Backporch Summer 2016
What's the most embarrassing moment of your writing career?
I wrote pet horoscopes—my first job as a freelancer. But that isn't the embarrassing thing. I was fired because I made them funny. The boss told me that their customers really counted on these horoscopes, which were included in boxes of dog biscuits and cat treats. She said she needed a writer who took the job seriously.
I was in an intro to creative writing class. We just transitioned to fiction from poetry. I had a story first in the queue. The professor walked into class, fired up the computer and projector, and asked who knew what passive voice was. I did not. The professor, after fielding some of my classmates' attempts to answer his question, proceeded to project my story for the class to see. He had taken the time to highlight every instance of passive voice and every time I used weak helping verbs. For what seemed like hours, he lectured the class as if he were Joe McCarthy and passive voice were communists, all the while using my story as an example, a precautionary tale. This isn't to say the lecture wasn't helpful. I never really use passive voice now, unless I'm looking back on my first story, in which case I say, "Mistakes were made."
What frustrates you, pleases you, or challenges you when writing about the South?
The South is like a field full of lightning bugs, each one vivid, independent, mesmerizing to try and capture, impossible to keep. There are as many Souths as there are Southerners, and each one of us reserves the right to secede from any union, any conversation. Any one South claiming the name is already lying.
I think the big challenge in writing about the south is being aware of its history and how what’s gone before connects to how things are now. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the Carolinas and met some of the friendliest people on the planet down there and yet some of the stuff that comes out of the mouths of politicians and others from the area makes me think I’m from a different planet. By the way, Asheville NC is one of those places I would really love to move to.
What was the weirdest (or most wonderful) rejection that you ever received?
This answer goes along with what frustrates me when writing about the South. I received a rejection from a literary magazine editor that stated it was not believable that a strip club in Alabama would be playing Tupac. As if his music had never made it down here or our clubs only played fiddle music or 12-bar blues. I often find some editors want stories set in the South to stay within the expected stereotypes and out of contemporary culture.
It’s probably me who’s weird, calling this my most “wonderful” rejection, but here goes. Years ago, I had a very prestigious literary magazine in my sights, but couldn’t get in the door. I kept getting the same one-sentence form rejection telling me the piece was “not right for this issue” but to “feel free to send another story" in the next submission cycle” So I took them at their word. I tried the next submission cycle…and the next…and the next…each story suffering the same fate as the last. Now the frustrating thing about this little dance wasn’t the rejection itself. Rejections are a part of life. The rub was, the stories this magazine rejected had all been snapped up by other literary magazines of equal or superior quality. So I couldn’t imagine what I was doing wrong. Or, more accurately, what they were doing wrong. I convinced myself somebody at their editorial desks had never actually read any of my work, and to prove my point I scrounged up and mailed off one of the worst drafts I’d ever written. The rejection was swift, but this time it was personal! On the routine, one-sentence form rejection, someone had drawn a line through the word “another” and over the top of it, scrawled, “better.” I couldn’t help it. It made me laugh. I still have that rejection slip in my files.
What are your guilty pleasures in reading?
Definitely mystery novels. Whodunits especially. And usually the golden age writers like John Dickson Carr, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie. I find those cozy little murders to be strangely relaxing.
What's your advice for new and emerging poets?
One of the most useful pieces of advice I've ever received (in a workshop with Marie Howe) and made standard practice is to take another look at a poem you're feeling pretty good about--late stage revision, even "finished." Ask "And what else is true?" So many times this has led me on to the essence of a poem that was yearning to emerge.
The clichéd answer to this question is always "read," but I've always found a certain tinge of arrogance in that answer. Like "grab a few rando books from the library, ignorant writer, and poof! Publication awaits! You'll be hobnobbing at AWP in no time!"
So here is what I did when I really got serious about turning poetry into a career: I went to a university library and found the literary magazine section and read every damn one of them. I took notes on what I thought worked in poems that stood out to me. I took notes on what I thought didn't. It's one thing to analyze the ancient masters of literature (and something you should do!) but if you're still learning to perfect the breast stroke, does reviewing tape of Michael Phelps crushing the planet's greatest talent necessarily help your development right now?
You have to read the poets who are a rank or two above you. How are they getting into these awesome magazines? Because these are the people who you are competing with right now. And you need publications. That's what's going to get you into that grad program that's going to get you that academic job that's going to give you summers off to chase your literary gold medal.
What is the one thing you would change if you could about your writing or writing process?
My first drafts are terrible--cliche-ridden, clunky, and about twice as long as they should be. It usually takes me 3 or 4 passes (at least) to trim a given story down to something I can look at and say "I don't hate this." I've heard legends of the writers whose sentences come out poignant and perfect on the first go. If I could change anything about my writing and my process, I'd become one of those magical people and save myself the exorbitant time and energy I pour into revision.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I fell in love with short stories and started writing when I was 8 years old. After I learned to type that year, I entered two short stories into the Dade County Youth Fair. One was “Jenny and the Mystery of the 600 yard Run,” and the other was a story about an emancipated slave named Hera choosing a new name for herself. Ironically, 40+ years later I help people choose names for their businesses; but I have yet to write another mystery. That’s at the top of my to do list.
When I was nine, my seven year old brother dictated a poem to my mother. I was jealous of the praise he received, so I wrote one of my own. Mine quickly overshadowed his and was repeated by my parents to friends and relatives for years. I knew then, that I wanted to keep writing.
There wasn't an exact moment per se. As a kid, I loved getting lost in the world of books. Eventually, I wondered what it would be like to create worlds of my own, so I tried it, fell in love, and haven't stopped writing since.
What's the best line you've ever written?
"Tombstones are fitted hats for walking men." --- final line in my poem Refusing a Dog-Humped Leg (Gas Pedals), published in the upcoming issue of Milkfist.
I can't think of the best line I've ever written, but I'm awful proud of the simile, "spit like a shit stain," which I conjured up and stuck in a short story a few years ago. I'm also quite fond of the phrase, "raged against the liberal media machine," which appears in "So Tell Me About Your Ex."