Q: Can you share a moment that shaped you as a writer (or continues to)? What prompted your work in HFR?
Katie Condon, Poetry Editor, Grist
I played basketball in college. My senior year we won our conference and, appropriately, my roommates and I threw a party at our apartment for the team and anyone else who cared to come and celebrate. At an obscene hour of the morning, two friends of mine dared me to find a way into the middle of the living-room-dance-party and read a Frank O’Hara poem as loud as I could.
I forget which one I chose—it doesn’t matter, any would have been appropriate—but when I began reading, people stopped dancing and listened. Some went outside. Some went for another beer. But those who stayed in the living room passed my selected O’Hara around the room, very warm and very happy.
I realized then that poetry is not private. That solitude isn’t a decision to be alone, but a state of mind. I learned that solitude trails an interaction with something resonant. My friends listening as I shouted whatever poem it was over the bass of whatever Drake song taught me this. It is so valuable.
But grief is a complicated thing. Fame is even more complicated.
I’m from Sandy Hook, Connecticut. My town gained fame in a way I never wished it would. I was in Houston on the Fourteenth, but when I came home for Christmas a week later, I was shocked to see how many news trucks had stuck around. How many people were still pouring in from across the country to share their condolences.
At first, sharing my grief with these strangers felt nice. Then, as another week passed, it felt less so. It seemed, looking out of the eyes of my grief, that these people were here just to say they had been. For the fame of it: a family trying to contain their excited curiosity as they took a group photo in front of the evergreen-tree-turned-memorial outside of Sabrina’s Style in the center of town—smiling, like it were Rockefeller Center.
At moments like this, my grief felt large and angry and only half-right. Something terrible had happened, and our town was doing the best it could and the world was only trying to help.
“When the Chamber is Filled with the Moon” is one of those rare poems that comes in one long session. It is fragmented, which I think must be because I felt so fragmented. I was angry that it took that shooting for people, including myself, to look, for example, at a friend and actually register their fragility and beauty.
My poem, I hope, is coming to terms with this dark bit of human nature. The nature of grief. The nature of curiosity; the thrill we get from being so close to death, but not dying. The guilt we carry for feeling that curiosity at all.
And the hardest part—letting the dead dance without an audience. Turning off our TVs and sending the CNN trucks home.
Miles Klee, True False
I’m always influenced by those moments or facts or histories that seem entirely unbelievable, unreal. You can have a lot of fun trying to write them in a way that’s credible to someone reading about them—even if that’s almost never the result.
In a lot of ways, I’m just goofing around in a pastiche of post-war America, maybe poking at the pantingly eroticized fiction of boomers like Updike or Roth, all while trying to nail something down about the origin, mythos, and social hierarchies of the suburbs. Then there’s the addiction aspect, plus the uncanny feeling that the world is happening too much, and my inability to stop thinking about sex for more than twelve seconds. In the best possible light, “The Milkman’s Exhaustion” is an effort to define a self that is not merely a list of fixations. But also it’s just a bit of filth that needed writing.
Ally Harris, Her Twin Was After Me
Slogging through a period of diseased slughood, broke as fuck, working at a trucking company and babysitting two privileged normal spawns but still couldn’t pay the bills. I didn’t write real writing during that time, but the paralysis of those moments is the foundation of the writing I am doing now.
Slomo croaking frogs, snow-alone steeples, pits of shoveled salt. I saw a few short films at the Yale Union in Portland, Oregon. I am a bad intellectual and don’t remember whose they were, only that they were abstract, and many of the images lodged into the folds of my brain. Blinking, multiplying dots like reproducing cells, splitting and forming in color on the shook frame. Biking back from the YU, my ex-boyfriend and I got into a venomous fight on a street corner and I walked away from the stupid argument, to write all night out of revenge.
Dalton Day, Actual Cloud
1. When I was around four or five years old, I walked into my grandmother’s bedroom when no one was around and whispered “ass!” as loud as I could.
2. Slow dancing with my girlfriend Ricky to a Billie Holiday record, and finally figuring out how to stop time.
The poems in HFR were written because I am very different of my family. I come from strong, independent, thick-accented, hard-hearted people. I love, and am loved. They are mountains, and have allowed me to become rain.
Ben Segal, Pool Party Trap Loop
Finding collaboration has been very significant. I think I’ve been drawn to it in part because it can continuously shape my writing in surprising ways. For a long time I looked to procedures and formal constraints to force me into making otherwise-unwritable texts. The necessary sharing of control that collaborative work requires has been similarly productive.
I still use constraints—the two collaborative books I’ve written both involve constraining frames—but I’ve been really excited to write with others and to cede a large degree of authorial control. I worked with Feliz Lucia Molina and Brett Zehner on The Wes Letters, a book of letters to the film director Wes Anderson (kind of). Feliz and I also wrote a book called The Middle—a sort long serial prose poem that we hope will be published before too long. In both cases, collaboration has been key to exploring both new syntax and subject matter, which is, of course, very exciting.
And I like to draw things in spite of my inability to actually draw things well. I made a little drawing of a man with a light bulb in his throat and I liked the image. I also started to think about how we speak through the mouth, so the throat-light as projector became a way of warping the mouth’s function as a speaking organ and turning speech from a verbal/oral phenomenon to a visual one. So from there I just built out that image into a story.
Anne Valente, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down
Though this isn’t a specific moment, I’ve had many conversations in recent years about the role of landscape in fiction, and how big of a role the outside world should play in narrative in general. What continues to shape me as a writer is that all of it matters. Though certainly much fiction zeroes in on human drama, or narrows the focus of narrative to a central plot, I continue to be interested in fiction that recognizes a world beyond the human. Or, maybe phrased another way, fiction that observes, that sees the extraordinary in the ordinary: that the way a leaf falls to the pavement is just as worthy of attention as anything else.
At the time of writing “Like the Light Blue of Water,” I’d been researching and reading a lot about synesthesia. I was interested in learning more about a character who experienced sounds as colors, or numbers as sensations. I was interested in a story immersed in sensory overload, or a melding of the five senses.
Ben Hoffman, Together, Apart
I’m always jealous of writers who have epiphianic moments to refer to when asked this question. I think one of the difficulties in answering this is that most of the moments that shape us as writers involve reading, yet the most explosive, memorable reading experiences can also be detrimental to young or developing writers. Like when I was twenty-four and read Blood Meridian and tried to write like McCarthy for the rest of the summer. Did not go well.
After college I was a Teach for America corps member in Washington, D.C. In addition to teaching English, I served as the coach of a winless middle school basketball team, and my piece, “Downtown,” describes a drive I took with a student and his family to try to locate his birth certificate so he’d be eligible to play.
Nick Kocz, “The Pregnant Milessa”
Reading John Lennon’s In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Making while in high school was big moment for me. The quirkiness and inventiveness in these collections that instantly set me afire.
Another moment: the birth of my first son, Stephen. He’s older now and on the autistic spectrum, so he sees and responds to the world very differently to how I see it. At times magical, at other times maddening. Plus, there’s all the normal stresses that parenthood places on you.
In “Fires,” Raymond Carver says “Nothing—and brother, I mean nothing—that ever happened to me on this earth could come anywhere close, could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children. And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.”
At times, one senses an almost baleful influence of Carver’s children on his work. With me, it’s more varied. At times joyful, at times constraining. But it’s definitely shaped who I am as a writer.
So the first paragraph of “The Pregnant Milessa” came to me a couple of years ago while I was working on a really wacked-out novel. For months, I’d look at that paragraph, add a line or two, then go back to the novel. It kept pulling at me to complete it. And, of course, you’d probably see the impact of having children in that piece.
Joe Hall, The Devotional Poems
2003: At the end of class Lucille Clifton used to have everyone take each others’ hands and say something they were grateful for. From the outside, some of my peers thought this was corny. From the inside it felt right. It has been good to write from a place of gratitude and responsibility toward others. To imagine to what degree writing is contact and to what degree the process of writing involves contact—an open hand extended. I’m not always there.
My work in HFR is about different jobs I held from 2004-2009. I didn’t think much about these jobs at first, and then as I got more education they gave me a regional/non-urban or suburban, working-class face I could strategically put on or wipe off, and then a little bit later I’d wake up and my hands would be asleep and stay numb then tingling into the morning. I couldn’t sit in chairs or not notice all the pain in my legs. Then I think I knew a little bit more about the people who had worked beside me, who couldn’t jump onto some other quickly moving platform like I did.
T.j. Martinson, “Tornado Alley”
I can remember the exact moment that I knew wanted to be a writer. I’m very proud of the fact that I remember this. It makes me feel sentimental, a trait I really admire in people, though I would never tell it to their faces. Anyway, I had just graduated high school. I’d been writing poetry in high school, because that’s what tall, lanky, un-athletic boys do in high school. But before I went to college, my parents got me a laptop. They left for a weekend, and I went out on my parents’ back deck—a cup of coffee, the night sky, and my brand-spanking-new laptop. I think I went out there to play Solitaire, but I ended up writing a story. I kept going and going and soon it was midnight, and I was having the best time of my life. The story itself is one of the most abhorrent works of prose to have ever contaminated the ether of human existence, but that moment is special to me.
There have been so many moments since that point, but I’m enough of a sentimental person to recount them all.
More accurately, I guess “Tornado Alley” began with an image—a girl standing in an alleyway, knee-high in flood-water. In the piece, all the action occurs in a gravel alley beside a home. As a kid, my home had an alley to the side of it, and I spent a lot of my time in it—roller-skating, smoking candy cigarettes, etc. One day I was driving past my old home and it was raining. I think I was going to repair my car or something equally frustrating. The image of the rain falling and covering the alley just really stuck with me throughout the monotonous drive through a suburb of Illinois. When I got to my computer afterward, I just began writing about it and it developed all on its own. I wrote it all in one sitting (barring the time I spent editing and proofreading), working under a very real inspiration and fervor. You know those moments. The ones that come about as frequent as a prostate exam. Those moments where your entire mind is aligned, and every word you write—in a gunfire-like cadence—is the word that you normally would have spent an hour trying to find. The story just sort of came and I did my very best to grab it from the air.
Gabriel Welsch, The Four Horsepersons of a Disappointing Apocaylpse
Both of the poems started with the problem of trying to write about the facades that surround and accrue with memory. “Backstage in the Theatre of the Real” took years to come together. I had been accumulating imagery around façade for a while—at the time working a job that was close to theatrical productions—and I was interested in perspectives built and misled. When I came across the Hass line, my brain clicked around the organizing conceit and after several revisions and a hunt for concluding imagery, the thing now published came to be. The other had similar origins. I had a nagging memory of a time that I tried to convince my mother that sleeping at a friend’s house was safe. The boy had a divorced and struggling mother who worked swing shifts, and though his home was just five doors away, my mother had some concerns. He was known as a bit of a troublemaker, and he was. So I made up the story as it appears in the poem. In years since, I had wondered about how her perception of that story crystalized around the few items of substance, the “darkest object” (for her, the gun), and so tried in the poem to create the flimsiness of mental consideration, place-holding, and other navigation such that the core story emerged as a single certainty. The speaker—a modified me—I tried to work as equally doubt-plagued. Even now, I am realizing that this description makes the process sound far more certain than it was during composition and revision.
Photo credit: pinhed, morguefile.com