Our poetry editor Grier Martin recently had this exchange with Crystal J. Zanders, our Issue #31 featured poet. Here’s what she had to say about her revision process, writing about family, and the fulfillment of having readers connect with her work.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you have a specific routine, time, or place where you write? Do you rely more on inspiration or steady work? What is revision like for you?
I rely both on inspiration and steady work. For first drafts, I usually roll over in the middle of the night and type a few lines into my phone’s notepad function, then go back to sleep. I have been known to write poems in the shower or while driving (I wait until I get where I am going to write them down). I can’t force a first draft. I have a hard time sitting down at my desk and conjuring brilliant thoughts. That is too much pressure. The ideas come when I am most open to them, most relaxed.
I spend most of revising-time doing steady work. I like to go to a coffee shop and sip on a green apple smoothie as I revise. I take my phone’s draft and write it into my notebook. Then I rewrite immediately so that it works better and makes more sense. Once I type a draft, it usually goes through at least ten versions before I am satisfied. I give myself a set schedule to work on revisions.
How do you arrive at decisions around form? What is the relationship you’re looking to create between form and content?
The first couple drafts of my poems tend to be very loosely structured. Once I have figured out exactly what I am trying to say, then I look at form. I structure most poems in several different ways; then I look to see which one works for which piece. Then sometimes, none of the forms I try work, and I start playing with genre. A poem can become a micro-essay or the first page of a longer work.
What makes something poetry for you – how do you recognize what will be your next poem?
I never know what my next poem will be. That is one of the things that makes poetry fun.
Your poem “Grenade” addresses difficult issues affecting a loved one, including attempted suicide and the danger and stress involved in military service. Do you find that poetry helps you to process these issues on a personal level? Do you hope that your poems will help others to deal with similar issues?
I grew up in a military town as part of a military family. I came of age around 9/11, which was a very scary time for us. I feel that as a country we can’t heal wounds that we don’t acknowledge exist. I think that a lot of my writing is autobiographical or has autobiographical elements, because I believe that healing starts with that acknowledgement.
I read “Grenade” at a reading once, and a retired serviceman asked me for a copy of the poem to bring home and read to his wife. This is the ultimate compliment for a writer, the idea that other people will connect with your work, and it will matter to them.
Are family relationships a common theme in your work? Do you find that your writing has affected these relationships in any way, or helped you to express things that are difficult to express otherwise?
Yes, my family shows up in quite a bit of my work. I think that in some ways, my writing has cleared the air about incidents or issues. It has also brought to light a few things that perhaps some members of the family knew about while others did not. Overall, it has been positive for my relationships with my family. I am blessed to have a family that is accepting of my writing.
I do think that it has allowed me to express and comment on some things that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. In real life, I never want to hurt anyone’s feelings or get in an argument. In writing, I don’t worry about that. There, it is more important to tell the truth than to preserve the peace.
In “The River III,” you discuss the natural environment of your childhood home in a way that is both disturbing and beautiful. In “Lesson in Loneliness,” you compare an emotion to the natural properties of water. How do nature and the environment inspire you?
Most of my natural poems are about bodies of water. I am the kind of person who could sit for hours next to a body of water without getting bored.
How does your work as a teacher inform your writing and vice versa?
Much of my teaching career has been spent with at-risk populations. As a teacher, you become a repository of sad stories. Pieces of these stories often make their way into my work.
These days I am teaching developmental reading and writing at a community college. I think the main thing that my students get from my writer-teacher combo is empathy. I understand what it is like to want to say something and feel disappointed when it comes out differently than you intended. That is one of the reasons that I spend a lot of time on the subject of revision. Often students come into the class believing that if it is not perfect the first time, then they must not be good writers. I tell my students that even famous writers don’t print their first drafts. Writing is always a process.
What were your early attempts at writing like? Did you dabble in other genres? How did you eventually settle on poetry?
My early attempts at writing were both melodramatic and cliché. Most of those attempts were poetry. Recently, I have begun to dabble in other genres. In the last two years, I have written several essays, a screenplay, and a couple of children’s books.
I love writing poetry because it is a constant challenge. Poetry is something that I will never completely master. It is about growth, the journey rather than the destination.
What are you working on now? Are you continuing with similar themes, or have you found new inspirations? Do you have a specific project in mind?
I am currently working on a book of poetry. It doesn’t have a title yet, but the poems in it are loosely connected to the theme of trauma and recovery. I look forward to bringing it into the world.