Category Archives: revision

A Virtual Interview with Rebecca A. Spears

Background

2nd Thursday Virtual Poetry Reading and Open Mic

Thursday, September 9, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Register to attend this virtual event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-open-mic-w-rebecca-spears-tickets-165695089473

Rebecca A. Spears is the author of Brook the Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2020), and The Bright Obvious: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2009). Her poems, essays, and reviews have been included in TriQuarterlyCalyxCrazyhorseBarrow StreetVerse DailyArs MedicaField Notes, and other journals and anthologies. She has received awards from the Taos Writers Workshop, Vermont Studio Center, and Dairy Hollow House. Brook the Divide was shortlisted for Best First Book of Poetry (Texas Institute of Letters). Spears is also a Pushcart nominee.

“The gorgeous poems in Brook the Divide reverberate with change, following the speaker through seasons of luck and loss. Along the way, Vincent van Gogh becomes an intimate mentor for the hard joy of making. We see how artists transform the world into pieces of art that then transform us: “you ablaze in my eye / and I in yours.” Throughout, Rebecca Spears’ memorable writing invites us into looking, then lingering…. What a beautifully written book.” — Sasha West

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? Did you write poetry during childhood?

RAS: My first memory of poetry is of my mother reading to me from A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. I was three years old. She read to me and my siblings nearly every day when we were all quite young. I remember several of the poems even in adulthood—“The Cow,” “Happy Thought,” “The Swing,” and “Time to Rise.” Of course, many of the poems are dated and out of sync with my thinking now. But my mom reading these poems to me helped me to developed an “ear” for poetry at a pretty young age.

As a young kid, I was more interested in drawing, painting, making collages. I never wrote poetry unless prompted by a teacher for a very specific reason—like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. I did begin writing poems as a teenager—really angst-ridden stuff, yet there are also some poems where I look into the landscape and observe life with a close eye.

CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? A poet?

RSA: When I was in my 30s, I worked in educational publishing as a Language Arts editor. That’s when I began to think of myself as a both editor and writer. Not only did I recruit writers, but I worked closely with many of them, collaborating, writing, and editing. I used to remark to friends, “I get paid to read books and work with writers!”

Not until I was in my 40s, did I begin to think of myself as a poet. I hadn’t paid much attention to poetry for many years. A friend invited me to a reading by Naomi Shihab Nye, and I was so engaged in hearing Naomi’s poetry that I later read everything she had written. Shortly after, I began to practice poetry. For a while, I “just wrote poetry.” Then I began attending Creative Writing workshops at the University of Houston, and during that time, I started to think that I might be a poet.

CH: I understand you received your MFA from Bennington College. How did you end up deciding to pursue an MFA? How did you choose Bennington?

RSA: Working on an MFA became important to me when I realized, from those classes at UH, that I needed to undertake some serious study of other poets and learn some new techniques to become a better poet myself.

To get an MFA, I knew that I needed a low-residency program because I was raising adolescent children at the time. I checked out the top low-residency programs and applied to five of those. At the time, Jane Hirshfield was teaching at Bennington, so that ultimately drove my decision to go to Bennington. I worked with her during my second semester at Bennington. Curiously, while I treasure the time I spent in her workshop, I learned more from the faculty whose style was quite different from mine. I suppose that is because I was entirely challenged in my thinking and writing. Another important reason that I chose Bennington was because of their motto: Read 100 books. Write one. That made a lot of sense to me, that we need to read the writers who have given us our poetic background.

CH: How did your writing change as a result of participating in this program? How did your experience in the program align with your expectations prior to starting?

RAS: The program at Bennington exceeded my expectations. I loved the writerly friends I was making, the reading I was doing, the formal annotations I was submitting, the poems I was challenged to write every month. The faculty were varied in their thinking and writing—and that engaged me. Many top poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers read and lectured at every semester gathering. It was astonishing, really. The research I did for my graduating lecture on poetry of the Vietnam War still influences me as I continue to make connections between trauma and poetry. (And by the way, the creative manuscript that I wrote for the MFA, has not been published—though I still have aspirations for it.)

CH: Laurie Kutchins describes your chapbook, The Bright Obvious (Finishing Line Press, 2009), as constructing “narrative moments converging with a larger collective story.” Tell us a little about this chapbook, and about your process of composing it.

RAS: The larger collective story of The Bright Obvious (2009) is the basis for my full-length collection published in 2020. In the chapbook, I was attempting to link the art of Vincent van Gogh with the way that I view the landscapes around me. You’ll also see my fledgling explorations of his personality, as well as a writer’s personality. Some of the poems were composed specifically as a sequence of van Gogh poems. Others were revisions (and retitling) of some poems that I had already written.

CH: Your first full-length collection, Brook the Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2020), came out just last year, and was shortlisted by the Texas Institute of Letters for Best First Book of Poetry. Tell us a bit about the book and its journey to publication.   

RAS: By the time I put together Brook the Divide, I had thoroughly immersed myself in van Gogh’s letters to his friends and families. Many of those letters contain his thoughts about the way he saw landscapes and people and the methods he used to create his art. I tried to connect the poems I wrote about van Gogh with my own translations of the world around me. And I also, more closely linked the emotional landscapes of my world and van Gogh’s.

The poet Sasha West first helped me see that I might have a worthwhile project, and I worked with her advice to help me sequence a manuscript. I kept writing and adding poems where I saw “holes” in the manuscript. After a few years on my own and with critiques from my writing group friends, I felt I had a finished manuscript. I sent out the final version to maybe five publishers (during open submissions, not contests), and it was accepted in 2018 by Unsolicited Press in Portland, Oregon.

CH: The life of Vincent van Gogh is a through-line for both The Bright Obvious and Brook the Divide. When did you first encounter Van Gogh’s work? What do you see in your work that resonates with his?

RAS: I first encountered van Gogh’s work in high school art classes, and later at a large exhibition of the Impressionists (at the Kimball, I think). At the exhibit, my young son tried to touch a van Gogh painting, and I was panicked as I tried to stop him. Later, that incident made me think of how we can reach into and inhabit the work of artists.

My early experiments in the visual arts trained me to view still life paintings, portraits, urban and natural scenes as impressions of the larger world. This carried over into my writing. Good grief, it’s hard for me to not employ landscapes—fields, mountains, roads, woods, gardens—in my writing. I suppose looking at the scenes outside my head keep me anchored.

CH: You’ve received awards from the Taos Writer’s Workshop, Vermont Studio Center, and The Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow. How have these workshops / residencies informed your work?

RAS: At the Taos Writer’s Workshop, early in my creative writing life, I workshopped with Laurie Kutchins. She is a generous, energetic person, and she had many writing activities planned that really gave me more courage to keep doing what I was doing—and to try some new techniques. By the time I was awarded a scholarship to the Vermont Studio Center, my life had changed drastically, and it was difficult to find the time to attend. So ultimately, I let that opportunity slip away. My stretch at Dairy Hollow was solitary but productive. The residency occurred at a time when I felt a little stagnant with my writing. The solitude helped me to rely on my instincts again and take on  the challenge to do more reading and writing.

CH: Tell us a little about your writing practice. How has that practice evolved over time?

RAS: When I first began writing poetry as an adult, I wrote nearly every morning. When my life changed, after the break-up of a long marriage, I only had the energy to write on weekends and in the summers when I wasn’t trying so hard to make a living teaching. I still seem to follow this second pattern, depending on summers and other breaks to come up with new ideas and drafts. When classes are in session, I typically spend a few hours on the weekends writing and revising the work I did in the summer.

CH: Are there books to which you find yourself returning from time to time? What are you reading now?

RAS: Yes, there are a number of books and poets that I keep returning to. Let me say, though, that I read a lot of popular novels and stories at the end of a work day. Currently, I am reading, The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Murray, and I’m about to take up Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy. Yet this past winter, I read the new biography of Sylvia Plath, Red Comet, and I was just immersed in her life and Ted Hughes’ life for quite a while. In fact, I ordered Plath’s letters and journals, along with Hughes’ Birthday Letters—I’m still working my way through those. The poets I keep returning to are Rose McLarney, Ada Limón, Katie Ford, Sasha West, Franz Wright, Seamus Heaney, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

A Virtual Interview with Ken Fontenot

Poet and novelist Ken Fontenot will be the featured reader on November 12, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for November’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Ken Fontenot’s most recent book of poetry, Just a Trace of Moon: Selected Poems from 2006 – 2013, was published in 2015 by Pinyon Publishing. He is the author of the novel For Mr. Raindrinker, which has been reissued by Alamo Bay Press in 2015. His poetry collection In a Kingdom of Birds won the Texas Institute of Letters Award for best book of poetry in Texas in 2012. Fontenot’s translations of contemporary German poems have appeared widely. He recently translated Wilhelm Genazino’s novel, Women Softly Singing. A native New Orleanian, he lives and works in Austin, Texas.

The Interview

CH: What was your first inspiration to write poetry? To engage in longer fiction? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer?

KF: I started writing at twenty-one, but I was a late bloomer considering many, especially women (via my experience), start writing seriously at eight or nine.  At that age they are no virtuosos, but they still have an advantage over those who begin later by having more years to develop as writers. By the age of twenty-one, they already have significant gains, in reading as well as writing.

My own writing grew out of psychological needs, in my case the need to overcome clinical depression.  And in the spring of 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, three famous poets–Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and Nikki Giovanni–gave a reading at Tulane University, and I was in the huge audience.  I was impressed, knowing this was my calling.  My first publication that spring was in the Tulane newspaper, a bad imitation of Ginsberg’s “America,” but in retrospect, from my limited and naive viewpoint as a beginner, I was still as high as Mount Everest.

CH: You have published both a novel (For Mr. Raindrinker) and two poetry collections (In a Kingdom of Birds and Just a Trace of Moon: Selected Poems from 2006-2013), as well as good deal of work in translation. How would you identify yourself as a writer?

KF: Rilke said, that for a poet writing fiction, some great and undeniable event must happen to make him/her willing to engage in the struggle of spending several years at prose. In my case, it was a stint in a mental institution, which I consider seminal in my growth as a writer and as a human being.

I identify myself as a writer engaged in Southern regionalism with a cosmopolitan outlook. Many writers are hacks.  If they don’t write for money, they write for prestige.  Even Shakespeare was a hack, albeit a good one.  But neither money nor prestige is guaranteed.  Yet, on a deeper level, authors write because they have to, because they can’t stop. Like smoking. And we can be as little certain whether what we write will last as we are in guessing how many years we still have to live. I have lost much of my ego, so I write simply because the outer world I live in–its people–have encouraged me to keep going.  In 1990 one of my former German students at LSU in Baton Rouge told me, after 12 or thirteen years of study beyond high school and qualifying as a surgeon, that he now has a “trade.”  And that’s how I feel with poetry:  I have a trade.

CH: How did you first become interested in translation? How have you gone about finding work to translate?

KF: My academic credentials are in German language and literature.  The fact is, every time I encounter the German language, I translate it in my head, whether it’s spoken or written.  That’s just what people do who practice a second language (in my case third, the other being French). Translation, then, especially of the literature I admire, becomes something else to do when I’m not able to do my own poetry.

I’m not interested in translating German literature written before, say, 1960.  Many other translators have done so in a definitive way.  Most of those poets (including women like Droste-Hülshoff or Else Lasker-Schüler) are now already fully transcultural.  The German poet Ludwig Steinherr (b. 1962) is a friend, still alive, and I like translating him because he is an innovator in his unique poetic language that continues to evolve.

CH: How has translation influenced your poetry and prose? What are its gifts? Its challenges?

KF: Translating seems to me at times to be impossible work.  First, the act of interpretation must happen, both what the original author says and how that author says it.  How much should one adhere to the original, and how much stray from it in search of a brilliant rendering in the target language? Are completely free renderings (versions) allowed? Puns are practically impossible to deal with, and one move might be to replace them with doable puns in the target language.

The process of translation involves such a concentration in language use that I almost always come away with either memorable words or memorable syntax.  And who can say where these things will pop up in my own poems, albeit unconsciously.?

Really the only problem which translations don’t solve concerns the cultural atmosphere in which a poem takes place.  A reader won’t necessarily understand the local things endemic to that culture.  But then so many poems in English need footnotes to their allusions in the Norton Anthology of Poetry.  I see no difference.

CH: It has been said that the work of each poet is infused with that poet’s obsessions and preoccupations. What are the obsessions of your work? What themes or images do you find yourself frequently exploring?

KF: Robert Hass said in a poem, “all the new thinking is about loss.  In this it resembles all the old thinking.”  Loss, transformation, a great astonishment at simply being alive in an often beautiful world: all these inform my work.

With respect to images, the sun, the moon, and the struggle between light and darkness in both the physical and the symbolic senses–these things occur frequently.  Animals show up a lot.  In Just a Trace of Moon, music is a recurring theme, a leitmotif around which the collection is built.

CH: Your novel, For Mr. Raindrinker, was recently re-released by Alamo Bay Press. How did this re-release come about?

KF: For Mr. Raindrinker was originally published in 2010 by Chuck Taylor’s Slough Press, then located in College Station, Texas.  Mick White assembled that text to be sent to Lightning Source, the print-on-demand company.  Mick went on to Alamo Bay Press where he showed the novel to the director, Pam Booten.  She liked it enough to reissue it with new artwork on the cover, artwork done by a painter with a gallery on Magazine Street in New Orleans.  Her name is Mina Zavala Lanzas.

CH: I have long admired the craft of your poetry. How would you describe your journey to deepen your craft as a poet? How has your work in poetry influenced your prose?

KF: Originality results from the complexity of influences.  One woman I mentored said she was afraid that by reading someone else, his or her style might somehow have a detrimental effect on her writing.  I said:  “Don’t worry about that.  It doesn’t work that way.  Just read.  Keep reading and the influences will sort themselves out in their own manner.”

The theory of the writing process is no secret.  Read something, then write something.  Read something else, then write something else, and show, by what you have written, what you have learned. Of course, it’s not quite so simple.  The processes of seeing, remembering, and experience with the world must come into play.  To continue to test the limits of syntax and diction: that’s what I shoot for.

Since my novel claims to be lyrical, there are individual poems in there–two or three.  But a parataxis is included even in the prose itself. In two sections, for example, I make use of the list device Whitman was so fond of.

CH: Who are your literary influences in poetry and fiction? Your favorite writers/books?

KF: I have read so many poets intensively that if I started listing them, I would leave most of them out.  Some are Robert Bly, James Wright,  Carolyn Kizer, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Mark Strand, those American poets of my father’s generation.  Too, there’s the New York School of Kenneth Koch, Jimmy Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery.

Foreign influences include Tranströmer, Ritsos, Apollinaire, Desnos, Jacob, Jozsef, Vallejo, Lorca and all the Spanish surrealists.  Of course there are my exact contemporaries as well as the roughly two generations born since I was born.  It’s so hard to keep up, but I do my best.

The influences in my fiction have been mostly the German writers and filmmakers I encountered doing coursework as an undergraduate and graduate student.  In Raindrinker I tried to create a unique first-person narrator with all the idiosyncrasies of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.

My favorite books have to do with classical music and jazz:  The Lives of the Great Composers, Gary Giddins’ Visions of Jazz, and Ken Burns’ Jazz.

CH: What projects are you working on now?

KF: At the moment I’m writing as few new poems as possible.  Rather, I’m going back to poems written since 1996 or so and seeing if I can breathe new life into those which are not beyond repair.  Revision means much to me.  I belong to a poetry critique group that meets once a month.  There I can get great feedback on how my poems strike other poets, who often happen to be the ideal readers, too.

CH: What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

KF: I’ve most recently been reading the collected poems of Frank Stanford who died so young at 30. Actually, I know writers in New Orleans, former friends of Frank.  His poetry is filled with narrative localisms of rural Arkansas along with surrealism.  It’s quite good.  I met him once, I think, in the spring of 1978 at the home of fiction writer Ellen Gilchrist, living at that time uptown in New Orleans’ Garden District.