In My Big Little Break, we ask authors to talk about the first piece they ever had published, how it felt to finally break through, and what they’ve learned since then. Michelle Ross, author of the collection There's So Much They Haven't Told You (Moon City Press 2017), winner of the 2016 Moon City Press Fiction Award, shares her answers.
Interview by Amber Edmondson
1. "Farmstead, Fire, Field" is packed with such vivid imagery, all of these concrete vignettes which so effectively call up all kinds of abstract ideas and feelings. What makes an image speak to you?
I like this question a great deal, as it’s especially difficult for me answer completely. I like to be surprised in images, in their ease. For instance, Corey Van Landingham writes in “This World is Only Going to Break Your Heart” of lily pads sitting on a pond “like drowned hats”, which is such a lovely and automatic idea, so easy and obvious in its creativity that lily pads must have always been considered in this way by everyone ever to encounter one. But great images also carry tension, just like great metaphors, because of course a lily pad is nothing like a waterlogged hat if you actually compare them. Now, this example is a metaphor on top of its sensory quality, so to talk plainly of sensual detail beyond the use of metaphor: I adore use of color, odor, physical, and auditory detail when presented in unexpected ways. As an example, water is never pink in life, so a poem describing pink water would certainly endear me. Synesthetic qualities are especially beautiful: in “Winter Apples,” Gjertrud Schnackenberg describes a frog’s final breaths in a snake’s mouth as a “blue sob” which is euphoric in its description. This continues into all forms of description and image. Simply, I want my jaw on the floor from shock.
2. Your chapbook, like the farmsteads you write about, contains an interesting tension between the natural and the man-made. Is this a conscious interplay? Do other tensions make their way into your writing?
I think the interplay is conscious and there are a variety of tensions. This is even true of the form my poems take on the page. I aim to use linebreaks in a way that creates dynamic tension and energy between lines through surprise. Enjambment, and all that. I suppose there is a palpable tension between the self and the other in almost all of my writing, probably rooted in my introversion.
The interplay between the natural and manmade places in Farmstead exists in other work of mine but was especially important to the story I was trying to tell over the course of the chapbook. It emphasizes the spectrum of angst that bleeds from page to page, and the very real precipice of growing up that is represented by leaving home.
3. The poems in this collection share a strong aesthetic link. Had you set out with the intention to write such connected pieces?
Yes. There is a very real narrative arc that links all the poems together. The piece that inspired the chapbook was actually a single long poem I wrote in 2010 (drawn from notes sketched down as early as 2004) that now exists as parts to about seven of the poems in the book.
4. What books and writers have been influential to your work, specifically "Farmstead, Fire, Field?"
The poems of Frank Stanford and C.D. Wright were the biggest influence on the form and content. After that, my teachers all influenced these poems a great deal. It’s difficult to pinpoint all of the outside influences beyond that, especially without giving too much away about the poems.
5. In addition to being a writer, you are also a co-editor of Paper Nautilus. How has your work as an editor (or other work) informed your writing process?
Probably the biggest thing it has taught me is the importance of a great title to a poem. Submissions often include all of the names of the poems in their heading, and if I’m not immediately interested in the submission just from reading the titles, then I probably won’t find the poems themselves too interesting either. Further, I can more readily see mistakes in my own work (usually, a failing to make use of an opportunity to delve deeper within a poem and reach beyond the smallness of my own experience toward some larger universalism [lord, what a ponderously conceited notion]) because I can find such missed opportunities easily in the submissions I read.
6. What kind of environment do you find you do your best work in?
Ideas often come to me in moments of seclusion—while driving, bathing, or as I fall asleep. I need to take notes when these ideas occur or they will be lost forever, so I have several notebooks (including an Evernote of scattered ideas) that are populated with various short phrases and sentences that have no connection to each other. Traveling and encountering new places has grown important to me as well. Eventually, I’ll sit down to write a draft and draw from all the notes I have in order to begin, emphasizing collage in order to engage the creative process. I pace a great deal while thinking and working, so my environment is a somewhat fluid space of hallways and empty rooms centered around the constant presence of my desk.
7. Are you a "music-" or "silence-" while-writing kind of person?
I alternate. I’ll listen to music, pause a track to read what I have in a draft out loud, change some small part of the draft, and then realize 45 minutes later that I forgot to hit play again.
8. What is the best and the worst writing advice you have received?
I learned through Charlie Simic that it is ok to revise constantly for years, even after a poem has appeared in a journal, a book, and an anthology. I suppose one needs to leave poems behind at some point, but I’m a perfectionist and I like to know it’s ok to revise endlessly, forever. Without this acceptance for revision years after a poem is written, I doubt Farmstead would have ever been published, as I revised it constantly over the three years it took to find ELJ Publications. Without the lesson from Charlie, I would have given up and moved on.
Donald Revel writes in “The Art of Attention” to never write at night, only in bright daylight, which is an exceptionally worthless piece of advice in my case.
9. What is your favorite line from your chapbook?
“I was in-between fears,” a line taken from “The Burning Field.”
10. What are your plans for future projects?
My next chapbook, “Joysong Demarcation” is forthcoming from Tree Light Books, and is at once a more personal and political collection examining how joy can possibly exist, and how we can balance our lives to experience it fully. Beyond that, I’m slowly writing the first drafts for the poems that will go into my first full-length book. At the rate I’m going, I’ll have a manuscript done by the end of the decade.
Amber Edmondson is a poet and book artist living in Upper Michigan whose work has appeared in publications such as Autostraddle, Freeze Ray Poetry, and Menacing Hedge. She is the author of two chapbooks: Darling Girl (dancing girl press) and Lost Birds of the Iron Range (Porkbelly Press).