Category Archives: Writing

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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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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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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Internet Literary News, April 2014

one-hundred-years-of-solitude-by-gabriel-garcia-marquez

This month, we mourn the death of a literary giant, scratch our heads at a vexing decision from USC to jettison their MPW writing program, and look at 50 reasons not to date a poet (myself included).

Martin Ott

Loss of a Literary Giant

The New York Times called him a conjurer and Steve Erickson, one of our best American magic realists, shares how 100 Years of Solitude changed his writing life. Marquez influenced many writers and I feel a debt to him in how I approach both fiction and poetry. Instead of saying goodbye, I encourage authors and readers to say hello and read or reread his work.

USC’s MPW Program Moves to VCFA

This is news that hits close to home as I graduate from the Master of Progressional Writing Program at USC. The MPW has been a valuable part of my journey as a multi-disciplinary writer (poetry, fiction, screenplays, TV, blogging, content strategist, and marketing writer). Like many alumni, I was shocked to hear of the program’s closure, and perplexed by the news to move the program to Vermont College of Fine Arts. It was just announced that Trinie Dalton will lead the new program and I wish her the best in leading what I believe is a unique and worthwhile program.

Debate over Lists of Books by Women Writers

In April, I read and shared a couple of lists of worthwhile books by women writers – 12 Great Female Authors Recommend Their 40 Favorite Female Authors in Elle and These Are 21 Female Writers You Should Be Reading in Time. Multitalented Roxane Gay shares her thoughts in Slate on why we need these lists in The Trouble with ‘” Women You Should Be Reading Now” Lists. I agree with Gray’s premise in her article, but have also been introduced to worthwhile women writers from these lists. Count me as still undecided on this topic.

Hollywood’s New Power Couple – Books & Television

I have several friends that write for television, and there is a widespread belief that the best and brightest in the entertainment industry are migrating to television vs. film (for many reason like the upteenth Spidey movie out this weekend). Here’s a list of 23 Books that Will Be Featured on Television This Year.

50 Reasons Not to Date a Poet

Everyone, including poets, know that we’re pains in the asses in our relationships. Here’s a list of 5o Reasons Not to Date a Poet. The link appeared almost a year ago, but I might have been starting absently out the window when it was posted like the list suggests.

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Murky vs. Mystery – Narrative Lesson in ‘The Counselor’

Murky Clouds photo

Rarely have I been more disappointed in a film than The Counselor, written by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Cormac McCarthy, directed by Ridley Scott, and starring a heavyweight cast of actors that included Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penélope Cruz, Javier Bardem, and Brad Pitt.

The main issue with the movie is not that the studio refused to release the director’s cut or Scott’s contention that Fox’s prudishness negatively impacted the film. The primary problem boils down to the basics of narrative construction: we did not know what our protagonist, The Counselor, wanted and his decisions, and the consequences from them, had no meaning for the audience. Even worse than a movie being boring is when you don’t care what happens.

Beginning writers often mistake murkiness with mystery. This issue was further compounded in the film when the unnamed Counselor is treated like a character archetype, without the sign posts that the audience needs to feel the universality of the main character’s problems. More blood, sex, and moralistic dialogue cannot fix such a basic problem.

The fact that such a glaring issue of storytelling escaped the attention of an experienced director, writer, cast, and studio demonstrates the importance of writers of all levels to understand and apply the basic narrative building blocks in their own work.

Martin Ott

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Misplaced Person: Anton DiSclafani

disclafani_photo

Here’s another in a series of interviews about writers and place. This time it’s Anton DiSclafani: Tennessean, Floridian, St. Louisan.

The title of Anton Disclafani’s debut novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls, is a trap. It sounds…pretty. Yonahlossee. So pretty. Say it three times while jangling your spurs and you might be transported to a sylvan fantasia with gurgling streams, crisp mountain air, youthful maidens astride loyal, stately beasts. And, well, it’s for girls. How dangerous could that be? But once locked in this novel, shackled to the narrative and the language, one finds that it’s gorgeous, yes, but treacherous, jagged, thorny, not a safe space at all. Following Thea Atwell through her depression-era Florida and North Carolina ain’t pretty at all. And that’s the way we like it.

– David Schuman

Where do you come from, originally?

I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and lived there until I was seven; then Davie, Florida until I was eleven; then Ocala, Florida until college.  I think of Ocala as my home, simply because I lived there longest, and remember it best.

What geographical area would you say defines you as a person and maybe also as a writer? This can be a specific place (New York, Cleveland) or a geographical element (mountains, prairies, ocean). How has this place or element defined your work, if it all?

In my first book, the mountains inform so much of the story.  They’re there from the very beginning.  The main character moves from flat, hot Florida to cool, mountainous North Carolina, and that move–the cognitive effects of going from one place to the other–is very much a part of the novel.  I prefer the mountains to any other landscape.  If I had my druthers, I’d have a mountain home.

My new book is set in Houston, Texas, and there is very little of the natural world in it, at least so far.  I’m writing about a city, instead, which is a bit of a shift from my first book.

Writing about a city kind of feels like writing about a person; writing about the natural world feels like writing about something else entirely, if that makes sense.  The natural world is permanent, or at least a lot more permanent than we are; when I was writing my first book I liked the idea that I was, essentially, writing about the same mountains that my character would have seen one hundred years ago.  Buildings are a reflection of the times, of the people who build them:  some of the buildings in 1950s Texas were almost impossibly ugly.  But I like writing about that manmade setting, a setting that is changeable and personable and meant to be receptive to its citizens. But there is nothing otherworldly (to me) about a building.  We build them, we tear them down.  They have character, but not permanence.  On the other hand, there’s something magical about the natural world.  We don’t know it, we’ll never know it.

Describe where you are now–describe a few things you’ve learned about this new place that have surprised/frightened/frustrated you?

I live in Saint Louis, Missouri, where I’ve lived for nine years, the longest I’ve lived any place.  I really like St. Louis, but I think I could like any place, given enough time.  I ride horses, and I like that I can drive out of the city and be in the country (at least semi-country) in half an hour.

How has your current location filtered into your work or your writing life?

This is the first place I’ve lived that’s had four definite seasons, so I write about seasons now, in my work.  That’s a very explicit answer.  On a different level, I like how uncrowded St. Louis feels, for a city.  There’s lots of space to write.

About the Author:

Anton DiSclafani’s first novel, THE YONAHLOSSEE RIDING CAMP FOR GIRLS, was a New York Times bestseller, an Indie Next pick and bestseller, and longlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize.  It was named a most anticipated book of the summer by The Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly, and was a summer book pick by USA Today and National Public Radio.

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Poetry Spotlight: Michele Battiste

Photo Michele Battiste

Good  love poems can be as difficult to find as good love. Too often, even accomplished poets, take on the love poem head on with a fevered description of lust and passion, often to the detriment of their other work in a collection.

In her book, Ink for the Odd Cartography, Michele Battiste provides us with love poems filled with the details of life. some danger, and  a dash of duende. Below, is one of the poems from that collection, Commitment , that I returned to several times in order to experience the dangers and delights of what commitment means.

Martin Ott

Commitment

This church drowns, legs

kicking and churning eddies

at the altar, the sacristy filmed

with silt.  I am not to mourn

here, my shoes ruined

with stickseed and blister

juice, my sorrow like milk-

weed forced from its pod.

The plane plummets, the car

crashes, the millet rusts

across the road.  This side,

windrows are thinning

and wait to be baled

and the babies are impatient

underground, smacking

their fists at roots.  Soil

shrivels in the autumn drought.

The Reverend Myrtle Tuttle

predicted gravel and a foul

moon.  My love, one day

I will marry you, bend

to pick up blossoms

that drop from my crown.

I promise I will lose

the map of the cemetery,

a penciled circle marking

your collapsed mound.

Previously published in Mikrokosmos

About the Author:

Michele Battiste is the author of two books of poem: Ink for an Odd Cartography (2009) and Uprising (2013, forthcoming), both from Black Lawrence Press. She also has four chapbooks, the most recent of which is Lineage from Binge Press. She lives in Colorado where she raises money for corporations undoing corporate evil.

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Writeliving Interview – Kazim Ali

kazim_bio2

I have long admired the work of Kazim Ali, and the grace with which he writes in all genres. We’re thrilled to have him shares his insights into his creative process.

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Physical practices (yoga and mid-distance running) and meditative practices as well. Anything to quiet the conscious mind in relationship to the world that exists. Sometimes words and phrases come on walks, sometimes in breath, once a couplet that turned into a whole book (The Fortieth Day) came as I sat in meditation staring at a white wall.

Certain writers have been important to me. It is hard to make a list but Donald Revell, Lucille Clifton, Jean Valentine, Fanny Howe, Jorie Graham, Li-Young Lee, Agha Shahid Ali, Lisel Mueller and Mahmoud Darwish would be a starting point. In painting Agnes Martin, Hans Hofmann and Makoto Fujimura. In music Alice Coltrane, Yoko Ono, Donna Delory and John Cage. In fiction Virginia Woolf, Carole Maso, Bhanu Kapil.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I write longhand. Drafts for a really long time. I need time and space between initial writing and trying to see the shape of something. Sometimes I wait three or four months, sometimes I wait a year or more. Often I will end up with a manuscript suddenly because it has been coalescing in scraps for so long. Then I can read it like a book and revise it for almost equally as long.

How has teaching impacted your writing?

It’s forced me to read more deeply. If I give enough time between draft and revision I can look at my own writing as if a stranger wrote it. That is why it is good for a student to write something good every week, so they can stay fresh and keep moving forward. What’s wrong with creative writing pedagogy (including, at the moment, my own) is that we then ask students to revise this work in the same semester it is written. That can feel false and forced. Better to keep turning the page, keep moving forward, keep generating material. I am not sure I believe in the “workshop” as a way of teaching. I would rather teach by just introducing and talking about the poems I love the most and then give the students assignments. Then they come back and read the assignment to the class. General discussion can follow on craft and energetic direction of the work.

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

Read widely. Do not waste too much time trying to write a perfect poem. Write as much as you can. Expression is important. Vowels are important. Study another language long enough that you are able to read in that other language. Write a poem in English that you think would be impossible to translate into another language. Translate a poem from another language into English. Consonants are important too. You don’t have to read the tradition but you should study the mechanics of prosody. Be very very serious about making time for reading and for writing.

How do you go about balancing the mythic and personal in your work?

I’m not sure I do it. Icarus is me. The myths speak to our true human natures. My poems were filled with boys falling from the sky and boys drowning. So I guess it was because I couldn’t breathe. We are drawn to those stories that speak most clearly about our own nature. Though I am a maker of things, I never related to Daedalus, the father but rather with Icarus, the son.

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

At a certain point you have to choose writing. Like Rilke wrote to the Young Poet, you think about it all the time. You stop getting attached to it as a “dream” and start thinking of it as a biological function. Diego Rivera said, “I make paintings the way a tree makes leaves.” It’s just something you do, it is a way of encountering the world.

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

Before I returned to school to study for my MFA I worked for four years as an organizer and was very active in the student movement, serving as the president of the United States Student Association (www.usstudents.org) and as a trainer for the Midwest Academy (an institute devoted to training social justice and union organizers).

About the Author:

Kazim Ali is a poet, essayist, fiction writer and translator.

His books include several volumes of poetry, including Sky Ward(Wesleyan University Press, 2013), The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books’ New England/New York Award, The Fortieth Day (BOA Editions, 2008), and the cross-genre text Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities (Wesleyan University Press, 2009). He has also published a translation ofWater’s Footfall by Sohrab Sepehri (Omnidawn Press, 2011), and (with Libby Murphy) L’amour by Marguerite Duras (Open Letter Books, 2013). His novels include Quinn’s Passage (blazeVox books), named one of “The Best Books of 2005” by Chronogram magazine and The Disappearance of Seth (Etruscan Press, 2009), and his books of essays include Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence (University of Michigan Press, 2010),Fasting for Ramadan (Tupelo Press, 2011).

In addition to co-editing Jean Valentine: This-World Company (University of Michigan Press, 2012), he is a contributing editor for AWP Writers Chronicle and associate editor of the literary magazine FIELD and founding editor of the small press Nightboat Books.

He is an associate professor of Creative Writing and Comparative Literature at Oberlin College.

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