Our poetry editor Grier Martin recently had these exchanges with our Issue #33 poets Natalie Crick, Aileen Bassis, Kristian O’Hare, D. S. Maolalai, Milla van der Have, and Rachel Walker. Here’s what they had to say about their inspirations and the act of writing poetry.
Both your poems “Spider” and “Midwinter” highlight the more feminine aspects of nature. The graceful spider that wicks “soothing salve” from her lips is female, and in “Midwinter” trees are portrayed as dancing brides. Were you attempting to depict part of your own nature in these poems, or was your aim broader than that?
I did indeed intend to give the characters of the spider in “Spider”’ and the trees in “Midwinter” feminine personalities to make them come alive to the reader. I wanted to give the female in “Spider” an almost motherly manner reminiscent of the black widow spider. In keeping with the common view of spiders to be quite frightening creatures, I tried to portray the spider in a very sinister light, describing in staged methodical detail her act of “murder on the brightest window.” The trees in “Midwinter” are, in contrast, graceful girls who are not at all sinister. I personify the trees and describe their beautiful, pale “snow dance,” exacerbating their elegance.
In these poems I was not particularly attempting to convey part of my own nature but was trying to epitomize the classical view of a woman to be powerful from both a malevolent standpoint, in “Spider,” and a more mythical depiction, in “Midwinter.” In “Spider,” the female is dominant enough to gag “the dawn chorus / Until / The hunger moon thins” whilst in “Midwinter” the trees have enough womanly strength to succeed in “wounding / the cosmos.”
What differences do you see in what you write about and how you write (in terms of language, form, etc.) in your current poems versus earlier ones?
This September I began to study for an MA in Writing Poetry in the UK. Already I can sense that my poetry is beginning to change and develop as a result of the excellent teaching at Newcastle University and learning from the refined work of others in my seminar classes. My poems are now far more detailed than my earlier work, and I am paying more attention to aspects like rhythm and form.
When I first began to write poetry, around 10 years ago, I tended to write from a personal perspective, but found that pertinent messages in the poem were lost in my own experiences. Around Christmas of 2016 I wrote quite a few poems in a far less confessional style, to great success. This summer I spent a long writing period creating hundreds of new poems which I have not yet begun to submit for publication. In my latest poems, I have attempted to combine the strengths of my confessional poems with the finesse of my less personal pieces. In the new poems, I try to use more emotive language to form a connection to the reader, but still make use of surreal atmosphere and metaphors.
What has the process of submitting your work for publication been like? Do you have any advice for writers who are just starting this process?
I was first published in a national magazine in the UK when I was 17 years old in 2007, but it is only really in the past year and a half that I have achieved widespread publication. I really enjoy the submission process and, although I love being published in my home country (the UK), it is always great to feature in a publication abroad.
For writers who are just starting this process, I think you should really try to enjoy the writing process and submit what you would really like to read in a publication yourself—your enthusiasm for the theme will shine through in words.
It is also very important to find your own writing voice and abide by it, something which I am only recently learning to do myself. Try not to be too influenced by the strengths of others—we all have a unique voice. Finding your own voice can happen naturally or by inspiration from favorite writers. Of course, your writing will always evolve.
Was “A Girl Who Was Born Without a Mother” part of an immediate reaction to the painting which inspired it? Or was the poem part of an idea you had before you saw the painting? Can you describe how the painting motivated you to write?
Francis Picabia was very literary in his use of language. I don’t think he ever used placeholder titles like “Untitled #12” or “Composition in Green and Black.” He was a poet in the way he used language to add another layer of meaning to his work. There’s a strong link between surrealist art (which is only one of the many art movements he was part of) and poetry. I saw a large retrospective of his work, and that title really intrigued me more than the image. It was like a Zen koan. Thinking immediately about using the title for a poem led me to study and list elements of the image. I thought he was very prescient, creating a figure made of abstract machine parts, touching on issues of synthetic life and the blurring of the line between the human and the mechanical.
Your use of color and texture in this poem are wonderful. You were a visual artist before becoming a poet. Do you find that your poetry often begins with visual imagery? How does your work as a visual artist affect how you write?
I think about the viewer when I’m making art, the eye traveling across the work and how content enters into the mind. It’s like I’m leading a dance, and the viewer follows my steps. A lot of my art practice is involved in making artist books. The sequential, time-based intimacy of that experience carries over into my poems. It’s a natural progression for me to think about the reader’s experience when I’m writing. Will the reader find my words a barrier? Wander off down a dead-end or stay with me? I think in images for my artwork and often find myself beginning a poem with words that summon images. I want to bring the reader into the space that I’m building with language and love to include sensory details to give the reader something to hold. I also do enjoy including art-historical references that every reader may not get, such as Picabia. He was one of the founding artists of the Dada art movement which began in reaction to World War I. I mentioned Marcel and Tristan in the poem, referring to his friends, the artist Marcel Duchamp and the poet Tristan Tzara.
In this poem, the girl in the painting is a riddle. Do you feel like you know the answer to the riddle, or is it a mystery to you? How do you hope readers will react to this riddle?
I’m more interested in questions than answers. There may be no final destination, but I hope readers enjoy the journey.
In your two poems “In the Lurch” and “In//Patient,” natural imagery takes on a sinister quality. Lily-of-the-valley “storms the lawn,” and conidia, or fungal spores, clench “triangular teeth.” Why does the natural world emerge in these two poems in this way? Is this a common theme in your work?
I’m not doing anything different or new here when it comes to working nature into my writing. I enjoy beauty and terror, and nature brings ‘em both. With “In the Lurch,” I researched lily-of-the-valley. It was a flower I remembered from my childhood. It is one of the sweetest smelling flowers I’ve encountered, yet it is an invasive plant; it completely takes over, strangling other plants around it. I like how this plant with these delicate tiny bell-shaped flowers can be such a terror. It’s unexpected. And the action of the mother ripping into the ground, tearing out the roots (because really that’s how you get rid of them), was just too good. It starts with the image first. Same with “In/Patient.” I’d watched loved ones succumb to illness, and I needed to capture the anxiety and fear of that slow decline, so I used the objective correlative formula of lining up a series of images to capture that feeling.
You use punctuation in an interesting way in “In//Patient.” What influenced your choices here?
I tend to write narrative poems. It’s the storyteller in me. So with “In//Patient” I needed to do something different, for a straightforward narrative was just not going to work. I used punctuation to capture the movement of the scene: the way the eye moves while looking at a painting, looking from an object in the foreground to something in the background, back to the object, and then noticing color, or shadow. Always finding something new to stare at and puzzle over.
You are an accomplished playwright. Why do you write poetry as well? Does poetry offer a particular outlet that writing plays does not?
I love poetry. I love reading it, I love teaching it, and just recently I started to love writing it. I find myself writing poems when I get stuck on a play. Writing poetry is a great exercise to focus on a moment, a memory, an image, a character (persona, a voice).
So many playwrights are poetic, or use elements of poetry in their writing. It really comes down to our love of language, to the rhythm of a line, the sound of a word, its musicality. You have to keep an audience invested and yeah, sure, character and plot are important, but the words spoken need to seduce. You want writing that haunts, that sticks with you, and that can be a lyrical line (read any Tennessee Williams or August Wilson—even their stage directions!), or it can be a poetic image. Again, I can’t help but think of Williams and The Glass Menagerie, and that final image of Laura blowing out her candles. It’s heartbreaking.
D. S. Maolalai
“A bowl of oranges” can be read many ways—as a message to a particular person, as a description of the speaker’s state of mind, as a statement about sexual and romantic relationships in general, as well as many other interpretations. What do you hope readers take away from this poem?
When I wrote “A bowl of oranges” I had been reading a lot of Diane Wakoski, in particular The Butcher’s Apron, her collection of food poems. In her writing, Wakoski tends an awful lot toward the mingling of food with erotica in a way that never seems to subtract from either. In her writing, food isn’t merely a means to an end for the sex stuff, nor is sex just a way for her to show off how far she can stretch a metaphor. I think with this poem I wanted to rip her off a little while also turning the sex/food symbiosis that she uses on its head—having the nourishment in the poem arise from adultery rather than from love.
It’s for the same reason that the poem opens in the present tense. The voice of the poem is addressing the partner directly about things, and it’s clear that there is a certain dismissal of the girls he brings home compared with her—the “you” which goes away in the first line can come back, but it’s not like one can eat the same orange twice. To mix food metaphors, there’s a sense of having one’s cake and eating it too in the fact that the protagonist can make this straightforward declaration about something that it’s acknowledged is only a garnish to his real life. The oranges are something to enjoy and forget about, not something lasting.
I don’t know if I can say that there’s an overriding point about relationships in general in the poem. I hope not. Certainly there’s a point being made about one or two of my former relationships, but that might be a little tough to get into without getting permission from some people who don’t like me very much anymore. I’d like to think that the poem doesn’t glorify adultery, but that it acknowledges that cheating in an already unhealthy relationship is not necessarily as wrong as it might otherwise be. It’s not right by a long shot, but there’s a reason why the overriding metaphor I wanted to go with was eating fruit, not smoking cigarettes.
Can you describe an instance when a reader’s reaction to one of your poems surprised or struck you in a memorable way? How did this affect your writing, if at all?
When I was shopping my first chapbook around, Love is breaking plates in the garden, one rejection letter that I received—I guess because the editor wanted to maintain goodwill by not being entirely negative in their criticism—went out of its way to praise the humor in the writing, which I found odd, because I don’t think I have ever been unselfconscious enough to deliberately set out to write a “funny” poem.
Reading over the poems I had sent them, though, I got to the point where I could see what they meant. I had tried to be honest the whole way through the collection, but there is a sense at times when one reaches the more uncomfortable subject matter that I’m standing to one side and making sarcastic comments about the action rather than writing it in the moment. The voice of the poem became me looking back, not me in the instant being described, which overall had a tendency to weaken the impact. Poetry is a form where rhetorical devices can be used even subconsciously to lessen the blow of a true confession—a lot of the collection unfortunately dealt with the same sorts of themes as “A bowl of oranges,” and when one is trying to write confessional it can be a temptation to leaven the text with incongruous lines which could be taken for jokes, or dismissal of a subject matter that one otherwise wants to take seriously.
I’m not sure if the effect it had on me was enough to put an end to this habit, but I’m definitely more aware now in my writing of what I am doing and why I am doing it. The temptation is always there in poetry to make it clear that the person writing the poem is different from the person they are writing about, even if the only thing that separates them is time. Of course, sometimes I still do that—pride can be a difficult thing to overcome, especially when the hope is that other people will read what you’re saying—but at least now I think I’m aware of it when it happens.
Did you submit this poem to a writing workshop? Do you find that writing workshops in general are helpful, and if so, how? If they don’t work for you, why not?
I have only ever attended one writing workshop in my life and don’t intend to go to another. The trouble I find with group criticism is that I think in general people want to be kind to one another, and while this is on the whole a good impulse, it doesn’t lead to very interesting poetry. Personally I don’t want anyone to see a draft of my writing before an editor does—even hearing praise about my stuff is enough to send me into a tailspin and, from what I saw in the one workshop I went to, that’s the majority of what you get, down to people saying they “really like the idea” of something because they can’t admit to their dislike of the execution.
Poetry and fiction aren’t like a newspaper, where the collaboration in the writing is about getting to the best way of presenting something that’s objectively true. They’re about presenting a subjective reality—that of the poet—as objective, and then using language as a device to present it that way. Collaboration makes it more difficult, not easier, to get to that subjective truth—the only ideas that will be presented in a writing workshop will be things people are willing to say out loud in a room full of other people, which are never going to be as interesting as the private things you think to yourself looking out the window at 2am after half a bottle of wine.
In hindsight this answer probably says more about me than it does about writing workshops. If they work for other people, then that’s fine. And I guess it’s a good way to make friends, which is nice.
Milla van der Have
How do you arrive at decisions around form? What is the relationship you’re looking to create between form and content? How did you arrive at the decision to divide “Snowdrift” into numbered sections?
Form usually develops organically during the writing process. I can be very particular about it and puzzle with line breaks while actually creating the poem. So I’ll be experimenting with breaks instead of thinking up new lines, because I need the form to be right before I continue. For me the relationship between form and content is a very close one, and they develop simultaneously.
The numbered sections in “Snowdrift” correspond with my image of the poem consisting of flashes or memories that appear. I imagined Snow White waking from some kind of death, and gradually memories and insights come back to her. She remembers and reflects. Since those flashes are separate and not always directly related to one another, I used the numbered sections to stress the fragmentary nature.
Can you talk a bit about voice? What does that term mean to you? How do you develop it in your work?
Voice is very important to me, especially in poems like “Snowdrift” which are grafted on fairy tales. I want the poem to embody the essence of the central character but also carry a few surprises, have the narrator or main character be full-bodied, a real person. Sometimes that means I imagine the narrator or character in a different situation and add things from there. For instance, in my poem about Cinderella, she works in a bar, and the voice was created out of the image of a late night, kind of sad bar. But lately and especially with “Snowdrift,” I worked to infuse the poetic voice with my own experiences. I think that adds realness to the poems and makes for an interesting blend of “legend” and “reality” or experience. In that way I hope to create a kind of layered voice, where all the elements amplify each other.
What is the best advice you ever received about writing?
I must’ve been around 16 or so when someone I looked up to very much told me that my writing was something worthwhile and something I could (and should) pursue. That has meant very much to me and has always shaped my decisions around writing—that is, to always try to let it be more than just a hobby and even with a (very busy) day job, make time for it.
Your poem “My Sister Posing in Front of the Arno” appears to be based on a personal experience. Is it? At what point did you see a poem in this experience? Did you immediately begin to write about it, or did it slowly emerge over time?
My poem was inspired by an event that occurred when I visited Florence with my sister. More than the event itself, however, the poem emerged from the act of observation and recollection several months later, as I looked through photos from that trip—pictures of family along with photographs of Renaissance artwork, mainly depictions of women. The poem emerged from my attempt to make sense of the relationship between these two types of images that occupied the same space in my memory of that trip.
How many times did you revise this poem? How did you know you were finished? In general, what is your revision process like?
It’s hard to count the revisions I went through, mainly because many small revisions built up in my head before any changes occurred on paper. Generally, I like to produce a draft, workshop it, take notes, and then do nothing until enough time has passed for me to look at it from a new perspective.
Do you notice recurring themes in your own work? Are there particular things—nature, family relationships, travel—that provide consistent inspiration?
I feel inspired by art, personal photographs, and images from my childhood. I like writing ekphrastic poetry, because it magnifies the role of observation and the experience of looking. This lends itself to several topics that recur in my poems—memory, the act of returning, and a consciousness of being observed.