A Collective Interview Wherein Writers We Like Discuss Topics Related to the Craft
Including the Following:
Richard Krech, Micah Ling, Rebecca Schumejda, Brian McGettrick, Hosho McCreesh, & Noel Sloboda
Interview by Cynthia Reeser
For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 5.4, December 2011
Do you think tone is important in your writing?
Rebecca Schumejda: Absolutely, creating an authentic tone in a poem is challenging because you are trying to say more with less; the sparse nature of the form feels inherently constricting. One of my goals in writing, with respect to tone, is to bring the reader through a full gamut of emotions organically in a single piece. I just started writing a poem that I have been working through in my mind for over a decade. The catalyst was something an ex-boyfriend said to me after we broke up and last week when I was at a reptile show with my 4-year-old daughter, I finally figured out a seamless segue. In the piece, I am trying to weave the past and future together and therefore I am working with tone transformations.
Brian McGettrick: Atmosphere or tone is important to me and something I strive for. Along with metaphor it is something I appreciate and use to link places, people, and how they are feeling.
Hosho McCreesh: I actually think tone is a product of whatever ephemeral notions accompany the original idea for a piece. Be it a story or a poem or a novel…heck, probably music, or even dreaming up a painting—there’s a certain ‘feel’ that sparks something creative inside. And tone ends up being an attempt to capture that feeling, that atmosphere on the canvas or the page. It’s more nascent, and ingrained in the idea itself—so I don’t actually think you can get away from it. Or I can’t, anyways—not in a first draft. I think what motivates a piece becomes its tone. In terms of my poetry, I often hear that what people see first as anger and disgust. And that’s certainly a part of it. But, for me, there’s always been a powerful sense of redemption as well— which helped balance the work. I’ve also seen the tone of my work shift some, both as I wrote more, and wrote better…as I changed as a person. Again, the tone ends up as part of the work’s DNA. And if you’re careful during your editing, I think you can really sustain it. So I absolutely think it’s important. To me, it’s like staying true to a piece.
Noel Sloboda: Tone definitely matters. The challenge in achieving the right one, for me, is to combine humor, vitality, and passion. A lot of contemporary poets rely exclusively on irony. But if someone is unwilling to invest in anything in his or her poems, then why should I? At the same time, I am leery of those who take everything seriously. My sensibility tends toward the profane, and it has not always been easy for me to embrace what matters most to me in my writing, even though I believe I must to make compelling poetry.
Richard Krech: Yes. In a sense that’s all I do; certainly in writing poetry —creating tone is a major component. The power of poetry, “condensed prose,” Charles Plymell calls it, is that one is freed from conventional forms, be it as technical and unemotional as grammar and syntax or as vast as time and space. Poetry, after centuries of rigid forms originating from the efficacy of rhythmic repetition as an aid in memorization, has now come full-circle so that “the sky’s the limit” in terms of “permission” to violate the “rules of writing.”
Our individual song reverberates
like the backbeat
of our activities,
our daily practices.
From awakening in childhood
towards forgetfullness and death
we hear that melody
those instruments w/out names.
Some songs have no sound —
only evocation of sense.1
Although “songs w/out words” would have made more sense, it is the tone of the phrase which is important, the idea of recreating reality; but not reality exactly . . . the writer’s idea of reality. The poem does more than the story or news article, more than the summary or blueprint, even more than the photograph or audio-recording or screen-grab. The poem captures the tone of the event or being or time as experienced by the writer.
Micah Ling: I’d say that if there is anything in writing that can be compared to personality, it’s tone. Maybe I can’t necessarily pin an author to a poem merely on tone, but when I read Gwendolyn Brooks or Nikky Finney, their tone is unique. And that certainly doesn’t mean that poets can’t change their tone: most of us have multiple personalities —in the good way. I’d like to think that my tone represents my personality, and that it is something I’ll continue to develop.
What do you do to achieve a certain tone for a given piece?
RS: I don’t mean to say the obvious, but I have to; I pay careful attention to diction. I endeavor to be honest at any cost and I believe when you do that the tone resonates with the reader. I also try to allow time to pass before finalizing a piece; basically I allow the piece to breathe or choke. After time goes by, I go back to see if the piece works the way I intended it to. However I am guilty of believing a poem is done and putting it out there before it really is. Unfortunately this has given me the Marianne Moore complex, going back and reworking the pieces to death. I have always struggled with healthy balances in all aspects of my life.
BM: Pick a turn of phrase which sets the tone for me and links the characters or narrator of the poem with a place and their emotional state. I don’t think I have written a poem with more than two characters and one emotion in it, usually relationship-based, usually on the negative side. I empathise with the characters and how they are feeling in the situation in which I have placed them. I see and know more about them than I put in the poem, which helps round their character for me.
HM: I think the best way to really keep the tone of a piece is to not mangle it when rewriting. I think the original, organic tone is the first thing to go when a piece is hashed and rehashed over. Especially if the writer is in a markedly different head space when rewriting. It’s hard to stay consistent with the emotion that originally inspired a piece…anything longer than a poem is in danger of losing that spark during rewrites. So I think I try to stay very cognizant of the original inspiration…and try not to trample it when tightening lines or cutting sections, adding bits and pieces. In poems I end up scrapping, I can usually find this kind of schizophrenia in them, born of exactly that — I’ve lost the thread, or edited out the spark accidentally. And instead of wringing my hands and bemoaning the fact — I usually just thrash it, and make a good, clean break. Sometimes I can recapture the spirit…but not usually. At that point it’s better to just dump it, and try to write something fresh, with some of the same spirit, maybe save a few good lines, and forget the rest.
NS: Each poem makes its own demands, and I never know in advance what a particular work will ask of me. This uncertainty is part of what makes writing fun and challenging. That said, masks play an important role in many of my recent poems, especially those in my forthcoming sunnyoutside collection, Our Rarer Monsters (2012). Masks allow me to engage multiple tonal registers simultaneously. And contrary to expectation, they don’t really help one to hide, since the masks one chooses are always revealing.
RK: Choose the words and subject. The tone, or what I call “the evocation of sense,” was fully conveyed in a recent Billy Childish poem, “Como,”2 of “the beach house/ where I was molested as a child” by the use of, among other devices, naming the colors of objects. The freedom of poetry allows great latitude in evoking the desired ambiance, including startling misspellings or shocking words and unusual juxtapositions of concepts. Non-poetry writing often involves less freedom but writing such as news reports or essays about certain subjects all involve tone to a greater or lesser degree. In my legal writing [I have been a criminal defense attorney in Oakland, California since 1980, and in addition to jury-trial and courtroom work have also written dozens of appellate legal briefs that transform bizarre criminal or police behavior into abstract legal or constitutional theories] there is some use of tone in choosing how to describe things or events but it is constrained by a transcript or police report and any obvious lack of objectivity is frowned upon. So I think most of my writing is either primarily tone or else I am attempting to conceal the existence of bias by subtly insinuating tone.
Where the cinematographer [playwright, director, even magazine editor] can use color itself, the writer can only use words. But where the camera will take in everything in front of the lens, the writer omits everything not subjected to her gaze. The choice of what to write about, flip side of what to omit, is inherent in the writer’s position
Yet the sieve of evidentiary objections
of “hearsay” and 352 and 1101(b),
the sieve of “judicial discretion”
strains that factual material
so thin sometimes
so fat at others
that its rough weave resembles the truth
like a general outline
but details, perhaps crucial
perhaps not, are distorted.3
By describing a person’s appearance, for example, the writer not only gives an image of what the person looks like, he says that the person’s appearance is of significance; because to omit any reference of appearance is simple. You just don’t do anything. Same with gender. Time, era, it all is only a part of the poem if the writer chooses to include it. So it really comes down to choice of words—the ones you use and the ones you omit.
ML: A lot of my poems deal with people or issues that require research. That’s one of my favorite stages of writing: reading and researching in order to develop the voice that’s needed in the poem. For instance, I just finished a manuscript of poems dealing with characters who have been involved in the land-act settlement that applies to the American Indian reservations. One of my characters is Leonard Peltier…for his voice, I did a lot of reading and I watched several films so that I could really get a sense of the emotions involved. Being immersed in all of that allowed me to find the right tone, I hope.
What drives your writing?
RS: My father’s working class roots drive my writing. What I mean is that I approach writing with the same fervor that my father approached his work or any other project. The title of my chapbook that sunnyoutside press published in 2007 pays respect to his mantra, Dream Big, Work Harder. He worked harder than anyone that I have ever met. I mean after work he worked, on weekends he worked, even on vacations he worked. He never stopped and that is what made him incredibly successful and also happy. I remember when I was a teenager and he had to have knee surgery; the man lost his mind! He couldn’t handle the downtime. I feel the same way when I am not writing. I also endeavor to pay homage to the working class, a class with which I most identify.
BM: My own disillusionment, which is an absolute, certain and continuous. Relationships. Instinct. Deep-down instinct. To comfort myself. All of the above, none of the above, and wine. Yes, lots of wine.
HM: The thing that keeps me writing is that the process itself is fulfilling. To find a way to say the things you want to say is rewarding. And when my work is published and other people understand it, and by proxy, understand me a little better…that’s rewarding. To look on my shelf and see the books I’ve written, that publishers have made into gorgeous books—that is rewarding. And people dropping me quick e-mails or letters telling me that something I wrote has meant something to them, that’s rewarding too. The whole process takes an idea from its inception full-circle to connecting — using just words, pages — with another person. I think that’s what I value most — the chance to reach people in a meaningful way. To build a shared experience with people I probably will never actually meet. If I am honest in my work, if I pour myself freely and fully into it — then people like it and respond to it — they actually know a little something about me because of it. It’s like the writer and the book reader conspire together to better understand both each other and themselves. It’s kind of amazing, actually…that people we never know can have such a profound impact on us, and how we see the world. I never met J.D. Salinger, or Jack Kerouac, or Walt Whitman, or Charles Bukowski, or Henry Miller…but they have absolutely shaped the way I approach life and the world. That’s utterly surreal to me — that we can matter so much to each other without ever meeting. That we can commune on a higher plane of ideas…or even just drink and laugh together (which is what reading a good book feels like!). It’s why I feel both embarrassed and honored when people buy my work.
NS: Oddly enough, I am driven to rewrite more than to write. It’s a challenge for me to begin work. Once I have a piece started, though, I find myself obliged to tinker with it nonstop. I produce draft after draft after draft. I always feel I can make my work better—and this bothers me to no end, mostly in a good way, but not always. The feeling sometimes persists even after work has been published. I have a copy of one of my books used for readings that I’ve written all over, making changes to improve the poems.
RK: Whatever it is that makes the lover cross the mountain so high and the valley so deep to get the message to the beloved. Whatever it is that makes part of the 99% brave gunfire to scrawl angry graffiti on the wall of the palace. Whatever it is that makes me kick off the covers and get out of my warm bed to sit in a cold room and write. It needs to be said.
ML: Obsession, for sure. When I read something or experience something — especially something that sort of rocks my world or that I don’t fully understand — I can’t stop thinking about it. Writing helps me to sort through things and recast things in my own way. I’m a big fan of research and reading, so, any project that requires me to do that, and spend a lot of time with a topic, I love that.
Rebecca Schumejda is the author of Falling Forward, a full-length collection of poems (sunnyoutside, 2009); From Sin to Seed (Bottle of Smoke Press, forthcoming, 2011) The Map of Our Garden (verve bath, 2009); Dream Big Work Harder (sunnyoutside, 2006); The Tear Duct of the Storm (Green Bean Press, 2001); and the poem “Logic” on a postcard (sunnyoutside). Her new book, Cadillac Men, is forthcoming from New York Quarterly Books in 2012. She received her MA in Poetics and Creative Writing from San Francisco State University and her BA in English and Creative Writing from SUNY – New Paltz. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband and daughter. Visit her website at www.rebeccaschumejda.com.
Brian McGettrick lives a half-life in front of the typewriter and a full life with his wife and two daughters in the north of Ireland. His first collection, Everything Else We Must Endure, is available from sunnyoutside press.
Hosho McCreesh is currently writing & painting in the gypsum & caliche badlands of the American Southwest. His work has appeared widely in print, audio, & online. You can follow all his work at www.hoshomccreesh.com.
Noel Sloboda is the author of the poetry collection Shell Games (2008) as well as several chapbooks. He has also published a book about Edith Wharton and Gertrude Stein. Sloboda teaches at Penn State York and frequently serves as dramaturg for the Harrisburg Shakespeare Company.
Micah Ling is a graduate of DePauw University. She earned her Master’s Degree in 20th Century American Literature and her Master of Fine Arts Degree in poetry from Indiana University. Ling teaches in the English department at Franklin College, and in the MFA program at Butler University. She has two collections of poetry: Three Islands and Sweetgrass (sunnyoutside press).
Some of Richard Krech’s recent books include, At the End of Time: The Incomplete Works of Richard Krech, Volume II; Poetry, 2001-2009 (sunnyoutside, 2010); In Chambers: the Bodhisattva of the Public Defender’s Office (sunnyoutside, 2008); and Rumors of Electricity (sunnyoutside, 2006). Born in the middle class, Richard Krech grew up in Berkeley, California, started writing at 17, and had his first mimeographed book published by d.a. levy in 1967. He published a poetry magazine and organized a series of readings at a bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley from 1966 to 1969. Krech authored half a dozen chapbooks and had numerous periodical appearances before he stopped writing poetry in the mid-seventies. Many of these early works are collected in The Incompleat Works of Richard Krech; Poems 1966-1974 (Litmus, 1976) and We Are On The Verge Of Ecstasy; Selected Early Poems 1965-1970 (Green Panda Press, 2007). Krech has been practicing criminal defense in Oakland, California since 1980. His practice has included everything from murder to shoplifting, as well as pro bono representation of anti-war demonstrators and others similarly situated. He now has a primarily appellate practice. Since Krech resumed writing poetry early this century, he has had about a dozen books and chapbooks published.