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.

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