Kate Schapira is the author of four full-length books, most recently The Soft Place (Horse Less Press), and seven chapbooks. She's a lecturer at Brown University and a visiting writer in Providence public schools.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Well, it changed my life in an, "I wrote a book! With a spine!" kind of way. It gave me a concrete thing to feel good about and I still do feel good about it. I've also published a lot with chapbook presses and I frequently make my own short-run chapbook editions, and those all feel great to me as well, but a perfect-bound book does still feel extra special, "real" and important. It's not a particularly rational feeling.
My first book has a semi-collaborative structure, so the process of doing it changed my life a lot while I was doing it. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to structure the collaboration, how to fairly appropriate words put together by others, how to acknowledge the way the book was made at all its different stages of being. That concern goes even deeper in a completed but as yet unpublished manuscript, part of which includes and responds to excerpts from soldiers' blogs. I've been offering to write "amulet" poems to help acquaintances draw something (that they name) toward them, push something away from them, or accomplish a task -- the thing they want help with drives the poem's ideas and progression, and the need for incantation and insistence drives the sound. The Make it Rain Project, which I just started to raise small amounts of funds for libraries in regions hit hard by this summer's drought, also has a quality of incantation and invocation in its "rain dance" poems. These are examples of some of the structures I create for myself to write responsively and with some aspect of the writing given over to others.
My most recent finished projects, though, are more turned inward, I think. The full-length book The Soft Place (Horse Less Press) probes barriers and boundaries between "me" and "everyone else" as well as between "me" and a particular given "you"; a series of self-published mini-chapbooks (The Ground / The Pass / The Wave) reflects on fidelity in love, mainly. A new project seems to be wrangling with the ethics of behaving as though there's a future that we're going to live in, but they're mainly my ethics -- more about that below.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I'm confused by the placement of that "first" -- do you mean "how did I first come to poetry", like, how did I start writing it? Or is your question more about what poetry offers me that fiction and nonfiction don't? Please advise if you want me to try to answer this, or don't worry about it.
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 that varies from project to project and has also changed over time. Most projects start with a language seed of some sort, although occasionally it'll be more like, "I want to reflect on this question / wrangle this idea / dive into this feeling." I usually generate a draft bit by bit, in one or two sittings for a shorter piece and over a few days for a longer piece. Then I expand upon from the middle and both ends, and then cut/condense a lot. I do a lot of leaving and returning, both because that's what the non-writing parts of my life allow and because it lets the words compost and gives me new things to bring to the piece. And then maybe I bring some things together because I realize that they have things to say to each other / ask each other, or that they're really on the same map of questioning and thought and feeling.
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?
Again it depends. All my first books (first written and first published) were books from the very beginning. I do tend to think of poems in company, but I don't always know what the company will be -- so sometimes I'll write something and ask, "What project is this part of?" and other times I'll sit down to write and think, "What else can I do for/with this project?"
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. I like hearing my words out loud and adding a layer to them with my voice. I like watching people respond to my poems, seeing the reaction happen, which I don't get to do when I give them the poems or they buy them and then read them somewhere else. Related to that, I love reading as a public and shared act of poetry, something that makers and listeners do together. I like meeting writers whose work I've admired and writers whose work it turns out I admire after I hear it. As a lifelong approval-seeker, I like being invited to read and hearing people say they liked the work, when that happens. I like it when there are snacks.
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 don't seek or have a lot of contact with formal, rigorously expressed or explored theory. Sometimes I discuss a project with a friend and they'll say, "Oh, like such-and-such theory person who writes about these things?" and I will say something like, "I guess so." What I mean, I think, is that theory, in the sense I described above, knows about me but I don't necessarily know about it.
If you mean do I have abstract concerns, yes. I think about ethics and accountability in language, about implications and suggestions and the wells of history and context that my phrases are drawing from. I think a lot, perhaps too much, about what it is right for me to say. That creates a kind of puritanical strain, maybe, in my writing -- so lately I've been trying to counter it with tones and approaches based in impulse and expansiveness, maybe a little bit flaily or floppy or fountainy. Not sure yet how that's going.
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 certainly don't think there's one role that all writers have or should have. There are some opportunities that I'd like to see more writers (including me) take more advantage of: to play an idea out as far as it will go; to probe and test a particular body of language that's usually used for something else; to invite or goad us to a leap in our thinking or our vision; to enact a separation, rupture, or shift in thinking. It doesn't seem like there's ever a direct relationship between what we read and what we do, but I do think that what we read can affirm or unseat what we think we know, or offer us a new angle of vision or a new sense of the stakes, which can then affect what we do, whether we keep our actions the same or change them (and what we change them to). But I don't feel well placed to tell other writers what they should do about that.
One other thing, I guess, is that writers are continuous and contiguous with "larger culture" -- I mean, of course -- and the writing that we do can affect our other ways of participating in it, as well as being a way of participating in it. Writing often helps me sort out how I want to be the rest of the time. A poet-friend is working right now on some writing about why people do things they know to be stupid and destructive, and I'm starting to get interested in that.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Recently I've been meeting with fellow poets Kate Colby and Darcie Dennigan for mutual editing / critique of work that's partly done. The more we work together, the better we become as editors for each other. That was also the case when I was an MFA student -- my fellow students (Tod Edgerton, Bronwen Tate, Lynn Xu, Caroline Whitbeck) reshaped my work and a lot of what's good about it now comes from having worked with them. I have less experience with post-acceptance, pre-publication editing, but when it's happened I have found it useful in the same way: to help the work find its best shape. There can be that initial moment of difficulty where I want to get out my flamethrower because they're CRITICIZING ME, but I've (mostly) learned to get past that.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I actually have no idea how to answer this question.
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?
Depends whether I have work (teaching, meetings) or another commitment in the morning. Right after breakfast is my favorite time to write -- the caffeine interacts with my brain in a satisfactory way, and I haven't turned the computer on so I'm not in massive internet mode -- but if the only way to get that time in would be to get up at five-thirty instead of six-thirty, I'd rather sleep. I do try to write a little bit at that time, on the bus if nothing else, and sitting on the front steps if possible. One reason I like to work in project or sequence form is that it gives me something to hop onto, rather than having to start over every single time.
I like to do some sort of writing every day, and I feel better if I do, but I try not to destroy myself about it. If I have a lot of commenting on student work to do, I might not worry about doing my own writing that day.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Lately, Bernadette Mayer's sonnets and Ana Bozicevic's chapbook War on a Lunchbreak. Walking around and looking at things is also good.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Home where I grew up: lavender, clay, frying onions, wet gray-green lichen.
Home now: we just moved, so actually nothing smells like home right now except my husband. I'm waiting to form new associations and build up my scent portrait of the new place. Will it be the dog hair (we don't have a dog, but the guy whose house this was had two and their hair is well engrained)? The grape arbor? Wood smoke? Cleaning spray?
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?
Science! I love the language of science, its rigor of practice and flexibility, mutability and mess as a body of knowledge. I love that destruction, correction, augmentation and revision are built into its nature. I love how full of metaphors it is, I love how it borrows. One of my favorite things to do as a writer in the schools is to offer students the chance to approach scientific concepts and topics poetically.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
In the order I happened to think of them and not including people I've mentioned elsewhere: Joan Retallack, Rex Stout, Missoula Oblongata, Gertrude Stein, Ish Klein, Jamaica Kincaid, Stephen Jay Gould, Cliff Pervocracy, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Rosmarie Waldrop, Samuel Delany, Roxane Gay, Ursula K. LeGuin, Ann Lauterbach, C.D. Wright, Brenda Iijima, Virginia Woolf, Bhanu Kapil, E.B. White, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, Dorothy Sayers, Alice Notley, John Porcellino. I've come back to this list several times and I keep adding people, so I think I'll stop there.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Something that requires real bravery.Of course, the conditions that will require it will probably suck, and probably not just for me, so it doesn't seem like a good thing to wish for.
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?
I don't know. I've been writing since I can remember, pretty much; I don't ever remember thinking that I would be just a writer, a writer only. When I got hold of the idea of being a writer, even then I don't think I ever thought of it as the only thing I would do or the main thing I would do, but I also have always thought of it as something I'll be doing, whatever else I'm also doing (see below).
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I don't think it is opposed to doing "something else", although there are some things with which it might be mutually exclusive or tough to maintain for me personally. It would be hard to be a writer and a doctor (although one of my former students just started in Columbia's Narrative Medicine program as a prelude to medical school) but I didn't and don't want to be a doctor or a nurse or any other kind of medical worker. It doesn't seem opposed to most of the things I'm doing right now. It would be opposed to me becoming an entirely different person, if that were necessary or desirable. What "made" me write is that I loved (and love) doing it and people kept encouraging me; if I hadn't gotten that encouragement I might not be a writer now, because I like encouragement and approval.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I am going to tweak this question. I loved I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say by Anthony Madrid, and I really appreciated Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.
20 - What are you currently working on?
The abovementioned Make it Rain project; a manuscript called The Duration that's almost done; and a new project, just formulated. called Bad Sentence, about the relationships among grammar, power and beauty. And I have an amulet to restore optimism to write for someone.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;