MEK: Laura, How many years has it been? I feel like you’ve been part of most, if not all of my writing life! I’m pretty sure the issue of Little Patuxent Review that you accepted my poem was one of my first publications. And if it wasn’t for you, I don’t know if I’d be a part of the kidlit world—and I highly doubt I would’ve braved trying to write a middle grade! I’ve always known you as a poet, but I don’t know if I’ve ever heard your story of how you came to poetry. Why poetry? What is it that makes poetry so magical? And why kidlit?
LS: I have a vivid memory of the first time we met in person. We had coffee in a local Korean bakery. I think you were still in grad school and wondering whether it was possible to be both a poet publishing in lit mags and a children’s book author. Answer: It is.
I don’t know if there is a story of how I came to poetry, it’s so deeply ingrained in my childhood. My father went to public school at a time when children memorized poems like “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” He loved performing those pieces for us when I was growing up. The combination of musicality and narrative was thrilling. When I was learning to read, Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Swing,” from A Child’s Garden of Verses showed me how a poet forges connections with a reader. The child in that poem was me—swinging in my grandparents’ yard in the English countryside. At the root of my poetic sensibilities is the fact that I grew up in a stew of accents and vocabularies. My father comes from the Bronx. My mother is from the British Midlands. And until I was five years old, my older “brothers” were two Thai pre-teens, sons of family friends. It taught me to think deeply about how people use language, just as I was learning to speak.
Meg, you are also influenced by how you interacted with language as a child. I looked up your first poem published in LPR. It was “Letter of the Day (Autism Pantoum).” In the poem, it’s the teacher’s mouth—not the teacher herself—directing the speaker to join the other children. How does being neurodiverse inform your writing as a poet and as a middle grade and young adult novelist?
MEK: I remember that Korean bakery visit! It feels like it was yesterday–time goes by so fast!
I love your observations here about sound and language. I think my neurodiversity is part of what draws me so much to sound and language. I grew up attending a Christian school where we memorized scripture and hymns, and not only do I love the rich meanings behind these words, but the rhythms and sounds are so satisfying to my ear. All the repetition and recitation, the familiar cadences and patterns, my autism loves that!
Being neurodiverse informs my writing in all sorts of ways. I feel like I could do a whole TedTalk on this, so I’m going to try to be concise! As I said above, there’s that love of sound—particularly in poetry. I love the feeling of a poem in my mouth; it’s like candy! Being ND gives me a unique perspective, and when I let myself open that up on the page, there can be these great realizations and experiences inside a poem or piece of fiction. My hypersensitivity makes me feel everything so much, which can be painful and exhausting, but also makes the experience of writing all the more powerful, rewarding and healing.
But also, writing serves as a form of communication. I am not always vocal; getting words out verbally can be complicated, especially when I’m overstimulated or anxious. But the page is a place where I can process, slow down, and get the right words out. I didn’t speak until I was almost three, and I was an only child. I’ve always been an observer. Stanley Plumly said something about that to me before he passed. He said I notice the strangest things, the things others miss or overlook. He said he could imagine me as a kid, eyes wide open, always watching. And he was right! I miss Stan so much.
As writers, of course we know how rewarding the writing process is for us personally, but I know I can quickly get caught up into the world of what’s going on around me, other’s book deals and successes. I felt so refreshed reading Kelli and Martha’s previous interview here at Tinderbox, and how they talk about success. I’m always surprised and humbled how I have to constantly interrogate my own definitions and expectations for “success,” especially in these bizarre times.
Laura, how do you define success for your books and your writing life? I know we recently talked about a project you’re working on—how do you keep the writing juices going during these times? Have you found writing difficult, or that writing has provided respite, or maybe a little bit of both? What has brought you joy during these times?
LS: I like what you’re saying about “interrogating” our relationship with success. I sit with that self-examination around success also—because it’s easy to fall into the habit of chasing publication credits and honors, but the goalpost is always moving. That can be hard on our mental health.
What I’m more interested in lately is ambition, especially as a woman. When I put my focus on ambition, I am the one who defines the term. If someone says, “You’re so successful!” many of us were trained, as girls and young women, to express humility instead of claiming our space. If someone says, “You’re ambitious,” I feel more comfortable owning that. Yes, I am ambitious. I want to keep growing as a poet and as a children’s author. Right now, I’m working on a speculative novel, a genre I haven’t attempted before. Being ambitious means I’m stretching myself even though success isn’t guaranteed.
The other way I cope with the push and pull of success—especially the way we judge ourselves and others based on accolades—is by keeping a practice of community building. I’m as proud of founding and co-hosting the Wilde Readings literary reading series as I am of the awards my books have won. It’s one of the ways I can create space for other authors, including authors from marginalized backgrounds and groups. I also run a small community poetry project every February. We have a theme each year and members create daily writing prompts on that topic. The core concept of the group is that we all write and share our early drafts the same day that the prompt is posted. The focus is on process, not polish or publication. It is an ambitious project and fun! I look forward to it every year.
At this point in the pandemic, that February group has helped me generate new work. Some days the writing is goofy, or I’m muddling through a poetic form I haven’t tried before, but there are also poems I’ll put aside to revise later. It has been a joy to explore this year’s theme, “Bodies,” with other poets. We’ve covered everything from eyes and brains, to dance, death, and of course, masks.
Meg, I’m interested in how the pandemic shows up in the content of people’s writing. Has Covid-19 seeped into your poems? I know you’re working on a new middle grade verse novel. Do you feel like it was easier to write about Selah’s feelings of isolation at this time in history, when we are all experiencing social distancing?
MEK: I love how you hone in on ambition and community building here. There’s so much we can’t control in publishing and success, but we can control pushing ourselves to grow, and to be part of the greater writing community. And as you say, these are such incredibly rewarding components of being a writer!
I love that you mention Selah (my new middle grade verse novel) in relation to the pandemic, because I think COVID is responsible for her voice finally coming out. It started one day when I was so overstimulated and overwhelmed because of something pandemic related. The pandemic has brought out my ASD so much; things that already feel hard (like going to supermarkets, or you know, being a semi-functional adult) have only been exacerbated by the unpredictability of (American) human behavior (will they keep the 6 feet distance? Will they wear their mask like they’re supposed to?) as well as the uncertainty of the virus itself. So anyway, I was overwhelmed, and Selah’s voice gushed out in a poem. I recalled a childhood memory of a girl out of nowhere braiding my hair in the recess line, and then suddenly, the speaker of my poem hit her! I knew I had a story. Why did that happen? Where did that come from? I wanted to know this character more, but really this character Selah was and is so very much an embodiment of the feelings I never really knew how to talk about before.
So I think it was more the feelings of overstimulation, and of the difficulty of interacting with others in such new and uncertain conditions, that fueled Selah. The isolation has definitely driven me to write more in general. There’s so little I can do that feels fruitful, so I find myself diving into novels, trying to make something out of the chaos. I’ve found poems harder to write. In January, I revised a bunch of poems, but I’ve written very few new ones–and I’m OK with that. There are seasons to creativity that I want to come to accept better.
Laura, I want to go back to what you said about community. You’ve been such an incredible model for what a literary citizen should look like in how you serve and give back to the writing community, and I aspire to one day be half the literary citizen you are! I don’t know exactly how to ask this, but how did you start this practice, and how do you sustain it while balancing your own writing? How do you find the opportunities to commune with other writers, or do you create them? I think I’ve asked this before, but it feels like you know everyone—how do you build those relationships and community? How do you meet people? Do you ever feel shy engaging with new people—or maybe more frankly, what advice can you give to someone like me, who has social anxiety and overthinks everything, of how to keep expanding my writing circle, and to practice being more generous and available to other writers?
LS: Thanks, Meg. I like your term “literary citizen.” For me, the practice started early on. My first job out of grad school was teaching high school English. I hadn’t done any creative writing while getting my masters degree, so I signed up for a series of free workshops with the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Program—specifically for classroom educators. The workshop leader, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, was my first real craft teacher and several people in that group became my first critique group. We’re still in touch, nearly 30 years later.
Maria is an amazing model of literary citizenship. She founded and directs the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ, is longtime editor of the Paterson Literary Review, sponsors readings, mentors countless poets. She’s a tireless advocate for other people’s work.
I loved the Dodge poetry class so much that I got brave and asked them if they were looking for festival volunteers over the summer. They ended up hiring me part time! Before we moved to Maryland, I worked for Dodge when school was out and I helped out at the festivals. There were so many things that I took away from that experience: the value of the literary community, how important it is to create places and events where writers can come together. But I also learned that I enjoy working behind the scenes, hanging the lights so to speak, in order to spotlight other authors. You do some of this too in your volunteer work for SCBWI.
It’s funny to me now that I used to be shy. When we first moved to Maryland I freelanced for my local bureau of the Baltimore Sun, writing education features. I had to learn not only how to meet and talk to people, but how to get them talking about themselves. If there’s a secret, it’s that. People enjoy talking about their interests and experiences, and I’m genuinely interested in learning from them. It’s a skill I still use today. When I’m working on a novel, I always conduct personal interviews as part of my research.
Then again, Meg, I think of my mother, who had severe social anxiety all through my growing up. I know it can feel like work or can even be triggering to stay in touch with people. It’s important to be generous with ourselves too, even if that means keeping that circle of writing friends small.
We were talking about your teacher, Stanley Plumly, and my first teacher, Maria Gillan. I don’t have an MFA, though I did do a BFA in Dramatic Writing at NYU, so I’m curious: With the proliferation of MFA programs in creative writing, in what ways did your degree prepare you for the writing life after graduation, and in what ways have you had to learn on the fly and invent for yourself what it means to be a working poet and author?
MEK: This is a great question, Laura. Oh, I have so many feelings here, and my experience is purely my perception, not a statement about MFA programs at large (or honestly even about the program I attended), but I’ll try to be succinct. My MFA did not prepare me for the writing life in the way I expected. I expected my professors to talk about publication, getting a book out, teaching full time–but there was resistance every time I brought these things up. It made me angry at the time, and while I still believe a professional degree like an MFA program should cover this information to some degree, I see now that my professors weren’t concerned with my questions because 1) I wasn’t there yet, and 2) they knew I could learn those things along the way. What they cared about was equipping us with good writing craft. They wanted us to be our very best on the page above all else.
In my MFA program, I dealt with frustrating and discouraging feedback. I couldn’t get help with funding because I requested a TA-ship too late. Whenever I had a question I was given what I found to be unhelpful non-answers. I know I sound like I’m railing on my program, but as I think about your question, I realize these were some of the things that perhaps taught me the most. The reality is, we will encounter discouraging feedback. We’ll have people ask “Why are you writing these?” (a question multiple professors asked about one of my poem series). We’ll encounter discrimination, both overt and under the table. We’ll have to figure things out on our own.
I remember walking away from my MFA program feeling disappointed. I had expected kinship, mentorship, life-long relationships. While I have some good friends I’ve stayed in touch with from the program, and amazing instructors who formed who I am as a poet, it wasn’t what I imagined an MFA program to be. But that’s the same with writing–we romanticise elements, like launching or selling a book, only for the experience to be brief and lackluster. Very few things live up to our internalized expectations.
What I’m trying to say is, I’m grateful for my MFA program. They taught me so much in that short time. It wasn’t what I wanted it to be at the time, but it was what I needed. I needed a reality check. I needed to be frustrated and discouraged and keep persisting despite it. I distinctly remember Stan in office hours once saying something to the effect of, “You think you’re a special snowflake.” I was appalled and vehemently denied it, but he was right. He saw right through me, at the entitlement I didn’t even realize I had. You couldn’t pull any punches with Stan, and he was never afraid to call you out on your crap. I miss him so much, even if he’d drive me up the wall sometimes too!
If I’d had a perfect MFA experience, I wouldn’t have been pushed in my perception of craft, or my perception of the writing life. I could’ve just stayed as I was and never had been challenged to grow. I would’ve faltered much more when discouragement came my way–maybe I would’ve even quit. But my MFA program taught me to persist, to hold onto what was good and resist what wasn’t, and perhaps those are the most valuable gifts it could’ve given me.
Laura Shovan is an editor, educator, Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, and award-winning children’s author. Some of her books include Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, winner of the Harriss Poetry Prize; the anthology Life in Me Like Grass on Fire: Love Poems; and the children’s novel-in-verse, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary.
Meg Eden teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College. She is the author of five poetry chapbooks, the novel Post-High School Reality Quest (2017), and the poetry collection Drowning in the Floating World (2020). Find her online at www.megedenbooks.com or on Twitter at @ConfusedNarwhal.