Saturday, March 15, 2014

Blog Tour: My Writing Process

52ยบ ~ leaden skies, not a slip of wind to speak of, spring buds advance in the face of possible snow and ice in the forecast for tomorrow, this is the winter that just won't quit


Dear Readers, as most of you know, my Midwest, puritan roots run deep, even though I’m now living south of the snow line. It is with much guilt and self-recrimination that I confess to you all that I missed a deadline this week. Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I let a commitment fall through the cracks; I can’t even remember the last time I showed up late for a meeting.

But that’s what I’ve done to my wonderful poet-friend, Erin Coughlin Hollowell. Erin invited me to participate in a blog-a-thon, and normally I pass on such things, but this one sounded fun, a series of questions about one’s own writing process. Each person is supposed to answer these questions and then pass them on. I’ve passed the questions to another great poet-friend, Angie Macri, whose first chapbook is forthcoming. Angie doesn’t blog, so watch for her answers here at the Kangaroo on Saturday, March 22.

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I first “met” Erin through poetry and blogging. Erin writes at Being Poetry and is the author of Pause, Traveler released by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press. You can read my thoughts on this fabulous book here.

With great delight, I was able to make my personal, physical introduction with Erin at AWP several years ago, and I made sure to seek her out in Seattle this year for a quick hello and a hug. Erin’s poems are the best kinds of poems: genuine, authentic, and cathartic. I can’t wait to read more of her work, and I’m thrilled when I find her name on the back cover of a journal or in the preview list for an online mag, flipping/clicking to the table of contents immediately to find her new poems. Lately, those journals include Alaska Quarterly Review, Terrain.org, and Sugar House Review.

Read all about Erin at: http://erincoughlinhollowell.com/
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Now to the blog-a-thon questions.

What am I working on?

Nothing. Zero. Zilch.

To clarify, at the moment, I’m experiencing a fallow period. I finished the sickly speaker series and am sending that manuscript around and around and around (on the oh-please-pick-this-manuscript carousel go-round). The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths is alive and well, which means I’ve been doing readings, working with my publisher Jacar Press on getting the word out there, and revisiting these old poems that are suddenly new again. Yes, I worked on the angry sisters for a bit late last year, but they really haven’t stepped up to the forefront again.

All of this is to say, I am a poet in search of an obsession. Blood Almanac and The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths are all about the prairie and the people of the prairie (in the contemporary sense rather than the Laura Ingalls Wilder sense). The sickly speaker broke whatever spell the prairie had on me by weaving her own voice into mine. Now, I’m searching, scanning the horizon for something new.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?*

In terms of my poems about the Midwest, many poets write about place and do it well. When I wrote those poems, I knew I was following in a tradition and I had amazing mentors and models from whom to draw. With that being said though, my poems differ by being about a quiet, some would say repressed, place. Yes, those poems are not poems of rebellion, not poems of trying to break free, as I never felt trapped by that quiet and that wide-open, weighty sky.

The sickly speaker poems, many of which are now seeing the light of day in journals, may be considered different by some as I adopted and adapted the “baroque complexities” of language used by poets such as Lucie Brock-Broido, Lisa Russ Spaar, and Mary Ann Samyn.

*I am a bit suspect of this question, as I wonder about the need to “differ.” Of course, each poet should establish his/her voice, and no one wants to simply imitate others. However, poetry has broken wide open these days to embrace everything from spoken word art to the “difficult” poets. We all may differ to one degree or another, but we are all exploring language through concision/precision and sound, we are all of us attempting to give voice to the unsayable condition of being human.

Why do I write what I do?

Because I read what I read, I know who I know, and I am who I am.

Reading: It is the number one piece of advice I give to anyone who asks me how they too might become a published writer. If you aren’t reading (both in your genre and widely outside of it), you are not exploring your medium. Reading, and listening by extention, expands our vocabularies and exposes us to varying syntaxes. There is as much to be learned about writing from a book by my fellow poet as there is from listening to a spoken word poet perform or attending a play, as much to gather from reading an article from Nature, or even, shudder, Forbes.

Networking: This is not a dirty word and writers need to get a grip on this. We do not exist in a vacuum. Our friendships, both within our writing worlds and beyond, inform what we write. I have many poet friends whose work differs from mine in theme or form, but reading their work and talking with them about poetry (be it in person or online) make me a better poet.

I am: A person who identifies with the land and the weather; this is a direct result of my formative years. A woman, a daughter & auntie, a wife, a co-guardian of two cats, a community college instructor, a homeowner, a liberal Democrat living in a red state, and a Law & Order (the original) and Big Bang Theory addict. And I am so much more. My point is that every part of my life bubbles up and through my writing.

How does my writing process work?

I have to have a largish amount of time (at least an hour but preferably several hours) first thing in the morning. I have to have this time before the cares, worries, and tasks of the day get their talons sunk into me. For whatever reason, after I’m fully interacting with the world, I can no longer set aside my to-do lists or my worries about family, friends, students, etc. to focus on writing. However, if I can get to the desk before any of that, I’m good. I can set all of that aside and just get lost in language.

I need a cup of coffee (breakfast blend, super hot, Silk French vanilla creamer) and a glass of orange juice (30% juice, 70% water, lots of ice).

I need either quiet with just the sounds of birds, wind, squirrels, and the occasional car going by. Or I need instrumental music, usually strings (see Yo-Yo Ma and Steffen Basho-Junghans).

I need a window onto something green and alive.

I need books and journals piled around and tipping over on me. I need my own writing journal and a good pen (currently I’m using a Uni-Ball Signo 207 in blue-black or in red-black). *There can be nothing on my desk from my “other” life, no bills that need paying, no papers that need grading, no letters from friends, no wallets, scraps, or other clutter outside of poetry.

I need the cats to leave me in peace.

Once all of that is in place, I usually begin as so many others do, by reading. I might gather words in my journal; I might stare out the window. Inevitably, something snags in my brain; two or more words smash together like steel on flint, and shazam, a line begins to form. There will then be much scribbling, by hand, in my journal. There may be lines, arrows, boxes, circles phrases. There will certainly be cross-outs and slash marks overtop of nearly illegible words. It’s a total mess of a page. Eventually, there will be lines of words forming themselves into something like stanzas. When those lines gather enough weight, I move to the computer and draft until I “think” I have a “complete” poem. I have found that if I stop before the poem feels “done-ish,” I can’t go back and “finish” the poem. There is a certain organic energy to drafting for me, which perhaps explains why my poems are usually a page or less in length. The long poem eludes me, like the proverbial big fish lounging around in the mucky bottom waters.


There’s a lot about this process that is hazy, but the process is a result of years of work, years of training my brain to shift into writing mode, and years of being alert and aware of the world and the people around me when I’m not at my desk.

2 comments:

Shawnte Orion said...

I am often drawn to the poets who write in ways I don't or can't. Maybe there's something exotic about that territory that is so forreign to my own tendencies, but I like to think that it also stretches my own limitations on some fundamental level.

Sandy Longhorn said...

Shawnte, thanks for the comment and extending the conversation.