Monday, August 18, 2014

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Barbara Tomash

Barbara Tomash is the author of three books of poetry: Arboreal (Apogee Press 2014), The Secret of White (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009), and Flying in Water, which won the 2005 Winnow First Poetry Award.  Her poems have appeared in Colorado Review, New American Writing, Verse, VOLT, Witness, and many other journals. She lives in Berkeley, California, and teaches creative writing at San Francisco State University.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Writing does change me (thank goodness). And writing the series of prose poems that became my first book, Flying In Water,  put me inside a longing that came alive first when I was nine years old and was taken to an exhibition of paintings by the Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky. I was an obsessive drawer and held long conversations with my crayon colors. Standing in front of the paintings, I felt both awkward and at home—as if I were hearing a new language I understood perfectly without being able (or asked) to translate a word. This was a beauty I really wanted. And it sent me on the path of becoming a visual artist. When, in my late thirties I turned to writing, it took a very long time, really until I found the “she” who speaks in Flying In Water, to be able to use language to report on and shape perception.

Most of the poems in my second book, The Secret of White, were actually written before I wrote Flying in Water.  A group of poems at the heart of the book were inspired by the paintings of Pierre Bonnard. In his works “the subjects”—the people, the objects—are often at the periphery, as if they are about to fall out of the frame, the center may be empty.  And I wanted to find a way to write this same movement or spin, to find in language a center replete with absence.

It feels difficult to compare Arboreal, which just came out, to my other work, because I am so close to it, and as suggested by this question, I have been changed by it.  Each project calls for a different process, or each project calls forth a different logic, even calls forth a different writer.  For Arboreal I worked with sharper juxtapositions of language fragments than I’ve used before, and perhaps a greater density of sound and image. The “she” of Arboreal emigrates from the garden into the woods where she becomes immersed in a sort of end of the world imagining.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Circuitously and surprisingly.  As a young woman, I worked as an artist, painting, and doing multi-media video installations. I started working on films in my mid-thirties, which was really like beginning again. As an artist, I seemed to make it a habit to be a beginner. Which was often painful—never having full expertise—but, I was looking for something. After laboring on a couple of really bad films, I understood something funny and sad—it was harder to make a bad film than a good one; no matter how much “production value” you brought to it, without a good script, there was no hope. So, as a practical thing, I thought I’d try to write a screenplay. But, it turned out that what I wanted to write was all the narration, the descriptive details, the inner thoughts of the characters, all the stuff you are not supposed to put in a film script. It was then that I wrote my first couple of short stories and enrolled in graduate school to study short story writing—once again, I was really a raw beginner—what a demanding and beautiful form the short story is! Out of curiosity, I took a poetry class—I had never written a poem—and I fell  for poetry hard, even obsessively. I remember the tactile sense I had with the very first poem I attempted, transfixed by the endless options and permutations possible in “breaking” lines. That sharp focus and concentration on form was a continuation of what I had been doing as a visual artist—the experimentation, the sense that a poem was a object, made out of language patterns and play, yet full of ideas, of thinking on the page that wasn’t necessarily struggling to tell anything.  I hadn’t felt that thrill of the malleability and physicality of language when I was writing short stories.

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?
It seems that, for me, a book takes around three years to write. I write slowly, find my way slowly. Often for the first year or so, I don’t know what I am doing.  Once I get a clearer image of the book, I experiment full on with form and revise like crazy.  I have no problem chopping up or unraveling a poem that was “finished.”  For Arboreal, in the last year of revision and writing, I joined various poems together to make long sequences, weaving fragments together, cutting parts away, and writing new passages. It was then that the book came alive for me.

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?
My current work in progress, for which I am working with English pre-fixes and found language from the dictionary, has been “a book from the very beginning.” As soon as I wrote the first poem, I felt compelled to keep going, to follow through until I was “done.”  But, this much clarity of purpose at the very beginning is quite unusual for me. I prefer to read and write poetry books that have a lot of coherence of some kind, of voice, form, idea, method etc., but for me this coherence comes out of a lot of trial and error, and just writing to see what comes out.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I have stage-fright before I read, but once I am doing it, I love the feeling of having the words inside of my body.  It seems like a whole new stage of the writing process, bringing my voice to it.  The reading can feel oddly trance-like, and I like that. It puts me in a new relationship with the writing—as if I am partnered by it.

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?
Some questions keep circling. If we can’t ever retrieve from the time before language, when we were pre-verbal, the knowing of the world directly through our unmediated senses, then isn’t this loss exactly what makes language so compelling and beautiful?  There is always failure, but not as something dark and despairing, more as a creative companion.

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?
An enormous question. One small angle of approach is the personal. As a child uncomfortable in my own skin, in my own family, I read and read—the basics were food, water, shelter, reading. Reading was an alternative skin, an alternative body I could become whole inside of—so the writers I loved, and I loved so many, gave  birth to me a second time. In some ways this was a more generative birthing. I found an intimacy and truth in the reader and writer exchange, a “more perfect union,” than I did at school, or at home, or even with other children. So, for me the writer has a deeply human, even primal role. But, I haven’t really touched the full contours of this question.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
My experience with my editor at Apogee Press, Edward Smallfield, has been wonderful. But, his approach has not been that of an “outside editor,” as I imagine it. Ed once explained to me that when he accepts a manuscript for publication, he feels confidence in the work and the poet’s process, and does not get involved with making suggestions for changes. He was, however, completely open to changes I wanted to make. I added several poems after the manuscript was accepted and made some significant revisions.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Write five more.”  This was feedback from my teacher, Frances Mayes.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I don’t find it easy to write prose (even answering these interview questions is difficult for me!) but, then I don’t find it easy to write poetry.

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?
That I have any writing routine at all, especially when I am teaching, is by grace of my friendship with three writers I admire—Nona Caspers, Ann Pelletier, and Jesse Nissim—with whom I write in company twice per week. We live in Berkeley, Syracuse, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, so, we meet via video conference call and work together for several hours at a time. As audience, as collaborators, as instigators, as guides, their presence is integral to the way my work develops.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Once I start writing something, once I have words down on paper, the poem itself motivates me to keep going into it—it makes its fervent, sometimes anxious requests of me for further work. And I am grateful. 

For the poems in Arboreal I was looking out the window, and I was listening. I was inspired by how small changes appear to us, what a particular instant of transition looks like, feels like. Often, I was writing at my window just as day turned into evening and then became night. I was arrested in movement—a paradox—the motion of my thinking contained in the view out the window. Light and thought began to feel similar, and that was inspiring.

I can be very inspired to start writing by other art work—by novels or poems or paintings or sculpture, or gardens, or architecture—anything that has a vision to it.

And I’m sustained by the people I’m close to as writing partners who are there at the beginning when things are very raw and often just ridiculous and whose work uplifts me and  grounds me deeply in my own.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Smog. With the ocean mixed in.

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?
I am particularly moved by the visual arts, their revelations about the world by the act of framing and re-framing things, by changing angles of perception, by their recording of variations, shifts, and movements that hold for me the essence of reality.

And by landscape, trees, light, color, geometry, weather. And by daily life, our present situation.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So many contemporary writers are important to me that I don’t know where to begin the narrative, or even how to start a list.  It is somewhat easier to look further back, and I think of the psychological and emotional precision and beauty of the novel The Waiting Years, by Fumiko Enchi.  Reading it I discovered an aesthetic that seemed life and death crucial to me as a woman. A bit earlier in my life (and even when I think about it now) Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady made me want to scream (in good way).

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d love to learn how to sing on key. I would be very happy spending my old age singing jazz standards.

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?
Well, I’ve been an artist, writer, and teacher.  If I hadn’t done those things I would have become a wastrel.  Or, perhaps, I have been a wastrel!

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
For one thing, as an artist I found it a struggle, emotionally, to always have to be gathering and hauling building materials, found objects, and other art supplies in my car, and then wrestling with them in the studio—sometimes the materiality of the world just confounds me so deeply. For writing you need virtually nothing at all, and what little you need is readily at hand.

For another thing, I’ll quote Fanny Howe: “Poets tend to hover over words in this troubled state of mind. What holds them poised in this position is the occasional eruption of happiness.”

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’ve read three very wonderful books recently—the novel, Someone, by Alice McDermott; the cross-genre work, On Ghosts by Elizabeth Robinson; and Maxine Chernoff’s new collection of poetry, Here. Last night I saw Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel—and it was wonderful too.

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a book-length series of poems, each one spinning out from dictionary definitions for words beginning with a particular prefix. All the language is found—but, fractured and juxtaposed with a free-hand, freewheeling approach—so, not surprisingly, my proclivities for certain kinds of ideas, images, and language keep emerging and circulating around.  I don’t know exactly what it all wants to be yet, but, I am enjoying making the poems. A portfolio of twenty pages from the manuscript is coming out this month in Verse.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

articulate, fascinating, inspiring. thank you for sharing