If you live in the Philadelphia area, you might consider joining some friends of KR at this Saturday’s Conversations & Connections conference. The conference features a number of local novelists and poets discussing their writing processes, and the registration fee includes a subscription to your choice of available literary magazines, one of which is The Kenyon Review. This year’s keynote will be delivered by J. Robert Lennon, who gave a terrific reading on Kenyon’s campus last year.
One intriguing panel features poets Sarah Blake, Catie Rosemurgy, Shanna Comtpon, and Michael Loughran discussing the topic of Obstacles and the Ways Around Them. These four poets were kind enough to chat with KR and offer a preview of Saturday’s thoughtful and complicated discussion:
KR: Your panel’s theme, “Obstacles and the Ways Around Them,” could plausibly be taken up by writers of any genre, so it seems notable that you’ve composed the panel entirely of poets. Do poets face particular challenges in producing work that writers of fiction or nonfiction do not? What obstacles are endemic to the genre?
Shanna: With each poem you begin again, again. And poems are generally a lot shorter than short stories, novels, even many essays, at the same time that they are generally more concentrated. So that confrontation with starting (“the blank page”) happens more often than it does for a prose writer working on a narrative or discursive piece that has a logical thread. On the other hand, when working on a serial piece or long poem, the intensity can be challenging to maintain, and much contemporary poetry eschews plot-pointed narrative. Experimental work is about remaining open to possibility, and that’s requires a kind of mental half-crouch stance. Your thighs get tired.
Michael: The again, again of beginning new poems is exactly what I had in mind. I have a hard time figuring out how to charge up the hill every time with the right amount of energy and clarity of purpose, and I think of that as a poetry-specific obstacle. I don’t want to be thinking, “Here I go, I’m writing another poem!”—I don’t think you should be saying that to yourself when you are writing a poem, though often I am (“Yippie, here I come, Submittable!”). I like to feel a little sick with fear and dread that what I’m doing can’t possibly be any good, that what I’m doing is embarrassing or terrible or unserious or too serious. And to actively court that feeling as often as possible, and trying to generate it differently every time, for every poem? That can be, for me at least, an obstacle to every other aspect of adult life, and I happen to really enjoy adult life, my job and grocery shopping and painting a bedroom and those sorts of things. I guess the question is: How can I shape the basic dailiness of my life to get this kind of thinking going as often as possible? I can’t, probably. But maybe there are habits of mind a poet can cultivate that are impervious to the daily (weekly, monthly, yearly) obstacles, or maybe the idea is for those habits of mind to subsume the obstacles and turn them into poems.
Catie: I’m in a hurry now to take Michael’s advice and try to make myself a little sick with fear and dread. That’s the best advice I’ve read in a long time, and it makes me want to rewrite everything I’m working on now. The challenges that seem to me to be specific to poetry aren’t actually. I only experience them as specific to poetry since that’s what I write. The most obvious obstacle for poets—that more people write it than read it—doesn’t actually seem like a hinderance to me. I like being a part of a smaller, intense conversation, one not necessarily shaped as much by wide-appeal and marketing concerns. That said—while market forces might more explicitly create boundaries for fiction and nonfiction writers who want broad cultural visibility and impact, poets do a fine job of creating different boundaries that are just as limiting. For example, in the U.S., poets seem to be fond of manufacturing and enforcing a lot of binaries—this kind of poetry is good and important while that kind of poetry is trite and/or fraudulent. Also, so many prose writers who I admire aren’t aiming for the big book deal at all, and their concerns are similar to a poet’s—linguistic energy, structural complexity, etc…. So this has been a long way of saying that, no, there aren’t really any obstacles that are unique to poets that I can think of. I think the more relevant distinction might be between writers who hope for a large audience and writers who hope for a smaller but perhaps more engaged audience.
Sarah: This is such an interesting question. I often think fiction and nonfiction writers probably face more obstacles because they need more time. But I wonder if that means they fight for more time, while the poet is always struggling with the smaller chunks we’re making do with. Prose writers also seem to need solitude. They often talk about time alone in a room. Some poets write like that, but many write in cafes and outside, visiting museums and sitting in cars. We seem to be able to write as quickly in a notebook as we do on a computer, which doesn’t seem possible for a prose writer. On the other hand, the prose writer seems to triumph when they have gotten in this groove of writing and writing for a few hours, leaving notes of what to fill in later with research or for a whole scene that they have to return to later with more care. A poet can’t do that. We can’t write the next line and discover where the poem wants/needs to go until that research is done and incorporated. To that end, we can’t often succeed at an empty desk. We usually have books on our desks, research, other poems. Or many windows open on our computer screen. I sometimes envy how much of a prose writer’s work comes from within themselves, their internal story-making. But mostly I love the way a poem comes about.
KR: The first potential obstacle listed in your panel’s description is family. Are you speaking here of family commitments that leave less time for writing, such as caregiving for a parent or child, or does this refer to other issues? If family is an obstacle, are you able to draw support from your community of fellow writers? Does that community ever come with its own set of hindrances?
Sarah: Ha! I definitely was thinking of my toddler when I wrote that blurb. Having him takes so much of my time and energy. Maybe other people have other family-type obstacles to discuss! To answer whether my community of writers is where I draw support from is something I haven’t thought too much about. It feels like I call on my husband most of all. It feels like my community of writers is difficult to reach because almost all their events are on weeknights in the city. I often feel frustrated and left out as a parent. But that’s leaving out how much I’m constantly buoyed by my community of writers on Facebook. Whenever I’m drained or feel out of touch, I can read people’s poems online, read VIDA posts, chat with people, laugh, volunteer for some poetry related thing. I’m not very social, especially now, but I have a huge network of poetry friends, local and not, online, and they help me come back to poetry all the time, they help me feel energized about what we’ve all set out to do.
Catie: I don’t have any kids and my family lives far away. I do visit them all the time and for extended periods whenever I can. When I do, it’s true, I don’t write. I get wrapped up in an entirely different, communal rhythm of kids, cooking, yakking, and doing very mundane things like helping plant herbs. I used to worry—my god! I’m not writing the poesy, I’m sweeping the driveway and coloring butterflies! But now I just relish my time with them and my time away from all the poetry-related things I think I should be doing. I do need a break sometimes—not from my fellow writers but from my own lack of certainty about how to have even a small public life as a writer. Having grown up in a small town without any exposure to working artists, I can feel a bit like a charlatan at readings. I probably shouldn’t blame all my weird ambivalence on where I grew up, but it’s very handy. What can I say…I myself am… the obstacle. I very much admire and even envy the people who bring people together around poetry, who champion poets and make a place for poetry to become present and tangible.
Shanna: Ha! We don’t have children either, but my spouse and I certainly can be obstacles for each other, just in terms of making noise in the house and complicated scheduling during a workweek. And sometimes you have to drop everything to help a friend. The fantasy of “free time” to write is just that, barring going to a retreat or something. Even just taking time out to keep in touch with your social circle can be a rough line to manage. I accomplished a lot less as a writer in my 20s, because I spent a lot of time hanging out with artist and writer friends, rather than doing the work. I manage this better know, and still feel connected to and inspired by them.
KR: Could you tell us about a specific writing project, large or small, that you would like to undertake, but have been unable to? What challenges have you faced there?
Catie: This goes right to the heart of it—obstacles have often been my best teachers. I’ve wanted to undertake no less than 10,000 projects, and all of them either proved to be impossible or harebrained. After many false starts, my own limitations (the ultimate obstacle) finally lead me back to the writing I’m actually supposed to be doing. Example: many a time I’ve tried to galvanize myself to write an essay about poetics. Why? Because I’m thinking about what poems do and how they do it all the time. I’ve been writing long enough to know that choosing the words and committing to the sentences forces me to think much harder than just stewing over an observation or impulse. The process typically goes like this: I feel as if I know exactly what I want to say, but then quickly discover that I can’t find a way in. I mull and approach and reapproach. I suddenly see contradictions in every assertion I want to make, so I go back and reread poets who will teach me what I’m missing, where I’m wrong. Meanwhile I write poems because trying to write an essay makes me long for the freedom of poems. Every so often I come back to the essay idea, but eventually it seems dead to me, resolved. I usually do like the direction of the new poems I’ve been writing, though. They seem to be headed somewhere I hadn’t expected. They’re asking things of me I’m not sure how to do, but it’s fun to keep trying. I’ve started to realize that this process, though sometimes exquisitely frustrating, is how I argue with myself about my own writing. All those false essay projects ease me into new ways of writing without making me overly self-conscious about my poems, which would surely freeze me right up.
Shanna: I have a list of Someday Projects I enjoy thinking about. One of them is a mystery novel. But the Current Projects are priority. One of the best productivity strategies for me is to prevent things from overlapping too much (which would be my natural tendency). The novel has to stay in the Someday column for now, and that is both a relief and a bit of discipline on my part.
Sarah: A few months ago I wrote a screenplay. I talked to one of my screenwriter friends and I don’t want to make any of the changes that would make it a good screenplay. So for the past few weeks, I’ve wanted to turn it into a book of poetry, which seems crazy but also essential. But I just haven’t had time to do it! Even when I have time, other projects seem more pressing or more likely to succeed—they require less trust and belief in myself and my writing and my vision in this strange long term way (that prose writers are probably quite familiar with!). I hope to make it happen over the next year.
Michael: It seems pretty common for poets to start out doing something else—Sarah’s screenplay is a good example—and then cannibalize it into their poems. I once wrote what I thought was a book of prose poems until I realized it wasn’t really anything at all; it had, like, four decent lines that wound up in new poems years later. Catie’s got it right, I think: I failed at prose poems but the failure was really productive because I was figuring something out that I wouldn’t have otherwise. The only problem here is that I’m not sure what exactly I figured out. Maybe it’s an issue of intuition accumulation, building a shifting catalog of preferences over a lifetime. And I think the failures are way more useful in that regard, because who looks at something they wrote and goes “Look at this perfect little bugger, this is where I got everything right, now let’s do 100 more of them.” Maybe people do that! I don’t. For me anything I do that comes out okay is a kind of dead end I don’t want to look into any more. But failure is so interesting! I could spend all day staring at my worst poems, trying to figure out where I messed up.
KR: You also mention in the panel’s description that you’ll be discussing technology. Obstacle? Or way around? Tell us about either a piece of technology you must have in order to write, or one you wish you had never encountered.
Michael: I can’t really see how technology could be an obstacle unless you’re self-sabotaging or not that serious about writing (both of which have their upsides). But of course there are so many productive uses. At first I had to have a notebook in my pocket, and then I had to have my phone for notes, and now I like to record bits of poems into my phone’s voice recorder while I walk. I need to walk to write, is walking a technology? This summer I started recording whole poems and playing them through my car radio as I drove around town, or I’d listen back through earphones walking around, revising and re-recording along the way. It’s an odd, somehow dirty feeling, listening to yourself around strangers who don’t know you’re listening to yourself, and I like it. As well, I’m sure at the conference Catie and I will talk about THE BLOG, which is a secret place she and I and our friend Taije Silverman post poems, which has completely changed the way I write because it places an audience smack dab where there used to be none, and we don’t have to keep on meeting and buying more wine and cheese and having hangovers. “Feedback without hangovers” is the bumper sticker version of this answer.
Sarah: I have a THE BLOG too, but with my friend from graduate school. It started with more friends than that, to try for daily writing over the course of a month here and there, but we’ve gotten it down to just the two of us to spur each other on over longer periods of time. It always feels good to put a poem up there. Overall, I’m really interested in how technology is a way around obstacles. When my son was a baby, the only way I found time to write was on my iPhone. It took me awhile to convince myself that I could write like that, but the hurdle was really just that, convincing myself. It’s not the only way I want to write poems, but I’m so grateful it’s one of the ways I feel is available to me.
Shanna: I think it depends on the technology. For instance, the internet is essential for quick research, but can also suck you in to the point you’re spending way too much time on Facebook. Luckily there’s also a technological solution for that, apps like Concentrate (which I use) to limit distractions. I also use a digital timer and scheduling app, to track time spent and get through a priority list (of both work-work and writing-work) most days of the week. But then, when I am revising poems, I take them off the computer and use a manual typewriter to type them over and over again, kind of like playing a piece of music on the piano. That’s not so much to limit distractions, but to slow down and go over each word. A different technological approach for a different phase of the writing. Like Michael and Sarah, I’ve also found blogs very useful, and have worked with both public and private ones.