Thursday, December 15, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jennifer Moore

Jennifer Moore is the author of The Veronica Maneuver (The University of Akron Press) and What the Spigot Said (High5 Press). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in DIAGRAM, American Letters & Commentary, Best New Poets, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Ohio Northern University and lives in Bowling Green, Ohio.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Quentin Bell said this and I’m on his wavelength: A book is so much a part of oneself that in delivering it to the public one feels as if one were pushing one’s own child out into the traffic.” You put a lot on the line when you publish your work. It’s a bold move, and it’s risky—like taking one giant breath before diving into a pool.

My book allowed me to reach a broader audience, a different kind of audience, by way of giving readings, interviews, visiting with students, and the like. As a result, I’ve become much more conscious—perhaps hyper-conscious—of how my poems are being perceived by readers. The book also made me a better literary citizen. I want to support writers, readers, publishers, editors in creating and championing poetry; we’re all in this together.

My recent work feels like an extension of what I did in TVM, but perhaps a bit looser. I’m experimenting with the prose line, the prose paragraph, in some poems; in others, I’m experimenting with a more playful tone. Both of these moves result, I think, in more relaxed poems.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
As a kid I read a lot of fiction—all the great pulpy stuff (R. L. Stine, Sweet Valley High, Baby Sitter’s Club). Poetry was tangential. I loved A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends, mostly for the laughs and illustrations. In junior high I digested all the great horror and suspense novels I could get my hands on: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Mary Higgins Clark. My dad read those books and would pass them off to me when he finished (and approved) them.

But in high school I took a wonderful course called Art English. Our teachers worked collaboratively, so the paintings we did in art class were directly related to the creative writing we did in English, and vice versa. I began to think about, and thus care about, the textual and linguistic possibilities in visual art, and the visual and image-driven possibilities in poetry. My English teacher Heather Matheson gave me Theodore Roethke, Amy Lowell, Pablo Neruda—I was turned on to the power of metaphor, of sensory detail, and the relationship between sentence and line. I was hooked, and began by imitating writers I admired. I was also a choir nerd, so the aural possibilities of language—music, texture, harmonic layering—became a driving force, too. I guess I never really felt that music and imagery were as possible in fiction or nonfiction as they were in poetry, so I went for the mode that struck me in the gut and the brain.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
My writing does not come quickly. I work slowly and painstakingly, in fits and starts. A phrase here, a phrase there. An appropriate metaphor is the bathtub with a leaky faucet. One drip at a time, over the course of a long time, and then—a full tub! When the water spills over, that’s when a poem happens. First drafts might resemble final poems, but there’s a whole lot of playing around—version after version after version—that goes on in the middle. For me, that’s the fun part.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
For me a poem begins with an image, a captured phrase, an idea to pursue, or research to follow. I don’t start with blueprints and try to fit poems within predetermined thematic or formal parameters. I’d rather build all the rooms first and then say, “What kind of a house is this?”

I get anxious thinking about “projects.” Beginning with an idea for a book and then writing poems into it feels counterintuitive. I’ve found that the work I create, when it’s based on a “project first, poems later” model, tends to fall flat or feel forced. I usually write something and then say, “OK, what am I doing, and how does this work with this thing over here?” If I see or hear strains that seem to constellate, then I’ll follow that thread and perhaps write poems to “fill in the gaps” or round out ideas. Poems first, project later. I say that now, but of course projects are helpful for offering direction, for giving oneself a sense of purpose, of formal continuity. All of this is to say that I’m ambivalent about my relationship with writing projects. For me it always comes down to, “does this poem work on its own terms?”

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love giving readings. Most audiences I’ve had the chance to share my work with haven’t read much poetry at all, let alone any of my poems. Part of my approach involves contextualizing the pieces: some background, a bit of origin, maybe a definition here, an anecdote there. Situating the poems within a world that might be understandable or recognizable, I’ve found, has helped listeners in certain ways. At the same time, I’ve definitely overdone the context thing. Too much talking can overwhelm the poems. I like Matt Hart’s idea: “the poem is its own explanation.” I should probably cling to that a bit more when I read.

Perhaps the impulse to offer context at public readings emerges in part due to the nature of The Veronica Maneuver. It’s a collection of many speakers, and that variety is, for me, what makes the book feel “vaudevillian” (in the sense of performing in a “variety show”): trapeze artists, the matadora, Saint Veronica. These figures are, in essence, performing for the reader, and part of that effort becomes to “make maneuvers look effortless”—though we know and they know that perfection is impossible and failure inevitable. In that sense I look at the book as a collection of figures, feats, and spectacles—whether executed deftly or contemplating—mourning, perhaps—the failure to do so. Giving listeners these ideas, then letting the poems illustrate that, seems fruitful.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Well, when I’m in the process of writing a poem I drop all that stuff and just work on assembling a piece that creates its own surprises. I guess that in itself is a bit of a theoretical concern: what is art’s job in relation to its audience? To its author? To its form? Is a poem meant to confirm our existence or shake us out of it? (These aren’t mutually exclusive, for sure.)

Fanny Howe writes that “One definition of the lyric might be that it is a method of searching for something that can’t be found. It is an air that blows and buoys and settles. It says, ‘Not this, not this,’ instead of, ‘I have it.’” This is comforting to me for many reasons. I don’t look for a recognizable portrait of lived existence in poems; I look for a new way of viewing the world. I want poems that hedge against life; that create life rather than reflect it, complicate rather than confirm, disturb rather than settle. For me that kind of poem—the unsettling poem—arrives when we realize the paradox of putting words to a page will not make them behave. Great poems never behave—they take off in all directions.

A related question that informs much of my writing is: How do we go about expressing events that by their nature escape representation? In other words, I’m interested in how the unpresentable can make itself seen and felt through language. This might be called an interest in the aesthetics of the sublime, in experiences of excess that escape figuration—that are unaccounted for, but present nonetheless.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Sometimes I get bummed out thinking about the role of the writer in our culture. I often mourn the fate of the imagination in a country and era that often seems solely motivated by money and status. In our hyper-tech society we’re all writers, all the time, in many different modes and forms…as such, the idea of the “author” has shifted (not necessarily a bad thing), but so has the nature of things being written, being published, being read. Literary writing is continually being pushed to the margins in favor of the next scandal or blockbuster. At the same time, there’s an explosion of MFA programs, independent journals and publishers, more people than ever writing wonderfully interesting stuff—while the reading public’s attention is elsewhere.

This is all to say: it’s overwhelming trying to navigate the world. We need writers who can help us deal with our lives. Literature does that—it gives us, says Kenneth Burke, “equipment for living.” For me, allowing the imagination to “press back” against the many pains of existence is a way to deal with them. Ken Sherman talks about Wallace Stevens’ idea of poetry as both “a shield and a sword”; art becomes crucial when we realize what we’re capable of creating, and how the imagination—and poetry in particular—can have an immensely curative power in what is often an acutely anemic time.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
When my book was selected for the Akron Series in Poetry I was both thrilled and apprehensive to receive comments from blind reviewers. I don’t always feel as if I have a steady or clear sense of what makes a particular poem “work” or not, so editorial feedback is really welcome. But series editor Mary Biddinger was just fantastically supportive. When I’d second-guess myself—the inclusion of a brand-new poem, or rethinking the arc of the book—she offered really generous, positive support. So working with an editor? In my experience it’s been all smooth sailing.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
This is tough. What comes immediately to mind is something from my mom: “Have hope, but no expectations.” This seems to fit my general outlook and can be applied in any context; it leaves room for the best-case scenario while also preparing you for the worst-case scenario.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I’m not great with writing routines. As a professor, my students often take center stage during the school year, so I tend to focus most of my energies on mentoring and teaching. The kind of work I get done during the semester is mostly housekeeping stuff: submitting, editing, polishing. Time for generating new material is usually found during summers and breaks. I’m a pretty compartmentalized thinker; it’s hard to switch between my critical and creative selves,  so when I’m in critical thinking mode, I’m there. But I’ve got a couple of writing residencies on the horizon, so I’m saving up my creative energies for those precious weeks.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I always go back to the books and the poems that excite me. I’ll collect texts that are radically different from one another, then see how they interact. I’ll write out poems long-hand, try to get the rhythm of another poet’s lines in my body. Sometimes for a jump-start I write out lists of words, A-Z, down the page. From books and lists come phrases, from phrases come lines, and from all of these sources I’m thinking about relationships. Cutting, pasting, developing, pruning—the process is more mechanical than organic. The generative spark happens mostly in the revision stages, which is where my manic writer-self really gets going. Once I have a draft that I think might reveal something, be worth something, I leave it alone for a while. Then I return with fresh eyes to see if what I imagined was there still is. If so, I’ve got something I can work with. If not, back to the drafting table.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Lilacs. Pine trees. Rain on pavement.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
The natural world always finds its way into my poems. Bachelard talks about the forest containing “intimate immensity”—a sense of vastness within a finite setting, entire forests within one seed—which for me is what all great poems embody. I grew up in Seattle, and the water, the firs, the landscape—all that green space in some way or other informs my writing. Music motivates a lot of what I write, too. The lyric poem for me is a version of the German lieder or the folk song: one voice, one piano. That exposure, that intimacy creates, as Helen Vendler says, “a twinship” between writer and reader (or singer and listener).

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d love to travel more. Spain, Greece, Italy; Scotland, Ireland. Closer to home: I’d like to take three or four months off from life and hike the Pacific Rim Trail. Grow a huge garden. Maybe build a greenhouse. Revisit the piano, pick up a new instrument. I’m learning the theremin right now (barely!). It’s pretty hard.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I used to want to be a psychologist; that was before college. Sometimes I imagine making a dramatic career shift into something like real estate, and then I say, “WHY would I ever do that?” Careers that appeal to me in the abstract: Interior designer. Film critic. Forest ranger. Lighthouse keeper. But I’ll be serious: after trying my hand at all of these, I’d probably go back to teaching. I love, love, love teaching.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I love being able to create something from nothing. Where once there was blank space, now there’s a world built from words. From building blocks, pure creation. It’s exhilarating.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Last great book: Marni Ludwig’s Pinwheel. Totally blew me away. Before that it was Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods. Last great film? It’s been awhile. I loved The Skeleton Twins. I loved Boyhood. I might be the only person in the world who liked The Tree of Life.

19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a couple of different projects. The first is a series of prose poems I’m developing into a chapbook called Imaginary Weather. My more comprehensive project is a collection of poems which circle around the theremin (an electronic instrument played without the touch of a human hand). I’m fascinated by the idea of creating music—or any art, for that matter—without actually touching your instrument. For the theriminist, it’s all in the vibrations and the proximity of one’s body to the field of energy—pitch and volume as determined by how you manipulate the space. How might this map on, metaphorically, to the creation of poems? I’m especially excited about exploring how—like the theremin’s music is produced via invisible vibrations and indirect artistry—a kind of beauty can be produced through communing with the often “invisible” forms we find in nature: erosion, wind, oceanic waves, echolocation. The poems, so far, are negotiations—similar to those in TVM—between the visible and invisible, the possible and impossible.

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