Tuesday, December 15, 2015

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Anne Cecelia Holmes

Anne Cecelia Holmes is the author of THE JITTERS (horse less press 2015) and the chapbooks JUNK PARADE (dancing girl press 2012) and I AM A NATURAL WONDER (with Lily Ladewig; Blue Hour Press 2011). She is co-editor of Jellyfish Magazine and lives in Western Massachusetts.

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 just came out in June, and it has been both thrilling and sort of terrifying navigating that experience. What I think most about at this point regarding “change” is that having a book in the world has given my family a more concrete notion of what I do, that writing isn't just a “hobby” for me. They have always been incredibly supportive, but a book has changed how they interact and engage with me and my work—it's very moving.

It has also been constantly surprising and empowering to receive support and kindness from strangers, from other writers I admire—from anyone. And it means the world to me when I hear that poems I've written mean something/speak to other people. Growing up on other people's writing, I am floored at these kindnesses pointed in my direction.

As for recent work, I'm trying to write more from the murky parts of my guts to tackle what I’ve never really let myself confront before: womanhood, abuse, trauma, loss of self. I'm writing through what I used to perceive as too “upfront,” too ugly (in myself, in the world)—personal damage, my body (or bodies at all), what it is to be a woman who feels threatened by herself and most things and most people. I'm working more toward just stepping into the muck, writing dispatches from the muck. I feel like my voice is louder, and like I’m pounding on the walls and figuring out if I need to keep pounding and shouting or forgive, or how one can reconcile any of those things.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to fiction first, but as a little kid. As I got older, though, I found poetry the best vessel/translation for my brain mess—for making connections and finding ways to map my anxieties and interactions. To deal in reconciliation with the world and making sense of it by fighting with and puzzling over it. And poetry lets me get steeped in chance and risk and recklessness as guides—not knowing necessarily where I will end up. That provides a comfort and a challenge that keeps me going.

Also, I just don't feel like I have the stamina or particular brain space to write fiction or non-fiction—I can write and chew on a poem for a really long time, and that can completely exhaust me, but building up plot, characters, a certain sustained arc is just not in my wheelhouse. I am, though, trying to write non-fiction. Not successfully yet, but trying.

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?
Oh, length of time on a manuscript depends drastically—on what I'm writing, on my mood, etc. I don't really deal in “projects,” though, at least as I define the word—I'm more about just writing what and when I can, and then seeing how what I've produced ends up fitting later with what else I've written.

I do tend to write individual poems pretty quickly, but again, there's no knowing what will need several rounds of revision/rethinking or what will come out as a finished poem. I wish I had more of an intelligent answer for this, but it's really a crapshoot for me. I do enjoy editing when necessary—I guess it's more common that I do need to edit than not.

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?
Poems are pretty much a different animal every time. They can begin with a line I've written down, or just something weird in my head spills out and I'm surprised by it. This is what I simultaneously love and find fascinating/infuriating about writing poems—the discovery, the not knowing where a poem might start or end.

I haven't ever really set out writing poems with a book in mind, except for two chapbooks I've written. For some reason I think of those differently. Mostly, though, I write discrete poems for years that end up thematically linked because of the brain space I'm writing in during that time, and then I work to figure out how they might combine into a larger manuscript.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
If I am motivated enough to leave the house, readings are almost always incredibly helpful to my creative process and push me to work harder. And I love readings as community building, and I feel an excited buzz or a kind of hypnosis while hearing other writers read.

I do enjoy giving readings, both as a chance to test new work and also as an experiment to alleviate public anxiety. Right now, I'm in the middle of a small tour for my first book, and I find it exhilarating and also a little scary to be reading from a physical book for the first time. It's always interesting, too, to gauge how audiences react to your work, to choose or not choose poems you think a specific audience will respond the most to, and that sort of connection with an audience is unlike any other I've felt. It's a weird, but fun, intimate game to play.

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?
Over the past two years or so, the voice and intent behind my poems have shifted pretty forcefully to a more bodied, female perspective. Like I mentioned before, for a long time I was uncomfortable facing depression, anxiety, trauma, especially related to a personal and societal female experience in my work, even though these ideas and concerns were boiling in me. To that end, I am writing poems investigating how to reconcile these issues—how to be okay with anger, but also working toward hope. Hope is important to me, no matter how sick the world seems or how foolish it feels to still seek it. There are theoretical questions behind this, of course, but it is also impossible for me to separate the theoretical from the personal. 

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've been thinking about this a lot, especially lately, especially in this current era of writers on politics, activism, advocacy, and with an added social media lens. I admire the writers tackling issues of race, disability, sex and gender, and other injustices/invisibilities in their work—writers undoubtedly enact change, ask for change, fight for change, and I see this role as absolutely necessary.

More generally, I think writers are always addressing cultural complications—to further complicate, to investigate, to ask even more questions that may not have answers, to find beauty or ugliness in complication, all working toward finding strangeness/difficulty in the ordinary or what's ordinary in strangeness/difficulty.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Definitely essential. I trust my work more than I used to, but I'm always sharing with others or asking questions to get a fresh perspective—I can't write purely in my own vacuum, and I don't think I should.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
One piece of advice I've been latching onto lately, which was passed on to me from a friend (who received it from a writing mentor), is “Try to find grace in transition.” This isn't necessarily tied to writing, but I've been thinking about it a lot as I try to reevaluate and reconfigure how to make writing more of a priority in my life versus a “career,” but also I apply it to my writing as a way to calm myself down when I don't necessarily know which direction I'm headed in or when I'm feeling like I'll never write another poem (ugh).

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?
I have been trying to establish a steady writing routine for years, and while I'm both lazy and defeatist (a charming duo), I do think I'm finally coming to understand that it's okay not to have one—or to force myself to have a strict one, I should say. Since leaving grad school, where I had loads of unstructured time to write within (that I realize now I didn't take full advantage of; so it goes), I now work a 9-5 desk job and pretty exclusively write on the weekends—my brain kind of shuts off after the work day ends, and I tend to come home, eat dinner, watch tv with my husband, and go to bed.

One small routine is that I meet up with a few friends (also writers) on Sunday mornings at a local coffee shop, so we can all write and basically keep each other and ourselves accountable. I find this small kind of structure really helpful, even if we spend half the time just catching up and whining about how difficult writing is and collectively wishing the loud barista would be quiet (seriously, he is so loud).

I just came back from a 10-day writing residency, though, which was invigorating and productive and lowered my anxiety levels so much that I know I want/need to prioritize writing more, give myself more time. How, though? I'm still trying to figure that out.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading poetry is a necessary part of my writing process. Usually if I'm not reading, I'm not writing (at least not writing well). If I'm stuck, or feeling anxious and weird (which is pretty much all the time; who am I kidding?), I read for awhile to get my head in the zone. Sometimes I also take notes on what I'm reading—basically in the form of word lists I can turn to. Without reading, though, I really have no idea how to write a poem, or I end up just writing gooey nonsense that I can't do anything with. I learned long ago, though, that I have to abandon classic “inspiration” and just write no matter how I'm feeling.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Polish food, especially kielbasa in a slow-cooker.

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?
I need to read poetry to write poetry, but other forms inevitably find their way into my work. I watch a lot of TV and find snippets of dialogue worming into my work pretty frequently. Music affects my poems if I'm listening while writing—mostly in terms of tone-setting. I suppose everything external finds a way in, whether I'm cognizant of it or not. My husband is a philosopher, and my poems have been known to absorb some phrases or ideas from philosophical theories/paradoxes—not in an overly theoretical way, but mostly in the small absurdities I find in images or language. “Brain-in-a-vat skepticism,” for instance, I find more delightfully interesting on an image level rather than a purely theoretical one (which is still interesting, don't get me wrong).

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I turn to Mary Ruefle and Bernadette Mayer a lot to help me get in a writing headspace. I am mostly reading women these days, and more so women who write boldly through anxiety, trauma, loss, womanhood and bodied experience. My two lifelines, Caroline Cabrera and Gale Marie Thompson, give me so much fire and hope and I would be nowhere without their brave writing and friendship.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write non-fiction essays. Travel pretty much anywhere.

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?
This constantly changes, since I don't even have a constant “occupation.” I do have great respect for trauma counselors, and those who work with abused women. In another life, I would have loved to pursue that field, but I know I don't have the strength for that. My last couple jobs have been working for mission-driven organizations, though, and I am definitely interested in continuing to work in that vein.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I'm going to start by saying “I had a weird childhood,” which is so cliché, but that's part of it. Or maybe, more accurately, “I was a weird kid”? My parents got divorced when I was very young, and one of my earliest memories spending time at my dad's apartment was this elaborate project we concocted together: my dad would give construction paper faces to all the furniture in the living room, and my task was to write personal histories for each piece of furniture. I was painfully shy and sensitive and writing just made sense to me more than anything else. I can write what I can't say out loud (I am a terribly inarticulate speaker), and make connections I never would have made merely inside my head without fiddling with them on the page. I am an incredibly interior person and if I'm not writing I'm just feeling more anxious about what's in my head than if I give that anxiety a space of its own.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just finished Anne Boyer's Garments Against Women, which I'm still reeling from—thinking about the impossibilities often present in understanding/creating art, about womanhood, and this question Boyer asks: “how do we survive our survival?”. Martha Marcy May Marlene is a beautiful, terrifying film I watched recently about a young female cult survivor.

19 - What are you currently working on?
I'm not completely sure? I think I'm toying around with a second manuscript, but really, I'm just excited to be writing again after a pretty long dry spell.

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