Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Writer Matt Pasca

poet Matt Pasca
An award-winning high school English teacher, Matt Pasca’s poetry has appeared in over a dozen journals, including Paterson Literary Review, Georgetown Review and Weave Magazine, as well as nine print anthologies. His first book, A Thousand Doors (2011, JB Stillwater), was nominated for the 2012 Pushcart Prize in Poetry.

Laura Davis: What color is your writing process? Do explain.

Matt Pasca: Great question. My writing process most resembles the lavender of summer twilight – that liminal haze between the beating pulse of action/community and surrender to stillness and the songs of insects. There is just enough light to see, and all the richness of experience seeps into the cracks of consciousness. So much discovery waits in that purple runway of goodbye, the letting go of a day, where one’s mind and heart hunker down in wordless privacy. My writing starts when I walk through the door and find them locked in embrace.

LD: How do you motivate yourself to write? Chocolates? Self-flagellation? Coffee on an IV drip?

MP: In rare moments of unplanned or untaken time (i.e., when not full-time teaching, tutoring, parenting, husbanding, exercising, cooking, cleaning, grading, planning, promoting, gigging or speaking) I go straight to random.org and punch the number of writing projects I have going at the time into the website’s number randomizer. It seems absurd, I know, but I’m serious.

For example, the website might spit the number 6 at me, which corresponds to number 6 on a list I keep that might look like this:  1) revise new rough poem, 2) type in work from journal, 3) freewrite in journal, 4) revise almost finished piece, 5) clean up manuscript, 6) work on memoir and 7) fragment play. Like most adults, I make thousands of tiny decisions a day at work and at home. In my opinion, a tired and decision-weary mind is not fit to deal properly with the boon of unplanned time, likely as it is to squander such precious moments trolling Facebook or watching talking heads hurl uninformed opinions at each other. For me, a randomizer is a benevolent taskmaster making me choose between many children, all of whom I love and who require my attention. Once the decision has been made for me, motivation is never an issue. I am insatiable when it comes to craft and creation. No measure of time is large enough.

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

MP: I have two distinct methods of fashioning a poem. In scenario 1, work streams through me, wherever I might be located, into a journal I then flip through weeks later to see whether or not I have written a passage that has “potential.” If so, I type said passage in, revising as I go, then revise five or six more times before emailing it to the talented and honest editors I am lucky to know. This was the case with "Rainer and the Rio Grande", a poem I scrawled down as a quick entry during a flight home from a vacation in New Mexico with my wife and boys. In scenario 2, I rifle through various fragments of phrases and castaway stanzas I have saved in “composting” folders on my computer. I look for connective tissue and begin cutting and pasting, slashing, building and burning, ultimately cobbling together a collage of poetic parts. From there, I follow the previous procedure. This was how I arrived at "Receiving Line", an autobiographical piece about my experience at my father’s wake that I felt compelled to assemble after attending a fourth student’s parent’s service in one school year. Scenario 2, by the way, requires a word about computer usage:  after 28 years, I am still head over heels in love with the kiss of pen to paper, but am equally energized by the aggressive cross-pollinating and paint-splattering Pollock-esque freedom afforded me by technology. A prerequisite, of course, for the process in scenario 2 is that one be willing to slaughter and recast one’s own writing, to not think one’s work too precious. I like to think of myself as a matchmaker who lets the lonely, cologned and perfumed single fragments of my work go out on the town of my hard drive to find each other.

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

MP: I believe in writer’s block as one believes in hepatitis or tuberculosis without having experienced them. I know it is there. I have heard stories and imagine that if writing were my full time profession I’d have contracted a case of “the block” by now. But I also think it’s about approach. Do we wait to be inspired? Do we look for it? Do we look too hard? Do we know too much? National Book Award-winner Colum McCann came to my high school one year and told the assembly, “If you know where you are going when you are writing, there is no point to doing it.” I think I benefit from having no idea where I am headed when I set pen to paper or fingers to keys. Perhaps I benefit, too, from being an intensely visual and intuitive person to whom being spontaneously and/or analytically verbal does NOT come naturally. Writing pulls back the tall red curtain, lets me give words to the cinema of my experience, interpret and subtitle the reels of silent footage running from my brain to my heart, to find out what they know – to put myself between them in their backroom embrace. And playing with language – the music of syllables and sounds along the way – is so enjoyable I imagine I will always write, as I have since I was 11, for the sheer love of it, regardless of professional ambition.

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

MP: I will confess to you now a great and shameful secret – I am an English teacher who rarely finishes books. I have always been this way. I do read a lot and love to read but do so until I am sparked so full of inspiration and motivation that I put the book down and am off, shot down the track, blowing steam from my opened head. All it usually takes is a poem or two, if it’s good work. I am highly flammable.

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