Category Archives: Interview

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Interview, Poetry

Writeliving Interview: Matthew Olzmann

unnamed

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Interview, Poetry, Uncategorized

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

2 Comments

Filed under Interview, NonFiction, Poetry, Uncategorized

Writeliving Interview – C. Dale Young

C. Dale Young Photo

As someone who has juggled a career along with writing in multiple genres, C. Dale Young has been a source of inspiration for me, not just for his writing (which is superb) but also for his commitment to his craft. Hope you enjoy the interview.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Although this is a common question, it is also an incredibly difficult one to answer. I suspect my response, if asked about literary influences, would change daily, if not hourly. I will answer this from a slightly different perspective, answer it without the “influence” part.

After my first year of graduate school, I felt as if I were not cut out to be a writer. I felt discouraged and decided to quit. A teacher of mine, the poet Donald Justice, told me to just keep going. He told me he felt I understood what made a poem a poem. To say this encouragement was huge at the time would be an understatement. And again, in my last semester of graduate school, when I worried that I would never write poems again once I started medical school, it was Don who told me: “You always find time to do the things you want to do.” That statement is one I have carried with me ever since. It gave me permission to become a doctor and to keep on writing. So, I would say Don has been a pivotal presence for me, one without whom I am not sure I would be writing today.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

With poems, I tend to come up with the last line first. I sometimes carry it around for months. Eventually I come up with a first line. The mystery of writing the poem for me is connecting the A to the Z. I draft fairly quickly. I might spend two or three hours getting down a draft. In revision, it could take months or years for me to get the poem to the point where I would send it out to a magazine or journal.

With fiction, I never have any idea how it ends. I come up with a sentence. I toy around with it until I am sure it isn’t a line for a poem. And then, I just rush headlong into it. I bang it out. And then, as with poems, it could take months to years for me to get the story ready for publication.

How has your profession as a physician impacted your own writing?

Medicine takes up 50-60 hours or more of my time each week. It means I have to always work to be a writer. I have to make time to read, time to draft, time to revise. I do so early in the morning before work, on weekends or days off. I always feel the urgency of time or, better yet, the lack of time.

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

Don’t worry. You already have a voice. All you need is to become comfortable with the tools to let that voice be heard. So read, read widely. Don’t be wed to any draft. Remember that revision means re vision, to look again. No one else on this earth has your exact life and experience. So, spend your time worrying about something other than “your voice.” It comes whether you like it or not.

How has your work as a magazine editor and teacher impacted your creative process?

I edited poetry for the New England Review for 19 years. It taught me not to take rejection seriously. It also taught me that publishing is not writing. So what if someone rejects your poem or story. Send it out again. Editors do not owe us anything because we send work unsolicited. Being an editor taught me to have thicker skin, to not be rude as a writer. I might think my poem is the next great ode, but chances are it isn’t. As for my actual creative process, neither editing nor teaching has much impacted it other than limiting my time. Writing is, after all, a solitary act.

As a writer who engages with other writers and readers in a blog and on Facebook, what advice can you give about the role of social media in a writer’s development?

Social media can be great for helping one feel s/he is part of a community. But it can also be a huge distraction. People love controversy within social media. There are the fights and the always present bullying. Will social media help one develop as a writer? I doubt it. Can it help you find like-minded souls? Yes. Can those like-minded souls introduce you to things and books that might change your life? Yes. But do you need social media to develop as a writer? No.

What are you currently working on?

I finished a linked collection of stories last year. I wanted to write one more story about the main character’s mother. But I quickly realized it was something larger than a short story. So, I am writing a novel. It is in a sense a prequel to the linked collection of stories. It deals with the three generations of this family that precede the main character in the linked story collection. At this point, I have written about 60,000 words (roughly 265 pages of manuscript). I feel I am about 70% done. I am just banging it out, typos and all. Once I have the whole draft down, the real work will begin.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

Rick Barot’s Chord, his recently published collection of poems, is truly magnificent. I have already read it twice. I also recently re-read Peter Cameron’s Coral Glynn and marveled at his economy of language and the ways in which he can manipulate image across an entire novel. I have also been re-reading some of Eudora Welty’s stories. My God, she is just so sickeningly good.

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

Writing means everything to me. I could give up many things in my life, but I cannot imagine not writing. With that said, writing is a privilege. One writes when one can. I don’t believe in overcoming adversity as a writer, but I am biased, terribly biased. I watch people work to overcome cancer every day. That is adversity. Writers, myself included, love to wallow in the misery of this slight or that slight. But that isn’t really writing any way. That is the business of writing. When you are deep in the process of drafting, when time stops and you are outside of time absorbed in getting the words down, in getting the words right, that is writing. And that is an incredible thing. The rest of it is all business. I have overcome many adversities in my life, but none related to writing. Maybe I am the lesser for that.

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

Just before starting college, I was in a terrible auto accident. I broke my neck. It is surprising enough I am alive. It is surprising enough I can walk. I was originally told I might not walk again. But I did. I may appear crazed in my constant desire to work, but it betrays something very different than ambition. I think many think I am just overly ambitious. I’m not. I work hard and work so much because I know I am on borrowed time. I became a doctor and practice medicine because I owed it to those people who saved me to do the same for others. I feel grateful every day to be alive, to walk. I live with an immense amount of pain, but I am alive. I will work hard and write until the day they roll me into the grave, because I know this is borrowed time. I escaped the grave once before. I may not escape it the next time.

About the Author:

C. Dale Young is the author of four collections of poetry including The Halo, forthcoming from Four Way Books in early 2016, and a collection of stories The Affliction, due out from Four Way Books in early 2018. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, he practices medicine full-time and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Interview, Poetry

Writeliving Interview – Richard Garcia

Richard Garcia Author

Richard Garcia, aside from being one of America’s premier poets, is a teacher who has had more impact on my writing than anyone else. His voice is still in my ear  as I work, telling me to take risks, to find the poem outside of the poem you thought you were writing. His students — past and present — love him and his impact goes way beyond his righteous books of poetry.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Many writings I would have read in my late teens and early twenties, the coming of age time. Mostly in a more imaginative mode, Spanish, French, and South American. Surrealism and fabulism. But what made me want to begin in earnest was reading Whispering to Fool the Wind by Alberto Rios. It was very much like I had wanted to write when I had written some years before, and although I was not writing when I read his book, it did make me feel like I could get on the right track. I liked his American, Mexican, playful, dark and serious humor.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I was at a reading listening to a poet answer that question and it seemed to me that everything she was describing was part of a ritual. Get up at this time, coffee, go to the place, sharpen the pencil, not just any pencil but the #2 such-and-such, now get the pad that you like to write in… So if you do this every day in just this manner every day, she will come, the muse will come to you.

So many of your former students have had successes of their own. How has being a teacher affected your own writing?

By learning to teach I have learned to teach myself.

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

Try to ignore your subject matter, your obsessions. Suppress the agenda. Go into the place. Your subject matter will be waiting there for you anyway. It may be in an unfamiliar guise or in disguise, and you won’t recognize it. But don’t worry, it will find you. As for voice remember that you are more than one person. You have voices you don’t know about, and they don’t even know each other.

I loved your prose poem book The Chair. Do you have a different process for writing prose poems?

Sometimes I can’t get the lines right, and then I notice that the narrative has a fable-like quality. Then I know it is a prose poem. The prose poem might be pissed. It coulda been a poem or even a story. But now it knows it won’t get to be in those nice lines and stanzas. And even if it is a story, it will be a story in which nothing happens.

What are you currently working on?

I have been finding poems in my laptop files. It is easier to find poems than to write poems.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

Anything by Terrence Hayes. And I found an article I had lost years ago and searched for online unsuccessfully, until now. It is about a strange garden in Italy. Edmund Wilson, “The Monsters of Bomarzo.”

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

Of course there are the heroes that overcome real trouble. As for myself I think of the adversity of the everyday. Even without outside help I can provide my own adversity. I am my own adversity. Having no adversity can be an adversity.

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

I can play the jaw harp. I am really a sensitive guy.

About the Author:

Poet and writer Richard Garcia was born in San Francisco and started writing in his teenage years. He is the author of six books of poetry: The Flying Garcias (University of Pittsburg Press, 1991); Rancho Notorious (BOA Editions, 2001); The Persistence of Objects (BOA Editions, 2006); Chickenhead, a chapbook of prose poems (Foothills Publishing, 2009); The Other Odyssey (Dream Horse Press, 2013); and The Chair (BOA Editions, 2014). He has also written My Aunt Otilia’s Spirits, a bilingual children’s book (Children’s Book Press,1978). He is the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, the Cohen Award from Ploughshares, the Georgetown Review Poetry Prize, and the American Poetry Journal Book Prize. His poems appear in journals such as The Antioch Review, The Colorado Review, and The Georgia Review, and in several anthologies, among them The Best American Poetry 2005, Touching the Fire, Seriously Funny and The Best of the Prose Poem. From 1991-2002, he was a Poet-in-Residence at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, where he conducted poetry and art workshops for hospitalized children. Garcia teaches creative writing in the Antioch University Low-Residency MFA program. He lives on James Island, South Carolina, with his wife, Katherine Williams, and their dogs Sully and Max.

Leave a comment

Filed under Interview, Poetry

Writeliving Interview: Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender Photo

I read the short story collection The Girl in the Flammable Skirt after graduate school and I knew immediately that a fresh and important  literary voice had arrived on the scene. I was thrilled to be able to take a UCLA extension writing course with Aimee Bender not long after I read her book and she made an impression on me as a teacher–how to take chances and explore possibilities. Two of the stories in my forthcoming short story collection Interrogations started in Bender’s class. Hope you enjoy insights into her creative life.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

How to pick one? Today I will pick William Maxwell, because I’ve taught his beautiful novel So Long, See You Tomorrow many times and every time it reminds me something crucial about plot/absence of plot and how big feelings can revolve around tiny moments.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Blocks of time, stopping at a predetermined time even if it’s going well, no windows to look out of, no internet, no coffee shop, perhaps a yogurt.

How has being a teacher affected your own writing?

It supplies structure in my day and the pleasure of talking to smart students about writing which validates my own investment in this strange and wonderful and difficult thing a group of us do! Teaching is social, which provides a useful foil for the solitude of writing. The two acts are so different.

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

Tangents are useful. Staying on point is not the point, especially in early drafts. Wander, explore, make messes.

How does writing short fiction and novels impact the other genre?

My stories are often longer now that I’ve written novels. Novels have helped train me in scene writing. Stories help with sentences, though sentences are pretty key to novels too. Both are hard and fun in different ways.

What are you currently working on?

Finding a novel.

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

So much! The first of the Knausgaard series was fantastic, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, and Silence Once Began by Jesse Ball both thrilled me, and I just read the David Shields’ conversation book I Think You’re Totally Wrong and found that pretty fun and stimulating to read, too.

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

All the piles of rejections from journals and magazines I gathered over years. It was a trudge and I felt discouraged a lot. An agent said my stories were ‘little’ in a way that felt very defeating.

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

I can play the beginning part of “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd on the guitar. The easy part.

About the Author:

Aimee Bender is the author of five books, including The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and most recently, The Color Master, a NY Times Notable book of 2013.  Her short fiction has been published in Granta, Harper’s, The Paris Review, and more, as well as heard on “This American Life.”  She lives in Los Angeles.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Interview, Short Stories

Writeliving Interview – Edward Hirsch

Edward Hirsch photo

Photo by Michael Lionstar

When I think of poetry, I think of Edward Hirsch. He has had a lasting influence on my writing and reading ever since I had the opportunity after graduate school to spend some with him and other LA writers discussing the works of other poets. I’ve enjoyed his poetry and prose over the years, and I’m thrilled he took the time to share his creative life with us.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

My grandfather, who died when I was eight-years-old, used to copy his poems into the backs of his books. I’m not sure why. After his death, my grandmother gave all his books away, and his poems were lost. When I was in my twenties, increasingly dissatisfied with the coldness of Anglo-American modernism, I turned to some Eastern European poets for guidance. I felt I heard my grandfather’s voice coming back to me in a modified key. I’m thinking of the Hungarian poets Attila József and Miklós Radnóti, the Czech poet Jiří Orten, and the Polish poets Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I try to work every day. I read intensely, respond to the poets who matter most to me, and try to stay inside the feeling of the poem. Every poem is an attempt to work something out—nothing is figured out in advance, either emotionally or formally. I counsel myself to be vigilant and pay attention.

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

Be brave, go deeper and further. Find models. Try to take your work to its furthest logical conclusion.

After completing Gabriel, such a well-received and personal book of poetry, are you able to share what you’re currently working on?

I’ve been trying to write poems of spiritual inquiry. One is called “God and Me,” another is a variation on a verse from psalm 77 (When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted). That’s the tenor.

What has your passion and advocacy for poetry brought to other aspects of your life?

It has brought me a deep feeling of fulfilling my vocation. It has connected me more deeply to myself while also linking me to other people. I’ve found a community of other people who are also befriended by poetry.

About the Author:

Edward Hirsch has published nine books of poems, including Gabriel: A Poem, a book-length elegy for his son, and five books of prose, among them A Poet’s Glossary, a full compendium of poetry terms.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Interview, Poetry

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Interview, Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Interview, Poetry, Writing

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Interview, Writing, Writing Tips