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Intermittent Visitors: David M. Harris

  David M. Harris spent twenty-five years working in publishing in New York, then threw it all over to go to graduate school and become a teacher. He got an MFA in fiction, then threw it all over to write poetry. After living in and around New York City all his life, he threw it all over to move to Tennessee to get married. Now he has a wife and child, a varying number of dogs, cats, fish, and chickens, and a 1972 MGB roadster. Along the way, he picked up some work in film production and some credits as a writer: a published novel, two produced screenplays, a weekly column that ran for about a year and a half in the local daily newspaper, a few short stories, a collection of essays, and a few dozen poems published in places like The Pedestal, Labletter, Pirene’s Fountain, and the anthology 140 And Counting.


What is your writing process?

My writing process has evolved considerably over time. When I was writing my first novel, I set my alarm an hour earlier, and devoted that extra hour to writing every weekday on my computer. I also wrote when I got home from work, but most of the good stuff, it seemed to me, came in the morning, when I was fresh and hadn’t already spent the day working on other people’s novels (I was, at the time, an editor for a book production outfit, Byron Preiss Visual Publications, who had also commissioned the novel I was writing). Since then I’ve gotten an MFA (and, curiously, an MGB), switched my emphasis to poetry, and shifted to writing by hand. I do most of my drafts with a fountain pen in a small notebook (they vary, but about 4″x6″), and wherever I happen to be with enough time to write. I carry a portable office in a plastic clipbox, or sometimes just the pen and notebook. I would probably get a lot more done if I had a particular time for writing every day, but I am lazy and undisciplined by nature. Once I’ve got a draft I like enough, I type it into the computer, and edit on printouts. Then, for poetry, my writing groups are an essential step for me so I can do final (there may be several rounds of “final”) revisions.


What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

Sarah Schulman, who was my advisor for two semesters at Goddard, once said in a letter, “If it doesn’t hurt, you aren’t doing it right.” Oddly enough, I got the same advice from my friend Carter Stevens, former publisher of the S&M News. But Sarah was talking about finding the difficult emotional truths of each scene; don’t stop until you’re reaching something that part of you doesn’t want to reveal, and then reveal that.


Can you say a little bit about the genesis of your most recent book?

My wife kept noodging me to put a book together, and a woman out in Cookeville (TN) posted a call for submissions for a new press, St. Murgen’s press, specializing in chapbooks by Tennessee authors. So I put together a small manuscript and sent it out, and she accepted it. Unfortunately, she almost immediately ran into various problems and shut down the operation after one book. My book would have been her second. At any rate, I then had the manuscript ready when Unsolicited Press posted its call for manuscripts on the Speakeasy, and they also accepted it to be their second book. There’s no particular theme to the book, though; it’s just a bunch of stuff I’ve written, with a fairly broad range of subjects and styles.


Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

I’ve always been pretty glib. Good sentences have never been my problem. Working in publishing (which I did for about 25 years), I always saw writing as something that almost everyone did. So I started doing it. Most of what I wrote (other than cover copy and suchlike) was pretty awful because, even though the sentences were good, there wasn’t any heart; blood on the page, as I’ve come to call it. Writing was a mechanical process, aimed at getting published rather than at learning anything. It wasn’t until after I left the business and went to Goddard that I learned about putting real heart into my good sentences, and that’s what I’ve been working on ever since. When I write non-fiction, as I still do sometimes (I published a chapbook essay collection some years ago: Democracy and Other Problems), I’m trying to understand some aspect of the world outside me. My poetry is sometimes external, but even when I’m writing about, say, the 9/11 attacks, it’s to understand my own relationship with that subject. Of course, since I’m also trying to universalize my feelings, I hope it will speak to others and their connections with each other and the world, but if I don’t get my own blood on the page (there’s that phrase again!), I won’t touch anyone else. None of this applies to light verse, of course.


Which writers inspire you?

Over the years a lot of writers have inspired me in different ways. In 1976 I rather unexpectedly found myself as the agent for the estate of P. G. Wodehouse, and decided I ought to get familiar with his work. I’ve been reading him regularly since then (many books more than once), and I’ve tried to catch some of his pure joy in language. He’s a good balance for the pretentiousness of a lot of my other answers here, too (or the rest of this one). I read a lot of Anthony Trollope, too, from whom I get an understanding that (despite my professional background in science fiction) real life, real people, are really the only subject worth writing about. Even if you set a story on Mars or write a poem (as I have done) about Disney princesses, everything has to be grounded in real life to say anything interesting. Even Wodehouse is, ultimately, grounded in real life. Among poets, Donald Hall currently inspires me most directly. I read his poems and make notes for poems that I want to write. From Auden I learned about using everyday language. And I learn something just about every week from the poets I read on my radio program (Difficult Listening, WRFN,, Sundays, 10 to noon Central Time). I read someone new every week, and learn something from most of them. I also learned a lot about poetry from Tom Disch, whose use of forms helped convince me that formal poetry is not dead, and whose friendship gave me a lot of confidence as a writer. Let’s include Damon Knight and Jane Yolen, too, as friends who had faith in me even when I had considerable doubt.


Why do you write?

I’m not at all sure why I write. Oh, I suppose I have something to say that no one else is saying, although I’m not sure that’s enough of a reason to write and try to get published. And I do write, at least in part, to try to get published. It’s still some small thrill to see my work out there where people can see it, a validation and a massage for my ego. And, of course, it was what all my friends did when I was in publishing. Now it’s what many of my friends do in the world of poetry. After all these years, it’s nice to find something I’m reasonably good at (I was a pretty decent editor, too, though), and at which I can get better with some work. But I don’t have that drive that sends me to the desk every single day. I don’t feel incomplete if I haven’t put words on paper each day. I do keep getting ideas for poems, though, so I might as well keep writing them.

My mother was a dancer. She studied with Martha Graham and performed professionally with a couple of other moderately well-known companies. She also played the piano. My father painted as an amateur (he studied at the Art Students League in New York, where he met Sammy, later Zero, Mostel) and worked as a photographer for the Associated Press. By the time I was born he had given up playing the mandolin, although he still owned one. My sister took piano and guitar lessons and studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, eventually winning awards for her work with community theater. I was no good at music (lousy voice, no gift for piano, clarinet, guitar, or recorder, all of which I studied at some point), couldn’t draw worth a damn, and couldn’t remember my lines when I acted. So I had to become a writer. Fortunately, I’m better at writing than I am at all the other stuff.


This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

Cummins Falls

Three of my poems, and some supplemental stuff, appeared at Poem of the Week this week!

Additionally, I had the opportunity to cross a bucket list item off my list. I wanted to have the experience of standing within a waterfall, so I could feel the power and excitement of the water rushing over my head and body. I love waterfalls – I’ve been spending a lot of the summer hiking, and often to waterfalls. This is where I went yesterday:

Me in the river leading up to the falls
at Cummins Falls State Park

Cummins Falls

I think some of the most exciting work being produced right now is happening at the margins, and it’s tremendous to have a hand in getting it before the public.

Loren Kleinman interviewed me at her blog!

Tails the Penguin and I hang out at the Gatlinburg aquarium.

Intermittent Visitors: Shane Rhodes

  Shane Rhodes is the author of six collections of poetry, including X, which was just released; The Wireless Room, which won the Alberta Book Award for poetry; Holding Pattern, which won the Archibald Lampman Award; and The Bindery, which won the Lampman-Scott Award. His poetry has also appeared in a number of Canadian poetry anthologies including Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets. His work is available online at Lemon Hound, Numéro Cinq and Rattle. Rhodes lives in Ottawa, Ontario.


1. What is your writing process?

I sleep. I wake. I eat. I sit. I think. I drink a cup of matcha. I turn on the radio. I listen. I turn off the radio. I sit. I turn on the computer. I look at the computer screen. I read email. I search the internet for a 15th century papal bull. I read. I write. I erase. I sit. I exhibit common avoidance procedures. I stare out the window. I try not to look at the computer screen; I pretend it isn’t there. I search the OED for the etymology of “kench.” I read the Wikipedia page on “paprika” and then “grey seals” and then “matcha” and then “match” and then “phosphorus sesquisulfide” and then “phossy jaw” and then “the London matchgirls’ strike of 1888.” I get a hold of myself. Seriously, I get back to writing. I write. Seriously, I write. I sit. I erase. Seriously. I don’t look out the window; I pretend it isn’t there. I write quickly. I erase quickly. I work. I read email. I talk. I listen. I come home. I sit. I write. I erase. I write. I read. I write. I sleep.


2. What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

While traveling in Mexico for a year, I met a Texan who passed on this advice (it was advice, he told me, that was passed on to him by his grandfather): “There are three things you really need to know in life: how to drink, how to dance, and some names to call the stars.” It seems just a pertinent now as it did then.


3. Can you say a little bit about the genesis of X?

X, which is my sixth book and available with Nightwood Editions, is largely made up of poems based on Canada’s post-confederation treaties, on contemporary and historical “Indian” law and policy, and on the current discourse around treaty rights and First Nations protests in Canada. X came from my desire to better understand how colonization, settlement and anti-Indigenousness (for racism is too general a term for the particular types of discrimination we have engineered in relation to Aboriginal people in Canada) functioned historically and continues to function in the present.

Conducted by the Government of Canada over a 50-year period, Canada’s post-confederation treaties (commonly called the numbered treaties, numbers one through eleven) represent the “legal” basis for one of the largest systematic, colonial land appropriations in the world. Daunting for the history and future they carry and their impenetrable legal diction, these texts represent the foundational logic of Canadian colonization and of ongoing settler, First Nations, Inuit and Métis relations. The post-confederation treaties, and their interpretation and implementation, ceded vast territories across Canada regardless of tens of thousands of years of First Nations’ history and placed Indians (it was a point of law that Indians be called Indians and not persons) on reserves smaller, in proportion, than the generous land grants being given to newly arrived settlers from Europe.

X uses the treaties’ own strategies of finding, one-sided negotiating, erasure, obfuscation and overstatement to take the documents themselves apart. At the same time, the constraints placed upon the project (to restrict my vocabulary to the source material) seemed a fitting strategy (indeed, it seemed to me the only ethical strategy that could work), given that the documents themselves are so much about the creation of new constraints (constraints that would only grow with the establishment of the Indian Act and its many precursors) for a frontier territory and its peoples to feed the growth of the British Dominion and its domination.


4. Have you had to sacrifice anything in the rest of your life to write?

I have tried sacrifice but have found it is an inconsistent way to please the gods. I sacrifice no longer.


5. Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

I write poetry to understand the world around me. I write myself into the parts of the world that I don’t understand.

There is a story that I tell in my second book, holding pattern, about how, in an ancient land, a King would let a horse wander for a year followed by a band of soldiers. If the horse was impeded in any way, the soldiers would fight to make sure the horse could wander freely. At the end of the year, the horse was slaughtered and the land over which it had wandered became the King’s territory.

My poetry: I let it wander.


This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

Intermittent Visitors: Bradley P. Beaulieu

  Bradley P. Beaulieu is the author of the epic fantasy series The Lays of Anuskaya, including The Winds of Khalakovo and The Straits of Galahesh. He also co-wrote Strata with Stephen Gaskell. His short story collection, Lest Our Passage Be Forgotten & Other Stories, comes out today.


1. What is your writing process?

I’m an inch wormer. What’s an inch wormer? Well, often you’ll hear people talk about pantsers vs. plotters. Or gardeners vs. architects. The thing is, most writers will fall somewhere in the middle of those spectra. Sure, there are examples of extreme plotters that create 100-page outlines, or people that never plot for fear of losing interest in the story. But me? I find that I can’t plot exhaustively, but that I also need some sort of plotting to help guide me.

So what I do is use what George R.R. Martin calls “lights in the fog.” I figure out the ending to my story, plus a couple of high points along the way. These are my lights in the fog. I don’t know how I’ll reach them necessarily, because the fog in the swamp is thick, but I know generally where I’ll be once I reach them, and then it’s a matter of leaping from stone to stone to get there. I may veer far to the right or left, but eventually I’ll get where I want to go.

And as I do, as I move forward in the story, I’ll stop every so often. I’ll recast the plot, the adventure, even the characters and the world, and then I’ll continue marching forward. And so it is that I “inchworm” my way through the first draft.


2. What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

One of the biggest “ah ha” moments I’ve had was from Kelly Link when I attended Clarion in 2006. I had written a story that needed more layers and depth. And by that I mean the words weren’t working hard enough. I had a section that introduced a circus troupe leader, and I was describing his clothes in a rather (if you’ll excuse the pun) laundry-list sort of way. It’s not enough to simply describe setting or character. You have to do so in such a way that it reveals more.

You might reveal more about who the observed character is. If the troupe leader has a stained white shirt, it might color him as slovenly. If it’s impeccably white, you’ll get another impression.

But you can also reveal more about the observer. If the character is annoyed at the troupe leader’s slovenly appearance, it will tell you something about them. If they’re accepting of it, or understanding given the daily grind the leader must deal with, it’ll tell you another.

But don’t stop there. You can reveal more about race or religion or gender with the simple act of description. Or narration. Or dialogue.

Make words work double or triple duty. That’s what we’re told when we first start writing. But it’s difficult to know just how to do that. This is one way: look at a lusterless passage and figure out if there are ways the words can tell more than a surface read implies. Make connections to other things about your world through implication and inference, and soon you’ll find that the story is much more textured and nuanced than it was before.

That’s what makes fiction deep, by adding layer upon layer. It makes your stories rewarding, and that, at the time, was a huge revelation for me.


3. Can you say a little bit about the genesis of Lest Our Passage Be Forgotten & Other Stories?

I started out as a novelist. I hadn’t really considered short stories as an avenue to publication. But then I started attending Kij Johnson’s seminars at GenCon, first in Milwaukee and then in Indianapolis when the convention moved. It was an eye opener for me, trying to create stories that can live inside of 5,000 words instead of 150,000. It was difficult as well, but as I continued working at it, I began to admire the form, and eventually I began selling stories.

This story collection compiles all of my fantasy stories to date. (I’ve held back the science fiction stories for a future collection.) I decided late last year to run a Kickstarter for the collection. I feared that it wouldn’t succeed, but it succeeded well beyond my expectations, getting over 300% of my initial goal.

And the Kickstarter added to the contents as well. I offered to write three new stories if we hit certain goals, and we hit all three of them. So I wrote those, including two stories set in my epic fantasy world of The Lays of Anuskaya. It was a really fun way to connect the story collection to the trilogy I’d been working on for the past half-decade.

I’m terribly excited to get the story collection out and to share the stories that reflect much of my time as a serious writer of fantasy.


4. Have you had to sacrifice anything in the rest of your life to write?

Well, yes. There’s no getting around it. Many, many late nights have been “given over” to writing. But I don’t regret it. Sure, there are days where I’m exhausted. I’d rather play a game, or watch Game of Thrones, or just hang out with my family and talk.

But books don’t write themselves. I get a big thrill from writing, especially at the milestone moments—the end of scenes, end of chapters, end of stories, and so on. So I try to take the little victories and enjoy them, because otherwise why do it? The big victories are so few and far between, you’d better enjoy the small ones.

Plus, I do try to balance my life appropriately. I don’t ignore my family. I make sure I live with them as I live with writing. The balance is never perfect, but what in life is?

In the end, I’m happy with the sacrifices for the time being. Hopefully in the future I’ll have more time for writing that isn’t of the “into the wee hours” variety.


5. Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

Great question, and I hope for many it’s both. It certainly is for me. I question myself all the time. I’m writing what I know, certainly. But I don’t want to stop there. So much of the fun of writing is to learn more, and to share the things you’re learning, that you think are cool, or important, or devastating, or lovely. And you can’t do those things if you try to rely on only the things you’ve already experienced. Sure, you can do that for a story or two. But eventually you’ll need to move on or you’ll stagnate.

What goes hand-in-hand with this is our personal interests. They change over time. And it’s best if you keep your finger on the pulse of those changes. Use them to your advantage, because it will only help your fiction. Your enthusiasm, or disgust, or love, or what have you, will show through. And that can only help your fiction.


This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

Intermittent Visitors: Wendy Vardaman

  Co-editor and webmaster of Verse Wisconsin and co-founder/editor and webmaster of Cowfeather Press, Wendy Vardaman‘s poems, reviews, and interviews have appeared in a variety of anthologies and journals, including Antiphon, Interrobang?!, The Mom Egg, Poemeleon, Prime Number, qarrtsiluni, Whale Sound, and in audio at The Knox Writers’ House Recording Project. The author of Obstructed View (Fireweed Press, 2009), she has been nominated for numerous Pushcart Prizes, as well as a Best of the Net Award, and was runner-up in 2004 for the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Lorine Niedecker Award. In 2012, she was appointed, with Sarah Busse, Poet Laureate of Madison, a volunteer post overseen by the Madison Arts Commission.


1. What is your writing process?

I try to keep regular appointments with myself to draft new work. That was especially important to me during the years that I had young children…Now that they’re mostly grown, I ought to have more free time, but other commitments always creep in and impinge on the writing time… I find scheduled writing time to be more important than ever these days.

I keep a spiral to journal in, start poems, take notes at lectures and conferences, and generally collect ideas and scraps of stuff that seems important, including lists of plays, movies, and books I see or read. When I fill up a notebook I read through and type up anything I’m interested in working on and revising. Some work goes out and gets published quickly; some poems I’m actively cycling through for years and laboring over; some work gets a lot of attention from me but never interests an editor.

Since becoming poet laureate of Madison, Wisconsin, I also regularly receive assignments from people who either want me to write to a particular theme or an occasion. I find I do a lot more research for these pieces, and work on concertedly for days/weeks or more–it’s a change in my normal process because it removes the thinking/ not writing time that normally goes into a poem for me between drafts and revisions.


2. What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

The best writing advice I’ve gotten is to figure out a way to give back to others through my writing, to support both other poets and poetry in general. I’ve found that anything and everything–from book reviewing to doing a prison workshop to editing and interviewing–has a positive effect on my own work, gives me new ideas, and makes me feel less isolated as a writer.


3. Can you say a little bit about the genesis of Obstructed View?

My book Obstructed View (2009) goes back to poems I began as a newish parent fifteen years earlier… I write a lot but have been slow to publish work, especially as books. I have a couple of manuscripts circulating now, but have trouble justifying putting another single-author collection into the world when there are so many, many good poets writing and doing wonderful work.


4. Have you had to sacrifice anything in the rest of your life to write?

Well, paying work hasn’t been easy to find or sustain. I taught for some years after getting a PhD, then quit because I couldn’t do creative writing and teach and parent all at the same time. After a stint as a part-time arts administrator, I’ve recently gone back to teaching writing workshops and am working on an online class for the fall. But I’m proceeding cautiously–I’m never quite sure where the line is between being able to maintain my poetry and being able to do other kinds of work.


5. Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

I don’t know if I’d know anything if I didn’t write it down first. It’s how I think. Maybe that’s why teaching–which is really talking, and finding out what you know through talking–used to feel so difficult. I had to write everything down ahead of time to figure out what I wanted to say. Some writing work is communicative, of course, but that’s more what I do on, say, social media or email or my website, and less how I work through a poem or an essay or even a book review.


This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

Intermittent Visitors: Christine Klocek-Lim

  Christine Klocek-Lim spends most of her time daydreaming—which isn’t much different from what she did as a girl in northeast Pennsylvania, as a college student in Pittsburgh, as a twenty-something technical writer in New York City, and as a young mother in suburban New Jersey. For the past decade or so she’s been dream-surfing in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. She’s published a pile of romance novels, a few poetry chapbooks, and a bunch of short stories.


1. What is your writing process?

If you’d asked me that question ten years ago, I would’ve said that I collect words. I wrote only poetry at that time so my focus was on imagery and metaphor. When I had enough words, I formed them into a poem.

Five years ago I would’ve said I think of a theme (astronomy, clouds, angels) and go from there. Three years ago I’d have told you that I write an outline, then work on a book chapter by chapter.

Now that I’m focusing so much on novel-writing, I begin with my characters. I give them names and a history and something that affected them greatly in their past. When I’ve figured out who they are, I put them into a situation of conflict. The characters decide where to go from there.


2. What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

Just keep writing. I don’t recall hearing this at some point in time and having some sort of realization. Rather, it’s the advice that everyone says over and over again. The more you write, the better you get at it. It takes a long time to grow comfortable with your voice. If you want to improve your skill, the only way to do it is through practice.


3. Can you say a little bit about the genesis of Disintegrate?

Disintegrate began with a scene that appeared full-blown inside my head: a girl lost by a river, at night. I knew that I wanted to write about what it felt like to be right on the cusp of adulthood, and since I love paranormal stories, I gave Felicity the ability to manipulate matter in a certain way. Of course, she has no idea why she can do this or how important it would be for her in the future. All she knows is that she’s lost, she’s cold and tired, and suddenly, she hears music. She finds her way to a bar where a young man is singing. Jax isn’t what she expects. He’s nice. He likes her. They immediately sense a connection, but nothing happens easily when you’re seventeen, does it?


4. Have you had to sacrifice anything in the rest of your life to write?

Yes. Lately, I’ve found that I don’t have much time to read anymore, and that’s been really strange. To suddenly go from reading two or three or more books a week to maybe two in a month has been extremely frustrating. On the other hand, the stories in my head have been clamoring louder and louder the older I get. I want to write them down. I want those characters to be heard.


5. Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

This is one of those trick questions, right? It’s both! Of course it is both. I didn’t start writing novels until I hit age forty, so I had a long time to learn about life. Even so, as I began to fool around with characters and conflict and narrative, I learned that to write from a character’s point of view required me to learn how to see things from outside my usual frame of reference. I needed to become the characters in order to write their voices and decisions into a novel. I’ve been writing poetry since I was a child, and while it is a demanding and exacting art, I found that I didn’t bother with other people’s perspectives as much when writing poems. I love what I’ve learned by tackling another form of writing.


This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

Intermittent Visitors: Daniel McGinn

  Southern California poet Daniel McGinn is the author of 1000 Black Umbrellas. His work has appeared in Litnivorous, Poetry Super Highway, Radius and Beyond the Valley of the Contemporary Poets 1998. He has been a journalist for the East Whittier Review, the OC Weekly and Next Magazine, and has performed at The Bowery Poetry Club in NYC and The Fuse in Philadelphia. He has had five chapbooks included in the Laguna Poets Series.


1. What is your writing process?

Here is my process today: I write the first draft with a pen and composition book. I rarely write the first draft with line breaks. I write quickly and try not to think too much. I try not to correct myself while I am sketching out the initial draft of a poem. It is difficult for me not to cross out and correct myself while I am in this first stage but I have learned to just keep writing. I often rewrite, or correct those same sections later, but not in the draft stage. Once in a while, words or phrases that sound odd to me in the first draft become my favorite parts of a poem. I try not to worry about what a poem is doing, or where it is going; I just want to allow it to happen. I like to set the draft aside for about a week before I make changes to it. I think this waiting period helps to give me a little more objective view of the piece.
Writing on a computer is an entirely different process; when I start creating a piece it already looks like a finished product. Writing on a computer isn’t like writing on a typewriter; it will underline every misspelling and grammatical aberration in red and green. I can’t help but look, and in doing so, I interrupt the writing process. I am aware of the spatial relationship of the poem to the digital page and can’t help but write in line breaks. It is so easy to cut and paste that I edit the poem while it is in process. When I write on a computer there is no first draft. I often complete a poem in one sitting. I used to write on a computer a lot but I don’t want to do that at this time.


2. What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

Ralph Angel suggested I record my poems on the iPhone and listen to my speech patterns to determine where to place line breaks. That has worked well for me. I hear more than line breaks when I play back these recordings. I will often make changes to a poem based on how it sounds; sound is of critical importance in poetry.


3. Can you say a little bit about the genesis of your most recent book?

It took years to write. It has all of the elements of a memoir but because it’s a book of poetry I can take a lot of poetic license.


4. Have you had to sacrifice anything in the rest of your life to write?

No. I’ve always been writing something.


5. Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

I think it does help me know more about what is going on inside and outside of myself but that has never been the goal of writing poetry. The goal is to concentrate, let go of myself and enter the world of the poem.


This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

“I can feel the movement from Theiclydes to Virgil like some guys feel the trading of a player from the Red Sox to the Yankees.”

I went to the third of this semester’s poetry Saturday University at Vanderbilt on March 23rd, where Garrett Hongo read and answered questions about poetry. The first two sessions were with Thomas Lux and Stephen Dobyns, and my notes for those are here: Notes from Thomas Lux; “The words go just so far, then you come to meet them.” (Stephen Dobyns).

Below are my notes from Garrett Hongo’s session, somewhat cleaned up for public consumption:

Tells story about his family & birth and how post office manager told him family stories when he went back to Volcano (Hawaii) as an adult; read “Volcano House” (“there’s all kinds of quaint Oriental shit in there” he says about it). Talks about his brother, about finding out family stories from his aunties, being told stuff like his grandfather killed his aunt because she slept with somebody in the cane fields: “I don’t know if they’re true, but they sound like they’re true. They explain the violence of families.” Read “Aubade, Kawela“; “Bugle Boys.”


Q: so musical, what does it look like on the page?

Long lines (he shows us).


Q: why lines and not paragraphs?

“Martin [Rapisarda, the associate dean for Arts & Science at Vanderbilt, who introduced him] alluded to the corrections I made about my influences.”

The line derives from Wordsworth. The measure is a line but the stophe is a paragraph. You have to have 3 lines going:
1. Stichic/lineation
2. Measure/meter – breath line
3. Then the strophe
Together they make up the logic, the music, the sequence of the poem.

You have a verse paragraph which has within it the line, the breath line and the strophe.

A verse paragraph model, not plainly said. I don’t say things plainly; I don’t like to. When I write, I don’t really write in a way to the audience, but I write to honor the ancestors and the canon. These things really live for me. I can feel the movement from Theiclydes to Virgil like some guys feel the trading of a player from the Red Sox to the Yankees.


Q: balance of high diction with accessibility?

I love to be read by common readers. There’s a democratic principle involved that I don’t want to make it difficult or obscure or put a kind of intellectual border guard at the door to the poem.

But I trained in semiotics and linguistic theory. I think that so called language poetry is bankrupt. I want to write so my father or my brother could have read it.

Stylistically though, no. My work is a combination of developed aesthetic and the ambition to reach the faithful, the common reader.


Q: how you pulled thought processes from different languages and traditions into a whole?

It’s all English, even pidgin.

Tells story about seeing a play as a teen by Derek Walcott with Elizabethan English in Caribbean accent. Whole play was like music to him.

Reads to us from oral history of Hawaiian musician (I’m too interested; I forget to take notes).

I think all languages are inside of us, it’s just accessing them. I’m learning Italian and when somebody talks to me in Japanese, I’ll answer them in Italian.

I’ve scripted out my next three books. I know what they’ll be about.

I don’t do drafts. I do takes. I try it this way and then that way.


Q: have you acted?

I ran a theatre company for three years. I like the theatre, but the problem is this: we were producing plays by Asian-Americans and it was hard because there were so many cross-currents of what I’d call subjugation. Most of my actors were bourgeois, and they worried some of the plays would offend their parents or the community; once we had a bomb threat, because somebody thought we were making fun of Chinese people, so they were afraid, and I had to pick them up by the lapels and shake them. Some of them are successful actors and they play these slant-eyed buck-toothed characters because they have to make a living, and I just left because I wouldn’t do that.

Tells story about writing comedy and hating it, deciding to write poetry.

Poetry is a special place in the mind. Different for each of us.


Q: could you talk about the internment?

My family was not interned, per se. There were three imprisonments:

The first roundup, journalists, Japanese language instruction, professors, etc, including my maternal grandfather who was considered a hard case because his English was good for Hawaii but not for the FBI. They thought his night-fishing (you light torches, put them in the sand, it attracts the fish) was signaling to the enemy.

The second was the entire community (film Snow Falling On Cedars shows it).

The largest one was 120,000 people, all Japanese west of I-99. Officially apologized for by Reagan.

The internment was like a natural disaster in that it was a complete destruction of whole communities.

Mainlanders and Japanese-Americans from Hawaii didn’t get along. When they saw the fences and guards, after that there was no fighting between them.

To come back from that, the kids wanted success and security above all. It made for a kind of monolithic resolve among my generation of mainland Japanese-Americans.


Q: how you work with the past and memory? Dealing with the tension between getting it right and being happy with what you get?

Trained in oral history. That helps. There was a shape to the way folks told stories, a dramatic shape, that gave me a way in. When I do research, I try to work to the point where I internalize the data so I can put it together in an emotional plot like an old-timer telling a story.

Most of my books I think about for years, living with the stories, and then I can write most of the book in a few months, work on it afterward but most of it done in a month or two, but only after years of thought.


Q: talk about starting poetry workshops?

My refuge, a place where only poetry happened.

Poetry workshop comes from the actor’s studio model, mutual critique from the whole workshop with the teacher at the end. Can go wrong, with it really being a salon for the faculty.


Q: writing for aesthetics vs validation through publication?

Poetry is very different – it’s the most non-capitalized of the writing arts. You don’t get money. It has to do with song and tradition.

Here’s a story: I’m in Seattle doing theatre stuff, and I got flown down to do a meeting with Touchstone. Bill is very preoccupied – he says we’ve got this story about a white man who marries a Japanese woman before WWII, and leads a rebellion out of the internment camps. I said, after I write this story, where could I live? He says fine it’s your funeral. Ten years later, I’m having dinner with Maxine Hong Kingston and (I missed name) and they say he asked me to write that too! They found somebody to do it and the Japanese American League picketed the opening.

The body of knowledge is controlled by power. Truth is constructed according to how it flatters the body of knowledge. Stereotypes. Poetry is like another system that’s another kind if jurisprudence – I’m free to do what I think is the truth.

It sounds idealized, but it’s not capitalized, so it’s not controlled.


Q: how does Jack Su fit into this?

He loved music. He wanted to keep playing it. He wanted to keep his band together. A lot of people hated him for that, for pretending to be Korean to avoid internment. Had something of his humanity he wanted to uphold. Not disgraceful. Jack was just a guy who needed music and took it as a higher calling. I never interviewed him so I don’t know what he would have said. Pat Suzuki, a lounge singer, told me a lot of these stories, which is how I know a lot of this stuff.

The new generation doesn’t have that reverence to the elders. They don’t think in terms of why people did things, but it was important to me.