Rachel Mannheimer was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, and lives in New Haven, Connecticut, where she works as a literary scout and as a senior editor for The Yale Review. Her first book, Earth Room, was selected by Louise Glück as the inaugural winner of the Bergman Prize, and published by Changes in April 2022.
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 just came out, so it may be too early to say. But it was a big jump for me. Before the manuscript was picked up, only my partner had read it. I’d also previously only published a handful of poems, so the past few months have been my first experience—or my first awareness—of being read at all, really, outside of workshops. With friends and family, being able to share the book has created a feeling of increased intimacy. But I also feel, on a larger scale, the exhilarating feeling I first encountered in my MFA, that of being a participant in a shared project or conversation. As you suggest below, books come from books, poems come from poems, and I’ve been fed on so many books… It’s nice to imagine that this book might feed others.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I worked for years as a book editor, editing fiction and nonfiction, and I still work in publishing—as a scout, recommending books to international publishers for translation. I appreciate that poetry is separate from that work. But I also think it’s just the best fit for my brain. I like putting words to things, solving small problems with words.
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?
Some poems come quickly and whole. Some come together from notes I’ve collected over months.
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?
With Earth Room, maybe both. The poems were connected, flowing out of each other, and then the book—its shape and its concerns—came into view as the shorter pieces accumulated.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. I write very much based on sound. I also love attending readings; I never listen to audiobooks or podcasts, but hearing someone read in person is a treat.
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?
Usually the most immediate question for me is, How would I describe this? And, I guess, What feels important to describe?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I don’t necessarily think writers are special kinds of people, except that they have some desire or ability to translate thoughts and experiences into language—to provide access to them in that way, make them concrete and portable, demarcated. I think that’s valuable, just in itself. I want to understand other minds and other lives.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
As a professional editor, I believe that editing is very important! As a poet, I don’t usually get a lot of editing, but I always find it valuable when I do.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
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 don’t have a writing routine. Mostly my poems start with some outside stimulus—something I see or hear. I collect these things, play with the wording in my head. Eventually, I dedicate time to sorting and arranging.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Walks help. Drives and train rides. Museums. Seeing a new thing, trying to describe it, sometimes feeling my limits, learning more in order to describe it better.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, and there’s an Alaskan forest smell — I guess it doesn’t really act as a reminder, because I only get it when I’m there. But that’s an important 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?
Visual art and conceptual art, dance and performance art are all influences on my poems—or at least subjects of them. I love time spent with plants and rocks, but I’m especially interested in human activity, what humans do. That’s what I want to understand through language.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I live with another poet, Chris Schlegel, so he and his work are important to my life and work. And so many others! Poet friends, writers I edit, and all the novelists, essayists, and critics I read for work and for pleasure.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
There are some specific things, but in general I just want to experience more.
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 think I’d like to work with clay. Or be a wood carver.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The feeling that I already had the skills and materials I needed.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
19 - What are you currently working on?
I just wrote a poem for the wedding of two friends. Other than that, I’m still feeling my way toward the next thing.