ft. Leela Denver

If I’m being honest, I never really know what to say when asked what my poetry is about. This is not because I don’t actually know what most of my poems are about or what compels me to write them. But when I am posed this question my palms begin to sweat and my mind reels through all the misguided conceptions that could possibly result if I answered with a “this poem is about breakfast/beaches/a bowl of fruit/the treacherous terrains of love.” Over the years, and even past months, I have tested out different answers, different ways of exploring the “aboutness” of my poems. A generalization like “coming of age” usually leaves me and, mostly likely, my questioner feeling empty-handed. The indirect “It’s still in progress but I am attempting to shatter form” has me feeling dishonest. So, the truth is, my poetry is about my obsessions – small ones and big ones. It is about the objects of my obsessions, the results and qualities of my obsessions and, the spaces my obsessions do and do not occupy. Because, so often, a poem is about both the thing its subject is and the thing that it’s subject is not.

On Thursday evening I attended a reading by Natalie Diaz through the Zell Visiting Writers Series. Diaz is the recipient of many honors and awards in poetry and is the author of When My Brother Was an Aztec. Her poetry offers accounts of her Mojave-American upbringing that are both unflinching and tender. It was at the reading that I was brought to examine my own relationship with poetic subjects. This was scary and hard. I was also comforted to hear Diaz, a poet I look up to greatly, speak on her own search for poetic subject. She told the story of how she would visit crane sanctuaries in hopes to discover a new subject. Perhaps she would become a “nature poet”, she thought. Then, as she told the audience, she would always arrive back at the subject of her brother, and to the body, and to basketball, and to violence and tenderness, and to how violence and tenderness are implicit in one another. And after she said all this about her recurring subject, about violence, and about tenderness, I listened to her last poem, “Ode to the Beloved’s Hips” and heard all the absences and all the presences of her dark and joyful obsessions.

ft. Jared Frank

When I write poetry, I am afraid. That’s not the only emotion I feel, of course. If it was, I wouldn’t write it. On the whole, writing poetry is a thrilling experience for me. that’s why I do it. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little afraid, too. For me, poetry is an attempt to express and convey ideas that often seem a little too odd or difficult to be expressed in normal conversation. I always hope that, in writing the poem, I’ll find a way to make those ideas understandable, conveyable. But I’m always afraid that nobody will understand, that my ideas will prove too strange.

I was thinking about this yesterday as I was reading the poetry of Patricia Lockwood. Her poetry seems, at least to me, to be fearless. She writes boldly and brilliantly about bizarre, unusual, or taboo topics. In her poems She isn’t afraid to say unconventional things (one look at her brilliant twitter account, @TricialLockwood, will confirm this). When I write, I come nowhere close to tackling the strangeness of the topics that she writes about, and yet I find myself afraid that nobody will understand my poetry, that my poetry will accomplish nothing other than proving that I am alone. I find myself wishing that I could write with the seeming fearlessness that Lockwood does. Of course, I have no way of knowing whether or not she actually writes fearlessly. It is entirely possible that her writing isn’t the product of fearlessness, but the product of overcoming fear. Maybe that’s what I should take away from this—that I can’t avoid fear, but I can fight through it (I am reminded of the Green Lantern comics I used to read, in which Lanterns-to-be are selected on their ability to “overcome great fear”.) Perhaps I shouldn’t fear that nobody will understand the thoughts I try to express in my poetry. After all, Patricia Lockwood has written poetry about Animorphs, and her poetry reached so many people that she was profiled in the New York Times magazine. If that’s not proof that one shouldn’t fear being a little unusual, I don’t know what is.

Quick Update

Hey Everyone!

As you might’ve seen, we’ve been getting a few guest posts from fellow staff members of Fortnight. It’s a way to give me a bit of a break and get more voices in the mix. Hope you all enjoy their thoughtful ideas. We’ll be getting a string of guest posts for the next few weeks.

Also, be on the lookout for a new issue, which should be coming in the near future!

Waiting for Inspiration (ft. Sarrah Hakim)

I’ve always loved to write. I remember telling people when I was in elementary school that one day, I was going to be a famous author. I was convinced that I would spend my life writing novels and poetry. That’s just the way it was. And in elementary school, I seemed to have an endless stream of ideas. I’d sit down with my notebook and start writing about the first thing that came into my head because to me, every idea was worth writing about. Every idea was the best of the best, and every idea was going to be the next great American novel.

Looking back on the past couple years, I realize that I haven’t been writing nearly as much as I used to. And I think I’ve figured out why. Aside from becoming busier and having multiple activities battle for my time, there’s this little voice I started listening to that whispers, “That idea’s not good enough. Who do you think wants to read about that?” And so I respond with, “Fine, I’ll just wait for a better idea to come along.”

And before I know it, all of 2014 has crept by and I still haven’t written a story because the perfect idea hasn’t arrived yet. Heck, I even procrastinated on writing this post because I couldn’t think of a good enough idea. But I’m thinking about my elementary school self right now, and I’m thinking hey! My stories might have been pretty dumb back then (I mean, I wrote about an alien farting his way around Earth), but my unwavering confidence in my writing was over the moon.

So what exactly am I trying to say? For someone who considers herself a writer, I’m having a really hard time putting this into words, but it’s something to the extent of this:

We can’t wait for inspiration. It’s true that sometimes, ideas will suddenly pop into our heads. These are the ideas we snatch out of the air and feverishly scribble down in fear of forgetting later on. But for the most part, good ideas don’t come; they’re made. And the best ideas might even start with something dumb.

What’s important is not to stop writing – no matter how dumb the seed of an idea might seem.

To Write is to Move (ft. Brett Phillips)

Last year my brother told me about a select group of writers he’d heard of who write almost exclusively while riding trains. They are paid to do this, he said, and they of course receive free travel, all financed by some benefactor—a company I suppose. (I am obviously hazy on the details. But isn’t writing about the ideas? Don’tcha find? Isn’t it building around the ideas and filling in detail with whatever warms us in the moment? Whatever makes the ideas spin faster and clearer in our heads?)

With my brother’s information in mind, I resolved to write this blog (my first one, as it happens) on the train back home last night. But, being too tired and cramped on that goddamn Amtrak, I was downright physically and mentally unable. Nevertheless, just a quick look out the window at the fields of snow, the gentle arcs of the power lines, the silent houses on hills, the cars in the city rolling by stop signs—all zipping past—and my mind was buzzing. It seemed I couldn’t help thinking of some idea, some place where that person is going, or some story behind the graffiti, or some life inside of the distant house with the light shining in the kitchen window.

It’s the variation and the quickness, I suppose. While on a train you receive many examples of the world. You get life, you get tundra, you get lone country roads. And what makes this all so great is that you see everything for just a moment, just long enough to catch an essence and lock it somewhere in the brain. Then you must move on to the next thing. There’s no staring for ten minutes at the same object, trying to squeeze out some inspiration. There is constant movement and change (so no getting stuck!).

Something I think I should listen to makes me say that writing is moving. Most stories I write that really mean something to me come from a past part of my life. It’s as if I’m saying goodbye to that time or that self—letting it go, you might say. And more generally, I feel that most anyone with an artist in them has hated projects they’ve completed. Many writers have stories they absolutely despise and want to burn ceremonially. We may even have a current project that we know we’ll be fucking sick of when it’s over, that we’re fucking sick of now, but we HAVE TO FINISH IT. It will be done and it will be good, or I will be DAMNED to HELL! And isn’t that just the writing process—from stuttering line by line, to making stories (or poems), to books, volumes, encyclopedias, on up the steps into the same middle of nowhere? Examine closely. Don’t lose your focus. Catch the essence. Let it go. What’s here now?

The Reading of Short Fiction

Short stories are more than just the few dozen pages they occupy. That sounds like a banal platitude, but in some ways I thought of stories as merely “shorter versions of novels.” The 400-page novel takes a few days to complete. A short story, then, takes only a fraction of that time (a mathematically valid statement).

I’ve found these facts confounding. In the past, I would look at the much shorter short story collection and wonder why they don’t tend to sell as well as the novels. Why are the novels the best-sellers, the award-winners? Why do short stories stand in the fringes of readers’ attention and the authors’ well-known works? Shouldn’t, based on length alone, the short story take less time? Shouldn’t readers find short stories more appealing in this increasingly attention-deficient society?

I don’t believe I’m much closer to the answers, but I do think I need to reframe the questions, because my assumptions are ultimately faulty. A collection of 200-something pages takes weeks to complete, compared to days for the novel; it requires more brain activity and emotional sensitivity to fully comprehend, even after several rereads. A short story feels weighty, not in spite of its brevity, but because of it. What is not revealed becomes the driving force for the short story, making readers feel as though it is as complex and interesting as any novel. A short story is denser, and each word takes more time to absorb, like poetry.

For these reasons, I now approach short stories differently. It no longer feels like a serene time in which I come home, exhausted from my daily routines, and collapse in my bed with a good book. Instead, I must prepare myself and make sure I’m mentally capable.

The Goals of a Writer

I found out what an MFA was when I was a freshman at this school. At that age (which was not that long ago), I had just started this creative writing thing, and the MFA almost carried this “divine” quality to it. Only 2 percent get accepted into the Helen Zell Writers’ Program? The writers in the program must be god-like. Same was true when I learned about the Hopwood Awards — this prestigious contest that rewarded only those who were truly “brilliant,” as another writer friend described to me. And finally, the Creative Writing Subconcentration in the English Department, which is supposed to be a cohort of the best, most talented writers in the undergrad programs. (The degree to which this previous statement is true remains unclear to me.)

So I wanted these things. They became goals. I told myself they weren’t really, but they still were (and are).

The problem is this shifts everything. It shifts the focus from wanting to see your writing get better and better to wanting to see yourself *up there* in the spotlight. You talk to MFA faculty and writers who’ve been published and hoard prestigious awards, and think of yourself as now a Writer. You watch Youtube videos of Karen Russell and DFW and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and you fantasize about the moment you get this kind of publicity. All of which is fine; nothing’s inherently wrong with these things.

For me, though, there was a point in which I started to see critiques of my fiction not as a way for me to improve my actual writing but as a hindrance to my oh-so-bright writing “career” (which, let’s all just say it, is nonexistent). My real supporters were the ones who said my writing was good, not the ones who had a lot to say about where to improve.

At the end of the day, though, the accomplishments don’t amount to much. When I won a thing, my attitude (after the initial giddiness) was not that I’m now an amazing writer, but that wow, I need to keep winning to show that I’m not a one-trick pony. I’m not a real writer until I accomplish X-Y-Z. I used to think it was just X, but now there’s two more things.

It’s never-ending. It’s exhausting. It, to me, more and more seems to be a misdirection. I won a thing, but has my writing really improved over the years? If I looked at my pieces critically, I would answer “no.” The bad habits and problems I had as a freshman are still here. I had this goal last year to write more poetically, but I don’t think I made any efforts towards that; instead, I thought about the Subcon application. After a while, I realize I’m just creating a persona of a writer, and not focusing enough of my energies on the actual act of writing.