author biography ; extended biography ; author page

Monday, October 29, 2012

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Marci Nelligan

Marci Nelligan’s publications include Infinite Variations (Black Radish Books); chapbooks Dispatch (with Nicole Mauro), Specimen, and The Book of Knowledge, all from Dusie Press. In addition, she was the co-editor of an interdisciplinary book on Jane Jacobs, titled Intersection, from Chain Links Press. Her work has appeared in Jacket, the Denver Quarterly, The New Orleans Review, How2, and other journals. She was the 1999 recipient of Poets & Writers “Writers on Site” grant and has an MFA from Mills College in poetry. She teaches creative writing at Franklin & Marshall College and lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two daughters.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book, which just came out, is messing with my head. Completion is interesting—it doesn’t neaten things up for me. Now I have a new set of worries—if the book accomplished what I wanted it to, what I’ll do next, who I forgot to mention in the acknowledgements, etc. So I suppose it’s changed my life in that it’s turned me into the female Woody Allen.

My most recent work is different than the immediately previous in that it’s looser and less constricted by form or structure. I’m able to meander and have a bit more fun as a result.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I think I’ve always had a weird poetic soundtrack in my head that probably has to do with an early overexposure to Mary Poppins and Johnny Cash. Poetry was a natural outgrowth of an innate desire I have to tell stories, to mediate my experience through language, but to do so in a slightly screwed up way.

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?

I’m really good at starting writing projects. I have numerous notebooks of failed attempts, forgotten strands, shards and crumbs. When I do actually complete a project, it tends to take a good long time, with numerous iterations, drafts, re-workings, etc.

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?

I go back and forth on this. Sometimes, an idea for a poem will come to me, and it’s just a one-off thing. At other times, as is the case with my book, a larger project comes to mind and the poems are in some way in service to that idea. I find myself being drawn lately to the book idea more frequently, but I think that’s situational in some respect. With two kids and little fixed writing time, I find I can come back to a project and work within its confines more reliably than I can pull a poem from the ether.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
They’re sort of a psychological Red Bull. I’m true to the Irish stereotype in that I like to tell stories and joke around, and so I like the performative aspects of readings. I also really enjoy being among the oddballs who are devoted to poetry—it’s like being part of an ill-organized cult. In terms of the writing, readings usually push me back to the work, get me energized and ready to get down to business.

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?

Well, I find that many of the theoretical concerns that loom behind my writing change depending on what I’m thinking about or reading, or engaged in at the moment. But I’ve long been interested in the materiality of language and the mystery of it—the way it shifts in usage, the forces that cause these shifts, the way we all agree to language and then subvert it, but subvert it in shared ways, as well. And I’m interested in the issue of authorship, of ego, and interpretation. Who owns the text/who makes the text (reader/writer/both), what is the text? I like to play with these ideas by using Oulipian games and engaging with form. Sestinas are a favorite of mine. Constraints as a means of pushing myself away from the poems.

The questions I’m thinking about a good bit these days have to do with the sea change technology poses to writing, language, certainly publishing. There’s part of me that really resists this, and part of me that delights in it and embraces it as a natural evolution. I live in Amish Country, so there’s this strange way in which I can see the future and the past out of my window. I’m intrigued with blending these sensibilities somehow. I have this looming idea that Frankenstein, feminism, and the internet could all come together somehow for me. And there are some really cool things happening out there, like Oni Buchnan’s “Mandrake Vehicles” that are just stunning in their use of technology as a beauty machine for words. 

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?

I think the writer’s role is to chew over the things that are most right and most wrong about our world, to use despair to fuel the engines of change and beauty to ignite the hope necessary to go on. To help make sense of the big confusing mess of it all, basically. And tap into the mysterious thing that happens when we construct the mirror of the poem.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I’ve been really lucky to have editors who are fellow writers I really respect, Cara Benson and Marthe Reed. And I’ve worked with Nicole Mauro on a bunch of collaborations. These experiences have been universally positive, and have helped me to understand my own writing better.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

“Play over it,” by Art Pepper. He was an amazing saxophone player, whose career and everything else was devastated by an all-absorbing interest in heroin. He wrote a fascinating autobiography called Straight Life, which is where this quote comes from. He used it to remind himself to turn to the sax when problems arose, as a way of drowning out the bad, washing it all in the holy waters of his own music. I try to apply this to poetry—to force myself to turn to writing at times when the impulse is just the opposite.  I also find myself muttering this phrase on big hills when I’m cycling.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (solo to collaborative)? What do you see as the appeal?

I’ve really enjoyed the collaborations I’ve done. I find that they spark new thought and get the neurons charged. I think the appeal is to have a creative conversation with someone, a sort of laboratory experiment of words that can be difficult and unexpected and shake you out of your own head a bit. 

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

There is, sadly, no more typical day. I would love a typical day. I like to write every day at around the same time, and I’ve been shooting for that since our first daughter’s birth. But children have a way of turning your world upside down, particularly when paired with a job. So it’s been rough going. Lately, I’m trying to work while my older child is in school and my youngest is napping. This will all go to bits when the fall semester begins, but I’ll scrape away an hour here or there. I would write at night, but the baby’s up at about 4:30 a.m. and can’t be talked out of it. I’m trying to focus on the impermanence of it all and take solace in one solid sentence per week.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Anywhere and everywhere. I try to slow down and sort through my thoughts. What’s on my mind? What’s the current obsessive idea? What, if anything, can I make of it? And I think about what I’m filtering, either through my reading or the sort of ‘big broadcast’ from the outside world. I sift through it all to see if there are any shells in the sand.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Boiled lamb (my childhood home). Baking bread with undertones of black lab (my current home).

14 - 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?

Nature, visual arts, science, philosophy, memory, the great human circus. I think everything finds its way in, and I definitely seek out other influences to spark my work. My latest book, for instance, uses stolen text from the Old Testament and The Origin of the Species. I’ve written a bunch of poems about art. Whatever’s at hand.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There are writers who were in various ways formative and gave me the idea that language could be this entirely unique, insane form. They’re kind of like deities. Herman Melville, Jack Spicer, Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, William Faulkner.

Writers who remind me of what’s possible, beyond but also through words. John Banville, David Foster Wallace, Cole Swensen, Brenda Shaughnessy, Theresa Cha, W.S. Sebald, Bernadette Mayer, Virginia Woolf, Lydia Davis.

Writers who crack me up. Frank O’Hara, Charles Dickens, Tobias Woolf, Russell Edson, Lorrie Moore.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Go to India with my daughters. Bike through the Netherlands, take a ferry, then bike through Ireland. Look up my grandmother’s childhood haunts in Scotland.

17 - 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?

I often think I’d be a great mailman, because I love to walk and I love mail. I’m also great with dogs, so I think I could overcome certain obstacles inherent in the position. Or I could be a dog trainer. Or I would like to invent things.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I ask myself that all the time, because Jesus this is hard sometimes. Why not a stockbroker or phlebotomist? I don’t know. It’s like a strange drive, perhaps like a migratory instinct.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I have to confess that I just finished Seabiscuit, my guilty pleasure summer read. Unbelievably captivating. Now I want a horse. But before that, Are you my mother? by Allison Bechtel. Last great film. Oh man. I have a five year-old and a one year-old, and we live in a region greatly influenced by Christian austerity. The pickings are slim, and we keep falling asleep while watching NetFlix. But I did sneak out for a movie night at a local café: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I’d forgotten how great it was. And now I can hold my own in verbal spats with my kids.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m headlong into a project that may or may not work out (please see question 3 above), about the current state of the female body versus the conservative right in America. It relies on quotes from various women, the writings of famous misogynists, old medical texts and my own words. So far, it’s feeling deliciously retaliatory.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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