Laura Moriarty’s Personal Volcano is just out from Nightboat Books. Other recent books are Verne & Lemurian Objects, (Mindmade) 2017; The Fugitive Notebook, (Couch Press); 2014; Who That Divines, 2014, and A Tonalist, 2010 (both Nightboat); A Semblance: Selected and New Poems, 1975-2007, (Omnidawn); and the novel Ultravioleta, 2006, (Atelos). She retired last year from Small Press Distribution and now serves on the board. She lives in Richmond, CA.
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 book, Persia, was published in 1983 when I was 31. I’d had two other first books, Escape From Veils, published by myself and Loree Anderson in 1976, as a letterpress chapbook. We called ourselves Sternum Press. My second first book was Two Cross Seizings, published by Sombre Reptiles in 1980 by Jerry Ratch and Mary Ann Hayden. It was a large, visual letterpress book with page length poems of half a dozen or so words each, “portraits” of friends at the time, printed on translucent rice paper, interspersed with graphics, so the single word lines that wandered around the page and the graphic images showed through. Both of the other first books were published in very small editions, though I’m sure Persia was also a relatively small print run. It was printed off-set at the old West Coast Print Center. Persia was reviewed in the SF Chronicle by Tom Clark and won the Poetry Center Book Award, shared with Larry Eigner, chosen by Beverly Dahlen. There was also a review by Jackson MacLow. I was in a raging hotbed of poets in San Francisco in the 80s and was glad to have something out there that people could read. My press, Chance Additions, published by Marc Lecard, was picked up by SPD so folks beyond the Bay Area could get to it. Later I was to work at the Poetry Center for 11 years and at SPD for 19, but this was well before that. Having Persia out was very transformative because of what I didn’t realize then was a surprising amount of attention and because I felt like I’d finally gotten a speaking part in the poetry scene.
Personal Volcano appearing from Nightboat was immensely pleasing as I’d been working on the project for almost ten years. In the meantime, Who That Divines came out in 2014 so it was not the only thing I was writing. I feel lucky to be working with Stephen Motika and the great Nightboat crew and to be part of a press whose books I really want to read. But then I always fall a little in love with my publishers. It feels transformative to continue to be part of the conversation begun so long ago.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
Actually, I came first to poetry but have always included many different registers, as prose and nonfiction, in my work. The prose parts naturally led to the writing of novel-like works such as L’Archiviste and Cunning and eventually to Ultravioleta which I consider a poetic novel though my publisher, Lyn Hejinian, always refers to it as a poem. Currently, I am working on two fiction projects. I have always focused on words, somewhat over content, story, or other considerations, though I do tend to write into a subject 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 have always pre-started something so that by the time I consider a project finished I am usually working on something else. The new project might morph several times and be redefined but it’s usually always already there. My first step is to take many notes in relation to what I regard as research which is often reading but also visiting sites, talking to folks, looking at still and moving images etc. I love research.
4 - Where does a work of prose 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?
In the 80s, we tended to refer to ourselves as writers rather than poets and to some extent I have preserved that identity. When I am thinking of writing fiction, characters and plot float around in my brain and writing soon occurs of what might be a chapter, conversation or vague outline. Then more of that. Writing poetry usually focuses a bit more on formal ideas or desires. Lately I have been writing short poems, naturally producing the desire to write a longer one. As the manuscript emerges, I wonder what it needs for balance, continuity, a sense of fun, and what I myself want to do. I have always written books and been focused on the project and getting it done but now that I am retired and have more time I find myself writing things that are out of the current project—occasional poems, essays, reviews, and other enjoyable distractions.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. Voicing the work is a great pleasure. I read aloud while writing and often move forward in the work as much or more through sound than sense. Because I go to many readings and enjoy the work of others in that format I like taking a turn. It is enabling to experience the fact of being part of a community that extends across the country and internationally (when one gets the chance to read in those other locales).
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?
The writing takes the form of experiments in relation to problems I find in the research, not the least of which is the question of how I can write into the problem. With A Tonalist I was working into and as a poetics, with Who That Divines, I was writing something like a feminist theology, memoir, and diatribe and with Personal Volcano I was approaching earth and geology, possibly the sublime as well as travel and the sense of cosmological time and work time. (Vacations, which is when one sees volcanoes, occupy a different timescape than work.) I had a constant awareness of the sixth extinction and other issues of deep ecology in writing that book. The question always seems to be something like how can one go forward considering everything?
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 the writer should be to do a good job with the writing with regard to sentient beings, the planet etc. Because our particular skill or talent usually involves words, the good job I picture has to do with an enactment of knowledge and belief that, in my mind, involves love. It might seem odd to say it, but there it is. The sadness of Kevin Killian’s passing has reminded me of the importance of love in the poetry community. I think many of us still feel sustained by his love and support.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Depends on the editor. I have had good and bad ones. A good one can be quite valuable. Working with Kazim Ali as an editor at Nightboat has been great.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
There is a well-known book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki (he is usually called Susuki Roshi) that emphasizes retaining one’s beginner status. I like that, along with the physicality of the idea of having good posture in sitting. We write with our bodies.
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 write in the morning, not quite daily because of scheduling vicissitudes, but on most mornings, now that I’m retired. All of my books (except Nude Memoir) were written on Saturday mornings and on Fridays, once I was able to negotiate that day off, and on occasional extra days off. I was on unemployment when I wrote Nude Memoir, after ending at the Poetry Center. It was a glorious time of denial about needing a job which luckily ended when I started working at SPD.
To get started writing, I read poetry that is currently of interest and many subject matter texts. I generate notes from this material and usually work from those accumulated words and phrases. One of my recent inspirations is the book Letters to the Future: Black Women / Radical Writing. It is like a wonderful compendium of beautifully realized ideas of what to do next.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
As mentioned above, I read writers, usually poets I already like a lot, also searching for new ones and old ones I maybe haven’t quite understood or needed in the past. I think the best way to solve the problem of not writing is to write, lowering the bar all the way down for what is acceptable. Changing projects is also good.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Last year I visited Cape Cod for the first time is 50 years. I lived there from the ages of three to twelve. For the whole time I was there, the smell of the Atlantic, the summer warmth and humidity, the pines, lilacs and other flora all had me mesmerized with a sense of home and a sort of lost past.
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?
Obviously, nature, as with all those volcanoes, and I walk, often for hours, every day. My trips with Nick (Robinson) tend to be both nature and urban focused as we love both environments. At home, I stare out my window and see many birds on the branches of the silver birch in our yard, most of which I’ve learned to identify. I am a bit obsessed with wild turkeys. All media feeds into my practice. I tend toward crime novels and TV crime dramas (and science fiction) and otherwise chose books and movies with regard to my current project(s). Nude Memoir intentionally included many movies, Vertigo and Twelve Monkeys in particular and the Alien series. Originally, I came to poetry through visual art and art history classes many years ago at Sacramento State. I often work with art books, art by my friends, and in museums and galleries. Music is also crucial. Nick is a musician (he is part of the Easy Winners who play late 19th and early 20th century music such as ragtime, Mexican popular tunes, early jazz etc). My father, who was in the Air Force, was also a musician, a keyboardist who played mostly standards. Some current favorites are Marilyn Crispell, John Luther Adams, Jacques Coursil and this one album by McCoy Tyner with some amazing Alice Coltrane on it called Extensions. For some reason I can’t stop listening to that one, which came out the year I graduated from high school.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I have what I would consider a Ted Berrigan level addiction to reading (and listening, as the crime novels and many other things I “read” are audiobooks). Listening and walking is a big activity. My reading practice is almost crazily eclectic with current books being one on how the little ice age affected Europe (Nature’s Mutiny), another about racism and the Enlightenment (The Anatomy of Blackness), an old novel about troubadours, books by various friends, many books about consciousness, several about quantum physics (as an offshoot of the consciousness thing), books about octopuses (they are super smart), etc.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Mostly visiting new places. Not being very rich, I haven’t travelled that much so I really enjoy every new place. This fall we are planning a trip to Rome to visit friends doing a project there.
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?
For the most part I have made my living as an arts administrator and sometime archivist. I enjoy teaching. I have done it from time to time and would have liked to do it more. It is possible I might be better at it than I was at art admin. Occasionally now I consult with regard to both publishing and writing and I plan to do small classes.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I have tried a lot of arts—dancing, theater, painting. Working with words seemed to make more sense talent-wise and I always want to do it whereas the other arts are something that I think I could or should do but don’t get around to it. Lately, I seem to be developing an interest in what I am thinking of as improvisational choral music. Who know if it will go anywhere?
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Goddard’s The Image Book is the favorite. An older film I liked a lot is Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog. I tend to be reading books by close friends such as Norma Cole, Steve Saidenberg, Jane Gregory, Susan Givertz, and Suzanne Stein to name the ones I am reading or most recently read, sometimes before they are published. Saidya Hartman’s book Losing Your Mother is not new but I read it not long ago and loved it. This spring I reread all of Nate Mackey’s poetry. I only wish there were audio versions of his books so I could march around listening to them as I do various audible books. Currently while walking I am “studying” Italian and listening to SPQR.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I seem to have three or four projects. One is a series of short poems, often in series, whose working title is Love’s Mind. I have just begun seriously working on getting my archives together (along with those of Jerry Estrin, my first husband, who died in 1993). That project will inevitably connect with a memoir tentatively called The Problem of Reversible Time. I imagine including various already existing pieces such as “An Air Force” which was published as a chapbook by Brent Cunningham and is part of Who That Divines. I am working on an epistolary novel called The Feralist that Standard Schaefer and I wrote in the late 2000’s. It needs more work to be complete than either of us has time for back then. There is also the sequel to Ultravioleta called Prosodic Beings, but that has been back-burnered while I work on The Feralist. I feel fortunate to have the time to do this work now and am reminded by the mortality of beloved friends to try get it done.