Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Habitual Poet: Ann Fisher-Wirth

Installment #16

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The Habitual Poet is an ongoing series of contributor interviews. If you are a Poemeleon contributor and would like to participate copy & paste the Q's from below and e-mail your answers to:

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Q: Where do you prefer to get your books?

I get my books from lots of places. In Oxford, MS, where I live, we have a fantastic independent bookstore, Square Books, and I always like to buy books there. But also I have a lot of friends who write, so by now I have acquired a lot of books either at readings or conferences, or by
trading with them.

Q: How many poetry books do you think you own, and what percentage of these have you actually read?

I still have all my poetry books from college and graduate school, and from nearly thirty years of teaching, as well as all the books I have acquired in connection with my writing, so they number in the hundreds. By now they are double-stacked in my shelves both at school and at home, and are sneaking into the kitchen and into piles on the bedroom floor. Dire! What percentage have I actually read? Well let's say I am saving things to do in my eventual retirement. Sometimes they proliferate faster than I can get to them. But I try at least to read a bit of each of them. And some, I've read dozens of times.

Q: When, where and how do you usually read? (i.e. at bedtime under the covers, cover to cover, etc.)

I have just bought a really comfortable chair -- an ambition for years. So now I will be able to say I read sitting up. But in the past I have tended to read in bed, or on the floor while doing yoga. I usually do not read cover to cover, for two reasons: I'm really busy, and I'm really impatient. I have trouble sitting still. But I am, on the other hand, reading constantly.

Q: What books of poetry have you read this month?

Brenda Hillman's Practical Water, Bob Hass's Time and Materials, Bill Stobb's fine book the title of which I am forgetting, Claire Keyes's Questions of Rapture, several books from Tupelo Press, and -- because I was teaching an upper division summer school course in 20th Century American Poetry -- various parts of David Lehman's Oxford Book of American Poetry.

Q: What other books/magazines/backs of cereal boxes have you read recently?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is a very cool mystery recently translated from Swedish. Lester R. Brown's book Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, which can be downloaded free from and which EVERYBODY SHOULD READ. And various books that I'll be teaching in the fall: Little Women, Huckleberry Finn, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, Black Like Me. As far as magazines, the main two are Vogue and Yoga Journal. And I am obsessively involved with Sunday Times crossword puzzle books.

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Q: When, where, how do you write, and why?(i.e. at dusk on a dock, longhand in a notebook, because...)

I wish I found it easier to write. Recently I broke a long spell of not writing any poems, by going to the Squaw Valley Community of Writers poetry workshop, where everyone writes a new poem every day. It was fantastic. Usually I free-write in a journal, jot down little things on scraps of paper, and so forth, and then eventually I read them over and see if anything begins to coalesce as a possible poem. Often, too, I write in my journal with my nondominant hand; sometimes this works to surprise me with language I am not conscious of. Sooner or later I begin to shape poems on my computer; I never actually write poems longhand because that handwritten process does not give me a sense of their shape.

Q: How many first drafts do you think you complete in a week? A month?

Which week? Which month? For months the answer would have been zero. Last week the answer was eight.

Q: How long do you wait before revising a poem?

Again, that varies wildly. I fiddle with poems until they feel done to me. Then I send them by my wonderful online writing group, which consists of seven or eight Wom-Po poets with whom I've worked for several years. Eventually I send them by my colleague and friend Beth Ann Fennelly. Sometimes I am dissatisfied with them for years; other times, they feel right the first time out. I'm still trying to find the second stanza for a dynamite first stanza I wrote more than thirty years ago...and I think I never will.

Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

Well, I tend to think they're done before they're done. Then I un-think that, once I give them a little time and look at them again with a jaundiced eye. I am sure that some of the ones I've published are not actually done -- but that is because I could now do them better, or at least differently. Eventually, though, most of them reach a form that feels complete.

Q: Have you ever given up an invitation so you could stay home and write?


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Q: What is your system for sending out work?

I used to keep records on little cards but I got tired of that, so I just write things down on sheets of paper, all of which are clipped together and kept on my second office desk -- the desk that has been my own personal possession for decades. Periodically I get mobilized and send things out, sometimes in response to requests for work, sometimes to contests, sometimes just to journals I admire. When something is rejected I draw a line through the entry and when something is accepted I circle it and write YES. It's very primitive but very efficient.

Q: What have you more recently received: a rejection notice or an acceptance? Was it what you expected?

I am delighted to say, two acceptances of poems -- one for an anthology, the other as 2nd place in a journal contest -- and a contract for a book. Expected? No. But I didn't not expect it, either. I have worked hard on letting go of expectations; that way I am happy when work is taken and much less dejected than I used to be when it is turned down.

Q: Where do you generally publish: online, in print, or a mix, and do you have a preference?

At this point I publish in print and online and in anthologies. I don't really have a preference, as long as the journal or collection is one I really admire.

Q: What is the worst (or weirdest, or best) experience you’ve had with a journal/magazine/press & its editor(s)? (No names, please!)

Both my worst and my best experiences publishing are connected not with a journal or magazine, but with the long-ago process of publishing my scholarly book on William Carlos Williams. It's too long a story to tell here. The short version is, after various catastrophes and acts of carelessness on the part of three university presses, which ate up much of my tenure clock, I was so demoralized about trying to publish this book that I -- literally -- got drunk and held my one and only manuscript over an incinerator, ready to dump it in and light a match. In the days before computers this would have been the end of my chances for a book and therefore of my academic career. My husband persuaded me to try just one more press, so I did. One month later, the press got the first peer review, which said, in essence, "Don't change a word; publish it." The editor wanted to get one more peer review, so he sent the manuscript out again. Two days later he got the second peer review, which said, "I read it last night and I read it again this morning just to make sure. It doesn't need a thing. Publish it." And that is why I am here today. I will forever be grateful.

Q: Have you ever received any fan (or hate) mail? If so, what was that like?

Yes I have received fan mail and it is such a wonderful experience to know that people I've met and people I've never met, long-lost friends and total strangers, have been moved by my work.

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Practical considerations:

Q: What is your day job, and how does it affect your writing?

I am a Professor of English at the University of Mississippi. I love my job but it keeps me WAY too busy, as I teach all levels of classes from freshman seminars in the Honors College to graduate workshops and seminars; I also direct the Environmental Studies minor on our campus. So, my job affects my writing by making it nearly impossible to find time and psychic space and solitude for poetry. But it also affects my writing in that I am constantly exposed to good or great writing; I live with the great literature of the past daily, and I'm lucky to be part of a vibrant ongoing community of writers.

Q: How does your significant other’s occupation affect your writing life?

My husband also teaches English at the University of Mississippi. He knows more poems by heart, and knows more about poetry and poets altogether, than anyone else I know. I'm incredibly lucky in his companionship, support, understanding, and knowledge. I'll expand this question a little to add that I'm also very lucky to have a poet daughter. (And four other wonderful children too.)

Q: Have there been periods in your life when you couldn't write?

Oh yes. I didn't write any poems for ten years, for instance. This was for complicated and multiple reasons, but once I started to write again I made a vow to myself that no matter what, I would never quit. I've kept this vow though I do have periods of struggle.

Q: Do you have a “poetry budget”?

I put the money I earn for readings and selling books in a special savings account, and I use some of it occasionally. Mostly, I'm just saving it. Also I have built up a faculty development account that gives me money for travel; for instance, it enabled me to go to the workshop at Squaw Valley. But budgeting in our household is extremely informal.

Q: Have you ever suffered (or made someone else suffer) in the name of your art? (i.e. picked up your kids late from school so you could finish a poem, forgone lunch to buy a book, left a relationship because the other person just didn't understand, etc.)

Yes I have. How, when, and why are woven into my books.

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Random nonsense:

Q: Do you have any superhuman abilities? (i.e. can you tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue, or write a double sestina with both hands tied behind your back?)

'Fraid not, though I can bite my toenails.

Q: You write a scathing poem about your mother and she learns about it. You:

a.) Move to South America and leave no forwarding address
b.) Delete the poem and insist it never existed
c.) Show it to her (she’s already written you out of the will anyway)
d.) Do none of the above; instead you: _____

My mother is dead and I have not an iota of scathing feeling about her. So I will transform this question, and say that it's scary to write things that other people might be hurt or shocked by. But I have found to my great joy that the people in my life whom I care about are willing to love and accept me, and that taking this chance -- as I have done in my books -- has ended up being a profoundly healing experience.

Q: If the best medical specialists in the world told you that if you didn’t give up your poetry habit today you would die in six months, would you get your affairs in order or would you leave that up to your family?

I'd probably just go around hugging everyone in my family all the time, and getting hyper-emotional, and trying to write really good poetry. Getting my affairs in order would take way too much time.

Q: If you could be a vowel, which one would you be and why?

I'd be A. I'm used to it, being an Ann.

Q: Finally write a couplet for a collaborative ghazal using the following kaafiyaa and radif: “said the poet”.

Paradise is jagged, Eden comes slowly, and we know it --

But peaches today at the farmers' market were lush with rain and summer,

said the poet.


Ann Fisher-Wirth is the author, most recently, of Carta Marina (Wings Press, 2009). Her chapbook Slide Shows is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. With Laura-Gray Street she is coediting an anthology of contemporary ecopoetry, to be published by Trinity University Press. She teaches at the University of Mississippi, and will spend two months next spring teaching at Fribourg University, Switzerland.

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