Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Habitual Poet: Christina Lovin

Installment #6

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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: editor@poemeleon.org.

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Q: Where do you prefer to get your books?

I prefer to get them from independent booksellers, but that's not always possible. I also like to buy books at readings, both to have them signed and to show a visible support to the writers.

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

I own at least 200 poetry books. I've probably read through about half of them. I have read parts of all of them. Some I return to over and over.

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

I tend to read novels or memoirs at night before going to sleep. I'm learning that turning off the TV and reading helps me get to sleep faster and rest better. I prefer to read poetry in daylight for some reason, or at night if I'm on a residency (Vermont Studio Center, VCCA, etc.). My hectic schedule makes it difficult to get into poetry unless I have some time set aside.

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

I have most recently read Carey Salerno's book, Shelter, and Shaindel Beer's book, A Brief History of Time, along with several chapbooks by poets I know. I was pleased to be a part of the fabulous Not a Muse by Haven Books, Hong Kong. It's an anthology of women poets from around the world. I've been reading through it slowly, savoring the various voices. There are some poets to whom I return on a regular basis: W. S. Merwin (a friend recently gave me a signed copy of one of his books), Kenneth Patchen (Collected), Mary Oliver, Li-Young Lee, and a few others.

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

I've read parts of many journals and anthologies (from contributors' or contest entrants' copies, primarily). My time is very limited due to teaching, so I rarely read journals cover to cover. I've had copies of Meridian, New Letters, Crazyhorse, and several anthologies on my desk lately. I will pick one up, read a bit, then go back to my grading or class planning.

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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 often begin poems in my head, while I am driving. That's usually when inspiration hits. I suppose that's due to the fact that my body is engaged in the process of driving, leaving my mind free to wander a bit. And no, I haven't caused any accidents. I hit and killed a bird a few days ago. After I stopped crying (heaven forbid I hit anything with fur!), I began a poem in my head, then came home and worked on it from time to time. I have what I call "poem starts" on tiny little pieces of paper stuck here and there; I try to commit them to an electronic copy as soon as possible (and I back up my computer religiously).

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

The number of drafts depends on what I am doing. It can range from ten in a week to five in a month. I have recently had a couple of "projects" I am working on and have been funded for. I feel a sense of obligation to work on those poems before any that just come to me out of the blue. I have somewhere around a hundred first drafts that I return to from time to time.

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

Again, that depends on what else is going on in my life and teaching. I'm always very grateful when a poem seems to appear nearly whole. But even those seem to cry out for revision until they are published. I never just wait to revise. It's all about time. If something comes to me and I feel the need to revise something, I'll try to do it when that feeling hits. I don't ever want revision to seem like work. To me, it's more like tweaking a painting.

Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

I read a quote once (I believe it was attributed to Ellen Bryant Voigt): "It's all a draft until you die." But that idea aside, I do believe there is a point at which a poem will either settle into place or ring clearly, like when the rim of good crystal is tapped.

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

Yes. If I am in the middle of something, I've begged off social gatherings. My life is pretty quiet, so that doesn't happen often.

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Q: What is your system for sending out work?

I'm very thankful for sources like Poets and Writers, Duotrope, New Pages, and the CRWROPPS list-serve. I tend to peruse calls for submissions and/or literary awards. I used to use the Poet's Market, and still keep a fairly current edition on hand. But it's so easy to see online what journals and anthologies are looking for, then look through my finished work for work that fits. I have an electronic system as well as a note-card system for keeping track of my submissions and entries. I keep actual copies of the version of each poem I send out to each publication in folders on my computer; I also have a note card with each poem's title and a running list of submissions on one side, with a list of any acceptances on the other side. If something comes back rejected, that folder is put in my "Not Accepted" folder and simply crossed off on the note card. If (oh joy!) a poem is accepted or wins (or places) a competition, I have computer folders for those, as well. On the note card, I simply make a note as to whether the poem was accepted for publication, was a winner, or a finalist. I like having both a hand-written record of submissions, along with an actual electronic copy of the poem as it was submitted.

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

I received an acceptance this morning, in fact. An anthology accepted what I consider a rather hard-to-place poem. Yesterday, however, I received a rejection. I try to keep enough work circulating that a rejection doesn't make me feel bad because I know I still have twenty or more pieces "out there."

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

I prefer not to publish online, but I know that's "old school." There are many excellent online journals in existence these days. So, to answer the question, I would say that I publish about 20% online, the rest in print.

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

I guess it wasn't that weird, but one editor of a poetry journal, deleted one whole stanza of a poem. Another time, I was not even notified that my work would be published until the journal appeared in my mailbox. Nothing terrible, however.

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

No fan mail, really. However, one of my poems, "Shadow," appeared in the premium dog magazine, The Bark, a few years ago. A poem by Maxine Kumin was in the same issue, so I felt I was in good company. When the following issue came out, I saw that a reader had written a letter to the editor about how much she enjoyed my poem and that "she wished she had read it." A few months later, I found that same poem on an individual's website, under "Poems I Like Alot (sic)," along with poems by Franz Wright and other notable poet.s The line breaks were all wrong, so I emailed the owner of the website to let her know there was a problem. She emailed me back, stating that someone else had loved the poem and sent it to her. She was happy to fix the line breaks; I was happy someone liked my work enough to post it.

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Practical considerations:

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

Day. Night. Weekends. I received my MFA in 2004 and began teaching that fall. Due to hiring freezes at the college where I work, after five years I am still an adjunct. Due to the low pay of adjuncts, I've taken on another few classes at a nearby university. During the regular school semesters, I teach from five to seven classes each semester, primarily composition. Needless to say, I spend most of my time planning classes or grading. I do squeeze in time for my own writing when I can. I've learned that the weeks between semesters in May (four weeks), August (two to three weeks), and December-January (three to four weeks), are when I do most of my serious writing, revising, and editing. I try to get away to a residency somewhere for at least two of those periods of time.

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

Right now I don't really have a significant other (unless you count my three dogs). I do feel that since I am single and don't have to account for my time to anyone, I write whenever I have the time and feel the urge. When I was married, that wasn't the case.

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

Oddly enough, for about six months after completing my MFA in Creative Writing (with a Poetry emphasis), I didn't want to write poetry. I craved reading prose. As far as stressful times, those are when I have been the most prolific.

Q: Do you have a “poetry budget”?

I should! I know that I spend far too much on reading fees and conferences, but writing is my "real work." I guess to be honest, if I have the money, I spend it on poetry (books and activities that I feel get me closer to my work). Okay, sometimes even when I don't have the money...

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.)

I feel that sometimes people suffer because of my writing, not because of time constraints so much, but because of the content. I just watched a French movie (so I was reading the subtitles). One line really caught my eye: "If art causes pain, it's not really art." I'm not sure I agree with that, but it made me stop and think. I've written about personal issues that involve other people and I'm sure they had a hard time reading the poems. As far as myself, I decided years ago that whatever it took, I would write. That attitude has cost me a great deal in a lot of ways.

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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?)

I'm not sure why, but I seem to be able to write long sonnet sequences very easily. There is something about that particular form with which my mind resonates. I can't say they are great, but all but one (newly written) have been published and/ or won some sort of award. Oh, and I can read upside down with ease.

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 gone now. But if she were living, I would show it to her and hope she would understand. There are some dark family issues that I am just now gaining the courage to write about. Maybe it's best she's not around to read those poems.

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?

Six months? I have far too much to write about to worry about getting my affairs in order! In fact, one of my greatest fears is dying before I say all I want to say.

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

I would be the vowel "O." It is associated with such a wide range of emotions. "Oh!" (surprise) "Ohhhh!" (I see...) "Ohhhhh!" (pleasure) "Ohhhh! (delight) "Oh!" (disgust) Not to mention it's one of the easiest ways to form a kiss.

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

It looks as if the two lines should rhyme. I'm not sure this is right, but here goes (two tries):

"Cut a piece of your truth and with words like needles, sew it.
Then rip out the seams, tear it up. Start again," said the poet.

"Some would reject your exotic fruit and say how to grow it,
when all they can raise are ordinary apples," said the poet.

This second try is pretty much was Li-Young Lee told me when he was my faculty mentor. : )


Christina Lovin is the author of What We Burned for Warmth and Little Fires. A two-time Pushcart nominee, her writing has appeared in Harvard Summer Review, Triplopia, Diner, Hunger Mountain, Poet Lore, The Lyric, and many other journals and anthologies. The Southern Women Writers’ Conference awarded Lovin the 2007 Emerging Poet Award. Her poetry has been named finalist for the 2006, 2007, and 2008 Rita Dove Poetry Award and the 7th Juried Reading at the Poetry Center of Chicago. She has received the Judson Jerome Scholarship from Antioch Writers’ Workshop, the Baron Wormser Scholarship for the Stone Coast Writers’ Conference, and, most recently was awarded the 2008 AWP WC&C Poetry Scholarship. Lovin has served as Writer-in-Residence at Devil’s Tower National Monument and the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Central Oregon. She has been a resident fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Footpaths House in the Azores. Her work has been generously supported on several occasions with grants from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council, including the 2007 Al Smith Fellowship.

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