Last week, the literary community learned that small press publisher, ELJ Editions, is closing up shop. Barrelhouse wants to help make sure the voices of their authors are still being heard and so will be hosting interviews with ELJ authors on the blog for the next little while. Thanks for reading and buying and otherwise loving small press authors!
Interview by Amber Edmondson
1. "The Pretty Machine" is such a gorgeous modular essay, and I was often reminded of Margaret Atwood's piece, "The Female Body." What other writers or pieces influenced you when you were working on this essay?
I absolutely love Margaret Atwood’s essay, “The Female Body,” and always taught it when I was a creative writing instructor. Hers was the first collage-style essay in which I really saw the power and potential of the segmented form. So you picked up on Atwood coursing through my subconscious while writing “The Pretty Machine.” I’ve also been heavily influenced by Nin Andrews, whose poetry, essays, and micro fiction all play and blend in really interesting ways. She writes about gender roles with tremendous humor, tempering gravity with absurdity.
2. Much of your written work (and your yoga work, it seems) focuses on the relationship between women and their bodies. In regards to yoga, you write, "Something within me cracks and breaks loose. This feels right." How has your yoga practice shaped your relationship with your body, with bodies in general?
Oh, what a great question. So many people are disconnected from their bodies—growing up, my disconnection was entwined with self-loathing. They were like two evil twins, this disconnection and self-loathing. I saw my body as something entirely separate from myself: something to wage war against, something to compare against all other bodies, something to despise. My language reflected this relationship: “I hate my nose. I hate my thighs. I hate my arms.” Sadly this type of inner monologue is not unique. Yoga helps to heal that disconnection and self-loathing by embodying mindful movement with breathing techniques and meditation. It’s transformative.
Our physical body is connected to our breath, which is inextricably connected to our nervous system. As I learned to stretch my muscles and control my breathing patterns I would naturally relax my nervous system. It’s a slow process for me, though. I’m still working on it, but yoga has been an indispensable healing tool.
So many people walk around with chronic pain, hunched backs, and strained necks. Their bodies keep screaming at them to pay attention, but they aren’t listening. They carry around their stress. Yoga allows us—if practiced with integrity and not just as another ego-boosting exercise—to slow down and quiet down. Then we can begin to listen to the wisdom of the body, the breath, and the awareness that resides beneath the busy thought patterns.
3. I am fascinated by writers who have professional practices beyond their writing. How does your work as a yoga teacher influence your work as a writer?
Both roles as a writer and yoga teacher have intriguing commonalities: they’re bothconsidered vocations, both paths that involve introspection and keen awareness, and both low-paying gigs (just kidding, a little). One of my aims as a writer, whether through poetry or creative nonfiction, is to carve away at some insight or question or kernel of truth. And as a yoga teacher I am constantly learning—this profession is a mirror that reveals myself to me all the time. Yoga philosophy is so rich, so full of insights and deeper questions and kernels of truth that it gives me fodder for my writing every day.
4. And, related, how do you balance these two facets of your life? What does that look like on a day-to-day basis?
Oh balance, there’s that fun and tricky word. Juggle feels more appropriate. These days my writing has taken a backseat to yoga, but I’ve been making a concerted effort to write and send work out. I teach about seven yoga classes a week and work as the marketing coordinator for a large yoga center. For me (and most yoga teachers I know) my days are filled with driving from one gig to the next across town. It’s a fractured schedule and every day is different, which I love. But I prefer large swaths of open time to write—read: procrastinate before writing—so I’ve been scheduling one afternoon per week to write and submit. When I was in grad school, my two loves were flipped: I was immersed in writing and part of a writing community. So I’m constantly toggling between the two worlds.
5. What writers were influential as you developed your voice as a writer?
I’ve always been fond of poets who write creative non-fiction—this is because these are the two genres I love. Nick Flynn, Alex Lemon, and John Pineda were my favorite authors in graduate school, where I really learned how to write. I’d never read their poetry and was stunned by the lyricism in their memoirs. Poets seem to give themselves license to be playful with prose, through the lushness of language or the structure of the prose itself.
But my biggest influence has been my mentor and graduate professor Ira Sukrungruang. I joke that he basically taught me how to hold a pen. He’s a triple threat: published and critically acclaimed in fiction, CNF, and poetry.
6. What is the best and the worst writing advice you have received?
The best advice: The worst thing you write is still better than the best thing you never wrote.
The worst advice (I love this question!): This is more anecdotal, less pithy. In a grad school fiction workshop, the professor forced any remotely experimental fiction to be re-written to fit into a marketable genre, like magical realism or chick lit. She taught formulas instead of encouraging ingenuity. I always thought if Junot Diaz were in that workshop The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao never would have made it past her red pen. I mean, those footnotes! And what a devastating thing that would be for the world if Junot Diaz’s book was not in it.
7. Your written work includes a wide range from editorial-style pieces for genre magazines to literary poetry. You teach yoga and you teach creative writing at the university level. How have those experiences differed for you? What have they shared in common?
Writing poetry and CNF are my native tongues. That’s the really juicy and joyful work. The magazine articles I’ve written about yoga are a little less juicy, because they’re usually explaining, interpreting, or analyzing some yogic concept. However, the articles are a wonderful way to use my love of writing to tap into the heart of the often ineffable experiences within a yoga practice, as well as the larger contexts of yoga culture in the west.
This is going to sound pretty cynical, but the major difference between teaching yoga and teaching creative writing at the university level is that people in the yoga studio want to be there, where most of my writing students thought the class would be an easy A. Of course there are engaged and passionate students in nearly every college class, but the dynamic of those two learning environments is vastly different. In fact, I stopped teaching in college because I was spread way too thin trying to do it all.
And yet, even when I did teach in college each semester we had one class dedicated to mindful writing. I told them that day I’d ask them to do the hardest task of the semester: to sit still at their desks and do nothing for five minutes. Amazingly, some kids dropped into a space of calmness within a few deep breaths. These past few years I’ve been fascinated by the intersections between writing and yoga. Both writers and the yogis are at the root seekers, searching for understanding or meaning. The writer does this through language, and the yogi does it through breathing techniques, postures, and meditation.
8. You have written about the role yoga has played in managing your own depression and anxiety. Has writing also played a role?
Yes, writing was my first love—yoga and meditation came much later. I suffered from depression for thirteen years, and produced many terrible poems and stories during that time. But every word, unbeknownst to me then, was a little salve for the vague yet intense gnaw of depression. Writing was a release valve through which I could unhinge some of that pain, and was of course extremely cathartic. Reading played a huge role, too: that’s why so many depressed kids fall in love with Holden Caulfield and Esther Greenwood growing up. I think these characters are so essential because depression is such an isolating disease, and books allow us to remember we are not ultimately alone.
9. Your writing is deeply personal, but it also strikes me as political at the same time. How do you feel about the connection between the personal and the political?
I think those connections are inescapable. It’s fascinating to me—and unnerving—how deeply my personal self is shaped by the greater collective. I feel as though we are inherently wired by our culture, historical era, and our social groups to see the world and ourselves in a certain way.
We see this very clearly with the variance of beauty standards throughout time and throughout the globe. There isn’t one absolute formula for desire. Beauty is a flat stomach in one place, a voluptuous figure in another, small feet in yet another—the list goes on. We’re not ignorant to the power and pressure of greater societal constructs on our ways of thinking. But these constructs are like gravity, and we seem to be unconsciously pulled by them all the same. I’d go so far as to say nothing is personal without also being political, because the individual self is in constant concert with the world. Even a shaman who lives in a cave—seemingly isolated and separate—is in reaction and in a dance with the larger social fabric in some capacity.
10. What are your plans for future projects?
I’m currently in the planning stages to create an online course in Mindful Writing through Contemplative Journal, which is very exciting. The course will be four weeks of writing exercises, some gentle yoga stretches, and guided meditations to help make peace with the inner critic and unlock creative energy.
I’ve also just hatched an idea for a nonfiction book that explores how language shapes our perceptions, specifically by looking at words and concepts in languages around the world that don’t translate easily.
Thank you so much!
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).
Melissa Carroll is a writer, yoga teacher, and creative writing instructor at The University of Tampa. She also loves hiking and taking naps. She’s the editor of Going OM: Real-Life Stories on and off the Yoga Mat (Viva Editions 2014), which features essays from Dani Shapiro, Neal Pollack, and many others, with a foreword by Cheryl Strayed. Melissa’s poetry chapbook The Karma Machine (YellowJacket Press 2011) received The Peter Meinke Award, and her work has been published in New South Review, Poetry Quarterly, MindBodyGreen.com, Contemplative Journal, The Literary Bohemian, and elsewhere. In 2011 Melissa was an artist-in-residence through the National Parks Service at The Petrified National Forest in Arizona. A lifelong talker, she’s appeared on Daytime TV, CBS San Francisco, iHeartRadio, America’s Meditating Radio Show, and many podcasts. Melissa leads yoga and creative writing retreats all over the place, from Costa Rica to North Carolina to Tuscany. Learn more about her here.