You’ve spent the past hour folding laundry and rearranging the condiment shelf in the refrigerator. From the way you’re procrastinating, I’m guessing you feel a bit intimidated by this whole self-interview thing.
Care to elaborate?
This isn’t going to be easy. Why don’t you at least plug your chapbook?
Sorry, but I’ve got to pass on that one. What I will say is this: I’ve recently completed a full-length manuscript and I plan to sell it for 99 cents on Amazon within a couple of months. If you’re at all interested in reading more of my work, wait a bit.
Amazon! [horrified gasp, quickly suppressed]
To quote my second favorite TV detective (after Columbo): “Here’s what happened.” A few years back I was lucky enough to receive an acceptance from Finishing Line Press, which happened to be the first place to which I submitted that chapbook. Over the past four or five months I’ve submitted Trace Elements to about a half-dozen contests and I’m already out a couple hundred bucks. The manuscript has semi-finaled a couple of times and I’ve gotten some really encouraging notes, but the truth is I can’t afford these contest fees because my daughter needs braces. With people’s careers on the line and the options for new poets severely limited, the competition is unbelievable. One night I reached a low point—I was listening to Ray LaMontagne—and I decided I was going to stop writing poetry entirely. But I didn’t stop, as it turned out. In fact, I wrote a poem about thinking about giving up poetry.
At around the same time I self-published a pulpy e-story under a pen name. As of this moment—hold on while I check my stats—I’ve sold 749 copies since December 1. It would be nice to at least entertain the concept of making a small amount of money, not losing it, with my poetry.
So it’s a money thing?
Not really. I think poetry contests are a great way to publish some spectacular work. But if you look at the history of poetry, you’ll see that many poets did not – could not –publish through conventional channels. Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass and even wrote his own rather effusive review. Dickinson – goddess that she was–never bothered with publishing. This is true outside of the genre as well. Sherwood Anderson helped Faulkner publish his first novel on the condition that he wouldn’t have to read it. Sylvia Beach published her ex-pat friends via Shakespeare & Co. If these writers waited around to win a contest, none of them would be published.
Publishing should always be secondary to the work itself. But if you do want your work out there, then get it out there however you can. There are poets twittering random lines every day. I love that. For a long time I resisted that sort of thing – I’m still one of about five people on the Eastern seaboard without a Facebook account –but recently I’ve begun to see the possibilities. Over the past two years I’ve worked as a mentor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, which pairs American writers with women living in Afghanistan. After their work goes through multiple revisions, it’s posted under their pen names on the project’s blog. It’s an empowering experience for the women to feel they have a voice. I think that the same idea holds true for many people. Instead of allowing publishers to drive things, writers can exert creative control over their own work. So there’s much more involved than just making money. There is a possibility now of finding an audience for innovative work that would normally languish in a shoebox in the back of someone’s closet.
Wait just one minute. Isn’t there innovative work already being published by legitimate publishers?
Yes, absolutely. And by many excellent web zines and magazines. I didn’t mean to sound so high-falutin.
I live in the boonies. Deal with it.
Do you think you’re being ludicrously naïve?
Will you tell us your pen name?
Not a chance.
[Exasperated sigh] All right then. Which writers influenced you most?
Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Pablo Neruda, Rainer Maria Rilke, Anna Akhmatova, T.S. Eliot, Edith Sodergran, Percy Shelley, John Keats, Tomas Transtromer, H.D., Simon & Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen, Joni Mitchell, Dylan Thomas, Bob Dylan—all the big dogs and many others as well.
What did you say your training in poetry was again?
I’ve never studied under any poet. To be honest I don’t even know one, if you don’t count my 11-year-old daughter and my ex-husband who studied under Charles Simic. In college I had a creative writing class and we wrote poems for a few weeks. Later I took a couple of fiction-writing courses. And I used to pick up bits and pieces from what I heard about Simic’s seminars. But I’ve always read poetry and I’ve been writing it for a long time. Sometimes I get into phases where I publish it, sometimes I don’t bother. I don’t ever want it to feel like work for me. It’s got to be something wholly separate from necessity or I can’t write at all.
Okay, we’ve got to wrap this up. Care to say anything about this forthcoming vanity-esque manuscript?
Thought you’d never ask. It’s called Trace Elements and the title is taken from a poem by that name which describes the Nashua River running colors. When I was kid, my grandmother would tell me how it would run red or blue or whatever because of the dyes the paper factories were dumping into the river. There’s an unlikely beauty in that image, but something ominous as well. At one point the pollution got so bad that the Nashua actually caught fire, and when I was growing up it was the worst shade imaginable and it smelled awful. Eventually it was designated as one of the most polluted rivers in the country–the chief form of life in it was sewage worms! It has since been cleaned up and now “runs clean.” In the manuscript I try to look at the traces of past interwoven with the present—and in doing so I make a clumsy attempt to capture the patterns of light and shadow cast by those
Any parting words?
Thanks for reading. And thanks to the editors of The Nervous Breakdown for featuring me.