Sunday, January 13, 2013

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Laura Walker

Laura Walker’s most recent book, Follow–Haswed (Apogee Press, 2012), was created from fragments of individual entries in the sixth volume of the Oxford English Dictionary, “Follow-Haswed”.  She is also the author of bird book (Shearsman Books, 2011), rimertown/ an atlas (UC Press, 2008), and swarm lure (Battery Press, 2004), and the chapbook bird book (Albion Books, 2010). Her poetry has appeared in VOLT, Switchback, New American Writing, Thermos, and Fact-Simile, as well as other journals. She grew up in North Carolina and now lives in Berkeley, California, where she teaches poetry at the University of San Francisco’s MFA in Writing program and UC Berkeley Extension.

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 was my MFA thesis, a series of three experiments in translation. It was published by two amazing writers, Valerie Coulton and Stephen Hemenway, and the extraordinary care they took with my work and with the book itself was a gift. In some mysterious way, they held my work out where I could see it.

My projects are a record of my obsessions, I guess. My first book was my monolingual's obsession with translation. My second, the way I was haunted by the place I grew up-- and trying to create a "poetic atlas". Then came an interest in trying to weave "my" language with "found" language, of birds, and flying in and out of a deteriorating narrative. Most recently, the OED grabbed me and wouldn't let me go-- the history of words, their unexpected overlays, the way they hold whole worlds; how we imprint them and are imprinted by them, both. Throughout I'm interested in emotional memory and fragment and the nature of subjectivity, I think.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I wrote poetry from childhood on, and then switched to fiction in college. Then I left all writing behind after college to do social advocacy work, because I thought of it as a much more worthy thing to be doing. But over that decade I felt like part of me wasn't alive anymore, and coming back to writing felt like a necessity, not a choice. Anyway, I came back to writing both fiction and poetry, but when someone complained yet again that my fiction was all image and no plot, I happily moved into poetry, where I felt freer to pursue what I found interesting, whatever that was.

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 am a constant and happy reviser. I'm much more comfortable revising-- shaping and playing with something already on the page-- than I am "producing" or creating first drafts. I've always been in awe of people for whom poems arrive fully formed-- wondering what that could possibly be like.

And I take a long time to find projects. Once I do, I can be fairly immersed, but I have long gaps between things. Those gaps used to make me anxious, but now perhaps less so. At least I like to think.

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'm more comfortable writing in long series or work with a long arc-- in projects (though I know some poets dislike that word. For me the word has echoes of 5th grade social studies dioramas, which can only be good). Maybe too because it takes me a long time to find something that I can really engage with-- I don't want to let it go. And I love iterations, coming at something lots and lots of times, to see what is formed through that multiplicity. 

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I'm trying to become that sort of writer. In the past I've just felt nervous. Recently I've started thinking of giving readings as a kind of gift I've received-- this chance to voice my work and see what happens to it, in it, through it with others.

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 find that if I hold theoretical questions too strongly in the forefront of my mind, I end up writing something essay-like, rather than something I think of as poetry-like. I work more through feel and intuition, but looking back on work already written I see exploration and investigation along certain lines: what a landscape of emotional memory might be like, that topography; how altered syntax or insistent rhythm or associative or sound-based logics might undo a habitual understanding of language, and therefore undo habitual uses of language; how war and violence and loss enter into that; how war is personal and collective and almost impossible (for me) to perceive whole; how fragment reflects both a reality, for me-- that is, that my thought and memory and life seem/arrive/feel heavily fragmented-- and a kind of opening toward other possibilities, through that breakage, that tearing, the spaces between; how space and silence can operate as active presence rather than foil or background; how words are freighted, historied, how each opens into its own world, subjective for each of us, and yet how we must make use of these nets and webs of "meaning" and association-- the terror of that, the beauty of that; how terror and beauty can be intertwined; the gloss and depth, both, of nostalgia; how lyric might operate in our post-post world-- what is lyric, today? what can it be? what can it hold? what can it point to? I love Reginald Shepherd's anthology for its explorations of that very question. And I could go on...

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 guess I think of writers as individual people and citizens, with all that carries already, and so wouldn't want to try to prescribe a role to anyone else. For myself, I've thought about this a lot, since I left work that was perhaps more directly or manifestly tied to trying to make the world "a better place" in order to make time for writing. And I wouldn't say I have an answer. There's always more I wish I were doing. But in my teaching I try to open a place for investigation and multiple ways of considering language, try to open up spaces for possibility; I'm continually inspired by my students, and I've had so, so many amazing students. There's a kind of conversation that happens in teaching, and in reading, and in writing too, that I feel is not a bad model for being in the world-- that receiving, and offering, circling, engaging, creating webs of relating...

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

I don't know that I've ever worked with a traditional editor, but I've found the input of teachers and colleagues invaluable to me... not so much for suggesting small changes, but for helping me reconceptualize what I'm doing, or understand what I might be doing in the first place. For helping me see things anew, and helping me re-enter my own work reinvigorated.

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


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

Moving between genres is appealing to me, but I don't really do it. Maybe I'll start.

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?

I have two youngish kids and so I have no real routine and my day starts with them. I was never good about routines anyway, though now that they are rather impossible I sometimes long for them. My third book, Bird Book, was written in small sections because my kids were really young and I often only had 5 or 10 minutes at a time to write, at unpredictable intervals-- and so I fit my writing to my life. I used to think of compromises like that as kind of sad, a concession; now I think they're really interesting, letting the world into the way you shape your work, making your process more porous. Or at least I think that most days.

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

Outside texts. Geography textbooks, old elementary school primers, math papers, bird guides, maps, the dictionary. Interviews with poets (so many poets are so articulate about their process and investigations-- I find so much there). Or, of course, other books of poetry: right this moment in my perennial stack of books to turn to, which is always changing, on the corner of my desk: Kathleen Fraser, Lisa Olstein, Norma Cole, Donna Stonecipher, Bhanu Kapil, Larry Eigner, Cole Swenson, Anne Carson, Pattie McCarthy, Joshua Marie Wilkinson.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

lilacs. summer thunderstorms and wet grass. wet earth. pine trees. heady summer roses. smoke from a woodstove. narcissus.

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?

Definitely landscape, geography. Trees. Weather. I was really moved by the Eva Hesse exhibit at SF MOMA many years ago, and I think it's influenced my work perhaps more than I'm aware of.

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

So, so many. Some through their books only, others as colleagues and community. Way, way too many to name, so in addition to the list above I'll just name a few of the poets who are right here in front of me, whom I love to sit around a table with: Tiff Dressen, Megan Pruiett, Todd Melicker, Susanne Dyckman, Steve Hemenway, Susan Kolodny, Sharon Osmond, Gretchen Stengel, Micah Ballard; and Brian Teare, Valerie Coulton, and Ed Smallfield, who all used to be here... One of the great things about living in the Bay Area is that I can go to a reading and in the audience will be poets I deeply admire, and (gasp) can speak to, like Kathleen Fraser or Maxine Chernoff or Rusty Morrison, Brenda Hillman or Lyn Hejinian, Cecil Giscombe, Gillian Conoley, Paul Hoover, Aaron Shurin, Norma Cole, Susan Gevirtz, Linda Norton, Kate Pringle... the list feels almost endless, so I'll just stop arbitrarily there.

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

Learn to speak another language. That seems so important and necessary, and my attempts at it, all my life, have turned out dismally. But I still hope.

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 taught elementary school briefly in a place with very few resources. I wasn't good at it, but I think it was one of the most meaningful jobs I ever attempted, and definitely the hardest. I'd like to become good at it.

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

I tried doing something else and something inside me started to wither. So it didn't feel like a choice, really.

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

Oh, so many. I'll go with the truly most recent: I just read Joseph Lease's Testify day before yesterday-- with its pulling cadences and complex use of repetition, with its deep engagement with the world, with all its yearning. And right before I read it, on the plane, I saw the film Searching for Sugar Man. It was exactly what I needed to see. It felt unexpectedly transcendent. And weirdly serendipitous that it was showing on the flight.

20 - What are you currently working on?
My most recent book was all found language, from a volume of the OED,  "Follow-Haswed." And it was cut, small, distilled. So now I've gone in an opposite direction to a project of excess-- letting everything in,  "my own" language, working with the pulling cadences of the King James Version of the Bible, which I find mesmerizing and will forever be haunted by. I was raised by atheists in the Bible Belt, and so have a haunted relationship with that language. And so I'm diving into that haunting.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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