Thursday, December 10, 2015

1/2 Dozen for Robin Silbergleid

I had the pleasure of reading an early copy of THE BABY BOOK by Robin Silbergleid and, as much of a feel of memoir as it does a collection of poems, it has stayed with me.

It's my great pleasure to have Robin here to answer a few questions!

Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.

I love the phrasing of this question—often when I teach, I tell students their project is to find their obsessions and honor them.  In general conversation, I think the word “obsession” can be a bit off-putting, but within the context of writing, it’s generally their subject.  My literary obsession is undoubtedly the tangle of issues surrounding reproductive choice, motherhood, and infertility evident in The Baby Book.  It’s a project I’ve worked on in various forms since 2002 (when I started the process of trying to become a mother).  I’ve started a new book (am I allowed to say that?) that I’m conceiving of as a series of domestic prose poems, in some way a sequel of sorts to both The Baby Book and my memoir Texas Girl, and doing some research on cookbooks and domestic manuals.  Our library happens to have a huge database of American cookbooks that are available digitally.  Good fun!
     I’m also obsessing about sleep, or lack thereof (my 4-year-old doesn’t sleep—like, until recently it was like having a newborn— and we’ve actually seen sleep specialists).  I have an essay I’ve been working on about that process, as it’s so much more complicated than any of those parenting books or conversations about ‘sleep training’ would indicate. My personal life and professional life are incredibly tangled; there’s a whole interview in that.
     Otherwise:  I’m a bit of a pop culture junkie and very stoked that two of my old favorites are making comebacks (The X-Files and Gilmore Girls, both of which I’ve written about!).  When not wrangling children, writing, or teaching, you might find me taking a yoga class.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say that’s obsessive but it’s important to me.

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?

Like you, I think, I’m more of a hard-work, butt-in-the-chair, rather than wait-for-the-muse, sort of writer.  The story that unfolds in The Baby Book is also the story of writing The Baby Book—something that took a long time with a lot of near misses, pushed me in all kinds of emotional ways, but needed to be done.  I wrote a draft of the first poem in this collection in 2001-2002, actually, “The Childless Women Talk about Frida Kahlo,” when I was just thinking about becoming a mother and trying to make sense of an experience of reproductive loss and somehow encountered the painting Kahlo’s “The Henry Ford Hospital” at exactly the right moment.  Perhaps not inspired then, but charmed.  Or perhaps that’s simply paying attention and making connections? 
     What followed was certainly not inspiration but painstaking work.  I sent a version of this book out in 2006, and it immediately earned second place in a national competition.  Second place often doesn’t mean publication in the world of poetry (my department chair didn’t quite understand that!), but it was encouraging.  I kept at it.  It hurt to write, it was devastating, honestly, to revise, not “cathartic” at all.  The version that was published was ultimately very different than I first imagined—it now has a section about my second child and parenting after infertility and pregnancy loss—and I’m very happy with it.  I often talk about infertility and IVF as the experience that pushed me places I’d never thought I’d go; this book is very much the same.

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

I feel like my answers are starting to blur together.  It very much depends on the project and the moment in it.  I love beginnings and first drafts.  I write very quickly at this stage and it’s full of possibility.  That really goes for any genre: poetry, literary/cultural criticism, memoir, or, more recently, short stories.  Revising is much more painstaking, more so for certain projects than others.  Although I agree with the oft-expressed sentiment that young writers often send their work out too early, my motto is “get it off my desk.”  If someone else is reading it, I can be working on something else.  The Baby Book was one of those projects that changed and grew not because I was actively revising it, but because it was out in the world, I was growing as a writer and thinking about other things. When it was picked up by CavanKerry, I revised in a very systematic way based on my editor’s encouragement and feedback.  But it was difficult work and angsty, due to the subject matter.  I’m very happy to be on the other side again, just reading around, taking notes, putting words on the page with few expectations at this point, just the accumulation of untitled prose poems I’m tentatively calling “Mother Is a Verb.”

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Make a writing schedule.  I recently had a conversation with a thesis advisee—super smart student, the type who has earned major scholarships and awards, easily top 1-2% of those I’ve ever worked with—and we talked about her writing habits.  Wednesdays, she said.  I was stunned.  I think so many young writers are either so overwhelmed by the urgent, all the stuff that has actual deadlines, and/or convinced that inspiration will strike, that they don’t actually make the habit, the daily habit, of writing.  Those books like “Write Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day” have something to them.  I think that’s true of all kinds of writing, both literary and academic.  While I don’t work every day on my writing—juggling too many other hats—I do spend at least four mornings per week producing new writing, and certainly there’s not a day that passes that I don’t read something, even if it’s just what I’m prepping for class.
     My other would be carry a notebook with you at all times.  Everything is fodder for writing if you’re paying attention.  When I’m on a walk and I notice my neighbor chiseling away at the painted lines covering the mortar of his brick house, I write it down.  Those moments happen all the time.  And no, writing notes in your phone is not the same thing.

Criticism.  It’s part of the territory.  How do you handle it?  Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

The teacher I learned the most from in graduate school wrote paragraphs about our poems as feedback.  It was an incredible amount of personal attention.  They weren’t so much suggestions but close readings.  I knew when she didn’t “get” what I was up to the poem had failed in some major way.  But that was never about a poem not meeting her aesthetic, just what she saw, as objectively as she could frame it.  That is, when I receive criticism from someone who takes the project on its own terms, I’d like to think I’m a writer who can take constructive criticism and do something with it.  I always welcome line suggestions from the folks in my writers group or an editor who sees where the project is coming from.  Even if I don’t accept the specific suggestions, that’s encouragement to go back and rework that part of the piece and figure out what the problem is; to give a specific example, my poem “The Childless Women Talks About Frida Kahlo” used to have four sections.  My editor asked me to cut one, and I insisted that the poem needed it.  But in the end I saw another section of the poem was misleading and cut that one instead, and then reordered.  I think we’re both happy with the result.  There were a number of moments like that along the way, and each presented the opportunity for me to think very systematically about what purpose each poem in the book served, where it should be placed, how it worked.  I will confess that this process was much harder with The Baby Book than with other projects, mostly because of its emotional and autobiographical content.  That was a useful reminder for me as a teacher of writing that receiving criticism is not an easy thing, particularly when students are producing, as they should, deeply honest work.  Still, the ability to look at one’s own work with critical detachment is vital; I don’t think it’s possible to grow as a writer, or survive the business, without it.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

I’m teaching two classes right now, with different reading loads, as well as directing a graduate independent study; I also read the work of the writers who come to campus for readings and talks.  That is, my reading is very much dependent upon what I’m teaching and don’t have a lot of time for “pleasure” reading (although reading what I’m teaching is generally pleasurable).  Right now on my nightstand you can find Simeon Berry’s Monograph, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, A.K. Summers’ Pregnant Butch, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and your own Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders, which is simply wonderful.  As you can tell from this list, I do try to read in a number of genres, and I take different things from them.  I always gravitate toward novels when it gets cold and the fall semester is winding down; I suppose they’re my guilty pleasure because I don’t teach them much anymore.  I’m looking forward to some time with tea and novels over winter break, and then going back to poetry alongside my students next semester.

 Robin Silbergleid is the author of The Baby Book as well as the memoir Texas Girl.  
She is also an advocate for infertility education and partners with "The ART of Infertility" 
on related programs.  She is associate professor of English 
and director of the creative writing program at Michigan State University. 
For more, visit