After the reading given by Jenn Monroe, Sérah Carter, and Leah Guilmette, on Monday, February 4th, SO Good interviewed these three talented writers.
SO Good: How did you make your decisions about what pieces to read tonight?
Sérah Carter: It wasn't easy. I'm my own worst critic, and to tell the truth I only picked my pieces about four hours before the reading. I went with what I thought best represented my writing style, and how I wanted to be viewed- after you read, people naturally make assumptions about what you write, and I didn't want to be stuck as a 'memoirist' or a 'short fiction writer' when I do a little bit of everything.
Leah Guilmette: Oh crap. Ok. I went with my most recent work, which was memoir and a piece which wasn’t really fully ready, but I felt I really needed to close things about where I’m headed. The memoir pieces really felt the most finished. I picked the ones I liked best – I figure either they suck or they don’t, so I went with the ones that didn’t.
Jenn Monroe: I picked my favorites first, and I picked the ones that I thought were probably most appropriate for the audience; I know that seems like a pat answer, but I can get away with reading poems at CCNE that I probably couldn’t anywhere else. For instance, I have other poems that I might read in front of strangers, but not colleagues and students. For instance, the "Drishti" poem, I couldn’t read just anywhere – it was the one poem I almost didn’t read. But it’s all on how you read something, too; I would read it differently for a single person than for a group – it can be a highly erotic poem, but it depends on how much I want the people to leave wanting a cigarette. I would read different poems differently for different audiences.
SG: What is your revision process like?
Carter: Long. As in the twenty-four hour wait before D-Day long. I'll write a piece and then stuff it somewhere for about two weeks- I won't look at it or think about it. When I look at it again, I immediately fix what flaws I see and force it on a friend or fellow writer, who finds what I can't. All told, my stuff goes through several sets of hands before I finally consider it finished. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, and it's sort of my downfall.
Guilmette: I think my first step is usually to make myself a large alcoholic beverage. Then I’ll stare at the piece for, oh about ten days. Maybe twelve. Then, I like to develop a deep loathing for every single word I’ve written. I rip it apart, cut, paste, move everything around, cut, paste, move everything back. Repeat. Really, I just try to critique it the best that I can in that moment. And then go and make another drink.
Monroe: Revision is actually where I do most of my work – and I do consider it work. Occasionally torture. But it’s so necessary because almost none of my poems are gifts, maybe ever. Well of the ones that I read, one was a gift, and I’d been thinking about it for long time – Faultline basically wrote itself – it wanted to be written. I was reading a book at the time and it just wanted to be written; I was literally holding the book in one hand and writing the poem with the other. It went through very little revision – maybe some line breaks. But then The Chocolate Sampler has been revised probably 7 or 8 times, like major over-hauls. I guess in revision, the poem and I fight about when I’m actually going to let the poem say what it wants to say; how long I resist is how long the revision takes.
SG: Do you consider the pieces you read finished?
Carter: "Dear Valentine" is as finished as finished is going to be. "Bliss," my short story, is about at a middle ground—it might need some more additions before I can call it done. The Reading piece is in its infancy.
Guilmette: Most of the pieces I read were part of a memoir portfolio, and so they were labeled as finished as possible, for now [laughing]. They’re finished up until I can make myself go and revise them again.
Monroe: Yes. Yes. Those are done. I actually feel kind of bad that I didn’t have anything really new. I always like to read something that’s in progress, but because of the state of the manuscript right now, I didn’t have anything – the ones that still need to be done aren’t ready. I’ m happy with them, which is a weird thing to say.
SG: How do you determine when a piece is finished?
Carter: I call a piece finished, really, when I can look at it without cringing, or mentally making a note that that word there should be switched out.
Guilmette: I don’t think anything is ever really finished – I work in the now. A piece can be finished in the now.
Monroe: I don’t know how to say this and not make it sound corny. I guess there’s a sort of feeling of arrival, like if you’re in a car for several hours and then you stop and stand up –it’s that kind of feeling – “I’ve arrived.” It’s a much different feeling than “I need to leave this poem alone for a while.” It’s just a sense of arrival. It’s something writers understand, I think. You know when a piece is happy with itself. The poems are not mine; they do whatever they want to do. I think that’s when writers start to get into trouble: when they try to get too much control, it starts to get too formulaic. If you know exactly what your work is going to do – I think that’s a red flag, right there.
SG: Where did these stories (fiction or poetry) originate for you?
Carter: Most of my stories are from things I notice and catalogue. I carry around a little black notebook (no, not that kind of book) that holds all my ideas. The most random thing—a shirt someone is wearing, the posture of a person waiting for a bus, a license plate—can spark a whole litany of stories. In the case of Bliss, the driving force behind it was simply, "What if?"
Guilmette: The fiction piece I read tonight came out of a surrealism class and a project I was working on and struggling with. I find that the ones that make you struggle the most, stick with you the most. It’s still not fully there, but I’m working on it. I had a lot of help from people, especially around here (CCNE). I just liked the idea so much that I knew there was something there I wanted to keep. In general, though, I’ve been drawn to fairy tales, which have, unfortunately become Disney-fied and ridiculous. But if you look at their origins, there’s magic. There’s a magical aspect to every part of life, a story.
Monroe: So much of this manuscript comes from years of learning to be ok with the violence of my childhood, and really taking a look at that little girl who had to survive where there was always that threat. It came from trying to capture that need to control the things around you, as a defense – to detach yourself. It’s a study of that little girl and what it was really like for her, and really seeing her not so much as me, but taking a step away from the memories as mine, and seeing them as someone else’s. It’s very difficult to do. In a sense I’m not writing about myself – I’m writing about a child. I’m not that child now. I think the hardest part was getting enough distance.
SG: Who would you say you are most influenced or inspired by, which writers are you currently reading that inspire you?
Carter: You know, they always ask this question. I can't say I have a concrete answer. The entire time I've been at school I've been exposed to so many fantastic writers and novelists that it's hard to narrow it down to anyone in particular. I enjoy the short fiction of A.M. Holmes and Octavia Butler. Roddy Doyle's a favorite, and so is James Joyce, but don't tell Chris Anderson that. Hmm…Michael Ende, Truman Capote...geeze, this list could never end.
Guilmette: It’s funny. It seems everything I read influences me a little bit. I can’t pick a single one that always inspires. There’s so much good stuff, especially distributed in class curriculums. The more I learn, the more I’m fueled by everything. Hopefully, the more I manage to amass, the higher the chances that I might do something great.
Monroe: There’s a contemporary Serbian poet, Radmila Lazić. I also love Anna Swir. I’ve just read so much in the past two years, and much of it has been quite influential. I love Louise Glück. Who else to I dig? Jane Mead – she’s amazing. She rocked my world. But I don’t get my inspiration just from who I’m reading – I get a lot of it from music. I’m listening to Andrew Bird right now, and I can work very easily to Stereolab. That new Radiohead album is going to work its way into my writing, sometime soon, I’m sure, since I can’t stop listening to that. I also really like magical realism, which is so amazing. It’s really a collage of everything around me. And my students too – their energy is inspiration; if I wasn’t teaching here I don’t know that half of those poems would have gotten written.