Saturday, March 26, 2011

I am interviewed in my writer's hat

Jill Dearman, who interviews writers for a feature "Writer to Writer" on the Barnes & Noble community blog, has interviewed me.

The interview is >> here.

When she first asked me about myself, I wrote a long ramble to what became the interview.  Here is the long version, but really, what is distilled is often best....

Dear Jill,

So many of my writing friends grew up in working class families that didn’t read much besides the bible or reader’s digest. These friends were the first in the family to go to college and when they committed to writing poetry that was such uncharted territory their families shook their heads or begged them to come home.

There is a kind of freedom in switching tracks. But that wasn’t my journey.

Instead I grew up in a two-person nuclear family, a divorcee and daughter in tow. We migrated from one university town to another chasing the seasonal work of an assistant professor. Besides teaching poetry and women’s lit, my mother was openly a poet and quietly a lesbian. I grew up with English professors snorting theories in our backyard, poets declaiming in the living room, and adoring and hungry students hogging my mother’s attention.

I found the poets the most annoying. They drooped, they blathered, they hideously quoted themselves. In general they disliked children and ignored me. My mother smoked her cigarettes in a long holder and quoted Roethke and Dylan Thomas in theatrical tones that made my teeth clench.

As I child I so detested poetry I refused to listen to any bits that littered Winnie-the-Pooh.

My mother planned for me to be an artist, one talent she didn’t pursue, and bought me art supplies and lovely blank pads of paper. She had me sketching her portrait when I was nine and was pleased with my ability to catch a likeness. She often encouraged me to talk about what I SAW, and delighted in my saying things like “pink is my favorite color of lightning.”

Then I had one of those dismal childhood illnesses when I was in third grade that kept me in bed for several months and I began to read to pass the time. Soon I lived to read. I tore through most of the interesting children’s books at the library and my mother, looking much as Piaget must have looked observing his child, began to experiment.  I was started on Jane Eyre but grew bored with her once she was an adult. In fourth grade I read my mother’s heavily annotated copy of Sister Carrie and fell in love with Dreiser. I read everything, from comfort novels by E. Nesbit to tough stuff like Treblinka when I was 9.

When I was ten and visiting my father, he gave me a blank journal and advised me to keep a diary. It had helped him develop his writing skills, and Pepys’ like, he fills them to this day. Since he has retired as a biology and genetics professor he publishes a science book a year!

By the time I was in high school I established a habit of borrowing a stack of books a week from the library and only reading though the ones that deserved all my attention. I applauded and cried for Harold and Maude long before it became a movie, ditto Cold Comfort Farm, The Mouse that Roared, I Captured the Castle, and many others. I devoured Jane Austen and Dickens, Ray Bradbury, Heinlein, Joan Aiken, and only judged a book on how well it entranced me with story and style.

I never expected to be a writer let alone a poet. I started college planning to be a studio art major. Then my mother died when I was eighteen. I switched majors to English. I felt a need to know what she knew about literature, beyond my voracious consumption. Professors David Sheehan and Paul Dolin helped me fall in love with poetry, from Chaucer to Yeats to Elizabeth Bishop. I began to jot parodies of the poets on scraps of paper. I kept writing in my journals about all the heartache, hopes, fears, gossip and love affairs that life supplied. I wrote one final exam in blank verse.

I graduated, came to NYC, and became a book designer. I tried writing novels but they always drifted away from me. I was working full time and had two children, I just had no time for long works… I started a writing group. It didn’t work out. I started another one, learning from my mistakes, and it worked quite well. One day my writing group (River Writers) outed me as a poet. It was hard for me to own it. And then I dived in. I took workshops, I read current poets and revisited the greats. I found amazing, delightful, deep and currently living and writing poets all over the world.

I discovered Amy Gerstler and Donald Justice as well as the translated works from Zbigniew Herbert and Wislawa Symborska. And by taking classes at the 92nd St. Y and The Frost Place, I learned from some remarkable poets, among them, Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Baron Wormser, Jeffrey Harrison, and Sharon Dolin, who are all great reading. Jeanne Marie asked me to help her create an anthology of fairy tale poems after a workshop. The Poets’ Grimm came out in 2003.

I also took on more and more freelance work designing books for poets and novelists. It was thanks to Marsh Hawk Press that my first book of poetry was published. They noticed that their designer was also a poet and asked if I had a manuscript…did I have a manuscript!? Did I ever…ten years in the making. The Elephant House came out in 2007.

I chose not to go the academic route, so no MFA. I never stopped loving good writing in any genre. I reject the snobbism of genre ghettos. Some of the best novels are on the YA shelf—read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, YA short story collections by Kelly Link, and fantasy books by Diana Wynne Jones. John Crowley, Kelly Link, and Jonathan Letham go to the same science fiction conventions that I do, I adore literary graphic novels, like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and David Small’s Stitches. The social satire and literary spoofs of Posy Simmonds, such as Gemma Bovary, are brilliant. Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel, The Arrival, is haunting and works for any age although it is on the children’s bookshelf.

Now that my children are grown and I’ve gone entirely freelance, I am taking on longer projects, a novel, an illustrated picture book, and of course, my next poetry book. I have never been able to cut off the writing from the drawing. I do see the pink lightning but it also shakes the landscape of words.

I still borrow stacks of books every week and only read the ones that demand my time. I carry a sketchbook and draw the writers as they read their works, at the 92nd St Y, Cornelia St. Café, Comic Book Conventions, Book Fairs, and Poets House. I hope to do a show of my sketch portraits this year.


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