Pixelated is the digital, double-blind, lit-inclined conversation series.
In each episode we put two writers on a sort of blind-date, and have them interview each other. The result? Who the hell knows. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them.
Episode XXIV: "One of those moments when I got the poem to say what I wanted it to, but it was also a devastating realization"
Andrew Lipstein: Today I’m with two poets, Gillian Wegener and Erin Rodoni, both with books coming out today, April 2, from Sixteen Rivers Press (Rodoni’s “Body, in Good Light” and Wegener’s “This Sweet Haphazard”). Gillian’s work “charts past and present, interior and exterior, in order to create a poetic landscape we never want to leave.” (Dean Rader) She “sees the beauty and melancholy all around her, and she approaches it with tenderness and without aesthetic pretension.” (Jane Mead) Erin “can speak with the same ease of private elegies and public journeys, of childbirth and of changing trains in Krakow, of grief on losing a loved one to cancer, and of ‘borrowed countries / where bougainvillea scales balconies // like a romance language’." (Ilya Kaminsky)
Today I want to focus on process—how an unformed idea germinates until it becomes permanent words on the page. I’d like for this to be a dialogue between the two of you, but for the purpose of getting us started: Gillian, would you describe how the first word in your first draft gets put down?
Gillian Wegener: Often I'm struck by a piece of conversation or by a sign I've seen somewhere and I spend some time mulling that over. I write quite a bit in my head before anything hits the paper. When it does, I usually have a first line in mind—the start of the idea—and then where it goes from there is sort of up to the poem in a way. Sometimes it goes where I think it will, and sometimes, happily, it takes me in a direction I wasn't expecting at all. So, that first word—that germ of the poem—is just a hint at what will come next.
Andrew: Does this sound familiar Erin?
Erin Rodoni: Yes, I have a 6 month old baby, so I have a lot more time to think about poems than actually to write them. I often have a rough draft in my head before I finally get a chance to sit down and type. But I've noticed poems typically begin for me in two ways. One is with a line that come into my head and I just can't get rid of, like a song, and then I finally think, okay I need to figure out what poem this line belongs to. The other way is when I keep thinking about two seperate events or ideas that seem to belong together but I'm not sure why. If I can find the intersection then I can write the poem and that kind of poem comes much more easily than the other.
Andrew: How did each of you come to this process through the years? Do you ever read someone else's poems and wonder at their own process, or guess at it through the poem's architecture?
Erin: I am endlessly fascinated by other people's poems, especially the ones I love. I often feel like I never would have thought to say it that way or structure it that way, but it is so right. I do sometimes imagine where the poet might have been or what might have inspired them, obviously some poems have more clear inspirations than others. For me, poems are often inspired more internally than externally, draw more from memory and emotion, the external narrative of the poem arises from the internal.
Gillian: I am fascinated by the processes with which other writers come to their work. Of course, there are similarities for all of us, but really, each poet's process has got to be as individual as the poets themselves. I wonder all the time how a poem, especially one I love to the point that I wish I had written it, came to be, but I am usually satisfied to just love the poem rather than to delve into the process behind it. That seems so personal. As for my own process, it has certainly changed over the years I've been writing—and it changes according to where I am with writing. If I am not writing much, which happens during the school year, my head is not really in the game and I have to force a poem, maybe through an exercise or maybe using form. During the summer, when I write more and have time to think more consistently about poems, writing usually flows more easily. I love that.
Gillian: Erin, I know what you mean about the surprise of something being said in a poem in a way that you never would have guessed. That surprise is something I love about poetry—how our experiences even to the same event can be so different and expressed so differently.
Erin: Yes, I think that specific feeling of surprise in a poem often comes from recognition, but it is a kind of slant recognition, like it is almost our own experience of being human and responding to the world, but also not how we would have or do express it. And I grew up in a small town too, and it works it's way endlessly and silently into my work, though I don't often write about it as a subject in itself, there are certainly plenty of characters and moments here that warrant a poem though.
In your latest book you write a lot about your community, I'm curious if you set out to write about Modesto or if daily life kept inspiring the poems until a book was formed?
Gillian: I would say that both are true. I served as Modesto's poet laureate from 2012 to 2016, so I spent a lot of time thinking about Modesto and all that makes it a place both beloved and reviled. As laureate, I wanted to put a positive spin on what I saw around me and I think that comes through in the book. I also moved around a lot growing up, and ended up in Modesto rather unexpectedly. I did not like it at first and I definitely didn't expect to stay, but it has become home, and all the experiences of home have certainly contributed to my life as a poet, most of which has been spent here in Central California.
Loss is a large part of your book. You write so eloquently about something so painful. Did you write the poems as you were experiencing that loss or afterwards?
Erin: My sister in law was diagnosed with terminal cancer right as I was beginning the MFA program at SDSU, and in my workshop we were suposed to write a poem a day, so yes, I wrote about it while it was happening, I couldn't help it, it was so consuming, but many of those early poems were abandoned or refined over the next few years of the MFA and after graduating. I think I kept trying to write the same poem again and again, and many times it wasn't right and finally I got it. Does that happen to you?
Gillian: Yes, I've definitely tried to write the same poem over and over. For me, that happens more when I am directly involved with the topic—caring for my father as he went through dementia, for example—than when I am writing about something more distant. Writing about your sister-in-law had to be especially intense as it was in constant change as you were writing.
You want to do justice to the experience, to the emotion, to others involved, to the constant additions of information and always, always to the poem.
Erin: It was intense, and sometimes I would question why I was doing it, but I lived in San Diego and they were all up in the Bay Area so I think it was a way to stay connected. I remember bursting into tears when I wrote "We Chop Onions, Listen to Billie Holiday," it was one of those moments when I got the poem to say what I wanted it to, but it was also a devastating realization.
I imagine it must have been difficult to write poems when you were so involved in the daily care of your father, did you write most of those later and how did it feel to complete them?
Gillian: So, poems are certainly a way of sorting through our own emotions and of making those very personal experiences more universal for a wider audience. I didn't know you when these events where taking place, but I can feel your loss and your love in the poems, and it becomes a shared experience. Is this a strange thing to think about?
Erin: It is more strange now that the book is out in the world, that this personal experience belongs to whoever reads my book. I read from the book recently in Davis, which is where my sister in law grew up, her mom was there and many family friends, and there were a lot of tears, and it brought home for me how in a way dangerous this material was to mess with. And I feel very blessed and lucky that apparently I was able to do justice to the material for those who loved her.
Gillian: That is such a gift, both to her family and friends and to you as well, that they are so supportive of this work.
Erin: How do your family members and fellow Modestans react when they turn up in your poems? My daughters are young now, but I wonder how they will feel about my writing about them when they get older.
Gillian: As for writing about my dad...he was ill for a very long time (he died in May of 2016), so I did write about him and about the caregiving experience while it was happening. It gave me a way to make sense of all the loss he was experiencing and it gave me a chance to process the loss of the father I'd known. I did worry that I was telling too much sometimes, but I sort of took a deep breath and put those worries aside. This experience is not one that only I've dealt with. Maybe the poems will give comfort to someone else in a similar experience even if that comfort is only that they aren't alone. I imagine someone reading your book might feel the same thing.
That's what I love about poetry—the connections we can build from one of us to another—personal becoming universal.
Erin: So true, loss even in all its variety and specifics is at its core a shared human experience, and it helps to enter the perspective of someone else who has gone through it, it eases loneliness.
Erin: And I think the desire to memorialize those we have lost is a universal desire as well.
Gillian: I think, for me in this book, that I'm attempting in a way to memorialize the town I live in as well. Especially with the long poem "Neighborhood" which is basically about the street I live on—neighbors and all the stories that make this place singular.
Tell me a little bit about your revision process. As you were fine-tuning your book, what kinds of things did you take into account? What made the book finally click for you?
Erin: About your neighborhood sequence and memorializing the street you live on, I love that about your poetry, how you memorialize in a sense the celebratory and the everyday. I think someone else said this better than me, but poems do seem an attempt to pin down an experience of the world that is constantly transforming.
Gillian: I would agree with that. Perhaps we are staking claim to the experiences, mundane or not, that make us who we are, by writing about them.
Erin: In terms of revisions, I had a manuscript class in my last year of the MFA, so I had to gather up everything I had written and see how it held together as a collection. I was lucky because most of my work hinged on the loss of my sister in law and the birth of my daughter. For me it was more difficult to decide how to structure, should I mix the poems together or divide according to narrative. My thesis Advisor Ilya Kaminsky helped me see that the narratives were stronger chronologically. Once I had the structure, I knew where the holes were, both tonal and chronolgical and tried to write poems toward completing the book.
Once the book held together, I went through line after line, trying to be hard on myself, to avoid cliche and confusion, lots looking for a better word, always a better word
This Sweet Haphazard is your second book, was the experience of it clicking and coming together much different than with your first?
Gillian: Yes, for me I am always looking for something a little "stranger" than whatever image I've originally come up with. Something more surprising. I both love and hate this process.
Erin: Ha, yes love and hate is right, so rewarding to come up with the perfect, yet unexpected image, but so frustrating when you just cannot. Oh, another thing I needed to work hard to avoid in my book was repetition, because so many poems were about the same subjects.
Gillian: As for This Sweet Haphazard, it came together more as whole than the first book did. Because I was writing so often about Modesto and living in this region and even when not writing directly about that, I was somehow writing about that anyway, the poems just kind of came together as a whole. However, the order that they are in now is nothing like the order I originally placed them in, and an entire section was pulled out and another put in. Thank goodness for the good and honest advice of my fellow poets. They really had a hand in forming the book as it is now.
Erin: For sure, we writers really need that outside perspective. My pitfall is writing lines that make perfect sense to me, but no one else understands, I usually have at least one in every poem, so that feedback is essential. Though I don't always believe it, sometimes I still think the line does actually make sense, at least to someone else, if not the person providing the feedback.
Gillian: Yes! Repetition! Ugh! I keep wanting to write about the almond blossoms. The challenge is to keep that fresh and come up with new, interesting images or to keep the blossoms out of the poem!
I know exactly what you mean. How could others NOT understand something that makes so much sense. But...thank goodness those generous poets do speak up and say that doesn't make sense! If even people who know me don't get it, that is not a good sign.
Andrew: We're nearly out of time, and I think this is as good a point to stop as any. Thank you Gillian and Erin for your time and words.
Gillian: Thank you, Andrew. I so appreciate this chance to talk about poetry.
Erin: Thank you Andrew, for providing this platform. And thank you Gillian, it was fun to get to know more about your process.