Wednesday, February 20, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Lisa Richter


Lisa Richter [photo credit: Matthew Burpee Photography] is the author of a full-length collection of poetry, Closer to Where We Began (Tightrope Books, 2017) and a chapbook, Intertextual (pooka press, 2010). Her poems have appeared in several journals, including The Malahat Review, CV2, Literary Review of Canada, Canthius, Crab Creek Review, and The Puritan, and in two anthologies, Voices for Diversity and Social Justice: A Literary Education Anthology (Routlege, 2015), and Jack Layton: Art in Action (Quattro Books, 2013). She was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2015, and won first place in CV2’s annual 2-Day Poem Contest in 2017. She lives, writes, and teaches English as a second language in Toronto. www.lisarichter.org.

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?

For many years, I dreamed of publishing a book of poetry. It was on my to-do list for years, but I couldn’t really conceive of where to begin. Although I started seriously writing and publishing poems at the age of 20, while I was a student at McGill in the 90s, it wasn’t until I reached the age of 40 (in 2017) that I published my first collection of poetry, Closer to Where We Began, with Tightrope Books. It was a life-changing experience for me: the process of writing of the book itself, collecting the poems I’d published over the years, writing new ones, and drastically editing/revising/rewriting. Then, to finally have a manuscript in my hands, which turned into a book (with cover art by my incredibly multi-talented artist mother, Janice Colman, I have to mention). It made me feel as though I had “arrived,” so to speak. Launching Closer was one of the proudest moments of my life, followed by a whirlwind of readings, both in Toronto and outside Toronto (Montreal, New York, Vancouver, Salt Spring Island, and Victoria). This gave me the chance to connect with fellow authors and readers in an entirely new and exciting way.

Another unintended, and much more personal consequence of publishing my book was that it connected me to my father before he died. It was the first book of poetry he’d ever read, and his main criticism was that it wasn’t long enough, and he wanted to read more. If there’s a higher compliment than that, I can’t think of one. It also speaks volumes about the kind of person that my father was, that he loved my poems, even the ones about our complicated relationship that must have been extremely hard for him to read. They prompted honest, heartfelt conversations about events that took place almost thirty years ago, for which I’ll be forever grateful. 

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

I started writing stories and poems as a child, but it was probably in my adolescence that I became serious about poetry. It was my love of The Doors, of all things, that I think really led me to poetry. The biopic with Val Kilmer came out around this time, which brought Jim Morrison’s writing into the public eye again. Somehow I got my hands on a copy of Wilderness: The Lost Writings of Jim Morrison, and I was hooked. I had never read writing like his before, wild and exuberant and sexual and psychedelic, and that in term led me to exploring other writers of his generation, and the generation before him. In school, we were reading Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake and Shakespeare, which inspired my imagination as well, but Morrison’s work opened a gateway for me in terms of writing in free verse, and the potential of modern poetry. I started writing more and more of my own poems and read other poets, Margaret Atwood, Allen Ginsberg, and e.e. cummings, who had major influences on me as well. By the age of eighteen, I had a fifty-page poetry manuscript that I wanted to publish (but thankfully, never did – I almost got sucked into publishing with a vanity press). It was at McGill in the mid-90s, where I majored in English, that I studied Canadian poetry with Robert Lecker and took a year-long, extra-curricular poetry workshop with Professor Brian Trehearne. Montreal in the 90s was a great place to live – my parents had grown up there, and I had a strong connection to the place from my childhood, as well as an adult. Living there inspired me, too. It was there that I finally met people who shared my passion, and had my first real introduction to contemporary Canadian poetry.

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 don’t really think in terms of projects, with one notable exception: my first book was preceded by a chapbook, Intertextual, sprung from a series of found poems based on text messages, which the editor of a journal (One Cool Word) heard me reading, and asked me to submit. I did, and they were published shortly afterwards. Within a few months, I had expanded that series of poems into a chapbook manuscript, which was published not long afterwards by Pooka Press. 

Closer to Where We Began was the culmination of two decades of writing. There are a few poems in it that are unusually close to their first drafts, but what I like about poetry as an art form is that the work is easily malleable, revisable, and can be rewritten from the ground up. It’s much harder to do this with a painting or a sculpture.

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?

Increasingly, my poems begin with writing prompts, either that I give myself, that I get in workshops that I take online at The Poetry Barn or in person (with great local poets such as Robin Richardson, Stuart Ross and Hoa Nguyen). Sometimes I find prompts in books like Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius. Still, poems generally begin for me with the act of reading poetry. A jaw-dropping poem can inspire me almost instantaneously, but what I’ve found is that you can’t rely on the Muse to always be there for you when you need her. Sometimes you just have to roll up your sleeves and get down to work, whether the Muse is there or not, to paraphrase Tom Robbins. That’s why I like giving myself constraints, experimenting with form, or trying new prompts, as a means of tricking myself into writing. Another important piece of my creative work is that I’ve been keeping a journal since I was eight years old. I write in it almost daily. Whereas a lot of my first drafts are written on my laptop these days, writing by hand in my hardcover journals is a meditative, centering practice from which, I’m convinced, all my creative work spring.

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

I don’t know if they’re part of my creative process, but I love doing readings. Poetry is meant to be read out loud, and I try to always remind myself of that, and improve my reading technique. I have a background in theatre, which I bring to my work as an ESL teacher, and I think has helped me a lot feeling comfortable onstage in front of an audience.

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 don’t necessarily think in terms of theoretical concerns, and I think, if I’m doing my job, after writing a poem, I’ll have more questions than answers. I don’t think writing a poem is about finding resolution, so much as exploring various ways to find it, and remaining in a state of mystery, of not-knowing. But if I had to pin down one overarching question that I’m trying to answer with my work, it would probably be: “How do I cope with, or begin to make sense of, whatever bizarre, beautiful, heartbreaking, or inscrutable thing has happened to me, or is currently happening to me/my loved ones/my community/the planet right now?”

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?

There’s been a lot of disagreement on this point, whether writers have a social responsibility or should be artists for art’s sake. As a poet, I think my role is to keep writing poems, even though it’s hardly the most lucrative job in the world, and causes a great deal more grief than it does satisfaction (if you’re doing it right). There’s a reason that poems are read at weddings and funerals, at presidential inaugurations and on other milestone life occasions: poems are both products and articulations of what we value most as a culture. They can be calls to action, or they can be assertions of the primacy of lived experience, which I believe is a political act in itself. As the poet Matthew Zapruder puts it so eloquently in his recent book, Why Poetry, poetry “trains us in a radical kind of empathy that is maybe what’s missing in our culture more than anything.” I believe poems are important, that by bringing them into existence, we can and do change the world. Poems do things with the language that the language wants to do, so the very least we as poets can do is to provide containers for language to shape-shift into.

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

It can be difficult at times, but I think for any writer, it’s absolutely essential. Nothing should be avoided because it’s difficult. I’ve been tremendously fortunate to work with some great editors, most notably, the editor of my book, Jacob Scheier. Jacob happens to be a good friend of mine as well, and we worked well together. I chose him as my editor because I was a longtime admirer of his work, and felt that we were really on the same page in terms of our aesthetics, and he really “got” what I was trying to do with poetry. He was a terrific editor, extremely insightful and thorough, and challenged me to rewrite several key poems in my collection, or scrap them entirely. I ended up doing a little of both, and I know I am a better poet for it.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
There was a self-help poster that I saw several years ago. Normally not my thing, but I liked this one. It said, “View your life with kindsight. Stop beating yourself up about things from your past. Instead of slapping your forehead and asking yourself, ‘What was I thinking?’, ask yourself the kinder question, ‘What was I learning’?” I know it’s hokey, but I like the idea of being kind and compassionate to oneself. It’s something I’m still working on. Another really valuable piece of advice that I got was from my mother, before I published my book. She was mainly speaking about herself, and from personal experience, but she said, “Don’t wait until you’re fucking sixty.” Do the work. Do it now. I think this applies to older as well as younger writers.

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 don’t really have a set routine, because my work schedule tends to fluctuate. For several years now, though, I’ve been more of a morning writer, first thing when I wake up and drink my coffee, though I sneak writing time in on my commute to work, if I can manage to get a seat on the bus or streetcar. At the end of my teaching day, I’m usually exhausted, mentally and physically, and find it hard to get creative work done, so that’s when I focus more on the practical side of writing – working on grant applications, revising poems, submitting poems, etc. Somewhere amidst all that, I find time to relax and eat dinner with my husband, play guitar together, or watch a show to relax. I always read before bed, and keep a dangerously high stack of books on my night table that will probably kill me if there’s ever an earthquake.

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

When my writing gets stalled, it’s usually an indication that I’ve become too engrossed in it, too close to it to be able to see it objectively, and I need to take a step back. What that usually means is that I need to get out of my head and back into my body, take a walk, go dancing, stretch, cook a meal, go to a museum or gallery, go to a reading and hear other poets. In short, I need to shake it off. A lot of times, getting stalled is about stubbornly trying to force something that can’t be forced. Your readers will know, you’re not fooling anyone. Putting something aside and working on something else, reading a chapter of a novel or listening to a podcast, can trigger new connections and pathways forward that you previously hadn’t thought of. Other times, when I get stuck, I think it’s because I’m not writing for the right reasons. Finishing a piece becomes a chore, something I’m doing because I said I was going to do it, not because it invigorates me. As hard as it is, sometimes you need to come to a piece of writing with fresh eyes and say, “This isn’t working. What do I really want to write about, that I’ve been avoiding, or afraid to?” That’s usually where the most powerful, potent work lies. That nagging sensation that the work won’t leave you alone until you write it is usually a good sign that you’re on the right track.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

My mother’s matzo ball soup (with lots of fresh dill). Lilacs (which my father loved). The smell of used bookstores and old library books. Sandalwood incense (I burned a lot of it in my teens and twenties).

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?

All of the above. The natural world and the landscapes I’ve travelled, mountains, deserts, oceans, as well as cityscapes and urban architecture, have a way of finding their way into my poems. In terms of visual art, I am most inspired by the work of Marc Chagall, Frida Kahlo, Gustav Klimt, Matisse, Van Gogh. I have been writing ekphrastic poetry (poetry inspired by, or responding to, visual art) since my teenage years, inspired by paintings in my bedroom. My most enduring love, in terms of music, is soul and Motown, with my favourite artist of all time being Nina Simone, whose aching vocals, passion and anger and fire I find both devastating and enriching every time I listen. There’s an emotional honesty and humility beneath her ferocity and bravado that I find deeply compelling. Other interests, obsessions and influences, off the top of my head, include evolution, anthropology, social justice, mythology, feminism, travel.

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

There have been many, too many to name, but if I had to limit it to ten, I would say: Milan Kundera, Anais Nin, Sharon Olds, Pablo Neruda, Haruki Murakami, e.e. cummings, Alice Munro, Adrienne Rich, Barbara Kingsolver, and Allen Ginsberg.

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

Learn how to drive. Write a novel (I know, everyone says that). Travel to places I’ve never seen before, but have always been fascinated by: Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal have a special fascination for me, but I’d love to go back to France and spend time in the south. Make my own clothes and raise vegetables (probably in a community garden). Learn how to live more sustainably. Become fully and completely, authentically, myself.

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’ve been teaching ESL at private language schools for most of my adult life, so long that it’s hard imagine doing anything else for a living. I meet a lot of people who tell me, “I taught ESL for a year in Korea after I graduated,” for a lot of people, it’s seen as a stepping stone or intermediary job to something else. I started teaching when I was living overseas in Israel, almost two decades ago, and I found that I liked it and good at it, so I got my TESL certificate when I eventually returned to Canada, and have been doing it ever since. I could have easily given up writing when I started working as a teacher full-time, because it’s hard to do both, when teaching takes up so much mental, physical, and emotional energy, but somehow I’ve managed to continue. Other than that, I can see myself being a good “character actor,” a vaudevillian burlesque performer, modern dancer, or art historian.

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

Probably a combination of reading too much, being “weird” and not fitting in with the other kids at school (see reading too much), and not having the Internet or social media as a distraction.

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

I just finished How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee (shout out to fellow poet Sarah Pinder for passing it along to me). In his witty and poignant essays, Chee dispenses valuable advice on life and on writing, for instance: “I know untalented people who did become writers, and who write exceptionally well. You can have talent, but if you cannot endure, if you cannot learn to work, and learn to work against your own worst tendencies and prejudices, if you cannot take the criticism of strangers, or the uncertainty, then you will not become a writer.” As for film, I recently watched the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor, about the life and career of Fred Rogers, which I enjoyed so much (and cried over). On a completely different note, I also just finished watching the new Netflix series Russian Doll with Natasha Lyonne. It might be too dark for some, but I thought it was fascinating, ingenious and big-hearted; it felt like more a full-length film or a novel than a series to me. The show also felt close to home to me, with its New York Jewish sensibility.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I am hard at work on my next (as yet untitled) collection of poems, in which I’m exploring the themes of fortune and misfortune, and their potential to both inform/transform experiences of grief, loss, and love. I’ve been experimenting a lot with form, using dream sequences, elements of magical realism or surrealism, and inspired by lesser-known women in Greek mythology. The book picks up thematically, and in subject matter, where Closer to Where We Began leaves off, but this time, I’m trying to take more risks, be more thoughtful about blurring the lines between the lyric and narrative modes, and challenge myself to approach the poem in new, unconventional ways. I still have a long way to go, and am in the process of understanding how my new poems speak to each other and correlate. Where I’ll end up, of course, is a mystery to me, which when you think about it, is as it should be.


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Things I am still frightened of : a new short story,

I've a new short story, "Things I am still frightened of," over at Half a Grapefruit magazine. Thanks much! And, as always, I've links to other short stories of mine publishing online, here.

Monday, February 18, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Nicholas Trandahl

Nicholas Trandahl is an Army veteran, poet, outdoorsman, journalist, and traveler. A member of WyoPoets and the Bearlodge Writers, he finds inspiration in new adventures, nature, good books, and the understated beauty of everyday life. Trandahl lives in Wyoming with his wife and daughters.

Trandahl’s poetry is published by Winter Goose Publishing and has appeared in various journals, anthologies, and compilations.

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

My first published book, a fantasy novel published by Swyers Publishing, changed my life in that it gave me the confidence to pursue writing seriously. My published books following that first one are vastly different. These days I'm primarily a poet and write some literary fiction occasionally, and I would say my writing is unrecognizable from those early days. You know, beginning authors have a tendency to over-write and over describe ever minute detail. Over the years I've learned that writing simply and clearly is a much better way to write.

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

Well, I started writing poetry when I deployed as a soldier in the Middle East to try to control the degrading state of my mental health. I wrote for self-preservation essentially. So poetry's roots were strong from the beginning. I quickly got several works of fiction published afterward, but poetry has always pulled me back because I see it as the purest and most honest form of writing.

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?

As for the start of a writing project, with poetry its instantaneous. Once I submit a poetry manuscript to my publisher, I have most likely already started writing a few poems for whatever my next poetry collection will be. I'm always writing. Poetry is how I see the world and express myself so there's really no stopping it. Every experience is worthy of poetry (though not necessarily published poetry). The writing of poetry begins for me in scribbled disordered notes in my old beat-up journal; that journal is with me wherever I go. The poems that are in my final draft I send to my publisher are oftentimes nearly unrecognizable from those initial hectic handwritten rough drafts. As for fiction, I do a lot of research, background development, and character development before I actually start the rough draft, but once I start, I write it fairly quickly.

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?

I wouldn't say that I'm necessarily working on a "book" from the very beginning, but my poems are organized into a single document that does end up becoming the first draft of a poetry collection. I write poems nearly every day and the vast majority of them get typed up on my typewriter and filed away in stacks in the drawers of my writing desk. Maybe 5-10% of my poems are deemed worthy enough by me to be typed into the manuscript of my next poetry book.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Poetry readings were anathema to me. The very idea of them made my social anxiety bristle. However, I won third place in a national poetry contest and was asked to read my poem at a conference. It was an enlightening experience, and now I do poetry readings as often as possible, at as many different venues as possible. There's nothing quite like communicating your life and soul to an audience and seeing them really taking it in, listening to the gasps and murmurs after that final poignant line of a poem. So, I would say I've definitely come to embrace poetry readings and look forward to them as an essential part of my life as a writer.

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?

My poetry isn't incredibly emotional, introspective, or philosophical. I tend to write clear honest poetry which has been reviewed as "accessible" and "authentic". My inspirations have always been Hemingway, Jim Harrison, Raymond Carver, etc., writers that wrote with earthy simple language. My poetry is an attempt to answer the confusion and disorder of our civilization. I want to show readers that our lives are comprised of innumerable moments of beauty and poetry. Every day a person walks unknowingly through a sea of poetry and inspiration. I want to open peoples' eyes to that wonder of everyday life all around them. I want to inform and educate. Every tree, every sunset, every walk, each person you meet and each story they tell are all the opportunity for a poem.

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?

The role of a writer in this culture is and should be to provide a snapshot of these times to the wider world, to hold up a mirror and shout "Here you are! This is you! This is all of us! Here is your world!" All writing, and in particular poetry, serves in the exact same capacity as artwork, photography, and music. They're creative crystallizations of the times we live in and the culture we're a part of.

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

I find working with an outside editor important and quite easy actually. My editor, James Koukis with Winter Goose Publishing, has become a friend of mine over the years and is as much a fan of my poetry as anyone. We work together wonderfully and blaze through the final draft quite quickly. The eyes and insight of an outside editor are essential, and I think it's evident when a writer moves ahead with a book without utilizing a good editor.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Most of Hemingway's quotes concerning writing are essential advice for any writer. Those quotes have changed my writing immeasurably. "Good writing is true writing..." "Write hard and clear about what hurts" There are countless ones to choose from. The small book Ernest Hemingway on Writing should be essential reading for every writer.

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 don't necessarily have a writing routine. I'm not an advocate of forcing writing. For me personally, my writing suffers when I'm not inspired. So, I write when I feel the need. That's why it's essential to have my writing journal with me or at least my phone with a note app. Inspiration can happen anywhere. A writer needs to be ready for it. My day consists of work and domesticity as a husband and father, but I certainly find that much of writing, editing, revising, and reading is done at night with a good drink and some good music playing (softly so the kids don't wake up).

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my writing stalls, it's paramount that I stop writing and don't force it. At that point it's time to turn to reading a good novel or biography or book of poetry. That usually can get the fires of creativity roaring again. Even a good film or a some excellent music can have the same outcome. The ultimate source of inspiration for me, however, is travel and adventure. Booking a flight to somewhere I haven't been, going on a roadtrip, camping in a tent in the back country to hike trails and fish for trout. Those things are immediate and plentiful sources of inspiration for me.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The smell of pine and stone will always remind me of northeast Wyoming, where I live. As for my home in particular, my family and I have deduced that our belongings (when we travel) smell like maple syrup and apple juice. It's kind of odd, but it makes me happy when I open my luggage in a hotel.

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?

Well, books are definitely the prime source of books most definitely, but my writing is certainly also built from nature (hiking, camping, fishing, exploring), travel (vacations, pilgrimages, and road trips), history (all of it!), food (cooking and eating), music (particularly Vivaldi and Ravel), and artwork (my favorites being Ivan Shiskin, van Gogh, and Monet).

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Raymond Carver, Jim Harrison, Ivan Turgenev, Ted Kooser, Mary Oliver, Henry David Thoreau, and Gary Snyder are the writers that are most important to me and my work. The most important books in my life are Hemingway's The Garden of Eden and Ernest Hemingway on Writing, Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, Raymond Carver's All of Us, Turgenev's A Sportsman's Notebook and Fathers and Sons, and Thoreau's Walden and Wild Apples.

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

As for my writing, I'd like to eventually become much more well-known in the book world. I'm working on it. As for goals not related to writing, I'd like my to travel to Basque Country, India, Mexico, and Ukraine. I'd also like to see a Mark Rothko painting in person.

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?
Aside from writing, I would've loved to have been a painter. I dabble in art and am very intrigued by art history. It would be an interesting life I'd imagine. My day job is a journalist, and I assume I'd be working in the newspaper business even if I wasn't an author.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
My time as a soldier and my experiences in the Middle East were instrumental in making me a writer. I had to write to survive and self-medicate. Without those dark experiences, I'm unsure if I would've pursued writing with the fervor that I did.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I'm currently reading Boris Pasternak's masterpiece Doctor Zhivago and I can already tell about midway through that this is a brilliant novel. The last great book I've finished was Wilderness Essays by John Muir; my good buddy and I went on a roadtrip/pilgrimage to Ketchum, Idaho in October to pay our respects at Hemingway's grave and visit his memorial, and I picked up that hardcover book of Muir's essays at a little shop in that mountain town. Muir writes about nature with more love and care than any writer has ever written about anything. The last great film I watched was Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited; it's my favorite film and I watch it every couple months.

19 - What are you currently working on?
At the beginning of 2019, I submitted the final draft of my third collection with Winter Goose Publishing, Bravery. That collection hits shelves in April. So, I'm currently still writing poems here and there, and I've placed a few keepers into a document which may eventually become a poetry manuscript in the future. I'm also revising/editing a couple short stories I'm trying to get published. However, the major project I'm currently undertaking is a novel set in San Sebastian during the political unrest and violence there in the 1970s. I'm currently just in the planning and outline stages, focused on background research and character development. I'm hoping to have a rough draft nearly completed by 2020.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Jessica Smith, How to Know the Flowers


Alabama-based poet and editor Jessica Smith’s third full-length collection is How to Know the Flowers (El Paso TX: Veliz Books, 2019), a book, as the author writes in her “FOREWORD,”

[…] about trauma, sexual harassment, female friendship, grief, place, and techniques of natural dyeing. Organized in three sections, it develops from a question of “what happened?” through memory, processing, and resolution.
Because the act of recollecting occurs in time, it moves linearly, successively, as it marks time (simultaneity). But our memories do not conform to linear narratives. When I recall a birthday party from my youth, I can recall fragmentary colors, patterns, and little snippets of linear moments (she brought out the cake, he paid for the ice cream), but to pull together a story from those elements distorts the reality of my memory. To narrate the memory is to fill in the gaps. In writing fragmented narratives that do not necessarily move linearly across and down the page, I hope to preserve some of the sense that memories are shimmery, unreliable, scattered things.

How to Know the Flowers is structured as a sequence of page-length individual poems that scatter and staccato across the page. With poems dated from “9 March 2017” to “8 July 2017,” How to Know the Flowers extends her ongoing project, The Daybooks; a project that so far includes numerous chapbooks as well as her two previous full-length poetry titles: Organic Furniture Cellar (Outside Voices, 2006) [see my review of such here] and Life-List (Chax Press, 2015) [see my review of such here]. “like a storm brewing,” she writes, to open “16 March 2017,” “but with no clouds gathering [.]”

Smith’s structures of erasure and excision explore and respond to violence as a way to cut away the dross and focus, properly, on her subject matter, writing the gaps through the gaps; writing the buried strains and threads, continuing those structures throughout the collection as a way to finally rebuild out of and beyond that violence into something constructive and positive. The poems pull apart as a way to articulate, comprehend and, finally, reset. “days of reckoning,” she writes, to open “3 July 2017,” “with acceptance                                       what has been lost / my grip loosens                                      what remains       what grew / the emotional memories                 become pure fact / lose their impact [.]”

Saturday, February 16, 2019

12 or 20 (small press) questions with Andrew Moorhouse on Fine Poetry Press

Fine Poetry Press: The American author John Updike once said “A book is beautiful in its relation to the human hand, to the human eye, to the human brain, and to the human spirit.” and I am trying to live up to that by publishing letterpress printed, cloth and leather bound, illustrated editions of poetry by well established poets.

Andrew Moorhouse: I live in the North West of England and for much of my life I had a rather mundane, uninspiring and unsatisfying day job. I’ve always held an almost reverential attitude towards the printed word and the book as a format and, at a time in my life when I needed to find a new direction, I decided to start my publishing hobby.”

1 – When did Fine Poetry Press first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?

My first book In Memory of Water was published in 2013. My goals remain largely the same - to present the work of excellent poets and artists in beautifully printed and bound limited editions, to give myself a more interesting life and to not lose too much money at what is essentially a hobby. I’ve learnt to be more careful when selecting the artists to work with and the medium in which they will present their work. One salutary lesson was learnt when the cost of digitally printing images with letterpress printed text proved extremely expensive.
 
2 – What first brought you to publishing?

As I approached my 50th birthday my kidneys had failed and I needed a transplant. After I had the successful transplant, and largely because my 'day job’ (implementing payroll systems) left me unfulfilled I decided that I wanted to do something worthwhile. I was a keen reader and a book collector. Some of my collection was of Fine Press and limited editions. I also collected the work of a well established and respected UK poet who had been commissioned to write 6 poems on the theme of water. The poems were carved onto rocks along the Pennines where I live. The poems had been published in a rather flimsy and cheaply produced pamphlet and I thought the project deserved something better. I asked the poet if I may do a fine press publication of them and, despite me having no experience in publishing, he said that I could ‘give it a go’. It proved successful.     

3 – What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?

I see my responsibility as publishing books which present excellent poems by excellent poets in attractive, cherishable books. 

4 – What do you see your press doing that no one else is?

I wouldn’t like to say that no one else is doing it but I’m not sure anyone is doing it in the same way as me. Poets give me work, I commission an artist to provide complementary images to illustrate the poems, I ask a letterpress printer to set the text and images as attractively as possible and I commission a high quality binder to bind the books in high quality cloths and leathers. I know that there are individuals who are letterpress printers and who can bind their own editions but I don’t have those skills or experience so I do see myself as the publisher rather than a producer.

5 – What do you see as the most effective way to get new books out into the world?

I started from scratch having no experience - my initial approach was to contact a dealer I know about taking some of my first publication. I had subsequently found other dealers including one specialist bookstore. I use social media a lot with direct, but polite, marketing of my books. I go to a lot of poetry readings and try to talk to as many people who might be enthusiastic about the authors work to try to get them interested. I attend Fine Press book fairs. I advertise in the Fine Press magazine ‘Parenthesis’. I am trying to improve my website.

6 – How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?

All of the poets I work with are very well established and experienced authors. I can not add anything as an editor apart from ensuring that their words are presented in a format they want them to be.

7 – How do your books and broadsides get distributed? What are your usual print runs?

For the books I’ve settled on a print run of 75 Standard, 26 Deluxe and 5 Presentation editions. For the broadsides I usually do 50 copies. For distribution I either sell to a dealer of do it all myself through direct email contact with previous customers. 

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?

I don’t work with others editors apart from the poet themselves. I work with artists, a letterpress printer and a binding company.

9 – How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?

I am strictly amateur in my writing - I’ve learnt a lot from the poets I’ve worked with but perhaps the most important lesson has been that I’m probably unable to reach the levels necessary for publication of my own efforts.

10 – How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?

I have no strong feelings on this only that I would not contemplate trying to present my own efforts in my own publication.

11 – How do you see Fine Poetry Press evolving?

I’m very happy with the quality of the books and broadsides that I produce. The quality and renown of the artists that I work is, and I feel will continue to, improve. I’m currently working with 3 members of the Royal Academy of Arts a situation I did not envisage when I started this hobby. I would like to produce more broadsides as I am fond of them. I have recently approached a poet to write some poems on a particular subject matter. Previously the poems I have published have always been written before the book is conceived. I hope that this will become a more regular feature.

12 – What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?

My proudest achievement so far has been in publishing the work of Michael Longley. A man whose work I was largely unaware of before I read a book about him. I regard Michael as a hugely impressive man and to be in his company and to publish his work is a great honour for me.

13 – Who were your early publishing models when starting out?

Collecting the work of John Updike and Raymond Carver meant that I was exposed to the books of publisher William B Ewert. Ewert was a New Hampshire man who combined his work as a librarian with his publishing hobby. His books gave me the idea. Lord John Press in California reinforced the idea as too did Enitharmon here in the UK.

14 – How does Fine Poetry Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Fine Poetry Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?


Until recently I have continued in my full time employment. This employment had me working long hours with a lot of time away from home away from my family. My opportunities to engage. I’ve recently joined a group called the Northern Fiction Alliance, a group of publishers based here in the North West of England. I’m hoping that my future involvement in that group will increase my Press’ profile. As I’ve now taken semi-retirement from the day job I hope to attend more print, book and Wayzgoose fairs to spread news of my efforts and to make more contacts. I primarily hope to increase my marketing know-how.    

15 – Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?


I have yet to hold any readings to support my publications. I know that these are important as on the few occasions when I’ve been in the audience of one of my author’s events and they mention my publications then I do get sales. Later this year I have arranged an event but the poet did not want to structure the event as a sales opportunity for me rather he will read from a more mainstream publication which will include some of the work I have previously published. He will mention my publications and I hope that will draw people to the sales table I will have at the event.

16 – How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?

I have a website which I have built myself. It is rather unwieldy and clumsy in its format and needs a redesign which I think I’m going to have to get help with. I use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to promote my books to my ‘friends’ and followers. Most of my correspondence is via e-mail.

17 – Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?

If the submission came from a well established poet of renown the I would consider the publication. If the poet is not of acknowledged high renown then I would not be keen unless the poems had a particular appeal to me and provided opportunities to work with a particular artist.

18 – Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.

To date I’ve published 10 books. My latest three have been;

Paul Muldoon’s I Gave the Pope A Rhino - 12 song lyrics accompanied by 12 commissioned oil paintings by the artist Paul Wright. The artist produced very strong images in response to the playfulness of the Muldoon’s text.

Simon Armitage’s Exit the Known World - 6 poems accompanied by 6 commissioned wood engravings from Hilary Paynter. A beautiful book if I say so myself. Excellent poems, excellent images, beautifully printed and my favourite binding, a combination of two greens, so far.

Carol Ann Duffy’s Eight World’s Wives - 8 poems accompanied by 8 commissioned wood engravings from Hilary Paynter. The opportunity to work with the UK’s current Poet Laureate was too good to miss. These re-presentations of some of her best known work has produced another beautiful edition. 

12 or 20 (small press) questions;