Poetry really came to me. Maybe that sounds too mystical, but what’s wrong with mysticism? I remember hearing poems in what I now know is iambic pentameter in my head in those minutes between sleeping and waking when I was a small child. I didn’t know what that language was, but I found it comforting and physically pleasurable. In elementary school I was by no means a shining star, but when asked to write a verse for the inside of a Mothers’ Day card, the rhyme and meter was effortless to me.

Poetry really arrived after my dad died when I was seven. It was no longer an instinct; it had become a necessity. It rose up to meet my need. That isn’t to say I began writing poems at seven, but that I had begun to see and hear and think like a poet. Even at the funeral, my noticing had become charged. The ant on the rose. The sharp corners of the flag folded into a triangle. The sound of the wind flapping the sides of the tent over his coffin. The creak of the mechanism that lowered him into the ground. This noticing wasn’t garish, really, but held a kind of objectivity.

I didn’t start writing actual poems until I was in early high school. Luckily, girls were required to take typing class (ah, the luck of our subordination…) and typing became the key to getting the lines I’d begun to hear in my head onto the page. It allowed me to begin to see the poem as having a presence on the page. As my own body came into uncomfortable blooming, so did the body of the poem.

Back then, in my rural high school, there was no “creative writing.” Poetry was an unknown entity. I didn’t really know that what I was writing were poems. I believe my ignorance was fortunate. It ushered in invention. There was no one to imitate, no pressure to conform to a standard.

[….]

Most of my education in poetry has been self-teaching. Therefore what I know is like an inland lake — shallow in places, unexpectedly deep in others. Teaching in both undergraduate and MFA programs has extended my education. I learn what I need to teach. I’m a hodgepodge.

There are limitations in that scenario, but it has allowed me to maintain some of my early ignorance. At times, my ignorance has begotten innovation, playfulness, improvisation — an aesthetic that is all mine.

[….]

I’m interested in the rural, but I approach it via degrees of formal experimentation. I think of my work as punk-rural, in that my it emerges from rural spaces, but looks for the toughness, the strangeness, the absurdity, the taut stringiness, the rage and pain of it all as opposed to the homespun. The rural is no less punk than the urban. Roadkill. That’s my aesthetic. Naked dancing on the water tower. Cheez Doodles and a Coke. Cigar-smoking ghosts on the riverbank. I love what I call “freaking form”—learning traditional forms so that they can be usurped, upended, repurposed, like a bathtub that can be made into a shrine to the Virgin Mary. I’m sort of an anti-intellectual intellectual, a geek about the literature and visual art of the past but I like to bring it down, downtown, here where I live, with the earthworms and gravediggers.

I am guided by instinct, the unconscious, and help from the dead in my poems, which Kevin Young, describes as, “a poetry that speaks from the mouths of those gone that aren’t really gone, a poetry of ghosts and haunts. Of haints: not ain’ts.” For this reason, I’ve always thought my poems are wiser than I am. I don’t know how we can read poetry, or teach it, or write it, without a finger on the pulse of the mystical as well as bringing our intellectual heft to the party. To talk about a writer’s poem in workshop, or a collection of poems, is at best a full-body act. We encounter the body of a poem with our bodies before we even read the words. At best, a workshop can be a circle of human beings who each brings their subjectivity, memories, blind spots, fears, ghosts, dreams, ideas, insights, and imaginations to the room. We build a collective, a zone, and from that zone, poetry becomes possible.

Diane Seuss
Interviewed by Frances Donovan, 4th December 2019

Write

June 24, 2020

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. You have started at six in the morning, say, and may go on until noon or be through before that. When you stop you are as empty, and at the same time never empty but filling, as when you have made love to someone you love. Nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again. It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through.

Ernest Hemingway
Paris Review issue 18 Spring 1958

Read a magazine before you submit your work there. It’s really important to feel connected to the mission of a magazine that is publishing your work. If you don’t know where to submit your work, think of writers whose work you admire and read the magazines they’re publishing their work in. Ultimately though, the work is more important than where it’s published — it’s a cliché, the whole high school “be yourself!” pep talk, but seriously, write your own goddamn truth. You’re the only person who can.

Yasmin Belkhyr
Interview with Anuradha Bhowmik
The Minnesota Review 10th November 2016

You can use time travel, psychic powers and ghosts not just as plot devices, but as tools to explore human life, the nature of ritual and dreams. In fact you can use them to look at the functioning of the human mind, and the development of story.

Robert Holdstock
Interviewed by Stan Nichols 1993 for: Wordsmiths of Wonder: Fifty interviews with Writers of the Fantastic

became a better writer

March 24, 2020

I never really expected to find myself giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education. I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could, when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I’d become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.

I got out into the world, I wrote, and I became a better writer the more I wrote, and I wrote some more, and nobody ever seemed to mind that I was making it up as I went along, they just read what I wrote and they paid for it, or they didn’t, and often they commissioned me to write something else for them.

Neil Gaiman
Keynote Address 17th May 2012

The first chapter of your novel – or your prologue if you prefer – must contain a compelling opening hook, giving the reader a taste of what’s to come and persuading them that the rest of your story isn’t to be missed. Get it right and your reader will commit to your story; get it wrong and they might put the book down before they even get to chapter two….

The way to make your opening hook immediately compelling is the same way you make any other piece of writing compelling – you make the reader wonder what’s going to happen next.

This means the events of your opening chapter need to be sufficiently dynamic or intriguing. For example, a murder mystery might open with the murder scene itself, shown from the victim’s point-of-view. As the (unknown) killer hunts, traps, and finally kills the victim, the reader will be gripped from start to finish, initially wanting to find out how the murder unfolds, then wanting to know who killed the victim and why, which leads them into the next chapter and the wider story.

A romance novel might open with a visit from the protagonist’s betrothed, who quickly announces that their engagement is at an end. The reader will immediately want to know why and see how the protagonist reacts. As the protagonist is left reeling, the chapter might end with them asking themselves how they will recover from the shame and whether they will ever be happy, which piques the reader’s interest for the subsequent chapters.

Whatever your genre, the key is to leave your reader with unanswered questions and make them wonder what’s coming next.

Andrew Noakes
How to hook your reader in chapter one

approaches to writing fiction

February 29, 2020

We’re literally all faking it. Neil Gaiman? Lied about his experience to get his first publication. F. Scott Fitzgerald? An absolute disaster who couldn’t spell. Donna Tartt? Committed to her authorial brand before anyone knew her name. The only thing that makes someone a writer is their decision to do the work and call themselves a writer. You do that long enough, and soon other people start calling you a writer too. When I first started posting my writing on Tumblr way back in ye olde 2012, I posted my poems in quotations with my pen-name at the bottom like a “real” author That created the social proof I needed for people to search for my name, ask my questions about my work, and encourage me to keep going.

S.T. Gibson
Ten Things They Don’t Teach You in Your Undergrad Writing Workshop

magically burst forth

January 19, 2020

Writing and reading are the only ways to find your voice. It won’t magically burst forth in your poems the next time you sit down to write, or the next, but little by little, as you become aware of more choices and begin to make them – consciously and unconsciously – your style will develop.

Dorianne Laux
The Poet’s Companion: A Guide To The Pleasures Of Writing Poetry

believe in everything

January 4, 2020

‘If a man wishes to write and…convey a sensation of horror, he must believe in everything — and anything. By anything I mean the horror that transcends everything… He must believe that there are things from outer space that can reach down and fasten themselves on us with a malevolence that can destroy us utterly…’

Frank Belknap Long
The Space-Eaters

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.

Ernest Hemingway
Death in the Afternoon