Blog Tour: On Writing

Thanks to M.B. McLatchey for inviting me to participate in this round-robin blog tour. M.B. is the author of The Lame God, winner of the May Swenson Award. You can read her entry at http://mclatchey.wordpress.com/blog/

1. What are you working on?

I’m pretty superstitious (read: irrationally fearful) when it comes to talking about work in progress. The hoodoo part of my brain worries that I’ll simply jinx myself. But the thinking part of my brain knows that there’s a danger in trying to direct things overmuch. What I might think I’m working on and what the language itself is actually doing are very rarely the same, as I subscribe to the philosophy Mallarme famously expressed in response to Degas: poems are not made of ideas–they’re made of words. I’ve had a dog-eared, coffee-stained index card on my writing desk for the last thirteen years, given to me by an old teacher, with a typewritten quotation from Auden’s Dyer’s Hand that I think applies here as well: “In the eyes of others a man is a poet if he has written one good poem. In his own he is only a poet at the moment when he is making his last revision to a new poem. The moment before, he was still only a potential poet; the moment after, he is a man who has ceased to write poetry, perhaps forever.” I’m a different version of myself when I’m writing. The everyday version of me who teaches classes and vacuums and races bicycles isn’t ever really sure what the poet is up to. Trying to describe my current project for a grant application or a job interview is pretty awful for me.

All those protestations aside, I think it’s safe to talk about current concrete interests / obsessions. Right now, that’s Rodin–particularly his early stuff, like The Age of Bronze and The Burghers of Calais. What they mean to me, though–you’ll have to ask the poet if you can find her.

2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure that it does in any significant way. I think maybe I’m a bit of a curmudgeon. I still believe in sonnets, for instance, and I like gods and myth, which are probably out of fashion, and I think that description is a valid poetic mode. But I’m certainly not doing anything that would be described as innovative.

3. Why do you write what you do?

The power of Christ compels me? I honestly don’t know. Because I need to find a nouny place for an abstraction to live, to paraphrase Stephen Dunn. Because I need words to show me what I’m thinking. Because language is the way I understand the world.

4. How does your writing process work?

Ideally, I write every day, in the morning. Coffee is permitted, but no food. I prefer not to talk to anyone or any cat for at least an hour. I like to go outside for a few minutes before I start. I begin everything by hand, with black ink in a large, lined Moleskine, then generally move to the laptop after I have a good sense of the form the poem needs. No email, no overhead lights, and no self-doubt permitted, either. (I already said I was superstitious, right?) I usually start with a line or a phrase I’ve been kicking around, or try to get down an image & then attach it to something ethereal.

That’s the ideal. In reality, my teaching schedule complicates things, as this semester I’m leaving the house by 7:30 three days a week. I’m very much a daylight person and have a hard time getting up / feeling optimistic in the dark. And it’s been such a brutal winter for me, in terms of weather both atmospheric and internal. So I’m lucky if I’m writing three mornings a week right now. The difficult schedule has been beneficial, though, as it’s made me think about the work when normally I wouldn’t. Between classes, for instance, I’ll spend some time making notes or trying to get down a decent line or two. And I think that the pressure to let go of my ideal writing situation is good for me, as I tend to attach too much importance to magic & luck. Writing is work. You can do it during working hours.


Next up are two excellent poets I had the good fortune to study with in graduate school: Glenn Shaheen and Barbara Duffey. They’ll be posting their responses on their websites by April 22.

Glenn Shaheen is the author of the poetry collection Predatory (University of Pittsburgh Press 2011) and the flash fiction chapbook Unchecked Savagery (Ricochet Editions 2013). His work has appeared in Ploughshares, The New Republic, Subtropics, and elsewhere. His website is http://glennshaheen.com.

Barbara Duffey is the author of the full-length poetry collection I Might Be Mistaken, forthcoming from Word Poetry in 2015. Her chapbooks The Circus of Forgetting (dancing girl press) and The Verge of Thirst (South Dakota State Poetry Society) were published in 2013. She is an assistant professor of English at Dakota Wesleyan University, where she teaches creative writing, composition, and literature courses. Her website is http://barbaraduffey.com.

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