Our poetry co-editor Erin Post had this exchange with Sandra Kolankiewicz, our Issue #10 featured poet. Here’s what she had to say about her creative process, her approach to writing, and the many projects she is working on.
Could you describe your creative process? How do you approach revising?
I used to think that I had to wait for inspiration, but then I came to realize that the creative energy is constant, and I just have to open myself up to it. Sometimes I am pouring forth trying to make sense of feelings of my own, but most often I am grabbing a frequency, as crazy as it sounds. I have multiple roles that I am filling at the same time, so I have limited time to create. I get up around 5 in the morning, go downstairs, make lunches, and then sit down and write or revise. I get about an hour in—and it’s amazing what can happen in an hour if you set one aside every day. On the weekend, I get more time in—people don’t roll out of bed until later.
For the past couple of years, I have been in a creative phase—so I often set work aside to be looked at later because I can’t wait to get on to the next poem. On days when I don’t feel like creating, I turn to these poems as if seeing them for the first time. I could never have done this when I was younger—I often worked a poem to death. Coming to the realization that the creative energy is always available allowed me to more fully disappear into my work when I am doing it, and I am grateful. For me, other than experiencing parenthood and watching my children grow, there is no greater privilege than being able to play with energy.
What is the first poem you remember writing?
My first book was The Ghostly Horse and Other Stories, and I was five, but that effort was about it. Then, in 5th grade I sat in the back of the classroom near the paper closet. One day I was possessed by the urge to grab a piece of paper and write. I had a brand new Flair pen—they had just been invented—and for some reason sentences just flowed from me—I remember seeing the words thick and black on the page with the new kind of ink. The Vietnam War was always on the news, leaders had been assassinated, we were landing on the moon, the cities had rioting—and for days I would suddenly have to grab a piece of white paper from the closet and write. The only line I remember is “…and when the wall is hit.” Rather than getting mad at me for not doing my work and for using the special white paper, my teaching encouraged my writing—and kept it. After that experience, writing has always been in my life.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
When I was getting my Ph.D, Hollis Summers made a wry comment that what made a writer successful was not getting worn down by constant rejection. If you could survive into old age still pushing forward in spite of all the pushing back, you were successful. I like that model, which depends more on effort than accolades.
Edgar Whan, another professor at Ohio University (he and Hollis put together several instructional anthologies), also constantly warned me about what he called (and he might have gotten it from Austin Warren) “goosing the bishop,” which means telling rather than showing, going for the shock value of being too obvious. I had a tendency to overshoot my endings by goosing the bishop and soon learned that if I just went back a few paragraphs, I would find the true ending of the story.
How do you balance work/family/other obligations while still keeping time available for writing?
Besides what I have already mentioned, I do have summers off because I am a teacher. During that time I can try to shape an extended project. For example, this summer I am putting together two collections. In the past year, I have had nearly 80 poems accepted in different journals. I want to put them into two discrete collections—which takes a totally different kind of mentality than firing off a poem at five in the morning. My family supports my writing—so most of the times when Mommy is staring into the computer during the dinner hour (which doesn’t happen very often, though it does happen), they are understanding.
The editors at Mud Season Review noted in particular your skilled use of metaphor. Could you talk about this aspect of your work – why are you drawn to metaphor in writing poetry? How do you “find” metaphors, or how do metaphors evolve as part of a particular piece?
My use of metaphor began as a way of saying what I was not allowed to say. I would hide in metaphors. Now, when taking an imaginative flight, they are the source of energy that propels the journey! For me, the initial draft of a poem is a free-association event with each image and metaphor proving fuel for the next. An extended metaphor for me creates almost a narrative and creates a framework for a poem.
Your poems seem to dance and philosophize around emotionally charged stories. One we wondered about in particular was “Refrigerator Note.” Is there a particular moment or memory behind this piece? What was the inspiration?
My daughter is just finishing her junior year in high school. My son is going to be a freshman—he has autism. For awhile there, I felt as if we had to be everywhere at once—balancing work, family needs, and the beast called autism, which moved in when my son was a year old and never left. When you have so many balls in the air at once, you lose a few. I am sure all parents have the same experience—where did the time go?! I write poems about what I call ‘the dangers of domesticity.’ We think ‘domestic,’ and somehow we get images of inconsequential matters. But domestic life is the source of many painful realities about life – people die, families break up, fathers and mothers go broke—the weight of the world falls heavily on families, no matter the circumstances. Want to have a broken heart?Love someone. There is no way to love without experiencing loss. “Refrigerator Note” was germinated in the soil of domesticity.
What do you hope readers take away from your work?
Pleasure, compassion, a meaningful imaginative flight, wisdom, community of feeling.
What writers have been important to your development as a poet?
Oh, there are so many! Really, I cannot say that there is a poem that I DON’T like. I always get something from a poem. For me, poetry is about energy. If someone wrote a poem, there is energy there. I always look for the energy.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
I think that workshops are great except for when you listen too much to the group—meaning you lose the purpose of your work. In the end, you are the only one who can decide what a piece should be like. You have to learn to be your own critic—and you also have to learn to write without getting any feedback at all. Once you can write something and not be controlled by the urge to show it to someone for affirmation, you are free as a writer. The trick is that at the same time you have to be dispassionate about feedback on a piece, you also have to send the thing out to a potential publisher and say, “Look at me! Look at me!” What irony!
I have a writer friend who had a novel that meant a lot to him. He took it to a group run by a well-known agent. The agent made him take out half of the story line. Eventually my friend gave up on the book. Last summer, we exchanged unpublished novels and read each other’s work. I immediately could see that he had cut out major portions of the book. I kept writing in the margins WHAT DID YOU TAKE OUT HERE? He ended up putting everything back in twenty years later, sending the book off, and now it’s in print. He listened to that agent and the group think, and lost his own story for awhile. I am very happy for him that the book is in print in its original form!
Why is poetry important? What advice would you give to a young poet just starting out?
For me, with poetry the spaces between the words are just as important as the words. Poetry is energy, and playing with energy is fun! However, energy can also burn. How many people have you known that flared out playing with energy? Plenty!
The writer of poems is a modulator between the high energy of the non visible world, the creative energy that is always there, and the three dimensional world in which we live. The writer of poems does the same thing with poetry that a ‘bridge’ does in music—bring to different, often disparate, musical expressions together. If you are not balanced, absorbing one kind of energy and turning into another can be very destructive. And addictive. You have to remember that it’s not you—it’s energy. Ditch the ego.
Advice? You have to actually sit down and write to be a writer, which means you have to spend a lot of time alone, in the shed, working on your chops. As a dear friend told me years ago using jazz metaphors, Your typewriter is your ax. I have seen a lot of people sitting around and talking about what they were going to write—and then not writing. So, first of all, you have to sit down and do it. However, you also have to have meaningful relationships and live a full life. Otherwise, you just sit around writing about being alone and writing.
What are you working on now?
I am trying to finish a story I started three years ago. It is the only piece I have ever started that I have not finished. Why? Because it’s a sad tale! It happens thirty years from now and involves autism. Who wants to think about what the U.S.—and the world!—will look like 30 years from now with the current autism rate of one in 65? Not me. Talk about energy! But the story wants to be written, so I will finish it.
I am going to put together two collections, which means I will be using a lot of horizontal space to decide on order and flow.
Recently, my illustrated novel When I Fell was released by Web-e-Books. I have drafted the first section of the book into the first act of a play, but I wrote it for too many characters. After consulting with a playwright friend, I have determined that I want no more than five main characters and so will have to fuse some parts. If I have time, I will work on that this summer as well.
Also, the illustrator for When I Fell, Kathy Skerritt, and I may be collaborating on another project when her dissertation is over. I would like for her to complete 25 or so drawings for my novel Blue Eyes Don’t Cry (she did 76 for When I Fell!) and to send that out into the world. I love her work and feel we complement each other’s artistic efforts very well. We have a website that enhances and supplements the text—and features original music written for the book by Michael Leasure. If you visit here, you’ll find our vision rounded out and expanded—and you might even feel a hint of what the play will be like. I still have to add my Book Club discussion questions and a separate page featuring some of the illustrations and Kathy’s process, but for the most part the site is up and active. https://sites.google.com/site/whenifellblog/
And of course, along with all this other stuff, there most likely will be more poems at sunrise.