“Small in-between moments” with Amelia Martens

IMG_6972.jpgDear Readers, You must forgive me. I have been withholding a wonderful interview from you of the poet Amelia Martens, who just published a collection of prose poems with Sarabande Books. I’ve not been holding back on purpose. You see it is the end of the semester. Grades are due for my composition students and so are my own research papers. At the same time, I had to find a sublease for my apartment, back all my belongings into a basement storage unit, and get sedatives for my cat to prepare for our move to an island three hours north of Milwaukee. I write this not to complain, as I am grateful for all these things: to be a PhD student at UW-Milwaukee, to have found a summer job on in an idyllic place, and I am grateful for Amelia Martens taking the time to do an interview with me. I tell you all these things because for a long time this blog has only been about writers who write and work in nonacademic fields. However, as I’ve just (about) completed my first year in PhD-land, I’ve re-learned that the work/life/write balance is just as mythical as it was when I was working as freelance writer and at a desk job, which is why I first reached out to Martens who teaches at composition at a community college in Kentucky. As someone towing the line between academia, raising children, and writing, I wanted to get her insight into the process. So without further ado, Amelia Martens:

IMG_0514Amelia Marten’s new collection, The Spoons in the Grass Are There to Dig a Moat, is as beautiful outside as it is inside. As I prepared to write this introduction, I thought to myself, well, there is just too much good here, I’ll just write about my favorite prose poem: But then I couldn’t decide between “Baggage,” about Jesus working the airport X-ray machine, or “In the First World,” recurring poems that turn the mundane into the absurd or “We Will Be Long Gone,” one side of daughter-mother bedtime conversation. These three poems, however, give a sample of far-ranging themes Martens packs into unifying tightly-woven prose poem form. Jesus, daughters, terrorism are all recurring characters as are irreverence, humor and tenderness. But you don’t have to take my word for it, poet Catherine Bowman called this collection “Wise, joyous, keen tender, she shows us the divine in the most unexpected places.” And you don’t have to take you Bowman’s word for it, you can read it yourself!

Amelia Martens’ interview is just as wise and tender. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do:

What do you write? How do you write it?

Poems. Mostly prose poems have been arriving for the past few years (although I’ve also recently written four book reviews). I write at a giant desk, rescued from the IU surplus store. It sits in our laundry room, right in front of window looking onto our backyard willow trees. I write on a Mac laptop, though most of my poems start now at notes written down in a rush in a little-Nancy-Drew-like notepad (there’s even a tiny pen that slips into the side!). I write in the small in-between moments; now that our girls are older (3 and 5) they go off and have their own adventures together—so I write until someone needs a Band-Aid, new pants, a snack.

Can you tell us a little bit about your job and how you got there?

I am in my ninth year (!) working as an adjunct instructor at a community college where my husband also teaches; he’s full-time in the English department, so I can never be hired full-time in the same division. I also work part-time in our campus’ Tutoring Center where I assist students with reading strategies, study skills, and all parts of the writing process. In addition, I train new tutors. I got into the Tutoring Center because I really like working one-on-one with students, and because I found out I was at a dead-end in the English department. Thus, I decided to earn another Masters degree; this time focused on adult literacy. Now I have an MFA and an MS in Literacy, Culture, and Language Education from IU. And I’m employed at two part-time jobs.

How does this job challenge/influence/inspire your writing life?

Sometimes the universe gives me exactly what I need. Sometimes it takes me years to realize this is what has happened. Because I work part-time I get to be home with our daughters, and I get these in-between moments to write. I have an incredible ability to take on work—so if I had been teaching full time these last few years, that’s probably where I would have thrown most of my energy—instead, I’ve been able to funnel my resources into writing and our kids. The flexibility of teaching a couple classes, teaching online, and scheduling my tutoring hours around my husband’s teaching schedule means a better quality of life for our family and writing time for me. Especially since I’m not a sit-down-and-write-for-4-hours type of person, this arrangement has worked out really well—into a book in fact! I’ve had to let go the desire for accolades at work and been able to create poems that are important. It’s been challenging, especially to still be paid the same rate per class as I was in 2007, but overall the time with our daughters and the freedom to write wins out. Also, thank goodness that Britton has a full-time job! We all enjoy the health insurance that comes with it!

Do you have a source of inspiration you turn to regularly? (What is it?)

Our daughters, Thea and Opal. They’re weird and existential and wise and brave and unfiltered. They’ve made language and the world new. “Our daughter” drives one of the threads in The Spoons in the Grass are There to Dig a Moat and many of the poems incorporate dialogue straight from Thea.

I also just find the world to be so strange; I love science and space. I get a lot of poem seedlings from listening to NPR in the car, which is harder to do now that the girls are older. I often think about how delicate our social fabric is and how strangely we approach each other as human beings; much of this comes from reading The Atlantic or the newspaper. Human beings are capable of such extreme behaviors, and it feels like if I just pay attention, I’ll have poems coming from all corners.

 

 

Rachel Kincaid: Managing Editor and Fiction Writer

Rachel's desk.

Rachel’s desk.

It was my good fortune, shortly after moving to Milwaukee, to catch a ride with Rachel Kincaid and her husband, Franklin, to a party featuring tamales and homemade salsa. On the car ride, I learned that Rachel is a fiction writer and managing editor for Autostraddle.com, an online journal featuring “News, Entertainment, Opinion, Community and Girl-on-Girl Culture.” I was especially drawn in by her regular chatty lifestyle column called “Helping You Help Yourself,” which links to advice from DIY household decoration projects to tricks to using gmail more efficiently. You can find links to her work at her website rachel-kincaid.com and you can follow her on twitter at @monkeykin.

She took time this week to share about her life and what it looks like to be a managing editor, fiction writer, and person generally excited about the world. I hope you will enjoy this interview as much as I did.

What do you write? How do you write it? (Like when, where, with what, etc.)

I write essays, news & politics coverage, and lifestyle advice for Autostraddle.com, where I’m the managing editor, as well as writing fiction. My actual writing time is usually interspersed with lots of other job tasks — editing other people’s work, soliciting people, managing a team, etc. Starting around 9:30 or 10 am, I sit at my desk in my home office (or on my couch, if it’s chilly and I need a blanket) with my MacBook. I use Google Docs and WordPress for my day job, and usually Scrivener for fiction (with a Google Docs spreadsheet to keep track of where I’ve submitted my work). I usually take a break around 6 pm or so to make dinner and hang out with my husband, and then do a bit more work and wrap up around 9 or 10 pm.

Can you tell us a little bit about your job and how you got there? Continue reading

“The voice that emerged from the pages became so raw and tragic and comical and real that I wanted to kiss the pages of the book. I want to write like that.”

lanaLana shared with us from her wells of wisdom a little over a year ago. Since then she’s been published in several journals. I wanted to learn more about what was fueling her so I asked her a few questions. And I’m so glad I did. Her honest self-reflection and love for the craft is mesmerizing and inspiring. Please read on and enjoy!

What have you been up to since the last time we spoke?

I’ve been swimming in flash fiction ideas. And every time I finish a new piece, I overhear a conversation between two octogenarians in the street or recall a summer-camp incident from my childhood, and off I go to start a whole new piece.

I’ve had twelve publication acceptances in the last year—mostly flash fiction—and this has increased my confidence in working with the genre. Acceptances and kind words from editors energize me to no end. I wish that approval seeking were not such a fueling force for me. I’m working on this. But for now, approval seeking is one of the reasons I continue working on pieces that become too hard. And I’m thankful for this impetus, because regardless of my motivation in sitting down to write, once I am actually writing I end up forgetting myself and exploring human emotion in the most genuine way I know.

I’ve noticed recently that when I spend a chunk of time working on a string of flash pieces, I do start to miss longer stories. I miss existing within their settings. I miss exploring the characters within the spaces of their homes and then following them to churches or bars or watching them sit on the tram and gaze out the window.

Continue reading

“I return to these scraps during the day and type them…”

Luke Hankins in Uniform at the Biltmore Dining Hall

Luke Hankins in Uniform at the Biltmore Dining Hall

In my first days in Bloomington, Indiana, where I had just moved to go to school for my MFA, I met Luke Hankins. He spoke deliberately and with a bit of southern drawl, and he taught me that the building where most of our days were to be spent was called Ballantine, which rhymes with Valentine (not with trampoline, as I had mistakenly been pronouncing it). Besides making the world a more grammatically-correct and well-pronounced place, Luke is devoted to the craft of poetry and machine of writing, that is editing and publishing, the needful things to get writing to readers. He is the founding editor of Orison Books, a “literary press which is focused on the life of the spirit from a broad range of perspectives” and which has a prize for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.  You can find links to his work and learn more about Luke at his website.  Below, Luke was generous enough to share a little bit about his writing and working life. Read on and be inspired.

What do you write?

I primarily write poetry, but also essays and book reviews, and I also translate Stella Vinitchi Radulescu’s French language poetry. In fact, my next book, The Work of Creation (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming Jan. 2016) is a collection of prose pieces in various genres (literary criticism, personal essays, meditations on art and literature, etc.). I also hope to start writing a memoir focused on my religious upbringing and eventual evolution out of traditional religion over the next few years.

How do you write it?  Continue reading

A review of Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay

Catalog of Unabashed GratitudeCatalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ross Gay’s newest book reminds me of why I love poetry. The sincerity and precision. The music. The seeing and cataloging what is beautiful and what is perverse. Though every word is well placed and every line well cared for, the poems wander, and wallow, and address themselves, and yet never loose focus. In poems the reader might wonder how she got from sexual innuendo to sharing a meal with small miracle worker: the bee, and so be forced to re-read and retrace the steps that got her there. Gay’s poem dare to the face both small, beautiful moments (most people would stumble over them without noticing) and the moments so large, so painful (most people would be rendered speechless and fearful).

In case you’re wondering, I think you should go read this book. Right now.

View all my reviews

“I got to know a highly collaborative art form that helped me to question why poets sat by themselves so much in coffee shops and at home.”

vardaman2-12I was lucky to meet the wise Wendy Vardaman at The Book Cellar last year because we both had saint poems in the anthology St. Peter’s B-List  and joined together with a few other poets for a poetry reading in honor of Saints and Strangers. Wendy writes poems that are warm, human, inviting, and often humorous. They kind of poems you want to walk around inside for a little while. I loved listening to her read her poems that night at the Book Cellar and loved reading her first collection, Obstructed View (Fireweed Press), on my own afterward. Wendy is the poet laureate of Madison, WI, and recently published another collection of poems, Reliquary of Debt (Lit Fest Press 2015).  As you can see by taking a look at her website and the following interview, Wendy’s interests and accomplishments as an artist and an interpreter of art are many and varied (Check out the #midwestpoetic project in the list of links below the interview). I’m so grateful she took a moment to share with us about her journey because she’s reminded me of the importance of learning and collaborating and questioning and growing all the time.

What do you write? 

I write poetry and prose. And prose poems and poetic prose. I write creative nonfiction and book reviews and author interviews. I write reviews as prose poems. I write scholarly poems and poetic scholarship. I write comments on student essays and poems. I write up product information for one of my jobs and upload it to websites. I write website content for the poetry press that I co-founded (Cowfeather) with Sarah Busse, and I write that with html and css code. I write journal entries and notes to myself and lists of things to do. I write Facebook status updates (occasionally) and Tweets (rarely) and blog entries that are more long form essays than blog posts. I write up events and copy for the jackets of books and the occasional press release, which I’m terrible at. I write texts to my kids, which I am also terrible at. I used to write letters, but I gave up on those a few years ago. I write way too many emails. I’m a compulsive note taker.

How do you write it? (Like when, where, with what, etc)  Continue reading

“In the morning my thoughts are quieter, and my language tends to be clearer.”

rachellyonRachel Lyon is a woman of much grace and many talents. Not only is her fiction swift and piercing, she plays the violin, is a radiant dinner guest, and generally all around wonderful person. I had the pleasure of getting to know Rachel while we were both at Indiana University’s MFA program. She’s now back in her home city, New York, working and writing, and she took a minute to share with us a little snippet of her life. You can find more of Rachel on Twitter: @manateesintrees and Instagram: @appleeyed and a list of her published works that can be enjoyed anywhere the internet goes.

What do you write? How do you write it?

I write stories, mostly, of all lengths—short-shorts, long shorts—and I’ve just finished a second draft of my first novel. I usually get up sometime around six so I can write in the morning before work. I find my mind is freshest then. As the day goes on, my mental noise tends to accumulate, and that can drown out what I most deeply want to say. In the morning my thoughts are quieter, and my language tends to be clearer.

It also helps that one of my two cats is a restless little animal who won’t leave me alone until I get up. As soon as he feels that it should be morning he’ll come and harass me until I get out of bed. I like to think of him as my writer’s conscience… but probably he’s just bored. Continue reading

“The blog is all about the comedy and the novel is, well, not.”

awkwardprofilepicIf you have been feeling a lag in motivation in your writing life, you need to read this interview with Emelie Samuelson. Emelie is humorist, YA novelist, and all-around inspiring woman. She lives in the small town that the Gilmore Girls‘  Stars Hallow is based on. Read on to learn more about how and why she picked up and moved to this town. You’ll be inspired to follow your dreams.

What do you write?

I have my own blog, Awkwardly Alive and Pleasantly Peculiar, on which I share weekly stories about my many embarrassing moments in life, and I also just finished the first draft of my first novel. Now I’m in that dreadful editing process. The two projects are different enough, though, so my brain is never bored. The blog is all about the comedy and the novel is, well, not.

Can you tell us a little more about your first novel?
My novel is a psychological one, dealing with a teenager with schizophrenia, although I think it’s more about the characters than the illness itself. I think it will be marketed to young adults, which is great because that’s a genre I’m incredibly comfortable with. I’m pretty inspired by the Y.A. authors (but would never dare to compare myself to any of them because they’re too brilliant and I am…me.) Rainbow Rowell, John Green, and David Levithan (just to name a few, although there are a least half a dozen more). I like when authors of that genre can write books for teens that don’t over-dramatize things. It’s important to me that teen fiction is respectful towards what teenagers go through and what they feel. Whether or not my book will accomplish that, I have no idea, but I’m really hoping it will. Continue reading

Michael Trocchia: On the Library, the Classroom, and the Study

CS-MT-Unfounded-Cover_FrontCoverMichael Trocchia lives not only a double life as a working poet, but triple life: he also finds the time to teach philosophy at James Madison University. His first book, The Fatherlands, is a collection of short fictions/prose poems that, for me, nod toward a haunted fairytale world where logic doesn’t unfold in the ways you would expect. This world is peopled with faceless figures of “the woman,” “the man” and “the boy,” and every time a character resurfaces he is changed. His newest book, Unfounded, is a bit more traditional in appearance–there are no prose poems–but here again nothing can be understood as common. Every line break is followed by a surprise turn in logic or a not-yet-imagined imaged. And reading this collection also became an exercise in letting go, allowing myself to be lead through the mazey path each poem beckoned me down.  In the second section of the collection (there are three sections total), the poems took a turn toward Ars Poetica. As a sometime instructor of poetry and writing, I’m always on the hunt for new Ars Poetica, and Michael has provided me a new one to add to my personal anthology with his poem “Poem Without Itself.” You can find Unfounded on Amazon.

 Michael was kind enough to share some thoughts on his triple life and the myth of finding the perfect job. Here’s what he had to say:

What do you write? How do you write it? 

Claudia in the study

Claudia in the study

I write poems, prose poems in some cases, and the shortest of fictions. I’m working on a lengthier project though, a hybrid novella, a narrative blend of poetry and prose. In it we meet a professor who in his youth was a thief. While he’s long given up thievery—having sold off, lost, forgotten, or abandoned much of what he’s stolen—he has to this day retained one item in particular, an item taken under strange circumstances. The work picks up with his decision to return this thing, decades later, to its rightful place, the very spot from which he took it, however wise or foolish that may be. We follow his journey back and meet with all sorts of characters and happenings along the way.

How do I write? Slowly, as if I am constantly learning to see, or learning to read for the first time. But sometimes it will pick up a degree or two and it is more like learning to play a piece of music that, in some sense, I already know. It occurs in the mornings mostly, or whenever I manage to find generous moments of solitude. If I’m out and about and there is no pen or keyboard at hand, I work the words over in my mind repeatedly, a small rehearsal of sorts, as if learning lines from a play. When at home in my study, there is often a cat nearby.

What are sources of inspiration that you return to?

The worlds of mythmakers, for sure, whether fallen to us in letters or images. There are other sources: I am often drawn back to the poems of Georg Trakl in autumn, the novels of Hamsun in winter, the Italians Sinisgalli, Buzzati, Vittorini, and Quasimodo in summer, and Yannis Ritsos, the Greek, all year round. Spring is my wildcard, a season for who-knows and not-yets, though Jeffers claws through sometimes, his narrative poems mostly. Then there is the music of J.S. Bach, Arvo Pärt, the sounds of Górecki and A Hawk and A Hacksaw.

Can you tell us a little bit about your job and how you got there?

Carrier Library Stacks

Carrier Library Stacks

I’ve two jobs, or perhaps one job while the other, if not itself my vocation, comprises a good part of it. What I call “the job” is my work for James Madison University Libraries, where I am the E-Journals Coordinator in the Technical Services Department. In short, I’m responsible for setting up the university’s electronic journals in all library systems, maintaining the holdings and date coverage, and making sure all access points and linking to the journals are working. In recent years, I’ve also headed up an event program for the library called JMuse Café. Our series of events provides an informal and lively forum for students, faculty, staff, and the community to come together and explore topics of public interest in ways that reach across multiple disciplines and diverse educational backgrounds.

What I refer to as a part of my vocation is the work that goes into teaching philosophy (also at JMU). In this work, as much as I am teaching students philosophy, I am of course always teaching myself along the way. The teaching opportunity and its various rewards could very well cease one day, but it is tough to see a day when pursuing my own studies and its rewards will come to an end. The work I do in philosophy is integral to the work I do as a writer. If we were to shred many of my poems, they’d become, I hope, no less than confetti tossed in the streets by a parade of old philosophers. This is certainly so for a large portion of pieces in Unfounded.

To the question of how I got here: In 2007 I began working at JMU after graduate school at Temple University in Philadelphia. My first job here was full-time in the library as the Processing and Binding Manager. In this role I took care of the stream of books acquired by the library, ensuring that the books and their catalog records received everything they need (checkout information, call number labels, stamps, security strips, etc.) in order to make it safely and swiftly to the shelves. I was also responsible for binding the journals routinely and whatever books that were falling apart. I had been in touch with some professors in the philosophy department at the time and, shortly after, I was offered a spot teaching part-time (on top of the library work). In 2010, I moved into the E-Journals position I mention above.

How does these jobs/vocations challenge/influence/inspire your writing life?

Danielle Campbell Photography. Trocchia reading at Chop Suey Books in Richmond, VA.

Danielle Campbell Photography. Trocchia reading at Chop Suey Books in Richmond, VA.

I go to work with thousands and thousands of authors each day, from antiquity through the present. There they are when I arrive, sitting on shelves throughout the library, always willing to have a conversation, to confound and astound me, to reveal some new aspect of the world, or force me to reconsider this, to imagine that. I can ask for no better company from 9 to 5. At every turn in the building I am reminded of something exquisite, of some immensity indexed, some wondrous triviality. I am met with volumes, with orders of worlds bound up with our experiences of them, with stacks and stacks of fragmented knowledge, with the colorful and worn spines of our languages and thought, with imprints of question and formulae, with the inks of countless laws, natural and not, that line much of our existence, and will, as far as I can tell, continue to do so long after I’m gone. The library as a whole, we might say, is something of a law unto itself. As Borges writes, “the Library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret.” And now many such “secrets” and more have surfaced at our fingertips, at the touch of a key, given the electronic sphere that libraries, publishers, service and content providers have built up in recent decades. Through the course of a simple morning in the office, like this one for instance, I’ll work on a mix of electronic journals such as Psychology of Music, The Public Historian,  Journal for General Philosophy of Science, Canadian Slavonic Papers, American Antiquity, and so on. The various journals from our collections flood my workday, and sometimes bits of their content are thrown together, deposited here and there in my mind after I’ve finished working with them. And these sediments can often find their way into my writing in one form or another.

My work week setting then comes three-sided: this library environment, the classroom, and my study at home. Yes, the days come in the shape of a triangle, a shape well suited to my aesthetic.

So it seems that you’ve got a full plate, but your that plate is full of good things and each component nourishes another. I am reminded William Carlos Williams  when he said “As a writer, I have never felt that medicine interfered with me but rather it was my very food and drink, the very thing that made it possible for me to write. ” What are your thoughts on this sentiment?  

I would agree with Williams, but the key is for one to make “food and drink” of whatever it is one does for work. Not every doctor is a poet of course, but Williams made his work in medicine “food and drink” for writing because he was a poet. In a comprehensive way then, yes, everything must be made to nourish the other. So I’d say Poet Williams also fed the very experiences, shaped the vision and ear, of Doctor Williams, in the invisible ways he took to his daily work and what he took from it. “The poet feels abundantly the poetry of everything,” said Williams’ contemporary, Wallace Stevens, himself no stranger to a job “outside” of writing. But, I’d add, the poet only feels it abundantly insofar as he’s sought and gathered it inside him. If it wasn’t medicine for Williams, I imagine it would’ve been some other food and drink he’d gather together and put on the writing table. This is no easy effort, for sure. “Poetry,” wrote Jean Genet from a prison cell, “is a vision of the world obtained by an effort, sometimes exhausting, of the taut, buttressed will. Poetry is willful.” The challenge to all writers, I believe, is not to write but to live and write, no matter the living. This challenge, to echo Genet, is met by the will.

A few more words on this, concerning the idea of interference: We put ourselves at a great loss if we regard the “job” or anything else as interfering with the writing. Taken as such, it opens up all kinds of harm to one’s writing and causes what may be the real interference. One easily slides into the thought that one is not writing what he or she could be writing, reducing one’s efforts to an “if only.” “Only if I had some other job, or no job at all, what wonderful things I’d write! What a writer I’d be!” In this state, whatever writing one does risks suffering in the shadow of this phantom writing (that he or she is not doing). Or worse, understood as interfering, one sets oneself up for an excuse to write less and less, or eventually not at all. We might compare the batter who says that all pitchers interfere with his hitting. This player has somehow missed that the pitcher, though his opponent, provides the very thing he’s meant to hit.

That is particularly important advice, it seems to me, and well-explained too. And, one more question, if you don’t mind! I noticed in the bio on Unfounded it describes you as teacher and then as working in the library. What was the thought behind listing teaching first? 

That’s a good question. I am not sure what my reasoning at the time was for putting it down in that order. What I can say is I identify myself a bit more with teaching philosophy than I do with the work I do in the library, as, again, I consider what goes into teaching to be part of my vocation. Also, teaching just literally requires more of me, as that “job” does not really slow down or end throughout a semester. In addition to class time, I am often, as any professor is, plugged into my teaching responsibilities in the evenings and on the weekends—whether it is putting material together for class, thinking up new ways to engage the students, responding to emails, grading, meeting with students, and so on. The library position itself—that is, the daily responsibilities—is typically confined to the forty-hour work week, aside from the resources I might draw on or the effects that the library world has for my writing.

Underrated Grasslands

IIMG_6773‘m pleased to share with you my poem “Prairie” published in The Other Journal today, but which I started just after I heard Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson speak at IU, more than four years ago. And I’m still learning about the wonders of the grasslands and savanna ecosystems. Did you know that the grasslands is one of the only ecosystems that does not have a national park associated with it the U.S.? National Parks favor great changes in altitude (think Yosemite Valley to the peak of Half Dome). Though the prairie be humble, this rich ecosystem is still worth appreciating and thanking for its bounty. There are a few swatches left. Here are two I recently heard about: a patch in a st. louis cemetery and a restoration project in Iowa, with bison!