“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) 

If you’d asked me six months ago, I’d have said I wrote constantly—mostly with a spiral notebook and pen for composing and then a laptop for revision, but everything’s in flux with my work right now… My youngest son went to college this year, and after 25+ years of thinking of myself primarily as a mom/poet, I am working on getting a life. Which has meant some major changes in my writing practice too. When my kids were small, I got up early and went out to write at coffee shops for an hour or so in order to draft each poem. I made appointments with myself to do that 3 times a week and tried to stick with the schedule through plagues and pestilence—good luck with that! I had a process for revision that was also methodical, and I submitted work infrequently. I didn’t feel like I could afford the time to both write and submit with small children. As the kids aged, I submitted more and also started to do a lot more unpaid work of maintaining the poetry infrastructure—first book reviewing, then interviewing, then editing, then publishing others, then creating conversations, events, exhibits, performances of other poets’ work…

About a year or so ago I started asking myself why I was still going to the coffee shop three times a week to draft new work and it all sort of spun out of control after that. I found myself doodling and staring out windows more than I wrote. I made lists of things I wanted to do instead of write. I strategic planned my life. Then I decided that what I really wanted to do was take an art class. And one art class has led to several more, and I’ve officially returned to a two-year college as a Fine Art and Graphic Design student. My main interests there are book arts/letterpress, digital design, and the performative capacity of the book/the page. That’s a long-winded & very writerly way to say that lately I’ve been composing more through images or text as image, and instead of keeping a lined spiral notebook, I’ve been experimenting with using different sizes of sketch books and pencils/colored pencils/markers instead of a writing pen. Also my 3/week coffee shop poem drafting practice is on hiatus while I go to classes and define projects that better capture what’s happening in my head…. I have a long way to go! And finally, I just got a small tablet computer to replace my 7-year-old laptop, and I’m finding that I take a lot more of my notes directly on it rather than writing them out by hand—not sure how that will change me/my writing, but I know it will.

Can you tell us a little bit about your job(s)/role(s) and how you got there? 

Poet laureate's Sarah and Wendy with a county government office, the Dane County Water Commission, which held a photo and poetry exhibit to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2013.

Madison poet laureates Sarah and Wendy with a county government office and the Dane County Water Commission, held a photo and poetry exhibit to celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2013.

I wish I could say there was a there. My most fulfilling roles have been unpaid, and my careerish jobs have tended to suck the joy out of whatever led me to do them in the first place. My best jobs (paid or not) allowed me to work with people I really like in areas related to poetry, but I have a history of getting degrees that I don’t end up making practical use of. So I have an undergrad degree in engineering but never worked in the field. I have a Masters and PhD in English with a dissertation in multiethnic autobiography and spent only a few years after grad school teaching interdisciplinary writing. I liked the students and talking to them about their work but didn’t enjoy being in charge of a classroom. I pretty much up and quit one day with no career alternative mapped out. And then I stayed at home with my kids and wrote poems and did volunteer work for about 15 years trying to figure things out. Volunteering led me to doing volunteer management and administration in a children’s theatre (eventually a paid job), learning website/ graphic design and video/audio editing, as well as to editing a poetry journal and founding a micro press. I like the press work, but it, too, is unpaid, and I’m not a good fundraiser.

Although I consider myself a mediocre teacher, I’m fascinated by pedagogy and theory and how pedagogical practice informs what we do in organizations as well as how organizational practice embodies pedagogy. Still, pulling an actual class together is stressful and distracts from the creative work I prefer, whereas doing administrative and technical work does not. It’s kind of calming. Doing chores around the house is like that too.

I spun my wheels for a few years trying to freelance my creative writing and poetry editing/publishing skills, but realized that I don’t want to spend my creative time trying to make creative writing pay. I think that requires a lot more personal charisma than I possess. But I’m all for collaborating with others and pooling resources to gain attention for each other/the work/ poetry itself—I just don’t want to try to make money from that work. My current employment comes through a variety of part-time freelance jobs, including online and workshop teaching, but more substantially, through work as an editorial assistant for the glass industry (architectural and residential).

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

Every job (paid or not) that I’ve had has changed my writing in both its content and form and changed my writing practices too. Parenting was hard on the writing but provided endless amounts of material until the kids got old enough that I realized I really couldn’t keep writing about them with the same intense scrutiny while maintaining their goodwill and friendship. Teaching helps me sharpen my critical and revision skills but depletes my resources. My theatre job was wonderful because the focus on Shakespeare taught me a tremendous amount about poetry and language. Plus 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. Getting to know more about theatrical practice caused me to want to design collaborative poetry projects, and even though I’m not working at a theatre anymore, I enjoy learning/ following performance art and drama. It also made me interested in contemporary verse drama and poetry performance… My current job allows me once again to learn about another industry and another art form (architecture/glass)—the material is fascinating and I enjoy thinking about it and circling back to some of the technical topics I studied as a structural engineering major. Plus I really thrive on learning new things. Which is why I went back to school to study art in the first place. The combination of the two things is pushing me more technical and visual directions and I’m experimenting more with the layout of my writing on the page/the screen, trying to let it perform there through both static and animated design. I’m really grateful to have work that challenges me creatively and that I can relate to poetry, even though it is not related to poetry directly.

Wendy's desk

Wendy’s desk

I work from home, in various coffee shops, and at events. My desk at home is in a jumble right now—it’s the end of the semester for art classes and AWP just happened. Behind and around the desk are piles of my new book, art supplies, and various other materials in the project closet. And a sewing machine—I love to sew but haven’t done it much since my kids got older. I’m thinking about ways to pull that into my writing work more, too.

It’s strategically planned chaos for the most part. And it’s colorful.

Find more from Wendy around the web!

Cowfeather Press: Local Ground(s)—Midwest poetics

Echolocations, Poets Map Madison, a project in conjunction with the Madison Poet Laureateship, with digital materials that include a Twiter feed & a Google map of poem locations and audio. Twitter feed using #MidwestPoetics as well as a Google doc of resources.

Recent ongoing project in collaboration with Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, included a poetry reading and CD with other poets, plus a collaborative poem curated through Twitter.

An archive site of work edited with Sarah Busse (2009-2014): Verse Wisconsin.

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