Category Archives: Writing

Writeliving Interview – Kazim Ali

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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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Writeliving Interview – Amy Gerstler

Any Gerstler Photo

Lately, we’ve seen a lot of lists of influential poets. Amy Gerstler would definitely appear high up on mine. She is yet another example of how So. Cal has plenty of writing heavyweights. She was gracious enough to share some of her writing life with us. Enjoy.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Dennis Cooper was a major mentor to me in college and beyond. He transformed my life, pointed me in important literary directions, introduced me to Rimbaud so much else when I was very wide eyed and naïve and unworldy. David Lehman has also been a generous mentor whose approach to writing and teaching has taught me tons. Other authors I would love to believe have affected or will affect my work in the future include: Wislawa Szymborska, James Tate, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Tom Clark, Sei Shonagon, Charles Simic, Marianne Moore, Russell Edson, Frank O’Hara, Franz Kafka, Elizabeth Bishop, Lucia Perillo, MFK Fisher, Phillip Larkin, Rainier Maria Rilke, John Ashbery, Mark Twain, Elaine Equi, Eileen Myles, Benjamin Weissman, Walter Benjamin’s writing about drugs, Robert Walser, Donald Barthelme, Walt Whitman, Alice Notley, Ai. I could go on forever with this sort of list, past influences, current ones, writers whose work I hope will yank my writing in fresh and better directions.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I tend to be a collagist and cull from a variety of different sources. Research and note taking help me generate phrases and ideas and get juices flowing. I love doing research and collecting odd bits of language. Usually I need to be surrounded by books I can flop open and cannabalize in order to write. I just learned the word syncretistic and have a bit of a crush on the word at the moment. I consider myself a syncretistic poet. Old reference and text books, instructional or spiritual texts, science and nature books, art and film texts, old national geographics, books on ancient religions or archaeology, the newspaper….anything wordy and strange and packed with odd information could be useful. It’s hard for me to leave used bookstores empty handed. My house is a chaos of piled, crammed, shelved, stacked booksprawl. (This is typical writer stuff, I think.)

How has teaching impacted your work as a writer?

What a blooming miracle to be able to teach to support one’s writing. What a relief. It’s amazing to have a job that’s related to writing. A job you like. This is a big luxury, especially these days, when it’s a gift to have a job at all. To get paid for hanging out with smart, talented young humans and hearing what they’re reading, interested in, thinking about, worried about, wanting to do is kind of nirvana. Trading ideas with them. It’s like having a bunch of literary scouts out in the world. Ditto for accomplished colleagues who are writers or literary scholars or artists or scientists, etc. obsessed with some version of the things you’re obsessed with: writing, books, information, figuring out how to balance supporting yourself and forging a writer’s life. Students and colleagues teach me a lot. And of course preparing to teach whatever writers, forms, and books you assign, immersing yourself in all that, enriches your brain for writing too. Teaching forces me into the world in ways I’d probably avoid if I wasn’t compelled to do it, being a natural hermit, so that’s probably healthy. Otherwise I would just be living in a cave with a couple of feral dogs, eating berries, grunting and scratching and talking to myself, or something pretty close to that lifestyle. And having the amenities of a college or university available (library, bookstore, lectures and classes you could theoretically attend, visting writers and academics who come through, an intellectual and research community, a center of learning etc.) doesn’t hurt, either. So these things help my work, (and I should take advantage of them more!) The down side is of course teaching sucks up precious time and energy. It’s great but depleting. That’s the trade off. And I’m shy so being in front of a class is always a bit of a leap for me.

Do you consider yourself part of any movement in poetry?

No. Sometimes I regret that, not having that special camaraderie, but I’m a loner, mostly.

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

Nothing they haven’t already thought of and that hasn’t been already said to them repeatedly: write tons, read tons, find peers, go to readings, cultivate your obsessions, try to customize your life so that writing is at the center of everything. Fill yourself with whatever inspires you, and if you don’t know, try lots of things: art, music, all forms of literature, nature, solitude, love, travel, sex, ballroom dancing competitions, making pastry, whatever. Be patient and persist. Keep keeping at it. Have faith. I know this is cornball but believe in your work and its potential as though it were your kid. Remember art can be play. Push your work out into the world when you’re ready so you can see what happens. Don’t take rejection personally, or at least try to work towards that admirable goal of calm detachment.

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

I’ve been lucky as a writer. Real nasty adversity hasn’t reared its head much so far in my literary life. Sure, I’ve had difficulties and disappointments, who hasn’t, but many of them were probably self inflicted when I look back and think about it. When I hear the term “adversity” I think of truly dire stuff: Denton Welch writing while lying in bed horribly injured, or Dennis Potter sipping morphine from a to-go cup during his final illness to keep going long enough finish his last work, or what I’ve been reading recently about the bravery of David Rakoff hanging on to complete a final project while suffering a similar punishing fatal illness. My tiny troubles look microscopic in comparison. When I was much younger I sent out 30 or so inquiry letters over a period of time trying to get a book published and no one would even agree to read it. I was discouraged by that for quite a while. Then by pure happenstance the editor of  a lovely publishing house (the now defunct North Point Press) saw the manuscript and got interested. That kind of thing is why I vehemently advise young writers to persevere.

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

That I am double jointed. That I love Ella Fitzgerald’s voice to the point of swooning. That I am a big fan of graphic novels.

About the Author

Amy Gerstler’s most recent books of poetry include Dearest Creature,  Ghost Girl,  Medicine,  and Crown of Weeds. She teaches at University of California at Irvine.

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Poetry and Professional Life: Balance? What’s That?

Guest Post by Victoria Chang

Photo Victoria Chang

When asked to write a blog post on juggling professional life and a life in poetry, the irony of course, is that I am too busy to add yet another thing (however small) onto my plate. The very same week my self-imposed deadline for this blog post arrived (too fast), my own third book of poems, The Boss, came out from McSweeney’s Poetry Series, I was just starting a new project at work, we had just brought home a new puppy, our two kids (7 and 5) had summer camp 30 minutes each way, and I was on my way to do a slew of readings for my new book in San Francisco!

Plenty of people throughout history and in real-time have schedules like mine, and even worse. People often talk about Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot, who both were successful at working in business and simultaneously writing poetry. I read somewhere that Stevens, an insurance lawyer, had his assistant type up his poems that he wrote at work and that he liked to work because it gave him discipline and regularity and he didn’t need to worry about money.

But there aren’t a lot of examples of people who have successfully juggled work (especially in business) and the literary life, especially in the case of women and/or mothers. Plus I think that there’s a stigma, especially in poetry, if you work in anything commerce-related. I think it can be perceived as crass and non-artistic. I can think that poetry and a professional business life are not mutually exclusive, but if the “establishment” doesn’t think so, I’m out of luck…

…or am I? The thing is, if you write poetry that others want to read, establishment or not, if you say something important in a way that is arresting or different, or even something non-important in an arresting way, I still am an optimist and a purist and think that all the juggling of time is worth it in the end.

At the end of the day, I think everyone needs to think about what’s important to them and how they want to live their lives and just do those things, however much time each activity takes and no matter how hard it all seems. And not worry so much about what others think is “normal” or “conventional” or even “acceptable.” If that means writing poems once every two years, versus the prescriptive two hours each morning, then so be it. Your actions will show you what you want to do.

Our 7-year-old daughter finished a two-week writing camp a week ago and told me that a boy teased her for only writing half-a-page. After reading the boy’s 5-page description of his trip to Disney Land, I had to explain to our daughter, who had thought of a fiction story using her imagination, that age-old cliché: “Quality is more important than quantity.” I believe that and try to live that every single day with everything that I do, and that goes for poetry too.

Sometimes I watch our new dachshund puppy let his nose lead the way. I like to think I have something to learn from that little guy. I let my nose lead my way and try and block out all the other white noise.

 About the Author:

Victoria Chang is a poet and works in marketing and communications. She has an MFA and an MBA.  Her third book of poems, The Boss, is just out from McSweeney’s. She lives in Southern California with her family.

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To Be a Poet

Guest Post by Christopher Soto

Christopher Soto Photo

“Dad, I want to be a poet.”

He didn’t understand what I was trying to tell him and, honestly, I didn’t understand either.

We were sitting together at lunch in downtown Long Beach when I told him that I would not be taking the job at his company after my graduation from college. Instead, I would be dropping my double major, graduating early, and moving to San Francisco to write.

“I want to be a poet.”

In San Francisco I shared my room with a queer latino photographer and a cute french boy. We lived in the basement of a three story house, in the hood, with fifteen other people. I spent my nights drinking beer and reading about anarchy. I spent my days recovering from hangovers and writing about the juvenile detention center where I once volunteered.

I finished writing my first novel in that house and, somehow, I got a phone call from Deborah Landau at NYU while living there too. On the phone, I was offered admission to the MFA program (emphasis in poetry) at NYU. My decision was made quickly.

“I want to be a poet.”

After living in San Francisco for a number of months, I decided that I needed more writing material, more life experience. I wanted to backpack the country! And so I left all my belongings, pulled all my savings, and took to the road– spending time around Rhode Island, New York, Illinois, and eventually Tennessee (where I learned how to garden).

I spent a month in the woods of Tennessee, sleeping alone in a tent, using my jacket as a pillow. I woke to new mosquito bites and the sight of hippies shitting in the trees. My meals were plucked with my hands, my showers taken from the stream, and I never felt so free.

“I don’t want to be a poet.”

Sitting at a bone-fire below the naked sky, I realized that I didn’t want to be a poet anymore. I didn’t want anything. We were reading excerpts from our journals as if there were auditoriums of people surrounding us. And we knew that the degrees, teaching jobs, and publications would never make us more of poets. We already were poets, words fluming with the smoke.

Earlier this year I gave up a job and a double major. Then I gave up a new city, my belongings, and my savings– to travel, to write, to learn contentedness. I don’t want anymore. I am not an aspiring or emerging poet. I am a poet.

In the Fall of 2013 I will begin my MFA at NYU and I will continue writing in this fashion- as if nothing exists except for the poet and the poem, as if my poems understand all that I am willing to give in order for them to exist, as if they would never ask me to give everything. And we will be free together.

About the Author 

Christopher Soto is a queer latino poet from Southern California who published his first chapbook, How To Eat Glass, with Still Life Press in 2012. He is currently an MFA candidate at New York University.

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Misplaced Person – Eric Lundgren

Eric Lundgren Photo

Eric Lundgren is the ideal writer to interview about place–first off, his soon-to-be-released, amazing first novel The Facades is all about it, and second of all, because I see him everywhere, all over town. He pops up the way memory does. Like, hey, where did that come from? I’ll be downtown looking at the quarters at the bottom of a fountain and wondering why people don’t just throw pennies (you get one wish, no matter what the value of the coin happens to be, right?) and I’ll look up and there’s Eric Lundgren, across the park. Or I’ll be driving along Kingshighway, stuck behind some city utility truck that reeks of tar, and I’ll see Eric Lundgren walking along the road. I don’t even think there’s a sidewalk there! But in a flash it’s too late for me to shout out, offer him a ride. And, you know, it’s really hard to turn around right there. Anyway, the point is as far as I know Eric Lundgren is everywhere. I have a feeling the rest of you are going to feel that way soon. Keep your eyes open.

David Schuman

Eric Lundgren – Essay in Response to Interview Questions

I was born in Cleveland in 1977. I lived there for only six months and have never been back, except once passing through it on an Amtrak train. I can’t decide if I want to visit or not. Sometimes I prefer my own delusions about places. According to my parents, I also joined them in the late seventies for a backpacking trip across the Alps. In the pictures I appear as a spectral presence and barely formed being. That trip still represents my longest stay in Europe, although I have returned to spend time in the U.K., Germany, and France. My knowledge of Europe comes mostly from its fiction, although my parents are very well-traveled and my father taught high school German, so we hosted guys named Horst, Gerhard, and Klaus at the house when we were kids. I think a dream of Europe hangs over my otherwise very American work.

Naming the Midwestern city in my first novel after Trude, from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, felt like a provocative gesture when I started the book, eight years ago. The idea of a continuous city where everything is familiar and only the name of the airport changes, I took this to be a widespread coastal prejudice about the Midwest. The challenge would be to render my Midwestern Trude as a locale of real intrigue, sadness, and fascination. In trying to achieve this, I ended up conflating many of my own Midwestern experiences, many of them taking place in Minneapolis/St. Paul, where I grew up, many others drawn from St. Louis, where I’ve been living while writing the book. So maybe I ended up undercutting my own point and saying that all Midwestern experiences are on the same continuum—I’m not sure.

One of my ambitions is to write about the Midwest not in a gently humorous mode, a la Garrison Keillor, or as a theatre for quietly snuffed realist dreams, but in a sort of estranged, almost grotesque mode, the way Flannery O’Connor wrote about the South, or the way Thomas Bernhard wrote about Austria. This could be a deeply bad idea. I find the region on the whole quite weird, including the widely held belief of its inhabitants that it’s a second-class place and not really worth discussing in detail.

So yeah, the play of light and shadow on wind-flattened cornfields, emptied Main Streets, agricultural conglomerates, methamphetamines, taciturn people in sweatshirts, prairie dogs, the crickets at night, abandoned movie palaces, Super Walmarts, the schizophrenia of the weather – these are all elements of the region that feed my imagination.

A correspondent for Al Jazeera wrote a column arguing that all American cities would come to resemble St. Louis in the 21st century. That may be—in any case, you do see staggering inequities of wealth displayed here. Total wealth and total poverty coexisting within a few city blocks of each other. We have all the urban problems. You’re acutely aware of living in the shell of an older, greater city. But sometimes I see a building and I’m not sure if it’s in the process of demolition or half-built – going down or up. That sense of ambiguity draws a lot of creative people here. There is a sense that you can do something.

The Arch, unlike many other visual clichés I’ve encountered, gathers depth and magnificence the longer you live beside it, seeing it from different angles and in different light. I remember returning to the city in a rainstorm once and watching it almost hover out of a cloud. In 1965, William S. Burroughs wrote that it looked like the only landmark to survive an apocalyptic event, and I was pleased to see that this was the premise of a recent SciFi network series. Despite what an icon it has become, there is a quiet reverence for the Arch here. Likewise, my time in this city has been rich, surprising, multifaceted.

About the Author

Eric Lundgren was born in Cleveland, grew up in Minneapolis, studied in Portland and St. Louis, and would like to be in Berlin this summer. His first novel, The Facades, is published by The Overlook Press in September.

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