I have written here before that the way I came to truly appreciate poetry was one poet at a time. There was never a moment or period of time when I can say I began to love poetry, but there are many precise moments when I can say I fell in love with particular poets – and their poems. Grace Bauer's poetry found me about three years ago when I embarked on a joint blog project with the journal Prairie Schooner, where she's a senior reader.
While prose writers and poets often think of what separates us, in Grace's poems, I find so much kinship between memoir and imagery, story and metaphor, the lyrical and narrative. I'm so pleased to feature this interview with her today, in which I ask about her newest poetry collection, Nowhere All At Once (Stephen F. Austin State University Press), her writing and submitting process, how she groups poems, and more.
Lisa: I believe this is your fourth full-length poetry book, right on the heels of your fourth chapbook (Café Culture). How and when do you realize that the poems you are working on at any given time are destined for one or the other?
Grace: Putting together a collection is always a long process for me. First, of course, is the writing and revising of each individual poem. How they then come -- or are put -- together varies.
Two of my books (The Women At The Well and Beholding Eye) are what I call, for lack of a better term, “concept books,” composed of a series of interconnected poems. The Women At The Well is all monologues spoken in the voices of women from the Bible. (I’m happy to say it has just recently been presented as a play in New Hampshire). Beholding Eye is all ekphrastic poems (poems based on visual art, in various ways).
Retreats & Recognitions and now, Nowhere All At Once are more eclectic collections of poems written in a voice (or voices) that one might see as some version of my own, and based in personal experience or observation. The eclectic collections are always more of a challenge. I’ll generally have a pile of poems that I spread out all over the floor and, quite literally, walk around in, looking for connections and links and echoes – recurring themes, motifs and/or formal similarities.
My goal is to weave the poems together in a way that makes the whole add up to more than the sum of its parts. I obsess a lot about ordering the poems, even though I know full well that many readers will hunt and peck their way through the book instead of reading it from cover to cover. It’s something I feel compelled to do for myself. Since I tend to be working on many things at once, there are always poems that seem finished but don’t quite fit into the manuscript at hand for one reason or another. I consider those poems possible “seeds” for the next collection.
Q. Along the way (to a chapbook or collection), how do you decide which poems to submit to individual journals? How much time and energy do you give to that submission/journal publication process?
A. I send stuff out to journals fairly consistently – or at least I try to. Sometimes the demands of my day job get in the way of those good intentions. It’s always a struggle to find – or make – the time to do the creative work and/or the “practical” work (I’m not sure you can really call submitting to literary journals “practical”) you have to do to get your writing out in the world.
For me, both writing and submitting often go in spurts, but I try to practice what I preach to my students and do at least a little something directly related to my writing most days of the week.
On the days I don’t teach, I “show up for work” in my study first thing in the morning and put in as many hours as I can – either writing or revising or submitting or corresponding. By the time I’m putting a book together, most of the individual poems have been submitted to journals and, with any luck, many of them have been published.
Q: You teach in English, Creative Writing, and Women's Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and work with Prairie Schooner, and its annual PS Book Prize. How does all of that reading and thoughtful consideration of others' writing affect you – as a writer and a teacher?
A: My reading for the journal has been intermittent the past few years because I’ve been working with so many undergraduate and graduate students (that also means a lot of reading), but I have served as a Senior Reader for the Prairie Schooner book prize since its inception.
Each year I read a short list of manuscripts that have already successfully made it through a previous round of screeners. I made a vow to myself early on that I would read each manuscript in its entirety – cover to cover -- and I have stuck to that. I’m hoping that rustles up some good karma in the poetry universe for my own manuscripts. Most, if not all, of the manuscripts I read are of publishable quality – or getting close to that point, so the reading is both inspiring and humbling. I’m looking for the two or three that distinguish themselves in some way; these I send on to the next level of judges.
All this reading reminds me that I have to work very very hard – on individual poems and a manuscript as a whole – to try to make it stand out in the crowd. And I pass that idea on to my students.
Q. One of the endorsements (dare I say "blurbs"?) for your new book is from Naomi Shihab Nye, and says in part that your poems display "…a compact flow of narrative…" When you are writing and/or revising, how much are you aware of a need, or perhaps I should say, a desire for the force of narrative in a poem?
A. I don’t necessarily begin a poem with a desire or need for narrative – or anything else. A poem, for me, usually begins with a phrase or an image that just sort of arrives, or presents itself, to my consciousness and/or my ear. My job is to take that originating inkling and see where it takes me. I recognize, of course, that I have a tendency toward narrative. Why? I don’t know exactly. I know I’m drawn to the musical possibilities of common speech, the cadences of voices. I like thinking about how poems can work on the page and orally/aurally.
Q. I'm a huge fan of writing prompts. In a blog post at Ploughshares, you noted that a classroom prompt provided by a student, led you to write "Crime Scene," which appears in your new book, and I was struck by this: "I was writing fast, never knowing what I was going to scribble down next. Any of the first three lines could have been an opening." Many writers fear that sense of not knowing where something is going, or are wary of trusting that a writing prompt exercise, with no expectations, can lead to good work. Can you comment?
A. As I suggest in the previous answer, I never know where a poem is going to end up when I begin. If I already know the ending, I don’t see the point of writing it. It’s the old “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” thing. I’ll write with my students in class when possible – which it isn’t always, for a variety of pedagogical reasons. Prompts don’t often lead to full-blown poems, as this one did, but sometimes lead to at least a good line or two.
Café Culture, for instance, grew out of – not a prompt, per se, but an assignment of sorts, which was to go to a coffee shop or café or diner or whatever and eavesdrop and/or spy on people till something caught my attention and then I’d just start scribbling. Most of what I came up with was junk, but eventually I had this small group of poems that I thought might make a fun chapbook. I sent it to Dan Nowak at Imaginary Friend Press, and he agreed. So again, prompts, assignments, schedules. Anything that gets and keeps you writing is a good thing.
Q. In a post over at Hayden's Ferry Review's blog, you wrote, "One thought leads to another; one word to the next. Wave-like and wandering. Wondering. Sometimes sound for the sheer pleasure of it. And so, sometimes, poems are made." I wonder how many of your poems begin this way – wondering, wandering around on the page for pleasure, and how many others begin another way – maybe with a kind of insistence or need, perhaps even the opposite of pleasure, a way to work something out?
A. Well there’s pleasure. And there’s torture. And, maybe tortuous pleasure and vice versa. A need to “work something out” may be the impetus for a poem, but even then, there’s a kind of pleasure – or satisfaction – that comes from working with the language – sound, rhythm, the aha of finding a word or image that seems right, that captures an impression or perception or feeling or whatever and also works musically and/or suggests layers of meaning. I believe you can write a poem about pretty much anything, but the so-called “subject matter” of the poem is only part of it. As a reader, I go to poems not just for what they may be “about,” but for how they go about being a poem.
Q. You mentioned to me that Nowhere All At Once is an "eclectic collection which revolves around recurring themes, motifs, obsessions and plays around a lot with perception -- how we look at the world around us, at ourselves and each other. How PREconceptions affect what and how we see". This truly describes what I found reading it! I'm curious, was this apparent to you as you were writing the individual poems, or does this reveal itself as you assemble them into the collection?
A. Definitely the latter with this book. The poems in Nowhere All At Once were written over a span of time – some older poems that didn’t make it into Retreats & Recognitions and some much more recent work. It goes back to your first question about how I assemble a book – many of these connections and recurrences were discovered as I walked around those poems spread out on the floor. Once I had a rough version of the manuscript, several friends – Hilda Raz, Jane Varley, Liz Ahl – looked at it and gave me their invaluable suggestions on individual poems and on the overall arrangement.
That’s something I’d recommend to anyone at that point in the process – to get a set of fresh eyes looking at the work.
Q. I begin my nonfiction classes by reading a poem, to transition from everyone's busy day to the world of words, language, story. One miserable New Jersey winter day, we read "Slacker's Prayer," which to me celebrated the upside of bad weather and cancelled plans. Everyone in the room – all ages, backgrounds, lives –instantly nodded. And, we especially loved the final lines: "..Curse only/the fact that such days are too rare/and pass too quickly. Then praise the work/you will rise tomorrow to do. And know/that giving praise (for nothing) is work too." Perhaps this is a naïve question, but can you remember how this poem came about, and whether or not its traces back to a particular day, storm, feeling?
A. As you know, there are several “prayer poems” in Nowhere All At Once. I couldn’t give you an exact date or anything, but I recall the general feeling of the day this poem began. I have fibromyalgia and am very seasonally affected. I hate winter and if I never saw snow again in my life I’d be perfectly happy, so usually a blizzard would fill me with fear and loathing.
This, as you might imagine, is not exactly convenient for someone living in Nebraska! So I often try talking myself into appreciating the world as it is in winter. Usually I fail. But this one day I was at home and just found myself praising things as they were – mostly because I didn’t have to go out in it. Next day, out came the shovel and I was bitching about it all per usual.
Q. You've said the book is made up of "several little' mini-series' -- the prayer poems, the 'against' poems, poems about female characters" and while I understood that while working my way through the book the first time, it also seemed to me that there were so many connections between these – prayer poems that had an 'against' vibe, poems about women that felt like prayers, etc. When assembling a series or sections, do some poems seems to straddle lines? How do you finally decide where to place them?
A. I’m happy to hear that all those connections came across for you as a reader. Many of those connections evolved on their own; a few were deliberate. For instance, I had the “against” poems and several of the prayer poems, so I very deliberately set out to bring those together in the poem “Against Prayer.” I could, of course, have clumped each “mini-series” together, but I thought it might make for a richer reading experience (at least for that ideal reader who reads cover to cover) if I intermingled the poems instead. I was going for a weaving more than a patchwork quilt kind of effect. I like what Daisy Fried says in her blurb/comment about the poems looking inward and outward and being “praise and agitation.” The way I see it, the world warrants a bit of both.