Thursday, March 19, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Christine Larusso

Christine Larusso’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Wildness, The Literary Review, Pleiades, Women's Studies Quarterly, Sycamore Review, Prelude, Court Green, Narrative, and elsewhere. She is the 2017 winner of the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize, and has been named a finalist for both the Orlando Poetry Prize and the James Hearst Poetry Prize. Her poem, “Dolores,” was nominated for the Forward Prize. There Will Be No More Daughters is her first book.

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

It just came out, so we'll see!

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

I have always wanted to be a writer, but I’ve been writing poems since I was a kid, I remember writing them in middle school and high school. I briefly thought I was going to become a playwright; I went to an arts high school where I studied film, drama and playwriting, amongst other things, and I wrote tons of little plays; I was always drawn to dialogue. As I started to write more poems, I saw the relationship between the two — when I was crafting dialogue, I remember thinking about the caesuras: where does the character take a breath? What images am I using to describe this person’s motivation? 

Poetry, though, always felt like a best friend, a confidante; I returned to it when I needed it most, I came back to it when nothing else would suffice. I don’t think about writing poetry as catharsis, but I felt liberated, as a very emotional young person, to be able to turn to poetry as a way to express myself in what felt like the freest way possible. Language was limitless, and poetry was only a means of exploring how limitless it could be. I loved poetry’s opportunity. 

I think that’s one reason I like my poems to play with form — I like tight couplets as much as I love a poem cascading all over the page. It’s exciting to let the poems breathe — and they breathe so much differently than prose can, I think. 

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’m always writing several projects at once. Though sometimes, in the end, that’s not true, and tons of writing will only boil down to one poem, but I need to tell myself that so that I feel open enough to write with fervor and not lock myself into one idea I have for a project. I often keep drafts of poems in my head for several days before they make it onto the page, and then when I do sit down to write, I often churn out 2, 3 or 4 poems at once, or some of the nuggets of language will make their way into existing drafts. It’s a it of a puzzle and I’m still figuring out my routine — but maybe I’ll never have one.

I’m a terrible editor; or at least, I’m not a quick one. I look back at my work sometimes a year after writing the initial draft — I just need the space to see it fresh. And I always call on outside readers, if I can find someone with the time. 

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 never thought of myself as a project poet — but I’m beginning to see that one shouldn’t label themselves as or not as a project poet, because my first book came together after I had written hundreds of poems, and was able to spend three weeks at a residency seeing how they all connected. We’re all project poets, in a way, because we all have our obsessions, and if you write every day for a year, you’ll probably be making a book or two or three, without even realizing it. Morgan Parker always tells me, when I think I’ve got some poems coming together for a new book — Christine, you’ve probably got two or three books in there! In any case, with the first book, it was difficult, for a long time, to see how the poems fit together and talked to one another. It took the time at a residency for me to see that, and then write additional poems that married the existing ones, to become the book it is today. I also wrote so many bad poems! I wrote lots of poems that were just common lists of quotidien stuff, things I ate, steps I took — I guess I was channeling Bernadette Mayer? — I wrote poems on postcards, napkins. I think the residency was a time for me to always be writing and be OK with writing really bad stuff in order to find the good. Just experimenting.

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

It’s been awhile since I’ve given a reading — I have a love/hate relationship with them. Readings help me discover new cadences in my work. Readings also allow me to stand alongside poets I admire, and read my work next to them; I think they are an essential part of building a poetry community. At the same time, my work is, well, not funny really or even joyful and I always feel like I’m bumming the crowd out. But I love to read at universities, especially, because I remember how important it was for me as a student to hear younger writers read and I hope that in this way I can inspire more students to become poets, or at least read more poetry.

What’s weird is even though I am from Los Angeles and have now lived here, after being in New York for over a decade, for 4 years, I’ve only read here TWICE! In fact I’m writing to you 3 days before my second reading, and saying I’ve read here twice because the reading will have happened before this appears for the world to see. I don’t know that fewer readings happen here or if no one’s calling me (uh oh), but it’d be cool to read in this city more often.

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?

It’s important for me, in my writing, to destabilize and defamiliarize language — There Will Be No More Daughters is very much about (white) patriarchal societal violence inflicted upon women, especially women of color, and to me, the only way to write about this kind of violence was to destabilize, turn familiar into unfamiliar, look into a dark abyss for syntax that would become my own, rather than borrowed from the patriarchy. 

Another way of doing this was to write very long capacious poems, which I probably picked up as a student of Rachel’s. The long poem is a way for me to reclaim the page, take up as much space as I need to write the poem, and bring the reader along with me for the ride — the long poems take tremendous amounts of energy and focus and time for me to write, and writing them also reminds me that most working writers never have enough energy and focus and time, and they deserve more.

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?

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

Honestly, I wish there was more outside editing in poetry! I was very thankful that Carmen took a look at my manuscript and offered suggestions when I was nearing the final draft, and that I had already worked on several of the poems for years with professors from my MFA program, but I think for most folks, especially for their first books, they submit submit submit to prizes and once it’s accepted, the accepted MS, almost as-is, goes to print. I don’t think there should be such an emphasis on a final project; if fiction writers get to go through several drafts before publication, with the aid of an editor, why can’t we? The time I got to spend at my residency, revising many times, was critical for this book. The way most of the prizes work, assuming the winner has a fully edited and ready-to-print manuscript, does a disservice to poets.

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

It’s so simple, but Rachel told me at a young age to keep writing, no matter what. That the people who keep writing will be writers, and that no one can tell them otherwise. I try to remember that, and had to really hold that thought close as I was rejected by so many first book prizes; ultimately, I had to decide that it didn’t matter whether or not I was published, all that mattered was that I kept writing and wanted to keep writing. 

Someone also told me to create the life you need to write. So, for some folks, that means teaching creative writing — cool! For others, like me — it’s not doing that. I can’t stay sane while trying to find adjunct job after adjunct job, running all over town teaching classes. I need a little more structure than that. So I don’t teach, at lease not now, and that’s ok. I really love to travel/go on self-imposed retreats to write, and I make space for that, too. Figure out what works for you, what’s generative for you, and make it happen.

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 wish I had a routine! Lots of folks have said they write first thing in the morning, when there’s nothing else getting in their heads and distracting them. I like that idea in principle but I’ve got a pretty active, lovingly annoying dog who prevents any real work from happening first thing in the AM, so my writing tends to be sporadic, throughout the day — and I think I mentioned before, I keep poems in my head for days before they meet the page.

One thing I started doing is keeping a dream log. I don’t dream every night, but writing down the ones I have has helped me with my memory (for when I think of lines — often first lines — and I’m without a pen or paper; this usually happens when I’m driving) and seeing my subconscious. My neuroses, phobias and obsessions are always going to find a way into my work, and discovering or re-discovering them via the lens of my uncensored dream state has been extremely generative for me.

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

I read a lot more, and I try to read in different genres. (Right now I’m reading Morgan’s new book for young adult readers, WHO PUT THIS SONG ON? But before that I was reading Michael Pollan’s book about psychedelics — HOW TO CHANGE YOUR MIND. I also like to attempt to learn new languages, and have a little bit of French, Spanish and Italian under my belt. Learning a new language often leads me to research etymology, which I find can be very beneficial for my writing. Word origins and histories. Word usage as it changes over time, etc. One of my all-time favorite words is waldeinsamkeit, which basically translates from German to “the feeling of being lonely in the woods.”

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

There’s a certain smell on some Los Angeles mornings, if you live far enough west; it’s the fog rolling in off the ocean, before the sun’s come out, when road visibility is low. Dense beachy saltiness. A smell that makes you feel much smaller than, and surrounded by, nature. That smell.

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?

Oh my yes. I hardly know where to begin to answer this question. I guess I could name a few things that I always return to and others that are influencing me lately:

Any large open expanse of water, preferably an ocean
To go further, I really love all the varied landscapes in California. I love going up north to the redwoods, but also have a great appreciation for the desert and Joshua Tree. Magical stuff.
Cooking and food in general

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

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

Collaborate with an artist in another genre — I am most interested to do make something with a filmmaker.

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?

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

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

Anne Boyer’s GARMENTS AGAINST WOMEN. It took me too long to get to that one. Also, Morgan Parker’s new young adult novel, WHO PUT THIS SONG ON? Is revolutionary — I wish I had had it as a teen. I’m also, like everyone else, completely obsessed with the Ferrante novels. I desperately wish I could erase them from my memory and read them again, for the first time. I see a lot of films, but the best film I saw this year was Claire Denis’ HIGH LIFE. Second place: PARASITE. Regarding that last one - it never stopped turning, moving, changing tone and pace and Bong Joon-ho handled all of that activity so deftly. I also thought the performances were fantastic. The climax of the film was so shocking that — no spoilers, don’t worry — the woman seated next to my partner and me cursed under her breath for about 10 minutes during and after it! That’s when you know you’ve written a real strong plot development.

19 - What are you currently working on?

My second manuscript! Unfortunately it’s as depressing as the first one. 

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