Saturday, September 28, 2013

Some Questions for Terri Kirby Erickson, poet

North Carolina poet and speaker Terri Kirby Erickson is the 2013 Leidig Keynote Poet for Emory & Henry College in Virginia, and the author of four collections of poetry, including A Lake of Light and Clouds (Press 53, 2014) and In the Palms of Angels (Press 53, 2011), winner of three international awards. 

How would you describe what you do?

Mostly what I do is watch, listen, and remember.  Only a small part of the writing process for me, actually involves writing.  First comes the inspiration, then the words flow from that image, idea, or feeling. 

Also, I like HGTV.  It’s like visual valium.  The worst thing that can happen on these shows are mold and termites. 

Is this different than what other people think you do?

Probably.  People often ask me if I have a “set” time to write every day, and my answer is always, “Um…no.”  In fact, I sometimes go for weeks without writing a single poem.  Or I might wake up in the morning with a poem in my head and work on it for hours—maybe even write two or three poems in succession.  So, I tend to be a binge poet rather than a disciplined, “I’m going to sit here until I write something,” sort of writer.  Trying to write poetry when I don’t feel like it seems to stifle my creativity. 

How do you know if you’re on the right track with a project?

When I’m on the right track, there is nothing else but the words in my head and how fast I can write them down.  Time has no meaning and I am completely in the moment…no worries, no distractions…just me and the “world” I’m creating in a poem.

How do you go about making choices?

That really is an indescribable process.  Why I choose one word over another has to do with sound, meaning, rhythm of the line, how the word looks on the page…so many variables. 

If you’re talking dessert, however, I’ll choose a piece of chocolate ganache cake from Whole Foods every time (since my Grandma’s famous chocolate poundcake is no longer available), unless my mother has baked cookies.  No contest there.

How do you know when you’re done?

Reverting back to poetry (!), when the poem says exactly what I want to say, the way I want to say it.

What’s your workspace like?

I have a small home office with cheerful yellow paint on the walls, a writing desk, and a computer; photographs of people I care about; artwork that moves me, including a painting my husband did from a photo we took on our honeymoon; a rocking chair where I rocked my daughter for hours when she was a baby; various momentos from friends and family, including a gorgeous needlepoint picture of blue sky and clouds, with clothes hanging on a clothesline.  A very kind reader made this gift for me, which I absolutely cherish, as a tribute to my poem, “Thread Count.”  And of course, the room is overflowing with books, books, and more books.

What are your essential tools?

All I need are my five senses, heart, intellect, memory, and a computer.  It’s nice, also, when my husband, Leonard, is in the house.  Hearing him puttering around is very comforting to me, and I’m one of those people who writes better when I’m happy. 

What’s the most surprising tool you use?

Honestly, after over half a century on planet earth, not much surprises me, anymore.  I did write a poem once, using a brown eyeliner pencil and a torn napkin, while driving to Winston-Salem to meet a friend.  I did most of the writing at stoplights, but still, I don’t recommend it.

What was your biggest mistake or the one you learned the most from?

My biggest mistake as a young person, was imagining that everything and everyone I love would be around forever—that we were all immortal.  I took a lot for granted until my brother, Tommy, died suddenly when he was twenty.  Now I do my best to enjoy life as much as I can, to live mindfully in the “now,” and to cherish the people I love and the time we have together.  Also, I don’t generally hold back from saying anything I need or want to say as long as it isn’t hurtful to anyone, and I do things even when I’m afraid of doing them.  Perhaps in some ways, I’m trying to live both my brother’s life and mine—to somehow make it up to him for missing out on so much.

What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

“Go ahead.  Pet the neighbor’s puppy.  Their electric fence is turned off!” said an actual adult blood relative when I was four years old, who thought it would be funny to see a little kid get an electrical shock.  My parents told me never to touch that fence around the puppy, so I knew better.  But I didn’t listen to my inner voice and paid the price for it.  Now, I listen.  Also, I glow in the dark.

What’s the best?

Whatever else you do in life, get an education.  Oh, and use sunscreen on your face every single day, even when it’s raining.

What do you wish that you would have known earlier?

How fast your children or in my case, child, grows up.  It seems like my daughter’s childhood lasted about ten minutes.  I regret every bedtime story I didn’t have the energy to read as slowly as she wanted to hear it, every second with my little girl that I didn’t savor to the fullest because I was too exhausted.  I should have taken more vitamins and photographs, and let housework and other stuff slide more often.  At 31, she swears I was the “greatest mother in the world,” but the synonym for “mother” has to be “guilt.”

What are you working on now?

At the moment I’m putting the finishing touches on my new collection of poetry, A Lake of Light and Clouds, which will be published by Press 53 in the spring of 2014.  I got a call a few days ago from my uncle, visual artist Stephen White (who does the paintings for all of my book covers, and whose work has been in MoMA).  He told me that the painting for my new book cover was “finished and drying.”  I can’t wait to see it!

I’m also working hard to keep from eating, out of a sense of deprivation, entire sticks of butter.  I discovered recently that my cholesterol is a “tad” too high, so my previous addiction to chocolate ganache cake is not going to work for me, anymore—at least, not on a regular basis.  Now snacks consist mostly of fruit, Melba toast with a tiny dollop of sugarless peanut butter, and rice cakes, sigh.  I refuse, however, to give up my mother’s carrot cake cookies.  And thankfully, poetry is fat-free…

For more about Terri and her work, check out her website at

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Show You Care, Ban My Book

            Some people fantasize about making an Oscar speech and being applauded by millions.  I fantasize about being reviled.
            Or at least having my work banned.
            It’s possible.  Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is being pulled from school libraries in a North Carolina county because, in part, as one board member said, “I didn’t find any literary value.”  My books have way less literary value than Ellison’s.  Another board member claimed, “It was a hard read.”  My books are poetry.  Everyone knows poetry is a “hard read.”  Why my work hasn’t already been banned, I don’t know, but it’s time.
            I want to see my titles grouped with Beloved, Persepolis, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Captain Underpants.  I want my name to be included with Maya Angelou, Harper Lee, J.K. Rowling, and Kurt Vonnegut.  I want to be a presence during Banned Books week. 
            It’s not because it might mean a financial windfall.  Mark Twain famously said when the Concord Public Library banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, “That will sell 25,000 copies for us, sure,” and there are some writers and artists who consider controversy as profitable.  But, I don’t have any particular desire to make a buck this way.
            Nor is it because I take pleasure in annoying people (at least not ones that I don‘t personally know).  I don’t deliberately want to shock for shock's sake.  I don’t think that’s cool or valuable.
            It’s because the ability of a book to evoke discomfort, fear, suspicion, anger -- the primary forces behind censorship -- means that it is powerful.
            Censoring, “challenging,” banning, and even burning books are affirmations of their power.  These actions mean books matter.  The opposite of love isn’t hate, but apathy.  It would be much worse if people didn’t care about books, if, instead of outrage, there was simply a collective shrug.  The absolute worst response?  “It’s just a book.” 
            It will be a terrible sign if we reach a time when books are no longer banned.  It won’t mean that we’ve reached an age of tolerance, openness, and inquisitiveness, but one of indifference.
The board members who believe Invisible Man has the ability to affect people are right.  It does.  If someday my work is censored in some way, it will mean someone thinks it’s powerful and that my writing might move people, change them, stir them to act or think.  What a wonderful compliment.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Advice to Someone Who Has “Been Writing”

            This summer someone I’ve known for a long time said she wanted to talk to me.  This made me nervous, but it turned out she had “been writing” and wanted to know if I had any advice.
            I did, but almost none of it was mine.
I told her that I was continually reassured by two things Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird.  She says that she keeps a small frame on her desk and reminds herself to just write what’s in the frame.  In other words, a big project can be overwhelming, but if you concentrate on describing a small scene, what’s in the frame, that can be done.  Alex Haley, who wrote Roots, said that he never thought he could do a novel, but he knew that he could do a page a day.  And, E.L. Doctorow points out that “writing is like driving at night in the fog.  You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
            Doctorow also said, “Planning to write is not writing.  Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing, none of that is writing.  Writing is writing.”  There’s no getting around it.  Writers write.  But one key to doing that writing, I believe, is the second point Lamont makes.  She says the key is shitty first drafts.  Don’t worry whether it’s good or not.  Just get something down and then you can revise (and revise and revise and sometimes revise a work all the way into the wastebasket, and that’s useful too).  The artist Lynda Barry says the two crippling questions for an artist are:  Is it any good? and Will people like me? You have to ignore these.
            One thing about advice is that it’s easy to find two writers who contradict.  One might say you have to write in the morning, and another will insist on night-time.  Some will say draft by pen and others will insist that a computer is the key.  Each of us finds our own way, but when we seek advice, we can't simply be looking for something that confirms our practices and beliefs.
            Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” and he’s frequently quoted by those who insist on getting a contract or an agent before writing a word.  This may be good advice, but it depends on why you’re writing.  For those of us who write poetry, it’s irrelevant.  A woman once asked me how she too could become a “professional” poet, and I explained that I didn’t know any.  No poet I know makes enough to pay their coffee bills let alone a mortgage.  But that’s not why we write.  Nor, initially, do I have a sense of audience.
            Consequently my advice is different than Johnson’s.  I’m of the “write-for-yourself-first” camp.  Don't worry about whether it will sell, or what might be popular, or what people might want, or if it's the same or different than other works.  Write it, and it will be what it is. But, the caveat, of course, is don’t be upset or surprised if other people don’t respond to it; after all you wrote it for yourself.
So, at a certain point, a writer wants and needs to see what readers think and to get feedback.  Although you shouldn’t pass around work for critique too soon, once you have a solid draft, and you legitimately want responses, then it’s valuable.  However, I’ve found that writing groups are useful primarily - not because of the feedback - but because of the sense of community and accountability.  They reassure you that what you’re doing is important and legitimate, and they provide you with deadlines and a sense of audience.  Unless I have a deadline, even if it’s self-imposed, I tend not to produce anything, or, at least, not complete it.
            When you do get feedback, take what you consider helpful, and revise. Then revise again.
            How much of this advice is useful?  I don’t know.  Probably very little.  I can give specific tips on craft, techniques, and mechanics.  If you ask for help on openings, titles, metaphors, etc., I have plenty to say.  But with this kind of general discussion, I struggle.  I once wrote a poem about these interactions that appeared in my collection Love and Other Collisions.  It’s still contains the only actual advice that I have.

On Finding Something To Say After a Reading
She stops me at the door to ask if I have any advice
for a young poet, and, for once, before I say something
flip or trite, I ask, “For you?”  She nods, and I realize
she probably has been waiting all night to approach.
I try to think what might be useful, something beyond
the usual -- “read,” “write,” “listen.”  If she isn’t doing
these, telling her won’t help.  What about a koan? 
Write what the river says to the trees.  Write what
hasn’t been written and must be.  But I’m no monk.
I could shrug, insist, “No, I don’t,” but she’s waited
too long now.  Then I remember how before a game
my coach would say, “Run your ass off.  Ignore
the scoreboard and bleachers.  And damnit, have fun.”
It reassured us then.  Maybe it’s enough for her now.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Some Thoughts on Testing

The house needs to have old galvanized pipes replaced, so I have four different plumbers come and give estimates.  Each looks over the job and points out different issues, and, eventually, they all offer slightly different quotes.  None of these are so high or so low as to knock a company out of consideration.  So, unlike the stereotypical exam problem with its A,B,C, or D, there is no right answer.  Probably, any of the plumbers could do the job satisfactorily.
            This, to me, highlights one problem with school testing, particularly the end of the year exams that most school systems institute in the third grade.  They suggest questions have one right answer.  Most of us know this usually isn’t true, we say it isn’t true, but, again and again, we insist students act as if it is.
I wonder if this is why, as a college teacher, I increasingly see in some students an unwillingness, or at least a hesitation, to tackle open-ended questions.  Is the clich├ęd “What do you want?” more pronounced because they have been taught by the mechanics of the system that there is a “right” choice? Furthermore, there seems to be a reluctance to pursue a subject once they think they have the answer.  They "research" until they have enough quotations or points they think they need for support rather until they understand the topic.  It’s a rational response.  If you know it’s B, why spend time and energy to find out more about the issue?  Move on to the next hoop, the next obligation.
            Before deciding on a plumber, my wife and I discussed the quotes. We also talked to our neighbors and other people.  We got on-line and googled.  We sought advice and information.  This is how most people work, and this is another problem with testing.  Supposedly Einstein was once teased for not knowing his phone number.  Why, he asked, should I memorize something I can look up? What you know is not nearly as important as how you find something out.  If there must be a test, it should be one where the student don’t know the answers and must find them out.  We would learn much more about their capabilities.
            My wife and I talked to people because we learn from one another.  Education is a collaborative effort.  Every professional I know from the mechanic to the surgeon talks things out with colleagues.  We ask questions, we get advice, we tell anecdotes and stories.  If my doctor wants to consult with someone on my condition, that’s not cheating.  Testing, however, isolates people and says, “you’re on your own," but that's not how we actually work.  
            Finally, what did my wife and I do as we talked about the quotes?  We walked around the house and the yard.  We walked through the neighborhood.  Moving and thinking are connected.  Put me in a room and tell me I can’t leave my seat, and my primary desire becomes getting away, a desire that distorts my responses.
            Mark Twain once said, “I have never let schooling interfere with my education.”  Testing, not only has little to do with education, it often is antithetical to it.