Thanks to Sandy Longhorn for including me in this tour and being willing to host me on here. Since this is her blog, I won’t speak in introduction of her or her accomplishments, and since I’ve known her so long, I’m at a loss because there’re so many things to say. So I will say what she might not even realize: that she is an earnest woman, concerned with not only place but justice, and that is something that comes through not only her poems but her self. Such a genuine heart is a rarity, and it is at the core of her words.
What am I working on?
Lately I’ve been trying to promote my first book, a chapbook, Fear Nothing of the Future or the Past. To keep overhead low, pre-order sales determine the press run, and I’ve been trying not to worry about that. I’m also beginning to plan readings for the book. My idea is to reach out to small libraries in Arkansas this summer. I was awarded an Arkansas Arts Council fellowship years back and that is how I thought I might give back to the state.
There are other manuscripts, too, full-length collections. One is making the rounds and seems well received but not enough to be selected for publication. One has developed from the chapbook, with those poems as its core. Another is called Walking Liberty, which explores issues of freedom for the American woman. And another seems to be forming from poems related to apples and roses. The pieces come as they may and I sort them when I can.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
When I was studying creative writing in school, a professor told me, you know, successful poets aren’t nice people. With the possible exception of Bishop. Bless him, half the time he didn’t even call me by the right name, but what he said stuck so well that my first thought when I saw this question was still this: the way that I differ from other poets is that I’m not as good as other poets. I might be nice, but I’ll never make it.
At first, his comment led to efforts to make my work match others. To push myself to Do What I’m Supposed to Do. I struggled with that for a long time. And then I said forget that, I’ll write how and what I want. Through this liberation, I have written pieces that are mine. But I still have phases when I struggle.
Why do I write what I do?
My father started his education at a community college. His first class was in composition, and he had to analyze the poetry of Robert Frost. My father had grown up in Brooklyn, a first-generation American, and poetry wasn’t part of his world. He had gone to a technical high school so he was well educated in math and science, but not in reading or writing. He was being trained for a technical job, so literature wasn’t thought as being important for his well being. He had lost his mom to cancer and then was lost himself, bouncing around, ending up in the Midwest working in a cannery. That wasn’t the future he wanted, and he knew college was the key to something different. But there he was and poetry was alien to him.
He only got a C in the class, he would tell you, but he swore that if you could understand poetry, you could understand anything. No text intimidated him after that. He took his newfound powers of analysis and continued his education, eventually earning a Ph.D. in educational philosophy. His students’ lives were better because of that one class, and so was mine.
But more important than the tangible success of his education is what I also mentioned: that after his mother’s death, he was lost. Poetry was the way he found solace, freedom, hope, even in the face of his grief. Through poetry he realized he wasn’t alone, and that such communion is timeless and even beautiful. He never articulated this to me in these exact words, but I realized them through him in time.
He wrote in the margins of his books, and as soon as I could hold a pencil, he let me draw, then write in the margins of his notebooks. He loved nature and science, art and philosophy. Nothing was out of our reach, nor why should we assume that it should be? Such exploration, such harmony, such basis on tradition and then reaction and movement out and back is natural to me.
These are things I have come to understand as he suffers now with Alzheimer’s. I write what I do because of him. And I work to honor him and my mother who loves him, and to offer hope, even in the face of this horror.
How does my writing process work?
It doesn’t work the way that I wish it could. I would like to be able to concentrate. I wonder, if I could, what could I do? But it isn’t in the cards right now. Working at a community college, teaching a composition-heavy load, takes time and energy. Helping parent four children does as well. These aren’t complaints but matters of fact, and I am thankful to be a teacher and a mother. So my writing process has become the last hour in the day, and not all days, when I read a few poems in whatever book has come through interlibrary loan. Sometimes I mull over a phrase or image that caught in my head earlier in the day, maybe during my commute. Then I see what follows. I use the Notes tool on my iPhone because that way as I’m falling asleep I can still work and not feel like I’m working. Then, on mornings on the weekends if I’m lucky, or after I come home from a day at work if I’m very lucky, I have an hour when my head and the house are quiet enough that I can take the Notes to the computer and formalize them into a poem. These are poems I never thought to write.
This isn’t my ideal process, but it seems to be working for now. And now is all we have.
The next writer on the tour will be Christina Stoddard, whose webpage is http://www.christinastoddard.com. Her manuscript Hive won the Brittingham Prize from the University of Wisconsin Press and will be published soon. Christina reached out to me about a year ago to take part in The Next Big Thing Interview Series, and reaching out to her now seems like a great way to catch up and see where we’ve been and gone in the past year. Please look for her responses next week.