Tag Archives: Poetry

Writeliving Interview: Matthew Olzmann

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Photo by Evans Tasiopoulos 

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

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

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

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

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

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

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

How has teaching impacted your own writing?

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

What are you currently working on?

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

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

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

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Eight Stages of Writing a Poem

Guest Blog Post by Rick Bursky

Rick Bursky photo

1 Fishing

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

2 Collecting

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

3 Expanding/Building

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

4 Shaping

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

5 Titling

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

6 Reading

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

7 Revising

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

8 Evaluating

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

 

 

 

 

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Writeliving Interview – Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass Photo

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

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

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

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

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

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

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

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

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

How has teaching impacted your own writing?

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

What are you currently working on?

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

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

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

Have you read anything recently that really got you excited?

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

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

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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.

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Internet Literary News, July 2014

Nadine Gordimer

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

Martin Ott

The Loss of Nadine Gordimer

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

Issues of Re-Issues

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

Don’t Go Into Poetry for the Money, Honey

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

Writers Who Run the Literary Internet?

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

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

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

Odds and Ends

Here’s a few other links I found entertaining:

The First Asian American Superhero: The Green Turtle

What Writers Can Learn from Goodnight Moon

Computer Engineering: a Fine Day Job for a Poet

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Internet Literary News, June 2014

Pablo Neruda photo

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

Martin Ott

Newruda

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

Pulitzer Prize Poetry Politics

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

New US Poet Laureate Will Do…?

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

Alan Grossman RIP

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

Amazon Looking to Bury the Hachette?

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

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Writeliving Interview: Stephen Dobyns

Photo Stephen Dobyns

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

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

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

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

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

How has teaching impacted your writing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wouldn’t know where to begin.

About the Author:

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

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Writeliving Interview – Campbell McGrath

Campbell McGrath Photo

Campbell McGrath has been a major influence on my work, particularly my poetic collaborations with John F. Buckley about America on Brooklyn Arts Press. I’m excited that he took the time to share insights into his writing life with us. Please check out his advice on voice–priceless!

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Always tricky to limit the list of influences, but a pretty obvious answer for me is Walt Whitman, who opened up the scope of American poetry for all who have followed him. In that same American vein, Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie, despite their different genres, have been important models for me, along with poets like James Wright and Richard Hugo. On the other hand, poets like Rilke, Transtromer and Basho have taught me essential things–I can’t imagine my poetry without their influence. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. And these days, the sea is full of icebergs.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Well, in general the writing process is two-part: the mysterious, internal process by which inspiration guides you to the poem in its original state; and then the hard work of developing and revising the poem to its final form. The first of these resists too much helpful advice from me, or anyone else. Usually my first drafts show up in notebooks, or scrawled on a piece of paper somewhere. From there, I work up a first draft on the computer, print it out, and revise it by hand– then go back and forth between the computer screen and the printed page. The poem has distinct identities in those two mediums, I think. Also, I am a big fan of solving problems in my sleep, and I always try to read the latest draft of a new poem before bedtime, and often wake up with just the missing word or image.

How has teaching impacted your writing?

I studied poetry in high school, in college, and in an MFA program–and learned a lot. But I only really LEARNED a lot of those things when I became a teacher. When you know you have to stand before a class full of kinds and field their questions, you suddenly realize where the holes and weak points are in your own learning. So you get busy and really master material that you have only digested casually before. I’ve been teaching for more than 25 years, but I still find teaching to be personally educational as well as enriching.

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

Keep writing. Finding one’s voice is an essential starting point for all writers. You can’t find it by thinking about writing– you can only find it while actually writing. The process, like the old Magic 8-ball fortune teller, reveals all the answers. Also I would say this: find your voice, write enough poems in that voice to really master it, and then abandon it. Find another, larger, more ambitious voice– or to switch metaphors, grow your voice, like a plant, for a single seedling to an entire forest.

Do you consider yourself part of any school of poetry?

No.

How has American history and culture influenced your writing?

I write about America very often–about place, travels, culture, and society–which is the world that created me, and that I still struggle to comprehend. So, it has “influenced” me doubly–by shaping my world and making the person I am, that’s the first level. Then it has re-influenced me in that I take up various aspects of our history, say, to write about, as in my fairly recent book, SHANNON: A POEM OF THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION. It’s a big world, with lots to write about, but I find America endlessly intriguing.

How would you finish this sentence: “A poem is…?”

…a piece of art made entirely of words.

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

Writing poetry is nothing but adversity. It’s really hard, it takes up all your time, it obsesses you–but it pays little or nothing. So you need a day job, and poetry is therefore a second, unpaid career you practice in your time off. I happen to be at the lucky end of this spectrum, with a good teaching job, and the receipt of several awards which paid me actual cash money. But even so–poets get all the respect in the world from me, simply for persevering in the face of economic reality.

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

I am a big sports fan–Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins, Miami Heat, New Zealand All Blacks, Barcelona–that’s five sports but I could ​ name others if I tried.

About the Author:

Campbell McGrath is the author of ten books of poetry, including Spring Comes to Chicago, Florida Poems, Seven Notebooks, and most recently In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco Press, 2012).  He has received many of America’s major literary prizes for his work, including the Kingsley Tufts Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, a USA Knight Fellowship, and a Witter-Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress. His poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic and on the op-ed page of the New York Times, as well as in scores of literary reviews and quarterlies. Born in Chicago, he lives with his family in Miami Beach and teaches at Florida International University, where he is the Philip and Patricia Frost Professor of Creative Writing.

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Writeliving Interview – Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout photo

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate National Poetry Month than with an interview with one of our best, brightest, and most influential poets Rae Armantrout. My copy of Versed is pretty dog-eared at this point, and I have a soft spot in my heart and a big place on my bookshelf for quintessential California writers.

Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Early on I was influenced in different ways by William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson – Dickinson because she was a fearless thinker and a woman. When I was growing up it was still assumed that women would restrict themselves to thinking about love and domesticity. She used poetry to confront and argue with God, death, etc. But I think I got my line from Williams. His work is quite sonically beautiful even when it’s minimalist. And then,  among my contemporaries, Ron Silliman has had a huge influence on my writing because he is willing to read my drafts and give me his honest opinion. And, because he’s been reading me so long, his takes on my poems are really astute so he knows when something isn’t quite done or when it is but I won’t stop fiddling with it.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

I make handwritten notes in a journal first. The note could be an observation. I might write down a snippet of overheard conversation, or a bit of something I read, or a response to something I read, or a description of something I see. Often there’s an unresolved feeling in these notes or an idea I can’t quite put my finger on. Then I feel like a detective because I’m going after that “thing” I sense. Maybe I try to  write more in the direction of the feeling/thought (I don’t separate the two) as if I were following it.  Other times I wait for more information to appear. Sometimes the poem happens when there are enough elements (bits) that feel somehow related. Then I start stitching the parts together. By this time I’m working on an iPad or computer. I usually go through a lot of drafts.

How has teaching impacted your writing?

I’m not sure. Indirectly. Once in awhile I actually do a take-off on something I catch myself saying to a class. I think, did I really say that? Do I mean it? And I go from there. And sometimes I’m “inspired” by something I read for class. Right now I’m team teaching a class called Poetry for Physicists with an actual physicist, Brian Keating, who played an important role in the recent discovery of gravity waves! So he got famous just as we started co-teaching! I’ve been trying to think of ways to discuss literary essays and poems with science students. That has been an interesting stretch. Two days ago I actually made a (simple) flow chart for the first time in my life! So we’ll see what comes of that!

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

Well The Waste Land was originally called He Do the Police in Different Voices. I think that’s an excellent title. My advice is to realize there are lots of voices in your head. Let them all come out and play. I do.

Do you consider yourself part of any school of poetry?

We’re like fish that way I guess. We school. Seriously, I was educated by participating in the Language Poetry revolution. Those poets are my real colleagues. But we’re all very different writers. Always were really.

How has living in California shaped your poetic voice and sensibilities?

I’m a California native. I’ve always lived here so it’s a little like asking the proverbial fish what the sea is like. That said, I think my time in northern California gave me a particular poetic education. And the space, light, and flora of southern California enter my poems as images all the time. I came from literary nowhere. Neither of my parents went to college. I started reading on my own and I ended up at Berkeley which was the beginning of a shaping experience. But when I was starting out, I didn’t have a very strong sense of what was looming above me, if you see what I mean. I didn’t know enough to be intimidated or feel overshadowed. Oddly, that may have worked to my advantage. I was dancing by myself so I wasn’t inhibited.

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

Well, my answer above describes the first adversity I faced. I started out behind and I didn’t even know it. Only someone as insanely stubborn as I am would have decided, standing on the sidewalk in front of a suburban convenience store, that she could be a poet. I didn’t even realize that the world was losing interest in poetry!  Sometimes not knowing anything is an advantage. I did know about sexism though. When I tried showing my high school English teacher my poems, he said, “Women can’t write poetry.” That just made me angry. Anger too can be helpful!

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

If I haven’t already said it, I probably don’t want people to know! But here’s an easy answer. I like to dance. I listen to top 40 radio in my car. And I play “The Fame Monster” (Lady Gaga) and “My Head is an Animal” (Monsters and Men) often when I’m driving.  Bob Dylan and The Stones as well.

About the Author:

Just Saying, Rae Armantrout’s most recent book of poems, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2013. Versed (Wesleyan, 2009) received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Next Life (Wesleyan, 2007) was chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by The New York Times. Other recent books include Money Shot (Wesleyan, 2011,) Collected Prose (Singing Horse, 2007), Up to Speed (Wesleyan, 2004), The Pretext (Green Integer, 2001), and Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). Her poems have been included in anthologies such as The Best of the Best American Poetry: 1988-2012 (2013), The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry (2013), The Open Door: 100 Poems, 100 Years of Poetry Magazine, (Chicago, 2012), American Hybrid (Norton, 2009), American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Language Meets the Lyric Tradition, (Wesleyan, 2002), The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford, 2006) and The Best American Poetry of 1988, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2012. Armantrout received an award in poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. She is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, San Diego. Writing in Poetry magazine, Ange Mlinko has said, “I would trade the bulk of contemporary anecdotal free verse for more incisive, chilling poetry like Armantrout’s.”

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The Poetry of Sherman Alexie’s War Dances

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One of my New Year’s resolutions is to better utilize the lengthy commute to my job by the Los Angeles airport. Another is to read more in 2014 than in 2013. Another is to be more budget conscious. Multi-tasker that I am, I decided to combine all of these resolutions together in the form of library audio books.

So I went to the Los Feliz Public Library and was embarrassed to discover that my old library card had gone inactive and I needed to fill out a new form. My first selection with my new card was War Dances by Sherman Alexie.I have read a number of Alexie’s stories and poems in magazines over the years, but hadn’t yet read one of his books.

War Dances is a combo platter of short stories, flash fiction, and essayistic vignettes. I was quite moved by Alexie’s ability to weave hardscrabble stories with complex themes and layered mythologies while still managing to shape the stories in a way that made it seem like your literate uncle was sitting down next to you and sharing a story from his life. Alexie’s voice was hypnotic for my commute that week, and I instantly became aware of poetic threads throughout his work::

  • Bookend poems that help frame the collection
  • Odes to mix tapes, sweethearts, and pay phones
  • Imbedded poems within stories

What strikes me most, however, is that there is little difference between the poetry and the prose. The poems have the same accessibility and humor of Alexie’s prose, and the prose contains aspects of what might be considered narrative poetry. For example, I’m not sure I’ve encountered a prose writer who so effectively and continuously utilizes repetition. Nouns are repeated throughout the book in a singsong flurry, mostly in groups of threes. In the story Invisible Dog on a Leash, the protagonist states: “Isn’t it cool to live in Bigfoot country? In the heart of Bigfoot country? In the heart of the heart of Big foot country?”

There are also multiple examples of meditations on things, that remind me of object poems, from the bat in Breaking and Entering, to the owl in Bird Watching at Night, to the cockroach in War Dances. There are also a few times where Alexie provides clinical or dictionary definitions of certain words, then use the word in a metaphor or analogy. In The Ballad of Paul Nonetheless, the protagonist defines “microlender” in the context of a woman he is interested in, then later uses it in a different context to define his relationship with his daughter.

Even though I occasionally become annoyed when it felt like the author’s voice intruded into the stories, I happily listened to War Dances twice. I’m pretty sure that the fiction writer and poet inside of me won’t have to get into a fistfight for me to select another book of Alexie’s for a future week of commutes.

Martin Ott

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