Kyle: Welcome to the first Lit Witches discussion on poetry! I am the Writing Center Director at Oklahoma State University in Oklahoma City and writer/poet for the blog The Dusty Soul, where I highlight art around the Oklahoma region and some of my personal poetry. Today we’ll be talking with two published poets, Jennifer Stewart Fueston and Kate Gaskin on all things poetry, the good, the bad, and the ugly!
Here’s a little bit about the two authors:
Jen: I’m currently a stay-at-home mom and writer. Prior to my son’s birth two years ago, I spent 10+ years teaching academic writing at colleges in both the US and Europe. I’ve floated in and out of blogging, but occasionally post things at my author site.
Kate: I’m also currently a stay-at-home mom and writer with a background in teaching college writing. I grew up in Alabama and have lived in Texas, Nebraska, Colorado, and Florida. I currently live in the panhandle of Florida with my toddler and spouse, who is an officer for the US Air Force. I just recently started a writing blog, which can be found at katebgaskin.com.
Kyle: I’d like to start out by asking how you all got into the genre of poetry.
Kate: I’ve always just felt like a poet. Even when I’m dabbling in other genres, my default setting seems to be poetry. After college I spent a long time trying to write fiction and nonfiction–my master’s is in creative nonfiction writing–but about a year ago, I read an interview with a teacher I had in grad school in which he talked about doing the type of writing that suits your strengths, even if it’s not very glamorous. Poetry will never make me famous and it will never make me money, or not much at least, but if I feel like a poet, I might as well try to write some good poems to validate that feeling I have about myself.
Kyle: That’s great! I can relate to always feeling like a poet. I remember trying to write my own Prelutsky and Silverstein poems when I was in elementary school. However, I was also drawn to poetry because it feels like sculpting to me; you have the freedom to sculpt and mold words as you please, even into visual forms.
Jen: Like both of you, I think poetry is my default writing setting too. I still have stacks of spiral-bound Mead notebooks full of terrible poems dating back to elementary school! In college I focused on creative non-fiction, and my time teaching was in academic research writing, so I actually think that I’ve had the least formal instruction in poetry writing of all the genres. The past year or so, I’ve been trying to work on a memoir, but my procrastination from writing it has taken the form of increased poetry writing – much of which has had some moderate success, so I’m taking that as a sign that I need to trust my natural instincts more.
Kyle: I’ve had no formal training either, except for a few creative writing classes in undergrad. However, I love that you all – like myself – are following your intrinsic nature to write poetry. I think I would walk around with too many words and emotions in my brain if I didn’t get it out somehow! (However, I am a Pisces and we tend to overthink everything!) Do you think there is a certain type of person who is more inclined to write poetry versus other genres?
Kate: Poets are probably more inclined to fidget with language at a microscopic level.
Jen: It’s interesting to me that you’ve (Kyle) thought about poetry as being something like sculpture, which is moldable visually. For me, poetry is about the musicality of the language, so I tend to assume that the type of person who chooses poetry cares about sounds and rhythms. Someone who chooses poetry has to really love the material they’re working with – in our case, words.
Kyle: Where and/or how do you get your inspiration for your poetry?
Kate: Different methods. I try to always have submissions pending at multiple journals, and that’s a good incentive to write. Sometimes I sit down to write and I have a perfect experience, as if the poem is flowing through me from some divine space, but usually it’s more like banging my head against the wall while I grapple with severe self doubt and anxiety.
Jen: I think like many poets, I have had a few poems arrive fully formed without needing much revision, and those few have always felt like a gift. That experience is much more the exception than the rule, alas. One of the primary sources of inspiration for me lately has been my numerous travel journals. I have lots of little notebooks full of phrases or images that I am now mining for ideas. I also participated in a “write and post a poem a day” project last August with Tupelo Press, which was kind of a “gun to the head” method of writing. It was very good for me to have to produce daily and opened me up to some different sources of inspiration.
Kyle: Oh yes, the occasion when I’m able to sit down and basically type-vomit a poem is so sweet, but like you all have emphasized, so rare. I think, like most accomplished artists of any genre, the daily practice is what’s important. For me, writing daily (even if it means jotting down a phrase on a napkin) helps me keep up with ideas and new vocabulary. My background is in art history, and I think poems are highly visual, even though not considered a visual art. It’s also helpful for me to think of a piece of artwork or something visual to describe to get me started. I just visited the Blanton Museum of Art on the University of Texas, Austin campus. They have a poetry project, where local artists wrote poems in response to some pieces in their permanent collection. I thought it was very powerful and a great way to combine the two genres.
Kyle: Can you describe your creative process?
Kate: As much as I wish I were the type of writer to be productive in the morning, I tend to get more writing done in the afternoon. Oftentimes, I read poetry beforehand, either from my personal collection or from internet journals. Usually, writing a poem feels like trying to squeeze blood from a brick. Sometimes I have writing days where I don’t produce a thing. That feels discouraging, but sometimes the scraps of a future poem are germinating in my head, so I am trying to respect all stages of the writing process and not just the ones that actively produce a word count.
Kyle: Squeezing blood from a brick! What a great metaphor!
Jen: Like Kate, I start by reading something else first, whether another poet or some very stylistic or poetic prose. That usually gets me into the right headspace to start generating. I wish I could say I have a daily writing habit, but as the primary caregiver for a toddler who gets up pretty early, I have to make due in other ways. I try to get at least one afternoon a week away from the kiddo when I can put in some coffee shop time. I like the way that Kate said she’s “trying to respect all stages of the writing process” – I’m trying to respect all stages of my writing life. I am learning how to better work in focused bursts, either through monthly projects (like the Tupelo project I mentioned) or through writing retreats or workshops.
Kyle: That’s great, guys! As a writing center director, I definitely encourage the appreciation of all stages of the writing process for any writer. And that’s the great thing about words; they can be saved for a later date… at no cost!
Kyle: How would you describe your style? Are there any specific messages or a specific voice that you intend to draw out in your works?
Kate: I have a very specific style that does not always jibe with contemporary poetry, especially poetry being produced by younger poets. I write place-based lyrical poems that are oftentimes narrative as well. I think my voice and aesthetic are generally Southern, and I like being a Southern writer. I would like to keep my attachment to place, but I would also like to evolve in my writing so that my poems are appealing to more people.
Jen: All the poems I’ve published so far are short lyrics with a strong narrative sense. I’m certainly not experimental or cutting edge. In my earlier work post-college, I didn’t concern myself with form, it was all free verse (it looks haphazard to me now!). In my more recent work, I am trying to be more conscious of working in stanzas, counting syllables, playing with line breaks, testing out older structures like the sonnet, etc. In terms of themes or messages, I get much of my imagery and language from my Christian upbringing, but I am equally interested in the myths and histories of places that I have traveled and lived. I love writing about or in the voices of women who have been overlooked or pigeon-holed by history, whether they’re ordinary women, saints, or historical figures.
Kyle: I love that both of you use your personal cultures and communities to help ground your themes. Kate, similarly, I love to write about where I’m from. There’s something very poetic about the Oklahoma landscape, the amount of unpopulated land produces a space for serenity but also a sense of violence in the way the extreme climate has shaped the landscape.
Kyle: I just attended a conference where we talked about cultural dialect and the fact that not many dialects, unless written under formal scholastic requirements, really fit into the Standard Language Ideology. I think poetry allows for more leeway in the type of voice and vocabulary developed by the poet. With that being said, Kate, do you find that the Southern dialect influences your voice?
Kate: As an adult, I lived outside the South for almost 10 years and have just returned to it in the past two. It took being an expatriate of the South (and it really did feel that way, like being dramatically expatriated from a nation) to really appreciate the way my birthplace influences me personally, culturally, and artistically. I really liked having that distance to observe the South from a more objective viewpoint. It’s so culturally rich and dynamic and problematic, but it’s also easy to stereotype the South, to reach for cliches when trying to capture it. In my day-to-day life, I code-switch all the time. That is, my dialect changes dramatically depending on with whom I’m talking. As far as whether it infiltrates my writing. I’m not sure that the dialect does come through in my poems. But place is there always. There’s an almost claustrophobic feeling the natural world presents in most Southern climates. Everything is half-eaten by kudzu and rust. Linguistically, in my poems there may be a lyrical rolling that echoes a Southern drawl. Maybe? I might just be projecting my own desires onto my poems.
Kyle: Jen, I took several Italian Literature classes in undergrad, which (after reading what felt like one million sonnets) basically burned me out on anything structural when it comes to writing my own poetry. But, like you, I have come back to the idea that stanzas, syllables, and breaks do matter! I think the for my poetry is to provide a sense of organized chaos; I don’t like to be constrained by words (i.e. rhyme), but I have found that some sort of structure often enhances the poem. And kudos for providing a space for the female voice. Jen, are there any women that you’ve particularly enjoyed writing about?
Jen: It’s a little cliche, but I have a number of poems about Mary, the mother of Jesus. I’ve been validated in that subject, though, because Mary Sybizst won the National Book Award for poetry last year for her collection, Incarnadine, entirely focusing on Mary and the Annunciation. I also have loved writing about women painters like Georgia O’Keefe and Emily Carr, and about the nameless women “artists” of history who attempted to make their lives and surroundings beautiful despite their circumstances.
Kyle: What has the publishing process been like? What materials have you been able to publish?
Kate: The constant rejection is brutal, but it’s also normal. I do try to always research the journals I’m submitting to to make sure they’re a good fit, but mostly my agenda at this point is to get as many poems as I can published in the best journals that will have me. Over the course of the past year, I’ve had acceptances from six journals, five for poetry, one for an essay. You also learn to be grateful for the journals that let you know you got close even though they ultimately turned down your work.
Jen: I am not great about submitting as often as I should be. I seem to go through spurts of enthusiasm and then forget about it (I’m talking, like, for years at a time). I read a great article recently that challenged me not to be stingy about my submission process. That said, when I have gotten around to submitting things, I have had good results. This past year I had a chapbook accepted, my first, and got to participate in that daily poetry writing project online last August.
Kyle: Thanks for your insights! I think many aspiring publishers (like myself) often don’t know where to start, so this is helpful. It’s also nice to have somewhat of a support group for those of us who do go through the rejection process. It’s inspiring to see your success!
Kyle: Has anyone been especially influential to you (another poet, mentor, etc.) during your journey as a poet?
Kate: Mark Doty was the first contemporary poet that made me starry-eyed and grateful for the way language can be used as a vehicle for universal emotional connection. I still regularly reread my copy of Atlantis from high school. I had a teacher in undergrad who saw that I could be a poet if I tried harder, so in some ways I’m still trying to live up to that. Right now, I’m accepting applications for mentors. Kinda kidding, but not really. For me, the most frustrating thing about trying to get started outside of an MFA program has been the lack of mentorship from more accomplished writers.
Jen: Because I wasn’t focusing on poetry writing during my undergrad and grad work, I can’t say that I’ve had a consistent in-person poetry mentor. In the past few years, I’ve had a chance to take classes and workshops with several working poets (Ruth Ellen Kocher, David Mason, Bhanu Kapil, Scott Cairns) and gleaned insights from each of them. I was given some great advice somewhere along the line to study the contemporary poets I like, so there have been periods of time when I’ve just worked my way through everything by Jane Kenyon, Eavan Boland, Mary Oliver and a few others. That exercise has been very good for my poetry, both in terms of giving me topics to consider, but also showing me different forms to play with.
Kyle: And it’s great to have forums like Lit Witches where we can come together and talk about our practice, get ideas, and support each other. Kate, I loved what you said earlier about poetry not being the most glamorous genre; that fact comes with its own expectations and reservations. With that being said…. What advice can you two give for aspiring poets?
Kate: It took me a long time to learn that just because a poem isn’t suitable for publication doesn’t mean it was a waste of time to write it. I work hard on ALL the poems I write. I want every single one to be journal-caliber, but you really need those “weak” poems–because your great poems, the one poem out of ten that really shines, needs to sit on the hard-won foundation laid by the other nine you will never publish. So basically, it all boils down to write as much as you can stand to! And then write some more. Also the article Jen linked to earlier has great practical advice for submitting. Submit to more journals than you think you need to.
Jen: I echo everything that Kate has said. I’ll add, don’t feel like you have to like or even understand everything that is going on in the contemporary poetry world. Not every style or subject of poetry is going to interest or impact you equally, and that is okay. Figure out who “your people” are, what journals they might read, what they’re writing, and how your voice can add to their conversations. Find your poetry niche and then dig into that community as deeply as you can.
Kyle: I agree about not knowing everything there is in the contemporary poetry world. However, I think there’s opportunity for many different types of poets right now, which is exciting. And yes, I would reiterate for aspiring writers of any kind to just keep writing! From that, I believe comes our unique voices and our niche.
Thanks so much for your insight, ladies! This is interesting stuff, for poets and non poets alike. I can’t wait to read more of your works!