Thursday, April 27, 2023

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Meghan Kemp-Gee

Meghan Kemp-Gee's debut full-length poetry collection The Animal in the Room is forthcoming from Coach House Books in May 2023. She is also the author of two chapbooks (What I Meant to Ask and The Bones & Eggs & Beets) and co-creator of Contested Strip, the world’s best comic about ultimate frisbee (and soon to be a graphic novel).

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?

Obviously, we poets have to be good at spending a lot of time and energy on our work with very little external validation. I've been so fortunate to have a few big successful milestones recently, including getting into an awesome poetry PhD program and my first book getting accepted for publication at a wonderful publisher. And to be honest, that external validation does work on me! It makes me feel like I KNOW what I'm doing, instead of just hoping I know.

So I feel like my work these days is more self-assured and ambitious. I don't know where that confidence boost is going to take me. We'll see.

More than anything, it means everything to me that other people are actually reading what I write and spending time with my work. That's why I write. It means everything.

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

The mediums I work in most often are poetry, comics, and screenwriting. I'm not sure exactly why, but it's very rare that I have an idea I want to explore through prose more than I want to explore it through a poem or a scene or a comic. The reasons for that are completely mysterious to me, because I really enjoy reading fiction and nonfiction! I just rarely have an impulse towards creating it.
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 am a pretty fast, hard writer once I get going! I fear and admire poets who carefully revise and slowly edit over months and months, but I don't work like that!

Whether we're talking about a single poem or a giant project, something tends to blindside me out of nowhere and whine at me until it gets finished. Whatever "it" is, it comes and looks for you. I'm a big believer that if a poem is talking to you, it needs to be written right away, as much as you can. It might not get finished that day, but I'm always grateful when I follow that voice or that whine.

Once I've drafted a poem, I often revise it as many times as I need to, once or twice or twenty times, within the first day or two. I don't need to finish it, but I need to finish it as much as I can. A few of my poems, about 10 percent, get stuck in the early stages, and those are the ones you just put away and wait until you know what to do with them, weeks or years later.

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?

I used to be a very poem-focused poet. I liked the idea of the self-contained unit, the little room -- neat and tidy and a world of its own.

I still like thinking about my poems like that! But ever since I finished writing Animal in the Room I've been increasingly interested in what I could do with sequences and interconnected series of poems, including my chapbooks and full-length book projects. Right now, I love playing with repetition, because it creates alternative realities, rhizomes, new connections. I'm fascinated by those branches, tensions, links, and ligaments between pages. In comics theory, they talk about "hyperlinks" or "arthrology" -- the study of connections between and across texts.

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

I don't have a huge amount of experience with readings yet, but I do enjoy them! I want to do more! I put a lot of care into how my work sounds, because I hope some readers will want to read the poems out loud.

I also really love the experience of reading with other poets and writers, firstly because I like meeting them, and also because of those wonderful, unexpected connections between poems that often spring up at public readings. I love those!

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?

Sometimes I'm concerned that I'm not intentional enough in formulating a theoretical framework for what I'm writing. My process is very form-based -- I like to pick one or more patterns or formal features and just see where they take me. Let the poem go where it wants to go.

But I also recognize that that's just a process, not a theory. If you write like me, one of the things you have to be concerned about, and responsible about, is that a form-first process doesn't absolve you of your authorship. You're still responsible for what the poem does.

So basically, my theoretical concerns, my process, and my questions all have to do with the same kind of thing: how meaning and structure work together, and create each other, again and again and every time we write. And every time we read, or try to understand the physical world, that's also what's happening: meaning versus structure. I guess Meaning/Structure and Theory/Practice map onto each other, to a certain extent.

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 think there are many necessary roles for all kinds of writers and artists in our culture. Personally, I think of myself as doing a craft -- my job is to create things that are useful or interesting or pleasing to someone. There's a good Dylan Thomas quote that says that a poem is a contribution to reality. I like to think about my work like that.

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

Last summer I had the great honor of working with Coach House, and with Susan Holbrook to edit my poetry manuscript. I was really thrilled when my book was accepted for publication, but I'll never forget talking to Susan on the phone for the first time. She immediately summarized the whole book in this perfect, insightful, intellectual way, better than I ever could have. I was floored. I think it was the first moment in my life when I felt someone had really understood my work -- not just what an individual poem might mean, but my intentions, and everything I was trying to do on a larger scale. I'm so grateful to her for that moment. I'll never forget it.

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

When I met Phoebe Wang at UNB in 2021 she gave me some wonderful advice: to be patient. She told me that I could write quickly and impatiently, but then I had to be very patient about publishing, career, and everything that comes after. I'm not a patient writer, but I think that was good advice!

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to collaborating on a graphic novel)? What do you see as the appeal?

People have told me they find this weird, but it's always easy and fun for me to move between genres! I enjoy the variety: comics, poetry, screen. They're all very different in terms of skills, audience, collaboration, everything. But the more I work in multiple genres, the more I discover all these interesting connections and transferable skills & techniques. Anyway, the main appeal to me is that I'm just following my creative interests, and following opportunities to work with artists and projects I like.

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?

I would like to have a regular schedule, but between studying, teaching, writing, and sports, every day is a bit different! On my ideal day, I go to the gym first thing in the morning, then have two or three big blocks of serious work time after that. But the ideal day isn't a real day, is it?

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

I don't usually feel stalled. But I find I'm most productive and pleased with myself when I'm writing towards a project. I like that feeling of a target, where every little scrap of an idea or line seems pointed towards a larger thing.

If I'm not currently working on a project, I invent one, like writing a sonnet just because, or writing about the last TV show I watched, or whatever. If I'm really stuck, I just do some editing of my own poems, or just read someone else's poems. That always does the trick.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

My partner James is a brilliant baker! A pot of coffee brewing and something baking in the oven are the ultimate home-y smell for me.

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?

Movies, nature, and visual art are huge influences and frequent topics in my poems! Recently I'm experimenting with poems about sports and athletes, which is a new and unfamiliar influence.

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

This is such a difficult question because there are too many to narrow it down! I'm just going to throw out four writers who are at the tip of my tongue today because I've re-read them recently: Louise Gluck, Jack Kirby, James Baldwin, Gord Downie, Joy Harjo.

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

In poetry, one of my dreams is to work collaboratively with visual artists or musicians! I'd love to publish a poetry-comic hybrid text, or to write words for songs, operas, or live performances.

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?

I've often considered becoming a yoga teacher! Maybe I'll still do that at some point?

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Like a lot of us, I think I do this because I wouldn't be completely satisfied doing something else. Or at least I wouldn't be completely satisfied. I enjoy a lot of different types of work. Teaching makes me happy. Coaching sports and playing sports does too. I enjoyed working on movies and doing script consulting. But ultimately I think I need to write. Like your question says, something made me write.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Book: Haruki Murakami's What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Film: Fire of Love

20 - What are you currently working on?

I am right on the exhilarating cusp between two big poetry projects!

I just hit "send" on a manuscript called Nebulas, which is about space, strawberries, and Walt Whitman. I think it's the best work that I've ever done and I can't wait to share it with everyone.

My next big thing is a series of lyric poems about dead and injured athletes. I don't want to say too much because it's still taking its shape! It's cooking!

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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