12 Winters Blog

Interview with Pauline Uchmanowicz: Starfish

Posted in February 2016, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 28, 2016

Since founding Twelve Winters Press in 2012 and beginning to publish in 2013, oftentimes I’ve had to do a fair amount of detective work to find the projects I wanted to bring out. For example, I might read a writer’s work that I like very much in a journal , and their contributor’s note says they have a novel, or story collection, or poetry collection that’s looking for a home–then I go about tracking down the author and trying to get a look at their manuscript. In other instances, wonderful manuscripts have come to me out of the blue, as if handed down by the literary divinities. Such was the case with Starfish, a collection of poems by Pauline Uchmanowicz.

Last June my wife Melissa and I attended the North American Review Bicentennial Conference in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and we had the good fortune of making the acquaintance of Stephen Haven, the director of The Ashland Poetry Press. After the conference, Stephen and I stayed in touch about this or that poetry- or publishing-related issue. In the fall, an email arrived from Stephen with a manuscript attached to it: a collection of poetry by Pauline Uchmanowicz. Stephen admired the collection, but it wasn’t going to fit into Ashland’s publishing schedule, so he was wondering if Twelve Winters may be interested in it.

I, too, was much impressed by the work, and downright moved by many of the poems. I contacted the poet, who directs the undergraduate creative writing program at SUNY New Paltz. It turns out she was at the NAR Conference also, and she had visited Twelve Winters’ table, and picked up The Waxen Poor, a poetry collection by J. D. Schraffenberger, so she was familiar with the Press and with the quality of the work we were producing. Soon we came to an agreement to release her spellbinding collection in print and digital editions.

I asked Twelve Winters’ contributing editor John McCarthy to work with Pauline to finalize the manuscript for publication, and I’m happy to report that Starfish was released last week, available in print, Kindle and Nook editions. It’s become a tradition that I interview our authors about their books, and so what follows are Pauline’s unedited responses to a series of questions I sent her.

Starfish - cover darker blue

You’ve been published widely, including two chapbooks of poetry, but Starfish is your first full-length collection. Would you discuss the evolution of this project, and its path to publication?

Bill Knott, with whom I studied in the 1980s, liked to boast that Stéphane Mallarmé wrote few poems in his lifetime, and “nearly all of them perfect.” Also during the 80s, Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (to paraphrase remarks he made at a public reading) said it surprised him when poets proclaimed to be working on a book: “You don’t hear a painter say, ‘I’m working on a museum installation.’ A painter works on a painting; a poet works on a poem.” (The present-day art and publishing worlds might contest this dictum.) Meanwhile, Virginia Hamilton Adair—though her work appeared widely in top literary journals—published her first volume of poems, Ants on the Mellon, at the age of eighty-four.

So, for the past thirty years, always “working on a poem” until as realized as possible, I was never in a hurry to publish a full-length volume until the time to do so felt right. Now is the time.

Pauline half profile 2

Stephen Haven, director of The Ashland Poetry Press, shared your manuscript with me because he was impressed by it, but budget issues were impacting his wherewithal to bring out new titles. Obviously it’s been challenging for poets to place their work with presses for a long time (forever?), but is your sense that it’s becoming more and more challenging?

Thank you for mentioning Stephen Haven, a wonderful poet to whom I owe sincere gratitude. The fact that he passed my manuscript on to you in part illustrates what follows.

In some ways, because of independent, small-press, online, and self-publishing, it’s easier than ever for poets to place their work—but in many ways much, much harder, due in large part to the proliferation of MFA programs and professionalization of Creative Writing as an academic discipline. Moreover, these days there is so much competition—and among very good writers. At the same time, the poetry world has always been somewhat insular, with established writers helping younger ones break into publishing. Poets continue to need support from the literary community and also must make themselves known within it—whether small-scale or large. For better or for worse, writers today who “network” increase their chances for publication. Of course, many talented writers (and editors) rightly promote others like themselves.

Crucially, the current wave of small presses—perhaps the lifeblood of “print” today—remains vital to keeping publishing possibilities alive, often through contests and awards with submission fees to defray costs. Also, due to the sheer volume of books that come out each year, poets have to do much more of the marketing and promotion than ever before, even if working with national or university presses.

All that said, working closely with Twelve Winters Press has been a privilege, my own input valued throughout the publishing process.

Starfish is divided into three parts. What was your thinking in terms of its structure, and the arrangement of the poems? Were there any agonizing choices, or once you figured out your modus operandi did the structure come together fairly easily?

In addition to book design (and TWP does a great job), the ordering of poems remains essential among elements in any poetry volume. While I’d like to claim a grand scheme for organizing Starfish into three sections—a trinity of mind, body, soul, for example—instead my decision was based on how poems might meaningfully unfold consecutively as well as side-by-side (verso and recto). Specific themes, motifs, and catalogs became apparent, such as a suite of poems that questions what to relinquish, what to retain, proceeding from the final lines of “Beachside Burial”: “why no one returns / for what was left / behind?” But broad categories do emerge. For example, the middle section has several seaside poems, while in contrast the final one is announced by the poem “Landlocked.” Also, after working for so many years on the manuscript, I had a fairly good idea of where to place each selection.

The poems in the collection tend to be brief, often a single stanza. Has this brevity been typical of your poetry throughout your career, or is Starfish a departure in this regard?

My preference as a reader has always been for small, well-made poems featuring suppressed subjectivity (as in the absence of “I”) and universal emblems—poems that likely will endure in terms of structural integrity and subject matter—fifty or a hundred years from now. The poetry of Ted Kooser, mid-career Louise Glück, and Jean Follain, respectively, comes to mind. So yes, “miniatures” have been a staple of my work all along. Sometimes I do aim to write beyond a page or two, but the process can feel forced (for me), so that I end up editing a poem down to its imagistic essences. With small poems, one can hone in on manifold parts, such as verb choices and rhetorical figures that underscore meaning overall.

I recently attended a program by Juan Felipe Herrera, the U.S. Poet Laureate (and a former creative writing teacher of mine); and one of the issues he discussed was the difficulty associated with writing a long poem and maintaining the intensity of the emotion from beginning to end. Would you agree that longer poems (however one may define “long”) can be challenging for a poet, especially in terms of sustaining the poem’s energy and emotional impact?

Associated with poetry writing today is the buzzword “elliptical,” meaning that beyond sustaining long form and retaining within it a unified vision a poem ought to take surprising, unexpected leaps relative to imagery, as Billy Collins’s work notably does. Such a poem might arrive at an epiphany or apocalyptic closure, circling back to early moments in its body. But I agree that it can be difficult to sustain vision overall in long form, which some poets resolve through use of numbered or titled section breaks. Also, I do see many poems published today that are long-lined and long form, confessional in tone and at times adopting diffused autobiography for “emotional impact.”

Your question also reminds me of a former newspaper editor I worked with who, on the subject of “length” and wordiness, once quipped by way of analogy, “I would have written you a short letter—if I had time.” The challenge of poetry writing in general, I believe, is to use the least amount of words possible to achieve what critic Paul Fussell calls “absolute density.”

Juan Felipe also said that for him, in revision, he often cuts the opening and ending lines of a poem, finding that its core is where the “heat” resides—and by cutting the beginning and ending lines, he can intensify the poem’s emotional impact. As a poet and as a teacher of creative writing, does his process strike a familiar chord with you? How would you describe your writing and revising process?

Juan Felipe’s revision process has resulted in good poetry for him, and in some ways resembles how I work. Like for many poets, a piece of my own may start with a line or an image that places pressure on what follows; I don’t usually cut first lines. Other times, I know where a poem will end, so the challenge becomes building to those final lines. This was the case with the allegorical poem “Death,” which ends with the eponymous figure speaking to a recently departed soul.

But I do find myself cutting not just last lines but whole stanzas. And in teaching creative writing, I sometimes do recommend that student poets cut a final line or couplet, which could serve as the opening of a “new” poem. I’m also big on recommending transpositions, so that the placement of engaging or charged material resonates at well placed moments within a poem.

Speaking of teaching . . . many writers/poets who teach find teaching rewarding but also draining, especially their creative energies. How do you balance teaching with your creative output? Do you find that teaching in some ways encourages and informs your writing and publishing?

The fresh and surprising output of young writers is always delightful to me, making it easy to devote energy to their creative endeavors over my own. Whether teaching writing or literature, I aim to be “fresh” myself in terms of readings, written assignments, and pedagogical approaches. One can spend hours reading and commenting on student work, or on preparing lecture notes and assignments. And in addition to a heavy teaching load, during any given semester I’m directing an independent study, Honors Program thesis, or editorial internship—sometimes all three at once.

Since I direct an undergraduate Creative Writing program, a huge block of my time and energy goes into programming—over a dozen events an academic year with demanding details involved, from booking writers to securing funding. We also put out an expansive student literary magazine, which I edit.

I believe all of these endeavors “encourage” my writing. But the way it gets completed is the same for how teaching and administrative tasks do: I compartmentalize. I’ve always admired writers who work every day—say by rising at 5 a.m. to squeeze in an hour before going to a job. That’s not me, though my writing notebook is always within reach beside the morning cereal bowl and coffee cup.

Which poems in Starfish were the most difficult to write? Were there any technical issues with the poems that presented particular challenges? Are there poems that you’re especially proud of?

Almost every poem in Starfish was difficult to write, some requiring a ridiculous number of drafts (Bill Knott sitting on one’s shoulder, as it were). The same technical issues attend to every selection in the book: the aim of achieving “absolute density” mentioned above. But every once in a while, a poem just “happened.” For example, flipping through a notebook one day, I came upon “Postmark” (untitled at the time), which I barely remembered even writing. So the challenge was to find the emotional center of the poem then to tinker with a few words, and also find an expressive title. A recurring technical puzzle for me in general involves line breaks. I tend to end-stop (rhythmically) lines and always want to find alternate ways of phrasing or incorporating enjambment instead.

At one point, I was proud of the meta-poem Explication de texte, which actually did come about when I was teaching a graduate seminar with close reading at its core. The poem is a single sentence, with every line commenting on itself by using the language of prosody. Usually though, the “current” poem I’m working on most enchants me.

You do other sorts of writing besides poetry (reviews, for example). For lack of a better way of asking this question—do you feel that all your writing, regardless of form or genre, comes from the same place? Or do you have to tap into different parts of your … brain … soul … psyche … to write, say, verse, as opposed to an essay or review?

No matter what one writes, there’s always a rhetorical performance involved, and many of the devices and techniques used to craft poetry influence my writing in prose, from sharpening and tightening for readability and clarity to aiming for lyricism or metaphors that suggest the subject at hand.

Does writing a book review or author profile derive from a different aspect of consciousness than writing a poem? Sure, absolutely, because one’s energy is on representing and championing other people. What does come from the “same place” though is the desire to write as exactingly or as beautifully as possible.

How important do you believe it is for younger poets to be well studied in the history and traditions of poetry? Do you believe it’s crucial to become at least proficient in fixed forms (like the sonnet or sestina) before working with less formally structured poems?

Not to lapse into clichés here, but we all know too many young people who become turned off to poetry before they even engage it fully because canonical works are not familiar to them in terms of imagery or cadences. So I tend to start with free-verse short forms (readings as well as writing assignments)—to focus on what a line is and how it operates—then introduce basic poetic units. But I do believe it’s vital and necessary for younger poets to study and understand historical traditions and also to experiment in fixed forms and accentual-syllabic meter. My tendency though is to always insert the qualifier that a poem crafted in response to an assignment (write a sonnet, write a poem in terza rima) may “modify” a fixed or traditional form.

Overall in teaching poetry writing, I take a page from Martín Espada’s pedagogy: the goal is for each person to develop a unique poetic identity in terms of language and subject matter, with focus on the image (Espada). Thus, learning to read and write poetry means understanding and appreciating poetic images.

Recently I was reading Paul Valéry’s thoughts on writing poetry, and I was particularly struck by his belief that too many young poets, of his day, put too much faith in inspiration, and therefore not enough effort into the hard work of writing and revising a poem. What role do you think inspiration plays in the process, and would you tend to agree with Valéry (as I’ve represented him here)?

I can’t speak to young poets as a whole, but while some known to me reject revision, believing “inspiration” to be an article of faith, most come to the realization that drafting, revising, and polishing are important aspects of “writing” poetry.

On this subject, when interviewing Charles Simic for a profile in Chronogram magazine, and mentioning that his sparse, elegant poems appear divinely made, I was reassured when he stated, unequivocally: “There’s no muse. I don’t take dictation. It’s really a slow process of making the poem—of endless tinkering and revising to make it sound inspired.” So, a goal is for a poem to appear inspired—as if just written down in a single sitting—even if its genesis was far different than that.

Nearly every poet I know enjoys public recitation of their work, and many seem to feel that public performance is the truest way for an audience to receive their work. What are your feelings? Do you enjoy sharing your work via your voice, and do you feel you’re able to represent your poetry more completely than when it is merely read on the page?

Nationally and internationally celebrated poets I’ve heard speak on page-versus-stage poetry have maintained that a poem should read easily on the page and also be easily comprehended—for its lyricism as well as its meaning—when read aloud. I believe if a poem has integrity it will be well received in print or performance. As far as reading one’s work aloud, for me, that takes practice as well. I’m especially struck by what Richard Blanco says on this subject in his brief memoir, For All of Us, One Today, about how he prepared to read his occasional poem for President Obama’s second inaugural. If you watch the video of Blanco’s performance it appears seamless and effortless—but hours and hours of rehearsal went into his four minutes or so on the podium.

Who are some poets, past and present, that you especially admire, and why? Would you point to any poet or two who have been particularly instructive or inspiring?

My list is long and lengthy. I like all kinds of poets and poems from various eras, mainly beginning with the British Romantics (John Keats and William Blake, especially) and moving forward. I like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman from the nineteenth-century American canon. Poets I read over and over again in translation include Jean Follain and Wisława Szymborska. I like dozens and dozens of American poets (some already named but worth repeating here): Lucille Clifton, Ted Kooser, Kay Ryan, Martin Espada, Linda Gregg, Carl Dennis, and often whomever I happen to be reading or teaching at the moment. I also seek out books by poets whose works I’ve enjoyed reading in literary journals, or who may have won a distinguished prize, like Ansel Elkins for Blue Yodel (Yale Younger Poets Award, 2014). It’s always good to check out what young writers are up to today.

What new projects are currently underway?

I’m “working on a poem” (and another, and another). My notebook is stuffed with nonfiction essays in progress and I’ve recently written a number of short fiction pieces. My next deadline (about one week from now) is for four book reviews.


 

Pauline Uchmanowicz is the author of two poetry chapbooks and has received residency grants at the MacDowell Colony and Yaddo. A freelance writer in the Hudson Valley, her poems, essays, and reviews have appeared in Crazyhorse, Ohio Review, Ploughshares, Provincetown Arts Journal, Radcliffe Quarterly, Woodstock Times, Z Magazine, and elsewhere. She is associate professor of English and director of Creative Writing at SUNY New Paltz. (Author photo by Franco Vogt)

Advertisements

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. kheludblogs said, on February 28, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    Great read. Check out my latest blog post?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: