Rachel Moritz is the author of Night-Sea (2008) and The Winchester Monologues (2005), both from New Michigan Press. Her poems have been published in American Letters and Commentary, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, HOW2, Indiana Review, 26, TYPO, and Verse Daily. Among her awards are a 2008 SASE/Jerome grant, 2005 and 2010 fellowships from the Minnesota State Arts Board. She edits poetry for Konundrum Engine Literary Review and publishes WinteRed Press, a Minneapolis-based poetry micropress.
1 - How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
New Michigan Press selected my chapbook manuscript, The Winchester Monologues, for their annual competition in 2004. In some sense, winning that prize was validation of what had felt like “playing house” as a poet. Or, another way to say this is that it was my first experience with the willed pretending that is part of executing a project.
I had the idea for a sequence of poems about the mysterious and eccentric character, Sarah Winchester, who built a huge, sprawling mansion in San Jose, California at the turn-of-the-century (19th to 20th, that is). Suspending myself in this manuscript allowed me to dive into subjects that interested me: the role of the repeating rifle in the American west, the cult of “spirit rapping” and other Victorian attempts to communicate the dead, the ways we inhabit grief and direct or transcend it through creativity. The project gave me a platform for applying to a Minnesota State Arts Board grant that supported travel to the house and completion of the final sequence of poems. These skills—conceiving a project, diving in, following the unknown, asking for support—all felt crucial in learning how to follow inspiration and believe in something. Having the chapbook published was a real gift.
The poems I’m working on today are both different and similar. I hope that the subsequent years of studying poetic craft have made me a more subtle and skilled writer. I’m quite a bit older, too, so I like to think that personal maturity shows up in the writing. Who knows.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I wrote fiction first, as a tiny one—lots of stories on lined notebooks. And during a maudlin adolescent period, lots of really bad “novels” typed in all caps on my typewriter and then on the Tandy computer my father set up for me. But poetry better matched my love of rhythm and sound, my inattention to detail (in terms of the literal and the real), and my nascent lyric self. I didn’t seriously write poetry until my mid-twenties, but then it took hold and hasn’t let up.
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 a fast drafter and a very slow polisher. My poems shift significantly through the editing process or disappear and morph into something else entirely. The full-length manuscript I’m circulating right now evolved over the last six years, and the manuscript I’m currently developing is heading into its third year of drafting and editing. I do take notes, less so since the birth of my son. The writing evolves from a blend of notes, sampling from other books spread out around me, and drafting—usually at a computer.
4 - Where does a poem fiction 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 like to work within a thematic project, whether it’s a series of poems or a book-length idea. Somehow, this helps me shape and direct poems that can otherwise feel airy and ungrounded. So yes, more and more I feel like I consider everything I’m beginning as part of a book project. I’m a big fan of the series poem or the book with multiple smaller sections/series poems, and my reading life tends to inspire and support this direction.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy public readings, but I also find them a little nerve-wracking. I’m not a funny poet, and I dread reading with witty, dynamic writers after whom my work seems serious and dark (to me, at least). That said, I love attending readings. So, perhaps for me it’s about audience and mood and feeling comfortable with my non-ironic self.
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 concerns and questions change with each project. In Night-Sea, the second chapbook I published with New Michigan Press, I was very interested in the formal creation of a world in which the past and the present appeared to co-mingle. I was also interested in themes of (mental) instability and darkness, expressed through the lens of the mythological “hero’s journey” captured so well by Joseph Campbell.
In my full-length manuscript (currently circulating), the poems explore otherness and exile, especially in terms of memory, childhood and sexuality. But in the end I think all of my poems—like most poets or fiction/non-fiction writers, for that matter—have to do with the human questions of why are we here, what does this life in a body mean, what is real, what is dream . . .
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 are so many roles, so many kinds of writing. Writers crystallize what we know and shift our knowledge from internal to external forms. Writers document injustice or inspire change. I’m encouraged by how—amidst the decline of the book industry (book stores, printed books, that is)—there are more of us writing than ever before. I think, however, that the lifestyle of a writer can be over glamorized and perhaps indicates something so many of us crave: space and time to be creative, being seen as some kind of authority, fame and opportunity (ha), and—answering for American society here—being a pure individual not answering to anyone, etc. Sometimes it seems like we’d be better off if other professions were as glamorized, like, say, that of an elementary school teacher. Because maybe there would be ways for creativity to enter more of our daily world. It feels like modern society is really starved for this—and it tends to be ghettoed off in a few professions: visual artist, dancer, writer, etc.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love editing, and I thrive on feedback from my poet friends and teachers. So it’s definitely an essential part of the writing process, allowing me to see my work in a new light and shift ideas, directions, or just word and line choices. I dream of working with a really engaged book editor, but haven’t had that experience yet.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Whoever said that perseverance matters as much (or almost as much) as pure talent? I think of this again and again, especially during despondent moments of wondering why I keep writing poetry.
And that saying—“leap empty-handed into the void.” In the last year-and-a-half, I’ve experienced a birth (of my son) and a death (of my dad). The world seems so void like or dreamlike to me these days—a sense perhaps heightened by having lost a lot of my short-term memory (I hope temporarily) through the process of pregnancy/birth. I’m trying to embrace this state, as it’s such an essential human condition, but it’s frightening (again, not a feeling unique to me, by any means).
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I wrote critical prose in graduate school, and I’ve enjoyed writing book reviews when I’ve done them. The process of writing critical prose works my intellectual muscles and enables me to think about poetics in new ways, which always informs my own writing. I miss doing it. However, I’ve been a reader of critical prose more than a writer of such.
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?
A typical morning begins with a wake-up call from my 17-month old son. And then the day unfolds in a kind of crazy rush of being with him or being at work and returning home to be in toddler world again. Writing happens on Sunday mornings—my semi-regular designated writing time—or on retreats. I would love to write every day, every morning of my life, but I don’t have access to that kind of schedule right now (very few of us do!). I’m lucky to have a partner who values/requires creative time in her own life, and we try to arrange our life wherever possible to make space for writing—more of a challenge with a child in the mix but it still manages to happen.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading is always the first spark of inspiration for me. Such a long list of inspirations, so many great poetry books that have felt like gifts to me. A few from the last year:
Brian Teare, Sight Map
Emily Wilson, The Keep
Matthew Henriksen, Ordinary Sun
Rusty Morrison, The True Keeps Calm Abiding Its Story
Dana Levin, Sky Burial
Josie Sigler, Living Must Bury
Paula Cisweski, Ghost Fargo
Dawn Lundy Martin, Discipline
Also, anything and everything by (in no particular order): Virginia Woolf, Fanny Howe, Myung Mi Kim, Jean Valentine, G.E. Patterson, Laressa Dickey, Juliet Patterson, Bill Stobb, Sun Yung Shin, Elizabeth Robinson, Brenda Hillman, George Oppen.
Also photography, visual art, the language of 19th-century essays, school readers, natural history guides. The language of the past is just so decidedly elegant and gorgeous; it always inspires something for me.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I had a somewhat itinerant childhood, and I’ve made my home in Minnesota for the last twenty years. Perhaps the scent of springtime lilacs and wintertime wood smoke are the best indications of this place in the world for me.
I spent four years in Hong Kong from age 3-8 and was able to go back in 2007. It was crazy to smell the air, the foliage, the street vendors, the ocean, and feel like: this is home. But that was how visiting felt, and I’d love to go back sometime.
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?
The natural world—what a poetic cliché, but so true. I’m always inspired by the silence (at least of the human) and the spaciousness of places where we are less present.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Many, many here, and a few already given in #12. To add to that list, I would mention Fanny Howe’s essay, “Bewilderment,” in her essay collection, The Wedding Dress. This essay so perfectly articulates the connection between spirituality and creativity, how necessary it is to live as fully as possible within a state of “unknowing.” Lately, I’ve also been grooving on the writings of Krishnamurti, (20th-century Indian philosopher and spiritual thinker), especially his Notebook, written in the early 60s.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
My list is way too long, but I’ll throw out a few of the top contenders:
See the Himalayas
Travel the world for a full year
Work on an organic farm as a summertime WWOOF-er (or even just for 10 days!)
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?
My mother lives in Falmouth, MA, which is close to the scientific research community at Woods Hole. I always think that the life of a wildlife biologist would have been a second choice for me—except for my totally imprecise mind—but I love the devotion and itinerancy of studying puffins on the coast of Maine or heading to sea to spend a month researching the nerve systems of squid. It feels like poetry to me. I’m romanticizing this, I know, but still.. . I’d love to have skills that could really contribute to the ongoing train of human knowledge, especially where our environment is concerned. I also would have liked to be a potter—so tangible, physical, mix of utilitarian and aesthetic.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’m not very good at a lot of things (I’m not crafty, I lack basic patience for complicated, mechanical tasks), and I inhabit an emotional inner world that seems to require writing and creative expression to keep me sane. So there you go.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I cried from beginning to end of Terrence Malicks Tree of Life. Despite some flaws in the movie, his depiction of women, etc., the visual beauty and existential questioning of this film really fit the place I’m hanging out in these days. I also loved the movie, The White Ribbon—very haunting and surprising.
Two novels I recently enjoyed: Ben Lerner’s Leaving The Atocha Station, and Per Petterson, I Curse the River of Time.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a manuscript that circles themes of alchemy, paternity, birth, and death. I’ve been interested in the historical character of Kaspar Hauser—a “foundling” of the 19th-century who appeared on the streets of Nuremberg one day with no information about who he was or where he came from. Poems about this character have developed in and among a narrative of pregnancy and birth, especially as conceiving a child within a two-woman household (with absent father), my ambiguous feelings about my own dad, connectedness and distance, etc. We’ll see where any of this goes!
Thanks so very much for the opportunity to answer these questions, rob!
12 or 20 questions (second series);