Monday, March 31, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Elizabeth Treadwell

Elizabeth Treadwell lives and writes in Oakland, California, where she was born. Her books include Chantry (Chax, 2004) and Birds & Fancies (Shearsman, 2007). Posy: a charm almanack & atlas is forthcoming.

1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The publication of my first book, a novel called Eleanor Ramsey: the Queen of Cups, came in 1997 just as I turned thirty and finished the MFA program at San Francisco State. It affected me in the usual ways, I suppose, by allowing me to feel affirmed and seen as a ("real") writer.

I've had the chance to regret it, though, as having come too early in my particular life. Seventeen years later it's clear to me that this book and its publication marked the beginning of my pouring a lot of very important aspects of myself into my writing, rather than having the courage and ability to allow their expression in the world of the living. I wrote that book during an incredibly painful and challenging time in my life. And who knows, things happen as they occur, right? It's hard to say because now I'm at a very different place in my life and in my writing. Even just within the last few years.

I also published a chapbook, Eve Doe (becoming an epic poem), in 1997. Oh! And Joyce Jenkins at Poetry Flash printed a write up about both books alongside my photo. That was exciting.

Regarding the new place I'm at in writing, I've gone fully beyond a strand of bitter nervousness that was there (for good reason) and I have a much deepened appreciation of the potential power of writing. It actually reminds me of the new Disney film, Frozen – it’s about learning how to use and integrate your gifts, whatever they may be. Going beyond (through) fears of all sorts.

My younger girl just said, Mom and remember, your poems are the way we tell the stories. Poems are like stories without pictures.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I do think poetry just comes first, historically and in actuality; but as for myself, I began writing poetry and fiction by the 4th grade for sure (9 years old) – I would make little side stapled illustrated novels which took their cues from Laura Ingalls Wilder and Lois Lenski, and our teacher would let us house these in the classroom library. I remember the feeling of slipping them onto the shelf, alongside the “real” books. I also had my first poem published that year, through Poets in the Schools or some earlier version of that organization.

As an adult I tried to be a fiction writer. This somehow seemed more “practical” (lol).  But I was always writing poetry, and my fiction tended to be structured in a poetic way. By my mid-twenties I’d started MFA school as a fiction writer but drifted over to poetry pretty quickly. My thesis was my book of prose poems, Populace. Nowadays I’ve accepted it: I’m a poet.

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?
Every project is different, thank goodness. There are some things that I get glimmerings, or even quite a full sense, of years before I am able to write them.

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 every project is different. For a long time I was really into making everything as condensed and dense as possible: that is a major thread of what interested me and what arrived. That was just how it was, really. It wasn’t conscious like that; it was more that less dense poems seemed flimsy and not interesting, un-write-able in a way. Things have shifted a bit now it seems. There’s a new openness, which is a lightness, and which accompanies a new gravity too. Of course everything is always there.

Over the last twenty-five years I have written books that seemed definitely to be coming all of a piece (some of these are not published) as well as books that I assembled later out of what I had.

Right now I am interested in slowly doing a book length project, writing mostly on paper (in pencil even) rather than the computer (or phone!). It reminds me of how privacy and time worked before the internet, and contemplation.

(However I am sharing aspects of my process on tumblr!)

I think the main thing I can say to this is how completely my daily life is of a piece with whatever project I am working on; I suppose this is probably true for most writers.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
At present I do enjoy doing readings, and they contribute to the process of writing.

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 really know how to answer this question; poetry is probably my theory if a theory I must have. And I don’t think there could possibly be just one set of current questions; the idea of that is disturbing.

Over many years many of my questions have been about race, gender, American history, literary history, environmental disaster and change, form and time and change … all of these I experience in my body … “in earthling measure.”

I have sought the expansion rather than the constriction of ways of knowing.

My most recent book, Virginia or the mud-flap girl, is “about” Pocahontas. As an undergrad, I studied Native American history and literature at UC Berkeley, because of deeply felt questions stemming from my own family history, and just because I was born here and I live here, in the U.S.

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?
Writers are visionaries and witnesses; we provide information and solace. Our work matters.

I think the role of writers and other artists should be respected, in practical, sustaining ways. I think children should not be discouraged from being artists.

I think most, if not all, of our structures – our financial and educational models might be at the top of my list – need to change, and will change, must change, are changing. This is the 21st century (although progress is a flawed idea too): my daughter does not need to be taught that rocks are not alive; that making lists of what is and isn't alive is a good use of our time; that in order to learn grammar she must also absorb a lot of propaganda about the pilgrims; that the weather where she lives is not normative; that normative is somewhere in New England; that the brain is the most important part of the body. All of these are just outcroppings of limiting belief systems, and thoughtlessness. In the meantime, the rocks sing, and we can play with them.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Depends on the editor! I’ve been lucky to work with some wonderful ones. Some can be detrimental, especially to newer writers.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
From Kathleen Fraser, about chauvinism in the poetry world, “one must simply pick off the lowlifes like flies.” Or something like that. It was quite off-handed but stuck. She also told me a gorgeous story about meeting and being given jewelry by Djuna Barnes in New York, when she (Kathleen) was very young and Barnes very old. I also got (get) a lot of advice from Gertrude Stein’s writing. And from Paula Gunn Allen, who told me that being willing to say the things that need saying, but which no one is willing to say, can actually be a decent “career” move, rather than somehow self-destructive; people (eventually) appreciate it. Not saying what you need to say is what is self-destructive.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I do like writing the occasional essay. As long as it is completely on my terms, like the poems.

The appeal is thinking in language. And the appeal is contributing to the critical dialogue, rather than having it entirely imposed from outside.

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?
Before kids I structured my life so that I could write seriously at least three days a week (while working whatever job to eat, have shelter, etc.: I don’t come from money, nor has its accumulation ever held my interest; for better or for worse). Since kids, um, I’m not entirely sure how I’ve done it, but I have. Nowadays, just this year 2014, I have one day a week again. But I often write out of doodling with my kids, or from dreams in the middle of the night, or into my phone in the middle of a hike or a run, as well.

The best days start by drawing and writing with my kids in bed, or reading on the sofa while they play on the floor. The best days begin with the sun.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don’t push it. I just let things ebb and flow, really.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of 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?

Definitely nature, music, science, and visual art. Also film, fashion, the city, the water, the news, the animals, the plants, dreams, weather, motion and stillness.

I always loved how Margaret Christakos put it, in an interview with you: “Being in the company of children and understanding the way they think and feel is a major influence and passion in my life. I’m also influenced by many other art discourses.”

We are part of a folk singing group in our neighborhood, led by a woman who knows a lot of very old folk songs from Europe and elsewhere. The structures of these have been influencing me – giving me a lot of sustenance and resonance – over the last couple of years.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This list could be extremely long. I don’t even know where to start. I do count on the women, hidden as they’ve been. Early novelists from England (Eliza Haywood, Aphra Behn, and so on); modernist visionaries (here I would include such figures as Ella Cara Deloria, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Anita Loos, and Mae West, alongside the usual Left Bankers); a lot of Native American women writers and a lot of feminist theorists (most recently Ellen Key), both contemporary and historical.

I’m not against men, but I need the women, and at times they’ve been quite hard to find. I am very grateful to the scholars and presses who have brought their works to light in these times; this access has changed my life for sure.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’m not sure! We’ll see!

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’d be a nurse. An intensive care nurse in some way, whether hospice, psychiatric, labor & delivery, etc. To be there at the junctures in people’s lives when they are brought to their knees and need love and care would be very fulfilling I think. There are certainly nurses I’ll never forget.

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

I’m a writer; it was not encouraged; in fact was discouraged; but that’s me.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I loved these films in 2013: Stories We Tell, The Punk Singer, The Butler, The Spectacular Now, Quartet, Still Mine and Philomena. The Punk Singer was definitely my movie of the year. I love Jane Campion, especially Holy Smoke and Bright Star. As for books, hmm. Great is a big word! I am rereading H.D.’s HERmione, Laura Riding’s The Word ‘Woman’, and C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series at the moment. I really loved Joy Harjo’s recent autobiography, Crazy Brave.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently working on a book called Penny Marvel & the book of the city of selfys.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;


theresa said...

I loved this interview -- geraniums, the beauty of old folk songs, the clarity of walking, and the enduring gifts of the modernists...Thank you both.

twoneedles said...

thank you for this interview, it was like reading a good story, couldn't stop didn't want it to end