Interview with Donna Vorreyer and Kristin LaTour

Donna Vorreyer and Kristin LaTour met at a Chicago poetry competition (Donna was competing and Kristin was judging) in 2009. They have been writing, workshopping, and appearing together since then. They also constantly swap books, and give each other amazing writing-themed gifts. 

Donna: Okay, so tell me what you’ve been working on with your second manuscript? I know that the journey from writing the original Adabel poems to this full-blown project about a historical era and a relationship has been a long one, one that has involved research and experimentation and vision and revision. What are Adabel and Seth up to these days?

Kristin: Well, just to remind us of where this all started, I wrote a bunch of poems in the voice of a 19th century woman, Adabel, whose husband Seth is a whaling captain. Then I worked backwards, adding letters between them as kids and then making poetic footnotes to Seth’s ship’s journal which is based on a  real journal I found. I decided the section of whaling journals, which only had dates and days of the week copied,, needed to have the actual journals there so I’ve been working on adding those. That process involves taking the copies of the PDFs of the actual journals, which are really muddy, and using carbon paper to trace over them. Then I go back over the tracings with a Micron pen and try to get the weight right from the pen strokes in the original journal. Then I take that and scan it as a JPEG is an image and then upload that into the PDF document.  But I noticed one of the things that I did since I wasn’t planning on having the actual journals in the manuscript, is that I fudged some things. Like I wrote in a footnote that the day was bright, but the journal doesn’t actually note that. So I lied about what was in there, and now I have to more closely match the footnotes to the actual text of the journal.  

Donna: You thought you were just going to be adding the pictures of the journals and now you’re actually moving text around again…

Kristin: Right and revising the footnotes. It takes about two hours from the time that I start the handwritten tracing, moving on to the inking, and then  to turning it into a JPEG. That doesn’t count revisions. I’ve got 30 more pages to go. I’ve done the first three entries.

Donna: I have to say that this is one of the many things that I admire about you. You want to get things right. You spent time doing research for this book for almost two years before you even started writing it,  and now you’re thinking that it’s not exactly the way you want it, so you’re going to spend all this time doing the hard physical work of transcribing the journals and the hard mental work of revising the footnotes. I mean, I love to revise,  but I don’t know if I have the patience or fortitude to do what you are doing in terms of following your vision for this. 

Kristin: Yeah, and now it’s now it’s turning into a hybrid art thing. 

Donna: Which I think is perfect for your work, actually. You are creative in so many mediums–writing, painting, sewing, baking…hybrid work makes sense for this book.

Kristin: The book is very very visual. Readers are looking at letters, and then the  journals and then I’m changing the last section as well. The last section was all in Adabel’s voice, but the poems were free-form, lyrical. Now I’m editing those into  prose poems.

Donna: Weren’t those  some of the first poems you wrote? 

Kristin: Yes, those are the first ones that I wrote. 

Donna: So it’s kind of natural that you’re changing those initial poems as you expand the project.

Kristin: The whole thing will end up being more prosaic. It’s still poetry, but it’s more prosaic hybrid. A lot of Adabel’s poems were also not in first person, so  I have to put them in first person and figure out how they work as prose poems, and what the dates would be because I’m turning them into diary entries. 

Donna: So do you have a timeline laid out for the events? Almost like a novel?

Kristin: Yes, and I’m thinking of including making an official timeline and including that in the front matter, maybe after the table of contents. So it’s a very time-intensive revision, but I think it’s going to be a lot better. 

Donna: It might also open up new avenues for places to send it  as it doesn’t look as traditionally like a poetry collection anymore.

Kristin: Yes! And I’m excited about that. So what are you up to?

Donna: I sent my last version of my third manuscript to Erin at Sundress, and Jeremy Reed is going to be my editor for this collection. It’s a combination of elegy and celebration. After losing both parents in 2018, all I could write was loss, but what helped me escape that deep chasm of grief was love–of my family, my friends, and the memory of the great love that my parents gave me.  I am excited to work with Jeremy to bring this very personal collection to life. He is currently going through first round edits, and we are still trying to decide on a title. The working title was simply pulled from a poem, but I think it’s just too on-the-nose. I don’t want the title to tell people how to read the book. It was Somewhere Between Sweet and Grief, which is a line in one of the poems… 

Kristin: That’s kind of rhyme-y… that’s not a great title, if you think about it…

Donna: The line works in the poem, but not as a title, right? So we’re brainstorming. I’m not concerned as this happened with the second book, too. It ended up nowhere near what I started with, and now I love that title. I hate writing titles, in general. Who’s that one writer who has every one of his poems without a title? It’s just an asterisk… Simon Perchik or something like that?  

Kristin: I don’t know. I don’t like when a poem of mine doesn’t have a title. 

Donna: Right? I am working hard at my titles because I know when I’m really struggling that the poem is not as good as it could be. I can like a poem but  know the title is awful. I feel like the only time I ever personal message (poet) Hannah Stephenson is when I’m stuck on a title. She’s so good at them. I don’t know how her brain works. 

Kristin: Ruth Foley says she knows a poem is done when it has the right title.

Donna: Yes! Especially since I work with younger kids, their inclination is always “I’m going to write a title and then everything under it is going to make sense of the title.” I keep trying to show them that this shouldn’t be how it works, that the title should be adding something to what you wrote, right? But sometimes I do the same thing. I’m intentionally trying to work on getting better at titles because  when I find the right one, I know the poem is working on another level.

Kristin: So back to what you’re working on now…

Donna: Sorry! I’ve been experimenting more with prosey forms, trying to see things differently. I  have a couple of new poems that I really like – they are in parts, they’re longer, and some are written as definitions.  They’re different from my typical go-to moves – word vomit, then whittle and end up with something that’s usually between 14 and 24 lines, that tight little kind of solid lyric. I’m trying to move away from that and play a little more. I think I’m also kind of panicking about what’s going to happen after June when I retire and don’t have to write in stolen moments anymore. I will have all this time all day.  I’m wondering if it is going to help or if it is going to freak me out because I have this time and I’m not using it?

Kristin: Having been on sabbatical this semester, I told myself that it started January 8th, the date my colleagues went back to school.  I am finding that I need to have a schedule, like this is when I’m getting up, and I have this much time to screw around in the morning and have my coffee and take care of the dogs and read the news or whatever, and then I really need to get off the couch. I need to sit at the dining room table and have my computer out and do the things because otherwise time slips away, or I get a project going like I reorganized my kitchen. I bought an instant pot – those things are huge  -and so are where the hell is this going to go? To clean out a cabinet I had to take everything out and reorganize it. Then I noticed the kitchen rugs really need to be washed. Then I saw how dirty the oven was. In the end, there went the whole day!

Donna: I have similar ways that I distract myself. I think I did that Saturday. After I worked out and went into the kitchen to get something to eat, I had to clean the counters. And as long as I was cleaning the counters,  I thought, I really need to clean the kitchen, so I did that. But I did tell myself that I had to go up to put my butt in the desk chair – I had to finish a book review by the end of the month, and I didn’t want to be doing it the day before it was due because I don’t care for my writing when  I’m rushing. So I did! I came up into my office and I sat at my desk. Like a job. I mean, if I come in here and I sit on the couch?

Kristin: Right  – there’s reading or taking a nap…

Donna: Yes, so  having the time will be daunting but also exciting,  I’ve always felt like if I wasn’t producing any writing in a week that this was a failure of some sort, but I’ve gotten better at getting over that. I’d like to try and do other creative things. I used to love to draw, but  every time I draw something now, I think it looks dumb. I’ve gotten rid of my internal editor with my writing because I know that I’m going to revise it and it’s going to either work or it won’t.. I don’t mind putting something on a piece of paper when I write, but with drawing,  it’s there and I’m like, oh my God, that’s horrible – I can’t revise that!

Kristin: Yes, especially if you’re working in paints or something you can’t redo, so… 

Donna: I know you sometimes take online courses like art lessons or projects, and I’m wondering if maybe that’s something to look into… 

Kristin: The online art classes I enjoy are  like writing prompts. Sometimes it’s just a way to get started, but I turn what I’m doing into my own thing. My sister got me painting when I was recovering from surgery,  but it felt like playing with paint, not really painting for real. I found that that’s how I get around my feeling that I’m not making art. Since I call it playing, it doesn’t matter if it’s crappy since no one’s going to look at it. If I have a whole journal of these paintings that I think are crappy,  it doesn’t matter because I’m not sending it out like I am my writing. When I’m writing, I’m hoping or sometimes knowing that someone is going to see it, but not my painting – my painting is for me. I do share some of my paintings on Instagram. I think sharing on Instagram and having people say, “oh my gosh I love this,” or, “ this is so cool,”  or, “I love your colors,” has really helped boost my confidence. But a lot of what I’m doing is also really abstract. It’s like colors and motions and not as personal as my poetry. When I was in New Orleans recently and I sketched my breakfast in my writing journal. The perspective is all wrong and the croissant looks like I drew a lump of shit on a plate. But  it’s in my journal so who cares! When I come across that sketch, I remember that croissant was really good not caring what it looks like. 

Donna: I think having other outlets is so important, though, and I think that’s what I’m going to look forward to when I have time –just being creative. I haven’t sewn in forever.I would love to make quilts again someday. I’d love to pick up cross stitch again, and maybe learn some other embroidery stitches. I waste so much time on the computer, and if I’m doing something with my hands,  I can’t be on it. I’ve always drafted poems by hand, but I have gone back to not allowing myself to even open the computer until I have something viable in my notebook. I don’t type every piece of crap that I draft. The physicality of drafting by hand keeps me going, keeps me writing. On the screen, I edit myself too quickly – it’s a different experience.

Kristin: I don’t have a problem as much with being distracted on my laptop because I have a really crappy laptop, so if I’m writing in a Word document and try to open up a browser, it takes so long that it’s not worth it. 

Donna: So if we talk about creating a writing schedule, if you say you’re going to focus on poetry for two hours, does that include reading, too? Or just writing tasks – drafting, revision, submitting…

Kristin: Not reading. I feel like reading could be done anytime, anywhere – it doesn’t have to be done at the desk, so no, I wouldn’t count that even though reading can feed my writing. 

Donna: I get that. So dedicated butt-in-chair time? Like two hours? I like that idea. – I feel that even when I’ve been on residencies where I felt real pressure to produce, after taking a lot of walks, reading, etc, two-four hours of actual writing time was probably what took place per day.  So that window of time makes sense. I have a space now to write so I will need to make a schedule to use it and do so. Close the door. I know it’s a luxury to have that space – one of the benefits of having a kid who is fully moved out of the house…

Kristin: Maybe I should have had a kid – then I could reclaim that room…

Donna: Probably not the best motivation for  parenthood…but I’ve created a space that is all mine, so I would be stupid not to use it. I really would like to be more creative – sometimes I look at what you do – I made a painting! I baked a pie! I worked on my manuscript! –and I just think hot damn, you are always making something and I just come home, work out and watch tv. I admire that you are always creating something, even if it’s edible, that seems to bring you joy.

Kristin: Thank you! You’re awesome!

Donna: No, you are. Wait…no, we are! We’re a good team.

Kristin LaTour’s full length collection What Will Keep Us Alive, and her most recent chapbook Mend (e-book, free online and in the link) are published by Sundress Publications. Her poems have been published in Rhino, Massachusetts Quarterly, Tinderbox Poetry, Adana, and other journals. She lives in Aurora, IL. 

Link to the e-chap Mend:

Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (2016) and A House of Many Windows (2013), both from Sundress Publications. Her poems, reviews, and essays  have appeared in Rhino, Tinderbox Poetry, Poet Lore, Sugar House Review, Waxwing, Whale Road Review, and many other journals. Her third full-length collection is forthcoming from Sundress in 2020. She lives in Chicago’s western suburbs. 

Link to Sundress titles: