Sunday, August 28, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Megan Pugh

Megan Pugh is the author of America Dancing: From the Cakewalk to the Moonwalk (Yale UP, 2015). Her criticism and poetry have appeared in The Believer, Better, Denver Quarterly, La Petite ZineThe New Republic, The Oxford American, The Village Voiceand other magazines. She grew up in Memphis, was educated at Yale and UC Berkeley, and currently lives in Portland, OR, where she teaches at Lewis and Clark College.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

If I hadn't started writing America Dancing during my PhD program, I probably would have dropped out. I fantasized about leaving to get an MFA in poetry, or to head back South, get a job, and write. But I decided that it would be crazy not to stick around to take my oral exams—I'd get paid to read wonderful books for a whole year! While I was at it, I realized I wanted to write a book about dance and race in America, and that I could do it right where I was. It wasn't going to set me up for a tenure-line job teaching American literature, but that was fine with me—I cared more about writing. So, in a way, the book made me stay in California, where I was lucky to work with wonderful mentors and make some very dear friends it's hard to imagine my life without.

The book shaped my first years as a parent, too. I signed a contract with Yale UP after I'd earned my degree and become pregnant with my son; I turned in the final round of edits when he was nearly two. The first year of his life, we were still in San Francisco, and I only ever left his side to write. Taking any other time for myself seemed nuts. Then we moved to Portland so I could work full-time as a visiting assistant professor, high-tailing it to finish the manuscript nights and weekends. I remember thinking that I should have been overwhelmed, but didn't have time: I just needed to take care of my family, do right by my students, and write. And then, of course, the book came out, which felt great.

At first glance, the writing I'm doing now is pretty different. America Dancing was a big cultural history, told through the work of a handful of dancers across the twentieth century. Now I'm back to poetry, working with a lot of parataxis. But no matter what I write, I can't really shake a concern for details, for the past and its hold on us. There's a lot of cultural history in my poems.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I'm not entirely sure. My mother founded and directs a ballet company, and my father is a psychotherapist, so my sister and I grew up thinking about art and bodies and stories, about what falls into and out of expression. She paints, and I write. She used to proclaim that, when we were kids, our parents told us that while she was "creative," I was "concrete"; good big sister that she is, she knows how to make me squirm! But there may be something to that distinction: she'll make these beautiful paintings, plonking in colors that aren't necessarily "there" with tremendous confidence, while I will obsess over some particular word, trying to get it right. I find it hard to abandon sentences. Or nonfiction, for that matter.

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 almost always move more slowly than I intend to. I take a lot of notes, and make a lot of drafts.

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 begin in different ways: sometimes there's a phrase I can't shake, sometimes I have a sense that different images belong together, and that I need to figure out how.

The collection I'm working on now started out as short pieces that I eventually realized belonged together. But I'm also working, with my friend Gillian Osborne, on a collaborative project about baseball. My poems for it begin, in part, when it's my turn.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I like reading aloud, though I've only done it in public a handful of times. And I like hearing other people read, though I don't do it as much as I'd like: readings are usually at night, and I've been on bedtime duty for the past few years. That's changed just within the last month; lately I've been taking long evening walks while listening to recordings of poets reading, and it's been great. 

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 tend to work from the detail up, which means that my theoretical concerns often aren't clear
to me until I'm well into the actual process of writing. Then I'll realize, "Oh, right, there I go again: place and displacement/race and performance/history and how it hurts/commodification of pasts" or whatever else has shown up again.

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?

A writer should do good work. I realize this is vague. 

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

I like editors. How generous for someone to go to the trouble of thinking with you, and then to help you think better, and write better!

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

At my house we've been reading Barbara Cooney's Miss Rumphius a lot lately. The grandfather tells his granddaughter, "You must do something to make the world more beautiful." I love this children's book, but maybe I should temper it with some Yogi Berra: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

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

It's hard for me to work on multiple pieces of writing at the same time-- I work best if I can give myself over wholly to a single project. But I think my brain works similarly whether I'm writing nonfiction or poetry: making associations, figuring out why things feel important, figuring out how to communicate that to a reader.

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 usually wake up to my son saying "Huckle!" (He renamed me for the cat in the Richard Scarry book; this morning he asked me where my whiskers were. He calls my husband Lowly, after a very friendly worm.) Once he's out of bed, he wants to read, so we'll sit on the couch with a pile of picture books until he's ready for breakfast. After that, the days vary. I've been trying to write at nights more lately, when everyone else is asleep.

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

The mere fact that Bernadette Mayer wrote Midwinter Day while caring for her children—let alone that it's a fabulous book—is a perpetual inspiration for me.  So are other parent-writers; I love what Mia You and Chloe Garcia-Roberts are doing over at a. bradstreet.

At a more pragmatic level, I read and listen. Or I'll turn back to notebooks I've kept about things I've read or heard, which often jogs something.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Not a smell, but still in the air: humidity.

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?

Dance and music are both big for me. 

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

Lyn Hejinian, Greil Marcus, Geoffrey G. O'Brien, Andy Horowitz, Gillian Osborne, and Tung-Hui Hu have all been various combinations of important teachers, inspirations, sounding boards, and friends. As for writers I know only through their work—I'll stick to poets in an effort to reign myself in, though this list is still going to be too short—Mayer, C. D. Wright, Susan Howe, Claudia Rankine, Edwin Denby, M. NourbeSe Philip, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Robyn Schiff, Elizabeth Bishop.

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

Tend a small orchard.

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?

According to the Strong Interest Inventory, I have a lot in common with home economists. For a while, I schemed about opening a meat-and-three. I've also imagined working for a radio show, or a museum, or a historical society, or a library. I like public humanities projects.

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

Gut feelings. I like to write. Though I am doing "something else"—I teach.

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

I can't remember the order in which I recently read these great books: Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts, Teju Cole's Open City, Anne Boyer's Garments Against Women, and Robin Coste Lewis's Voyage of the Sable Venus. But it was just two weeks ago that I saw a great film: The Fits

20 - What are you currently working on?

The collaboration Gillian Osborne and I are working on, "The Perfect Game," follows the structure of a baseball series: she bats first, and then takes the field while I bat. We started the project after watching Matt Cain pitch a perfect game for the San Francisco Giants; in the ensuing years, we've both had babies and moved away from California, where neither of us was from to begin with. So there's a lot in there about place, spectatorship, teams, gender—as well as friendship and fellow feeling.

I'm also working on a collection of poems that explore overlapping regional and personal histories—sometimes I think of this work as a kind of chatty seance—and on a long piece that has to do, at least for now, with Roy Orbison, migraines, and women in the nineteenth century.

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