Paula Carter and I met in Samrat Upadhyay‘s backyard; he had invited a handful of former students over for lunch to catch up and gossip about the affairs of the University. Samrat was feeling nostalgic, I believe, as most of his students move on from Bloomington every three years and just wanted to check in on us. Though Paula and I had both been students of Samrat’s at Indiana University’s MFA program, our tenures in Bloomington had not overlapped. Over lunch of delicious Nepali food, Paula and I discovered that not only did we both live in Chicago, we lived in the same neighborhood. We swapped contact info, and so started a new friendship…which often involves me picking Paula’s brain for good ideas. Beyond being a professional writer, fiction writer, and essayist, Paula is a master craftswoman (she makes jewelry and mobiles and refinishes tables) and is adventurer (she’s ready for a triathlon or to go Sup’ing in Lake Michigan or square dancing at Old Town School of Folk). I hope you will find her recent interview as inspiring for your creative life as I do. To read some of her work head over to the Rumpus for a thrilling essay on margarine or check her professional website.
So what do you write?
Currently, I write both professionally and creatively. As a professional writer, I freelance and work primarily with nonprofits to create development and fundraising pieces (think high-end grant writing). I also work with a few magazines and marketing companies. Creatively, I write narrative essays, short shorts, and fiction. I’m currently working on a book of very short narrative nonfiction essays.
What are your sources of inspiration for your creative writing?
I have moved so many times in the last ten years and every time I pack up my many shelves of books and cart them along with me and wonder if I should let them go, or at least a chunk of them. I know people who pass a book along as soon as they finish it, wanting it to find another reader and wanting to clear out the clutter in their lives. I have the opposite problem: if you lend me a book, you may never see it again. Most writers are book hoarders, I’m sure, and I am one of them. Also, book klepto. There is something comforting about looking at a serious stack of books. My heart rate goes down. Not long ago, I decided to stop feeling guilty about not cleaning out my book shelves and just accept that these books were going to travel with me through life.
I have not yet purchased an e-reader. It is the physical object of the book that gives me joy; all the pretty colors and weighty titles lined up in a row waiting humbly. I remember hearing Ray Bradbury talk about writing Fahrenheit 451 at the UCLA library at the 10 cent typewriters. He would write for half an hour (that is how long 10 cents got him) then run up the stairs into the stacks, pull out an old book and take a deep whiff. He said that old books smell like nutmeg and some foreign land. Afterword he would return to the typewriter, put in another dime and keep going.
Theater is my other great love. One of the things I appreciate about it is that it is collaborative. Theater requires so many different people and ideas and creative minds to make it come to life. I recently went to see The Little Prince at the Lookingglass Theater in Chicago. The level of creativity and imagination at that theater is unbelievable. If you aren’t familiar with the story, one of the main conflicts involves baobab trees which grow too big and threaten the Little Prince’s small planet. Rather than use pieces of the set to represent the trees, each time a new tree sprouted an actor’s hand would shoot up through the floor of the stage. It was surprising, funny and fresh. I thought about it for days. Who came up with that? When did they decide it would work and who made the floor that allowed hands to break through it? Being stuck inside my own mind and bumping up against my own limitations can be one of my biggest struggles when writing—in theater there is play and room to experiment before a decision is made. It reminds me to let go more in my work, have fun, share it with others.
Just going to a show inspires me. Here are these actors giving it their all for this one ephemeral moment, this one night with this one audience. When it’s done, it’s done. For it to come back to life, they have to start the work all over again. There’s a lesson there somewhere.
Can you tell us a little bit about your day job and how you got there? How does it challenge/influence/inspire your writing life?
I have been reading Ann Patchett’s new collection of essays This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. The first paragraph of her introduction says:
“The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns. We serve them, and in return they thrive. It isn’t their responsibility to figure out where the rent is coming from.”
Oh, to be a novel or a dog. Patchett puts her finger on what I think it is the biggest struggle for creative people. I have had periods in my life when I had plenty of time to write and usually during those same periods worried constantly about what I could and could not afford. Then, I have had times when I made a good salary and all those worries were relieved only to be replaced with uneasy and unsatisfied feelings that quickly led to anxiety and disappointment in myself. Not a good combo.
Most people struggle to find the right work/life balance. But artists must struggle to find the right work/life/work balance—this seems wholly unfair to me. For Patchett, she tried waitressing and teaching, before settling on freelance writing to pay the bills while she wrote her first few novels. I have had a similar path (minus the waitressing and the first few novels).
Currently, I am a freelance writer. I’ve been freelancing fulltime for about three years. I decided to freelance—rather than work 9 to 5—as a way to have more flexibility, so I could also work on my own writing. In many ways this has been effective. I do have considerable flexibility and have been able to focus on my own creative projects in the last few years, in addition to making a living.
However, it has not been without its challenges. The first year I made $8,000 and lived with my parents. After a few years my income has increased but I have discovered other drawbacks. All of my work—both my own and professional work—is solitary. At times, I greatly miss working with a team. As a freelancer, you are primarily on the outside of the action, creating content for one event or article or report, submitting the piece, making some edits and then moving on. Additionally, when I have deadlines that other people are relying on, it can be hard to continue to set time aside to work on my own projects. No one is depending on them. It takes real effort to continue to make them a priority.
But, really, I can’t complain. Every job has its issues and every artist has their own struggle to figure out how to make it all fit together. For the most part, I feel pretty lucky. I have yet to finish my “first few novels,” but I have almost completed a nonfiction manuscript I have been slowly and steadily working on. And my cat, oblivious to economic concerns, is in love with this way of life. I am home all day.
A friend just brought this article at Brevity to my attention about Post MFA despair. In it, five authors give some good advice including Robin Black saying:
don’t assume that the only way through a bad patch is to be banging away at the keyboard, diligently, every day—as so many advise. Sometimes what’s needed is a break. Do some gardening. Take a walk.
I know I don’t write every day. To do so seems near impossible–with work, dishes and all the things to wonder about. Do you write every day? Do you feel guilty when you don’t? I’ve just started not to feel guilty for not writing everyday.
Geoffrey Hilsabeck is a poet and essayist and English teacher at boarding school on the East coast. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for poetry, he has a chapbook published with Song Cave; it is sold out, but lucky for us, the press allows readers to download a copy and discover Geoffrey’s prosey and poetic investigation of “elegy to energy and back again” in Vaudeville (or as Geoffrey describes, a look at “how Americans entertained themselves before television.”)
I recently asked him a few questions about his writing life and teaching at a boarding school…
I write poems and essays, mostly in the morning. How do I write–I’m not sure what you mean. Will you clarify?
I write pretty much only in the mornings: I wake up at six, make coffee and a bowl of steel-cut oatmeal, and write until it’s time to go to class or take the dog for a walk. Not having as much time to write has changed my approach to revision, since I just don’t have the luxury of obsessing over lines and sentences the way I used to; that being said, writing and revising are pretty much one and the same for me.I like Mead composition books, which I get for free from the school store, and non-mechanical pencils; the German company Kum makes an excellent pencil sharpener, although one of these days I’m going to invest in a wall-mounted one. I avoid typing anything into my computer for as long as possible.
I teach English at a boarding school, which is a day and night job. Surprisingly, though, boarding school life does allow for some writing, since I don’t have to waste any time in the car commuting. I love teaching. I’m fascinated and frustrated by it in much the same way–or to the same degree–as writing; to me, they are very different but equally impossible pursuits. Writing is pretty solitary, of course, and so the intense sociality of teaching provides a nice complement to that. I don’t think I’d be happy doing only one or the other, although I do wish I had more time for both.
Boarding school…it certainly looks a lot like Dead Poets Society, but the demands on students these days make for a rather different lifestyle. Also, students seem a lot happier than the characters in Dead Poets Society and Catcher in the Rye. (Perhaps the two are related?)
I suppose I take inspiration from what I read, mostly, I think–but who knows, really–is it reading that moves me first to write. I am moved to write by, what, feelings maybe? Less happiness and sadness though than wonder and fear. And love, of course. Is curiosity a feeling?
I’m still very curious about how Americans entertained themselves before television (hence the essay “Vaudeville”). I’m curious about outer space. I’m curious where poetry can take me, psychologically and spiritually.
So it’s been an embarrassing long time since my last installment of 5-9, but I’m happy to tell you, 5-9 is back! So look forward to more interviews from more writers in 2014!
Today’s guest: Julia Green. I met Julia at a library to discuss the nuances of English according to the College Ready Standards. We were both working at an academic company writing and editing curriculum. Since then Julia has moved away from the great city of Chicago to a warmer climate, but we still occasionally trade emails to debate SSF versus COU. For the record, WC 24-27.3 is my favorite to write. Before becoming a curriculum guru, an ACT & SAT tutor, and freelance writer, Julia was at Iowa Writer’s Workshop for fiction. She recently finished a novel that I’m looking forward to reading someday.
I asked Julia to participate in my survey of working writers and this is what she said:
I find that desperation is the greatest source of inspiration. If I haven’t written in a while, or if I find myself in a job or a place that bores me, I disappear into my work. Or if I’m short on time, I rush to work during what little free time I do have. Every night I look at my calendar and see when I can write the next day and then I do. Because if I don’t write enough, I turn into a monster. Writing is like breathing; when I don’t do it, it can be fatal (or homicidal, if you take into account my husband, who is at the whims of my days at the desk).
Tell us a little about your day job.
Day job? More like day jobs. “Freelance writer” is a phrase that some people consider with envy and optimism; five years out of grad school, I have cobbled together enough projects that most months I end up OK. The uncertainty of contract employment is both invigorating and terrifying. There are days when I think I should chuck it and get a full-time, salaried position, but I tend to wither under those circumstances. I’m at my most productive when I’m doing a million things. There’s a whole novel in all the random jobs I’ve had in the last ten years, which means for now I’ll keep that menagerie to myself. What I can say is learning when to say yes and when to say no is invaluable. I almost always say yes, and having made good friends and contacts along the way has been an incredible asset, but every once in a while something comes along that smells off, and you know to graciously decline. And yet even the crappiest jobs I’ve had have produced something valuable—a friendship, a character, a detail, etc. As an artist, it’s hard to win the moneymaking game—whatever you do will not pay enough nor give you enough time for your work, and yet you’ll nearly always say yes and hope for a different outcome.
Do you have a link to your work you’d like to share with our eager readers?
Unfortunately, I am next to nowhere on the internet; I recently completed a novel (presently seeking representation), which I would not have been able to do had I been immersed in social media and the like. I am the most boring person at the party to talk to because whatever thing you are discussing that you saw or read on the Internet, I can guarantee you I have never heard of, but this habit allows me to get a lot of work done. When I do look at the internet, I find it very dull. With the exception of cats. If I am having a particularly bad writing day, mere minutes of cat videos will soothe my soul and re-center me. It’s not as glamorous as having a drinking problem, but it’s a lot cheaper and safer. Now that I’ve established myself as a sanctimonious Luddite, I can say that if and when my book is preparing to go out into the world, I am committed to transforming myself into a hilarious, winning, responsive, admired Internet Voice. Just as soon as I find the book at the library that tells me how to do that.
So I just googled your name to see what I could find on you: turns out there are quite a few of you, some artists and writers, and even an elementary school with your name. The only You I could find was your tutor profile. It says you tutor math as well as English…how’d that come about?
There can be a tremendous beauty and satisfaction to tutoring math: there is always an answer. And I still feel the thrill I did as a 12 year old when I do a math problem correctly: “Huzzah! I know the answer!” We all need and love the shot of dopamine that accompanies ‘I got it right.’ There’s an elegance to math, to a clever problem and the process of unraveling it. Teaching math has made me a better person–it forces me to clearly analyze and ascertain all moving parts. You cannot fudge math the way you can fudge a scene ending or even a word choice. The numbers don’t lie, don’t allow you to lie to yourself and neither does the 16 year old kid across from you who needs a clear explanation. Part of writing is fighting to get to the truth. Math can be a relief that way–it’s easier to get to the truth with math. (And when it’s not, there’s usually a smarter person around who’ll explain it to you.)
While seeking representation, do you send out sections of your novel to literary magazines?
I don’t. When I was in grad school, I sent short stories to magazines, so I’m not averse to it, but it didn’t feel right for my novel. I learned a tremendous amount in graduate school, but I also came out a bit raw. To write this book, I wanted and needed to go to a very quiet and very private place — a place where there weren’t the voices and comments I received in grad school. So I kept it away from the world, which was truly the right decision for me. Now that my book is done, I doubt I will adapt it for submission in shorter parts to magazines. Now that I’ve written a novel, I look back and see I never was and never will be a short story writer–every story I conceive of is gaping and hardly containable. (My novel contains elements of just about every story I wrote in grad school.) I suppose I approach novels as I do human beings: none of them deserve to be reduced to or identified by their disparate parts. They are complex entities best swallowed whole.
Thanks Julia for sharing a snippet from your work and writing life. As with all past interviews, I feel rather inspired to get down to work. Good luck placing your novel!
St. Peter’s B-list, a new anthology I am pleased to be published in, will be for sale on March 10, 2014 from Ave Maria Press. As the Press itself describes:
This soul-stirring collection of more than one hundred poems—composed by a wide variety of contemporary award-winning poets—awakens readers to the beauty and humor in the broken, imperfect striving of the saints for holiness.
St. Peter’s B-list features poems by Dana Gioia, James Tate, Mary Karr, Paul Mariani, Brian Doyle, Franz Wright, Judith Valente, and Kate Daniels, as well as many new and emerging poets. This anthology invites readers to view the saints as they’ve never imagined them, reaching for the sacred, doubting, bumbling, and then trying again. The collection features wide-ranging poems on ordinary topics, such as a mother trying to get her newborn to fall asleep, an older brother concerned about the marriage of his sister, a lonely man trying to meet a woman in a bar, and a burn victim’s compassion for a small child. Neither devotional nor pious, these poems capture how, in unexpected ways, the saints illuminate daily life for everyday saints-in-the-making and engage readers in the important struggle to see the action of God in their lives.
Poet Sarah Suksiri can be defined by grace–she crosses the street with grace, she offers insight into conversation with graceful, well-chosen words, and her poems are also grace- and wonder-filled. Once, I witnessed Sarah crash her car gently into an A/C unit with grace (which she also managed to un-dent with a swift kick). If you have not yet been graced with a Sarah Suksiri poem, you can listen to her read three poems here.
A little while ago, I asked her about her new job as a copywriter and her life as poet. This is what she said:
In the past two years I’ve started noticing a pattern. A lot happened — marriage, moving, graduating, moving again, several jobs. Whenever one of those changes occurred, there was a spike in my writing. So I think change and movement play an important role in writing, which, if you think about it, is usually either about revisiting the places we’ve left or trying to discover where we are now. For me, getting too comfortable generally kills my writing.
In those moments of change/realization, I write poems. Revision’s role in my writing is primarily manifested in the ever-present question, “Is this any good yet?” But beyond that, I don’t apply a very empirical revision method.
So, tell us about your new job
I have a job I love at a creative agency, where I write copy. Any full-time desk job presents a challenge at the end of the day when time and brainpower are running on reserve, but what I like about being a copywriter (besides being paid to play with language) is learning how to approach writing strategically. You sit down at your desk, and people expect results by the end of the day. It’s hard, sometimes, to expect that of myself. I read somewhere that Salman Rushdie credits his years as a copywriter for helping him develop good, professional writing habits.
I looked for teaching jobs out of grad school, but nothing materialized. I stumbled into copywriting from a critical, editorial, creative, and journalistic writing background, and copywriting seemed like a terrific fusion of those experiences. With that goal in mind, several months of job applications and a little bit of desperation led me to take a copywriting job that wasn’t right for me (I felt there was a lack of creative challenge and direction), but in hindsight, it opened doors and taught me so much of what has led me to a good job in a good place with good people.
You can follow Sarah on Twitter at @ahoysarah, and you can find more of Sarah’s work in lit mags in print and online– like this poem entitled “How to Write a Poem” that was published in Punchnel’s.
When I moved from Los Angeles to Indiana, Elizabeth Hoover is one of the first people I met. As she helped me adjust to life in the little town, pointing out the good vs. sketchy grocery stores, and where the most beautiful parks were located, I got to know how hardworking and well-read Elizabeth is. She is the kind of friend where your conversation easily spans from summer reading lists and bike maintenance to museum recommendations or the latest discovery on mars. If she cooks dinner for you, she will use the finest local foods using a recipe she got from an obscure magazine, and when she writes poetry, she will draft and draft and draft until she unearths magic.
I am excited to share her interview with you today. In it she shares both about her writing process, her current projects, and why she sought out a salaried job when she was working as a successful freelance writer. For this interview, I decided to start with the job-related questions and then move on to juicy writerly details. Enjoy!
What do you do to pay the bills?
I did also apply for teaching jobs. I never heard back from any of the places I applied to teach at. I don’t know if I will pursue professorships in the future. Since I just got here, I am not really thinking about what’s next! Being part of the academic community is helpful mostly because it gives me access to a lot of resources through the library. I have unlimited access to books and other scholarly material.
Now, tell us a little bit about what you write, how you write, and sources of inspiration you seek out regularly?
I live only 10 minutes away from my office so I can get up at 6:45 and get at least an hour and a half in before I have to hop on my bike. What I usually do is read for a little bit and then work on a low-stakes poetry exercise. I recently moved from Pittsburgh to Harrisonburg and my writing partner from Pittsburgh and I exchange poetry exercises every two weeks. I hate poetry exercises because they force me to go off my plan and try something I wouldn’t normally do. So I actively seek them out. After the exercises, I’ll get to work on the project poems. I also keep little stacks on index cards everywhere–next to my bed, on my desk at work, in my pannier bag, my purse, my car–so I can jot down things as they occur to me. I don’t know what I am going to do with those cards yet. I got the idea from reading Roland Barthes’ “Mourning Diary.”
My sources of inspiration have always been pretty heterogeneous. Anne Carson is a poet I return to a lot because she also combines other discourses (history, philosophy) into her poems and her poems can straddle the line between poetry and essays. Another book that has been really important to me is The Rape Poems by Frances Driscoll. I think it’s her only book, but it’s a knock out. I read pretty much constantly because I’m also a poetry critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. I read about five books of poems a week. So recent books I’ve reviewed that I found inspirational/interesting/challenging: Sarah Fox’s First Flag, Lightsey Darst Dance, Heid Erdrich’s Cell Traffic, and Sun Yung Shin’s Rough, and Savage. My non-work-related book right now is Mary Jo Bang’s translation of the Inferno, but I’m not sure I like it.
I’ve been pretty obsessed with Feminist Frequency recently as well as with horror movies, copshows, and women in pop culture like Coco Austin and Annabel Chong. (So, yes, I have written poems while watching gangbangs. It’s really awful, but I feel like it’s important for me right now to lean into the things I find disturbing and terrible and sad about the way women are treated.
A HUGE source of inspiration for me is visual art. I am constantly taking photos in museums(since we don’t have museums here!) or reading art books. I always have a note book with me in a museum. Artists I love are Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Anne Hamilton (I just saw an Anne Hamilton piece that included a vitrine with cabbages being eaten by slugs!), and Louise Bourgeois. Right now I am working on some poets based on Jindrich Heisler photocollagethings. It’s also enormously inspirational for me to read about artists’ processes. For example, seeing the film “Richter Painting” gave me a sense of freedom about relying on instinct rather than intellect. Also I try to write like Daft Punk says they play: “to the very edge of my ability.”
However the MOST important artist in my life right now is my sister Dorothy Hoover,with whom I have collaborated on a performance and a chapbook. She really inspires me because of her conceptual approach.
Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing with us about your journey as a writer and for letting us in on what you are working on now. I am excited to read your newest poems! You can find more about Elizabeth and order her beautiful chapbook at her website!
I wanted to find a way to celebrate National Poetry Month on my blog, yet it is April 17, and this is my first post. Luckily, this post is a celebratory one! It contains an awesome interview with Christopher Citro, who lets us into his rigorous writing life and adventurous temp jobs in Syracuse, NY.
Christopher is friend and colleague from Indiana University. I had the pleasure of first meeting him on a road trip from Bloomington, IN for Chicago for AWP. In Chicago, as I remember it, Christopher fortuitously ran into a long-lost cousin on the sidewalk. In all workshops, classes, lectures, and rooms where I saw Christopher again surprising coincidences were often unfolding. On his website you can find his full bio and links to his published works. I encourage you to check it out, because coming to the last line of a Christopher Citro poem is waking from enjoyable dream–you want to linger in the enthralling imagery and emotion, the depth of imagination and humor. One reading, one poem is never enough.
In the following interview, Christopher gives us a snapshot (in words and photos!) of his life and a great deal of insight in to a writer’s life, temp jobs, and empathy as underlying force of poetry. Interestingly enough, this interview provides a great contrast to last month’s interview with Naoko, and like all the interviews so far, its inspiring. So read on, dear reader!
Can you tell us a little bit about what you write? or how you write? Are there writers you return to or other sources of inspiration you seek out regularly?
I write poems. Or I try to, at any rate.
To speak concretely, I’m currently at work on poems for my second manuscript. (My first, The Maintenance of the Shimmy-Shammy, is still unpublished, but why wait?) After leaving graduate school two years ago, my partner Sarah and I spent five nervous months living off our savings in an apartment above Main Street in a small southern Ohio village near my family while we waited for one of us to get a job to take us somewhere. With nothing but free time–and Amish buggies clopping by at 4 a.m. outside our windows–I thought to myself, if I don’t use this opportunity to get into a serious post-MFA writing groove then I’m a fool.
So I did. I set up a regular morning writing schedule along with my pint of Darjeeling. I sat in a window, listening to Lee Morgan’s 1966 album The Rajah on my headphones, and writing for an hour two each morning. This ended up being one of the most fruitful writing periods in my recent life and produced the bulk of the poems which are forming my new manuscript.
I also made a writing webpage for myself. I debated doing so for weeks, as it felt kind of silly and narcissistic at first, but I’m glad it did it. If you’re not teaching, it can be hard for editors and people to find you. I’ve found that a webpage for my writing has helped me with receiving solicitations and making connections with fellow writers over the last couple years that I don’t think I could have done otherwise.
In addition to Darjeeling tea, and Lee Morgan’s jazz, my other sources of inspiration included the life of the town outside my window, the golden slide of summer into autumn, and a revolving selection of poems which I’d dug out of some of our moving boxes for inspiration. I leafed through recent copies of Indiana Review. John Berryman’s The Dream Songs was a major companion, especially for his speed and sense of rhythm and movement down the page. I started reading the poetry of Matthew Zapruder and Tony Tost, along with old favorites like Wallace Stevens, Jim Harrison, Mary Ruefle, and D. Nurkse.
Since moving to Syracuse, where Sarah eventually found a job, I’ve continued working on my second book, revising the poems begun in Ohio, creating new ones, and listening to the poems as they suggest what shape the book as a whole might eventually take. It’s a rather inchoate thing right now. And I think that’s good for now. My Ohio poems are a pile of throbbing stem cells, only just beginning to specialize into the organs and systems of a new book. And I keep making new ones to add to the heap.
When you write in the mornings for two hours, does that include revising poems, or only generating new material. Do you have favorite time of day or regimented way to make sure you are sending out your poems to magazines?
The simple answer is: when I’m writing I generally write new poems in the morning and revise/submit at night. Every poem I write is the result of free-writing–an intuitive, unplanned pouring of words onto the page–and I have found that as I get older my brain is more limber and likely to make interesting, energetic leaps if I write shortly after waking.
I’m sort of always revising: in my head with new poems or poems I’ve been struggling with, in the margins of my handwritten journal where I write my first drafts, while typing the handwritten drafts into my computer, with printouts taped to the wall, or when I open poems up on my computer throughout the day.
When I’m in a writing groove, which is most of the time, after Sarah goes to sleep I’ll spend an hour or two or more revising and sometimes submitting. I’ll spend time working on my submission spreadsheet, researching new journals, revisiting old ones, looking for submission calls, reading online journals, reading book and journal reviews, and just generally splashing around in the rich digital waters of contemporary literature. Then when my fingers get all wrinkly and waterlogged, I turn everything off, pour myself a nightcap and read from a book of poems or whatever novel I’m in the middle of. To an outsider, this probably looks like obsessive behavior. To me, an insider, it’s clearly obsessive behavior. And I love it.
What do you do besides write (to pay the bills)? How did you end up doing that? and how does it influence/interfere/inspire your writing life?
If I were on my own, finance-wise, I’d probably be in the gutter, or curled up muttering in a fetal position in a loving family member’s attic. Since finishing my MFA program, I’ve been largely unemployed. Thankfully, I have a caring and generous partner who has a good job which more or less keeps us and our cat in Tender Vittles, chicken thighs, and whisky. I have very few expenses and have stripped down what I need to live to the bare minimum. Living as a graduate student helped this process, but living even broker subsequently has really tightened things.
Job-wise, upon arriving here, I signed up at half a dozen local temp agencies which have found me a total of two jobs for two months in the last year.
The first one was a manual labor job helping to dismantle a cell phone tower installation tech center. The supervisor let us take a some of what was left in the office, so I got a nice leatherette desk chair, some unused sticky notes, a ladder, and a case or two of printer paper which I use for printing poems. I’m not sure what I’ll use the ladder for. From the supervisor, a pompous and unsettling old man from Chicago, I got an interesting anecdote which I wove into a poem I was working on at the time.
Over this last winter, I worked as a delivery person for a compounding pharmacy, filling in for a driver who’d had a heart attack. I motored all over central New York, making deliveries inside the homes and basements of the very rich and profoundly poor. The only common dominator was that everyone was, or had someone in the family who was, seriously and gravely ill. One minute I’d be in a glittering mansion on the shores of a Finger Lake, and immediately after in a rusty trailer with an obese man with one leg telling me it’s a good thing I don’t knock like a county sheriff. (I made a mental note to be sure never to do this.)
The view into the homes of my fellow humans here was actually quite moving. I can’t say at all in what ways it has already or might enter my writing, as that kind of thing often takes time for me, if it happens at all. Memories and experiences pop up in poems quite unexpectedly after months and years. And in general I like to write from my sheer imagination, rather than as a form of nonfiction notation. My own penchant for recording the details of my life meant that for most of this delivery job I kept an audio diary while driving between deliveries, and took lots of pictures along the road. I may use these someday for an essay. As far as my poetry goes, I imagine the things I saw (hand guns strewn between cereal boxes on dinner tables, an old lady who couldn’t get out of bed so she kept her bed in the kitchen, charming couples caring for one another as best they can) will find a way in one way or another. If for nothing else, it’s been a serious anti-cynicism aid and a push to maintain the kind of empathy without which good poems don’t really come alive.
Whether or not I’m working I always make it a point to keep writing–and I’m usually pretty good at this. When I have free time, it’s a joy to lose myself in the dream world for days on end. When I am busy working 40-plus hours a week, it’s a way I keep my sense of self and my enthusiasm amid exhaustion and the sadness of using the most productive hours of your day to create things for someone else instead of making poems for yourself.
Though I’m not working in academia these days, I’d ultimately like to return. I miss teaching very much, and rewarding jobs in publishing are thin on the ground here in Syracuse. Of colleges and universities there are a-plenty.
In the meantime, I do whatever temp jobs I can find, hope I don’t get sick (no health insurance) and write as much as I can. I also make sure to submit my work fairly regularly. Being broke, I haven’t been able to afford to submit my first book to many presses, as they almost all charge, even for open reading periods. But I’ve found a few. And I try to keep sending poems out to journals. I pet my cat a lot. I read. I cook strengthening and nutritious dinners for me and Sarah. I look out the windows and wonder if it’ll ever stop snowing.
I met Naoko at a poetry reading in an Irish pub in South Bend, IN. After the reading, we learned that we both lived in Chicago and decided we should meet in Chicago next time and save ourselves the two hour drive. She is a dazzling poet and in this interview shares a lot of insight into a writer’s life. You can find out more about Naoko and her writing and art on her blog.
But first a little bio: Naoko was born and raised in Nagoya, Japan. She came to America as an exchange student at Indiana University South Bend. There, she received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in English. Currently, she works as a sales assistant in the Japanese machine industry to support her artistic pursuits.
Tell us, what do you write?
I write poetry and personal essays. My poetry is currently focused on the Japanese earthquake and following nuclear disaster. Before the earthquake happened, my focus was on war. My grandfather was in the navy in Hiroshima during World War II. He was a very quiet person; however, once a while, he rushed to speak about what he saw when the atomic bomb exploded. As Japanese poet, I have a passion to preserve how people live through those ongoing obstacles. For my personal essays, I used to be a columnist in Indiana University South Bend’s college newspaper. The column series was called “Empty Suitcase.” The essays were about how an Asian exchange student survived American college life with a fork & knife over chopsticks. You may wonder, but they were not food critiques— though— I wrote about twizzler-astic experiments. Now I occasionally write personal essays for my blog.
Can you share a little about your writing process?
I write everyday with a pen & paper and on the computer. My very first draft is written with both Japanese and English mixed in a notebook. I carry the notes everywhere like a yellow comfort blanket— just like a Linus from Snoopy. Once I am ready to formally write down a poem, I type it in English. For the final process, my husband proofreads my poem. He is a full-time industrial editor; however, we sometimes fight over his word choices, fixing former grammar, and comma rules. I scream, “You are destroying my poem!” even though he is right.
Who are the writers you return to for inspiration?
I like reading traditional literature and philosophic science articles in Japanese. Soseki Natsume (famous Japanese writer, 1867-1916) and Takeshi Yoro (doctor of anatomy at Tokyo Univ., 1937 – current) are my favorite authors. Natsume’s writing is funny in a kooky way even though he is writing about death. His sense of humor is like a ray of light in life. His writing teaches me that I cannot forget “hope” even though I am writing about tragedy. I read Yoro’s books when I need to think outside “common” sense. When I write a poem, I should be very flexible in American, Japanese, and other cultures. I want to write something that I can only create. I also like “Firstborn” by Louise Glück, “Rose” by Li-Young Lee, “Internal West” by Priscilla Becker, “Rising” by Farrah Field.
So tell us more about being what you do for a living.
I work as an inside sales support and translator in a Japanese-American company. I graduated in a horrible economic situation. All my college friends, including my husband, had really difficult times finding a job. Fortunately, I found a job through a Japanese agency and was hired. For a long time I doubted my decision— should I be a starving artist?— However, I concluded that it is very important to have a secure environment financially and emotionally. It has been three years since graduation and I am finally happy where I am in my life.
However, it is tough to keep working in an office environment for artists or anybody; even though, I am paid with benefits. When I am upset, I try to think that I am in a business school with a full scholarship and allowance. I actually have learned a lot about business manners and rules— how to communicate with customers, decide work priorities, and have presentations with clear pronunciation! I am really thankful for my bosses. They understand my artistic characteristic and deal with me.
That business knowledge will help me when I become an established poet later. Currently, I do not have any books; however, I want my readers to be happy when I sell my books. I would like to read my poems with proper pronunciation. And most importantly, I would like to entertain people through my art.
I recently opened a little art shop on Etsy. I draw with soft pastels and colored pencils along with my poems. In addition, I am thinking to have a poetry and music reading concert again with a Russian-Estonian pianist sometime in the spring. We had a poetry concert about the Japanese tsunami last June in South Bend, IN.
For my dreams, I would like to create a poetry-musical-concert-theater-reading. I do not know how I am going to create one, but it is super-fun to think about that!
Thank you for sharing this insight and inspiration, Naoko. A mix-media art night sounds awesome. Keep up posted on this dream!
I think Naoko makes an important point about whether it is nobler to be a starving artist or to create a stable, financially responsible lifestyle for yourself. Virginia Woolf weighed in on this conversation in A Room of One’s Own when she wrote,
All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point – a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write …