"Striking a balance may just be one of those first-world American dreams that writers with children—or other serious demands—should abandon. It’s wiser to hang on to that relentlessly bucking seesaw, write as much as you can, try not to let anyone fall off."
-- plus an introduction to the wisdom and art of Louise Bourgeois, writing tips, and book picks.
It's summer, my friends, and this is a wise, wonderful and inspiring interview... Enjoy!
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?
I first saw Louise Bourgeois’ art in 1994 at the Brooklyn Museum in an exhibit called “The Locus of Memory.” It was to be a deeply resonant visit, as Brooklyn would soon become my home for fifteen years, and Bourgeois became one of those artists who radiated for years in my mind. I had just graduated from college, I needed role models! I turned to her to learn—how to be an artist, utterly dedicated to one’s work; how to be an artist and mother and teacher; how to be uncompromising, resilient, bold. (Not that it worked: I’m a compromised, tired introvert.) I began some poems about the pieces in that exhibit, in particular her series of Cells; writing about her art became a practice. After she died in 2010, it felt right to write some new poems about the later pieces and make a book out of it as a tribute. Her work remains inspiring (I agree that inspiration is a word with its polish rubbed off)—how could she not? An artist whose career spanned so many art movements of the 20th century, who constantly changed mediums, who said things like: “Self expression is sacred and fatal. It’s a necessity.”
Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?
Writing poetry I find excruciating, but engrossing and magnetizing like gazing into your infant’s bawling face. Every time I want to work on a poem there are many constellating ideas I want to fit together—a feeling I could describe as a wandering hunt after the precise words to assemble them in the alpine air of the page. Then, there’s the terrible, inevitable confrontation: what is a poem anyway? The right dose of difficulty does it for me, that’s why I often work in forms—your content will intrude no matter what. A new, blank notebook and a sharp pencil always thrills me.
One of my favorite Bourgeois sculptures is a pink marble sphere, out of which protrudes a baby’s or child’s arm—it sits atop a pink marble slab carved with the words: “I love you I love you.” Making things hurts, beauty must be carved out, clarity’s hard to construct. I am happiest when I’m fretting over the exacting complexity of a poem.
But writing fiction I find utterly delightful, even if it’s emotionally wrenching and structurally challenging. I’ve been working on a middle-grade and a young-adult novel for a while now (not done yet). Life becomes a goofy stupor when I have time to work on those manuscripts, as scenes and dialogue divert me while I’m getting groceries or picking up my children. It’s like living another life, full of demanding, interrupting people I adore. Of course, I’m a beginner, so there are those days in which I realize I have to start all over, again, and the only thing to do is fall face-down on the sofa and cry. But that’s secretly fun.
#2: Dig, gouge, reveal.
Louise Bourgeois said of her work: “The purpose is to gouge out what is cooking, not to illustrate it.” And, “That’s what I am after…to dig and to reveal.”
#17: Seek out ways to be astonished. Write in a state of astonishment.
#47: Revise until your hands ache, then do it again. Bourgeois also said: “The subject of pain is the business I am in. To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering. What happens to my body has to be given a formal abstract shape. So you might say, pain is the ransom of formalism.”
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?
In the Interstices. There’s no balance. It landed on me like an avalanche of laundry. I do it in the interstices. A smart friend once told me to work on your project a little bit in the morning, even five minutes, even a peek, and then it’s on your mind the rest of the day. It works for me: if I know I have no time during the day, I think about what I want to write or choose a problem to mull over, then ideas and words may emerge during the endless putting of little snacks into baggies. When a free hour appears, or even a glorious week, there’s so much to unleash. This approach might be distracting, but there are stranger ways to work, like a person laughing about one of her characters while walking from office to class, which is totally not me.
It takes discipline and courage to have faith in your work, especially when you are a poet and success is rare, unnoticed, usually intangible. Striking a balance may just be one of those first-world American dreams that writers with children—or other serious demands—should abandon. It’s wiser to hang on to that relentlessly bucking seesaw, write as much as you can, try not to let anyone fall off.
Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?
I don’t think I am. I tend to choose writing about ideas or things in my books, never places. My first book, The Master Thief, was mainly about being a girl reader contending with inherited narratives. In Captivity took the Unicorn Tapestries (the ones at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) as a hook to write about being on a hunt for love and meaning. Though there are some sonnets in my chapbook, People Feel with Their Hearts, about being a mother in Brooklyn, a wildly competitive place to parent.
It may have something to do with being skeptical about using the pathetic fallacy. But I moved to the country four years ago—to upstate New York, near the Vermont border, a strikingly lovely place of mountains, rivers, farms. It’s converting me. My house sits on a hill overlooking a pond and field, leading down to a valley of farms that reach up to the Green Mountains in the distance. Herons, foxes, hawks, owls, coyotes live here. I may have to start writing about the fringed purple Delphinium by the porch this summer.
Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.
I’m reading middle-grade and young-adult fiction with deep enthusiasm right now. My soul is twelve years old, that pivotal age. I love these genres because they are so pre-lapsarian—even if there’s danger, fear, betrayal, there’s always the possibility of kindness, hope, love. Diana Wynne Jones is my current favorite—I can’t believe I didn’t discover her until my forties! Why didn’t I ever meet that magical librarian to hand me all of her books? Jo Walton’s Among Others knocked me out, so did Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity (one to sob over). After years of studying experimental poetry and fiction, after having two children, it’s such a pleasure to read with one’s whole heart and to be transported without irony. There’s also something truly delicious about reading an entire book quickly—like eating the pint of blueberries you just picked in the sun.
Camille Guthrie is the author of Articulated Lair: Poems for Louise Bourgeois,
In Captivity, and The Master Thief (all Subpress books), as well as the chapbooks
Defending Oneself (Beard of Bees) and People Feel with Their Hearts in Another Instance (Instance Press). She went to Vassar College and the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Brown University. Currently, she teaches literature at Bennington College.
She recently blogged during National Poetry Month for Harriet
You can read an interview at The Rumpus with Camille Guthrie
by clicking here.
Her books can be purchased by clicking here.