Tuesday, September 25, 2012

1/2 Dozen with Ned Vizzini

Here's a Q and A with Ned Vizzini who writes essays, novels, and also for television. His latest novel has JUST hit stands this week. And It's Kind of a Funny Story, the film  starring Keir Gilchrist, Zach Galifianakis and Emma Roberts, based on his novel came out in 2006. 

So below find a shaved head, some weapons, some love advice, writerly advice and lots of Vizzini who is not anything-ish -- not at all. 

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

The initial moment of inspiration for The Other Normals happened in high school when I was out in the park with two friends -- both Russian kids (I hung out with a lot of Russian kids in high school).  One of them, whose name is Owen in my book Teen Angst? Naaah..., was shorter than me and kind of wily-looking.  The other was tall and very strong -- with a shaved head.  And I realized that in a fantasy world, my shorter friend would have the dagger, and my stronger friend would have the axe, and I would get the sword.  And I thought, What a fun way to look at the world. I wanted to write a book through that lens.  It took me more than a decade to get there.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

Writing is tough.  But as my wife tells me, "That's why it's your job."  I always get freaked out when I sit down to do it and then I eventually get into it and it's an escape.  It's when I'm not doing it that I become un-moored and depressed.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

If you're in love with a writer, be prepared for big ups and downs.  There are tremendous moments of victory but also a lot of jealousy and self-hatred.  You will need to provide emotional stability -- and possibly financial stability, unless the writer you love really hates him or herself, in which case she/he might be able to make some money.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

Sure, I have a publishing tale -- it's about the cover of The Other Normals.  HarperCollins came forward with this great concept -- the 15-year-old hero, Perry Eckert, as a fantasy miniature.  But in the book I make it clear that Perry has a bowl haircut, like in this image by Jordan Saia (who did the map in the book).  My editor told me that it would actually be very expensive to get a guy with a bowl haircut on the cover -- and that anyway, the cover should be "aspirational." 

This was a new concept to me, but the idea is that a book cover shouldn't represent the way your characters look -- it should represent the way they want to look.  Because if the book actually shows your main character in all of his/her ugliness, fatness, insanity, etc., people aren't going to pick it up.  So in a way, when you look at book covers, you are looking at what the main characters dream of looking like.

Are you bloggish? Why?

I'm scared of the word "-ish".  I don't have anything against people who use it, but every time I see it I just feel old and stupid.  But yes, I have a blog, and I put something new up every whole month!

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I had a job for two weeks as a bike messenger in New York City.  It shaped me like this: one of my fellow bike messengers was an actor.  He told me he was jealous of me for being a writer.  I was at a bad place in my life (I was working as a bike messenger) so I didn't understand why.  But he told me, "To do what you do, all you need is a paper and a pen.  I have to find a show, and a director, and audition..."  That really hit home.  For all the difficult things about writing, it's something that you as the writer control completely.  You have no one to blame but yourself if it's bad -- but no one can take it away from you if it's good.

Ned Vizzini is the author of It's Kind of a Funny Story, Be More Chill, and Teen Angst? Naaah.... He has written for the New York Times, Salon, and the L Magazine. In television, he has written for Season 2 of MTV's Teen Wolf and currently writes for ABC's Last Resort. His work has been translated into seven languages. His next novel, The Other Normals, will be published on September 25, 2012.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

An Open Letter to Mitt Romney from one of Those People.

Dear Mitt Romney, 

Last night, I saw the video tape on Mother Jones of you telling a room of wealthy donors what you really think. You said, "There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on government, who believe that, that they are victims, who believe that government has the responsibility to care for them. Who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing." You added that your "job is not to worry about those people."

There are so many disconnects here that it's hard to know where to start.

First of all there are Obama supporters who voted for him in the last election and will vote for him again. You seem to be saying that these 47% of voters are on government assistance, which is obviously illogical and it baffled me. But then I learned that the 47% is code -- it's the percentage that many Republicans have pointed to as those Americans who pay no taxes. And so you are saying that the 47% of those not paying taxes are voting for Obama, in their own self-interest, which is so incredibly wrong for so many sad reasons ... 

There's the sad fact that our poorest states -- those with the highest percentage of people on government assistance -- vote Republican. 

There's the sad fact that this 47% includes the elderly who are on social security -- a system they paid into all their working lives -- a group that often votes Republican -- and those are votes you desperately want and certainly need. Elderly white men? If you don't nail that demographic, you're done.

There's the sad fact that the global economy buckled, putting millions out of work, people who found themselves -- many for the first time -- on government assistance in the form of unemployment benefits, again systems that they had paid into all their lives. You surely want the unemployed vote. 

And there's the sad fact that your 47% includes households that end up owing no federal income tax -- they have jobs and pay payroll taxes but because of low income and deductions, they pay no federal income tax.

This was my family during our early years, Mr. Romney. My husband and I met and got married in less than a year. I was twenty-three. We started having children when I was twenty-five. We now have four. But it was a struggle at first -- that's the part that might not sound familiar.

In those early years, we scraped to get by. My husband's first job at a weekly newspaper in a small town earned him $17,000 a year. We also took in foreign students who rented rooms from us through a local language institute. Because we made so little, were paying back college and graduate school loans, and had children (tax deductions), we didn't earn enough to trigger federal tax payment.

We didn't feel entitled to anything. We were not victims. We were only dependent on government like everyone else is -- public schools, policemen, firemen, roads, sanitation, parks, safe food, safe medications ...

And now I pay taxes in the highest bracket. From what I've read, you don't -- despite the fact that you're part of the wealthiest 1% in this country and I am not.

If  you met my family at a rally, you would say that we are the ones you are trying to protect. But, in truth, we represent the ones you look down on, the ones you think of as self-proclaimed victims, the ones you don't have to worry about.

We are "those people." And the most chilling part of your speech is when you say that it's not your job "to worry about those people."

"Those people."

And there it is. Your divided view of our country. Us and those people.

And then, when asked about the video tape, you had an opportunity to show regret, to apologize to "those people". Instead you embraced what you said.

I read it on CNN. "Romney, in his press conference Monday night, said he could have stated his original comments 'more clearly' but said he was trying to point out the differences between the two campaigns. We have a very different approach - the president and I - between a government-dominated society and a society driven by free people pursuing their dreams,' Romney said."

And so now 47% of the country are without dreams? That's a lot of the country to write off. Those are a lot of dreams to discount.

This was, for me, the moment when you proved that you have no idea who you've insulted -- and insulted deeply. You have no idea who the American people are -- our incredible diversity of life experience, our incredible ability to dream even during the hardest times.  

If those were the choices, Mr. Romney -- us and those people -- I invite you to keep your "us." I'd be with "those people." Proudly.

But those aren't the choices. Not at all. An America made up of us and those people will fail. It is doomed. It's not the world I want for my children.

And whenever you want to swap tax filings, Mr. Romney, say the word. You show yours. I'll show mine. Unlike you, I'm not ashamed of what I've paid. 

Meanwhile don't worry about me, my husband, and our children. We are voting Obama.


Julianna Baggott, One of Those People, Proudly. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

1/2 Dozen with Ilie Ruby

Here is a Q and A with the wise and wonderful Ilie Ruby. Her new novel THE SALT GOD'S DAUGHTER is now out!

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

I'm still obsessed with the characters in The Salt God’s Daughter, especially Ruthie, and I imagine I will be for a time. I’m not sure what it is about this character, but her journey through adolescence and into motherhood is hard to let go of. I find myself thinking about her and her daughter a lot, perhaps because motherhood is the landscape of my life and I've got a teenager at home as Ruthie does. I am also obsessed with my 5-year old daughter going off to kindergarten (I'm bringing tissues to the bus stop), with my 7-year old son learning to swim, and with my eldest’s entree into the wilds of middle school. I'd love to add one more obsession if I might—Tori Amos' music, which is mythic in my new novel. Other than that, I'm not obsessed at all.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

While this book is woven with magical realism in a mythic landscape, and while the writing process was an exhilarating experience (a little like being on the Indy 500 speedway), the inspiration was raw, gritty, real life. I had learned of the stories of girls who were being bullied and who could no longer stand it. Research took over my life for a while as I tried to learn more about their stories. My heart broke a little bit and I wanted to do something, to affect positive change. I wrote their names out on a piece of paper one night on my desk and I felt what can only be described as a strong sense of purpose. I remember thinking: Do I want to try to tackle this? Can I do these girls justice? Is this going to be the next book? I knew I had to try, and that this tale had to be told now. Inspiration is an agreement, I think—not only to receive, but to do your part, all it takes to bring a piece to life.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

The page and I have a long history together. I was off to a grand start when I was 26—fresh out of a writing program with a handful of awards and a collection of short stories. I spent years trying to publish my first book, while fighting lupus in the process. I used to write all day and night, anywhere I could. I wrote holed up in closets that were set up as tiny offices. I wrote sitting on the floor of a studio apartment. I once wrote at the top of a Guatemalan temple in Tikal during a stint on a PBS archaeology series. Now I can only write at night after my kids have gone to bed. When I am able to carve out time during the day I spend far too much time organizing my library and thinking about all the housework I need to do. Something about the sunset and a quiet house lulls me into that state where I can write. Usually, I will write for four or five hours until dawn and then have to force myself to go to bed. I’ve always been an insomniac, but now I maximize those hours because I have so few of them. Still, I really have to watch it and take care of myself or the body just says stop.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

 For this book, I wanted to work with a particular editor who had seen the book in its very early stages and loved it. I was given a lot of advice, and I just felt that he was the right editor for this book. We worked together really well. A long time ago, I used to play acoustic guitar in a band, and I remember what it was like to play music with other musicians—there’s a sense of collaboration bordering on magic. You’re following your own rhythm, but creating something together that is bigger than all of you. That’s how it worked with this book.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

Everyone in my family thought I'd become an artist like my mother. I always wrote stories and painted, and I tried to avoid organized activities that required running around in the hot sun, chasing a ball. I probably became good at writing and art because I was terrible at sports. I was the girl at camp who stayed in the arts and crafts pavilion as long as possible. I hoarded books and each night, read under my blanket with a flashlight, well into the dawn (do you see a theme here?) My mother was highly creative and worked odd jobs as a painter, folksinger and pianist. She was a bit of a hippie—in the early 60s—so my sister and I grew up singing and playing folksongs, one of which became the crucible for The Salt God's Daughter. My mother, despite her zest for life, suffered from a chronic illness, and my sister and I became her nurses. Though I felt the weight of this responsibility, this would help me as a writer and as a mother. I learned how to work with the artistic temperament—how to take care of others while maintaining my own endeavors. There was so much creative energy swirling in the ether when I was a kid that I had no choice but to find a way to express myself.

This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of publishing?

Holographic books. And then, telepathic books. I'm half serious. Ok, fully serious. That’s my prediction. My grandchildren will likely be the first ones to experience this. Or maybe their children will. Regardless, stories will survive beyond publishing. I don’t think the good old fashioned hardcover will ever really die out, though. It will become iconic. In some ways, it already is. Real books that you can hold in your hands are artifacts, and I love them. I save them. I hold onto them forever.

Ilie Ruby is the author of two novels and two children's books. 
Her new novel, The Salt God's Daughter has been called "lushly woven" by Booklist, and was a Library Journal Editors Pick from BEA. 
Her debut novel, The Language of Trees 
was chosen as a Target Emerging Authors Pick.  
Ruby is the winner of the Edwin L. Moses Award for Fiction, chosen by T.C. Boyle and is the former fiction editor of The Southern California Anthology
Her essays have appeared in the New York Times Motherlode and CNN. 
She lives in Boston with her husband and three children, 
and is at work on a new novel. 

Friday, September 7, 2012

1/2 Dozen with Seth Abramson

Poet Seth Abramson is here, talking about

the life of the poet ...

“Of all the seriously depressing ways you could be spending your life—in an office; chasing after money; puttering about in the suburbs—this one is infinitesimally less insufferable.” 

and love ... 

"... try to find someone who not only helps you soldier on, but who makes you feel down to the tips of your boots like they’re the one person you’d want to soldier on for.

and so many other things... Keep reading. 

JB: I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration–the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas–but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

SA: When I sit down to write, I’m trying to figure out how to make every syllable, word, fragment, line, sentence, and stanza—as well as my compositional method specifically and the form of the work generally—emanate from, and be responsive to, everything I’ve ever thought, felt, said, done, or experienced. It’s a ridiculous and impractical ambition, but it’s honestly how I experience the drive to poetry—which for me is a sort of nonmaterialist der wille zur macht, one channeled specifically through a single subgenre of the written and spoken word. When asked what my inspiration is for an individual poem, I usually try to scramble about for an answer so I don’t seem coy or false, but the best and most honest-to-goodness answer would be, “everything.” Not that that’s a concept I developed myself. Not by any means. It’s ripped right from Charles Olson’s Projectivist Manifesto—the notion that a poet must dive within himself or herself to locate and explore the most expansive landscape there is, the sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic self.

I’ve read many fine books of poetry which I suspect were the product of a very different philosophy, but for me—and this was certainly the case with Northerners and my most recent collection, Thievery—I just wouldn’t want to produce any work of art whose origin-point could be easily and blithely mapped. Human beings are a constellation of coordinates, some known and some only dimly guessed at, so why shouldn’t the art they produce be precisely that and no less? I think a more focused, more “topical,” more workmanlike form of inspiration is particularly well-suited to fiction and nonfiction. But for me personally, that is, for my own work, I don’t see it having quite the same purchase or vitality in poetry, its sometimes admirable results notwithstanding.

Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.

I don’t have many literary obsessions—I’m pretty dilettantish in my reading habits, which I find works best for both my short attention span and my tendency to use reading primarily as rocket-fuel for writing (due to the requirements of my current doctoral program, the time I have available for nonacademic reading is somewhat limited). When I stumble across a book I can’t shake it’s usually a nonliterary one: I reread Neal Stephenson’s 2,700-page speculative-fiction epic The Baroque Cycle every twenty-four months or so; I’m a sucker for magical realism (Gould’s Book of Fish, The Satanic Verses, Cloud Atlas, et cetera) but also anything epic, from Tolstoy to Chabon to Rowling. But obsessions generally? I’ve got plenty, and they’re by and large pretty low-brow.

If I limit myself to just the past few years, I’ve logged some serious hours on a series of television-watching obsessions (Archer, Veronica Mars, Angel, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, Louie, Lost, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Deadwood, Rome, etcetera) and some less-serious music obsessions (Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin; Fanfarlo; Fruit Bats; The Mountain Goats; Blitzen Trapper; Fun.; Kishi Bashi; and a host of obscure bands from before I was born—I was a sixties-music DJ in college, and I maintain an abiding fascination with the joyous, communal, sometimes-admittedly-faux naiveté of late-sixties British and American psychedelia).

I realize I’m exposing my somewhat pedestrian tastes here—or maybe just flat-out bad taste—but I’ve always felt that it’s not so much the subject or object of an obsession that counts as what you make of it. Any muse will do, if the way you experience being privy to a muse profoundly effects your imaginative faculties. I’m not going to attribute qualities of High Art to most or even much of what I watch and read in my “off-hours,” but I do try to pay attention as best I can to where my passions (whatever their source) are taking me. Whether it’s the rapid-fire wit of Archer, or the noir lighting of every room featured in Veronica Mars (and the noir shading of language in every conversation), or the way Angel treats with the Great Themes, the atmospherics of Lost, the hardscrabble tone of Deadwood—it’s all just a question of paying attention and trying to figure out how various media are used to compel attention from others (including me). The same could be said for my many conceptual, thematic, and linguistic obsessions: the idea of symmetry (and its false allegiances and paradoxical instabilities), which I think is evident in most everything I write; the language of the Bible, and of the courtroom, and of classical oratory, and of Delphic declamation; pre-Aristotlean philosophy (particularly that of the Sophists and the Monistic philosophers of the Eleatic School); Campbellian monomyths and Jungian archetypes; and so on.

I think of poetry as rhetoric-driven: Being a poet is all about paying attention yourself and then compelling a similar state of heightened awareness from others. So the act of attention—however it’s directed and from wherever it originates, however it’s enacted within others and to whichever end it’s deployed—is as gripping as anything else, though we must always, of course, be attentive to its ethics, as well. In any case, there’s no obsession I experience that doesn’t somehow end up in the poetry. Somewhere.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

In the past few years I’ve had occasion to do a lot of Q&A sessions with college students at various schools—sometimes regarding my own poetry, sometimes regarding my research into MFA programs and the MFA admissions procedures—and I consistently get in trouble for the way I describe my creative process. The result is that I really do feel like those of us who incline more toward Creeley’s “channeling” method of writing poetry often have to take a back seat when it comes to speaking of compositional method to aspiring poets. That’s a shame. But it really does seem that if you use Spicer’s phrase “Martian transmissions” in speaking to eighteen year-olds, you’re done for; in those rare instances I speak of poetry as an embodied process analogous to a natural bodily function, I feel I get younger poets’ attention and sympathy but often earn suspicious looks from their instructors. Ultimately, though, these are the only analogies that speak to me: poetry-as-sex, poetry-as-sleep, poetry-as-nerve-pain, even (in the physical sense only of course, not the metaphorical) poetry-as-bowel-movement—but all of these comparisons are either too explicit, too abstract, or too esoteric for a college classroom.

Still, I think some pushback is needed against narratives of inspiration and process that owe more to the essays and letters of the High Modernists than the lived experience of many of today’s young writers. I can still recall how shocked one class of students at the University of Iowa was when I told them that, yes, in some instances a very fine poem does get written appallingly quickly—or very late at night, or while one is on mind-altering (prescription) pain medication, or without the possibility or utility of thirty subsequent drafts being written hard upon the heels of the first two or three. And I always hasten to add that writing poetry “animistically” (as I call it, stealing a term from comic-book literary theory; a hat-tip to poet Joshua Corey here) is every bit as difficult as writing it using a more “classicalist” approach. Not just because the real battle gets waged well before one sits down to write—one has to learn, over many years, what writing process is most suitable to one’s poetic instincts—but also because animistic writers spend as much time on modes of attention and imaginative arousal as other poets do on research and meticulous plotting. There’s no short-cut to a great poem—but there’s also no single “right” way to get there. That’s the main thing I try to communicate to my own students. I think one thing a creative writing teacher can do is assist individual poets in attuning themselves to their own needs and instincts and productivities as writers. Otherwise, we’ll try to shoehorn ourselves into whatever everyone else seems to be doing. There are young poets for whom Pound’s way is still the best way, and there are others for whom that way lies frustration, self-loathing, and ultimately a turning away from poetry. And neither poetry nor society can afford to squander its human resources like that.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer? What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

Regarding the first question, that’s easy: If you’re a poet or writer yourself, fall out of love with that other poet or writer as quickly and violently as you possibly can. I’ve been in three relationships with fellow poets, and I think it can really be grueling as a matter of temperament and psychology. Sometimes you’re in a relationship like that and you find yourself looking around and asking, “Okay, so which of us is the sensible, level-headed, even-keeled, feet-on-the-ground one?” And it’s like, “Oh, that’s right—we’re both poets. Fuck.” Okay, so that’s obviously not a very fair assessment. There are many incredibly stable poet-poet couplings. Well, a few, at least. But generally when I speak to poets and writers about what they’re looking for in a mate, the first answer I get is: Someone with lots and lots and even an inordinate amount of money. Seriously, this is the answer (usually tongue-in-cheek) I most frequently hear. I think the real point is that the life of a poet or writer is one of instability and uncertainty, and it’s comforting to think that our life-mate will be someone whose byword is something else entirely. Obviously it really has nothing to do with money, but it has a lot to do with a romantic partner being understanding of, and unaffected by, the psychic ebb and flow of the writing life. That said, a couple million dollars in the bank doesn’t hurt.

More seriously, I think so many of the poets I know are torn between two opposing instincts: to find a romantic mate who feels life every bit as passionately, with the same degree of tumultuous joy and anguish and bewilderment, as they do, and to find someone who makes all that chaos somehow feel safer than it really (in the event) actually is by not themselves being an artist or anything like it. When a poet finds another poet, it strikes at the heart of the alienation poets and writers tend to feel in our culture—okay, here’s someone who understands and values much of what I do, and for whom I can offer in return the same sort of understanding and support. But on the other hand, the banishment of one’s own feelings of alienation is usually just an illusion. It’s temporary. You’re a poet, you’re a writer, you have to face it: You’re going to be a certain kind of miserable and/or unreliable and/or volatile some identifiable percentage of the time, whoever you’re with. You’re just kind of built that way. The real question is not whether we get to see our passions and idiosyncrasies reflected in others but whether we’re with someone who makes every single day worth waking up to, and suffuses the moments we’re with them (or many of those moments, at least) with vitality and generative passion and a moment-to-moment engagement with all the visible and invisible stuff of the world—which for many artists, literary artists and otherwise, is not always a foregone conclusion.

So my advice to literary artists is—and your mileage may vary—try to find someone who not only helps you soldier on, but who makes you feel down to the tips of your boots like they’re the one person you’d want to soldier on for. And sometimes that’s not going to be the man or woman who happens to be a member of your local, forty-person coterie of poets; sometimes it’s going to be an astrophysicist with a trust fund and a special weakness for your flaky, nutty, off-kilter, borderline-depressive bohemian bullshit. Or so you hope.

All that said, I think I still fall for poets ten times out of ten; to me the worst torture is being bored, so I can’t bear to be around anyone who’s not seriously, even uncomfortably passionate about something. And preferably, quite a lot of things—whether or not they’re the same things that boil my blood and send me spinning.
Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

Man, I’ve got so many. One of them is this: “It’s not going to get any better, not even a little bit, so get accustomed to it. This is the rest of your life. In a nutshell.” That usually doesn’t go over well, however true it is. So I try to stick the landing on this one: “Of all the seriously depressing ways you could be spending your life—in an office; chasing after money; puttering about in the suburbs—this one is infinitesimally less insufferable.” That’s also true—I meet a lot of miserable poets and writers, but you know, none of them ever say to me, “I’d rather be doing wills and trusts” or “Drywall would have been better.” Which is no insult to attorneys or blue-collar laborers, it’s just that I haven’t encountered those comments or sorts of regrets yet. So the logic of that second pep-talk is kind of hard to pierce, try as you might.

The point is, writing of any kind—poetry, fiction, nonfiction—is an elective act, not a suicide pact. It should be fun. It should be a cause for joy. Or if not joy, at least indigestion rather than terror. That’s not the same thing as saying it should be easy. I remember a poet-friend once said that poetry is “difficult play.” Derrida aside, it makes me not entirely uncomfortable to think of things that way. When it stops feeling difficult, or stops feeling like a form of play, that’s the time to—I’m not going to say quit; I mean, everyone experiences bumps in the road, that’s how we know it’s a road worth trekking, and not linoleum—but that’s the time to take a break. Direct your passions forcefully yet fruitfully at all times, that’s always been the key for me, even if it’s advice I often fail to take myself and am apparently pathologically incapable of internalizing.

So no, I’d never bootie-kick a writer, but I might take them to a movie, or get them drunk, or declare a road-trip. I’m not saying writer’s block can’t exist; I’m saying that the physical act of writing is never really the problem, not just because reading the work of others will usually jump-start one’s one imaginative juices, not just because (as Kenneth Goldsmith says) you can always type out the phonebook to keep yourself aware of the physicality of writing even when you’re not doing it “creatively” in the most traditional sense, but because when writers get downhearted in the way I think you’re asking about it’s usually more of an existential crisis than a merely mechanical one. And in those situations it’s worth remembering that—despite what the best writing teacher I ever had once said to me (I won’t embarrass him by naming him)—poetry is not life and death. I spent years working in the U.S. criminal justice system as a public defender, and I can say with confidence that poetry is not life and death, life and death is life and death. Everything else is gravy, relatively speaking. This is not the same as denying that writing crises are usually crises over living, too. They are. But there it’s a matter of how, not whether, we will exploit all the literal and spiritual freedoms we have.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer? 

I had two very different childhoods that even now it’s difficult for me to reconcile. From the ages of six to thirteen or so, I did everything you’d expect an upper-middle-class American child to do: started on more than twenty traveling soccer teams; started seven years in Little League, including three as an All-Star at three positions (pitcher, catcher, and shortstop); learned to play the drums, the piano, and the hammered dulcimer, as well as being in a makeshift garage band and taking singing lessons (I’d later be in three separate musical groups); attended Hebrew School weekly; spent so much time running around in parks and forests—I grew up in a heavily-forested part of suburban/rural Massachusetts, in a development with literally dozens of kids around my age—that even now my poetry is often informed by the image of a pack of boys running through a wood after dark.

I only mention all this because of how different my life became when I entered my teen years: I was a borderline agoraphobe who treated normally with others (including some in-school friends) during the day but after school retreated to a small room and locked the door behind him. For about four years. To this day I’m still not entirely sure why I punished myself that way, but it certainly was a form of self-torture, whether I intended it that way or not. And all of this was in the context of a completely supportive and hugely loving family who I think just had no idea (as neither did I) why it was I more or less stopped smiling for the first half of the 1990s.

Trying to resolve the question of how a boy survives, as a boy; how he becomes, in time, a man, if he does; how he traces the currents that take him from the one to the other, and learns which well-lit riverways to avoid and which dark ones to seek out; these are central themes and motifs in Northerners—as well as in my forthcoming third collection, Thievery—as is suffering, the eerieness of the North (both real and imagined; I’ll never shake those many hours spent deep in coniferous woods at an age when I believed anything at all might have inhabited them), and the capacity of the mind to endlessly project its own benign and harrowing deviances into the realm of the fantastical.

I’m one of those poets, I suppose, who is what he is almost entirely because of his childhood—I feel I’m still confronting my child-self today, in a confrontation which is as dark and chilling and Jungian as it is endlessly iterable, and that’s why there are so many boys and men in Northerners and Thievery and in much of my other work. When you’re sitting in a room alone for years, and your head is full of fantastical myths which are the only way for you to make sense of your life—because you’ve no one around against whom you can bounce all your psychic detritus, learning subjectivity through a kind of spiritual Doppler Effect—I really think the only option for your imaginative faculty is to send it deep into the self, into the gray matter of (dare I say it) the soul, and construct being as a sort of salvage operation. Northerners and Thievery both strike me that way, as the salvaging of a self from deeply-held, hard-won stories, as a salvaging of language and shared history to honor a time when I was speaking candidly to almost no one and felt, in fact, that there was no temporal or physical or conceptual landscape I could or did share with the rest of the world. Writing, for me, has always felt like an attempt to recreate the world—again and again and again—through an act of will whose mechanism (and limitation) is a phenomenon I think many teenagers experience: the inherent loneliness of language, especially when it is not combined with the warmth of self-love and/or the caring touch of another person. We write best when we are loved best, I think—a view which contradicts that of some older poets who see suffering, penury, and emotional decline as part and parcel of the productive writing life. Thankfully, such a draconian view of language, literature, love, and living is gradually losing favor in America and elsewhere.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, Northerners (Western Michigan University Press, 2011), winner of the 2010 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Poetry & Prose, The Suburban Ecstasies (Ghost Road Press, 2009), and, forthcoming, Thievery, Akron Poetry Prize-winner; it will be published next year.
 He is also the co-author of the forthcoming third edition of The Creative Writing MFA Handbook (Continuum, 2012). In 2008 he was awarded the J. Howard and Barbara M.J. Wood Prize by Poetry, and his poems have appeared in such magazines and anthologies as Best New Poets 2008PoetryAmerican Poetry ReviewNew American WritingBoston Review, Colorado Review, and New York Quarterly. A regular contributor to Poets & Writers magazine and The Huffington Post, his essays on poetry, politics, and higher education have been cited online by The New YorkerRolling StoneThe EconomistThe Los Angeles Times, The Chronicle of Higher EducationInside Higher Ed, The Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and after six years working as a public defender in New Hampshire recently began a doctoral program in English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (His blog can be found here.)