Laura Sims is the author of three books of poetry: My god is this a man, Stranger, and Practice, Restraint (Fence Books); her fourth collection, Staying Alive, is forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse in 2016. She edited Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, a book of her correspondence with the celebrated experimental novelist (powerHouse Books), and has also published five chapbooks of poetry. Sims has been a featured writer for the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog, and has been a co-editor of Instance Press since 2009. She teaches literature and creative writing at NYU-SCPS and lives with her family in Brooklyn.
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?
My first book made me feel like I’d been rubber-stamped “poet” at last. Now I can look back and laugh a bit at that imagined sense of legitimacy, but…it’s how I felt. It also made me start thinking in terms of “books” vs. “poems.” I became more likely to write a few poems in a similar vein and think “this is a new book” instead of “this is a new poem”…even though there’s never any guarantee, of course, that there will be a next book.
My recent work is truly a departure from my earlier work. In the last two years, I’ve begun to feel like I’ve exhausted my particular voice and style and a new voice and style have been bubbling up from the depths. My new work is still dark, but there’s room in it for levity and playfulness. The poems are still short, but they’re more congested—with words, images and ideas—so there’s less space on the page, and less mental space inside the poems, too. I think of them as my “mid-life crisis” poems since they’re grounded in an age-specific frustration, bitterness, and impatience, but they also have a certain swagger that I don’t think I could have pulled off as a younger writer.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to all of them at once, actually—I wrote a book at age 5 that included poems, stories (deeply indebted to my favorite books), drawings of ballerinas, and one essay on the relationship between Native Americans and the deer they hunt. But I got “serious” about poetry in high school, when my 9th grade English teacher encouraged my poems, and from then on that became my chosen métier. I have occasionally written essays and reviews, though, and I’ve recently started to get serious about returning to fiction.
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?
Usually a new direction for my work starts suddenly—I write a poem, and it’s somehow different, and then if I write a few more like it, I recognize that it’s building into something larger. Right now I’m writing poems in a voice that takes me over—so the voice is dictating this new direction, this new series. Whenever that voice quiets, I’ll be done.
I usually write a first draft pretty quickly. My first drafts are awful, overlong and bloated with excess. After I write that draft, I put it away—I don’t tinker with it immediately. Then after some time has passed I look at it again, and cringe at most of it, but hopefully find a line or two worth saving; I start over with those. And then I write another draft, and winnow down from draft to draft until the poem starts to emerge.
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?
See answers to questions 1 and 3! Though I will add: usually a poem starts with a line I’ve heard or read, or one that pops into my head.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy doing readings, once I’m there and in the moment, but I find that when I have several readings scheduled in a relatively short period of time, I feel scattered and too unfocused or rattled to write. So I guess I’d say readings are counter to my creative process, though they are also creative events in themselves. What’s “created” at a reading when your work meets a live audience is more fleeting, of course, than the daily work of writing, but it’s also more socially satisfying. And if part of the work of writing is about connecting with other human beings, then readings must be an important part of the writing life, the writing process.
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?
Why are we here, how did we get here, why do we die, how will we die, what happens after we die, who am I, who are you, who are we, why are we like this, what made us like this, why do I love you, why do you love me, how long does this not knowing 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?
Our role is to be marginal to the culture at large, and in our marginality lies our ability to look at the culture at large and reflect it, destroy it (in words), rebuild it (in other words), embody it, critique it, embrace it. I think this is exactly what the role of the writer should be, so even though I would love to see, say, Susan Howe on a billboard instead of Taylor Swift, if we were ever co-opted by the culture at large it would probably destroy our capacity for art.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it’s always difficult to have others look at and evaluate your work, and sometimes it’s painful, but it can be fruitful, too. Can give you insights into your work that you couldn’t have had yourself, because you’re too close to it. Working with an editor (whether that’s a professional editor or a trusted friend) can change your work and develop it in deep, meaningful ways. Or not. In which case, you can simply ignore the edits.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Do your own fucking work.” –David Markson, given to me directly
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I formerly moved between poetry and critical prose much more often than I do now. I always found it very challenging but mentally rewarding to move between the two – from one genre (poetry) that allowed me to speak from someplace deep and inexplicable, to another (critical prose) that forced me to iterate and explain my response to a work of art, and make that response intelligible and valuable to others who might read it. Writing critical prose is always good brain work, I find—it forces me to use my brain in a way that poetry simply does not (and vice-versa). It makes me feel like I’m back in school, grinding my brain against words in a really satisfying way, a way that almost feels like hands-on labor. But, of course, isn’t. Now I move between poetry and fiction—most days I write a little fiction and tinker with a poem, too. Fiction requires so many things of me that poetry does not – like character and plot development, for instance – but poetry remains for me the genre that takes me to the deepest and most wholly satisfying place.
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?
My day begins early, when my son wakes up. But after he goes to school, I sit down and write for several hours. Before having kids, I never had a routine, and I would write in unscheduled bursts. Now I’m extremely scheduled and even efficient. I can’t afford not to be—I no longer have any time to waste.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It depends. I always, always turn to reading fiction for sustenance and rejuvenation. If I’m not reading a good novel, I feel out of whack – creatively and existentially. It’s not exactly inspiration (though it can be), but somehow the narrative flow keeps me…in line, in tune, and generally sane. I turn to other poets, too, of course – to my friends’ work, or to work that I’ve always loved, like Dickinson and Stein. But sometimes I turn to TV or film—lately The Walking Dead has been (entertaining and) inspiring me.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Old wood warmed by the sun.
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?
Film is the most influential other medium for me; other forms of visual art—like paintings, photography, sculpture, installation art, etc.—have also been influential. Indie rock & pop music, too.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, David Markson, Rae Armantrout, Diane Williams, Lorine Niedecker, Denis Johnson, John Berryman, Gertrude Stein…those are a few longstanding loves for me.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
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?
Is writing an occupation? I’ve had to do all sorts of things, occupation-wise, while also being a writer. I’ve taught and done administrative work; I’ve copy-edited other people’s manuscripts and tutored students privately. I expect this will go on and on as I continue to be occupied with writing.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing is something I’ve always done.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Poetry: Bough Down by Karen Green
Novel: The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara or My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Prose: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison or MOTHERs by Rachel Zucker
Film: Boyhood or Zero Dark Thirty or Her
20 - What are you currently working on?
The manuscript for my next poetry book, Staying Alive; a series of poems tentatively called “The Olga Poems”; a young adult murder-mystery novel; and another as-yet-unmentionable prose project.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;