What's the hardest (or best) part of writing about the South?
For me, the South is more sensibility than subject matter--my writing is more "of the South" than "about the South." What's hard? That Faulkner and Agee have already broken our collective literary heart. That "the South" is currently a political pejorative. That it's hard to hear one's inner voice over the insistent song of mosquitoes in the air.
At first, it was the assumption that characters that spoke the way mine did could be as intelligent as mine were. I’m not saying that these were brilliant characters, but people tend to misinterpret education with intelligence. If your characters talk funny and then have the sorts of thoughts that some people do not associate with talking funny, dissonance can form. These people may grow uncomfortable with their assumptions. Navigating those assumptions can take a disproportionate amount of time and breed frustration. You learn to be a little sly about Southernness; you start to wink at those in the know, while still taking the time to orient readers who might have wholly different upbringings than the one you experienced. Orienting your reader is important; loving them is a whole different thing. I always try to love my reader, even if I’m asking them to swallow a bitter pill. Sometimes that means toning down certain aspects of my work or giving more explanation than I want to give. Other times it means providing just enough signage that they will find their way. In either case, the work improves, I hope, without sacrificing my own peculiar flavor of Southernness.
There are so many Souths, and a stereotype for each one. I'll call myself Southern, and feel it, but to those from elsewhere, that adjective evokes many things that I am not. I love greens and grits and sweet corn and a lovely drawl (and all of our creativity with language). I do dislike the small-mindedness people sometimes associate with our part of the world.
As a non-native to the South, the most difficult part of writing about the South is also the best: I am an outsider. Having grown up in Ohio, I came to the South, namely Alabama, with young, fresh eyes. I saw and noticed aspects of the South, from intricacies of language to landscape, that varied so widely from my own experience. So much rich detail to write! But putting those differences to paper isn't easy. It's tempting to fall into stereotypes when trying to depict the South and the people who live there. There's a nuanced dance involved between being an outsider and writing about a place that is not yours, and I have to constantly remind myself what people already think they know about the South and what they need to know. To show the South through my perspective is exciting, but the challenge is making sure I get it right.
What drives you crazy about writing or the writing process?
The thing that drives me most crazy is how unpredictable creativity can be. There are times when the words flow effortlessly and others when I struggle to birth them into the page. The key for me is trying not to get complacent when the words are flowing or discouraged when they aren’t. This is easier said than done.
What literary pilgrimages have you been on?
The most exciting Literary Pilgrimage I went on was in 2000, when my friend Matt Jones and I went to the Geraldine R. Dodge Festival together. We met several of our favorite poets, heard all of them read, and heard poets new to us who we love to this day. The highlight of the weekend was when we sat down for a glass of wine and Amiri Baraka's wife sat down with us. We were talking about our background and introduction to poetry, and she stopped us and said, "Amiri! Get over here and meet these white kids!" and he came over and sat with us for a few minutes. It was surreal. Just hours before he had read an excoriating poem about the Bush Administration's actions in the Middle East. He made some members of the audience uncomfortable but we were fired up and honored to share his energy for a few minutes.
Three years ago I returned to my hometown of Hartford, Connecticut, and saw one of the most unusual monuments to a poet, Wallace Stevens. Thirteen granite blocks, each with a stanza of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," have been erected at intervals along the 2.5-mile route Stevens walked from his home to his office at The Hartford insurance company every day, often composing poetry as he went. It's amazing and wonderful to see these stanzas in front of stores, apartments buildings, and homes. The morning I visited, it was 38 degrees and raining. I told a security guard at the insurance company parking lot why I was there and asked if I could park in the employee lot and take a look. "Sure," he said, raising the gate. "It doesn't get many visitors."
What was the worst, best, or weirdest rejection you ever got?
For the last five years, I've received two personal rejections a year from Don Share at POETRY Magazine. I alternate between feeling as though I'll never get in and fantasizing the week-long donut party I'll plan after my acceptance. Worst acceptance ever? I once got one that said, "We'll take just this one"--implying the other poems in the submission weren't up to par. Gruff editor!
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
I think my parents knew before I did. When I was five or six, they put an old manual typewriter back in my bedroom. I asked what it did, and my mother just winked and said, "Find out."
According to my mother, I was writing stories and poems as soon as I learned how to write. She still has a copy of my first short story, "The Little Lost Kittin [sic]," which, as you can imagine, is full of 6-year-old pathos. I didn't fully envision myself as a poet, however, until my freshman year in college, when I wrote a poem as part of a literature class assignment and my professor praised it more highly than I expected (it may also have been an avoidance tactic, as I'd recently shown him some fiction I'd written and I think he was less impressed by that!). I wrote poetry avidly from that day forward. I still find myself drawn to that genre because of the way it seeks to encapsulate, to capture broad moments in pocket-sized pieces, to set them to music. My brain is always trying to make sense of experiences too large to encompass in a single thought, and poetry is a way of doing that.
I received my first diary when I was eight years old. It was a flowery little book with pink pages and a binding that locked and unlocked with a tiny key. Given my family’s regularity in reading my diary, I should have been more fastidious about locking it, but I eventually lost the key anyway. Years later, as I looked through those short diary entries in my large, simple hand with many misspellings and a focus on which friend I liked and who I was mad at and how bored I was living in India, I discovered several entries in which I announced my desire to be a writer when I grew up. “When I grow up, I want to be a writer and a storybook illustrator,” I stated at nine years old. I can’t remember why I wanted to be a writer, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write, especially since writing and long-term memory seemed to have coincided in the development of my brain.
What advice do you have for new and emerging writers?
Read a journal before submitting your work to them. Do your research. Respect submission guidelines. If you send out a piece to a hundred journals, you've got a decent chance of receiving an acceptance somewhere, but if it's not the right journal for your piece, and your piece isn't going to resonate with their readers, then what's the point? Receiving an acceptance is always great, but finding the perfect journal for a piece and then receiving an acceptance is ten times better.
Never write anything about things you don’t know anything about, that is to say, never sit down at the kitchen table and start sucking the story out of your middle finger. In addition to that: there’s nothing easier than to fashion a potato to look like a pear, to take a bite at it – and then complain to the whole world that it doesn’t taste like a pear, not in the least.
One piece of advice I would offer is simply to try and be resilient, particularly when the rejections arrive. All writers receive rejections, and you can’t take it personally. At the same time, when you receive feedback, try and listen and determine what can be learned. I believe the best writers are continually trying to improve their craft, but it takes more than just talent. It also takes a thick skin, belief, and the ability to keep pressing on.
Is there a story, poem, or essay nobody should write?
No one should again write a story in which a busty blonde's breasts "speak" to anyone. Yes, that happened more than once in submissions I was reading for inclusion in our college journal. It should stop.
What are your guilty pleasures when it comes to reading?
I am a sucker for a good mystery or thriller! I am an avid Stephen King fan; Hearts in Atlantis is one of my favorites because of the way the stories/novellas are woven together. However, lately, I have been indulging in works by Liane Moriarty, and I particularly like the audiobook versions by this Australian author because the accents add to the enjoyment. I am also a huge fan of comedy, so when life feels too dark for a thriller, I try to find a book written by a comedian. Some of my favorites include Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, Sarah Silverman’s The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, and Lewis Black’s Me of Little Faith.