Claudia Carlson is immersed in the world of books: the words and the art. Below, she discusses her many literary passions.
JD: Like most poets, you spend a long time working on your book. But the publication came together ...
The Elephant House
CC: It took me ten years to write The Elephant House. I had entered it in several contests and gotten honorable mentions or friendly try again notes from editors…but not publication. During that time I was working by day as a book designer at Oxford University Press and at night I took on freelance work designing for small literary presses, including Marsh Hawk Press. One day the managing editor, Sandy McIntosh, mentioned he had seen my poems in several poetry journals and asked if I had a manuscript…did I have a manuscript!? Did I ever….I sent my book to the press, Eileen Tabios said, “where have you been?” The Elephant House came out in 2007.
JD: I'm always curious about the revision process poets go through. Could you tell us about yours?
CC: With a first draft I trust the gods of inspiration and let it rip. It might be a page or two of prose when I’m writing too fast to break it into lines. A few days later, after the clouds of creation dissipate, I am ready to do the work of turning the pileup of language and ideas into a more focused work. I type it into my computer and look for the feelings and images that offer me the most surprise and multiplicity of reach while paring away what isn’t part of this poem. A few days later I reopen the file and start reading it out loud to hear the beats and rhythm—something I have trouble with—I am much better at the visual. I use a thesaurus to see if there are juicier words. I try longer lines and shorter lines and different stanza lengths just to see if it makes a difference in how it means. I come back to it again and again until I feel I took away anything that wasn’t the poem. I show it to my writing group or trusted few. And if it feels done, or as done as I can make it, I submit it to journals. Sometimes there has been such a long process of revision I no longer feel connected to the heart of the poem or it creaks in its corset and I let it go and write something new. And every now and then I write one that hardly needs any revision. I can’t explain how that happens.
JD: How does your work as a book designer inform your work as a writer?
CC: Designing poetry books gives me a deeper insight into how other poets structure their poems in the long form of a book. I think about how many sections the book has and if they make sense for the content. Constantly keeping poems flush left can get visually boring. I love poems that make brilliant use of white space to build further meaning through pauses and distances on the page. Or outright shapes! I am now building a series of shaped poems, such as snowmen and pitchers of water. I learn the most from really good work. Sometimes writers repeat key words too often, use clichés, present the obvious in tortured syntax, or submit poorly copyedited work, and I cringe and vow to do better.
JD: What's your writing practice like?
CC: Sometimes I am very very good and write every day for months. Other times life distracts me. I feel guilty for not writing…then a poem will appear when I’m riding the subway or taking a walk or reading something amazing and a thought or image demands to be written. When there are no ideas, I find even fifteen minutes a day of writing ANYTHING is enough to keep the writing muscle ready for the muse.
JD: Has it changed much over the years?
CC: When I had small children I wrote short pieces in the moments I could. They got so short they turned into poems. My writing group, River Writers of Manhattan, finally outed me as a poet. I resisted. I said I was a novelist and certainly not a poet like my mother. She had smoked cigarettes in a long holder and quoted Roethke and Dylan Thomas in theatrical tones that made my teeth clench. Her poet friends drooped, blathered, hideously quoted themselves, and disliked children. As I girl I so detested poetry I refused to listen to the bits that littered Winnie-the-Pooh. But once I got over the shock of discovering what I had long avoided, I started reading current poetry and taking workshops at The 92nd Street Y and The Frost Place. I made friends with terrific poets such as Jeanne Marie Beaumont, Baron Wormser, and Sharon Dolin. Now that my children are grown I am writing poetry and returning to prose. The expansiveness of prose and narrative also teaches me something I can bring back to poetry.
JD: What poets are you reading these days?
CC: Mostly I am listening to poets. I go to readings all around the city, including Cornelia Street Café in the Village, Poets House in lower Manhattan, the 92nd St. Y on the Upper East Side, and the Nicholas Roerich museum on the Upper West Side. I bring my sketchpad and draw portraits of the poets as they read. I jot down phrases that resonate. I also revisit favorite poets like Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, and Donald Justice. I read a lot of novels as well as poetry. Right now I am reading Jeanne Marie Beaumont’s latest poetry book, Burning of the Three Fires.
JD: Thanks to Claudia for taking the time to talk with us. For more on her work, check out her site: www.claudiagraphics.com
For more on the craft of writing visit me at www.bangthekeys.com or pick up the book:
Bang the Keys
And until next week I leave you with this question: what poem has had the greatest influence on your life?