How does your writing process work?
My writing process is sporadic. Although I write every day in my job (and in every job I've had since I joined the workforce at 15), I go through long stretches of time in which I produce no poems. When I was younger, this bothered me quite a bit. Anxiety built during those dry spells until I would tell myself that I wasn't really a writer. Then, just when I was about to give up forever--for real this time--I would draft several poems in a few days. This would usually provide enough of a rush to get me through a round of revision and submissions before I hit the doldrums again.
Over the years, particularly during and just after my MFA, I tried repeatedly to write every day. Sometimes I could sustain the routine for several months, but the habit always broke. Eventually I noticed that the daily writing regimen didn't produce any more poems than the slower process that felt more natural to me. In fact, I noticed that the poems I wrote in my writing's "manic phase" didn't really come out in a flood of inspiration. Rather they were made of lines I'd written in my notebooks months or years earlier, images I'd tucked away while riding my bike to work, caring for my daughter, or working on a difficult painting or collage.
I realize now that, although I have no daily word count, I am always writing. When I reach the putting words on the page part of the process, things move quickly because I've done a lot of mental work already. My poems may seem to be born all at once, but they gestate for a long time. To put it another way, I am a slow writer with a constantly boiling back burner.
Are the processes different for poems and essays?
Teege asked me this extra question because I write in multiple genres. The process I've been describing is my process for writing poetry. I also write short, lyrical personal essays, and the process for those is very much the same. In fact, some of those essays could probably be prose poems if you squinted at them just so.
I also write more traditional memoir and editorial-type essays. Although I'm a terrible blogger on my own, I do guest posts for others fairly often. For those pieces, the process is much different, more businesslike and even aggressively unromantic. I start with something I want to say. I make lists. I brainstorm. I draft on the computer, which I never do when I'm writing poems. I edit as I go. I revise. It looks a lot like this.
What are you working on?
Although I embrace my slow writing, I've learned that I reach the words-on-paper stage more consistently if I have a project in mind. Maybe it helps me focus the heat on the back burner. Lately I've been working on complete re-writes of old poems, turning free verse drafts that never quite worked into form. I also have a bigger, slower project in the works. I'm writing a set of long poems that I hope to eventually link into a chapbook or the skeleton of a longer manuscript. Each poem is loosely based on one of the elements--water, fire, earth, air (I think it's going to be better than that sounds). So far I have a solid draft of water and fire, and I'm starting to carry around random lines about earth.
How does your work differ from other of its genre?
It's strange to think of my work as part of a genre, like asking which of the high school cliques I fit in. In high school, I sat at a table in the back of the cafeteria with extra chairs pulled up and people eating their lunches off their laps so we could sit together even when we ran out of room. We were a bunch of smart kids and assorted weirdos who never turned anyone away. I very much like that poetry is the kind of writing that gets all the weird experiments that don't fit in anywhere else, but that's not really the kind of poetry I write.
My poems belong to the tradition of American confessional writing. They're mostly short and personal, narrative lyrics or lyrical narratives. I don't know what sets my poems apart from others like them except that they tell my stories in my voice.
Why do you write what you do?
I joke that I write what I do because I lack imagination. I can't invent anything, so I write what I know. Partly true. I've said that I write what I do because my first poetry mentors valued concrete imagery and observation in poems, so I learned to write that way to please them. Partly true. I know that my style mimics the speech and poetry and storytelling I grew up with in church in the rural, working class south. Partly true. But I think I write confessional poetry mostly because I believe in honesty. A lot of poetry is heavy on artifice. Some of that is fun, some of it is wonderfully playful, and I'm really glad to have all of it at the big, loud cafeteria table of Poetry, but the poetry that speaks to me most strongly strips away artifice. The poet ends up a little exposed because the way she or he sees the world is exposed. It's risky. If you fuck it up, you look like an asshole, but it's the only way I know to write.