Tuesday, January 05, 2021

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sheila Squillante

Sheila Squillante is the author of the poetry collection, Beautiful Nerve, and three chapbooks of poetry: In This Dream of My Father, Women Who Pawn Their Jewelry and A Woman Traces the Shoreline. Her second collection, Mostly Human, won the 2020 Wicked Woman Book Prize from BrickHouse Books and was published in October, 2020. She is also co-author, along with Sandra L. Faulkner, of the writing craft book, Writing the Personal: Getting Your Stories Onto the Page. Recent work has appeared or will appear in places like Copper NickelCrab Orchard ReviewNorth Dakota Quarterly, Indiana Review, Waxwing, and River Teeth. She directs the MFA program in creative writing at Chatham University, where she edits The Fourth Rivera journal of nature and place-based writing. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA, with her family.

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

My first chapbook, A Woman Traces the Shoreline, came out in 2011 with dancing girl press. It was thrilling in so many ways, not the least of which was that the text had come out of a kind of freewriting I did when I was pregnant with my first child and terrified I would never write again. Then, to have it picked up by a feminist press that I admired was all the validation I could have hoped for. In terms of style, it’s very different from my forthcoming collection, Mostly Human, which is much more narrative, though both collections are expressly and proudly feminist.


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

I’ve been writing poetry since I was six, so I think it came to me! Nonfiction didn’t enter my writing identity until graduate school when I took a memoir workshop with a visiting professor. That workshop changed my life.


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 do work in drafts—almost nothing arrives fully formed—but I don’t typically work from notes to get there. Often, I’m following prompts I give to my students and then later I end up shaping it into something. Writing is not fast for me. My current book took two years to write and two more to publish, while moving through various stages of revision.


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?

Poems often start in observation of my immediate surroundings and then jump associatively to other things, stories, sounds, images. I trust the associative process in writing and find it leads me to places I would never get to otherwise. That said, Mostly Human was a book from the very beginning and it began as a seed from my life—a jangle of memories and images from when I was very young. I didn’t know at first that I was writing more than a short series of poems, but soon it became clear it needed to be a full-length collection.


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

I really enjoy doing readings. I pay scrupulous attention to sound in my poems and I love being able to perform them to highlight that fact. I also love audiences and their reactions. I’ve done a bunch of Zoom readings since the quarantine began and those have been fun, too.


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?

I write feminist poems because I am a feminist. I am interested in the domestic space, especially, and in the balance or imbalance within relationships. I think I’m always trying to answer questions about power (Who has it? How do you get it?) and agency.


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 do think writers have a responsibility to observe and record culture. I have great admiration for poets who take up current events in their work. I don’t mean that poems need to be explicitly political (though we could argue what that word means), but that they are making space for ambiguity and complexity of human experience on the page. I have edited a nature journal (www.thefourthriver.com) for the last seven years, and we are always discussing how to refresh notions of what a “nature poem” can or should be. Our nature is not the nature of Wordsworth or Thoreau or even Marianne Moore and our art needs to reflect that.


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

Love me a good editor!


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

“Learn the lessons of boredom.” –my husband, Paul, to our kids.


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 am lousy at routine. I teach and direct a graduate writing program. I have two teenagers and two dogs. I am easily distracted. I write when I can.


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

I turn either to objects and the energy and stories they hold or to language play. One of my favorite tools for composing is the Lazarus Text Mixing Deck, which is a cut-up generator. Oh, the fun of it! The surprise!


12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Uh, vaguely damp dog?


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?

Definitely visual art—collage in particular. This influence doesn’t show up in my most recent book but certainly in my first collection, Beautiful Nerve. And sure, music. I wish I could say that Fiona Apple’s brilliant Fetch the Bolt Cutters inspired Mostly Human, but I didn’t actually hear it until after it was written. Still, I’d like to claim it.


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

I could list a bunch of books here, but instead I’m going to list writers I know and who have literally gotten me though quarantine via a group chat that we check into many (many) times a day. I love them AND I love their work, which everyone should check out!  Joy Katz (All You Do is Perceive, poems), Brittany Hailer (Animal You’ll Surely Become, essays), Sarah Shotland (Junkette, novel) and Sherrie Flick (Thank Your Lucky Stars, short fiction). The final two members of our tribe—we call ourselves “Scrappy Motherfuckers”—are not writers but connected to the writing world in important ways: Hattie Fletcher, who is Managing Editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, and Danielle Chiotti, literary agent at Upstart Crow Agency.


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

Publish a book of nonfiction—memoir or essays.


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?

If I couldn’t be a writer, I might go back and get a degree in food studies and representation. I’d like to feed people and work to combat food insecurity in urban communities in Pittsburgh where I live.


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? 

I recently finished Carolyn Forche’s memoir What You Have Heard is True, which tells the full story of her time as a young poet in El Salvador. It was riveting. With my teenage son, I recently watched Hotel Rwanda for the first time. It was also riveting, for many of the same reasons the Forche book was. Human barbarism and human beauty & resilience inextricably twined.


19 - What are you currently working on?

I’ve just finished a first draft of a memoir that tells the story of my coming to feminism sort of late, and not through anything academic but through the lived experience of my life. It’s set against the backdrop of my first marriage and is, I hope, somewhat darkly funny.


12 or 20 (second series) questions;


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