This is a modified version of The Habitual Poet, a contributor interview series that appeared weekly from July 19, 2009 – June 3, 2011. It will resume with a new set of questions, some of which are included below, in Poemeleon’s upcoming Epistolary Issue.
What is the hardest thing that you’ve found about becoming a writer? How do you overcome it?
What does it mean to “become” a writer? Becoming a writer is a such a long and fluid process. If I write, then I must be a writer, and if that’s true, then I’ve been a writer as far back as I can remember. I don’t know that there’s anything hard about becoming a writer. What’s hard is keeping it up despite other time commitments and family obligations, and the general misunderstanding of what it is that writers do. It’s not the romantic “room of one’s own” idealized version of being a writer. It might be for some, but not for me. One of the hardest things about being a writer — for me — has been explaining to non-writers what it is I do with my time. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t write how it is that I can spend an entire day rearranging a handful of words. I think it’s easier to explain if one is a journalist, or a novelist, or an essayist — anything involving clear prose — but poetry is marginalized, and far more mysterious and troubling to the general reader.
What are some of your obsessions, quirks, and weird-isms?
I don’t eat meat, but I’m not a vegan — I love love love eggs and cheese and butter; couldn’t live without them, I’m afraid. Also, I love to cook but am not very good at it. My specialty is quiche. (See above.) Anyone who has ever eaten a meal that I’ve prepared has eaten my quiche. Besides the lacto-ovo vegetarian thing, I suppose I should also point out that I am great at starting projects but not so great at finishing them. For example, half of my kitchen cabinetry is painted black and has been for the last two years. This was not intentional.
What other artistic element can you mix with your poetry, or what other genre have you studied and how does it affect your writing?
I went through a period where instead of writing I painted. The best of those paintings (which is not saying very much — they’re mediocre at best, but at least they’re mine) are scattered throughout my house, along with original works by other friends and family. I don’t like canned art. Also, I used to sing when I was young — the all-district choir when I was in 6th grade, mixed chorus in 7th and 8th, Show Choir/Madrigals/Musical Theater through high school and a little beyond. (I was one of the King’s many wives in Norfolk Musical Theater’s production of The King and I, many many moons ago now….) I don’t sing well anymore. I do think that music and writing, art and writing, have much in common; over the years I have incorporated both art and music into my work.
What do you sing about?
I sing about sweet potatoes and poop and sunshine; I sing about the red light not changing; I sing about homework not getting done. And I sing along with my favorite songs while I’m driving, or while I’m cleaning the house when no one else is home. I also can get songs stuck in my head easily and end up singing them for days.
What type of music do you listen to while you think?
It depends. The Decemberists and Laura Marling are recent discoveries and easy on the ears while doing busywork like updating websites, or jazz and blues, especially Dixieland blues or blues guitarists — Stevie Ray Vaughn sometimes, or Django Reinhardt; but if I am working on an intense project, I can’t think and listen to music. Maybe I prefer the music of the trees? The windchimes plinking against each other in the wind? The hum of a distant leafblower? The ebb and flow of traffic? The music of a quiet house.
Would you consider yourself an introvert or extrovert or an optimist or pessimist and why do you think you became one or the other?
I am an extroverted introvert; an optimistic pessimist. Generally, I prefer my own company over the company of strangers, unless they happen to be interesting strangers, and I avoid public interaction unless I am the one orchestrating it. At parties I am an observer and I prefer to watch (and listen in on) everyone rather than participate in the small talk. And I am generally more optimistic under most circumstances than I probably should be, but not because I can’t see the downside to any given situation but because I prefer to look the other way; negativity is such a downer.
What is your least favorite form to write poems in?
Free verse. I like imposing some constraint. Free verse is hard. It’s making your own rules. I prefer to be handed the guidebook and told, “Go!” Then, if I choose to break the rules, it doesn’t feel quite so arbitrary. And at least I have a generally sense of where I’m going.
Do you find most of your poems to be written from personal experience, fantasy, fiction, or because of last night’s spaghetti?
All of the above.
Has anyone ever accused you of writing about them, and if so, what did you do about it?
Well, not exactly. And I have written about people in my life. My book Seven Floors Up has poems about my mom, my stepmom, my children, my husband, my husband’s deceased brother — but while those poems were inspired by actual people&events they are not factual depictions, and in many cases take extreme liberties. There was one poem in the book, however, that some family members took to be an allegation of abuse by another family member; that couldn’t have been farther from the truth. I am sure other people have seen themselves in my poems, but never in any obvious way, and it is always open to interpretation. With my chapbook length collections, though, because they occupy pretty surreal territory, I don’t believe there is any danger in anyone seeing a version of themselves in any of those poems.
Has your creativity ever followed you into your dreams, and where did it take you?
I think dreams are very poetic, and poems themselves are very dreamlike. They go wherever they need to go.
What type of book are you currently writing, either in life or in your head?
In addition to tweaking my second full-length manuscript, which has been making the rounds for a couple of years now, I have been writing new poems in which whales sporadically appear, which is a mystery, because I don’t have any particular affinity for whales. I also have a manuscript about the untimely death of my brother-in-law at the age of 39 that I have stuck in a metaphorical drawer for a few years but that I am now dusting off and attempting to finish. And for something completely different, I have been gathering material to write a hybrid memoir/biography of my grandfather&great-grandfather, who both played a prominent role in the California Pottery movement of the 1930s and 40s. I have even created a website to help me with the gathering process&sort my thoughts. It’s still in the beginning stages.
If your writing were to have a back-story, can you tell it in three sentences?
You could teach a lecture on: _______
How to make an amazing quiche. (See above.)
What mistakes or miss steps have you made or do you find other poets often make as they embark on their writerly wanderings?
When it comes to cover letters and email exchanges with editors, less is more. Be concise, and be truthful. Also, don’t be afraid to let the writing take you where it wants it to go. Sometimes it’s a strange dark place but allowing yourself that latitude often proves fruitful.
What are some things that you have discovered about yourself as you write?
That I like to write about fruit more than I like to eat it. And that I am a very strange person.
What are your biggest fears as a writer, and what have you done to address said fears?
That we would somehow be thrown back into the dark ages (Y2K anyone?) and that I would no longer be able to type my poems. I have terrible penmanship. And no, I have not done anything to improve said penmanship. I am banking on technology moving forward, not backward.
What do you believe has been most helpful to your career as a writer?
Alone time. And a decent laptop.
Complete quiet, background noise, or blaring headphones?
Quiet is best. But quiet is relative.
When you are not writing and do not want to think of writing, what can you be caught doing?
Well, the second half of that negates reading and watching movies, both of which usually make me want to go write, or at least think about writing; so, maybe cooking, or eating, and/or hanging with family and friends.
What is the first line in your most effective query letter?
Which craft book do you commonly refer to?
Right now, it’s Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing, which I am using as source material for a writing workshop I am teaching. Other than that, it depends on what I’m working on.
What do you think makes a good poem? What makes a memorable one?
1.) A poem that makes my heart hurt. 2.) A poem that makes my head hurt.
Do you regularly attend readings of poetry? Do you annotate the books you’ve read, or journal the things you learn?
Yes, but not as often as I’d like, because I have to work around my family’s schedule, and family always comes first. Yes, I do like to write in the margins of books, but often can’t decipher what I’ve scribbled down. And, no, I don’t journal, but I should.
Do you eat or drink anything that you feel feeds your muse or illuminates your inner genius?
I have been known to. Yes. Does coffee count? Wine? Carbohydrates? Chocolate? More often than not, eating is my way of procrastinating, but I do really like to have a cup of tea to sip on while I work — something fruity, like Tazo Wild Sweet Orange.
What would you like your readers to take from the poetry you write? Do you feel you have been successful thus far?
I think readers give as much as they take, and I think the result is impossible for anyone to gauge. Whatever the case may be, I hope that my poetry makes people think, and that it makes them feel something. I think that is the best that can be hoped for, and is so much easier said than done.