Monday, September 14, 2009

The Habitual Poet: Deborah Bogen

Installment #12

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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?

Everywhere. I buy online, new and used. I buy audiobooks and put them on my Ipod for running. I own a Kindle and download often. I frequent used book shops – my favorites being The Red Letter Book Store in Boulder, Colorado and Caliban in Pittsburgh, PA. I have to buy new book shelves every summer and then I have to co-opt more space in the house to put them up. I buy books at yard sales and I steal books from my husband and grown children. I buy poetry, novels, non-fiction, anything interesting about the long and varied “Middle Ages”. I buy kid books my grandchildren might like and am trying to write a good one myself. I do not believe in book-buying limits. When I met my husband I noticed that he had big stacks of books by his bed, more stacks in the bathroom, an entire office filled with books – and I realized we would be good together. I don’t eat much but I am a book glutton. I buy my friends’ books. I can be small-minded so sometimes I buy books by people I don’t like hoping they are bad books. I am often disappointed to find that people who are jerks can still write good books. I buy all the books my heroes have written which means I have a zillion Simics, Merwins and Wrights (we are talking Charles, James, Franz, CD – lots of Wrights) and Ellen Bryant Voigt, and Lynn Emanuel, and Jean Valentine, and Carol Frost, and Jeannie Beaumont, and Martha Rhodes and Pete Fairchild. I write all over my books, and I read everywhere including the tub. When I got to spend a whole day with William Merwin I took book of translations by him that I’d bought when I was only 19 and had him sign it for me, knowing he wouldn’t mind the coffee rings, the water spots and the dog-earred pages. I buy books at almost any reading if the poet is in there pitching. I buy from people who live in my town. I buy the books of editors who take the time to read my work. I buy mystery novels by people I meet at parties. Sometimes someone reviews one of my books and you better believe I get theirs right away. I buy books by young poets who excite me and by really really old poets who have just gotten their first book published because they lived a long, hard, good life supporting other people before they got a chance to write. I buy all the books my teachers have ever written and all the books my students write. Once I bought a book about books. If you have a book to sell you should get in touch with me.

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

I am not in my home state right now – but many many hundreds. I can’t claim sole ownership of them all. My husband has been buying poetry since maybe 1957 and until we married I was too poor to buy many books and I did not realize that when you find a good book you should get it right then even if you can’t get to reading it for awhile because it may be gone later. Of the ones I keep in my office (hundreds) I have read in them all because I have a rule that I can’t put them on a shelf until I really know what’s in there (otherwise I just forget I bought it.) I am weakest on anthologies – lots of those come to me unsought and does anyone read a whole anthology. I read masters intermittently – Mallarme e.g., and not always the poems (Divagations fascinates me.) I read a lot of poetry in the fall winter and spring and less in the summer because I love a summer novel that takes my head on vacation and I am rather lazy so I tend to float down book creek till Sept.

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

Most anytime I am not at the gym or fooling with the house or playing music or hanging out with Jim or my granddaughter, or otherwise engaged. I have no day job so I can do that (age has perks). A really good poetry book reading session is usually cut short by the urge to write. If your book makes me want to write, I am loving your work. When I read Reginald Shepherd I am engrossed but mystified. When I read Bob Hicok I am totally engaged, curious to figure out how he does that brilliant stuff and usually deeply moved. In either case I want to be better writer. To write right then.

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

B H Fairchild’s “Usher” just captivated me. I meant to read a couple of poems and got up 2 hours later saturated in his view of the world. It ate me whole. Also, Merwin’s “The Shadow of Sirius” with its clean mysterious wisdom. I can only read a little Merwin at a time. But I go back and back. I keep one file with “Necessary Poems” in it. Each of these poets were contributors this month.

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

I am writing a novel for 12 year olds that takes place in the 1200s (Guildford England). I’ve been researching life then and there for some time – again mostly in the summers. I just finished “Medieval Children”, and today “Medieval Schools” arrived. These are both by Nicholas Orme - a hero scholar who has the courage to say “We really don’t know” when we don’t and whose citations are exhaustive. I have read Ariana Franklin’s novels as possible models for how to tell a story from this time period. Also Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth” and some Bernard Cornwell for story telling hints. Early this summer I read Cathy Day’s “Circus in Winter”. If you have not read it get it today. It’s marvelous – full of marvels is Cathy Day. Also, Doiug Anderson’s “Keep Your Head Down” – a must read for anyone who lived throuigh or is even vaguely interested in the sixties, Vietnam and sadly – what we are doing to yoiung people today.

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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 need serious quiet to write poetry. Wish I didn’t. I know folks who write in coffee bars – and envy them. I write in my office at my cluttered desk where books, 3 x 5 cards covered with ideas, words, phrases and doodles abound. I love the 3x5 card and the little yellow sticky life. They externalize the brain in an interesting way. I keep an old recipe box filled with lines from poems that didn’t quite make it and sometimes I just take that out to see if any of what is in there belongs in what I am currently writing. Writing is about constellating the world for me – the things that connect never fail to amaze me. I have notebooks of handwritten material from a writing group I run. That group activity is not for “workshopping” but for generating new material based on prompts. Since I make those up for the group I have (quite literally) thousands of them. Mostly I need quiet and uninterrupted time. So that’s a little lonely and pathetic but when I am away from the desk for long periods I get lonely for the poems. Oh – I usually re-write for a long time. For me the first thought is never the best thought. The poem has to tell me what I am thinking about. I have to find that poem floating out there on the edge of consciousness.

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

Writing is phasic. Sometimes I write tons. Sometimes I go to the gym, learn new songs on my uke, hang out with my granddaughter, clean my house, make ceramic tiles, make other stuff, sing with my husband. When I write I usually work on 5 poems at the same time, following the Don Hall maxim to work on a poem till it is not fun anymore (for 
”fun” read “productive”). This rhythm keeps things new. I don’t like to work on one poem consistently for a long time. I quit hearing it then. So in this mix is usually one or two older failed works that I hope to be able to do better with now.

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

That’s case specific but time always helps. I often think things are better than they are. If I put it away a few days I see more when I come back.

Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

Sometimes it really is good and I can tell. Other times I feel desperate but hopeful. Sometimes I give it to a poet whose work I love and whose judgment I trust totally. She’s a marvel. If you find that kind of writing partner it is an incredible gift and relief. Someone who is your speed – honest – good. It’s incredible. I like to treat poems as things. Pieces of art. They can be usefully taken apart and reassembled. Also, my husband is a good first reader for me – I know some folks think that’s odd. We have a sort of code – “that’s going to be good” is all I need at first by way of early criticism when the poem is trying to emerge. Occasionally I love and keep a poem he thinks is not good. Life’s like that. But poetry is demanding and you have to be true to your own take on it – while you are open to smart people. You have to learn to ignore a lot of people. Soft people make poor writing partners.

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?

Also phasic. Right now I have a new book coming out and I am laying low – not trying to publish. It’s so hard to get a book that I think I deserve a rest from trying to impress editors. I like editors more than many writers I talk to. Lots of poems have been saved by early rejections. I keep a giant notebook with data about which poems are where, sometimes about responses – say when an editor has returned work but asked me to resubmit. I also keep copies of the poems AS SUBMITTED since the turn around is so long and a poem may change (scary thing – that). For books – I wait till the MS is truly done and then I enter everything. This time it only took 3 months to win a contest so I was lucky. But when this book won I still had to write and withdraw it from maybe 25 contests. That’s how much I enter once I start. So much is chance if you are not well-known or well-connected and it’s hard to predict when the stars will line up for your book. There are lots of good books on the market. Lots. It’s pricey to do the book contest thing but I don’t really have a good alternative right now. My new work is too new to send out now. When it’s ready I will send out a bunch at once. One important thing - when I send out work I act clerically – and am quite detached these days from the results. Returns don’t hurt the way they did when I started out. I have found that if you have decent work and send out a lot when you have it - it will probably interest someone. When you try for big venues you have to expect rejections based not only on the work but on the quantity of submissions and frankly on the fame of many of the names, old allegiances and the like. I think that’s fair. Some editors have been so very helpful to me and I appreciate it. We all get a turn to benefit from that if we work hard and persevere.

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

I like big famous magazines as much as the next poet, and I will keep sending to some I love, but I have come to think that the internet journals are better read. I confess that I had a prejudice against web work in the beginning and that caused me to send my weaker work to online journals. That was pretty stupid because that work is widely seen and stays online a long time. These days I split the work based not so much on the format but on the magazines (online and print) I love. I like newer small magazines too where younger poets are being energetically intense. I love that. Poetry is a world where minds meet regardless of bodies and ages and that makes it a great place to hang out.

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

Okay – I think I already admitted I have a small-mindedness that can come into play when the publishing world gets tough. There’s a little fairly unknown journal that published me early on and later I sent them work and got back a snotty letter critiquing in detail and with attitude out the kazoo. They recommended that I read their journal – clearly not realizing I had written both reviews and poems they had published and since I always read journals I send to it just got my goat. I decided to write back and thank them (yes, I was that bad) and let them know I was looking at the work again in light of their criticism. I should say I have often benefited from editor’s comments but these were snarky and, I thought, not kindly meant. So six months later I resent the poems unchanged and they loved them and published them and I really did get a laugh out of it. However, that’s not the kind of thing I usually do. I have not found seeking revenge to be a useful thing in this business and have worked to understand the editorial experience. I rarely say “never again.” Many editors have taken time with my work and been extraordinarily helpful. David Hamilton at The Iowa Review (Cati – take out names if that is uncool) once fixed a line for me that had given me lots of trouble and I was grateful to have that help. That poem needed a less-involved reader to fix it. Also, I recently guest-edited an issue of a good journal and that taught me a lot about what it takes to read so many poems. Demanding work.

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

Oh yes. Many kind notes and emails and some fun and funny criticism (I doubt it qualifies as hate mail.) There’s a group of readers online who took apart a poem I had in a big-time magazine – claiming certain lines (or was it syllables?) were only there to “make the rhythm work” (which they seemed to think was criminal.) I thought it was great that the poem made enough of an impact to get their attention. Also, lovely people will reprint my poems on their sites and I love that. Then there is someone in New York who routinely reads a poem of mine doing an impersonation of sorts. ..that is she reads it as if she wrote it but she credits me and I am cool with that. It’s a sort of poetry/theater thing. Every once in awhile a writer who I really admire writes about something he or she saw and I float around the house for a few days on that. I have been talked about on that site that critiques book contests and my wins have been called into question – as if I had an in with the judge. I have never even known a judge who chose my work but I don’t think any time someone does it’s a crime. It’s hard not to know people in the poetry world if you are truly involved. I did think it was stupid that the internet site fellow did not even contact me to see if I knew the judges before they took off hollering. Yesterday someone from Oklahoma City called my cell to ask if he could send a poem to me to critique after he saw something on the internet. It’s always interesting. I write a lot of fan letters myself. In the age of the internet and printed directories it’s easy to find folks and we all need feedback. Write to everyone whose work you love.

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Practical considerations:

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

The downside of age is you will can see death on the horizon. The upside is that you may be retired from your day job and have more time to write. Also, you can see death on the horizon and if you have work you want to finish you will be convinced you had best get to it. When I worked for money I was a paralegal which is a fairly hateful job but paid many bills. I began writing in the last three years of that job and did manage to publish a lot of work and win a chapbook prize judged by Ed Hirsch. That convinced me I had a shot at making art that interested others. So retirement has made it easier, and when you have all that time you know you have no excuse. If you can’t write when you have free time to do it – you can’t write.

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

I am married to the ideal person when it comes to a writer’s needs. He is a philosopher of science by trade but loves poetry – and not because we are partners, but because he is hip. So, he not only tolerates my obsession, he encourages it, he aids and abets. I have spent probably too much money on versions of poetry camp (I actually recommend summer things – but they do cost a lot) and he has not begrudged me any of it. He has traveled with me to promote books, he’s sold books, carried books, fed me on the road and off, and eaten pretty bad room service when I got so sick at the AWP I couldn’t even go downstairs. He is retired from active teaching and we are living off pensions from our jobs. We are lucky and we know it and we use the time we have to work hard and to enjoy hard.

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

Fatigue has gotten in the way. Laziness has gotten in the way. Nothing like “writer’s block” whatever that is. I have always been part of a writing group geared not to critiquing but to producing new work. Those groups are detailed on my website, and they work perfectly. The world is fascinating and there’s lots to get said before you croak so the real difficulty is to do that well. Have there been periods in your life when you couldn’t write well – that’s an interesting question.

Q: Do you have a “poetry budget”?

I buy books constantly but books are not that pricey used. I don’t have all the money I’d like to travel for research and readings but that’s not a huge hardship. When the Mastercard gets scary I pull back but these days I don’t attend fancy
summer things (Breadloaf – there’s a way to drop some serious money) and I decided up front not to spend money for something like a low-residency MFS program, because it seemed my family had other needs more pressing. I have found free teaching over the years so if you don’t need the MFA degree then you can learn from lots of people and the enormous amount of well written stuff out there. So I don’t have an amount set aside but I don’t spend willy-nilly either. I don’t have any expensive habits – my habit is poetry.

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.)


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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?)

On occasions. I have had writing jags where I produced both good criticism and good art. That’s an amazing feeling and for me has never lasted longer than a summer. However, I am a drudge by nature and a great believer in incremental progress in nearly all aspects of life.

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: _____

Stephen Dunn has a genuinely brilliant essay called (I think) “Fidelity” that talks about the problems we all have with people we write about and our responsibilities to them when we write. He opines - and I agree - that if your art depends on doing something that would be hurtful to someone to whom you owe better, then it is weak art. I never write something I would not want the subject to read – although I do write poems that people in my family might feel uncomfortable with. E.g., I was raised in a strict religious setting that I know did not serve me well when bad things happened. I explore that in my poems because it matters to me and it might matter to a reader who is struggling with those things. My mother, who is very religious, probably would like it better if I didn’t write those but they are not about her – not scathing - they are an honest attempt to deal with the whole church/God thing and death and loss. I always tell her she may not like something and she needn’t read it but she is a loyal person and I know she at least buys the books. I do not write about my children in any way that might even remotely embarrass them. I don’t write about my husband because I’m not good enough to do justice to the gift living with him has been. It’s hard to write about happiness.

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?

If the doc said I would die in 6 months I would stop writing immediately and spend all my time with my husband, kids and especially my six year old granddaughter who is the kind of kid they invented the phrase "light of my life" for. Writing is good but writing is for when you have time to spare from the people you love.

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

I am the vowel "O" - ask anyone....

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

Colorado/sky/world now become good bread.
Thus I'm either wise or fool, who knows, the poet said.


Deborah Bogen's latest collection, Let Me Open You a Swan, is the winner of the 2009 Antivenom Prize from Elixir Press and will be released in March 2010. Her earlier prize-winning books are Landscape with Silos and the chapbook Living by the Childrens Cemetery. Recent work has appeared in Poemeleon as well as New Letters, The Iowa Review, Crazyhorse, Ploughshares, Shenandoah and others. Her recent essay on the writing of Lynn Emanuel can be found online by googling "Emanuel Elegies Bogen."

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