Writing tips


I was lucky enough to meet poet Grant Clauser at the Push to Publish event this past October. I grabbed his book, The Trouble With Rivers, and knew I had to interview him.

Below is the interview:

WITTLE: What books are you reading right now?

CLAUSER: The most recent poetry books would be Richard Carr’s Lucifer (sort of a novel in poetry form—he tells the story of a drug-addled guy who’s stuck with Lucifer hanging on his shoulder all the time); Mary Biddinger’s O Holy Insurgency (I just started this one last night); Brian Russell’s The Year of What Now (awesome—you must get this book); and James Galvin’s Resurrection Update (this is a collected poems from 1998 I think. He’s a very outdoorsy writer, which is something l like a lot).

WITTLE: Who has influenced your current writing style the most and how?

CLAUSER: Influencing my writing and influencing my writing style are two different things, I think. I hope I have my own writing style, but wouldn’t be insulted in anyone compared my poems to my favorite writers like Richard Hugo, Jack Gilbert and Harry Humes (a fellow Pennsylvanian). There are scads of poets I study to figure out how they do the things they do (or did): Jane Kenyon, Robert Lowell, Stanley Plumly, Jane Hirshfield… this could be a very long list.

Aside from the who, there’s the what. I’m deeply suspicious of poets who intentionally hide behind obscurity. A poem is a bridge between the reader and the writer, and if that bridge is half hidden in mist, then the reader is going to slip through the broken slats and die on the way to the other side. I believe the relationship between writer and reader, like any important relationship, should be based on trust, and if the poem isn’t trustworthy—if its intentions are veiled and secretive—then I tend to think the writer is interested more in playing tricks than communicating.

WITTLE: What appeals to you the most about writing in the genre of poetry?

CLAUSER: I’m not particularly good at story-telling, at least not in the traditional way. I like novels and short fiction, but know nothing about creating them. Plus, I have a very short attention span. That’s why most of my poems are short. I rarely go over one page. Thirty lines is a long poem for me. I also like the careful attention to words—how in a shorter poem there can be no room for waste. I’m attracted to repeated sounds, rhythms and odd rhymes. It all started in middle school when I memorized Poe’s The Raven, and I’ve been hooked since.

WITTLE: In your book, Trouble With Rivers, the poem, “Wishes for My Daughters” the narrator discusses the grief he feels for the fact his daughters will lose the magic of myths. How did this idea of lost myths influence your current book, Necessary Myths?

CLAUSER: I’m glad you made that connection between the two books. Most of the first section of the new book, and some of the poems from second section, are connected to the idea of myths in life, both personal and societal. In the new book I share a lot of stories (mostly other people’s stories, though sometimes I put them in the first person for effect). I play with the idea of how we convince ourselves of our own stories or myths in order to cope. Most of the trouble with life is just about coping with it anyway. A person’s life is the myth they tell themselves. Sometimes those myths are close to the truth, but often they’re not; either way they’re necessary, for a sense of identity or to just keep moving forward.

WITTLE: Why are myths important for people to hold onto?

CLAUSER: Myths give people structure, a sense of rightness in their world. They can give people a reason to persevere through hard times/difficult decisions (as in the poems “Putting the Dog to Sleep” and “The Man Who Works at the Swiss Hand Grenade Factory”) or to justify horrible acts (as in “Necessary Myths,” “ Remains of Two Infants” and “The Rapturist”).

People create their own personal myths or narratives about their lives, their families, etc. and then buy into large myths, such as organized religions, because those stories help them face things they don’t understand, and most of life is pretty much hard to understand.

WITTLE: Nature is a strong theme in your poetry. In your opinion, how are nature and myths connected?

CLAUSER: You’ll find a lot of nature or wilderness (even if it’s not very wild, such as in a vegetable garden) in my poems mostly because those are place I prefer to be, and when I’m writing from the imagination, that’s where my mind goes. I love camping, hiking, and fishing—basically being away from crowds.

Nature as subject matter also works a lot for me because I find wonderful metaphors there. You can look at a group of trees bending in a storm and immediately begin to form a metaphor around that vision for something internal. As for myths—everything we do or say is part of our personal mythmaking process. We believe our own myths about ourselves, and if our own personal story involves nature, then it’s part of our myth. I know it’s part of mine.

WITTLE: In the poem, “To A Miscarried Brother” the narrator discusses the importance of the brother lost to him. The last lines, “should have lived” is powerful in its simple complexity. How important is it to end a poem with a lasting line and why?

CLAUSER: That poem describes an interesting situation from my youth. My mother became pregnant, which was a surprise to the family, and then shortly after that news, she had a miscarriage, which revealed to the doctors that she had cancer. If it wasn’t for that pregnancy (and subsequent miscarriage) she may have died. So yes, the fetus (no one ever really knew what gender it was) should have lived, but of course we’re all very glad it didn’t because of the sacrifice it made for my mother.

But more to your question about last lines—I really like a poem to end with a bang. I know I don’t often achieve it, but it’s something I appreciate. Sometimes in workshops I describe how all (or most) poems are triangle shaped (not in words, but in ideas or focus). They either start wide and end narrow, or start narrow and widen at the end. I particularly like a poem to end like a funnel, where all the things you were pouring into the top come out at the narrow hole at the bottom. Think of a jar of muddy water scooped from a stream. When you let it settle, all the good stuff, the sediments, is at the bottom. That’s where the mind and the attention goes.

WITTLE: In the poem, “Ouija” the narrator plays with the idea the sensation of touch alone cannot be trusted. How do you see that idea relating to myths? What about a myth should not be trusted?

CLAUSER: Myths are nice guides, sometimes, but they get us into trouble when we trust them too much. Religions are the most obvious example. Societies have used the myths of their religions to justify hatred and violence throughout history. On a smaller scale, it’s best not to believe in your own bullshit too much.

WITTLE: The poem, “The Details” finds its power for me in the first line. The narrator chews on the idea a list can tell a person what to do but not help the person remember what was done. Do you feel this is something as a society we do with myths? As if we recite the myth so much we forget what the words mean?

CLAUSER: Similar to the last question, yes, taking our myths too seriously can get people, or groups into trouble. It’s like the cliché that you can’t see the forest for the trees. The details are a whole. But it works both ways. I’m the kind of person who will ignore all the warning lights on my car until the engine falls out the bottom.
In the title poem, Necessary Myths, the man kills his brother, and we’re left wondering if it was a kindness or a crime. That depends on how much of the brother’s myths you buy into, and to make matters more complicated, the poem references the Romulus and Remus myth about another fratricide.
“The Details” isn’t nearly that grim. In that poem I’m just playing with old memories of how my wife and I met 20-some years ago.

WITTLE: The poem, “What We Spent It On” has a narrator poking around in his memory as fall turns into winter. The last lines make a reader feel almost like a caught voyeur. In your opinion, describe the relationship a writer has with his or her reader.

CLAUSER: I said something about this earlier, but again, it’s a relationship of trust. I’ve actually taught a seminar called Writing Trustworthy Poems at a couple of writing conferences.

While a poem is a creative object, it’s also an act of communication. Communication requires a relationship, or at least the desire for a relationship (you can knowingly talk to a rock, but you’re not actually expecting to communicate with it, since no relationship with the rock is implied so it doesn’t really matter what you say).

Since the reader can’t talk back to the poet or ask questions all the responsibility is in the writer. When I hear writers say that a reader can get anything out of the poem they (the reader) wants, I think that’s being dishonest to the reader, and a bit lazy. As a writer it’s your job to take the reins and tell the horse where to go.
There are lots of ways to earn readers’ trust, but the easiest way is to not play games with them—the same way you wouldn’t play mind games with a friend or intentionally mislead a friend. Don’t do that with your poems. Too many contemporary poets seem to be more in conversation with themselves than conversations with their readers. It’s kind of an avant-garde trend I don’t participate in, at least I hope not. Of course a writer is allowed to expect a certain kind or reader if he or she wants, but that comes back to knowing your audience and what you can essentially get away with them. I want my readers to be at a level of trust with me, to believe that I’m not just twisting words to confuse or impress them, but to share something with them.

Bio:
Grant Clauser is a frustrated gardener and hack fly fisherman. His books include Necessary Myths (winner of the 2013 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize) and The Trouble with Rivers. He teaches poetry writing at conferences and at Philadelphia’s Musehouse and runs the blog http://www.unIambic.com.

Necessary Myths can be purchased at http://www.thebroadkillriverpress.com

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(You all should’ve seen this coming).

Today, I want to look at the how to go about crafting a poetic journalism poem. The key, in my mind, to this poem is to eliminate the “I” in the poem. The author should be concentrating on not the personal reaction to the event, location, or person but letting the chosen object tell the story. The author must also stay away from narration. I think that is another key to moving poetry into the creative nonfiction field; this staying away from the narrative poem.

Also, DO NOT PERSONIFY THE OBJECT.

I want you today go after something that is real familiar to you. Maybe on a walk today, you see an abandoned building, or an overgrown fenced in parking lot, a store that closed its doors. Find something you’ve walked by a million times but never gave it a second glance.

Then, start doing research on the building (or whatever you’ve picked). Try: to find newspaper articles about it, look up the town history, see if anyone who remembers what the building used to be is still around and is willing to talk to you about its history.

After you have your research done, then develop the time line of the building.

Once you have that, start writing.

It will probably come out as paragraphs and that is more than fine. Take your sentences and start chopping them up into stanzas. Look at your end words; look at your punctuation. Start sharpening your verbs and nouns. Eliminate adverbs and sharpen the adjectives.

I recently read Jess Walter’s book, Beautiful Ruins. There are many things I loved about this book: the way the author explores using the “I” who is present as the action is happening rather than the “I” who is looking back into the past and re-remembering what happened at the moment, the way the author reveals things to the reader using the above method, the idea of inserting a play a character wrote inside the narration, to name a few.

However, a minor thing that sticks in my mind is this idea a character said in the book. Americans talk around the issue instead of coming right out and saying the problem. I agree with this statement and I would go so far as to apply it to writing as well. There is this idea in writing that an author has to cleverly disguise what’s happening or not reveal the ending. But then, how do we account for Flannery O’Connor who tells the reader within the first paragraph the ending of all her short stories?

This is something I think writers need to get over. There is nothing wrong with telling the reader how things are going to end in the beginning because the story isn’t about what will happen to the character;  the story is about how the character got in that situation.

I also think writers need to stop writing around the issue. I DO THIS ALL THE TIME. If there is something I don’t feel like writing about, I gloss over it. But every time I do, someone calls me out on it and says, but you missed the point here.

For me, this writing around things comes from fear. I have this one flash fiction piece that can’t find a home. I took another look at it and realized I’m dancing around the story’s purpose. I revised the piece in a way that the first sentence tells the reader point blank how the character feels about the situation. Now the story unfolds for the reader why the character feels this way instead of the dancing around the issue of the character’s feelings.

I feel more confident in the story because it is now the one I really wanted to write all along but I was afraid of being honest with my reader. I won’t be there when a reader reads my story; I can’t open my brain and let the reader see what I was thinking. My story needs to tell the reader why and then explain how the why came to be for the character.