Martha Silano is the author of four full-length poetry collections, most recently The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize and named a Noted Book of 2011 by the Academy of American Poets, and Reckless Lovely (Saturnalia 2014). She is co-editor, with Kelli Russell Agodon, of The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice (2103). Her poems have appeared in Paris Review, North American Review (where she won the 2013 James Hearst Poetry Prize), Cincinnati Review (where she won the 2013 Schiff Poetry Award), American Poetry Review, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Martha teaches at Bellevue College and serves as poetry editor of Crab Creek Review.
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 main thing that changed: I got a little bit of exposure. For instance, one of the poems from What the Truth Tastes Like appeared on Poetry Daily, and I was invited to read at the Astor Place Barnes & Noble in Manhattan. It also helped me make a life-long friend, Susan Blackwell Ramsey, who read my poem “Sausage Parade” and reached out to me via email. Did it make me more confident or less anxious about putting together my next book? Did it mean the whole poetry biz thing got a lot easier? Not at all.
My new work differs in that it is less personal. When I wrote my first book I was single, childless, in my early 30s. Many of the poems are about food, my childhood, friends, failed romantic relationships. I was struggling with being musical and metrical while at the same time saying things that mattered, that seemed important. I was less facile with crafting and revising. When I re-read my second book, Blue Positive, my instinct is to grab a pencil and start crossing words out. If I had the chance, I would tighten up those poems. In my newer work I’m taking more risks with subject matter and points of view – a poem about toxic furniture, an ode to Frida Kahlo’s eyebrows, a poem in the voice of Mona Lisa. I am less interested in my own life and way more interested in the lives of copepods and northern flickers. But I remain steadfast to the belief that poetry is music first and foremost, and remain most interested in poems that take advantage of sound—especially assonance, consonance, and internal/slant rhyme.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Characters don’t pop into my head and start talking to each other, or to me for that matter. First lines of poems do. I tend to be plodding and wordy when I write non-fiction. I think I was drawn to poetry in high school because it elicited feelings; I wanted to feel more. Novels could do this too, but poetry did it in a concentrated way – it was like the poet was talking directly to me as my friends did—intensely, as we used to say. It gave me a jolt to have all that concentrated emotion washing over me. I enjoyed that, so I started imitating the poets I was reading—Dickinson, Frost, the Beats, whoever they were publishing in The New York Quarterly back in the late 1970s.
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?
It depends. An idea for a poem might incubate for twenty years or more before I write a single draft. Other times I have an idea and immediately begin writing. First drafts are often written in very sloppy long hand – they are shaggy, messy things that don’t become poems until I start typing them up on the computer – adding detail, rearranging, cutting, figuring out the shape/stanza pattern, checking all my verbs to make sure they are strong, making sure I’ve got just the right word both meaning and music wise, improving the metaphors, 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?
There is no usual way for a poem to begin. Sometimes I rely on writing prompts. Sometimes a title or first line pops into my head. Other times it’s an image, something I read or heard. I usually figure out a book’s trajectory once I have a pile of about twenty poems. Knowing the theme of the book helps me to write the rest of the poems, but the new poems also influence the theme.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
There are aspects about public readings I enjoy very much, one of which is acquainting myself with bookstore owners, then buying lots of books to show my appreciation. I love listening to and getting to know my co-readers, and, if no co-readers, having dinner beforehand with kind people who are interested about my kids, my teaching schedule, and my quirky writing practices. I am a social person, so I like all that comes before and after a reading, even weeks before a reading, when I am emailing back and forth with the organizers. The hardest part of the reading is ... the actual reading. Especially if it’s a solo reading. Short group readings are a lot of fun. With solo readings, I am not sure “enjoy” is the right word. I work very hard to make it seem like I am naturally eloquent, brimming with interesting anecdotes and quotes, but in truth I have spent hours writing down everything I plan to say and whittling it down to a key-word outline. It’s an exhausting process, and I am usually completely wiped out when it’s over.
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?
No, I am not trying to answer or address any theoretical questions when I write. Not that I know of, anyway.
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 be a role model, a mentor, and an inspiration. The goal should be to make the world a better place for all, including plants and animals. Admirable poets are compassionate, empathetic, ethical, and view their subject matter from all sides. A poet simply cannot set a bad example with lazy word choices, clichés, tired tropes. It’s a tall order. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you, as Auden says in The Dyer’s Hand, enjoy fooling around with language.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Difficult but essential. My editors at Saturnalia Books—Henry Israeli and Sarah Blake—have been amazingly generous with their editorial suggestions. It is humbling and exhilarating to work with talented individuals who take a keen interest in poems I’ve been looking at so long I neglect to see room for improvement. I am grateful for their vision, for their willingness to be forthright. Their insights have made a huge difference.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Sometime in the mid-1980s, I was watching a videotaped performance by Robert Bly. He was in his Iron Man John phase. At one point he asks the audience a question: “So, you want to be a poet. Do you have fifty years? Because that’s how long it’s going to take.”
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Writing poems is what makes me feel most alive, most like I am in the act of doing what I have been given to do. Critical prose - you mean literary criticism? Usually I need to be solicited to write that kind of stuff, and on deadline. Otherwise, it has to be something I am really, really fired up about, reacting to passionate, wanting to say my piece in response. Otherwise, it’s all poetry all the time.
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?
Writing is like physical exercise for me. If I miss a few days, no biggie. But if weeks go by? Not good at all. There is no typical day for me. Sometimes I write first thing in the morning. More often I take time out in the middle of my working day to scribble out a draft in longhand or pull up a poem on my screen and tinker. Or sometimes I write late at night, when the house is finally quiet. Sometimes there are too many papers to grade, or submissions to read, to give my full attention to the idea(s) simmering in my brain. It gets put off till the next day or week. Sometimes I write four poems in a day – a result of meeting up with a writer friend, swapping prompts in a coffee shop or around a kitchen table, setting a timer. Then there are the trips to writing retreat centers and artist colonies. I try to go away for at least a week, two or three times a year. In these places I am able to start or finish a book, dream big, research and revise even bigger.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I turn to the Poetry Daily archives, the Poetry Foundation website, poetry books by those who inspire me (I own hundreds), my old notebooks and unfinished drafts, how-to manuals, and my own book, The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice, co-edited with Kelli Russell Agodon. There’s an exercise for every day of the year, but I randomly choose one that peeks my interest, then start to write with lowered expectations and a mindset that I’m just playing around, not really writing.
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?
All four, but especially nature, science, and visual art. Recently, my subject matter is pretty much solidly the natural world. I am sort of on a mission to save the planet one poem and one species at a time.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
If I hadn’t read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I don’t think I would have been brave enough to enroll in Biology 101 in college, which would lead to me signing up for Plant Taxonomy, Animal Ecology, and the daunting “bio units,” including Plant Morphology and Oceanography. Oh, and Organic Evolution. Dillard was the one who gave me the crazy idea that I could dive in.
Not sure what kind of voice I’d have without the Beats, especially Ginsberg, whom I first read in high school. Also Bly and Stafford. And Snyder! I am glad I read Dostoevsky, Gogol, and Turgenev when I was in college. I almost majored in philosophy – Socrates had a profound effect on me. But before that, so did Holden Caufield. And Laura Ingalls Wilder. And Katie John.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Hike the Coast-to-Coast trail across England. Go to Florence. Go back to France. Eat more baguette, salami, and brie. Drink more Blanquette. Visit more caves. Spend more time in the Everglades. See more manatees. Watch my children grow up. Enjoy old age with my husband (we joke that we will sit around watching videos of our kids). Write a book of essays and/or a memoir. More long jogs on the beach!
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?
Honestly, it’s lucky this writing/teaching writing thing worked out, because truthfully no other occupation appealed to me, except maybe wildlife biologist or park ranger. I love reading autobiographies of astronauts, but no way am I cut out for space travel.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing came relatively easy. I kept at it because I was mostly okay at it. I never got a 32 on an English test (can’t say that about math). I was better at it than mowing the lawn, watering the garden, or calculating the slope of a line. I stuck with it because I’m not particularly logical or strong. I didn’t grow up ambitious or determined. I took the easy way out.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I liked A Sand County Almanac. Also, Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes, Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Francine Prose’s Blue Angel. I am not sure about the word great, but Cheryl Strayed’s Wild had me in its grip for a couple of weeks last summer – I was “in” after the first few sentences and didn’t pop out till I finished the book in tears on a train in France.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am finishing up a book of poems titled Mission Boulevard, and also working on poems directly and indirectly related to our current carbon emission crisis. These may or may not become part of a book titled Life in the Anthropecene. I plan to continue with these two projects right after I type this period.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;