Sheila Squillante's Beautiful Nerve

Each year Barrelhouse hosts the Conversations & Connections Conference, a one-day writer's conference that brings together writers, editors, and publishers in a friendly, supportive environment. This year's conference takes place in Washington, DC on April 18th. 

As part of registration, participants get to choose from among four featured books to take home. Our featured poetry book is Sheila Squillante's Beautiful Nerve (Tiny Hardcore Press, 2015). Barrelhouse Poetry Editor Dan Brady sat down with Sheila to find out more.

Dan Brady: Beautiful Nerve, your first full-length collection, is our featured poetry book at this year’s Conversations & Connections DC. Can you tell me a little bit about how this book came to be?

Sheila Squillante: This book had a lengthy gestation. It's hard to believe (for me) that some of the poems came from my MFA, completed during the geologic era my children would describe as The Deep Past. I remember a poet who came to talk about her just-published first book with us during that time. The book was accomplished and interesting--documentary poetics, if I'm remembering correctly--and she was engaging and smart. But what stuck with me, what horrified me back then, was that she told us it had taken her a decade to find a publisher for it. Ten years! Well, hello. If you start my publication clock with the first iteration of this book, it's taken me even longer than that! Of course, Beautiful Nerve is *not* my MFA thesis. It has been through so many revisions, so many re-structurings, and at least four different titles during its becoming. I've added new poems with each year and dumped a whole bunch, too, to make it the artifact that exists today. I hope this is not a discouraging story. I mean it to be the opposite. I was the tortoise, not the hare. And we all know how that story ended. 

DB: The poet Judith Ortiz Cofer once told me that poetry is the only area of our lives in which obsession and anxiety can be advantageous. Do you agree? What role does obsession play in your poetry?

SS: Dan, get out of my head! Seriously, how did you know that those two words--"anxiety" and "obsession"--are probably what I would call the vertebrae of this book? (Does that metaphor even work? I feel anxious about it, but I'll let it stand.) Most of these poems have to do with anxiety--around relationships, identity, motherhood, connection, and, maybe even more, disconnection. It's intensely anxious about the ways language shapes and fails us. So yes, I'd say it's an uneasy book and certainly an obsessive one. A poet once told me during a very formative time, that I should "write what obsesses me." Okay. Here you go.

DB: The poems in your book take multiple forms. I’m always interested in a poet’s choices between prose poems and lineated poems. Do you approach these poems differently? Do you tend to write a batch of prose poems and then shift into lineated poems? As someone who writes prose as well, are these all just tools in the toolbox or is there something more to it?

SS: I have always been drawn to the prose form as a house for poetry. I really like the tension that happens when you constrict a big, obsessive idea inside of a tight prose box. It's like a straight jacket, in that there is all this muscled energy that wants to bust out. Sometimes I want to trap my reader inside of a landscape, and prose works great for that. So yes, I do consider form depending on content sometimes, though I also think it's great craft practice--and something I suggest to my students all the time--to see what happens when you lineate a prose poem or eliminate line breaks and stanzas from a lyric poem. I'm not precious about messing with such things. It's all just mud until you take it to the kiln. 

DB: In addition to being a great poet and essayist, you’re also deeply involved in the editorial side of independent publishing as an associate editor of [PANK] and the editor-in-chief of The Fourth River.  How does your involvement in editorial work affect your own writing?

SS: "Great!" Wow, thank you. That feels very nice and weird to hear. And it's really  nice to know that my work as an editor marks me as much as my work as a writer, because yes, they are inextricable to me at this point. Can I say, here in public, how much I love curating other writers' good work? It's thrilling and also really instructional. I have learned so much about the process my own work has gone through in the hands of editors who have cared for it. I'm lucky to have both perspectives, because I think it helps me to be more careful with my writing and the way I submit, more respectful of the sometimes invisible work of editing, and more patient as I wait (yep, still waiting) for my rejection from The Sun. 

DB: You’ve been a panelist at past CCDCs and the host of Conversations & Connections Pittsburgh at Chatham University. What’s one thing participants can look forward to getting out of the conference?

SS: I am a C&C devotee, for sure! There's so much one could come away with, but the thing that rises to the top for me is sincerity. I mean that everyone I have ever met at C&C has been a mensch of the highest order. There's nothing affected about the people you meet or the excellent advice you get. That air of competition and one-upwomanship you sense in some literary spaces is just not applicable. Everyone's rooting for everyone's writing to succeed. It's a special thing you all have done. Thank you!

DB: At Barrelhouse, we always end every interview with the same question. What’s your favorite Patrick Swayze movie?

SS: The Outsiders. The last time I saw it, maybe ten years ago, a single shot of his bicep rolling below a cuffed sleeve totally made me want to lick the screen. And I am not normally a screen, licker, Dan.

Want to hear more from Sheila? Register for Conversations & Connections DC!

Can't make it do DC? Get a copy of Sheila's book from Tiny Hardcore Press