. A finished poem must also be a transformation almost unrecognizable from the initial seed of inspiration.

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

SS: Sometimes I can’t stop listening to or hearing a particular song in my head and this song won’t go away until I write it a poem. I think that songs, like all obsessions, possess us and then release us as new creative expression, as art. I invite poets to explore this and other ideas about poetry and music on my The Poet’s Playlist website. Otherwise, when I write I prefer silence or white noise. My favorite writing white noises are the Rainy Café and Hypnotoad.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Karen Paul Holmes

poet Karen Paul Holmes
Karen Paul Holmes is the author of the poetry collection Untying the Knot (Kelsay Books, 2014). Credits include Poetry East, Atlanta Review, POEM, The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, and the Southern Poetry Anthology Vol 5: Georgia (Texas Review Press). In 2012, she received an Elizabeth George Foundation grant.

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.

Karen Holmes: I write the best at my cottage on Lake Chatuge on the border of Georgia and North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The place practically hangs over the lake, so the almost-floor-to-ceiling windows make me feel a bit like I’m on a cruise ship (but without the mojitos and Macarena). Just lake and sky and mountains forever.

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

KH: I like it when a workshop leader provides a bank of words that must be used in a poem (such as “son, ripple, candle, wound, stitch, peach”). For me, one or more of the words almost always sets up a whole series of images and memories, and the poem begins to flow. I’ve written some of my best poems this way. I often delete many of the “required” words in the editing process, but they were important in inspiring the poem.

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

KH: Lately, lightning strikes but I haven’t been jotting down the ideas, so they leave me as quickly as they came, unfortunately. The last time I tried to write new poems, I was at the beach for a writing retreat, which normally inspires me. Knowing I had to break my inertia, I went to my old idea file and started eeking out a few poems I’d been meaning to write for a while. I’d describe that process as trying to wring water out of a slightly damp washcloth. But (thank goodness there’s a but), the very last poem I wrote did pour put of me like a fireman’s hose. My sister had called to tell me she had breast cancer, and that night I wrote a short, intense prose poem about it. When I took the poem to my critique group, they loved it and had few editing suggestions. I wish I had not had that particular reason to be inspired, but I am happy with the poem and think it will speak to others. I really do believe the creative spark comes from somewhere other than ourselves. I’ve often looked at old notes I've written (usually lines for a poem or metaphor ideas) and do not even remember writing them.

LD: What writing implement do you wield and why?

view from Karen's cottage at Lake Chatuge
KH: Computer! (Laptop, specifically). Although sometimes, like when sitting on the dock, I write with pen in a notebook. But as soon as possible, I dash to the keyboard to start moving things around and experimenting with line breaks, alternate word choices, order, etc. Also, the Internet helps with research to add detail to poems. For example, I learned a lot about knots (there’s one called a “monkey’s fist!”) to help with my book’s titular poem, “Untying the Knot.”

I’m basically a lazy person. Without a computer as a tool, my poems would probably languish unfinished. I also just have to see my poems printed out, pretty early in the composition process—to really read them more carefully and see what they look like on the page. When a poem seems complete, I often use the laptop’s recording feature to record myself reading it, because that also helps me edit.

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

KH: Finished? Is that a word that applies to a poem? I do consider some poems finished, but never are they exempt from tweaking a word or comma or line break if I haven’t looked at them in a while and something suddenly jumps out at me. When a poem doesn't feel finished and I’m stuck, I do one of a few things: 1. Bring it to my critique group, 2. Put it in a folder called “needs work” and forget about it for a while, 3. Go back to the stanza or line that’s bothering me and work on it until I have that “ah, that’s the solution” feeling. It’s a sort of feeling more than an intellectual thing. I recently pulled one out that seemed hopelessly sucky and had been sitting unlooked at for a year. But I liked the topic (an anonymous young couple had paid my 86-year-old mother’s check at a restaurant), so I edited the heck out of it and took it to critique. They loved the idea but suggested a reordering of stanzas. I did that, submitted it, and got it accepted into an anthology on aging (while many of my favorite “finished” poems continue to get rejected!). Time and fresh eyes can revitalize a stuck poem.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Writer Bernadette Geyer

Writer, Bernadette Geyer
Bernadette Geyer is a freelance writer and editor in Berlin, Germany. Her poetry collection, The Scabbard of Her Throat, was published by The Word Works in 2013. Geyer’s poems have appeared in Oxford American, Poet Lore, and elsewhere. Her non-fiction has been published in Border Crossing, Freelance Writer's Report, and Go World Travel.

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

Bernadette Geyer: I try to write every day, Monday through Friday. Primarily, this is because I am now working as a full-time freelancer and if I don’t write, I don’t make any money. As for “what” I write every day, that fluctuates wildly: one day I may be working on a non-fiction article I want to pitch to a travel magazine, while another day I may be writing translations of poems. I have a novel idea that I am also working on when there is no one else in the house – which is rare, because both my husband and I are self-employed and share a home office. Because we have an 8-year-old, I work primarily while she is at school – between 8:00am and about 3:30pm. That gives me a pretty decent chunk of time to work on my writing every day, be it fiction, non-fiction, poetry, translations, or blog posts. Of course, about 1/3 of the time is also spent doing the administrative-type stuff that all writers have to deal with – finding markets for the writing, tracking submissions, updating the web site, etc.

LD: How long have you been writing?

BG: I loved to write in middle school, where I started by writing Nancy Drew-type stories. I still have those. I would bring a pencil and lined paper out to recess with me, find a place to sit, and work on my stories. Sometimes, I remember classmates passing around the pages as soon as I finished them. Once, a neighbor gave me 50 cents for letting her read one of my stories. I wish I could remember which neighbor that was because, that probably gave me my first taste of connecting with a reader. In high school, I started writing poetry, and even had a poem published in a little regional publication for high school students. One of my English teachers – Mr. S. – really encouraged my writing. I tried everything in high school – short stories, plays, poetry, essays. I remember loving it all. When I went to college, I continued writing poetry – both for English classes as well as for personal enjoyment – but it wasn’t until after I’d graduated and started down a career path in the “business world,” that I really started to look at my creative writing as a genuine craft that I could continue. While I do not have an MFA, I have taken many workshops and attended writing retreats as a way to further my own creative writing.

LD: How do you motivate yourself to write?

BG: Trying to make money is a great motivation for most of the writing (and editing) that I am doing at this point in time. I am also the toughest boss I’ve ever had, so there’s not really any trouble with motivating myself to write. Seriously, if I wasn’t me, I wouldn’t want me as a boss.

My ongoing to-do list includes a page full of the ideas I’ve thought of for articles or essays. Each morning, I sit down and look through the whole to-do list and pick out 2-3 items I will accomplish that day. At least one of those items will involve some type of writing. Once I have my day’s goals written down, I start working. Butt in chair, writing. That’s what it takes.

LD: Do you believe in “writer’s block”?

BG: I do believe that writers can get “stuck” during the course of a project. I think that is why, for me, it is good that I have many potential projects to work on at any given time. When I feel like I’ve gotten “blocked” from progressing on a particular project, I just switch to something different for a while. That usually gives me time and space to re-set and to let my brain relax so that it can open itself up to new ways of thinking that can get me through a blockage point. It’s like if you are driving down a road and you have your eyes firmly set on the ground directly in front of your car, but suddenly there’s a fallen tree across the road. You have to stop, take your eyes off the road directly in front of you, and look around for another way of getting where you are going. Or, maybe you realize that that’s not really where you needed to go anyway.

LD: Beverage of choice?

BG: Coffee in the morning. Once lunchtime hits, water for the rest of the afternoon. I am a no-frills creature of habit when I am working at my desk, but sometimes (if I’m feeling impetuous) I will add a slice of lemon or lime to my water.

When I occasionally go out by myself somewhere to read and write in the evening, I will always go for red wine. I have a favorite wine bar just down the block – old wooden tables, dark painted walls, candles flickering on every table, small bowls of olives and cheese for sale, and great windows to gaze through.