Valerie Coulton is the author of open book, The Cellar Dreamer, passing world pictures (all from Apogee Press), and The Lily Book (San Francisco State University). Her poems, co-translations, and collaborations have appeared in Front Porch, kadar koli, New American Writing, alice blue, Parthenon West Review, and e-poema, among other periodicals and online journals. She lives in Barcelona with the poet Edward Smallfield.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I was very lucky that Apogee Press published my first book, because they have a wonderfully collaborative process, so I learned a lot. Conceptualizing a book was a great pleasure for me, and when the book came out I took joy in sharing it. My most recent work is much more involved with prose forms than my previous work, which allows for a different relationship to the page, the book, and finally the possible reader.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction
I took a course at UC Extension called Discovering Your Creative Writing Potential, in which we wrote fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. It seemed that poetry offered the most possibilities, and I was introduced to the poetry of Barbara Guest, Kathleen Fraser, Lorine Niedecker, and others whose work made me want to write poetry.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
All of the above...
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Once again, either could happen. My most frequent experience is of starting a series and simply continuing it until it feels finished, which could result in a section of a book or an entire book. I find that I write fewer and fewer individual poems as I go along, meaning single pieces meant to stand alone. Apparently my poems prefer company!
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t know if readings contribute to a process, but I always enjoy them. They are a gift to me which I try to return with gratitude in the moment.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I’m not sure I understand this question, but if there are ideas in my work, they have to do with freedom and intimacy, and seeking a kind of logic of the unconscious. So a project needs to have some mystery for me.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
It’s hard for me to think in terms of the larger culture. My relationships with books are very intimate and personal, and I feel the deepest regard for the writers whose work has meant something to me. These writers probably have a personal courage in common which has enabled them to make a unique offering. It would be troubling to me to conceptualize one role for the writer in the sense that writing is essentially concerned with freedom.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
It depends on the editor!
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don’t listen to critics who don’t understand what you’re doing. This applies to everyone, from your family, friends, and writing group to teachers and reviewers. The idea that you can learn anything meaningful from people who don’t understand your work is completely wrongheaded, and can lead you to a lot of detours and dead-ends.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a writing routine right now, but my I begin each morning with coffee and a talk with my husband, the best time of the day.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read Seven Greeks, by Guy Davenport, especially his translations of Archilochos, or Lorine Niedecker, or a favorite novel such as Light Years by James Salter.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The scent of lilies.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
These days, I find that a lot of inspiration is coming from architecture, particularly the work of American architect Louis Kahn.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Certainly my husband, Edward Smallfield, is incredibly important to my work through the example of his own writing, and by being such a great reader and teacher. Apart from others already mentioned, I would name: George Oppen, Denise Newman, Truong Tran, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Cole Swensen, Frank O’Hara, Laura Walker, Stephen Hemenway, Harriet Sandilands, Myung Mi Kim, Elizabeth Robinson, Borges and Shunryu Suzuki. No doubt I’m forgetting many important others!
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to travel more in France, to finish two manuscripts I started long ago, to speak Spanish well, to learn Catalan... So many things!
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
That’s hard to imagine. But, if I had to choose: barkeeper, cheesemonger, and psychoanalyst all come to mind.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It has been the thing I’ve enjoyed the most.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book: equinox, by Edward Smallfield. The last great film: Grand Illusion, by Jean Renoir.
19 - What are you currently working on?
A Society of Rooms. This is a rangy, disorganized project that seems to concern space, architecture, eros and dreams. We’ll see...
12 or 20 (second series) questions;