Guest editor Aimee Nezhukumatathil interviewed featured poet Christina Mun-Lutz for this issue. Here’s what Mun-Lutz had to say about white space, her approach to revision, and the process of choosing an MFA program.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: I’m always curious about poets’ writing habits/space. Could you give us a little insight on what either or both of those words means for you?
Christina Mun-Lutz: I wish I could say I was a fastidious writer, one who spent three+ hours at her desk everyday writing, but in reality I’m wildly inconsistent. I have a job that allows me a lot of time in between projects, so there are weeks where I am combing through my manuscript, revising and cutting, working on new poems, and then there are weeks (many of them) where I’m doing less studious things, like binge-watching The Walking Dead before the new season starts.
In terms of space, I write better outside, which is one of the many reasons writing new work in my office is not super conducive. I live in Florida and, I don’t know, maybe it’s the heat, but working outside really puts me in the right frame of mind.
AN: You use the white space in these poems in such a lovely and ethereal way. What does the relation of text and white space mean to you, for these poems in particular?
CML: This is probably super cliché but I guess I’ve always seen white space working as part conversation with the poem and part conversation with the reader.
Thinking specifically in “A Story of Beginnings,” which is part of a series of poems about stories and their absence in my own life, I think I’m asking the reader to do a lot of work in between the stanzas. If you imagine them as rooms, I can dictate what’s in the room, but I want the reader to close the door and wander the hallway to the next one all on their own.
In “The Stars Are Distant as Mothers Are,” the white space is meant to sort of disrupt the stability of the poem, like form matching content.
AN: This is vague on purpose so you can answer how you see fit: Can you describe the process of revision in your poems?
CML: Typically, I write a poem on the computer and make small tweaks and changes until I feel there’s at least a “complete” poem, whatever that means. Then I print it out and rewrite the poem on a legal pad. I usually wait a few days or weeks before I come back to it; then I pretend like this is a piece going through workshop and make comments/notes on it. Sometimes it only takes me 2-3 drafts, sometimes it takes 9-10 drafts. I don’t have many readers, but if the time works out I’ll send a poem that I’m stuck on to them.
AN: What are you reading now, both high and low-brow? Don’t be bashful!
CML: I recently finished Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy. I started them on my flight to London a few months ago and waited until I flew home to Ohio this summer to finish. I think it’s a really underrated YA trilogy and I really enjoyed it, so that’s probably my “low-brow.”
I’m in the middle of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s devastatingly beautiful and Baldwin-esque Between the World and Me. I think it’s one of the books that make it hard to read anything else at the same time. I think he calls for your complete attention. But next in line are Cannibal by Safiya Sinclair (thank you, A, for the rec!), Unbearable Splendor by Sun Yung Shin, and Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong.
AN: It’s that time of year—application season. You attended USF for your MFA. What’s some good advice to a poet who is trying to choose an MFA program and can’t quite decide where to apply?
CML: I think the advice most people say is great: apply where the poets you want to work with are. But I’d add a caveat to that: apply where the poets you want to work with are and make sure they are good teachers for you. There are amazing poets who teach at MFA programs across the country who might not be the best teacher for your particular learning style. So talk to the grad students who are already there, find out what environment you thrive in and what kind you might flounder in.
I found out pretty late that I did much better in a more critical environment than a supportive one. I have no idea what that says about me as person! But don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, before and during graduate school. Once I figured out I thrived a bit better on criticism, Jay Hopler started crossing out entire poems (that’s how I found out I’m not too good at “funny” even though I’m an absolutely hilarious person). So ask for what you need from your potential professors; the worst they can say is no!
I think it’s also important to remember that you are a person, which is to say, grad school is a stressful time, you need to take care of yourself. There’s nothing wrong with applying to places close to your family and friends, your support system. It doesn’t make you less of a serious writer.