Writeliving Interview – Antonya Nelson

Photo Antonya Nelson with dog

My first introduction to Antonya Nelson was in The New Yorker, and later as a friend raved about her as a teacher at Warren Wilson. I’m thrilled that she was able to share insights into her writing process with us.

- Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

I have always been a very voracious reader, and the books that I loved as a young person certainly have played a role in my writing life. I loved, then and now, the clever syntax of Beatrix Potter and the gentle humor of Winnie the Pooh. As a teenager, I was drawn to works that provided me access to adventures I couldn’t quite pull off in my real life — Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Catcher in the Rye, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s hard for me to separate my writing life from my reading life, to be honest; I spend much more time reading than writing, always have, and continue to be fed, both in life and in writing, by the works of many, many very fine writers.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

My “process,” inasmuch as I have one, is not one I’d recommend to others. I am not somebody who writes every day (at least not fiction) and who has to be patient with allowing material to slowly accrue in me. It builds up (like a clogged drain) until I can’t not write. So the sink overflows. Or whatever. And then I have to work until I’m finished with the story. And then wait for the build-up again.

How has teaching impacted your writing?

Teaching has been a huge gift, as far as I’m concerned. It’s forced me to focus on the making of the stories I love, to read and re-read with an eye on design and manipulation and sheer artistry. Seeing how the masters do what they do has given me the best kind of guidance about my own (and my students’) work.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice?

I’m a little suspicious of this “voice” notion, as I think it implies that writers have some unique way of saying what they say. Which isn’t true, in my experience. Rather, I think writers have a set of obsessions, a unique way of thinking, and a variable degree of discipline. Honing those things — and others — allows the work to prosper.

How does being a short story writer and novelist influenced your work in the other genre?

I would far rather write short stories than novels. And the one thing about me that I know for a fact is that any time I’ve written a novel it was because the material wouldn’t conform to the limits of the short story. When I say “limits” I mean only that the story I was telling wouldn’t feel finished in fewer than some 200 pages. The reader — and the writer — needed to spend a longer amount of time with the characters and their situations before the thing would be finished.

Many of your stories cover the dynamics of the modern family. How is this theme important to you?

There’s my central obsession, in a nutshell: family life. And the many ways that an unconventional understanding of it fascinates me. Mostly I like to take some conventional wisdom and overturn it, explore the ways in which tedious platitudes — “beauty is only skin deep” for instance — might be something to interrogate. I am bratty, at heart, and my brattiness began when I was a child in a large family. I’m still worrying my way inside and out of that character trait.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

A lot of my stories have scared me by vaguely predicting something happened later in my life. That’s not exactly what you’re asking about, but it’s the first thing that occurred to me. To write truthfully — honestly, scarily — is to know things that might not be altogether happy or wholesome.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

Hmmm. Well, let’s say I’m at a party full of extremely famous folks, of whom I am in awe, and I would love to be able to engage in some lively conversation, but odds are, I’m either in the kitchen with the caterers or upstairs with the banished children, because, in fact, those people in the end are far more likely to be funny and sweet and interesting to me. I’ll leave the famous writers alone, read and admire their work, and hang out with pets and kids and the help, whose irreverence is refreshing. But I think anybody who knows me already knows that?

About the Author:

Antonya Nelson is the author of four novels, including Bound (Bloomsbury, 2010) and seven short story collections, including Funny Once (Bloomsbury, 2014). Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, Redbook and many other magazines, as well as in anthologies such as Prize Stories: the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. She is the recipient of a USA Artists Award in 2009, the 2003 Rea Award for Short Fiction, as well as NEA and Guggenheim Fellowships, and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program, as well as in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. She lives in Telluride, Colorado, Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Houston, Texas.

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Internet Literary News, Creep Edition

Kirk Nesset Site

I am pausing my normal activity of looking through literary news of the previous month to focus on a topic that has multiple Facebook threads buzzing. Several male writers have been accused of being creeps and criminals. Each topic below has saddened and sickened me, but I think these stories are worth reading and that the literary community show discuss how we may be empowering horrific behavior.

- Martin Ott

College Writing Professor Accused of Downloading Child Porn

Kirk Nesset, author of multiple books and a writing professor at Allegheny College, was accused by the FBI of downloading child pornography. In response, Nesset has resigned over the charges and you can check out some of the social media responses captured in an article by Michelle Dean on Gawker.

Alt Lit Icon Accused of Abuse and Statutory Rape

Novelist Tao Lin, has been accused of statutory rape and emotional abuse by his ex-partner E.R. Kennedy on Twitter. These tweets were collected on Tumblr and went viral. Lin responded to the allegations as having a “troubled relationship” on Facebook and in Emails to BuzzFeed News.

Alt Lit Editor Quits Public Writing Career After Rape Allegation

Writer Sophia Katz published an essay on Medium about alt-lit magazine editor she claims sexually abused her. Other women came forward to name the editor as Stephen Tully Dierks and give additional evidence that this wasn’t the first time he’d done something similar. Dierks responded by quitting his writing and editing career. The response on social media has been intense, including an open letter to the internet by Elizabeth Ellen where she defends Dierks. Other women writers have tried to put this incident in a broader perspective of how we turn a blind eye to physical assault by writers.

 

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Indie Bookstore Finder

 

Skylight

Whenever possible, I try to go to my local indie bookstore Skylight Books. No matter, where you are you may have more options than you think. Here’s an indie bookstore finder you may find useful.

You may also be able to use this link to set up or attend local readings.

Thanks, John F. Buckley, for bringing this to my attention.

- Martin Ott

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Internet Literary News, August 2014

Bugs in Medieval Manuscripts

In August, we climb into a time machine for a look at bugs in medieval manuscripts, a man punished for a novel set 900 years in the future, and how lessons from labor movements can help improve the lives of adjuncts and the future of universities. Please enjoy the journey.

- Martin Ott

Former Teacher of the Year Incarcerated for Writing a Novel Set 900 Years in the Future

In Dorchester County, Maryland,  a teacher was taken in for an “emergency medical evaluation,” suspended from his job, and barred from setting foot on another public school. The crime? The teacher wrote two ebooks under a pen name set 900 years in the future, where a school is attacked in a terrorist act. Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic compared the incident to a Soviet-style punishment from the Dept. of Insane and Dangerous Overreactions to Fictional Threats. The accused, Patrick McLaw, was awarded teacher of the year in part for helping one of his students self-publish an ebook. Perhaps publishing books on Amazon truly is evil. 

They Were Even Bugged in Medieval Times

Sarah J. Biggs, in the British Library Medieval Manuscript Blog, provides us with examples of bugs in various medieval texts often put in the margins of books for decorative reasons. Apparently, not very many texts provided illustrations of insects, and the ones that did often used them for humorous reasons.

The Business of Creative Writing

The next time someone asks me whether they should attend a creative writing program, I’ll send them this article from Nick Ripatrazone at The Millions, where he breaks down the responsibilities of teachers – and students – when attending MFA programs. The business of creative writing needs to stop being a dirty subject when far too many students are struggling with huge debts, unrealistic hopes, and false expectations.

The Adjunct Professor Crisis

The subject of adjuncts living in poverty won’t go away, in real life or in this blog, because of how American universities have chosen hiring administrators and building amenities over investing in faculty. Elizabeth Segran writes a compelling article in the Atlantic  about whether a budding labor movement can improve the lives of non-tenured faculty in universities.

The Woman Who Went to the Library and Read Every Book on the Shelf

My parents always encouraged me to read anything and everything. If you feel the same way, please meet Phyllis Rose, an avid fiction reader who decided to tackle an entire shelf of fiction (from LEQ to LES) in the New York Society Library. And what was the outcome? A book, of course. Rachel Cooke, in the Guardian, provides us with the story behind Phyllis Rose’s book The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading. Perhaps this will turn around the trend of people reading less books.

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Poetry Spotlight: Jamaal May

Jamaal May

When I first read the poem “There Are Birds Here” by Jamaal May, I acted like an unabashed fanboy and contacted him, asking if I could spotlight it on Writeliving.

I have read the poem now countless times and I still feel as strongly about it as I did the first time. It isn’t just that the subject matter has my heart as  a writer who grew up in Michigan.

What I love about this poem is not easy for me to break down. There is an alchemy here, a poet’s brew that intoxicates. Still, here goes:

  • Simplicity: there is a real skill in using common words to portray something universal and resonant. The poem shows us that this is possible to accomplish without making readers look up words in a dictionary.
  • Mystery: the poem spirals in and around important  issues of place, belonging and perception without being preachy.
  • Repetition: the mournful tone, like a song, carries a rhythm that circles back on itself and expands as it goes.

These elements make the poem masterful. However, what really sets this work apart is how artfully “they” is weaved into the narrative.

For me, this poem is as complex as Detroit. It makes me a better poet and it makes me yearn for Michigan. Thanks, Jamaal!

- Martin Ott

 

THERE ARE BIRDS HERE

for Detroit

 

There are birds here,

so many birds here

is what I was trying to say

when they said those birds were metaphors

for what is trapped

between fences

and buildings. No.

 

The birds are here

to root around for bread

the girl’s hands tear

and toss like confetti. No,

 

I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,

I said confetti, and no

not the confetti

a tank can make of a building.

I mean the confetti

a boy can’t stop smiling about,

and no his smile isn’t much

like a skeleton at all. And no

his neighborhood is not like a warzone.

 

I am trying to say

his neighborhood

is as tattered and feathered

as anything else,

as shadow pierced by sun

and light parted

by shadow-dance as anything else,

but they won’t stop saying

 

how lovely the ruins,

how ruined the lovely

children must be in your birdless city.

 

Previously published in Poetry

 

About the Author:

Jamaal May is the author of Hum (Alice James Books), which received the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award, Foreword Review’s Book of the Year Silver Medal, and an NAACP Image Award nomination. In 2014 Jamaal received over a dozen awards and honors including the Spirit of Detroit Award, a Pushcart Prize, and a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship in Italy. Poems appear widely in magazines and anthologies like NYTimes.comPoetryThe New Republic, PloughsharesPlease Excuse this Poem: 100 Poems for the Next Generation (Penguin), and Best American Poetry 2014 (Scribner). Jamaal is a Kenyon Review Fellow and co-directs Organic Weapon Arts with Tarfia Faizullah.

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Literary Blog Tour: My Writing Process by Martin Ott

Thanks to the multitalented Landon Godfrey for inviting me to participate in a blog tour to answer a few questions about my writing process. So Cal misses your many talents, Landon!

- Martin Ott

1) What are you working on?

I tend to work in multiple genres and I enjoy collaboration with other writers and artists.

 Solo Work

  • A coming of age novel about a returning vet
  • A short story collection based in LA
  • A poetry book that is forcing me to explore what matters in my life
  • Editing a young adult novel that hasn’t quite found its final form

Collaborations

  • Assisting a writer/director and agency in developing my novel The Interrogator’s Notebook into a TV pilot
  • Working on my third book with poet John F. Buckley on the subject of superheroes and super villains
  • Assisting a writer/director/producer in developing “Summer Snows” from my short story manuscript Thaw vs. Thor into a short film
  • Developing a TV pilot with my long-time screenwriting partner Keith Kowalczyk

2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

This is a difficult question as I work in multiple genres and my influences span beyond literature. Writers aren’t as unique as we’d like to think and each of us has a voice that we don’t probably give ourselves enough credit for.

Don’t dodge the question, Martin, an internal voice is now telling me. OK. Fair enough. Here goes:

  • My fiction projects tend to be lyrical and musky with a focus on placing the spotlight on difficult characters.
  • My poetry is influenced by my fiction and my lyrical sensibilities duke it out with a neurotic need for narrative. It’s a worthy battle and occasionally a good poem emerges from it.
  • My sense of humor comes out more often in my writing for screen and television, often to my own detriment.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Characters and their stories clamor for attention in my imagination. I have always been a daydreamer and inventor of tales, even to myself. The characters who yell the loudest and the longest get written. It’s a messy process, filled with conflict even at the point of inception.

 4) How does your writing process work?

Prioritization

For starters, part of my writing process involves being a bit of a crank and a recluse, and to not get distracted by the many things that tempt all of us humans. For me, that’s meant shelving a few things like cable TV and fantasy sports in order to write. I carve out time between family, friends, and a marketing career.

Inspiration

I’ve come to realize that inspiration is everywhere, including in my other creative work. I find ideas in day-to-day occurrences, the news, and the stories of the people in my life.

Determination

As a late bloomer, persistence is key. Also, I don’t know how to not write. For me, it isn’t a choice. I try to write a little every day. It adds up.

Who’s Next up on the Blog Tour?

Follow the blog tour on Twitter at #mywritingprocess . Next up is John F. Buckley, a friend who has become one of my favorite writers and a huge influence on my work.

A recent graduate of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan, John has been writing poetry since March 2009, when his attempt at writing a self-help book went somewhat awry. After a twenty-year stint on and near the West Coast, he now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife. His publications include 295 poems, two chapbooks, the collection Sky Sandwiches, and with Martin Ott, Poets’ Guide to America and the forthcoming Yankee Broadcast Network. His website is http://johnfrancisbuckley.wordpress.com.

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Internet Literary News, July 2014

Nadine Gordimer

In July, I found myself looking back at some literary masters, publishers looking at new ways to sell books, writers thriving on social media, and a few lessons, bad and good, in our ongoing efforts to live the writing life. Please enjoy.

- Martin Ott

The Loss of Nadine Gordimer

I was saddened to hear the news of the loss of one of my favorite writers Nadine Gordimer. In a year of saying goodbye to some of our best writers, this one hurts.

Issues of Re-Issues

Writers have a hard enough time finding readership — do we really have to worry about deceased literary heavyweights vying for a share of the marketplace? Last month, I highlighted new poems from Neruda. In July, Grove announced that it is issuing a lost story from Samuel Beckett. Scribner is also reissuing Hemingway’s classic novel The Sun Also Rises with a previously discarded first chapter. It seems as though publishers are starting to mimic movie studios in the way they mine old material to obtain a new audience.

Don’t Go Into Poetry for the Money, Honey

Kate Angus penned a great article at The Millions about how, even with the proliferation of MFA graduates and the hard work of small press and mainstream publishers, Americans seems to love poetry just not poetry books.

Writers Who Run the Literary Internet?

Flavorwire published a spotlight on 35 writers who run the literary internet. While it looks as though a few on the list purchased followers and  reach on Twitter, most of the writers highlighted here are worth following.

Let Amazon Run the Library System (It Runs Everything Else in Literature)

No Forbes isn’t the Onion, but it saw fit to publish Tim Worstall’s article “Close the Libraries and Buy Everyone an Amazon Kindle Unlimited Subscription. We all know the public library system is no engine of efficiency, but it provides more than just books to our communities (such as computer and internet access). Digitization is part of the future, obviously, but we need to find a way to support those of us who can’t afford the internet fast lane.

Odds and Ends

Here’s a few other links I found entertaining:

- The First Asian American Superhero: The Green Turtle

- What Writers Can Learn from Goodnight Moon

- Computer Engineering: a Fine Day Job for a Poet

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How to Be A Star on Wattpad

Dmitri Ragano photo

Guest Blog Post by Dmitri Ragano

Last spring, I discovered Wattpad by accident. I was having lunch with my boss who told me his 13-year-old daughter had fallen in love with a new online fiction site where she could submit stories and get feedback from users around the world.

Needless to say I was intrigued. I knew it was only a matter of time before creative writing and social media began to intersect in a big way. Now it was finally happening.

A couple weeks later, I submitted the first few chapters of my self-published novel The Fugitive Grandma on the site. Pretty quickly and to my surprise, Maria Cootauco, Wattpad’s Engagement Manager, stumbled across my story and offered to put in on their Featured Story list. This was an incredible, completely unexpected chance to highlight my work on a site with an audience of 30 million readers, a content destination that receives roughly 1,000 fiction uploads every day.

Wattpad’s agreement around Featured Story placement is pretty reasonable: they offer to give your work marquee placement for 6 months. The most important exposure comes when Featured Stories rotate on the landing page for site’s the tablet and smart phone apps, where 85 percent of the reading takes place. In exchange, you consent to make the story available for free during the period of the promotion.

As soon “The Fugitive Grandma” began its Featured Story run in July 2013, interest spiked and I received a deluge of fan comments and followers from a variety of locales including Kenya, Iowa and Brunei. To date, “The Fugitive Grandma” has been read by hundreds of thousands of people on Wattpad. It has also received over 7,000 votes and more than 600 fan comments, both key metrics in the world of online content where engagement is everything.

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My popularity on Wattpad includes no small amount of luck and serendipity. But I can offer a few suggestions for any author interested in finding an audience on the world’s largest social reading site.

Study the Wattpad Community

Wattpad’s audience is diverse and skews young. More than 75 percent of site visitors are outside the United States, showing the growing demand for English-language fiction in developing nations like India, The Philippines and Turkey.

Though I don’t have detailed stats, I can safely say most of Wattpad’s users are under 30-years-old. Many are under 20. Generations Y and Z are discovering their love for fiction at a time when software and smart phones are the dominant platforms for all media. Book stores (along with physical books) are a fading memory, if they ever were acquainted in the first place. This is an incredible opportunity to reach the global audience, fiction’s future, a readership without pre-conceived notions who can challenge you to experiment and think outside the box.

Will Your Story Connect with Them?

Consider whether your fiction is going to connect with Millennials and their younger cohorts born around the turn of the 21st century. And don’t have any delusions. This is a site full of user-generated fiction, mostly from adolescents. Yes, there are a lot of vampires, zombies and ill-conceived teen romances. No, Wattpad is not a paragon of literary excellence and it’s not going to be mistaken for The Paris Review anytime soon.

But from my experience, your work doesn’t have to be shallow, formulaic “YA” to win hearts and minds. On the contrary, young readers are as hungry as anyone for innovative stories with serious themes and compelling characters, which is one of the reasons YA has been such a dynamic niche in an otherwise flat market, carrying authors like John Greene and Suzanne Collins toward critical acclaim and cross-over acceptance.

If your writing fiction aimed at the over-25 crowd, that’s fine too. Just be aware older readers haven’t migrated en masse to Wattpad. I suspect they will continue to grow in number, just as they followed their kids to Facebook, Twitter and What’s App. I see an increasing number of fan comments for women over 60 who empathize with Stella Valentine, the shotgun-toting “ fugitive grandma” who is one of the main characters of my novel.

Write Your Story in Bite Size Chunks

As I mentioned before, 85 percent of Wattpad’s stories are read on smart phones and tablets. Cognitive researchers have documented that people read differently on electronic screens and mobile devices. The user interface and the context of these gadgets are better suited for narratives that can be easily consumed in small doses with quick payoffs and cliffhanger follow-ons. If you’re book is composed of larger chapters of five to ten thousand or more words, you probably need to break it down into smaller segments.

“Two thousands words is roughly 10 minutes of reading,” says Wattpad CEO Allen Lau. “The makes the story more digestible, something you can do when standing in line.”

Post Frequently

Publish serial chapters in a recurring pattern, typically once or twice a week with a shout-out to followers. Online readers are accustomed to a steady, continuous stream of content through blogs, feeds and apps. Fiction is no different. A serial strategy for sparking interest, building momentum and accumulating fans has been very effective for some of Wattpad’s most successful breakout authors. Anna Todd’s novel After was released over the course of a year through hundreds of episodes, each no more than a few thousand words. By the end of the series, she’d attracted millions of Wattpad readers and landed a major book and movie deal.

Respond to Fans

This may sound like common sense but it can’t be emphasized enough. Reciprocity is at the heart of social networks. And Wattpad is foremost a community.

Therefore, make an effort within the best of your ability to respond to anyone who takes the time to sample your work. You will need to find the right balance for you in terms of frequency and who gets a response. I have over 7,000 followers and there’s no way I can make the time to reach out and thank everyone one of them individually. But I have a system of following up every two weeks to reply to any readers who have left comments, feedback or praised my work. With a demanding day job and busy family life this is the best I can do.

Promote Purchases of Your Book, But Don’t Expect a Big Sales Impact

When you post a book on Wattpad you retain full rights and have plenty of options to promote your titles by cross-linking on Amazon and other retail channels.

My experience is that it doesn’t have much impact at all on sales via Amazon and other outlets. Many Wattpad readers are too young to purchase online or live in countries where it is difficult to obtain credit cards. Besides, it was the specific promise of free fiction that attracted most of them in the first place.

A handful of first-time authors have used Wattpad as a platform to land deals with the Big 5 publishers, but this typically goes hand in hand with a lot of traditional methods of seeking attention from the publishing world.

We all write for different reasons. For me it was important to share my work and see if it resonated with readers I never could’ve reached on my own. My fiction was experimental, combining themes and genres. It was unconventional enough that I felt I’d have to show evidence of reader interest before anyone in the publishing world would take me seriously.

If you are focused on the traditional goals of a professional author, such as sales or attracting the attention of agents and publisher, Wattpad is probably not going to be the single thing that makes your career. But it is a great tool to test out new story ideas, prove they have an audience, and find fans in exotic far-flung corners of the world.

About the Author:

Dmitri Ragano is an author and journalist. His latest novel, The Fugitive Grandma, is available on Wattpad and Amazon.

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Internet Literary News, June 2014

Pablo Neruda photo

In June, poets were in the news with freshly discovered work from a master, a new US Poet Laureate, the loss of an influential voice, and insights into Anne Sexton’s Pulitzer Prize selection. All this, plus more from Hachette v. Amazon.

- Martin Ott

Newruda

Do you sometimes wonder what the world would be like if one of your favorite writers published new work? Seix Barral, Pablo Neruda’s longtime publisher, announced that 20 Neruda poems have been discovered in his archives and will be published in late 2014 / early 2015.

Pulitzer Prize Poetry Politics

Interested in how Anne Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize? In the Poetry Foundation blog, David Trinidad gives us insights into the world of Pulitzer Prize judging  by digging into the Chronicles of the Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry and revealing how judges’ arguments over books by Plath and Roethke provided the backdrop for Sexton’s selection.

New US Poet Laureate Will Do…?

I’ve always thought it was cool that our country had a post for a poet, but I’ve always wondered what it practically means for the art, craft, and popularity of what is, in actuality, a niche market filled with more writers per reader than any other genre. Best of luck to our new US Poet Laureate Charles Wright, who was quoted as saying upon selection: “I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do…but as soon as I find out, I’ll do it.”

Alan Grossman RIP

The poetry world was saddened by the loss of influential poet and scholar Alan Grossman. Winner of countless awards, Grossman was known for a serious style that bridged Romantic and Modernist traditions.

Amazon Looking to Bury the Hachette?

Yes, it’s all about money. As Amazon and one of the big publishing houses Hachette dig in for a fight over pricing and revenue, Evan Hughes at Slate provides insights into a lost opportunity by publishers to thwart the latest Amazon power grab. Chuck Wendig also provides an even handed and humorous look at these two “stompy  corporation” on his blog that I highly recommend.

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Writeliving Interview: Stephen Dobyns

Photo Stephen Dobyns

I was in graduate school when I picked up a copy of Velocities, a volume of new and selected poems by Stephen Dobyns. I remember being struck by two things that resonated (and still resonate with me): that it is possible to write narrative poetry with imagination and a humane voice, and the way writing without stanzas can help the reader focus on content over form. Our best authors always make us look at how and why we write. I hope you enjoy insights into the writing process of this important poet and novelist.

- Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

I can’t pinpoint one person. When I started reading poetry late in high school, it was Stevens, William Carlos Williams and Eliot’s “Prufrock”. In graduate school, it was Alan Dugan, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. But soon afterward (1967), I found my biggest influence from poems in translation–Neruda, Vallejo, Zbigniew Herbert, Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lorca, Alberti, Transtromer, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Hikmet, Pavese, Ritsos and many others. Later still I went back to sonnets: Shakespeare, Keats, Bill Knott and others. Besides liking the poets, I’d look for poets who would foil my attempts to anticipate what might come next, because at those places within the poem I would find what I wanted to learn. It was also important to me to find poets who were engaged in a conversation with the world and not simply with themselves. Also, the work of most European poets was informed by a sense of history, which I mostly found missing in U.S. poetry. Most recently I’ve found that surprise and sense of history in the Polish poet Tomasz Rozycki. I also read many contemporary U.S. poets, but we share a historical context, which may distort the poem for me, making me often see as strong what might be weak, and see as weak what might be strong.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I wait for metaphors which will help me approach non-discursively what is otherwise approached discursively. These metaphors may start with the self and then try to move out into the world, until at make my presence hardly a shadow. The form of the poem, the noise, the manner of its telling also combines into a non-discursive metaphor that compliments or heightens the substance of the poem’s telling. Any poet always has a series of concerns which he or she consciously or unconsciously wants to express, so the hunt for the right metaphor, the right telling, always seems to be going on just before the level of conscious thought. Most simply, I can often set this process in motion by reading other poems, especially image driven poems–Yannis Ritsos, for instance. I don’t necessarily take from these other poems, but my brain, in reading, becomes softened or opened to non-discursive thought.  So my waiting is an informed waiting, even if on most occasions nothing happens.

How has teaching impacted your writing?

At best, it has made me study subjects I want to learn more about.  If I don’t read a lot of sonnets and a lot about sonnets when preparing for a class on the sonnet, I’ll humiliate myself.  Terror has great pedogogical value. And I’ve been enriched by colleagues and students. But the academic atmosphere can be stultifying. Academics are often tidiers of information; poets–in their search for the right metaphor–can be disrupters of information. This is not a natural fit. There are many academics I’ve greatly admired and have been close to, but for the most part one is sleeping with the enemy. The institutions can be very comfortable and within them poets can become complacent. And deep in their hearts of hearts, etc., the academics have little respect for what you do.

As an author of a popular series of mystery novels, what seat at the table do you think genre fiction deserves in the larger discussion about literature?

A very small seat, maybe a stool. Most genre fiction offers a physical solution to an existential problem: the bad guy is shot. This trivializes the existential problem. Some genre writers, like John Le Carre, can push the boundaries of the genre and tart up the physical solution with brilliant writing and psychological/intellectual depth, but reader still wants the physical solution: the bad guy is terminally dealt with. In Crime and Punishment, Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished student, murders a pawnbroker for her money.  A detective, Porfiry, suspects Raskolnikov and gathers information against him. Perhaps Porfiry could kill Raskolnikov in a carriage chase.  Justice would triumph, but the existential problem would be forgotten.  We even might be somewhat satisfied. But Dostoevsky wants a novel about redemption, not punishment, and so the novel follows Raskolnikov to Siberia where he serves eight years of penal servitude. Here, with the help of Sonya, a former prostitute who becomes his wife, he at last discovers moral regeneration and is redeemed. Whether one likes it or not, Dostoevsky’s investigation of an existential problem is complete. It hasn’t been truncated two hundred pages earlier with a bullet to Raskolnikov’s brain; it moves past a purely physical solution. My explanation is simplistic, but because the best genre writing may explore an existential problem with great subtlety and the book may be written with great skill, those virtues at least earn the genre writer a small stool at the end of the table, almost in the hall.

What is the best advice you can give to a writer finding her/his voice?

Stop thinking about the question and just write. Your voice will evolve our of your subjectivity, which, after all, is unique.

How does being a poet and novelist influenced your work in the other genre?

The poems gain in narrative and the novels gain in image, but they are quite separate in my mind. In addition, the books of poems are quite different from one another, as are the novels, apart from the Saratoga series. I try to avoid self-parody.

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Just being alive is adversity enough. I write to save my life.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

I wouldn’t know where to begin.

About the Author:

Stephen Dobyns’ most recent book is a novel, The Burn Palace, published by Blue Rider/Penguin in February 2013. Palgrave released his second book of essays on poetry, Next Word, Better Word, in April, 2011. His most recent book of poems Winter’s Journey published in 2010 by Copper Canyon. His previous work of fiction is a book of short stories Eating Naked (Holt, 2000). His other work includes Best Words, Best Order (Palgrave, 2003), essays on poetry; and Velocities (Penguin, 1994), a volume of new and selected poems. He has also published eleven other books of poetry and twenty other novels.   Two of his novels and two of his short stories have been made into films. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship, three fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and numerous prizes for his poetry and fiction. Between 1995 and 2007, he wrote more than thirty feature stories for the San Diego Reader. Dobyns teaches in the MFA Program of Warren Wilson College, and has taught at Emerson College, Syracuse University, Boston University, University of Iowa and half a dozen other colleges and universities. He was born in New Jersey in 1941. He lives with in Westerly, RI.

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