1.) What are you working on?
Right now, I am trying to get better at making pitchers in my pottery class. I studied ceramics as an undergraduate, but then realized that poetry was a force of nature within me, and pottery was more of a release. And right now, I need a release. But I guess you want to know more about the writing.
I have been so excited about my book coming out next year that it has been difficult to write. So, pottery has been a good way to find creative focus, a meditative space. Still, I am engorging myself in reading poems. I don’t trick myself into believing that writing new words on the page is any more important than reading what already exists: so when I am gun-shy and writer-blocked, I just read and read and read. And then the stoppage always unstops. There is a poem within a bird’s nest on the drainage gutter, or graffiti at the skate park. This morning I woke up before sunrise and the sky was ultraviolet. It was a poem. Shards of poems emerge and then the shards form into larger vessels: pottery in reverse.
I dedicated myself to completing my manuscript over the past year, and so now I am thinking a lot about what the next work will be. I don’t want to assign myself a “project” because although I admire books that present a consistent or repeated stylistic or structural challenge, I think my own writing would suffer from those strictures.
But the thing that keeps coming to mind is magic. I love how Dorothea Lasky’s poems often start with everyday commentary and then transcend the mundane, land in a truly otherworldly place. That is what I consider true imaginative freedom. The poems I am thinking about right now aspire to that risky unknown. I am trying to work without the self-editor in my head, without the backspace key allowing me to take one step forward and five steps back.
2.) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
The obvious answer is that I am not part of the academic discourse of poetry. I live on the periphery of that world because I finished graduate school and there was not a teaching gig or a fellowship to catch me upon release. I was pretty young. I needed a job. So I returned to the professional life that I had before entering a creative writing curriculum. I don’t sit in a room with students talking about literature every day, and that was a huge bummer after I left Boston University.
I have a full-time job that does not involve poetry, and so when I sit down to write, it needs to be already good, yet free-flowing and messy, much like throwing a lump of refined mud on a potter’s wheel. But I need to know what to do what that mud before it is on the wheel, what shape it can take.
I come to my writing alone and in an insular conversation with my books and the endless sea of poems online. It is probably the best thing that ever happened to me. And the loneliest. I take workshops when I can. They have provided me with the structure and practice I don’t have the discipline to manage on my own.
3.) Why do you write what you do?
Because abstractions and aphorisms and tweets don’t capture the nuances of the human experience. Because language is a reckless, complicated tool that I want to tie down and boss around.
The spaces between words—the silences—can be just as captivating as the words themselves. When I read a poet like Louise Glück, I am startled by how much she says in what she doesn’t say. It is proof that words alone are not enough. But then I read poems by Mark Halliday or Kenneth Koch or Larry Levis, and I see how the act of writing is a way to process experience that can lead to profound insight. Sometimes I fall towards one end, sometimes to the other. I write because I love my language device. I write what I write because I don’t believe that there are precise abstractions to describe or summon particular human experiences. There is so much more to living.
So many poems I read these days have a graceful and shocking and complex command of language. I try to understand the ritual of rich language. It is entrancing for someone who reads and maybe writes poems. But if there is no kick to the gut, then I struggle with keeping the poem within me.
4.) How does your writing process work?
I am on the back porch, late at night. The sky is either foggy or star marked. After a while of staring into the dark, fits and starts of poems form. Or, I am bored with my bedroom ceiling and I pick up a book of poems. The reason why I eventually put down the book is because I have picked up my pen. Often my own writing is a response to the conversation of poetry. Maybe not this subject or that metaphor, but the reason I am driven to the page is because something on another page precedes me. I don’t know if it is a response. Reading poetry un-suffocates me as a writer. It summons a response to living a life. As a kid, I had a diary, but it felt too solipsistic and boring to bring myself back to read later. Poetry has offered me a place to exercise my imagination, to explore language, and speak to the complicated and universal “you” who will never talk back. What an asshole, “you.”
The writers I have tagged are two great writers and wonderful friends, Xan Roberti and Brooke Champagne. It is an honor to share this conversation with both of them.
Xan L. Roberti is the winner of the 2014 New South Poetry Contest, and runner up in the Mississippi Valley Poetry Contest 2013. She has work published or forthcoming in journals such as Damselfly, Minerva Rising, Beloit Poetry Journal; Sparkle + Blink, Goodfoot; No, Dear; and Constellation Magazine. Her memoir “Portable Housing” was nominated for the Walter Sindlinger Award at Columbia University Teachers College. She is a contributor to LitSeen for the San Francisco writing scene. She received her MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, where she was the graduate keynote speaker. She lives in San Francisco on a windy hill.
Brooke Champagne, a descendant of P. G. T. Beauregard, was born and raised in New Orleans. She received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Louisiana State University. Her poems and essays have appeared in Louisiana Literature, Burnside Review, Housefire, DIG, Prick of the Spindle, and most recently, in the anthology Tuscaloosa Writes This. She lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama with her husband, the poet Brock Guthrie, and their creative dogs King and Nola.