A 1/2 Dozen with
who gives beautiful advice on
not seeking balance,
writing as a long marriage,
the hard work that prepares you
for the page,
and how we can return
to childhood to find
Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?
Were it human, the page could be unshaven, teeth unbrushed, could be waking from a wicked hangover, could be emerging from an unshowered week of camping deep in the woods, and yet remain somewhat attractive to me.
This because our relationship resembles a lengthy marriage.
I wish I could say that the page and I were fast friends, that we spend time together frivolously and gracefully and both walk away from that time blissful and refreshed. However, our relationship is a victim and product both of passion and habit. Like a spouse or long-term partner, I see it at its worst, and vice versa. There are moments of magnetism so strong I can taste it. There are sustained valleys of semi-indifference. There are maybe even one or two moments of genuine, if fleeting, doubt.
But then we go on the honeymoon of a new idea or an interesting metaphor or a working bit of music. We go down into the deep like that together. Then there’s nothing like it. Anywhere. Ever. And overall there is a faith that the good times outweigh the bad. That in the long run the page and I will agree, we will kiss and make up, we will always manage to stir another romance from what seem like cold and unpromising ashes.
Somehow I always manage to return with unsullied eyes and fall madly in love all over again.
I was a bookworm child inside a bookworm childhood.
I bit my fingernails so badly they bled.
On my fourth birthday, I was given a parakeet and I immediately taught him to talk so that he could call himself a pretty bird while looking in his hanging mirror.
My mother was a reading teacher, and yet my reading habits struck her as so extreme that she worked hard during the summers to get me to go out and play with the neighbors’ kids. But all I wanted was that safe haven, one safe haven or another created by my imagination.
I knew the calls of the autumn mallards sounded like laughter. I was a child of the comparison. I still am.
I learned early on to keep writing to myself.
I also understood the daunting implications of death by the age of ten. This led me to reject the carpe diem of childhood and instead watch the networks the creek cracked into when I skipped a stone and fall in love with the snarl of branches webbing the crabapple tree.
Reading made me feel deliciously alone and also less alone. I wanted to wrap up all that complexity and pass it along.
And when I spend the most genuine hours at my desk, I am inside that childhood again, looking at a world I believe I can reinvent, confident in the imagination as a force equal to all the others I have encountered since.
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?
God, no. But maybe balance is not the thing I’m going for. I’m not weighing my heart against a feather in order to pass into the underworld. I’m not even wanting a fair price for gold. Maybe I need something more extreme. Maybe what I am looking for is closer to schizophrenia.
In other words, I don’t believe there is a balance between my work and my family, the two things that consume me most, because I choose to do each fully and with a certain degree of abandon. Both sides feel too heavy for the scales. My nature will not let me divide these things in half so that they can be placed on the tidy pans that measure out my life.
So in order to do this at all (never mind well), I must split myself into that person who can both appreciate the world’s most stunning pair of children and spend hours honing language to an edge. I am obsessed with finding time to write. When I am given time to write, I am obsessed with getting back to my family. But I wanted both of these things. I am prepared to live by fire.
So maybe I am actually weighing my heart against a feather. With the hefty lightness of all that’s in my heart, maybe it’s possible I’ll earn the other side?
Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?
In seventh grade, I had a teacher named Mrs. Kachanis. She was the first (and maybe the only) English teacher I had who seemed to think that writing poetry was a perfectly acceptable thing to do. She brought Emily Dickinson in to talk to us. She had us write poems and decorate them with artwork and string them together into a vivid, handmade book.
But more than that, she was fun. I don’t think she ever wore funny hats or brightly-colored scarves, but maybe her personality was a series of funny hats and brightly-colored scarves. She felt like Mary Poppins to me, quirky and magical and nourishing, allowing me (encouraging me, even!) to do those creative, forbidden things in broad daylight and calling them absolutely sweet.
She advocated for the poems I was spending time on in a way that no one would again until college. She called me her munchkin. She wasn’t mad that I was reading random other books, sometimes during class.
And she provided me with the support I would need to survive eighth grade English with Mr. Grenier, a man with bad suits and bad skin who diagrammed sentences on the board and quizzed us on the Latin origin of words; by the first week, he had me sitting in the back of class and actively ignoring all he said. He was sure to repeatedly inform me that I would never amount to anything if I chose to pursue my love of English. Without that buffer of Mrs. Kachanis’ previous acceptance and enthusiasm and love, I would have been crushed under the gaze he offered me over his bifocals when he found me daydreaming or secretly writing poems in the last row of his class.
What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?
I worked my way through college waiting tables. While my roommates were partying or studying, I was handing off burgers and turkey dinners to tables, wearing a starched white uniform and filthy sneakers, taking the bus home after my shift, sitting up late at night rolling the coins from my tips, and then going to bed to be ready for my 8 am class.
What could be a better preparation for the writing of poems?
To begin with, the job required, and developed in me, a pretty intense work ethic. I was on my feet for hours, engaged in an activity that required my full attention and working myself to sheer exhaustion.
Even more importantly, while waitressing I found that if I wanted to keep customers happy, I had to be one step ahead of them in presenting the very item they would be wanting next. A good member of any waitstaff knows what her customers need almost before they do, and provides it before they have time to wonder when it will arrive. I had to get some man a refill on his glass of water while checking to see whether the woman at the counter needed more coffee while getting a check to table seven while heading for the steaming hot plates in the kitchen that had just come up and were ready to be served. I had to learn to orchestrate five or six or ten different independent environments at once and find a rhythm to bind them together in a single series of movements and exchanges. I had to manage a multitude of happenings and predicted outcomes and possible scenarios. And I had to do it all while wearing a face that was not quite my own.
When I am writing a poem, I am asking my brain to focus and multitask in a similar way. I am bringing together items, images, moments, and descriptions in a similar composition. I am juggling metaphors and turns of language so that the poem is ruled by one fluent and unbroken flow. I am working to create a well-tuned device that can see and predict and deliver and shift and serve the reader whatever they might need.
And then there are the tips. Sometimes there were good tips. Other times, there were none. But we all know that the muse can be a stingy widower on a fixed income. Just as we know to stay hopeful about that new set of customers always walking through the door.
Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.
Ginger snaps. Novellas that are written as prose poems and poems that are written as essays and short stories that read more like poems. Attractive and functional pocket notebooks. Oh, and I’m a newcomer to Facebook so I'm spending a lot of time there. Come be my friend!
Jennifer Militello is the author of Flinch of Song, winner of the Tupelo Press First Book Award, and of the chapbook Anchor Chain, Open Sail. Her poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, The North American Review, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Best New Poets 2008. Her second book, Body Thesaurus, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press.