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.



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.