Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Kelly McQuain

Poet Kelly McQuain
Kelly McQuain is the author of the newly released VELVET RODEO, selected by poet C. Dale Young for the Bloom Chapbook Prize. His prose has been published in numerous periodicals, and his most recent poems appear in such places as Painted Bride Quarterly, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Assaracus, Redivider, Kestrel, The Pinch and such anthologies as Between: New Gay Poetry, The Queer South and Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books. Learn more about Velvet Rodeo on his website. Read one of his poems at BLOOM Literary Journal.

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

Kelly McQuain: My home office is often too cluttered, so I write in coffee shops, on the couch, and on the bed in our TV room. Every time I think of cleaning out the office I think I could be writing instead, and so I write. I have books stacked in all those places, leaning towers of books with papers and old drafts wedged between them. I nest myself in the chaos and I do my best to create. Sometimes I write into the wee hours of the night, and I find words and lines still going through my head as I try to fall asleep. I sometimes get up and write those down. When I’m full-speed on a project, I’ll get up and dive into it when I come downstairs in the morning, sitting with a strong cup of black tea from Taiwan (a neighbor’s gift) or a cup of Earl Gray. Writing is going well if I get to the middle of the afternoon and realize I forgot to eat. For motivation, I remind myself that time is finite—a subject of much of my work. And occasionally a little wine or scotch can grease the wheel. Hemingway reputedly said, “Write drunk, edit sober.” You can't exactly follow that advice and be healthy. I like to temper Hemingway's notion with an idea from Oscar Wilde: “Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

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

KM: For poetry, I keep files called Word Soup on the Notes app on my iPad. Phrases, ideas for lines, interesting messages people write me, things I read in books, fortune cookies--all that. Basically it's my version of a word bank. These phrases and notes get scrambled together. When I begin to work on a project, I may have an initial idea, but I like to snowball that idea with whatever randomness gets attracted to it. I print out some word soup and grab a legal pad and free-write. It’s a process of magnetism, as well as teasing out the loose thread of narrative I see in random associations. My home office is often too cluttered, so I write in coffee shops, on the couch, and on the guest bed. I have books stacked in all those places, leaning towers of books with papers and old drafts wedged between them. I nest myself in the chaos and do my best to create.

LD: What color is your writing process? 

KM: It’s kaleidoscopic. With poetry, I play with space and form on the typed page, viewing the poem the way I might a painting. How does this phrase look next to that one? How is the rhythm working to both the eye and the ear?  I like to play with the way white space can create both a mental and vocal caesura. Unfortunately, with a lot of online magazines using templates like WordPress, they sometimes can only print poems where each line begins at a flush left margin. Does that mean poems that have a lot of spacing peculiarities are going to be an endangered species? I think the technology will eventually get better, but for now I sometimes feel straitjacketed in terms of where I can send certain poems. I’m a believer, however, in the idea that a poem dictates its own form. When I write in traditional forms, I like to play with the rules and push them. Form sometimes fractures, becoming a kaleidoscope leading to something new.

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

KM: Sometimes I just know when a poem is finished. Not that it's tied up in a neat bow or anything. Rather, it's a sense I have pushed it as far as possible and I'm now finding myself engaged in a new project. For poems that seem riskier, I have a rotating group of readers I can show a draft to. I'll get one or two opinions of people I really respect. Not people who tell me what I want to hear, but people who will tell me what I need to hear. To be honest, I think trying to please a large workshop can deplete a work of its impulse or make a writer feel pulled in too many directions. Who wants to be drawn and quartered? Once in a while I will participate in a workshop at a conference, but that’s largely for the esprit du corps and to get new ideas for forms and techniques. When it comes to polishing a work myself, I read the piece aloud again and again to see if the phrasing, the beats, the line breaks and the pauses all feel right, since I believe sound goes hand in hand with image.  I do the same thing with writing prose.

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

KM: I remember writing Battlestar Galactica stories in 7th grade study hall with my friend Susan, and writing and drawing my own comics with other friends even before that. A poem in Velvet Rodeo called “Creation Myth” talks about reading my earliest poems in the state capital when I was a kid—twelve, maybe? Thirteen? I had won a state contest and it was a long, cold drive through the West Virginia mountains, where we lived. My whole family went. Those poems are long forgotten, but the fact that my family had faith in me is still remembered.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Writer Kelly Kittel

Kelly Kittel has spent most of her working life as a fish biologist who writes, but is becoming a writer who was formerly a fish biologist. She and her family divide their time between their yurts in Oregon and their house in Rhode Island. She has been published in a number of anthologies and magazines. Her first book, Breathe, is forthcoming in May. She loves to travel and recently watched the film, Gravity, on JetBlue instead of reading a book. As a result, this interview is probably the closest she will ever get to outer space.

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. 

Kelly Kittel: My favorite writing space is in our yurts on the coast of Oregon, where my bedroom is also our kitchen, living room, and dining room. In the mornings I wake up to the welcome sound of my preset coffee pot gurgling on the counter across the room. When I’m sure it’s ready, and not a moment before, I slip into my Uggs and shuffle over to pour myself a cup. Having lived in both Jamaica and Costa Rica, one of the sweetest moments of my day is that first hot taste of the tropics. On the coldest of days, I light a fire in the wood stove and wear my colorful alpaca glittens to type until the yurt warms up with the rising sun. My writing window faces east and is actually two layers—clear vinyl and an attached, fine-meshed screen. On warm days, I go out on the deck and literally rip the vinyl from its Velcro frame and all of nature floods through the screen into the yurt. It feels like writing outdoors. From my writing window, I can see the remnant stand of old-growth Douglas fir trees growing on the hillside across the creek that wraps around our pastures. These ancient trees are part of the Siuslaw National Forest that surrounds our property and often I can also watch the resident herd of elk grazing in the rising morning mist. The fir trees range in age from one to four hundred years old and have survived countless wildfires, windstorms, and at least one gigantic earthquake. They, and the slow-moving ungulates, are both excellent reminders to me in my writing career to be patient. To everything there is a season . . .


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

KK: A yurt has thin, acrylic-coated polyester walls, think high-tech tent. When you’re in a yurt, nature provides a peaceful soundtrack for writing that is truly the only one I need. My head is busy enough that I prefer to work in complete silence and relish the lack of noise. But, as I said, since my writing space is also the living room, when my kids come home from school I am subjected to endless episodes of Good Luck, Charlie, which I am equally capable of tuning out. For the most part, when I’m engrossed in my writing, the world falls away from me.

LD: Beverage of choice? 

KK: In the mornings I relish my coffee and, indeed, one of the invaluable supporters I acknowledged and thanked in my forthcoming memoir, Breathe, were the many coffee beans sacrificed on my behalf. I can write for hours with a lukewarm cup of coffee at hand and sometimes have to force myself to get out of my chair and eat in the afternoons before I become dizzy from hypoglycemia. I recently told someone that I live on words and liquids, as I move from coffee, to water, to wine. (no, not every day) And some days that’s truly all I really need.

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

KK: Right now I have the luxury of writing all day, which I typically take advantage of during the week as the weekends are never mine for writing. For decades, with five children to raise, I didn’t have the luxury of uninterrupted time and I only began to write in earnest when my last child, Bella, napped in the afternoons. It has only been three years since Bella started going to school all day, during which I’ve changed my morning routine from working out at the gym to working at writing. I get my best work done in the morning when I’m fresh and free from distraction. (And, yes, my ass is distinctly more chair than gym-shaped as a result.) Once I turn on my laptop and get started, I am off in my own little world and often feel myself inching closer and closer to climbing into the screen and disappearing. I’m usually surprised when my kids walk in the door from school in the afternoon to find me, still hunched over my laptop in my pajamas. Then we’re off and running for the rest of the day, late for everything and wondering what we’ll have for dinner.

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

KK: I was born with a book clutched in my fat little fist and books have always been some of my best friends. Reading is my first true love, even before writing and my husband, and I am never without a current book to read and a pile of them in waiting on my bedside table. I rarely have the luxury of reading during the day, but I read myself to sleep every night of my life. My mother likes to tell how, as a toddler, I would sit in my playpen with a pile of books and read for hours and hours, not wanting anyone to bother me. And that hasn’t changed much, except my playpen is much larger now. I believe in banning televisions from bedrooms, which is why my husband can often be found snoring on the couch. And any bed I sleep in must have some form of reading light and a box of Kleenex. I love to travel and often read a book per flight. I imagine that if I’m ever in a plane that’s crashing, while panic and mayhem erupt all around me, I will simply sit there and keep reading my book as we descend, mostly annoyed that I won’t get to The End.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Big Poetry Giveaway 2014: Three Books & One Lit Mag

I have been looking for an excuse to post for a while, so Kelli Russell Agodon's Big Poetry Giveaway 2014 was the perfect thing to bring me back to the ranks of blogger. Giving someone else a book they might never have otherwise picked up is a real thrill. If you'd like to participate this year, check out this post on Kelli's blog for more info. Comment with your email on this post if you'd like to be in the drawing for any of these books. If you already have one of these books, write the titles in your comment so I won't include you in those drawings.

Sever the Braid by Jessica Server (Finishing Line Press)

What folks are saying about this amazing chapbook:

Though it's Server's first chapbook, it's not out of place on my bookshelf among poets like Jennifer Maier, Terrance Hayes, and Jim Daniels. Her poems are deliberate, tight, and brilliant in the sense that not only is her voice perfected, but she captures moments from the past, makes them visceral, as if I can reach out and hold them. Alison Taverna

...Jessica Server shifts between rich depictions girlhood and womanhood through various lyrical narratives and portraits. We meet an uprooted child, a world traveler, a novice baker, a Jewish faith seeker, among others, weaving a non-linear tale of a woman with a wild and thoughtful heart that overflows with a sensual song. —Laura E. Davis

Braiding the Storm by Laura E. Davis (Finishing Line Press)

Braiding the Storm by Laura Davis is an afternoon with a best friend who knows all of our secrets, and makes us consider the world—even the everyday tangle of bed sheets, bitten fingernails, and dishes in the sink—as completely new, and brilliant.
—Mary Biddinger

A tender, tough poet's heart, sweet with moments chosen and delivered, here, creates a nourishing gift from the grit of life. Ms. Davis invites us to "Slice the day." This is a world where "The Centipede" takes / the shape / of a leach / a black salamander / a small oil spill / opalescent. I look forward to her next collection, wondering where she might turn her thirty-something poet's being.Karen Lewis



Hemming the Water by Yona Harvey (Four Way Books)

This amazing debut collection won the the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. I recently purchased a copy and I can't put it down.

How to make a form when there is no form? Nothing you can count on? Hers is not an easy art—nor is it harmless. She sets out to accomplish an impossible task, Hemming the Water. Music is the only thing she can turn to, and poetry is the exquisite stitch that turns the forces against us to our advantage. Read this book again (there is not one predictable line!) to appreciate even more its fierce elegance, and the joy of its triumph. —Toi Derricotte

This poetry remembers the Devil is make-believe until he knocks at your loved one’s door. This poetry watches a baby’s heartbeat turn into a bomb with the gentlest nudge of alphabet. This poetry insists on sewing thimbles and mountains into the same tight pocket. Take this poetry. And read .—Douglas Kaerney

Weave Magazine Issue 10!

This is Weave's biggest yet! Within its pages, you'll experience everything from high school sororities to life as a caveman. Moving poetry, fluid prose, and enthralling nonfiction will have you hooked from page one. We're honored to have had the chance to publish so much extraordinary writing and artwork. This issue features work by Kelli Russell Agodon, Michael W Cox, James Pouilliard, Valerie Loveland, Eunice E. Tiptree, M.E. Silverman, Laura Madeline Wiseman, and more. See the full contributor list here.

Be sure to comment at the bottom with a way to contact you if you're a winner. If you already have any of these books, simply let me know in the comments and I won't include you in those drawings. 


Saturday, January 18, 2014

Google Doodle Honors More Women, But There's Still a Long Way to Go

Almost three years ago I wrote an open letter to Google regarding the dearth of women honored by their creative homepage Doodles. At the time, the number of men versus women was beyond ridiculous. My original post was inspired by this article on Feministe. It prompted me to collect and look at the data. From my original blog post:

When I searched through years of Doodles and counted, Google has honored 160 “notable” people. Only 16 of those people were women.  10%.

I analyzed further, focusing on Global and US Doodles. There were 49 notable men and 3 notable women. Really? Only THREE? That’s not even 6% of all US and Global Doodles.

Until recently I haven't had the time to redo the numbers, but I'd kept an eye on the Doodles. Some of my favorites from the past few years include American choreographer and dancer Martha Graham, Queen front man Freddie Mercury, and Indian "mental calculator" Shakuntala Devi.

But let's get down to brass tacks. How has Google Doodle done since my last count back in April 2011? I'm happy to say they have improved in their representation of women.

Let's look at the gender distribution in all countries since Doodles began back in 2003. In April 2011 I counted all the Doodles that honored a specific person, always on their birthday, and always someone who was deceased. As mentioned above, only 10% were women. Since then, there have been 359 new people-specific Doodles, 71 of which were women. The totals in the column for January 2014 are cumulative so they include the April 2011 numbers, therefore the percentage of women-specific Doodles rose from 10% in April 2011 to almost 17% today. Still not a great number, but an improvement nonetheless.

Next up, if we zoom in on the Doodles that were either Global (meaning, they showed on the Google homepage in every country) and those shown in the US, we see a marked improvement. In April 2011, only 3 out of 49 Doodles honored women, compared to today, 28 out of 138. This is an even larger shift from about 6% in 2011 to over 20% as of today. We're on the right track, and better new lies ahead in the annual breakdown of the past three years.

These numbers are not cumulative. Instead, they look at the ratio of men vs. women in a given year. This demonstrates the rate of  improvement in the representation of women. I did not include any Doodles from 2003 to 2010 because they were less frequent. Starting in 2011, the annual Doodles broke 100. While there was a decrease in the percentage of women-specific Doodles in 2012 compared to the previous year, last year saw the highest numbers yet. In 2013, (slightly) more than 1 out of 5 Doodles gave props to the ladies who have shaped our culture, lead political movements, inspired us with paintings, choreography, and musical prowess, pushed the boundaries of science and medicine, and blazed trails in many fields dominated by men.

Now, Google still has room for improvement. What they really need is a year focused on equitable representation. When I look at the numbers for 2013, I counted five instances of 10 or more consecutive Doodles dedicated to men. The longest consecutive streak for women-specific Doodles is 3 in a row. I mean, you managed to make a Doodle for a dog last year (yes, I counted him in the male numbers), and while I have nothing against Hachikō, I do think that before you start paying homage to canines you should try just a teensy bit harder when it comes to female human beings.

Come on, Google. Is it that hard to think of women to honor? There are thousands of writers, activists, musicians, chemists, painters, anthropologists, and more. How about singer Nina Simone on February 22nd? Or Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral on April 7th? Anne Frank's birthday is June 12th. Certainly you have enough time to plan for Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low's birthday on October 31st, or author Madeleine L'Engle's birthday on November 29th. Why not dedicate a month or two in 2014 to women-inspired Doodles?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

How Do You End a Poem?

One of my 4th grade students asked this question. I told him it was a great question with lots of possible answers. I posed to question to my friends on Facebook. Here are some of their responses. More here.

“With a whimper, not a bang.” -Shawnte Orion

“With some concrete truth that ties together any imagery in your poem.” -Catherine Conley

“You don’t.” -Charles Kruger

“Without a bow.” -Kelly Cressio-Moeller

“I don't know if I have a concrete response. It's sort of like asking, How do you know that it’s love?... I don't think I've ever thought, oh it’s time to end this poem. I just know that it is. The ending usually presents itself…and I just know…” -Janette Schafer

“When it feels like you have nothing more left to say.” -Nandini Dhar

“With a line that leaves the reader with a sense of wonder, emotion, or satisfaction.” -Donna Vorreyer

“By beginning the next one.” -Adam Atkinson

“In my experience, the best ending in my poetry is the line before the last line.” -Ronnie K. Stephens

“With a good strong word. One syllable if possible. On a strong stress.” -Jennifer Swanton

“…let the last line leave an impression in the reader's mind. A strong image or emotion.” -Rie Sheridan Rose

“Write past the last line. Then go back and find the real last line later.” -Martha Pauline

“Close the door or leave it a tad bit open! One of those. Never leave it all the way open.” -Teresa Petro

Friday, October 25, 2013

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Lisa Mangini

poet, Lisa Mangini
Lisa Mangini holds an MFA from Southern Connecticut State University, where she also teaches. She is the Founding Editor of Paper Nautilus, and the winner of the 2011 Connecticut Poetry Prize.  Her poetry collection, Bird Watching at the End of the World, is forthcoming from Cherry Grove in October 2014.

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

Lisa Mangini: Daydreaming is essential to my writing, and I think, for me, that’s where all writing really begins. I’m a veteran of long commutes and spend a lot of time in the car, so just about all of my first kernels and leads for ideas are generated from that particular kind of mind wandering that occurs while driving a familiar route. And I have to sit and stew on ideas for a while – sometimes a few days, sometimes a month – before I even begin drafting them out. That thinking-it-over period gives me the opportunity to figure out how to turn a fleeting idea into something more substantial.

LD: What writing implement do you wield? 

LM: Handwritten with a pen is my first choice, preferably with a legal pad, since those spiral-bound books are less comfortable for writing left-handed. This process is tedious, especially for prose, but I find using a computer too distracting: the temptation of the internet, and all the red and green squiggles under words, backspacing and re-writing until I walk away with two lines after a few hours. Longhand helps shut out that inner-critic so I can actually get something done.

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

LM: While writing is always work (research to make some details more authentic, digging up emotional baggage,  picking apart that flat ending until it works), I try to treat the act itself as an indulgence. Life post-MFA means I have no consequences if I’m not producing new work, and with teaching, running a small press, and a day job, I don’t have as much time to spend on my own writing anymore. Carving out an hour or two a week to write now falls in the same category as a long bath or watching bad TV; it becomes the thing I do to reward myself for getting through all those other things that needed to be done.

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

LM: In a way, yes, I do. I don’t believe in waiting for some “muse” to appear either, but I do think it’s easy to get burned out when there’s this expectation that one must be inspired all the time. There have been times that I wanted to write, set aside time to write, and found I really didn't have anything to say. Like I mentioned, all writing is work, but I don’t ever want to cross into that territory where it becomes a chore. If I’m truly tapped out, I spend that time reading instead, which eventually opens me up to new ideas or triggers something. If it takes longer than a few weeks to generate anything, it usually means that the block is me, getting in my own way with anxieties or fear about the anticipated quality of the new work – in which case I freewrite really badly until it passes.

LD: Beverage of choice? 

LM: Iced coffee, milk, no sugar. Sometimes with vodka.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Writer Michelle Auerbach

writer, Michelle Auerbach
Michelle Auerbach is the author of The Third Kind of Horse (2013 Beatdom Books). Her writing has appeared in (among other places) The New York Times, The Guardian, The Denver Quarterly, Chelsea Magazine, Bombay Gin, and the literary anthologies The Veil (UC Berkley Press), Uncontained Baksun Books, and You: An Anthology of Essays in the Second Person (Welcome Table Press). She is the winner of the 2011 Northern Colorado Fiction Prize. She is an editor at Instance Press and can be found online here.

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

Michelle Auerbach: Recently, like almost two years ago, I was falling in love. I’m not a teenager, in fact I am the parent of three teenagers, but like anything else related to the birds and the bees, I became a texting addict. I was sitting down at my desk in my study, because I had the idea to write a poem about Midas for a series I was working on with characters drawn from mythology - I could relate to them because they were experiencing what I was, just a while ago. So, I was at my desk, with my phone next to me waiting to hear from him. I was fiddling with lines, putting in the ones I liked and trying to build on them. And then he texted. And his text was perfect for the line I needed so I added it in. I kept going, texting and writing and texting and writing and I found that what he was sending me was exactly what I needed to add into the poem. I am used to working off lines from books, overheard conversations, or from art that moves me, but never from texts or IM’s. The poem ended up to be one of my favorites, partly because I married the guy, but partly because Midas and his texts and my needs all came together to make something that really, really was how I felt. It was not emotion recollected in tranquility, but texting recollected in poetry.

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

MA: I never finish anything. I want to edit things that are already in print. I want to edit my novel, which has been out for almost six months. I open the book and start reading aloud and I want to change it, like, "Oh, this would be much better if . . ." I heard that some painter had to be dragged out of a museum before he altered one of his paintings that the museum owned. That’s me. If I don’t send this in soon, I will edit it a tenth time.

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

MA: I have been writing since Fourth Grade. I started keeping a journal and I wrote a book of poetry for my teacher called “A Smile Spreads A Mile With Poetry.” I kept writing every single day until I was 42. Then my ex-boyfriend, who was also a writer and should have known better, read my journal. I stopped. The violation was so extreme that I now have journaling PTSD. It took me three years to read the journal he had read, and to come to terms with what he had done. But those three years trained me to do something else, not journal. I think the daily practice was so good for me, so cathartic, so useful in learning to develop voice and pacing, and for figuring out how to get emotion on the page, and for learning to write in character, me or not me, that I would call it the world’s greatest apprenticeship.

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

MA: I do not believe in writer’s block. I believe in the insidiousness of fear and the angry reds and the mean blues when you doubt the veracity or importance of what you have to say. Or at least I do. But, my college professor, who was my hero, made me read Hemmingway’s journalism and instilled in me a belief that writing was a job, that you do every day, not just when inspired, and that some or all of it could be crap and life would go on. Try again the next day. It really helps when the self-critical voices start up to know I have to do it anyway.

LD: What writing implement do you wield?

MA: I am a stationary and pen freak. I am obsessed with what everyone uses to write. I am obsessed even with various computer programs. A lawyer friend told me about a program she uses to plot out cases – it tracks the characters and the lines of argument and I was sure I could use it to plot a novel. I love fountain pens and Clairfontaine notebooks that I buy in Paris. That sounds really snobby, but it is true. If you go to France, please bring me a cheap drugstore fountain pen and any kind of Clairfontaine notebook. You can get them in Monoprix, if you are looking. I learned this when I took a workshop with Natalie Goldberg in the 90s and she said to find a pen and paper that moved fast. That was my vroom vroom combo.