Creativity Driven by Constraint

E. Kristin Anderson

Our poetry co-editor, Aurora Nowak, recently had this exchange with E. Kristin Anderson, featured poet for Issue #38. Here’s what she had to say about why she was drawn to the centos form, how she approaches rough drafts and revisions, and what she is working on next.

 

Centos are lines of poetry found from various poems. Please tell us how and why you were drawn to this form.

I’ve been working in various forms of found poetry for years now. One reason I ended up diving so deeply into it recently is that, after a health crisis at the end of 2015, the medications I was on made it very hard for me to write. I developed aphasia, and while the aphasia I was dealing with was mild compared to what a lot of stroke survivors experience, but it really affected my ability to reach and find the words I needed. So I started really throwing myself into erasures and centos in order to have somewhere to start when I was writing. My practices with found poetry have evolved and continue to evolve but my illness really changed my approach.

 

Your centos come from novels by Anne Rice and by Lois Duncan. What attracted you to these authors? Do you have other authors who inspire your poetry?

The Anne Rice centos were written as part of a writing sprint challenge I co-admin called THE POEMING: we gather authors, assign each of them a book to work with, and everyone posts 31 poems using their assigned book in October. Last year we used books by Anne Rice. I hadn’t read much of Anne Rice’s oeuvre before 2017, but I read a ton of her work last year for adminning purposes. I found a lot of her depictions of women characters problematic, and I really wanted to flip the script on that. I work similarly with books by Stephen King—I’m working on a manuscript of erasures using a handful of his novels that are about womanness.

With Lois Duncan, I started this project the summer she passed, and I bought a bunch of her novels and took a bunch out of the library. I grew up reading her books and I wanted to do something that would both celebrate her and say something new, mining about girlhood and adolescence.

 

Both your poems “Drape the Mirrors“ and “Chill“ are from Anne Rice’s Lasher, a novel from the series Lives of the Mayfair Witches. Anne Rice is known for her gothic fiction. Would you say you prefer gothic literature? And what first prompted you to write gothic poetry?

I don’t know that I feel particularly drawn to gothic work—though it’s worth noting that a lot of Lois Duncan’s YA thrillers absolutely do fall into the gothic tradition—but I’m always drawn to work about women, and perhaps a lot of the characters in gothic literature are women. I’m interested in the power they do and don’t have. I don’t know that I would call my work gothic poetry, but I can definitely understand the label.

 

“Lullaby Time” was found from Locked in Time. I admired the way you kept time as part of the title. I also liked the use of long pauses in the poem acknowledging how time can seem suspended. Duncan wrote this novel because she pondered the possibility of her thirteen year old daughter never outgrowing her adolescence. Do you want this poem to contain a similar reflection?

I always pull my titles from somewhere in the text when I’m writing found poetry, so I’d actually never thought of the time in “Lullaby Time” and Locked in Time as the same time, so to speak. Of course, I’m of the belief that the reader’s interpretation of the work is always valid—there are so many things a reader sees that a writer doesn’t. My Duncan poems are very much about reflection on female adolescence, the experience of being trapped in that body, and trapped in the expectations of the world around you. I think that a lot of us are still trapped in that way, having aged out of our teen years, still struggling with expectations and bodies and stories that aren’t playing out the way we thought they might. I think of these poems as sort of blunt little fairy tales that went sideways in 21st Century America.

 

What was your process of creating these particular centos? For example, did you decide then and there, as you were reading novels like Lasher and Locked in Time, that you would use lines from theses works in your poetry? Or did the lines from these novels find you?

For both of these series of poems, I had a pretty neurotic process, honestly. I always read my source text first, so I read the books and went back to them after to find the lines I wanted. For the Duncan poems, I had a notebook where I’d comb through a book several pages at a time and write down anything that was inside quotation marks that I thought would be useful as a line/section (the spaces indicate both a pause and a space differentiating quote from quote). I then would write a poem putting lines together like puzzle pieces in a word doc (I usually hand-write first drafts—for centos this has not been the case). Similarly for the Anne Rice poems, I wrote each poem to correspond with a particular chapter in the book and limited each poem to the lines I could pull from the corresponding chapter. I then put those together—it was also kind of puzzle-like. I quickly realized that I was writing about medical trauma with the Lasher poems and that pulled my focus in even tighter.

 

What inspired you to create titles for your poems “Once in a While in Lovely Places,” “Drape the Mirrors,” “Chill,” and “Lullaby Time?”

I always pull titles from the source text, and somewhere within the same space that I found the text for the poem. I struggle with titles, so a lot of the time I just find something that fits and hope that the poem and the title can grow into each other. When a title works, it always feels like some sort of miracle.

 

Each of your poems come from Lasher, Locked in Time, or A Gift of Magic. Did you consider using more than one source for your centos poems?

Actually, it’s interesting that Mud Season Review managed to pick up a couple of the Duncan poems that only have a singular source. Most of the poems in that series were written using anywhere from two to four of maybe a half a dozen books, and many of the poems use several books as source. I love centos and remix poems like that. I have a few ideas for poems/projects I’d like to try with multiple sources. I want to continue growing and trying new things, always.

 

Writing centos and found poems presents a unique and creative challenge. What is it about these forms that feeds your self expression?

I think it’s a combination of constraint and having a place to start. I think the first line and the last line of a poem are the hardest lines to write. I think the first line is actually harder than the last line, honestly. So with found poetry you have a bunch of moving parts to work with before you even put pen to paper. This appealed to me even before my brain tried to quit on me. But I also enjoy the creativity that’s driven by constraint. I love being dared to work with a form that makes me uncomfortable. I love how it forces you to think in different ways. And not everything you write in that uncomfortable/challenging space is going to be great, but probably something you write in that space will be. And the tools you develop to work that way will be invaluable in your writing practice.

 

Can you tell us about your forthcoming work? Do you plan to work on more centos? Or are you writing in other poetic forms or different genres such as fiction or creative nonfiction?

I have been trying to write every day this year, because I need to keep my brain working and stretching and focused. In terms of mental health, this has been crucial—there’s so much going on and working on my writing—especially protest writing—is something I need to do in order to get out of bed every day. I just finished a first draft of a manuscript of golden shovels based on lines from Kesha songs. I think these poems are mostly about hearth magic and women’s bodies and fighting patriarchy but we’ll see where they go in revision. I also recently wrote a series of mini crowns of sonnets using remixed Foo Fighters lyrics. They’re kind of letters of appreciation to Dave Grohl, one of my childhood heroes, one of my first influences as a writer. A couple of these have been published in Memoir Mixtapes and SWWIM Everyday.

 

Because Mud Season Review grew out of a writers’ workshop, can you tell us your best and or your worst workshop experience?

I don’t think I’ve ever done a proper workshop! Not since college, at least. Like, a 200 level poetry course or something. So I’ll just say that my least favorite place to get workshopped is in a rejection letter. Just tell a writer yes or no and save unsolicited critical feedback for an actual workshop, y’all!

 

E. Kristin Anderson is a poet, Starbucks connoisseur, and glitter enthusiast living in Austin, Texas. A Connecticut College graduate with a B.A. in classics, Kristin has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She is the editor of Come as You Are, an anthology of writing on 90s pop culture (Anomalous Press), and Hysteria: Writing the female body (Sable Books, forthcoming). Her writing has been published worldwide in magazines and anthologies and she is the author of eight chapbooks of poetry including A Guide for the Practical Abductee (Red Bird Chapbooks), Pray Pray Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night (Porkbelly Press), Fire in the Sky (Grey Book Press), We’re Doing Witchcraft (Hermeneutic Chaos Press), and 17 seventeen XVII (Grey Book Press). Kristin is an editor at Red Paint Hill and was formerly a poetry editor at Found Poetry Review. Once upon a time she worked the night shift at The New Yorker. She now works during daylight as a freelance editor and writing coach. She blogs at EKristinAnderson.com and tweets at @ek_anderson.

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