Writeliving Interview: John Domini

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John Domini is a dazzling writer and one of my first Facebook friends when I started connecting with writers I admire. I was thrilled to get the chance to meet John at AWP in Portland this past year to get a signed copy of his inventive collection of linked short stories MOVIEOLA!, a dizzying, literary tour de force following the foibles and fables of Hollywood with a lens that zooms in and out to capture the absurdity of life and our obsessions with modern Hollywood.

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to read John’s timely novel The Color Inside a Melon, that came out earlier this summer on Dzanc Books (one of my favorite presses). Part literary noir, part detective story and set in John’s beloved Naples, The Color Inside a Melon addresses the issues of our age head on: race, class, and violence. The real mystery being unwound in the piazzas and dark underbelly of old Italy is humanity’s true nature and bottomless capacity to love and hate one another. Please consider giving it a read.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

For starters, why don’t I mention someone else featured here on WriteLiving, namely, Ellen Bass? I’ve been reading her poetry since the late 1970s, when we were both in Boston. It’s an inspiration to see her late-career breakthrough to new success. That said, my constellation of influences stretches across the sky: a long shadow like Dante, a recent mindblower like Colette, a former prof like John Barth, an early crush like Grace Paley… and Kafka too. On this Naples project, and The Color Inside a Melon in particular, I developed new influences as I went along, like Elena Ferrante and Roberto Saviano.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Creative work is so idiosyncratic, it’s different not only for each maker, but also often for each new project. Insight, therefore, proves elusive; what’s good for the goose may be toxic for Forrest Gander. On the three Naples novels I did a lot of freewriting by hand, filling small notebooks with both hard research and imaginative drafts. Once I shifted my materials into word-processing, onscreen, I can’t ell you how many drafts I went through, since I wasn’t always composing sequentially. One of the earliest finished sections of The Color Inside, published separately in Web del Sol, was actually from the novels climax, and completed three years before the whole.

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

As it happens, my writing’s been praised for its voice, early and late. Yet I’d argue that your subject, what Melville called your “mighty theme”— this dictates voice. Once you have your project, it sets up a way of seeing, a frame of mind, which in turn generates a tone and rhythm.

Your most recent novel The Color Inside a Melon combines elements of a literary and mystery novel. How did you approach writing a novel that’s cross genre and also puts issues of immigration and refugees front and center?

This question too needs to be turned around, I’d say. The Color Inside... is fundamentally a social novel, an in-the-round portrait of a complicated human hive in Southern Italy. As you say, the closest focus is on one part of that community, the new African immigrants to Naples and nearby, but the story won’t work unless these are seen as part of a multifarious whole. It’s all about many fingers knitting and unknitting, the outsiders struggling for a place and the insiders exacting their tolls. Such stuff takes us inevitably to abuse, to illegality, even to bloodletting.

To put the point another way, you can’t render Naples whole-cloth unless you stitch in the Camorra and its abuses— and I don’t see how such a rendering excludes whatever is meant by “literary.” Doesn’t Balzac include crime and mystery in Cousin Bette? Or, more recently, Marlon James in A Brief History of Seven Killings? A social novel is still a novel, and an artist of sensibility faces the same challenges as ever. There’s got to be empathy, subtlety, even when writing about the backroom slaughter of an illegal immigrant.

Your protagonists struggle at times with reality, and your prose, sometimes surreal, unearths these fissures of the mind. How do you juggle the psychological exploration of your characters while still driving the plot / narrative of your fiction forward?

Questions about character, how it’s created and sustained, dovetail neatly with my last point. If my “immigrant success story,” Risto, is to function within a complex story like The Color Inside.., he’s got to generate empathy even while making sketchy moves. He’s got to reveal subtlety even in the midst of extreme action. Seems to me that the crucial tool in bringing off such combinations is dialog, by which I mean not just the words said.

Of course the conversation needs to have a natural bounce and stutter, even when it’s an English version of Italian palaver (with other languages tossed in, now and again). But besides that, effective dialog must consider just how much gets revealed, and to whom. Two speakers are always picking their way through a no-man’s-land, before arriving at something they agree on as the truth. Such negotiations have a direct impact of driving the plot, naturally, and for Risto none matters so much as those he hammers out with Paola, his Neapolitan wife, nominally “white.” If her Somali husband’s success has any value, that must be coined in their marriage—and Paola must demonstrates smarts and spine to match her husband’s. I strove to make her as canny as the great women figures of Naguib Mahfouz, in his trilogy of the Cairo slums.

What’s are you working on now that you’ve completed your Naples trilogy? Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Actually, I’m still working with Naples, though in an alternative way. After a good deal more exploratory writing, including what appear to be the elements of a strange new novel, I fell into a memoir. The ancient Mediterranean seaport, I discovered, demanded one more treatment, a non-fiction work or as close as I could make it.  I’m writing about how Naples changed me, indeed saved me, in a time of adversity. Of course, “adversity” for a comfy white American doesn’t seem especially rugged. Still, in midlife, well past 40, I found my 20-year marriage dead and my teaching career in tatters; I’d published one book years earlier and had little promise for anything to come— indeed, I had my doubts I was any sort of writer at all. Insofar as I’ve found an answer since, with several more books out and regular writing for a number of publications, it’s thanks in large part to Naples, my father’s home.

At my lowest point, I began returning to the old city, traveling on the cheap and staying with family. I kept on going back, winning grants and getting assignments, and now I’m writing about the personal transformations brought about by the place. My title is The Archeology of a Good Ragù, and my emphasis is on the place, not little old me. Good work always strives against others, and for this text the antagonist is the usual American take on Italy, as an exotic background for the main player’s happiness. I wanted to avoid what Elizabeth Gilbert did in Eat, Pray, Love— making Naples all about her

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

Lately I’ve been terrifically excited— moved, frightened, outraged— by the novels of Khaled Kahlifa. I read him in translation, of course; he’s Syrian, still hanging on somehow in Damascus, and his great subject is the breakdown of his country’s society, one of the most sophisticated cultures in the world, under the brutal regime of Assad. His portrayals always extend to whole families and neighborhoods, everyone caught up in hapless flailing, all terribly alive while also casting long shadows across the future of the fat and happy West. The voyage of his latest, Death is Hard Work, makes McCarthy’s The Road look like a trip to Disneyland.

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

Most days I get in a happy half-hour of singing and strumming. It’s all about the cowboy chords; with enough hammering, just about any number that comes to mind can be shoehorned into C, F, G, and Am.

About the Author:

The Color Inside a Melon, published this summer, is John Domini‘s fourth novel. With blurbs from Salman Rushdie and Marlon James, the book is set in Naples, Italy, and completes a loose trilogy. Domini also has three books of stories, the latest MOVIEOLA!, which J.C. Hallman, in The Millions, called “a new shriek for a new century.” The fiction has appeared in Paris Review, non-fiction in The New York Times, and grants include an NEA. He has held long-term appointments at Harvard, Northwestern, and other universities, and lives in Des Moines.

 

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Writeliving Interview: Diane Seuss

Diane Suess Photo

After a small hiatus, Writeliving is back with an interview from fellow Michigander and powerhouse writer Diane Seuss. Four-Legged Girl was my favorite poetry book of 2015 and I was blown away by her lush, hypnotic, mythic poemscapes. I highly recommend Diane’s work and am thrilled to be able to share insights from her writing life.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

I could reel off a list of writers who have taught me a great deal (Dickinson, Clifton, D.A. Powell, etc.) but probably most accurately there are two significant influences—my mentor, poet Conrad (Con) Hilberry, and my mom. When we first met, externally at least, Con was everything I was not—quiet, private, gentle, formal in his aesthetic proclivities. He was the son of a college president and raised in suburban Detroit. In the psychological (and perhaps conventional) sense, he functioned as the father I didn’t have: he was someone and something to walk toward. He was supportive and encouraging: he saw me, and he accepted me and cheered me on for all of the ways in which I was a writer who seemed to be very different from him. He defied the cliché of the leering older male poet in the era in which I grew up. He was respectful, boundaried, sane. He did all of the right things—gave me books, helped me go to college, urged me to send out work—but more importantly he was the right thing. My mother influences my work in so many ways. I could, and probably will, write a book on the subject. Like Con, she defied all of the stereotypes about women and mothers in a time in which such defiance was not the norm. She also was and is a divine storyteller. She preserves the history of her time and place—the rural Midwest, born in 1929—via narrative. Both Con and my mother had a profound impact on my poems’ sounds, purposes, and values.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I can’t separate my creative process from my process of tending to the conditions of my life. One could say I haven’t had the luxury to solely focus on my own poems, but I’m pretty sure that luxury would not have served me. Most of my poems come to me as I do what I do in my life—making soup, watering the tomatoes, interacting with students, sitting in the ER with my son, talking to my mom on the phone, walking the dog. I live with the poem’s entry point for a while—walk around with it. By the time I can turn to the page it has gained a body. Maybe a single eye. Too many limbs. Sometimes that germ of an idea requires research, which I often do in tandem with writing. Although many think of poetry as an art primarily of emotion, I don’t experience it that way. Maybe the closest I can come to describing the process is an image, that of a many-layered cake. Feeling is one layer, sure, but also intellect, meditative thinking, instinct, something like a checking-in with history, and consulting that part of the writer that has always been, and is unchangeable. All of that at once in one big bite.

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

I don’t think these are things one can be overly-conscious about, or conscientious about. My recommendations are simple and probably nothing new: read everything, and not just contemporary poetry. Write often. Live in such a way that your life is a reflection of your art, and vice versa. Experiment with form, both traditional and invented. Remember where you are from—the landscape and people that vexed you and held you up. Write whatever is in front of you, whatever is next. Don’t obey the zeitgeist. When in doubt, take a road trip. You will generally only discover your subject matter and voice (whatever voice is) in looking back at what you have already made.

How has teaching impacted your own writing?

Teaching has kept me current, not just in staying up-to-date in my reading, but observing what is important to 18-22-year-olds, from eyebrow shaping to revolutions in identity. Teaching is a kind of performance. It makes one very aware of oneself and the way one performs oneself. That has certainly made its way into my work. At its best, the classroom became a place in which the group of us had a couple of good hours every few days to consider really difficult poems and to develop, together, a kind of thesis about them and how they were made. Those conversations compelled me, and made their way into how I think about my own work. Ultimately, teaching taught me the nuances of each individual and each individual poem.

What are you currently working on?

My next book, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, comes out next May, and is complete aside from acting on editorial suggestions I’ll receive from my press. I’m currently working on a book-length sequence of unrhymed sonnets that, strung together, will make a kind of memoir, but less a memoir of events than of how my mind works and remembers in a given moment.

How has growing up and living in the Midwest affected your writing?

I can’t imagine how my poems would sound without the Midwest, its cadences and idioms, Michigan in particular, Niles and Edwardsburg, more particularly, nor can I conceive of my image palette without the rural Midwestern landscape—not just its “scenery” but its details. Along with my poems’ sounds and images, their point of view is profoundly Midwestern. They activate personality/performance to deflect suffering, for instance. They make space for and value oddity. I will add that I see no shame in enacting a regional perspective. Faulkner did it, and raised it to archetype. Frank O’Hara did it. Every contemporary poet came from somewhere. A coastal, urban somewhere and accompanying point of view is no more valid, contains no more provocative urgency, than Yoknapatawpha County.

What relationship do you feel your poetry has to prose?

Well, the boundary between the two has certainly grown less clear. Some would say my work leans toward the discursive and the narrative, which is probably true. When I write prose, I am more committed to the development of ideas than I am in poems, in which I allow for the associative mind to take over. Poems allow for the inexplicable image to dominate. I love that. Poems lead me; I lead prose. Maybe that is the central difference in my experience of writing the two. Still, anything I say about how the two modes operate only holds for me, and I am always ready for my own experience of writing to not hold.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

Always. In poetry, Bruce Lack’s brilliant collection Service, on his experience as a Marine during two tours of duty in Fallujah, Anne Cecelia Holmes’ The Jitters, which is the best depiction of how the self and the mind operate in a profoundly disorienting time that I’ve read, and Aaron Smith’s Primer—honest, brutal, erotic, human. I’ve also had the chance to read a thus-far unpublished manuscript by Courtney Faye Taylor. All I can say it—get ready, world. I also love to read nonfiction. I’m currently reading an arcane dictionary of superstitions that has me geeked, and I’m re-reading The Grapes of Wrath.

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

Most lives are a sort of string of pearls of adversity, adversity represented by the pearls, not the string. My pearls are many—losing my dad at an early age, contending with loved ones’ addictions, divorce, single-parenthood, poverty, major physical injury. I would say that the writing is what held me up, rather than me maintaining it. It was writing that kept me alive and intact. Writing—form itself—is profoundly grounding. A writer can direct her gaze anywhere, sometimes toward adversity, sometimes not. It’s all content—from a shattered body to the song of a spring peeper. Poetry equalizes. To form something out of the chaos of experience is salvation.

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

I can fix a toilet with a paperclip.

About the Author

Diane Seuss’s most recent collection, Four-Legged Girl, published in 2015 by Graywolf Press, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open won the Juniper Prize and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2010. Her poetry has been published in a broad range of literary magazines, including American Poetry Review, Poetry, The Iowa Review, New England Review, and The New Yorker. Seuss’s fourth collection, Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in May 2018.

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Writeliving Interview: Matthew Olzmann

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Photo by Evans Tasiopoulos 

I’m thrilled to get a chance to interview one of my favorite poets and fellow Michigander Matthew Olzmann. Yes, I can still call myself that after so many years in California. Matthew’s work is imaginative, rich, accessible, playful, and memorable. Consider getting his newest book Contradictions in the Design, from Alice James Books, for the holidays.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Too many to really list, but Wisława Szymborska, Robert Hayden and Larry Levis are writers whose work I’ve returned to with great frequency. My teacher Stephen Dobyns. My wife Vievee Francis—my discussions with her are always a part of my writing.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I’m always working on several things at once. Maybe five or six poems plus a story or essay. I tend to shuffle between them as I revise. I work on something and take it as far as I can go with it then, when I get stuck, I shift to something else and eventually circle back.

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

Instead of finding your “voice” find a bunch of “voices.” Try on a lot of new things, new approaches, new ideas, etcetera. See what fits, what you might grow into and what’s challenging. Make mistakes. Your voice will be somewhere between all these things.

How has teaching impacted your own writing?

It makes you more aware of the choices you make and the things you value in writing. Having to articulate what might seem to be intuitive or intangible causes me to be more conscious of how I approach a piece of writing. Discussing a poem—whether it’s a poem I know and love by a writer I admire, or a new poem by a student that I’m reading for the first time—requires a careful attention to how a poem is put together. You notice what effects the poem produces, and then you try to describe how those effects are produced. It’s a discipline, a type of study, that deepens your relationship to the craft.

What are you currently working on?

I’m working a on new manuscript of (mostly) epistolary poems, and some scattered poems which are unrelated to that project. Also some short prose—flash fiction and lyric essays.

How has growing up and living in Michigan affected your writing?

It’s provided the landscape that’s become the backdrop for many of my poems. It’s introduced me to some of my closest friends in the writing world. It provided the first communities of writers that I was a part of, communities that probably continue to impact my writing and worldview in both pronounced and subtle manners.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

House of Water by Matthew Nienow. Look by Solmaz Sharif. Also really looking forward to reading Overpour by Jane Wong, Vanessa Hua’s collection of stories Deceit and Other Possibilities, and Mike Scalise’s memoir The Brand New Catastrophe.

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

Not really. The “dream” of writing, I think, is kept alive solely by your love for it. You have to find time to write and to do that you might have to sacrifice something else. Those sacrifices might be significant, but you do that because you love writing. Writers write because they love books or stories or poems. And any obstacles I’ve faced aren’t incredibly unique to me. I went to four colleges before finishing my undergraduate degree. It took 12 years with a lot of time off in between. I tried to learn to write on my own for awhile. A lot of rejections. There’s the realization that the gap between the poems you want to write and the poems you’re capable of writing might be vast. And you go back to work. I hesitate to call any of this “adversity” because I’m doing something I love.

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

I wrestled in high school. I played trumpet for three years and hated it. I’ve had jobs as a theater usher, a grocery store cashier and as a medical courier.

About the Author:

Matthew Olzmann is the author of two poetry collections: Mezzanines and Contradictions in the Design (both from Alice James Books). His writing has appeared in Kenyon Review, New England Review, Brevity, Gulf Coast and elsewhere. He teaches at Dartmouth College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Eight Stages of Writing a Poem

Guest Blog Post by Rick Bursky

Rick Bursky photo

1 Fishing

This is the beginning, looking for an image, sound, snippet of language anything that could launch my imagination into something that might hold my interest long enough to begin a poem. Just because this starts the poem doesn’t guarantee it will survive as the first line or even be in the finished poem.

2 Collecting

Once I have the way in a begin collecting lines that might relate to the opening even in the most obscure way. At first blush, the new lines might only relate on an emotional level. But this is like brainstorming, there are no bad lines. I write them down, whatever I come up with, collecting a page or two of stray images of statements.

3 Expanding/Building

I look at what I have and assess the possibilities. Now I’m applying some rational logic to what’s on the page. I’m trying to see what lines I want to elaborate on, perhaps look for interesting words –– I might pick up a book of someone else’s poetry, read something and find a word I haven’t ever used in a poem and use that as the point of expansion. This stage is most emotional.

4 Shaping

The cutting begins. I toss out the lines that stick out and haven’t found a way to cement themselves into the emotional heart of the poem. This is also where I begin to pay attention to the lineation of the poem, enjambment and whatnot. The look of the poem begins to show itself. This stage is all about craft.

5 Titling

The DNA of a poem is in the title. This is crucial and where the intent –– though not what started the poem –– of what I’ve put on the page announces itself. The title is the emotional introduction to the poem.

6 Reading

I ask some trusted readers, all accomplished poets, to read the poem and provide comments.

7 Revising

I have comments from my readers. And because some time has passed I don’t have any emotional attachment to the poem. I look at the comments and start revising, I don’t always use the comments but usually use most of them, or at least use them as questions to ask the poem. Revision phase is also craft, and is very clinical. It has little to do with creating art, it’s all about “writing,” sandpapering and clarity.

8 Evaluating

This is one of the toughest, if not the toughest phases. I have to decide if the poem is any good. Do I want to throw it away? Or harvest any of the lines for some other poem? Should I revise, shape or build again? Do I want to send it out? Do I want to put it in my manuscript? It often take weeks, months or longer to answer those questions.

 

 

 

 

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Top 10 Abandoned Social Media Sites

#10 Cat Tails – The photo blog of twitching fur saving the universe from frowns

#9 Ukulele Daily – Video uploads of mad jams and fab ukulele bands

#8 You Know the Drill – The quest for self-dentistry and self-knowledge

#7 Diarrhea Diaries – One man’s helpful public bathroom commute suggestions from Hoboken to Stamford

#6 Missing Slinks – Photo sharing site of historical figures made from Slinkies and imagination

#5 …! – An obsession with ellipses in public signs gathered from around the world

#4 Adventures of the Human Skull – This charismatic skull really gets around in popular vacation spots

#3 Bathtub Bandit – Self pics of our favorite bandit bathing in birthday suit + ski mask while burgling

#2 Dusting with the Stars – Dust bunnies dance to contestants blowing them in arranged choreography

#1 More than Fish – The daily posts of what Jesus ate ending the night of the Last Supper

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. You have fortitude. The above work is an awful list poem. The sites in it were supposed to be bad, but the exercise ended up as bad poetry.

In some ways it may be closest to a failed David Letterman top ten list. I pulled this from my poetry bin while looking for possible gems for a new manuscript.

Martin Ott

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10 Pieces of Writing Advice on a Milestone Birthday

Big thanks to David Ebenbach, who asked me to send him writing advice to post on his FB wall for my birthday today. The result is below.

– Martin Ott

  1. We all are neurotic – even accomplished writers
  2. We all feel envy – even the kindest writers
  3. We all need to be humble – even incredible writers
  4. We all need confidence – even successful writers
  5. We all aim to connect – even experimental writers
  6. We all fail to connect – even concise writers
  7. We all play with words – even serious writers
  8. We all want to make it sting – even comedic writers
  9. We all need support – even famous writers
  10. We all need to support others on the path – even beginning writers

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Jason Sanford’s Terrific 12 List of Best Sci-Fi Magazines

I was recently searching online for a list of top sci-fi magazines and couldn’t find one I liked. However, noted sci-fi author Jason Sanford just tweeted the list below and I thought I’d post it as a resource. I’ve appeared in one so far (Asimov’s) and I’m setting my sights on the others.

– Martin Ott

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We’re All Neurotic at AWP

My first AWP was in Chicago four years ago and it helped inspire me to launch this blog, among other things. My desire was to connect with a larger writing community, but I found myself in a world that felt overwhelming. There were too many writers, magazines, and presses. There were institutional relationships that someone outside academia, like myself, didn’t have. There were more established writers, more confident writers, writers with posses.

Even though my first two books had come out the year before I found myself, at times, feeling like I didn’t belong. People often complain about the dynamics of AWP that remind them of high school popularity, the constant act of people looking at name tags and looking for more important people to talk to, the dynamics of the in-crowd at every table, panel, and off-site event.

As I ready myself to go to my third AWP in my home town of Los Angeles, I am struggling with my own neuroses. Two of my best friends I’d looked forward to hanging out with are absent. My community is often long distance, and fostered on social media. I’ve spent too many years as a recluse. The one thing I find solace in, however, is that almost all of the other writers here feel similar emotions, regardless of their reputations or publication history.

This AWP I have decided to just have fun and feed my creative need. I have loaded events, panels, and book signings into my phone that I am excited to attend. I have told myself that if I can reboot my creative energy to last the year, to propel myself to write and read more diligently, that the event will be worth it. I have decided to consciously not network, but to try to fill be my most vulnerable creative self. I have taken three days off work, and will start the process tomorrow to prepare for a reading later in the week and go to my first event where I may not know anyone.

All writers are neurotic. It’s part of our DNA. Do yourself a favor – don’t compare yourself to anyone else this week. Don’t worry about being a nobody, a geek, or a fan. Every person at this event has moments of doubt. We are here to support each other and our craft. Hope to see some of you in LA.

– Martin Ott

 

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Writeliving Interview – Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass Photo

Ellen Bass is a writer I admire and continued proof that California yields some of our best poets (yes, I’m West Coast biased). Ellen is able to write about her life in a way that transcends confessional poetry and draws on themes of family and community. Her work is compassionate and passionate, and spiced with humor and insight into what makes us tick. Please enjoy this window into her creative process.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

My first major influence was Florence Howe, my teacher at Goucher College, with whom I later co-edited No More Masks!, the first major anthology of poetry by women, published by Doubleday in 1973. Florence’s generous mentorship opened the doors of poetry to me and changed my life forever.

I was immensely fortunate to study with Anne Sexton when she taught in Boston University’s MA in Creative Writing Program. Without her encouragement I don’t think I would have had the confidence to try to make a life of poetry.

My third mentor, the brilliant poet Dorianne Laux, taught me just about everything I know about the craft. I owe her an immense debt of gratitude that I can never repay, but can only hope to pass on.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I wish I had a creative process that I could describe, but every poem seems to have its own process and what worked for one poem rarely works for the next. I try anything and everything! Sometimes I think about a subject for a long time before I see a way to nudge my thoughts or feelings toward a poem. Sometimes I write many not-so-good poems grappling with the same theme before one succeeds. Sometimes I imitate a poem I admire. Sometimes I just start writing without any idea where it might lead. Sometimes I hear a writing suggestion that piques my interest and I decide to try it. Sometimes a poem seems almost to just offer itself up whole. Usually I’m grappling with an experience, an event, a feeling, a thought that I want to explore. Often I make lists of words that I find in some way interesting or that catch my eye and I try to include them in a poem. I think all poets fall somewhere on a bell curve from logical thinking to wild thinking. I think I fall toward the logical thinking and so I’m always trying to do things that will loosen up that rational impulse and allow more strangeness into my poems.

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

Paradoxically, I think that often the best way to find your own voice and subject matter is to study the poems you most admire. Examine them, take them apart, see what makes them tick, imitate them. That will help to train your ear, your eye, and your sensibility. It will teach you how broad the range of voice and subject and approach can be and then when you write you’ll have widened the scope of what’s possible. Beyond that, each of us has our own unique life experience within which copious matter is packed. Sometimes it’s a question of opening ourselves to the subjects that we didn’t recognize as worthy of poems. And then I’d add, Be brave.

How has teaching impacted your own writing?

I love teaching. Besides the obvious privilege of diving into poetry with people who are also excited about it, teaching also gives me a place to feel competent, something I never feel writing poems. I never sit down to write a poem thinking, I can do this! But although there’s always more to learn about teaching, I feel basically capable in that arena. It’s a wonderful respite from doubt and the many failures that writing poetry consists of.

What are you currently working on?

I never have a “poetry project.” I just pray for the next poem—and do my part by sitting down and trying.

How has writing both non-fiction and poetry books influenced each genre?

Well, writing non-fiction has taken me away from poetry. I simply am not capable of doing both at the same time. After spending six or eight hours writing non-fiction, the last thing my brain wants to do is arrange more words. So I’ve given up non-fiction—at least non-fiction books. Not only was non-fiction not good for my poetry, but I think my poetry was also not helpful for the non-fiction I wrote. Had I been a creative non-fiction writer, it would have been different, but my non-fiction books are what I think of as “functional non-fiction.” They’re not there to please aesthetically, but to give people information that they may need—in some situations desperately need. So it was important not to have writing that called any attention to itself. I had to strip down my overly “literary” style. We wanted the writing to be invisible so it didn’t get in the way of its usefulness.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

Yes! So much gets me excited. I’ve been reading Jericho Brown, Natalie Diaz, Patricia Smith, Kwame Dawes, Mark Doty, Tony Hoagland—I could go on and on! I also just finished the “Edith Trilogy” by the Australian writer Frank Moorehouse which is the story of one woman’s life braided with the story of The League of Nations. Each book is the size of the Bible and I was so sad when they came to an end.

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

I’m not sure I’ve encountered anything I would call true adversity. I’ve always just tried to do what I wanted to do—in life as well as in writing. Sometimes that hasn’t been the wisest path, but it seems to be the one I’ve chosen. It’s hard to know what the best choices will be so I believe one’s deepest desires and passions are as good a compass as any. I’m a ridiculously optimistic person and although I also am a worrier, the hope that it would work out tended to trump the worries so I kept plodding forward. I’m also a very practical person so I knew from the beginning I’d have to put food on the table along with writing and I accepted that.

Actually, as I think about it, it’s the other way around. It’s writing that has helped me overcome adversity!

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

Hmmm. So many of my quirks have been included in my poetry. But I don’t think I’ve revealed one of my special talents—I’m quite good at finding lost things—which also requires some of the same qualities that are necessary for poetry—perseverance, strategy, patience, intuition, perfectionism, a willingness to not overlook the obvious—and of course luck.

About the Author:

Ellen Bass’s poetry includes Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon Press, 2014), The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), and Mules of Love (BOA, 2002). She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the groundbreaking No More Masks! An Anthology of Poems by Women (Doubleday, 1973. Her non-fiction books include The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (HarperCollins, 1988, 2008), which has been translated into twelve languages, and Free Your Mind: The Book for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youth (HarperCollins, 1996). Her work has frequently been published in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review and many other journals. Among her awards for poetry are two Pushcart Prizes, Lambda Literary Award, Elliston Book Award, Pablo Neruda Prize from Nimrod/Hardman, Larry Levis Prize from Missouri ReviewNew Letters Prize, and a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Santa Cruz, CA and teaches in the MFA writing program at Pacific University. www.ellenbass.com

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Best Writing of 2015 – Roundup

Hope you enjoy this roundup of more than 50 links showcasing the best writing of 2015. Happy reading in 2016 and beyond.

Martin Ott

Africa is a Country | Books of 2015

Amazon.com | The Best Books of 2015

The Atlantic | The Best Books We Read in 2015

The Atlantic | The Best Television Shows of 2015

A.V. Club | Best Comics of 2015

Barnes & Nobles | The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2015

BBC Culture | The 10 Best Books of 2015

Books Live | The Best Books of 2015

Book Riot| Best Books of 2015

The Boston Globe | Best Books of 2015

Brain Pickings | The 15 Best Books of 2015

Bustle | The 25 Best YA Books of 2015

Buzzfeed | the 19 Best Nonfiction Books of 2015

Buzzfeed | The 24 Best Fiction Books of 2015

Buzzfeed | The 32 Best Fantasy Books of 2015

Buzzfeed | Saeed Jones Picks 6 Books for LGBT Readers

Cultural Front | The Year in African American Poetry, 2015

The Daily Beast | Showrunners on 2015 Best Shows They Binge Watched

The Economist | Books of the Year 2015

Electric Literature | Best Nonfiction Books of 2015

Electric Literature | Best Novels of 2015

Electric Literature | Best Short Story Collections of 2015

Elle | 14 of the Best Books Written by Women in 2015

Entropy | Best Poetry Books & Collections 2015

Flavorwire | The Best Poetry Books of 2015

Flavorwire | The 50 Best Independent Press Books of 2015

Gizmodo | Science Books We Most Loved in 2015

The Guardian | The Best Books of 2015

The Guardian | Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2015

Huffington Post | 25 Books by Black Authors from 2015 You Need to Read

io9 | The Very Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2015

Kirkus | Best Fiction 2015

Los Angeles Times | David L. Ulin’s Best Books of 2015

The New Yorker | the Books We Loved in 2015

New York Public Library | Best Books for Teens 2015

The New York Times | The Best Poetry Books of 2015

The New York Times | The 10 Best Books of 2015

Newsweek | The Best and Worst Books of 2015

NPR | Best Books of 2015

The Paris Review | Our Contributors Pick Their Favorite Books of 2015

Paste Magazine | The 30 Best Fiction Books of 2015

Paste Magazine | The 30 Best Nonfiction Books of 2015

PBS NewsHour | 6 of the Best Books to Curl up with from 2015

Popsugar | 6 LGBT Titles You May Have Missed This Year

Publishers Weekly | Best Books of 2015

Publishers Weekly | Best Picture Books of 2015

Shelf Awareness | Our 2015 Best Books of the Year

Slate | Katy Waldman’s 10 Favorite Books of 2015

The Telegraph | Best Books of 2015

W Magazine | 10 Best Art Books of 2015

Wall Street Journal | Best Books 2015

Washington Post | The 10 Best Books of 2015

Washington Post | Best Mysteries and Thrillers of 2015

 

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