The Artist’s Corner – Talking Poetry With Poet Carrie Tangenberg, Part 1

I met Carrie Tangenberg several years ago in a writing group for poets and authors.  Right from the start I could tell she was an intelligent, well-read, and well-spoken woman.  The best part was that Carrie never came across as haughty or unapproachable.  On the contrary, her elegance and calm reserve combined with her intellect positioned her to make the most constructive critiques.  I have also witnessed this in the classical literature book club to which we both belong.

When I realized I needed a poet for The Artist’s Corner, Carrie immediately sprang to mind.  I only wish you could hear her answers in her own sophisticated voice.  I know you’ll enjoy reading them as they are deeply informative, openly transparent, and incredibly encouraging for anyone who has ever had a passion for art.

Tell me a little about yourself.

Creative writing has been part of my life since early childhood. In kindergarten, I wrote a story about a stick of personified butter in its trials and travails. I think that was my first story. Then, it was poetry in elementary school, which has persisted to present day.

After college, I applied my writing talent in office settings of the publishing and higher education fields. Later, I switched focus to teaching English and writing, along with other humanities subjects. Now, I blog about non-fiction, poetry, and novel writing, as well as nature, travel, and film and TV storytelling. I also tutor writing and career help online.

Other ways I stay connected to the writing world include participating in a classic literature book club, a local writing group, and our region’s National Novel Writing Month program. I took a course in memoir writing earlier this year, and I won a local poetry contest in spring 2016.

I also garden, bird-watch, practice photography, and hike in the area’s metro parks. In reading, I favor Outlander, literary fiction, adventure, contemporary realistic fiction, and sci-fi, poetry, and non-fiction works of memoir, writing about writing, and satire. My film preferences are eclectic, but many of my favorites happen to be space/alien sci-fi adventure such as Star Wars.

See the “About me” page of my blog for more philosophical and literary hints to my personality.

What prompted you to begin writing poetry?

I’ve always had a strong sense of rhythm and musicality, so after dancing jazz in first grade and lip-syncing to tunes in the living room, I started writing rhyming poems about birds in fifth grade. Most of my life’s poetry is about nature or wildlife, from the first to the most recent attempts. I also love language and playing with the sounds words make.

Who or what is your inspiration for writing poetry?

Number one, as I said, is wildlife or wilderness, often birds, trees and flowers, landscapes, waterways, and even insects, soil, and rocks, or as broad as the cosmos. I’m fascinated by predator-prey dynamics, the beauty and indifference of nature, and I love all sorts of animals. Favorites include wolves, foxes, African wild dogs, otters, all sorts of birds, chameleons, and meerkats. In an alternate life where I’m better at math and science, if I couldn’t be an ornithologist, I’d be a wildlife or canid biologist.

Other inspirations are existential or spiritual contemplation often intersecting with language and meaning—in other words, the nature of life, death, perception, reality, motivation, and how we express and understand those. Occasionally, I’m inspired by current events such as the death of Leonard Nimoy, for which I wrote my first elegy.

How does a poem begin for you, with an idea, a form, or an image?

It varies. Sometimes I’m attempting to capture an image with description. Other times, I like a phrase or concept and want to see what I can make of it. Mainly, spare impressions guide me forward, and the end result can often remain rather impressionistic. I long ago developed the habit of gravitating toward nature imagery for my similes and metaphors.

I suppose I enjoy the challenge of urging fresh ways of looking at nature, since it’s been done so much by so many poets and songwriters for so long. Nature poetry is typically the first kind that non-poetic types think of or attempt to write, usually a piece of verse about autumn leaves, celestial bodies, or weather. I often aim to upend those expectations or write the usual in an unusual way. So, the prominent starting points are ideas and language, but I might set out to fill a form such as a sonnet, blank verse, or even a limerick—for added, puzzle-solving challenge.

What conditions help you with your writing process? Where do you write? When do you write?

Optimal conditions are the ongoing puzzle I have yet to solve. If only I could figure this out, I’d be in so much greater shape artistically, if not also in terms of publishing. I write mostly at home, but I also find inspiration in local parks, other green spaces, and the occasional cafe. Sometimes I’ll start on the computer, but I keep in touch with the fact that handwriting can boost my creative flow. I write in cursive as often as in print letters, and that lends its own enjoyment of beauty to the exercise. I can write at all hours, whenever the mood or idea strikes, but I’m most productive late at night. I’m not sure when I write best, though.

What is your creative process? Do you have any routines?

Typically, I’ll draft a poem long-hand, then either mark it up or type it up for revision. Next, I’ll try to apply my revision ideas. Often it helps at this point to set the poem aside and come back after a few days or even weeks to see if I still like it enough overall to polish it in its current basic structure. If not, I’ll file it unchanged. If so, I’ll put my best foot forward in finalizing the poem.

I once chronicled my verse writing process on my blog in a series of 4 posts. I learned a lot by doing that, but I don’t know if it helped me set any particular approach in stone or make significant changes to my routine. The posts are cross-linked, and the first one is “On Process: Verse Writing, Introduction and Part I: Motivation.

What books (of poetry or the creative process) or poets have influenced your writing?

Emily Dickinson was my initial influence for imagery, rhythm, and the combined sounds of words. She wrote a lot about death and loss, as well as nature, in her reclusive solitude. As a child, I had few close friends, so I could relate to some of that desolation and loneliness. Those feelings linger with me, but they’ve also evolved as I’ve adjusted how I write about nature. I have become accustomed to melancholy and used it to my artistic advantage.

Other works I find myself imitating are the nature poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Amy Clampitt, Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney, W.B. Yeats, and Judith Wright. I also love poets Philip Larkin and Billy Collins. Derek Walcott’s epic poem Omeros, which I read in college, is simply stunning. Beauty drips from this post-colonial Caribbean take on Homer’s The Odyssey.

How often do you create a new poem? What style or form do you choose for your poems?

I write half a dozen or so poems a year, sometimes working on them for long periods and coming back after a break to revise further. The rest are brief impressions jotted and then affectionately released from my attention into the archives. Most often I write in free verse using internal or near rhyme.

Are there any forms you haven’t tried but would like to?

Let’s see. I’ve written one poem in blank verse, a few sonnets, a syllabic, an elegy, a sestina, a villanelle, couplets, limericks, a handful of concrete poems, free verse, songs with refrains, and I tend to play with line and stanza breaks. If I thought more about it, I would probably find lots of forms I’d like to try. I have a poster with a reference chart of poetic forms on it at home. Some of them are very difficult, though, and it takes real dedication, regular practice, or teaching poetry to be primed for those challenges. I tend to dabble and seldom tutor poetry writing, though I have enjoyed a few sessions.

How much of yourself do you write into your poetry?

That’s a good existential question if I ever saw one. For me, the way I’ve written myself into poetry has progressed in different stages, but sometimes I return to earlier ones. I used to write a lot of confessional poetry about feelings, anxieties, depression, situational impressions, my experiences during study in France, and some poems about playing soccer or about ideas in stories I’ve read.

Nowadays, I still write occasional complaints in poetic form, but I don’t consider those serious or publishable samples. I have a strong aversion to writing, or reading, political poetry. I prefer the essay form for that purpose. I find a lot of slam poetry and poetry focused on political viewpoints to be too whiny, with off-putting ideas or, most frequently, simply incomplete and unpolished. People tend to take liberties with form, clarity, and content when motivated by outrage or ennui.

I’m always somewhere in my own poems—as the speaker and observer, as a character made of shades of myself and my way of thinking and speaking, and sometimes as the subject. I think every writer is to some degree.

Do you find yourself returning to a particular theme in your poetry?

The most prominent themes include natural elements as expressions of mood, marveling at some specimen of the animal kingdom, struggles for personal freedom and comfort in my own skin, or a combination of these. I’ve also focused a lot on nature poetry in my blog, along with book and arts reviews, emphasizing Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander book and the STARZ TV series. I recently added travel writing about our wonderful trip to Scotland inspired by Outlander. My blog title is a throwback to my philosophy roots, a nod to part of a nickname for me, and a portmanteau meant to capture that blend of writing topics: “Philosofishal.

Word choice in poetry seems so important. Do you write with a dictionary or thesaurus next to you or make words choices in the editing process?

I periodically refer to dictionary.com or thesaurus.com and research using the Internet. Word choice is extremely important—one of the most important aspects of poetry in particular and, I believe, any good writing. Precise meaning, the right sounds, the right shapes and lengths for optimal rhythm, and careful phrasing, punctuation, and line breaks all have to work in concert for the best effects.

Punctuation choice is highly under-appreciated as a conveyor of nuanced meaning in writing. In poetry, if it is to be used, which is not required, punctuation must be precisely and consistently applied. That was one of the most memorable lessons my verse writing professor had for me in college: “You really must study punctuation.” As an English teacher and poet, I pay close attention to grammar and mechanics standards. When you know the rules, you can more effectively bend, break or uphold them to fit a poem’s purpose and style.

What is your revision process like?

In a poetry reading event at the Akron-Summit County Public Library last year, former U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, of whom I have been a long-time fan, said his writing process is nearly effortless. This comes with experience, of course, but he also makes a point of intentionally abandoning the task early if it gets too unwieldy, cumbersome, or sticky. I haven’t learned that trick, or earned that freedom, yet.

As I mentioned earlier, if I think I have a good enough start, I’ll draft and revise until it’s finished or until it’s changed too much to salvage. This speaks to the importance of saving versions. It can be unavoidable to struggle, though, and to be disheartened by ruinous results. Revision is the fine art of learning when good enough is good enough, which is very subjective, especially for new or amateur poets or poets without good editors. Perhaps I also feel a sense of urgency to put out a product, abandoning my drafts only after a hefty, strenuous effort, long past the wisest point of letting go.

Writers need to learn to become comfortable with what we call sh**ty first drafts, to expect snags and detours, and to know when it’s time to switch focus to a new or different project. Several factors may need to come together to make a piece work well, so that means a lot can go wrong, too. First, you have to know what the different aspects of a poem are. Then, after carefully assessing each factor and addressing each as needed, you can get a more realistic sense of a poem’s or a painting’s potential.

It’s always going to be something of a process, but we’re better off if we can recognize when we’re courting futility. The key at that moment is not to view this as a failure, which can be quite hard for artists, me included. Instead, finishing may be a simple matter of using a different form for the content, pinpointing that missing language or concept, or waiting a while for it all to coalesce, but that doesn’t necessarily make finishing any quicker or easier.

Is poetry your only type of writing? If not, what other types of writing do you indulge in? What is the relationship between your poetry and other writing?

I write a lot of different things, but not as many as I should or could if I were publishing my verse regularly. I write essays and articles on my blog about creativity, book reviews, TV shows, travel, and nature. I write novels during NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo. I write political manifestos I never publish, just to get things off my chest. I recently began trying my hand at memoir and may do more of that in the future. My main focus right now, though, is the non-fiction on my blog.

Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?

My standards for what makes a good poem have definitely risen with education, my own reading, and writing experience. I’ve also found poetry in the prose of certain novels and learned to appreciate different poetic forms and outlets as I’ve aged, realizing how rare poetry really is.

Do poets experience (mental/writing) block (or fear) the way a writer of novels or short stories does? If you have, how did you handle it?

Writing is writing. Working with words or any creative material, in whatever form, brings with it challenges and rewards, as with any job. Furthermore, good writing and holding oneself to a standard of good writing means that, chances are, there will be anxiety. Pressure is useful up to a point. It’s when my own internal pressure to perform and produce becomes too much that I have the most trouble writing.

For me, it’s a periodically recurring problem. I feel as if I’m always searching for ways forward, but that’s also my nature: I’m a seeker. I’m very interested in the “how” of life and writing, so I experiment a lot, resist routine, and tend to suffer the inevitable consequences: interesting process, fewer outcomes, more worry. It’s mentally and emotionally taxing, but it can be creatively fruitful, too, because I’m already slightly outside the box in my thinking sometimes.

What do you hope to achieve with your poems? Do you ask questions in your poetry? If so, are they open ended questions or do you resolve them?

I have several different aims that can either cooperate or compete with each other in a poem for both my audience and myself. Beauty is one. Insight is another. Cleverness and novelty, yet others. Sometimes I write my journaling in verse, but I may not realize it’s just artistic journaling until later. In those cases especially, one of my aims is to convey a certain message or answer a particular question.

With nature poetry, as I mentioned earlier, a typical aim is to upset expectations, to open minds and hearts to new ways of seeing things. Along with these purposes, I’m mindful of craft and improving it. I might focus on developing a keener feel for line breaks or achieving tighter phrasing or using a different literary device than I might typically rely on.

As for solving or leaving unsolved, it depends. I think I often try my best to answer a question my poem poses, but more often than not, it’s only partially resolved or the question has changed or has been revealed to be missing the point by the end.

~~Part 2 of Carrie Tangenberg’s interview continues tomorrow at The Artist’s Corner

 

How I Cheated at NaNoWriMo and Won

how-i-cheated-at-nanowrimoA couple years ago, my friend and fellow writer, S of JSMawdsley, talked me into trying NaNoWriMo. She mentioned it at the writer’s group she facilitates at the library where we worked. At the time, I was mainly a short story writer and dabbled in the occasional picture book. As luck would have it, I had an idea for a novel in mind, and NaNoWriMo seemed like the perfect way to get it out of my head and on my laptop.

Being new to the world of NaNoWriMo, I didn’t prepare at all. I just started writing on November first and quit on November thirtieth. I had 50,000 words, which satisfied the requirements of NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t have a complete novel. What I did have was a lot of work ahead of me and the conviction that maybe I really hadn’t won.

At this point, S would probably have told me I needed to outline my novel, but the first thing I discovered from writing such a lengthy piece is that I’m a pantser. I plot a little when approaching my writing, but I love to explore the rabbit trails because that is where I discover my best writing. My opinion on pantsing can be read here: Are You A Pantser?

So, did I win NaNoWriMo or did I cheat? I started at about the last one-third of the novel because I had the most information for writing that portion. In short, I learned the valuable lesson of researching before you write especially if it’s for a contest such as NaNoWriMo. You don’t want the added stress of trying to conduct research while keeping up a word goal.

I pressed on throughout the year editing what I had written and creating the rest of the novel as I wanted it to be. I researched more thoroughly and ended up chucking quite a bit of what I wrote for NaNoWriMo. Again, part of that was my fault, but I also wondered if one 50,000-word novel every year is what I wanted. Is that what the creators of NaNoWriMo want?

I suspect and sincerely hope the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to keep people writing because that’s what I did. Before I knew it, November had rolled around again, and with it NaNoWriMo. I wasn’t finished with my first novel, so why on earth would I abandon it for the added pressure of creating a new novel. Admittedly, I had no new ideas at the time, and I didn’t want the burden of coming up with one. Also, there was no time to research even the slim ideas that passed through my head.

Instead, I cheated, and I cheated grandly! I signed up for NaNoWriMo, and without a single ounce of shame, I re-entered my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Dr. Welles’s story was almost complete, but I needed a little motivation to finish the missing chapters and tie it all together. NaNoWriMo provided this inspiration by keeping me on track with a daily word goal, but it also became a beneficial editing tool. If I edited my daily word goal, I counted it along with any new writing.

What I achieved wasn’t another half-baked novel, but rather a well-written, well-edited novel with which I was extremely pleased. A titch more editing after the fact, and Dr. Welles was ready for the hands of beta readers.

I took a couple years off from NaNoWriMo, but the point of the contest was always close to my heart. I knew I couldn’t devote time to a new novel and make The Secrets of Dr. John Welles all I wanted it to be.   Then there is the fact that when story inspiration comes to me, I have to begin which sometimes means starting before NaNoWriMo starts. Yes, there is Camp NaNo, but my heart belongs to the original taking place in November.

When NaNoWriMo rolled around this year, I was already a little over halfway through my current novel. During the month of October, I had to set my writing aside to prepare for my son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor. When I was ready to restart, good ole NaNoWriMo once again came to the rescue as a means up jumpstarting my writing. Although I didn’t sign up with the official website, I created a spreadsheet to track and tally my daily writing goal. I’m using it to finish the current novel, for which I am prepared research wise, as well as for any writing I do that can be published including my blog posts.

Yes, that’s cheating because it’s not a single new novel of at least 50,000 words. But again, I have to believe the heart and soul purpose of NaNoWriMo is to keep writers writing. That is what I am doing.

To Struggle With Forgiveness

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In a previous blog post involving my protagonist, Dr. John Welles, and his two Jewish friends, Reuben and Hannah Wise, I mentioned that the three were divided on the issue of forgiveness as it related to the Holocaust. For reasons that I’ll save for the publication of my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles, each of them comes to the table with a different perspective on how the situation should be handled.

When I first wrote the storyline involving the Wises and Dr. Welles, everyone ended up forgiving everyone else with hugs and smiles all around. I admit that I wrote these scenes fast and furiously for NaNoWriMo without having done my research and because I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted the storyline to take.

Then two of my aunts attended a program on women Holocaust survivors and brought me some information on the subject. After reading the materials they gave me, I knew the scenes I wrote concerning the Wises and Dr. Welles were completely inaccurate, and therefore, unbelievable. I had to step back for a moment to analyze where my perspective of forgiveness came from and examine my knowledge of the Holocaust.

Everything I learned about the Holocaust came during my school years, and I can tell you that for the purposes of writing a novel, the knowledge was slim compared to what I found when I conducted my research. I realized I was too far removed from the facts because I was too young to have experienced it firsthand and didn’t have a relative who either perished or survived the concentration camps. My original scenes were trashed, and I set about rewriting the story.

Once the details of time and place were corrected, I worked on an aspect of my story that took me by surprise: the concept of forgiveness as understood by Jewish people who practice Judaism. My experience with forgiveness as I was taught might have influenced Dr. Welles but would seem ridiculous to Reuben and Hannah Wise. By applying my faith based instruction to the overall story, I denied my Jewish characters a single ounce of reality.

The questions that kept going through my head, those that drove my characters, included 1) Do we forgive but not forget? 2) Can only God truly forgive? 3) Must the perpetrators of the crime repent and ask for forgiveness before it can be bestowed? 4) If the criminals are dead, can forgiveness take place? 5) Should we forgive no matter what for every offense committed against us?

There are many articles on the internet about forgiveness written from many different perspectives. I chose to draw on those based in Christianity and Judaism when writing my novel and peppered the views found there with heavy dashes of my characters’ own attitudes and viewpoints.

The following article, “Can You Forgive Hitler?” written by Stewart Ain, September 22, 2006, for The Jewish Week, is the article that helped me the most when deciding how to have my characters react to the difficult questions and trying situation with which they struggled.

It’s easy to say what I would do until faced with the death of my loved ones at the hands of evil people. Still, I wonder about Holocaust survivors who do forgive and maintain their faith regardless of the hell they endured versus those who refuse to forgive and lose their faith because of the hell they endured. It scares me to know that because of the condition of our world today, many are challenged with these same questions.

To NaNoWriMo, or not to NaNoWriMo, that is the question

I first heard about NaNoWriMo two years ago from my friend who heads our Writer’s Group. The idea of writing 50,000 words (an entire novel) in thirty days was both exciting and terrifying. As luck would have it, I had been kicking around an idea for a great novel. NaNoWriMo seemed like a good way to get the story out of my head and onto paper.

Before NaNoWriMo, I wrote short stories and children’s stories of picture book length. I had never heard of outlining a novel which might have been helpful for my first NaNoWriMo experience. Undaunted, I began writing near the end of the book leading up to the scene that was the catalyst for the whole novel. That’s when I realized I need to go back to my character’s beginning. My first experience with NaNoWriMo was a jumbled mess.

I reached my goal of 50,000 words but didn’t have a complete novel. There was more to the story than I originally thought. The rest of the year was spent creating those portions while editing and chucking large sections of what I wrote for NaNoWriMo. I began to wonder if my November efforts had all been for naught when NaNoWriMo rolled around again. What to do?

I cheated again. I used the 50,000 word goal to keep writing new stuff my novel needed and editing what I had written last year. Perhaps the Deities of NaNoWriMo would smack my fingers with a ruler for this, but I justify what I did with the explanation that at least I wrote.

This year marks the third NaNoWriMo since I first participated. I didn’t join. I also didn’t use it as a motivational tool for rewrites and editing. I let myself off the hook with the understanding that my schedule and novel were in different places than what NaNoWriMo required. In short, I didn’t have the time and there wasn’t anything new to write or edit to meet the word count. I also didn’t want to start another novel when I already had one under way.  I’m not sorry for having tried NaNoWriMo, and I’ll probably do it again. In the meantime, I shall continue working on my second round of editing and looking for beta readers.

If you’re trying to decide whether or not NaNoWriMo is for you, consider the following article by Christopher Shultz. He’s much more eloquent in his explanation of what one needs to consider before jumping feet first into NaNoWriMo without knowing what it’s all about. I agree with his opinion that one should make NaNoWriMo work for him/her and that it isn’t a ‘must’ or ‘mustn’t’ situation in the life of a writer.

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