Interview: Selah Saterstrom

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LG: What sort of childhood did you have? Were you the sort of child who lived a lot in your imagination?

SS: Growing up I had a whole slew of cousins and my childhood was filled with adventures and misadventures with them. Between us we had an extraordinary amount of imagination. We would stage plays and other “experimental” productions which could be quite … interesting! We always practiced having a wonderful sens of humor in my family.

There was this way that our collective energy and applied imagination was able to disrupt the landscape into its more surreal versions. Surrealist writers have been important to me and reading them has taught me a great deal about the generative aspects of transgression, and how the dream – as a form of literature – makes it possible to break out of binary ghettos we may have set up for ourselves. When I think of my continued fascination with these things I think my childhood spent with cousins, how we were experimenting with other ways of knowing and engaging through our imaginations. Those times were great fun, never lacking in drama, and taught me a lot about the power of story.

LG: Were you a big reader as a child? What were your favorite books?

SS: Reading was celebrated by the adults in my life when I was a child. Reading was never a stodgy thing to do. For example, it was sneakiness of the highest order for my sister and I to turn on flashlights after the adults went to bed and read Nancy Drew under the covers when we should have been sleeping.

My grandfather had a large library and taught us about the importance of reading and writing. His library was full of history, philosophy, psychology, religion and the classics, and we mainly read from this library, which meant as a child I read a great deal of Plato, Shakespeare and French writers such as Hugo, all of whom were great favorites. I don’t know that I always understood what I was reading then, but it was when I began to love how language could flow and how it felt in the body.

LG: Have you always wanted to be a writer, or did you have a moment of epiphany when you chose that vocation? Or did it choose you?

SS: I had early experiences that I look back on now as having divinatory significance about being a writer. What those experiences had in common is that they involved the act of seeing and the power of story to make available the logic of mystery – of uncertainty – as a way that made things bearable and known to the heart’s experience.

As a child I once saw a relative’s dead body and I remember thinking, “Well, after seeing that I can see anything.” I had this overwhelming sense that this meant something important and that it was a kind of ethical responsibility to be willing to see what was there to be seen. What I did with that seeing was to write. I wrote my first story when I was around seven, and don’t remember a time after when I didn’t want to write (though sometimes I also wanted to be a ball-gown designer in New York City or a nun). I don’t think anyone in my family is surprised that I’m a writer now. Did I choose it? Did it choose me? I have no idea. When I think back to early childhood experiences of writing I only remember that it always felt right, compulsory, very, very close.

LG: The narrator of The Meat and Spirit Plan is a very complex, incredibly intelligent young woman who’s also very mixed up. What inspired you to write about her?

SS: When I was working with “troubled” teenaged girls, I saw the uniqueness of their lives and their fierce intelligence, but I also saw correspondences in their experiences of the body. Futhermore, I saw correspondences between their stories and many of my friends’ stories. I was also affected by other stories, such as the story of the sexual abuse and death of Hunter College student Ramona Moore.

As part of my research for this book I also interviewed women who had been sexually abused, and I realized that sexual abuse – something we tend to think of as the exception to the rule – really isn’t the exception. I also work for SASA, a sexual assault advocacy, support, and response team, and the statistics that state one out of three women will be in some way sexually violated is alarmingly accurate and thriving.

Through this narrator – who has a variety of sexual experiences, some of which are violations and some which are not – I wanted to examine the cultural conditions around young people and the ways they come into their bodies. I was interested in how sometimes the moment of sexual awareness coincides with moments of sexual disempowerment or disembodiment. Of course there are a lot of reasons why this happens, but what interested me was the break-down in communication we have about bodies in our culture and how this plays out among teenagers and what happens when those teenagers grow up – how we all learn to celebrate our bodies, with their history and complexities, as adults.

LG: Mississippi has been the native state of some of the greatest American authors, including William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. What is it about the South, and Mississippi in particular, that makes for such a wealth of literary genius?

SS: If only I could offer some insights to this question! I do believe that each region retains its own magical synergy and that this synergy is created by many details – from the kind of flora that grows in the region, the weather, the history of the region itself – the history that is retold and celebrated as well as the history that is not told, is not celebrated.

The way these details come together in Mississippi creates quite a synergy. One need only listen to the Blues coming out of the North Mississippi Hill country and the Delta to sense this. And I’d add, gospel music (such as The Mississippi Mass Choir).

Mississippi is a place of contradictions that bears them viscerally and with soul. As southern scholar Susan Ketchin has said, the Deep South is a Christ-haunted landscape – faith and doubt sit beside one another and this juxtaposition creates a hybrid energy which infests language with possibility. It is a story driven place, where everything has a story (and has a secret version of its story). Perhaps for obvious reasons I like Faulkner’s idea, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”

Mississippi is a place I love very much. It has certainly been a generous landscape in which to ruminate upon the complexities of the human condition as well as the human heart.

Thank you so much to Selah Saterstrom. It was a pleasure.

Interview: Billy Collins

Interview With Poet Laureate Billy Collins

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On February 19 I had the pleasure of interviewing former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins via telephone. Mr. Collins served two terms as Poet Laureate, from 2001 – 2003. He was also selected as New York State Poet for 2004.

Billy Collins has published several collections of poetry (bibliography below, from wikipedia.com), and he’s been included in many anthologies.

LG: Were you an avid reader as a child? What were your favorite books?

BC: I was not only an avid reader but I used to pretend to read before I could read. I was an only child and that lead to a very rich reading life. When my parents would have people over I would pretend to be reading. I would have an encyclopedia on my lap and I’d pretend to be reading it. I knew which way to turn it because of the pictures.

Later, when I was able to read, I read all the Hardy boys, and the Albert Payson Terhune books about Lad and Lassie. They’re basically all the same story, with the names changed. I read Black Beauty and The Yearling. Those I read a number of times and had them read to me.

My parents didn’t have a TV until everyone else had a TV. We had the collected Dickens in the house, and my mother said, half-jokingly, if I read all of Dickens we could get a TV. I didn’t read all of Dickens.

Mother Goose is the original inspiration for all poets. That’s where they get an idea of rhythm and rhyme. My mother had memorized a lot of poetry as a schoolgirl. She went to a rural school in Ontario, Canada. She housed hundreds and hundreds of lines of poetry. If any occasion arose she’d have a few lines of poetry about it.

LG: When did you start writing poetry?

BC: I don’t think anyone escapes childhood, or adolescence, without writing some really horrible, usually lovesick, poetry, poems of a misunderstood adolescent who was convinced no one in the course of history had ever felt this way before.

I didn’t write my first book until I was in my 40s. It took me a long time to figure it out, or find my voice, or combine these different influences so it sounded like me. I was writing all along, kind of on the side. I went to grad school and began teaching literature in college. I’ve been doing that most of my life. I used to be a professor who wrote poetry. Now I’m a poet who happens to be a professor.

LG: How many hours a day do you write? Do you keep a strict schedule?

BC: I have no work habits whatsoever. I don’t write every day, so often it would be zero hours per day. I kind of hold onto a romantic view. People say in order to be a writer you have to write all the time. The poem will come along when it arrives. I try to be on the lookout for creative opportunities, something that might trigger a poem, but I don’t sit down in the morning and try to commit an act of literature before lunch.

LG: That sounds a lot different than writing fiction.

BC: It is very different from fiction writing. As Hemingway said you always knock off for the day in the middle of a scene, but poets have to restart themselves all the time. Poets return much more often to the blank page.

I heard about a survey once, the results of which are poets are more inclined to suicide because of the anxiety of starting afresh. Depression visits poets more frequently. You can write a lyric poem in a couple of hours. You don’t know if the next poem will start the next hour or a month from now. Poetry’s known for its brevity, but that’s also the bad news for writers.

LG: Do you do a lot of re-writing?

BC: Less and less. I try to make it right the first time. The conceptual journey of the poetry is all done in one sitting, from beginning to middle to end. I hardly ever change the movement of the poem as it navigates itself. What I do change are matters of rhythm and sound, finding an adjective. But I never go back and say this is all wrong.

LG: Do you write on the computer or longhand?

BC: I write with a pencil, always longhand. I make a mess and scratch things out. A pencil seems very fluid. I put it on the computer at the very last minute, when I think it’s done. On the computer it looks fixed in place and it’s pretty much done. When you put it on a computer you see what it looks like. The look of prose is irrelevant, but the poem has a shape to it which is the result of line breaks and stanza breaks, so you can see what you couldn’t see with the pencil. Shapeliness is one of the attractive aspects of poetry. When I get it on the screen I do some shaping to make it look right.

LG: Do any other genres, besides poetry, appeal to you?

BC: Not really. I think it’s sort of like in music. It’s enough to be able to play one fairly well. That’s the question musicians never get, do you play any other instruments.

I write some prose, I write essays on poetry. Criticism. I wouldn’t know what I was doing if I wrote a short story.

LG: What writers have influenced you the most?

BC: That’s a tough question. There are too many to name. It’s not even clear the degree of influence. Often people will spout names like Yeats, Coleridge, etc., but I think these are flags of convenience. It’s hard to think of something that hasn’t influenced me, positively or negatively.

I’ve taught literature in college for so many years. Every semester I re-read Emily Dickinson, Wordsworth, Marvel. I read them all semester after semester.

What I think of as an influence is a poet who makes you jealous. It’s a polite way of saying other writers inflame you with jealousy. Driven by a jealous rage you go off and try to write something like that, or try to steal from them in order to exact revenge.

LG: I’ve read that you consider your poetry to be “hospitable,” which some refer to as accessible. How do you distinguish between hospitable and poetry that’s considered difficult or obscure?

BC: I think I discovered that you can write clearly in clear language and still have access to areas of great mystery. To write doesn’t mean to get stuck on a literal level. There are poets who follow etiquette. I write in sentences. I use standard punctuation, beginning with a standard note the reader can identify with. Once that engagement is made the poet can head off in less familiar directions and take the reader on an imaginative journey in which the writer doesn’t know where he’s going.

A poem begins in clarity and ends in mystery, if a poet is able to understand that distinction and knows when to be clear and when to be mysterious. It’s important to know which cards to turn over, and which to leave face down. In the worst poetry all the cards are face down.

LG: Aside from writing, what are your pastimes?

BC: I play the piano. I have a dog I’m obsessed with.

LG: What kind of dog?

BC: She’s a mutt, mostly collie. It goes back to those Albert Payson Terhune books. I live in New York City, on the Hudson River in the Village. That’s a good opportunity for walking.

LG: What projects are you working on currently?

BC: I’m finishing a manuscript but I don’t know if it’s done yet. I think the publisher would like it but I’m not sure it’s ready. I don’t want to rush it into print. I don’t know how many aces I have.

LG: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?

BC: That goes back to that influence question. Just read. Find poets that make you jealous. The only hope you have in what would be called originality is through a process of imitation. It’s a matter of getting rid of the young poet’s delusion that your experiences are so original that you’re going to announce this in original language. What inspires poetry is poetry. It’s not the muse. It’s not nature. It’s not emotion. It’s other poetry that inspires poetry. When you write poetry you’re adding your voice to this long historic voice. You need to listen to these for a long time before you even know what your voice would possibly add. Read widely and quickly. Don’t waste your time on poetry that doesn’t talk to you.

LG: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

BC: Thank you.

Special thanks to Steven Barclay, of Steven Barclay Agency, for putting me in touch with Mr. Collins, and to Billy Collins, for his generosity in granting the interview.

That Historical Fiction

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Have you been seeing as many raves about this book as I have? It seems to be all over the place lately. Just today I received an email from one of the other libraries in our system, featuring up and coming fiction, and guess what popped up?

Yep, Deanna Raybourn’s book, yet again.

I requested this book via interlibrary loan a week or so ago, back when I was bemoaning the fact so much historical fiction is pure tripe. If you’ve been hanging out here very much you may even remember that post. It was long-winded and kind of whiny, and, well, not really that distinct from my other posts, when you think about it. But my main point was, there’s so much out there that’s in the historical fiction vein, but I’ve had such rotten luck with a lot of it. I start it with high hopes, then get bogged down, eventually tossing the books aside as not worth expending that much of my precious reading time.

Anyway, I started Silent in the Grave yesterday afternoon, while waiting for my sons to get out of school. Deanna Raybourn had me laughing literally from page one. She’s such a witty writer, and very smart, too. Her charm really jumps off the page at you. The way this one’s shaping up it seems like it’ll wind up being of the smarter romance variety, at least if I can judge from roughly the middle of chapter one. I’d also venture to guess it’s the sort of book that’ll keep you flipping the pages, laughing yourself silly all the way through.

Well, that’s fine. That’s the mark of a really good book in this genre, but the thing is I’m not very much in the mood for lighter fare. I’ve been reading Flannery O’Connor lately, and Tillie Olsen, two heavy-hitting literary writers. Deanna Raybourn, charming as she is, just isn’t fitting my reading bill right now. Will she ever may be the question, and I’m not so sure about that. But a good writer, yes she’s that.

Ultimately, I’ll most likely part ways with Silent in the Grave, not in a “throw it aside with great force” way, but in a “I’m really wanting to read much heavier stuff” style. Since that is the case, I don’t now how much historical fiction of this lighter, more funny variety will really fit the bill for me at all. We’ll see, but for now I think I’ll go ahead and just cross this genre off my list, until the time I find myself really in the mood for it.  If I do.

But, to clarify, I’m not putting down Deanna Raybourn.  She’s smart and funny, but just a little too light for me at this point in time. It’s not her, it’s me. She writes just fine. Don’t let me put you off reading this if it seems like something you’d like, and if you do like it write and let me know. I’d be pleased to hear about it.

For right now I think I’ll head back South and catch up with Flannery. She’s exactly what the doctor ordered.

Not Noah’s ARCs

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I never know when they’re coming. They just show up on the doorstep. Or on my desk at work. They are review books, those delicious Advance Reading Copies I love and covet. And right now I’m absolutely swimming in ARCs, and I’m not talking  about Noah’s.

A lot of the recent inundation is from the Holtzbrinck Group of publishers (they own a huge number of publishing houses so I really, REALLY need to stay on their good side), who sent me a huge box of review books, comprising most of the books in the photo and a few more that are scattered around the house. These books came to me at the library, which is kind of embarrassing when you’re trying to keep a low profile about the fact you’re a book whore who pimps reviews like prostitutes pimp … well…, stuff that prostitutes do.

The thing is I don’t always want to read all of the books the mega publishers send, and more and more mega publishers are sending me more and more books all the time.The mega publishers also don’t really ask me WHAT I’d like to read. They just send me what they need reviewed. They send me  a lot of first novels, and an awful lot of thrillers. I don’t mind the occasional thriller, but I’d much rather be on the list for more of that yummy yummy literary fiction.

There’s the rub.

Occasionally I do get some really sweet ARCs, like the latest Mark Haddon book. That was so exciting I ripped open the package and had half the book read before the package delivery dude (the great looking one, who resembles Richard Gere)(the one who also owns a Jack Russell Terrier, and thinks our dogs are cute) even made it back into his truck. His lucky truck, that gets to see him every day. My God I hope he never reads this.

Simon & Schuster and Random House send me a lot of goodies like the Haddon book, and on a fairly regular basis, too. Simon & Schuster also regularly sends me out little bonuses, like Belgian chocolates. I know I’ve mentioned the Belgian chocolates on this blog before, but I really don’t think I can mention it too much. Maybe if I mention how much I like Belgian chocolates more often more publishers will get wind of it and think, “Hey! You know what’s a good idea? Sending out Belgian chocolates!”

Or not.

I’m having a lot of fun doing what I do, in case that’s not completely obvious. What I really love is getting emails from small publishers, not to mention from authors themselves, asking me to review books based on the fact I’ve blogged about a subject that’s near or directly involves the subject matter of the book they’re asking me to review. Now, you people I love! You can keep right on doing that. And I’ll keep right on reviewing them. When you take the time and trouble to match my interests with your books I appreciate that very much.

The only thing that could make than any better would be Belgian chocolates. Have I mentioned that?