is the author of several books, including three collections of poetry: Inland Sea, Framed in Silence, and Corporal Works. She teaches English at Northern Michigan University and serves as Creative Writing Editor of The Other Journal. She lives in Marquette, Michigan, along the beautiful shores of Lake Superior.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The publication of my first collection of poetry, Corporal Works, felt magical. I’d always believed in my work and had been submitting the manuscript to contest for a couple of years, but still, when it won the first book contest from Four Way Books, I almost couldn’t believe it. And then after a few months, I held the actual copy in my actual hands. As a friend said, “Publishing a book is like getting a gift you get to keep opening.” I still feel like that—an awe that someone else finds my poems engaging enough to take that kind of risk on.
I’ve published several other books since, including two more collections of poetry, Framed in Silence from Main Street Rag, and Inland Sea just out from Kelsay Books. Inland Sea is particularly meaningful, too, because in some ways it’s the most personal of my collections. It’s not that I reveal deep, dark secrets—it’s not personal in the sense of confessional—but the “I” speaking the poems is often very close to my real self. It’s less often a persona, in other words. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that I’ve returned to Michigan, where I lived until I was in my mid-20s, but where I hadn’t lived since. So the book is filled with images of northern Michigan and Lake Superior. I gaze out at that lake every day, and I still can’t believe I live here.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was much younger, I did write some fiction, but it never felt as natural to me. I’m not that good at plot structure or dialogue. I am trying my hand now at more creative non-fiction, so we’ll see how that goes. I think the biggest difference between poetry and prose for me is that in the revision process when I’m focusing on structure, I make choices more intuitively in poetry—though I can later explain them logically—but with prose more of my choices begin with logic.
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?
With a poem, I often have a page or so of false starts. I think of them as the scaffolding Richard Hugo describes in his essay “The Triggering Town.” I don’t begin with a lot of notes with poetry, though sometimes I’ll write down a bit of overheard dialogue or an image that will later prompt a poem. With prose, I often do begin with many more notes and some kind of haphazard outline. When I look back at my notebooks, the poems I’ve finished often emerge in a shape reasonably close to the final draft, though many times it takes me a while to get to the true beginning, as I’ve said. My notebooks are full of a bunch of abandoned poems, though, ones that began looking ok but then didn’t go anywhere. I’m often frustrated by a poem I abandon, but I tell myself that it will lead to something else that’s more engaging.
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 don’t often begin with a solid idea for a unified collection, though I have written several poetic sequences that are anywhere from 10-25 pages long. I do find, though, that once I get 50 or more new poems written, ones that haven’t appeared in collections, themes emerge that I wasn’t necessarily aware of. My poems almost always originate with an image, though that image might not appear at the beginning of the poem in its final form. My body almost vibrates when I lock onto the right image, the one that’s going to lead somewhere, and that’s how I know I’ve really begun.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love giving readings. So often we complete our work alone, and we send it out into the world hoping someone someday somewhere will read it—but we seldom really know if that happens. But with readings, you can feel the response of the audience members, and then they often ask interesting questions. I like different types of audiences, too, community members, students, other poets—different types of people tend to notice different things going on in the poems.
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?
One of my foundational assumptions is that art gives our lives meaning. So, on the one hand, that idea alone compels me to write. Writing is a spiritual practice, as being a poet is part of my identity, not just a task I complete. Making something new, art for art’s sake, can be very gratifying. On the other hand, there’s a lot going on, locally and globally, that’s very disturbing. In recent years, I’ve found myself addressing some of those concerns in my poetry more than I used to. Much of my current work is environmentalist; living along Lake Superior makes that almost inevitable I think. But I’ve also written poems honoring George Floyd and addressing immigration at our southern border. So I guess one of a poet’s primary questions is “Who am I?” not only as an individual, but also “Who am I?” as a member of a community, and where do the boundaries of that community lie: with my immediate family? with my neighborhood? with my country? with my planet?
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?
Our responsibility is to tell the truth. So many people we encounter are intent on obfuscating reality. Writers lack access to many conventional forms of power—most of us aren’t rich, and we don’t walk the halls of corporate headquarters or national governments. But our facility with language provides us with a different kind of very potent power, and we need to be willing to use it.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor
difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve worked with all kinds of editors. One in particular was extremely unpleasant, and I’ll never work with him again. Others, though, have been very pleasant and enthusiastic. The very best have really helped me make my work better, by asking insightful questions and seeing aspects of my work that I could develop much further.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I don’t know if this was actually advice or just an observation, but I was talking with an acquaintance at the beginning of a summer long ago. I didn’t have any plans and said I was waiting for something exciting to drop into my lap. He said, “oh, if you want exciting, you can’t just wait for it. It doesn’t drop in your lap. You have to pursue it.” So, sometimes I’m looking for rest, but when I’m looking for something exciting—which for me, usually means exploring a new place—I go find it.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I write scholarly articles and books as well as poetry and other creative pieces. The hardest part is keeping that more abstract language that scholarly writing sometimes requires out of my other writing. It’s a matter of voice, I think, remembering which voice to inhabit. Writing book reviews, though, at least book reviews of poetry, really complements my own poetry because I focus in a lot on craft in the reviews.
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’m much more a night person than a morning person. So on days when I don’t have to go to work, I lounge around in the morning, entering the day very gradually. I’m able to focus on language much more intently in the evening, which is when I write most of my poetry. I’m not someone who writes every day, though. Some days my schedules is just too complicated. Some days I do some writing adjacent activities like submitting work, reading a book I’m going to review, visiting a place I want to write about, etc. But I try not to spend too many days not writing because then it takes me too long to re-enter that writing state that is so fruitful.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I rely on many habits that help prevent my getting stalled. I go to the beach or other natural sites. I visit art museums and attend concerts regularly. Even a hockey game exposes me to sounds and sights I don’t regularly experience. I try to keep my imaginative well filled. Julia Cameron in her popular book The Artist’s Way assigns readers to go on an “artist’s date” in order to observe different things, and I try to do that.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
What an interesting question! Maybe the smell of roast beef or meat loaf reminds me most of my childhood home—my family’s midwestern identity showed up most in our meals. Now I’m not so sure. My sense of smell is not very acute, which deprives me of some experiences, but relieves me of a few others!
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?
I’ve written several sequences of poems directly responding to visual art. In my first book, I have a series of poems called “Objects from Still Lives.” They weren’t responding to actual paintings, but each one used a specific object that often appears in still life paintings as a controlling image. My second book has a whole section of poems about Edward Hicks and his Peaceable Kingdom paintings. Many of the individual poems focus on one of the animals in the paintings. The book’s title, Framed in Silence, comes from that series. I’ve just completed another sequence responding to the story of Judith and Holofernes in the Bible, but really inspired by the mosaics of Canadian artist Lilian Broca. Her work is just fantastic, and I was lucky enough to see an exhibit of all of the Judith mosaics a few years ago. I think I’m going to try to publish this group of poems as a chapbook rather than incorporate them into a collection with other poems.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I return to Elizabeth Bishop over and over. I’ve learned so much from her precise descriptions and from how she expresses emotion through restraint.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
My bucket list is so long that I’m going to have to live to be 200. There are lots of countries that I want to travel to that I haven’t been able to yet—Iceland, South Africa, Thailand, and many others. I would like to walk the Camino. I would like to go on one of those long bike rides across a whole state or group of states. I took up quilting a few years ago, and I’m particularly interested in art quilts, like the work of Bisa Butler. I’d love to become skilled enough to do something like that.
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 make my living as an English professor, and I really enjoy teaching, so it’s hard to imagine doing anything else. I would like to spend a year or so teaching English abroad someday, but I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to do that. Since I’ve begun quilting, I’ve thought it would be fun to be a fabric designer, but my skills in visual arts are so limited that that would really be a stretch.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
That magic of
converting experience and emotion into language that other people can
comprehend just astonishes me. I’ve been writing for almost fifty years, and it
still astonishes me.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
“Great” is a really high bar, but I’ve really enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, both by Rachel Joyce. I just got Maureen, the final book in that trilogy, and I’m really looking forward to reading it. I don’t see many movies, so I’ll amend this question to include concerts and plays. I heard The Unarmed Child performed at Northern Michigan University last year, and it was the most heart-wrenching composition I’ve ever heard. And this summer I saw several plays at Stratford, Canada. They were all great, but Wedding Band by Alice Childress was absolutely stunning.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m hoping to have another poetry manuscript ready by next summer or so. Some of the poems will extend the themes of Inland Sea. I’m also beginning a series of personal essays focused on significant people and places that I feel some ambivalence about. Those will be different from any other writing I’ve done.