Thursday, July 31, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Rae Gouirand

Rae Gouirand’s first collection of poetry, Open Winter, was selected by Elaine Equi for the 2011 Bellday Prize, won a 2012 Independent Publisher Book Award for Poetry and the 2012 Eric Hoffer Book Award for Poetry, and was a finalist for the Montaigne Medal, the Audre Lorde Award for Poetry, and the California Book Award for Poetry.

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

Rae Gouirand: In the manuscript of my second collection, which just started circulating, there is a body of ‘spliced’ poems that (sort of) comb together parallel blocks of text in an attempt to align (and preserve) their relative unresolved tensions (see The Inflectionist Review, issue 2 for sample poems). I think of the form as suggesting an alternative to the superimposing or burying of layers of 'meaning' or 'story' beneath one another. (In my mind, they’re relationship poems, partially because they’re threaded through this book about love and the limits of figurative thinking.)

These pieces sprung from frustration, as much does: I found that I had a number of story moments that I wanted to make visible within the manuscript without turning them into subjects. That’s difficult to do in a poem. Poetic forms and the orders of language itself pressurize content. The problem seemed inseparable to me from a basic problem of life: the pressure to account for experience or perspective in ways that relate directly to one’s story and its level of ‘coherence.’ What is coherence, and what do I really believe about it? What can I see in my creative process that I would count as coherence that might, at a reader’s first encounter, seem anything but? I came to these questions (regarding these poems) through working—not before or after—while on a residency on the Big Island of Hawaii last summer. It was a really odd window for my work—I was the only working artist in a resort community of volunteers and guests, and I was in the middle of really intense correspondences with three really important people in my life, and my laptop kept getting rained on and my days were punctuated by big social meals in a way that was challenging for my concentration—overall I was thinking a lot about discontinuities, and eventually realized I was feeling (in the work) what I was thinking. At the start of that residency I had this string of days that didn’t feel like work days until I realized I’d been shaking out this new way to see the work. Once I saw the alignment, it was mine to lean into, and I could come to full speed mentally. I appreciate those moments—they’re why I feel comfortable saying that I do think writing can be taught, at least inasmuch as we can formalize the work of expanding our imaginations for 1) what words can do 2) what forms we might claim and 3) what decisionmaking we might give up as artists in the name of letting the work teach us what it wants to. It always wants something from us.

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

RG: I have a folder of stories I composed in second grade while trying to master cursive, and I can remember writing poems and plays in middle school—I was enormously lucky to have a public education (in Pittsburgh) that involved tons of arts programming both in and out of school. Growing up I was very seriously pitched toward the arts—theater and visual art and instrumental music, especially—and thank heavens for how great my local resources were for studying music because that was really my life and my primary language until I was about 20. I was writing steadily, and feeling ambitious about particular pieces I wanted to write, by high school. The summer before my senior year of high school I attended a governor’s school for the arts, which provided me with six weeks of intensive college-level workshops and sent me home hungry to keep writing alongside adults who would take my interest seriously. Thanks to scholarships I received from my local arts center, I spent my senior year of high school studying with local poets and playwrights. So I was in it pretty early.

I don’t remember ever not feeling good about having written—writing, like any of the other essential ways I live, has always felt right when I’ve shown up and dropped in. I do remember the first time I wrote a poem that felt like it had sprung from some part of me that had access to a kind of superior intelligence that wasn’t necessarily synonymous with ‘me,’ and that was about three weeks into my time in the MFA program at the University of Michigan. I’d been thinking for a couple weeks about another process, actually—the process by which sand becomes pearl, and how I related to the idea of nacre—and after one false start, one Sunday afternoon I sat down and wrote a ton of lines that very quickly rearranged themselves into a poem that knew exactly how it wanted to take shape. That poem is called “You Form;” it was first published in Seneca Review years later, and then my first book in 2011, and will be reprinted next year in an anthology of poetry for teens that is coming out titled Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation (which I’m especially excited about because it’s sort of about the relationship between storytelling and sexuality and I’m so glad there are going to be hot poems in that book). The experience of writing that poem, of riding that wave of instinct, knocked down every internal wall I had left around my writing. I wrote my guts out for the rest of my time in the program.

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

RG: Not silence. At least not usually. I enjoy patterned sound, which I think comes from my early focus on an instrument—my first experience of flow as a young person came from running scales and arpeggios and etudes for hours and hours and I think geometries like that are about the most holy things on this planet. So, no surprise that the fact of that is palpable in a lot of my work: I write toward feel. I have been listening to the scores for Philip Glass’ three operas lots this year—I find his slow progressions incredibly good to write to—but I also do a lot of listening to songs on loop. I can listen to a single song for two or three hours and appreciate it the whole way to the end when I’m working. I can’t concentrate if I can make out anyone’s conversation so I am often spotted with headphones when I’m working out the world. I’m that girl people have to shout at when I’m concentrating. It’s always been an incredible thrill for me—that feeling of internal speed that I can find when I’m off on my own planet. I sort of imagine it’s like what dogs experience when the leash comes off.

LD: Do you believe in writer’s block?

RG: No. I believe in resistance. In my experience, if one commits firmly to making space for the making of new words every day, whether or not they’re ‘feeling it’ heading into the matter, one learns where words (and ‘feeling it’) live—which is almost always through whatever we’ve ourselves put between ourselves and the act of writing. ‘Writer’s block’ often means one needs to shift projects, or write from a different place in one’s voice—but if you’re a writer, you know in your gut that you need to write to live wholly, and that there’s no substitute for it, and that not doing it will make you pretty crazy. I’m turned off by what I think is the very lazy rhetoric surrounding our cultural notion of ‘inspiration.’ If you’ve ever practiced anything, you know how practice works. You show up and you do it. The doing it gets you there. Yeah, sometimes we get excited by stimulating environments or others’ work—but we can’t pretend that inspiration comes from outside us. No. We meet our own attention.

I do think there are times that are for reading, but I don’t know that a writer can really completely separate writing and reading, either. Writing is intensely internal reading, a scrying attempt at one’s unwritten work. Reading is a kind of stretching or imagining of the spaces one might write into.

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

RG: Stein, Winterson, Dickinson, Carson, really mindblowing essays or tough prose, new pages by my brilliant students. Right now I am reading Kate Zambreno’s Heroines alongside an anthology of conceptual writing by women, two books about thinking and political logic that my therapist loaned to me, a scholarly work on queer autobiography that took me forever to track down, volumes of poetry by Sina Queyras and Tanya Olsen (two ffierce poets whose work I am thrilled to have stumbled my way into this spring), and the newest chapbook in Sarah McCarry’s brilliant Guillotine series. In general, the more I am reading, the more I am writing, but I don’t make a point of writing in moment-to-moment conversation with texts or structuring the time I spend writing and/or reading each day. I’m usually reading at least half a dozen things at a time. Right now I’m working on almost that many things—the beginnings of a third collection of poetry, a collection of linked autobiographical essays, something that’s looking more and more like an opera about women’s letters, a long photo essay about the handwriting samples I have kept during my lifetime, and a couple other things. I love how all of it just gets harder and harder, in the best ways.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pick a Form, Any Form

When I am stuck in a rut creatively, I turn to poetry forms. The limits they offer work like any writing prompt - they give a writer rules to follow, instructions, boundaries, in which they can play with language. Much like a child in need of discipline, a poetic form can give a writer safe terrain in which to experiment.

I steer away from rhyming forms, as well as strictly metered forms. They are hard to do well without careening toward greeting-card-esque treacle. And honestly, I have trouble understanding meter - I spend too much time sounding out words, counting beats on my fingers when I can just rely on my own natural sense of language's rhythm and music. So I opt for poems with repeating lines (Pantoum or Villanelle) or repeating words (my favorite, the Sestina), or poems that employ a syllabic or word count (Tanka). I also really like found forms, like the Cento or OULIPO.

Here are some of my favorite websites for poetic forms. I encourage you to try your hand at forms, from the ancient and lengthy to modern and minimal. Two of my latest favorites are the Palindrome and the Blitz.

Shadow Poetry: A Poet's Writing Resource - lots of great traditional and invented forms.
Robert Lee Brewer's List of Poetry Forms - an interesting mix.
Shot Glass Journal's Glossary of Poetic Forms - no examples, but lots of these are shorter forms.
American Academy of Poet's Poetic Forms & Techniques - an in-depth look at many classic forms.
Poetry Foundation's Glossary - a searchable database of forms.
The Poet's Garret - offers lots of variations on classic forms.
Wikipedia - always worth reading up on the history of a particular form.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Natalie Giarratano

Natalie Giarratano’s first collection of poems, Leaving Clean, won the 2013 Liam Rector First Book Prize (Briery Creek Press, 2013). Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in Tupelo Quarterly, Isthmus Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and TYPO, among others. She co-edits Pilot Light and teaches writing at American University.


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

Natalie Giarratano: When it comes to writing, I’m a hunter/gatherer. I will hang onto random bits of conversation, quotes from literature, films or TV shows, random thoughts/images that pop into my brain, news stories, songs, research on topics in which I’m interested, which range from Leadbelly to serial killers, and so on. I will hang on until I have to let them go on the page. Usually that is in the summer when I have more time to focus on my writing, as I’m not teaching then. All this is to say that I write sporadically on the page, but I’m always thinking and collecting towards a poem or poems with these scraps. And sometimes the scraps end up being unnecessary, a means to an end, or are altered so much as to become unrecognizable. This I love. My most recently published poem, “Big Thicket Blues,” took about a year to write, from scraps of ideas to a long poem that felt complete in its eight sections.

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

NG: To get the words flowing, I find that taking on a persona or trying to address a specific person helps. I tend to write a lot of social/political poetry, so I might address Saddam Hussein or Dick Cheney or Gilgamesh or my great grandmothers. I don’t always stick with that perspective/address, but it narrows the field so I can focus more—which has been important in writing a poem a day when fresh, fruitful ideas might be more difficult to come by. But before I get to any of that, here’s what I have to complete: breakfast, coffee, feed play with, and walk the dog, catch up on news, clean the house if it needs it, read poetry or fiction or essays or news stories. Then I can get to the writing process. Then I can settle my mind enough with the outside world (or rile it up enough, depending on the occasion) to move inward.

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

I specifically asked for a journal in which to write poems when I was eleven. Not even sure what prompted that. I didn’t read much, if any, poetry; though I was a voracious reader of fiction; I loved me some Beverly Cleary. However, it was Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is so full of detailed description—some, I know, would argue that it’s tedious or overwrought—that made me think, wow. This is what I want to do. I want to create worlds for others to be lost in. I don’t know if I’ve accomplished that with my poetry, but it wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I felt confident in the poems I was writing. The poem that I think was the turning point for me is titled “Forms of Forgetfulness”—I had been trying to write about my falling away from Catholicism and violence always humming under the surface in my immediate family for a long time; in this poem, subject and form work in subtle ways and mood is captured well without seeming like a rant—those I’m really good at!

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

NG: I motivate myself to write by having other people hold me accountable. I guess that’s not really “self-motivation.” I am able to have that when I call upon it, but I’m a person who works well under a deadline. For the past couple of summers I’ve participated in a poem-a-day throughout the month of June with poet friends; we exchange poems and self-deprecation every day. I think this process makes me realize I could write routinely if I truly wanted; I could find the time while hunting/gathering. Also, after I’ve written my poem for the day, I have been known to reward myself with episodes of my favorite TV show (currently Game of Thrones).

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

NG: This is probably corny to say, but the poem tells me when it’s finished. I don’t really decide anything but to listen to it (or ignore it, which only works for a while). Music in a poem is really important to me, so I do work a long time on getting the words and lines to sound “right” (more listening). But form is fickle. For example, I recently worked for months on a series of poems about the life and music of Leadbelly. I was obsessed with him, with researching and writing about him (even though others have already done so and much better than I, especially Tyehimba Jess in leadbelly: poems, which I highly recommend). I ended up with seven fairly biographical poems written mostly in fragments—something I had done previously with “Big Thicket Blues.” However, I somehow got the idea that the sonnet form would better complement the subject matter; so then I spent a few more months turning these seven fragmented poems into a crown of sonnets (loose sonnets—I’m not a big fan of end rhyme). Just when I thought I was finished with them, I realized that the poems did not want to be about Leadbelly, at least not only about Leadbelly. I broke them back up into fragments. This time, though, I created 25 plus fragments that I arranged in brackets throughout my second manuscript, not just seven fragmented poems. Phew. But I had to write the sonnets to get back to the fragments again, which were much richer and more about the artist than Leadbelly alone. Though I do feel guilty for abandoning him.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Diane Lockward

Diane Lockward is the author of The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop (Wind Publications, 2013) and three poetry books, most recently Temptation by Water. Her poems have been included in such journals as Harvard Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her work has also been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac.

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

Diane Lockward: My usual writing place is the kitchen table. Best time is morning when it’s quiet and my brain is most alert and creative. While my table serves as a place to eat, it also serves as the repository of stacks of books, journals, and yellow legal pads, all of which I really mean to straighten out but never quite do. From my spot at the table, I look out through a sliding glass door onto my backyard which is nice and woodsy. I have pretty flowerpots on the patio, a rock garden, birdbaths, and birdfeeders. In summer I get all kinds of birds—my favorites are the goldfinches who occasionally fly into a poem. This is a peaceful, quiet spot, conducive to daydreaming which sometimes is conducive to a poem.

LD: How do you begin writing? Do you just dive in? Warm-up exercise? Daydreaming?

DL: If I’m fired up with an idea, if that’s what leads me to the table, I just begin writing. But if, as is more often the case, I have to go in search of an idea, I often begin with some reading from either a poetry collection or a journal. I read until a line, image, or word evokes some kind of response from me. Once I’ve got that response, I begin writing. If that method doesn’t work, I might use the “palimpsest” method, that is, I take a poem and add a new poem on top of it, going line by line following the structure of the original. This method is instructive and often leads to a real poem—one which usually bears no resemblance at all to the original. The resemblance disappears with multiple revisions. I also enjoy prompts and find them stimulating, so I sometimes pull out a book of them and choose one to get me going.

LD: What writing implement do you wield and why?

DL: I like a Paper Mate ballpoint pen, black ink, medium point. I like the way it rolls on the paper, very smoothly, unlike a pencil which sort of grates against the paper and makes a little shuffling noise. I always begin a poem on a yellow legal pad. Something official about that. I never compose on the computer. I go to the computer only after several handwritten drafts have been done. I do a lot of revision on those early drafts which, by the way, is done with a red pen. When I feel like the poem is getting close to a real poem, that it just might be a keeper, I want to see what it looks like when typed up. Once the poem is on the computer, I begin to think about line lengths, line breaks, and stanza breaks. I print out a hard copy and spend days and weeks doing more revisions. Each new revision gets paper clipped onto the top of the growing pile of drafts. But it all begins with a pen and a piece of yellow lined paper.

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

DL: After I’ve done several drafts, I record myself reading the poem. This is part of my revision process. I can hear rhythm, sagging syllables, unnecessary repetitions. If my mind starts to wander while I’m recording or playing back, I know I need to enliven things at the spot where that began to happen. When I’m satisfied with the way the poem looks on the page, when I like what the poem says and how it says it, I again record myself reading the poem. Do I like its music? Have I chosen the best possible words? Does the poem, even after dozens of revisions, still hold my interest? If the answer to each of these questions is Yes, then I’m probably done. Probably. I put the poem aside for at least a week, let myself forget about it. Then I take it out again. Record and listen again. Do I still like it? Did I this time spot something I’d missed before, something that needs to be fixed? If so, I make the repair. I again put the poem aside and repeat the process. Once I can record and listen and feel compelled by the poem and not hear or see anything that needs fixing, I’m done. As you can tell, I’m big on revisions. For me, that’s where the real writing takes place. But sometimes I go too far. When I begin to suck the life out of the poem, when I rob it of its surprises, I need to go back a draft or two and resuscitate the poem, find its heart again, get it beating again.

LD: Do you believe in writer’s block? 

No. I believe in laziness. I believe in dry days. I believe in sometimes just not feeling like showing up at the desk (or in my case, the kitchen table). And often I don’t show up. I can go days, even weeks without writing new work. I’d rather be working on new stuff every day, but I know myself well enough by now to acknowledge that I’m just not a daily kind of  poet. I do something related to poetry every single day, but sometimes it’s reading, typing up drafts, making submissions, going to a reading, listening to poetry recordings by other poets, working on my monthly Poetry Newsletter, writing a blog post for Blogalicious, or responding to interview questions. I like to think of the fallow days as days of hunting and gathering.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Writer Rachel Dacus

photo credit: Jim MacKinnon
Rachel Dacus is the author of Gods of Water and Air, a collection of poetry, prose, and drama. Her poetry collections are Earth Lessons and Femme au Chapeau. Her writing has appeared in The Atlanta Review, Boulevard, Prairie Schooner, and many other journals and anthologies.

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. 

Rachel Dacus: I’m in a field, a plum tree has just started dropping its fruit on the grass, some edible, some smashed by careless feet or paws. The birds have pecked many, but I pick up an unblemished one and bite into it, the juice running down my hand. I look up at mare’s tail clouds and a feeling strikes me blowing by and riffling. Another plum falls. I think about ripeness and ruin. I go and sit in the swing and dictate into my phone. Like that on the luckiest days. On others, with coffee, in bed, not quite awake, noodling around with word sounds and wispy sense. Clouds in the brain.

LD: How do you begin writing? Do you just dive in? Warm-up exercise? Daydreaming? Any rituals that involve smelling a drawer of fruit? 

RD: Apparently, from my previous answer, fruit can be involved. But not necessarily. I just daydream, having set aside time for writing – usually in the morning, when the boundary between the dream state and the intellectual one is shifty and broad, allowing for incursions from either army.

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

RD: I write every day, most often in the morning, middle of the day, and at night. Really. I like to start my business day with poetry, and after a few hours of working at my day job stuff, dive back into whatever I was working on. I’m also writing a novel, so it depends what I most need to work on, and that’s what I might work on after dinner. Breaks help me do a lot of work in any given day. Most days I don’t have this much time, but on the best, I do and make the most of it.

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

RD: I started writing poems in response to reading Emily Dickinson. I know that seems like a rash idea, treading in such overworked territory, but I couldn't help feeling a little like Emily’s BFF. Like only she and I understand each other’s secrets. Arrogance, I know, but that’s what happened. So recently, I read another ED poem (I dip into the book cautiously because a line can hit me like a bullet), and this line leaped on me and wrestled me to the ground.

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

RD: I've been writing since I could hold a pencil. The first piece I was proud of was a Halloween short story written in third grade. I was asked to read it out to my class and got huge laughter. Getting laughs hooked me on writing. Just think – a thing I made out of my imagination made people laugh! What could be better. Of course, the next story fell entirely flat. I was inducted into the writing profession at age eight, skinning my knees on the reality of my first workshop critique, but the blood couldn't detract from the high, so I was hooked by early success.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Kait Burrier

Poet Kait Burrier
Kait Burrier writes poetry, drama, journalism, and to-do lists. Her work has been thrown from balconies, spat from rooftops, hidden in mesas, performed in the U.S. and abroad, and published online and in print, most recently in SwanDive Publishing Company’s Everyday Escape Poems. See what she’s up to at


Laura Davis: Beverage of choice? 

Kait Burrier: a.m.: black coffee; p.m.: bourbon, rocks.

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

KB: I hopped a bus to New York City the day after completing my MFA, and I love the soundscape here! I find sound and physicality to be symbiotic in poetry, and it’s easy to translate the buzz of my surroundings into the rhythm of my work, especially somewhere public, like a café, a bar, a park bench, or the train. My revision process demands less chaos and more focus. Most of my creative projects have corresponding playlists that I listen to at home. I've also taken to recording myself on Garage Band while developing a cadence. It’s a good exercise for exploring a new voice, too; I’ll record myself reading a single text while listening to different songs through headphones and the delivery always varies. Occasionally, though, I do like to work at the twilight hours of morning, when even the Internet and the alley cats are still.

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

KB: Unearthing a fresh narrative in an existing text through erasure, found word, and cut up poetry stimulates me into generating new work. Sometimes, I’ll explore a topic that has a lot of room for investigation, like astrophysics or the arctic, and allow my imagination to fill in the blanks with free association. I’m also partial to Dadaist and Surrealist games, and have been known to begin rounds of Exquisite Corpse on bar napkins.

LD: What’s the strangest object you've ever used to write a poem with and/or upon? 

KB: Oh, I’m sure it’s gotten weird before. I’ll use napkins, apps, legal pads, note cards, sidewalk chalk, whatever. Let’s see. Memorably, I was assigned to write out a map poem in a workshop during Naropa’s Summer Writing Program. I went to campus early to buy a Moleskine at the bookstore only to find there wasn't a campus bookstore. There was, however, plenty of sycamore bark shed on the sidewalks. I found a sturdy, clean piece and, using colored sharpies, inscribed a short, cartographic love poem. It survived a week in Colorado and a drive to Wyoming, but I don’t know what happened to it. I like to imagine it as a little poetry boat floating the Platte, or riding a breeze back to the Flatirons.

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

I could revise forever and ever. My poems are basically complete once they've been accepted for publication. That’s not to say that I only find my poetry valid upon publication, but that I tend to step away from, revisit, and edit my work endlessly until someone else insists it’s finished. Time lends perspective. Old poems have served me well as a prompt, as a sort of creative artifact that I either want to explore for inspiration or to polish up—cut this stanza, change that line break. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll ever truly finish a

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Writer Sivan Butler-Rotholz

Sivan Butler-Rotholz is the founder of Reviving Herstory, the Contributing Editor of the Saturday Poetry Series on As It Ought To Be, and a columnist for the iPinion Syndicate. She holds an MFA from Brooklyn College and is a professor, writer, editor, comic artist, and attorney emerita.

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

Sivan Butler-Rotholz: I have been working on my first novel since November 1, 2013. The idea had been percolating in my mind for quite some time, and a creative writing student of mine challenged me to participate in National Novel Writing Month, so I rolled up my sleeves and dove in. During that dedicated month the words flew from my fingertips like wildfire. Some days took more effort than others, but I wrote every day and met the 50,000-word goal by month’s end.

There is something very freeing about a challenge such as NaNoWriMo. I believe that, as writers, we wear two hats: our creating hat and our editing hat. Because I had a goal based on word count alone, I did not allow myself to put on my editing hat whatsoever during the month of November. The goal was to write, write, write. I knew that, after the month ended, I would have years to edit and rewrite as needed. So I gave myself the freedom to write whatever came to me—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Every good writer revises; I think aiming for perfection from the outset can have a crippling effect on writers. Such an approach may be the beast known as “writer’s block.”

After November ended, I gave myself some time away from writing the book. Because my novel is historical fiction, I am working on the novel even when I am only researching. So after November I read a lot—history books about the period in which my novel takes place (the era of King David), and also some great books on process. I’m a poet by training, so I had to give myself a crash course in what makes good fiction writing. In April I signed up for another NaNoWriMo challenge—Camp NaNoWriMo—which is a less-structured version of National Novel Writing Month. I did not meet my goal in April, but I had a major breakthrough with the book that was invaluable. Currently I’m in it again, doing Camp NaNoWriMo for the month of July.

Writing a novel, I am discovering, is a long and involved process. It is like a long-term relationship, whereas writing a poem can be more like a cherished fling. I hope to finish the novel in the next year or two, and hope that what I am learning now will translate into my ability to complete a novel every couple of years.

The work of writing a novel is ongoing and variable. Sometimes I write as if struck by divine inspiration or as if taking dictation for Martians. Other times I write not a single word, and instead let the lives of the characters and the landscape of the novel unfold in my mind. Whenever anyone asks me how the novel is going I tell them it’s coming along great. Whether I am writing daily or haven’t put my fingers to the keyboard in months, I always feel that the novel and I are moving forward. When people tell me they can’t wait to read it, I respond, “Me too!”

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

SBR: Ahhh, this is such an interesting question! For me, it is a gut feeling. After I have read, edited, read, revised, read, tweaked, and repeated these steps ad nausea, there comes a moment when I give it a read through and find that I don’t have any more changes to make. Then I may put it aside, come back, and apply the process again. Eventually it just feels done. It is, absolutely, a gut reaction.

I am a perfectionist, so anything I write has seen a lot of personal scrutiny before my instincts tell me it’s finished. For me it’s done done when I send it out into the world—when I submit an opinion editorial piece to the iPinion Syndicate, when I hit the “schedule” button on an entry in the Saturday Poetry Series that I edit for As It Ought To Be, when I finish a blog post for Reviving Herstory, when I submit poems for publication, etc. Even then, sometimes I revise after submission or posting. Most infuriating is when I notice a typo in an already published piece. Nothing drives me more bananas than that.

All that being said, the thing I always think of when I consider the question of whether piece of writing is “finished” is this: I heard a story about Yusef Komunyakaa. That his personal copy of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book is marked up with his newest edits. That when he gives readings from this book, he is reading newer, revised versions of poems that already won the Pulitzer Prize. I tell this story to my creative writing students when they ask how they know if a poem or story is finished. If Yusef Komunyakaa is still editing his Pulitzer Prize-winning poems, I’m not sure our work is ever finished.

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

SBR: I started reciting original poems before I learned to read and write. My mother used to take dictation of the oral poems I composed. I believe that being a poet is something older than this body, this lifetime. It is something more akin to a soul or to the energy that comprises us; something that existed before we did in this earthly body, and something that will continue to go on after we are returned to dust.

I am really blessed in that I have always been encouraged in my writing. First by my family, then in school. I remember little books and poems I wrote in third and fourth grade being chosen as competition winners. My family, teachers, schools, and locales all encouraged me. So I grew up feeling good about my writing. Of course I’ve become more critical of my own work with age and experience, but I’ve always felt really good about being a writer, and I think the expectations I have for myself now only serve to make me a better writer. Now I have my sights set on becoming a New York Times bestselling novelist, and I think it’s a combination of the encouragement I have received throughout my life and my belief that I can do anything I set my mind to that is going to get me there.

LD: How do you motivate yourself to write? 

SBR: I do much better with a deadline and some accountability. My most productive writing periods were while working toward my BA and MFA in creative writing, while taking continuing education courses in creative writing, while participating in residencies, and the like. National Novel Writing Month motivates me because I set a goal based on due date and word count; even if I’m only accountable to myself, I work better with even a self-imposed goal and deadline. Most recently a friend and I have started a writing group that meets once a month. Having to submit even a few pages of work to other people once a month ensures that I actually write those few pages. So the answer, for me, is that goal-setting and accountability are my greatest motivating factors.

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

SBR: Essentially, as a lyricist, I prefer to listen to music with words than without. But I find that music with lyrics inevitably distracts me from my writing. I tried classical music for a while, but it was too calming for me. I need a little pick-me-up when I write. So I listened to Tiger Rag for a long time, but found that I can only listen to music without lyrics for so long. Most recently I discovered that the best writing music for me is Edith Piaf in French. It turns out that lyrics in another language give me the voice and the words that I crave, yet don’t distract me from my writing. This is probably the only time I will ever be thankful to be ignorant of foreign languages.

Aside from music, which I listen to when writing at home, I love to work in cafes. I love the way the hustle and bustle of café life becomes like white noise to me. It is often easier for me to write in a café than at home alone. At home there are too many distractions.

Most important for me, when working from home, is that I be alone. I share my relatively small, open floor plan apartment with my wonderful husband. He is a big fan of my attention. Even if we are both working side-by-side, he is compelled to perpetually interrupt me to show me whatever thing he is excited about at that moment. Needless to say, I get very little work done when my husband is home with me. Lots of love, very little work. So my at-home writing process comes back to Virginia Woolf, and the importance of having a room of one’s own.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Lindsay Lusby

Poet Lindsay Lusby
Lindsay Lusby’s poetry has been published most recently in The Feminist Wire, Fairy Tale Review, and The Wolf Skin. Her first chapbook, Imago, was published by dancing girl press in 2014. She is the Assistant Director of the Rose O'Neill Literary House at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland.

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

Lindsay Lusby: I've always been slow writer (and reader). But since I've embarked on the poem series to which I've most recently committed myself, my word faucet has become particularly slow-dripping. It frustrates me but, at the same time, I'm excited about the poems that have come out of it. This series I'm writing requires a very intricate interweaving of themes, that in turn requires super precise word-choice to maintain the balance I want, and this all leads to essentially revising while I'm writing. If it sounds stilted, that's because it really is. But it seems to be working, so I'll keep on in this vein for as long as it continues to be fruitful.

LD: What writing implement do you wield and why?

LL: I use a combination of three different writing implements for different stages of the process. For composing, I prefer using a manual typewriter. Somehow, the typewriter leaves me feeling less inhibited by my own insecurities while writing. I'm more able to let myself write down what is developing in my head as it happens and explore the different possibilities for where this new poem might lead. I make lists of words, phrases, and bits of the two or more source materials I'm hoping to combine. When I've got a working draft (or at least a fragment that I want to keep), I move to the word processor for revising and finishing the poem. Then, when I feel I have a fairly polished piece, I write it by hand in my notebook that travels around with me. I realize that's probably the reverse order for lots of folks, but this is what (most often) works for me. I also have a habit carrying around my brand-new poems with me like a kind of security blanket.

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

LL: Green. Definitely green. A poem I wrote a few months ago called "Interlude" ends with the line, "in those quiet degrees of shade." That is my mental writing space. Although I'm typically an indoor cat (doing most of my writing in my bedroom), my mental space is usually a green garden sheltered by an overcast sky. It smells like rain-soaked ivy and basil. A comforting green gloom.

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

LL: I am one of those people who just cannot concentrate on a solitary activity in public spaces. I'm just hyper-aware of everything else going on around me. I think close to utter silence would be the best for me, although sometimes I will venture into purely instrumental music for some background sound. I tend to get distracted by song lyrics though. I must also admit that I am not always faithful to this prescription, but deviation usually leads to lots of frustration with myself and no new writing being accomplished.

LD: Beverage of choice?

LL: I'm a passionate lover of tea—hot or iced, depending on the temperature of the room. Although I do love a classic black tea, when I want to treat myself I go for a cup of ginger peach black tea or spice chai latte. Mmmmmm.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Stacy Nigliazzo

Poet Stacy R. Nigliazzo
Stacy R. Nigliazzo is an ER nurse. Her debut poetry collection, Scissored Moon, was released by Press 53 last fall, and has been named a finalist for the 2013 Julie Suk Prize (Jacar Press) and the 2014 Texas Institute of Letters First Book Award.
Laura Davis: How do you begin writing? Do you just dive in? Warm-up exercise? Daydreaming? Any rituals that involve smelling a drawer of fruit?

Stacy R. Nigliazzo: I generally need some spark of inspiration, otherwise I just sit and stare at a blank page for hours. That spark can originate from anywhere, really. I’ll have a dream, hear an unexpected word (like yaw or polystyrene, for example), or see something intriguing. Then I’ll grab my journal, tie my hair back, and scribble my thoughts. After I've polished my ideas I move to my MacBook. I anguish over every little word until I’m satisfied with the finished product. If I get stuck I generally read Charles Simic—no shortage of inspiration there. Sometimes I burn candles that smell of toasted coconut and hazelnut. The best thing about that is the ribbon of smoke that appears when you blow them out. Very poetic.
LD: What writing implement do you wield and why?

SN: I always start with a mechanical pencil so I can erase when I need to and don’t have to stop for sharpening. My favorite is the Zebra #2 (because it looks like a real pencil).
LD: How do you decide that you are finished working on a story, essay, or poem?

SN: I memorize all of my poems while I’m writing them, then mull them over and over in my mind after composition. If I still like the poem after a few days I generally stick with it. Sometimes I’ll agonizingly get stuck on a line, or even on a single word. In that case, I’ll try to put the poem aside for a while to tackle again later. Sometimes it takes forever to find the right fit.
For example, in the poem "Purgatory," it took me two weeks to come up with stranded soul. I think it was complicated by the fact that I had a deadline, and it was my first big publishing opportunity with the American Journal of Nursing. It finally came to me after much sleeplessness and gnashing of teeth while I was desperately scouring my old high school thesaurus, which is silly, as the metaphor seems so intuitive now. I completed the poem with a week to spare, but went ahead and sent it in anyway. I knew I was finished.
LD: Let’s talk about your writing soundscape. Do you listen to music? Cafe rumblings? White noise? Utter silence?
SN: Yo Yo Ma’s music is a staple when I’m writing (especially his unaccompanied Bach Cello Suites). I also love Emanuel Ax’s piano quartets (Mozart). Whatever I listen to has to be instrumental—no words other than mine allowed. If I’m particularly focused, or at the point where I’m breaking out the old high school thesaurus again, I’ll go for dead silence.

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

SN: Charles Simic, of course, and also Neruda’s prose poems. Most recently, Elana Bell’s Eyes, Stones and Carl Adamshick’s Curses and Wishes (both past recipients of the Walt Whitman Award). And, of course, there’s my big stack of back issues of the Bellevue Literary Review. There is absolute perfection in those pages! 

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Samantha Duncan

Poet Samantha Duncan
Samantha Duncan is the author of the chapbooks One Never Eats Four (ELJ Publications, 2014) and Moon Law (Wild Age Press, 2012), and she serves as Associate Editor for ELJ Publications. She lives in Houston. Follow her on TwitterGoodreads and her blog.

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

Samantha Duncan: My writing starts with observance and centers on small ideas evolving into bigger ones. I tend to look for beauty and art in unconventional places and find a lot of it in everyday life, so an idea for a piece may come from a tree in my neighborhood or an exchange I see in a coffee shop. I like to take what’s simple and expand it, perhaps beyond its surface level meaning. My first chapbook, Moon Law, literally came about from a discussion about how life and the law would have to be different on the moon if we colonized it. I took the trajectory of a fairly normal and straightforward relationship between two people and placed it on the moon. That manuscript was the result.

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

SD: My latest poetry chapbook, One Never Eats Four, took a while to come together. If memory serves me correctly, I wrote the individual drafts fairly quickly, then took a long time to do dozens of edits. I submitted most of them individually to journals and a handful were accepted, which was when I started to think about creating a manuscript. Grouping them was the hard part. I tend to be a little obsessively organized, and I think I was initially too fixated on there being a central theme to the collection, when there obviously wasn't. When I finally gave up that vision and turned my focus to multiple related subjects, instead, it quickly got picked up by ELJ Publications. Ideally, I prefer starting with a theme or subject and then writing the manuscript around it; in this instance, the reverse had to occur, as I already had months of material that was demanding to be put together.

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

SD: I've been writing since I learned how, as a child. I remember mimicking books that I read, starting with picture books (art was never my strong suit, so these were simplistic) and graduating to longer and longer chapter books when I began reading those. Despite writing from an early age, it wasn't until college that I felt I had written something that I liked and was worth publishing. I wrote a short story about a young, accomplished violin player who lost her arm in a car accident and had to navigate a different path for her life. I later expanded it into a novel, but in retrospect, I don’t think I had the skill to give the story what it needed to be great and publication ready. Another project I wrote that I remain proud of today was a short, nonlinear novel called Happy Blue. It was the first time a piece of writing seemed to pour out of me with little effort, and of all the fiction I've written, it’s the only thing I believe I could someday publish if I ever go back and polish it.

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

SD: Since I started publishing my work, it’s become less about cookies and coffee and shiny things. If I find myself procrastinating on work, I think about my published pieces and how they wouldn't have been accepted if I hadn't, at some point, decided to stop staring at a blank screen. We all know people who talk about writing a lot more than they actually write, and I never want to be that person. My end goal is to create and get it out in the world, and I remind myself the only way to make that happen is to sit down, ignore Facebook, and write.

LD: Beverage of choice?

SD: Anything hot. It’s a bit of a writer cliché, but I’m a Starbucks junkie. I have rotating favorites, but my go-to drink is a soy dirty chai. When my Starbucks card has no money on it (a frequent occurrence), I’ll have green tea. That said, I don’t discriminate – I’m also a fan of crappy gas station coffee.

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.