Samantha Giles is the author of Total Recall (Krupskaya, 2019), winner of the California Book Award Gold Medal of Poetry. Previous work includes hurdis addo (Displaced Press, 2011) and deadfalls and snares (Futurepoem, 2014), both of which won CA Conrad's Sexiest Poem in the years they were published. An arts administrator, editor and curator, Giles was the Director of Small Press Traffic from 2009 to 2019.
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, hurdis addo, was put out by the now dormant Displaced Press and was my MFA thesis. The creation of that book, both the actual writing and the generous conversations with my professors and fellow students that contributed to the writing, made me take myself seriously as a writer for perhaps the first time in my life. I think of that book as being, in some ways, a document of all that conversation. It was very lovingly published by Brian Whitener who did a superhero's job of putting out (I think it was 5?)really beautiful books all by himself that year, and the collaboration with Brian kind of fomented my vision of the small utopia of small press publishing, which is very much an ethos of making something out of nothing.
My most recent book, Total Recall, was published by Krupskaya, was a similarly utopic experience of collaboration and friendship. Writing this book was super different, tho. I feel like those conversations I had in grad school are more inside of me now. I trusted myself a lot more to write this book than any of my previous work. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with the fact that Total Recall has gotten a lot more attention than any previous writing I’ve done, but it does feel different in that respect.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
It’s possible that I just don’t understand how to craft a clear narrative arc. I was utter crap at making up bedtime stories for my child when they were little. I’m just not that kind of story teller. But I also love poetry’s elasticity, it’s danger, the ways the narrative is more under the surface.
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 usually write nothing for a long time and then a project starts to come together in large chunks written over a few years in a succession of intensive moments. I don’t move things around or re-write them until I feel the book is really done and then the first draft and the final are mostly the same, save for maybe the way I curate the chunks together to form a (hopefully) cohesive whole.
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?
Writing for me usually comes from a question or an annoyance that I can’t satisfy any other way than writing about it. I’m generally trying to figure out that question or fight that annoyance and that process is always imagined as a book-length negotiation. I am not entirely sure I could write an occasional poem at this point.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I really love giving readings and I’m always so grateful for the opportunity to do so. There’s something in the cadence and the music and the tension of a piece of writing that I can’t really understand unless I perform it. I don’t really write for a specific audience in mind and so actually being in the room with an audience also helps me get a sense of how the work I’m doing might be received. I’m also never not humbled and thankful for the people who organize events and attend them. I think readings are a gift.
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?
What are the stakes of our own complicity in a violent, rotting world? To who and what are we responsible for? Is violence in the world a plant or a gall? Where and how is the right way to be in individual body when there is so much rot and violence in the world? What does it mean to look at everything, even rot and violence?
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?
I’m trying to not read this question as “Does Poetry Matter?” because the only answer I have for that question is “Of course not and absolutely.” I don’t really know what the current role of the writer is, except in terms of myself, which is to say I think I just try to ask myself impossible questions and then tell the truth as much as I can. I don’t know that that has larger cultural implications or not. Probably not.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve never really worked with an editor unless you count my friends, whose critique and guidance are crucial.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I’m not sure it’s the BEST advice, but my son recently told me it’s good to remember that friends online are different than friends in person. Which kind of roughly extrapolated out to mean something or someone can be meaningful in your head, which is different than being meaningful in a lived reciprocity. I’ve been thinking a lot about this translation lately.
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 usually don’t write for a long time and then get hooked into a project or question and then write in large gulps very quickly. I wish I was a daily writer, I really do. But I get too self-conscious for daily writing, it becomes more about the process of sitting down and coming up with something to say than being consumed and interested in the work.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I try to read a lot, take long walks in the woods with my dog, pay attention to what I’m paying attention to, go to readings, make good food. You know, live.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Murphy’s oil soap
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?
Of course. What would be the point of a hermetically sealed poetry? Isn’t the best reason to write to be in conversation about everything?
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Inger Christensen, Juliana Spahr, Octavia Butler, Hiromi Ito, long profiles in the New Yorker, Renee Gladman, Yedda Morrison
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Smash the patriarchy, make a rug from scratch, correctly spell the word “occasion” the first time I try
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 don’t know that I think of writing as my occupation, tho I guess I wouldn’t mind making an attempt to make it my occupation. Otherwise, I’d love to own a cafe/movie theater in a small town.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I’m garbage at ping pong.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Have you read Charles Foster’s Being a Beast? I really loved that book. I also loved Anna Moschovakis’ Eleanor or the Rejection of the Progress of Love and Stephanie Young’s Pet Sounds. I haven’t been seeing many films lately, but I’ll join the rest of the internet in saying that Fleabag is a revelation.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve been working on figuring out what I’m currently working on, to be honest. The release of my latest book has been the project of the moment. Sometimes things lie fallow. I’m trying to think about what it means to be a writer who is not writing. What is that? Just a person?