Caleb Curtiss is the author of Age of Forgiveness, forthcoming from Sundress in September. His poems appear in Gettysburg Review, Witch Craft Magazine, Image, New England Review, and TriQuarterly.
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?
I published a chapbook before Age of Forgiveness that probably changed my life, though it’s hard for me to say exactly how. I’m probably more anxious now.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Growing up, I had a little bit of contempt for poetry. Protesting too much. Eventually, in my late twenties, I took a poetry class at my community college and was, for the first time, able to imagine why someone might choose to read, write, and think about poems. The syllabus was more or less Dickinson to Whitman to Frost to Stevens to Frost to Brooks to Frost to Sharon Olds. Ended the semester with some “two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”
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’m kind of a slow learner and my process tends to reflect that. It feels like I’ve been working on Age of Forgiveness for the last ten years or so. Probably I have been, in some ways. A few of the poems in the book are from early on in my writing life, but I didn’t start working on it as a book until 2019, and it won’t become one until September 2023.
So, between 4 and ten years.
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?
Oh, I’m definitely a combiner of shorter pieces. Notes or ideas I’ve been rolling with with start to take shape, etc. Eventually, those shapes start to fit together…or they don’t and they end up buried on a hard drive somewhere.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
There’s plenty to like and dislike. I look at readings as an opportunity to tune my audience’s ears to the frequency my work is on. As a teacher I feel pretty comfortable in front of a crowd, and I put a good amount of thought into what I read and how I read it. Can it be stressful, to stand in front of strangers and share your precious art? It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.
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?
Probably not? I think I’m mostly interested in all the first-year-poetry-student stuff still. I think a lot about form and voice, repetition, order, metaphor. Other stuff, too, but those are the main ones. My main question always seems to be, how am I supposed to write this poem that my brain is trying to make me write?
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?
Writers think and create artifacts of their thoughts. There’s plenty of evidence that the current role of writers in our larger culture is to create marketable artifacts. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but maybe there isn’t. I don’t know what a writer ought to be in our larger culture, and that’s the truth. I just know writers should definitely be in the larger culture.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think it’s essential. It can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. I was lucky to work with Tennison Black at Sundress who was a constant source of creative energy for this project. Kit Frick edited my chapbook at Black Lawrence, and that experience was equally generative for me as a poet. Caitlin Rae Taylor helped me solve a really formally and emotionally difficult problem in a poem she published at Southern Humanities Review. I’m forever grateful to these editors and all the others out there like them.
Of course, I’ve also had ~not great editorial experiences~, but this isn’t a Taco Bell, so I take what I get and do what I can to learn from it.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I’m paraphrasing an old friend here who advised me to not die and to keep writing at whatever pace I could: “eventually enough people will start to like your work.”
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 parent and adjunct, so my writing routine works best in summertime when the children are at camp. I’ll drop them off and go to the gym where I write for about an hour, play basketball, stretch, and then return to what I’ve written until it’s time for pickup. The day is always short, the writing often sparse.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I play pickup basketball and then stretch for six hours afterwards. That usually gets me to where I need to be. Sometimes pickle ball helps.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
I’m inspired by visual art. I seek it out, hang it on my walls, think about it, and write about it, too. A few years back I became a little bit obsessed with this visual essay called First Adventures in Beauty by Lia Purpura. Technically a book, I guess. Books that are art interest me a lot. I’m thinking of Book of No Ledge by Nance Van Winckel, Mary Reufle’s erasure books, both of Karen Green’s books and a handful of other Siglio titles.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Nance Van Winckel’s oeuvre inspired a lot of what you’ll see in Age of Forgiveness.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d really like to visit Mérida.
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 really see myself primarily as a writer. I’m a parent, a teacher, a family member, a displaced midwesterner, etc. I’m a writer, too, though. Sometimes I’m more of one, other times I’m less of one.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing has always felt special to me. I have great memories of learning how to do it.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Heat 2 by Michael Mann & Meg Gardiner and Heat (1995).
19 - What are you currently working on?
Right now I’m preparing for the Lewes Creative Writers’ Conference where I get to present next month. I’m also starting to think about the coming semester and all the changes I’ll make to my syllabus. Promoting the book, of course. Some writing is making its way in, too, but I wouldn’t want to overstate that at all.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;