Liz Countryman is author of A Forest Almost (Subito Press, 2017) and coeditor of Oversound. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of South Carolina.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The poems in my first book were written over the course of almost twelve years. Along the way, each poem changed my life a little bit by enlarging my sense of who I was as a poet. A few were major revelations when I was still in an MFA program. Others, written later, were moments where I discovered that I could do new things formally and say different kinds of things in a poem. The fun and the challenge of gathering all these poems together into one collection was realizing that I am several things as a poet, and that in fact all these poems do belong together. And now, the real change, and the real gift, is having permission to leave all these poems behind. My new work feels more open formally and more attuned to issues that concern all of us in addition to the personal stuff I’ve always responded to in poems. For instance, in my new work I’m trying to write about what’s happening to our environment, and I find myself bringing that immense issue up against concerns from my own life, scraps of memory, pieces of family history, etc. As a result, the new poems often shift in and out—sometimes images are shown very closely and sometimes the poem zooms out to a wide lens.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was in middle school, I realized that a poem can be this simple thing, like drawing. I did both. I liked how I could spend a half an hour or less making something and then it would just be there, in the world. I used to type a poem up on a typewriter in my bedroom in the morning and then have it with me during the day. I liked how small poems could be, how easy to hide and to share. I liked the immediacy of poems, and how a poem could simply give me a way of describing a moment, and how I could understand little bits and pieces of my life by writing little bitty poems. Then when I was older the poems grew in size and started to do more things.
I’m interested in reading both fiction and nonfiction, but to me, fiction is something wholly different from poetry. I have a deep appreciation for it but I don’t have the ability to write it. If I sit down to write a story, it’s hard for me to make something happen, to make a plot move forward. Poetry allows me to think in nonlinear ways that feel true and natural to me. Likewise, I read a lot of nonfiction and am creatively inspired by it, but I prefer the way that poetry allows me to be indirect. It may sound paradoxical, but I find that speaking indirectly in a poem, or assuming an oblique stance, allows me to be the most honest that I can.
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 find that every poem is different. Some require a lot of labor and synthesis, while others arrive almost whole. Each poem requires something different of me. But having written poems for a couple decades now, I now know that even a poem that seems shitty or like a dead end may end up finished at some point, months or years later. If the initial impulse of the poem is important to me, if it sticks in my head, then I’ll probably find some way of revising the poem. It just might take a long time and several bad 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?
A poem, for me, often begins with its opening gesture. I find that when I have a good way of beginning to speak, the rest of the poem can come out. The toughest situation for me is when I can’t find the right way of starting—when I just have pieces or ideas. The beginning of a poem has to be something I trust.
I write poem by poem rather than thinking about a project, but I find that there’s usually a moment when I become aware of what characterizes a collection. My first book, as I mentioned, was written over several years. For most of that time, I didn’t know what the book would be like or where my poetry was headed. So the act of bringing those poems together was a big deal. Now, as I write my second collection, I have a slightly clearer sense of what characterizes it than I did with my first book, because I had to make the decision that these new poems did not belong in the first collection. I saw something new happening in them that holds them together as a group. But I still don’t know what exactly the rest of the new book will look like; I just have a hint of some concerns and some formal impulses that might keep happening in other poems.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
No—they’re fun, but I’m sort of shy.
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?
That’s a tough one. I’m not the kind of poet who goes into a poem with a particular abstract question in mind. But I think that as I write a poem I’m often looking for and then trying to enact a way of thinking that the systems of everyday life would rather deny me. And I want to always be finding new ways to be truthful and to articulate something that hasn’t quite been said yet.
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?
To me, poetry provides models for how to synthesize contemporary life (public and private), or perhaps how to see around it. When the poetry world can’t stop talking about some new poem, I think it’s often because that poem is offering a way of speaking/seeing that lots of us really needed, and maybe hadn’t realized we needed so badly. Our needs are various and they change all the time, so we always require new poems to answer those needs. Sometimes I need to feel that a poem can create a vast playful space. At other times I need poems that release secret desire. Sometimes I need to feel that the most un-poetic stuff of our current world can (and must) have a place in a poem. And so on and so on… Sometimes I want a poem that allows me to think about my own life in relation to the machinery of politics and money; other times I need a poem to connect me to something simple and physical and remind me that humanity is something basically good, even miraculous. The poems I’m referring to here are the ones I write and also the ones I read. Often I feel like poetry can be a kind of antidote or counterpoint to thinking that is too dominant (within my own brain or within the culture at large).
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
The advice of teachers and peers has been extremely important to my development as a poet. Now, as I get older, I find I’m seeking out less editorial input from others. There are still a handful of people whose opinion is really vital to me, but I don’t show them work until it’s sort of finished.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Stan Plumly once told me that he thought all poets needed some hour of the night where we are completely alone—no internet, no phone, etc. This was back in 2004 when I was a student in the Maryland MFA program. I think this idea is truer than ever. Solitude is uncomfortable but it’s vital for a writer’s life and it’s become too easy for us opt out of it.
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 two young children, so my day begins by getting them ready for day care, unless it’s a weekend day, in which case my day is entirely spent hanging out with them. On a weekday, if no one is sick, I get about three hours of time for work and other bullshit and also for writing. Writing time starts with me returning to the unanswered questions I left my desk with last time. I have a kind of master list of stuff in my brain, and sometimes, if I’m really trying to be efficient, on my wall—little quotes that I’ve been thinking about from poems, songs, family members, strangers, podcasts; half-finished poems; half-articulated questions, ideas, observations. Reading poems, mostly by dead people, is the quickest way for me to get back into the poetry mindset. When the actual writing begins, it usually begins with a pen and a notebook. I like the notebook because I think of it as something between a journal and a space for poems to begin. Therefore, I can think in there without deciding whether I’m writing a poem or not; lots of times the notebook lets me find my way into a poem accidentally. I’ll just be like blah blah blah and suddenly there are tears on my face, and I know there’s something important I’m getting close to. After the notebook phase there comes a point when I’m ready to type something up and assemble it into a poem. Depending on the state of the notebook stuff, that’s either an easy or an arduous process.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading, travel, films, talking to writers, going outside in my yard, going to poetry readings. And reading and reading.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I’ll tell you later when I smell it.
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?
Yes, all of the above! Travel influences my work because it leaves a stamp on me. Spaces—natural or man-made or somewhere between—are hugely important to my poems lately. Transportation of all kinds. Music, yes—I think it’s possible to pick up on a mood or a kind of sound and run with that in a poem. Films, too—especially films that sustain a particular mood throughout—have helped me start poems. Maybe something that a lot of these influences have in common is that they can hold you someplace compelling and uncomfortable at the same time, hold you in place.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Being a mother has been incredibly important to my work lately—even when I’m not writing directly about motherhood, the fact of it has added a lot of wonder and urgency to my writing process. Another “outside” thing that’s been important to my work lately is living where I live. I live in South Carolina in a house with a backyard. We grow vegetables and flowers and stuff. Thinking about that particular piece of land has been important, as has simply staying put most of the time—raising young kids means a lot of staying at home, and a lot of playing outside. A nonfiction book that’s been important to my new work is Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild. One idea Snyder talks about in there is the value of staying in one place—how doing so might be a way to regain some lost feeling of connectedness with the land we live on. If we stay in one place long enough, we become more sensitive to the physical environment and can know it better.
There are many poets whose work sustains me, but I feel a little shy about listing them.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Travel abroad with two little kids (my kids).
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?
I’d seriously love to pick up garbage all day. I do it whenever I have a chance. When I walk my baby daughter around in the stroller, I fill up the bottom of the stroller with plastic litter. I’ll pick up anything except rubber gloves, condoms, bags of dog shit, or stuff covered in fire ants. I think about plastic pollution a lot. To anyone reading this: go outside and pick up some plastic litter. It’s feel-good fun.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It’s the only thing I’m good at.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
19 - What are you currently working on?
Poems about places.