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Working in Multiple Genres: an Interview with Aline Soules

Interviewed by Jerome Gagnon

It’s a privilege to have poet and historical fiction writer Aline Soules as my guest today.  Author of Meditation on Woman (bit.ly/meditationonwoman) and Evening Sun: A Widow’s Journey (bit.ly/evening-sun), her poetry has appeared in such publications as Kenyon Review, Houston Literary Review, Poetry Midwest, and the Galway Review.  I thought it would be interesting to see what she’s up to these days and, in particular, to ask about her experience working in multiple genres.

Q. I know you’re a fairly voracious reader.  What are you reading these days? Do you read more for information, amusement, or some other thing?

A. Answer to your last question first:  Yes, yes, and yes—information, amusement, fun, the cereal box, I don’t care.  I read all the time and have several books going at once, depending on where I’m reading—my comfy chair, my outdoor chaise longue, in bed.  Right now, I’m reading the following: The Secret History of SOE, by William Mackenzie and Code Name: Lise: the true story of the woman who became WWII’s most highly decorated spy, by Larry Loftis, both as research for my novel; Lovers and Dancers, by Heather Ingman, for fun; some of the Collected poems of Louis Macneice (always read poetry); conversations with W. S. Merwin, by Michael Wutz and Hal Crimmel (so sad—no more poems from him).  As you can see, anything goes.

Q. Can you share with us some of your favorite poets and novelists?   What’s the appeal for you?  

A. So many poets.  I’ll start with Seamus Heaney, not just for his famous poems, like “The Field,” but also for Beowulf.  I’ve noticed that, in “English” classes, students are often presented with the Iliad or the Odyssey. That’s fine, but why not our English classic, Beowulf?  Heaney’s version is accessible and wonderful.  Gerard Manley Hopkins—I go back to him all the time.  The language, the imagery stun me. Many women poets, like Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Forché, May Sarton, Linda Gregerson, Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton, Elizabeth Bishop, Wislawa Szymborska—I could go on.  But I also like “dead white males,” which isn’t the popular choice these days. I remember the controversy over Robert Bly’s Iron John: a Book about Men, yet it’s proved to be one of his most enduring works, an international best seller and a start to the Mythopoetic men’s movement in the U.S.  There’s a danger in deciding that one’s ethnicity or gender has made one biased, thereby missing out on great language and thought, whether I agree with it all or not.  Today, we have new writers—Ocean Vuong, Sherman Alexie, Amber Tamblyn, Kei Miller, Morgan Parker. I’m trying to understand the appeal of Rupi Kaur, the “Instapoet,” but I admit to struggling with her work.  

Q. You’ve written poetry in the past and now you’re working on an historical novel.  Do you find that any of the skills for writing poetry apply to fiction, or are they very different?

A. Great question.  I use my poetry skills (if “skills” is the right word) in everything I write.  Poetic language is key anywhere—the ability to come up with the right words, the right image, the best phrase to convey a feeling or a thought in a way that resonates with readers and makes what you write memorable.  Writing is an endless struggle (why do we do this, again?), but, somehow, a struggle that’s worthwhile to me. In my current novel, I’m still not at the point of going through my work to struggle with the final language and phrasing, but, when I do (soon), it will be one of the more pleasurable parts of novel writing.  I should add that poetry has also helped in all my writing. During my academic career, I wrote many articles and book chapters, all of which were improved by my poetry practice. In fact, I start all my writing days with poetry, unless I have a pressing deadline.

Q. In an interview, I think Ocean Vuong said that his new novel (On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous) was written, in part, as a letter to his mother.  How do you go about finding the right form (or forms) for a novel, or does it find you?

A. Forms are organic, I think, particularly in poetry, but also in other writing forms.  

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Even academic writing, with its introduction, method, results, and discussion/conclusion sections enables organic form within the structure.  My novel is historical fiction and I’ve discovered that it’s like a jigsaw puzzle in some ways. I’ve written a full draft (more than once) and I still find myself cutting up the summary of each chapter and moving the pieces around on my table to decide the best order for the story.  I may have a linear approach in my first draft (what happens? what happens next? etc.), but I won’t end up with that.

Q. Are you continuing to write poetry even as you work on a prose project?  If so, do you have any advice for writers on how to balance these two disciplines?

A. I do write poetry—all the time.  As mentioned above, I start with poetry when I sit down to write.  It might be ten minutes or two hours, depending on how the work develops. Then I turn to my novel.  I have no advice for writers on balancing multiple disciplines, other than to suggest that each writer must find his/her/eir path through the process.  When I also wrote academic articles and book chapters, I interspersed those with poetry, too. I’m sure that some writers practice one or the other at any

given time, rather than engaging with more than one at the same time, but starting with poetry gets me in my writing frame.  I’ve also noticed that when I’m “on a roll” with poetry, everything else is “on a roll,” too. The converse is also true.

Q. A sense of Time with a capital “T” seems to be all important in novels.  Even if they’re written conventionally in the past tense, they’re generally supposed to represent the present — or, in the case of historical novels, the “distant” present.  Where is your narrator located in terms of time? Have you encountered any challenges and/or benefits in exploring the notion of time in fiction? 

A. My novel is written in close third, past tense.  I’ve tried other points of view and other tenses, but have decided on this approach.  The idea of “representing the present” is really the idea of engaging the reader so that he/she/ey feels “present” with the main character.  I say character (singular) because I’m working in close third and the story unfolds from her point of view. I’ve never tried omniscient point of view, although the greats in the past used it all the time (Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope).  As for the notion of time in fiction, I’ve never explored this directly, but Alan Lightman has. I particularly love Einstein’s Dream, which I re-read periodically, but any of his books are fabulous.  He engages with physics principles, such as time. After all, who better?  As a physicist and a writer, he’s worked at Harvard and MIT, where he’s currently professor of the practice of the humanities.  

Q. Some writers advise that, once you have an outline, you should write straight through your first draft and not stop for anything, no editing or rewriting at all.  How do you feel about this, and what’s your approach?  

A. Ah, the pantser vs. plotter theme.  The pantser, e.g., Ellen Sussman, goes for what happens?  what happens next? and next? and next? (no outline). After that, she spends a year or two revising. The plotter, e.g., John Grisham, goes for plot everything out before he writes a single word.  After that, he writes. I like a combination. I start with a form of the pantser method, where I write scenes about what comes to me but, not too far into what happens, I make a rough outline. After that, I move back and forth. If I wake up with an idea that excites me, I write the scene while it’s “hot,” whether it’s next in line or not.  Otherwise, I follow and develop my outline and my scenes together.

In the end, what’s important about any method is that your reader makes “discoveries” along with you; otherwise, the reader won’t be engaged.  The action may be too predictable. Of course, some readers like predictability (e.g., romance novels), but, I want surprises. The pantser method leads me to discoveries that surprise me and those are key for my novel because the reader will be surprised, too.  I’m also endlessly amazed at how my characters tell me what to do. They go off on tangents I don’t expect — surprises. And that’s the joy of the written word, isn’t it? To be surprised, expanded, given an emotional journey as well as intellectual stimulation. Reading and writing and the book itself — what a great trio.  What a wonderful world.

 

aline_black_sweater_2017Find Aline Soules online at http://allinesoules.com,@aline elisabeth, https://www.facebook/com/alinesoulesauthor, and https://www.linkedin.com/in/alinesoules/

For Aline’s Q & A with me, Writing Contemplative Poetry, please visit her blog or the Interview section on this site (see main menu).  

 

(Note: I’ll be on hiatus from the blog through August, resuming in mid-September.  I hope you’ll join me then.)

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News

Please see recent postings of “Shiki: Writing from Everyday Life,” “Haiku and Loss,” and “Senryu: Art or Attitude?” in the section, Haiku Notes.

News

Haiku as Participation

Call it Haiku, by vincent tripi (bottle rockets press, 2018), comments on his own and others’ haiku, offering insight into the process and possibilities of practicing this brief form.  The first segment looks at direction, providing several examples from his own work.  Other segments explore “giving and taking,” “repetition,” “meaning,” and “where.”  Here’s a random sample of what you can expect to find in these pages: “A mere shift from consideration of haiku as heightened awareness to the consideration of haiku as a moment of participation can influence abundantly the quality of one’s work.”  And this: “Every haiku, by nature, is a nurturing balance between what must be said, what’s not to be said, what’s already been said, and what we are learning to say…”  A small classic with a generous heart, and a must-read for anyone who writes haiku.

Teaching Haiku

Jeannie Martin’s article, “Thoughts on Teaching and Learning Haiku,” offers some practical tips for teaching haiku to adults.  It’s available in PDF on the Haiku Society of America website at www.hsa-haiku.org.  With over ten years of experience in the field, Martin writes that “teaching haiku is something like the form itself: direct, immediate, and responsive to time and place…..not a matter of expert-to-student but instead a participation in the deep sharing of the present moment.”  She presents three interactive lesson plans that are designed to get students writing haiku from the first session.  Also available on the site are plans for several haiku workshops, including one taught by Bruce Ross in tandem with his book, How to Haiku, A Writer’s Guide to Haiku and related Forms (Tuttle, 2002).

PEN America Fellowships

Since 1971, PEN America’s prison writing program has helped thousands of incarcerated writers.  They provide a Handbook for Writers in Prison, sponsor an annual prison writing contest, and conduct a Mentorship Program.  In addition, the Writing for Justice Fellowship “commissions writers — emerging or established — to create written works of lasting merit that illuminate critical issues related to mass incarceration…” For more information and Fellowship applications visit www.pen.org.

See: “Poetry in the Age of Mass Incarceration: Challenging the Dichotomy of Innocence vs. Criminality,” by Christopher Soto (www.poetryfoundation.com).   “How Poetry Can Free a Prisoner’s Mind,” by Dan Kedmey (www.ideas.ted).  “Tips for Teaching Poetry in a Women’s Prison,” by Dylan Peers McCoy & Shaina Cavazos (www.chalkbeat.org).

ESL

Do poetry and other forms of creative writing have a place in English as a Second Language classrooms?  Studies suggest that “experiences with creative writing — as writers, readers, or listeners — can enhance ESL writers’ linguistic and cognitive experiences with English, thereby helping them to better understand their worlds through English” (Dvorak, 2004; Hanauer, 2003).  While few language teachers are likely to have the luxury of devoting a lot of time to creative writing, most should be able to present a poem or other short work in class occasionally.  Students can discuss their reactions in short-writes or journals, prompted by questions such as, “What is your reaction to the poem?”  “Were there any specific words that caused you to feel that way?”  “What did you like/dislike about the poem and why?”  “Have you ever had any similar experiences?”  Any one of these questions can also be discussed by students in small groups and then summarized for the class by group representatives, providing valuable speaking and listening practice.

See: “Introducing and Reading Poetry with English Language Learners,” by Kristina Robertson, www.colorincolorado.org; “A Lesson Plan for ESL/EFL Students Using an Emily Dickenson Poem,” by Viorica Condrat, Internet Tesol Journal, www.iteslj.org.

 

News

A Celebration of Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Poets Shauna Hannibal, Fernando Marti, and Zack Rogow will read from their new books, as well as from the poetry of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who recently turned 100.  “New Poetry and 100 Years of Ferlinghetti” will take place on April 15 at 7pm at Folio Books, 3957 24th Street in San Francisco.  Birthday cake will be served.

American Haiku Archives

According to their website, the American Haiku Archives in Sacramento, California, houses the “largest collection of haiku and related poetry books and papers outside of Japan.”  Founded in 1996, it’s the official archive of the Haiku Society of America.  Current AHA exhibits include a special tribute to Kiyoko and Kiyoshi Tokutomi.  Located in the California State Library Historical Room in Sacramento, CA, the exhibit is open to the public.  To learn more about the archives and their current exhibits, visit www.americanhaikuarchives.org.

Submissions

Reed Magazine, California’s oldest literary journal, will be accepting submissions for their annual contest from June 1 to November 1.  Prizes and publication are offered for fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and art.  www.reedmagazine.org…..Jericho Brown will judge this year’s poetry contest for the Crab Creek Review.  Submit up to 4 poems.  Winner receives $500 plus publication. www.crabcreekreview.org/contests.html ….. Beech Street Review, a quarterly online poetry journal, is accepting poetry submissions through the month of April.  Submit 3-5 poems.  www.beechstreetreview.com

W. S. Merwin

It’s hard to believe W. S. Merwin is gone.  It almost seemed as if his incomparable poems with their unexpected twists and turns would go on forever.  The former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner died March 15thon Maui.  He was 91. In their citation for his 2005 collection, Migration, New & Selected Poems, the National Book Award judges wrote: “The poems in Migration speak from a life-long belief in the power of words to awaken our drowsy souls and see the world with passionate interconnection.”  A conservationist, Merwin and his late wife, Paula Schwartz, restored a former pineapple farm near Haiku, Maui, planting approximately 2700 trees.

Gabriel Okara

Nigerian poet and novelist Gabriel Okara died on March 25th in Nigeria.  He was 98.  His poem, “The Call of the River Nell,” won the Silver Cup for Poetry at the 1953 Nigerian Festival of the Arts and was published in Black Orpheus, the first English language journal of African literature.  Brenda Marie Osbey, editor of his Collected Poems, has written that, “It is with the publication of Gabriel Okara’s first poem that Nigerian literature in English and modern African poetry in this language can be said truly to have begun.”  He also wrote an experimental novel, The Voice (1964), the award-winning collection, The Fisherman’s Invocation (1978), and The Dreamer, His Vision (2005).

 

News

National Poetry Month

The Academy of American Poets is sponsoring several activities in April in celebration of National Poetry Month, including the online “poem-a-day” project, the weekly “teach this poem newsletter,” and the “poem in your pocket day” on April 18th.  For more information, visit www.poets.org.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti Turns 100

Poet, publisher, painter, and co-founder of City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned a hundred years old on March 24th, and San Francisco’s Beat Museum celebrated the milestone with a panel discussion on his life and work.  In addition, the mayor’s office proclaimed March 24th Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day, while performances and poetry readings took place at the landmark North Beach bookstore and at other sites around the city.  Still painting and writing, he has a new, autobiographical novel, Little Boy, (Knopf Doubleday) just out.  Many happy returns to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a living treasure and champion of free expression.

Round Robin Poetry Reading at Books on “B”

Partnering with the Hayward Unified School District, Books on B, located at Main and “B” Streets in Hayward, CA, will host a round table poetry reading on Friday, April 12th, from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.  Local poets will read from their work, discuss craft, and answer questions for approximately ten minutes each.

This Path of Dew: the Haiku of Mitsu Suzuki

For centuries, people from all walks of life have written haiku as a way to mark the season, and to appreciate the gifts of bare attention: seagulls gliding above a cliff, soft pink of the first camellia flower in winter, the stillness of autumn dusk, steam rising from boiled noodles, children’s voices drifting from the playground, rainwater in a hollowed-out rock, early morning light on morning glories.  This is the kind of news that informs the heart, but it doesn’t always evoke joy; it may also evoke a certain sadness at the transience of life, and this feeling may not be specific.  The most effective haiku leave something unsaid, suggesting rather than defining, and in that way they may come to live in the reader’s imagination, however briefly.

Years ago, I had the privilege of hearing Mitsu Suzuki read from her book of haiku, Temple Dusk (Parallax Press, 1992; trans: G.Wood and K. Tanahashi).  In his review of that collection, David Schneider observed that “many of the poems have the quality of ‘objective heart’ — a subtle poignancy where the ordinary becomes extraordinary.”  He cited this haiku by Suzuki as an example:

since my youngest days

the same mole

New Year’s mirror

This poem would be considered a winter or New Year’s haiku due to the inclusion of the kigo (seasonal word), “New Year’s.”  It takes us from youth to maturity, from spring to winter via the image of a mole, and in just three lines invites deep reflection.  What is it that we see when we look into the mirror?  Here, the poet may be alluding to a lifetime of various roles — as a young girl in Japan, as a wife (of Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi), as a mother and grandmother, as a tea ceremony teacher, and as a widow — through it all, there is this one abiding thing, represented by a mole. Yet apart from personal associations, the mole simply is.  Look at that, the poet says, as we might say when gazing at a full moon, or a newly sprouted tomato.

Some of the best haiku resonate with both the reader’s and the writer’s associations while intimating a broader perspective.  “The art (of haiku) depends entirely on the poet’s own realization,” Schneider observes, and that clarity “can also move the reader’s mind without warning.”  Here’s another by Suzuki, this one from her final collection, A White Tea Bowl (Rodmell Press, 2014, trans: K. McCandless, ed: K. Tanahashi):

learning from haiku

sustained by haiku —

this path of dew

As the lines above suggest, the practice of haiku may serve as a path toward enhanced awareness or self-study, but it’s a path that’s unmarked and subject to happenstance — a “path of dew” that’s ever-changing.  If you look for it only in the extraordinary, you might miss what’s right before you.  Here’s one more, from Temple Dusk:

eating a persimmon

          I remember the one

          who loved this taste

On first reading, this haiku might suggest nostalgia for someone no longer physically in the writer’s life; the tart flavor of the persimmon awakens the memory of this person.  Yet another reading may suggest that the writer is recalling herself in her younger days, as a child perhaps, and is experiencing something different as she bites into the persimmon.  What that is, exactly, the reader isn’t privy to — we can never understand the experience of others precisely the way that they do, of course.  What these lines may allude to are the subtle changes that occur in our lives: how youthful passion evolves over time, for instance, and how memory intertwines with the present, deepening our experience of the moment.

Memory may seem like a topic that’s off-bounds in a form that specializes in renditions of the now.  Yet, even a haiku that’s written in the present tense is a form of recollection, isn’t it?  The experience that prompted the writing of the haiku isn’t the same as the process of writing it.  In the same way, the experience of reading a haiku isn’t the same as the experience of analyzing it.  In the end, though, the joy of haiku isn’t in analysis but a sense of the world that’s not strictly delineated by terms such as past, present, or future.  The tart flavor of a persimmon captures this sense of timelessness.

News

Rumors New Cover

Rumors of Wisdom impressed me throughout with poems about very specific things, or memories, or details; specifics that often metaphorically stand for bigger things.  This collection stands out for its breadth of scope.”

– Timons Esaias, Louis Book Award Judge

author of Why Elephants No Longer Communicate in Greek

“Luminous, lyric, sparkling with wit and the kind of subtle wisdom that comes from a

long, slow, generous looking at life… these poems are simply irresistible in their appeal.”

– Mark S. Burrows, Ph.D

Poetry Editor of Spiritus, author of Meister Eckhart’s Book of the Heart:

Meditations for the Restless Soul, with Jon M. Sweeney

Book Release

I’m happy to report that Rumors of Wisdom has just been released.  This full-length, perfect bound collection consists of fifty-eight poems and received the 2018 Louis Book Award from Concrete Wolf Press.  My sincere gratitude to Editor/Publisher, Lana Hechtman Ayers, for her commitment to this ongoing series, to the judge, Timons Esaias, and to Tonya Namura for her handsome cover design.   Rumors can be ordered from selected retailers via the publisher’s website at Concrete Wolf Press or click on the photo, above.

Contest Announcements

Hidden River Arts will award $1,000 plus publication by Sowilo Press to a woman fiction writer over the age of forty for a collection of stories, a novella, or a novel.  Submit by March 15th……Bellingham Review will award three prizes of $1,000 each for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction (including CNF).  Submit by March 31st……River Styx is offering a $1,500 prize in the River Styx International Poetry Contest.  Oliver de la Paz will judge.  By May 31st…..The Crab Creek Review Poetry Prize offers $500 plus publication for the best poem.  “All entries are considered for submission.”  By May 15th.

Writing Prompt:

Expressing Another Person’s Struggle

“Write a poem about someone you know in a way that helps you to become more keenly aware of their struggle or difficulty.  Find sounds, rhythms, details and images to describe what this person is going through.  What does this person’s experience tell you about yourself?”  (from Poetic Medicine, The Healing Art of Poem Making, by John Fox, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam)

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Haibunwater-1246669_1920

These days, haiku is a relatively familiar poetic form to readers and writers around the world.  Less well known is haibun, which pairs haiku with prose.  In its more traditional style, haibun often serves as a kind of travel diary, with commentary about the journey leading up to, and/or following, a haiku.  Some contemporary approaches more closely resemble prose poetry, while others may use haibun as a means for contemplation.  Patricia Donegan, author of haiku mind, describes the practice of combining hai (haiku) with bun (sentences) as “a springboard for the contemplation of a specific theme, be it adversity, nowness, or compassion.”  It addresses “the story or reflection behind the poem,” she writes.  Here’s a haiku by poet Elizabeth Searle Lamb, one of the founders of the Haiku Society of America and a former editor of their journal, frogpond:

pausing

half-way up the stair —

white chrysanthemums

Haiku such as this invite us “to slow down and tune in to this fleeting moment, to appreciate what’s right in front of us,” Donegan observes.  They offer a pause in our routines, and an opportunity to foster deeper awareness.  While some readers may be struck by the transience of the moment described here, some may focus on the beauty of the image of white chrysanthemums, or their sheer presence.  Still others may be drawn to explore the position of the subject “half-way up the stair,” poised in mid-life, or the symbolism of white chrysanthemums which, in Japan, are often used at funerals.  In this way, a particularly rich haiku may prompt exploration of issues in our own lives; at the same time, it can point to the commonality of our stories through the writing of haibun.  (haiku mind, 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart, Patricia Donegan, Shambala, 2008).

Workshop

Bottle Rockets Press is planning a day-long Haibun Workshop on May 4th, 2019, in Hartford, Connecticut, to be conducted by Stanford S. Forrester, editor of the press.  Participants are “encouraged to bring their own work,” although it should be noted that the traditional 5-7-5 formula won’t be used “when discussing the haiku component of haibun.”  The fee is $75.  If you can’t attend the workshop, check out the video featuring six of Forrester’s haiku at www.bottlerocketspress.com 

New Poems 

Spring Breeze, a haiku, will appear in hedgerow: a journal of small poems, #126.   I remember “experiencing” this haiku back in the late 1990s, so it’s not really new.  Sometimes, haiku write themselves, and this was one of those happy accidents.

Blue Jay Way is slated to appear in in the spring issue of Pinyon, out of Colorado Mesa State University.

Haibun Writing Prompt

Select a haiku from one of the many anthologies, collections, or journals that are available, or one you’ve written yourself.  Jot down some observations about your choice, line by line.  These can be in the form of sentences or simply word associations at this point.  You should have at least one sentence or three or four word associations for each line.  Now, which of these responses to the haiku suggest further development?  Which of them is “magnetized,” in other words, which of them calls to you?  Select the first sentence or word that comes to mind and write about that, exploring both the said and the unsaid elements of your chosen haiku.  Repeat this process for each line.  Consider writing your work in longhand, in a dedicated journal, with haiku on one side and haibun on the opposite side.