Valerie Wetlaufer: Wendy, it was so enjoyable to read with you twice in New York in July! I think our work goes together well. We both write about pregnancy and birth, sex, love, gender, and identity. I feel very fortunate that I met you through Sibling Rivalry Press, and that we get to be poet sisters in this way. I’m curious, what is your writing process like? How do you make time for and prioritize your writing? What would an ideal writing / poetry day be for you?
Wendy Chin-Tanner: I loved reading with you in New York, too! It’s always so great to spend time together. Plus, with you being a doula and me being super duper pregnant, I was reassured by your presence in case something happened…
As for my schedule and process, structured time around my writing seems like a thing of the past right now as I have a seven-year-old on summer break and a new baby due any day, but I am looking forward to the start of second grade and the rhythms of the milk and sleep schedule to provide me with natural blocks of reading and writing time. I did a lot of highly generative reading when my older daughter was a baby.
My writing anxiety tends to be triggered more when I have to create my own schedule than when I have external schedules imposed upon me. I need to commit to working for relatively short blocks of time in order to not feel pressured and overwhelmed, which I think is probably why my oddball version of a writing process clicked into place for me after I became a parent. Before then, I had a lot of problems with procrastination, writer’s block, and perfectionism. This way, if I wind up working “overtime,” it’s a bonus.
One thing about being a parent is that I have become intimately acquainted with the inevitability of failure! Nothing goes as planned and you just have to roll with it. I like to keep very cheap notebooks lying around wherever I might be resting or reading, I mean, the cheaper the better because if it’s a fancy notebook, I feel pressure to write only something “good” and I self-edit too much. Whatever line, image, or thought might occur to me throughout the day or night ends up in one of those cheap-o notebooks, along with snippets of things from the Internet or from the books I’m reading. When some of those things spark a plan for a poem, or if I have some time to sit down and draft something, I go back to the notebooks and write out a first draft by hand.
This part of the process is as free and unconscious as I can allow it to be. Then I quickly transfer it onto the computer where I start revising. I’m a chronic and prodigious reviser. When I feel like I’ve done my best with the poem, I send it to my writing partner, NYC poet Eric Norris. We bounce it back and forth and when he begs me to stop messing with it, I know it’s (pretty much) done. An ideal poetry day would be to come up with a decent draft of a poem, but that’s not all there is to the work of being a poet. I feel like I’ve done my job as long as I’ve done something that’s poetry-related, and that includes taking notes, reading, writing an interview or Q&A, sending out a submission, or answering emails.
Tell me about your writing process!
VW: I write every day, a minimum of 10 lines, but I am more of a sprinter than a marathoner. I’ll go through periods where I’ll write all day for weeks, and then months where nothing beyond my 10 lines will come to me, but I don’t worry about it, because I know it’s just the rhythm of my process. I do think it’s important to clear space every day for poems to happen, whether they decide to arrive or not. It’s vital for me to make writing part of my daily life. The rhythm of creation also depends a lot on what I’m reading at the time. With each project I work on, there are literary muses I return to in order to jump start my muse.
If I’m ever in a deep funk, I read Lucie Brock-Broido, who is my all-time favorite poet. I must have read A Hunger a dozen times in college. Though it was Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-one Love Poems” that inspired me to write my very first poem, “Your Body Will Haunt Mine,” which (much revised since then) is in Mysterious Acts by My People. That line from which I’ve taken the title inspired my own elegy, and before I knew it, I was writing poems. I’d always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t ever consider poetry until my senior year of college when I took my first poetry class and discovered contemporary poetry.
When I really started studying poetry, I fell hard for the Romantics. I do love Wordsworth and Keats, and Gothic novels have been very foundational to me as well. Vilette and Wuthering Heights being two favorites. I’m often inspired by novels, actually. I love Virginia Woolf and Carole Maso.
Who are your founding literary mothers and fathers? Whose books or which books got you started?
WCT: I remember the first poem that truly resonated for me. It was William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just to Say.” We read it in fifth grade and I remember it was like a guitar string was plucked inside. I could feel the vibration of the poem, the balance of its simplicity and complexity, and I had the sense that I understood it on some intangible level that I couldn’t explain but certainly liked, and I thought, wow, maybe this is something I could do with language, too.
In high school, I loved everything Anne Sexton ever wrote but then after Maddy was born, I became far more interested in Sylvia Plath. I’ve been a fan of Phillip Larkin’s, his politics notwithstanding, since college.
Heavy influences around the time I was writing Turn include Louise Gluck’s Vita Nova which taught me about interweaving mythology and narrative verse, Sharon Olds’ Collected Poems (Olds is the queen of memoir-in-verse), and W.S. Merwin’s Selected Poems and The Rain in the Trees. His laconic style is very appealing to me. His lines are so tight and yet he’s not afraid to be sincere or emotional. That kind of balance is what I strive for. I read a lot of Buddhist koans at one point and they influenced some of the miniatures I wrote.
I also discovered Vera Pavlova when I was working on an early draft of Turn and she rocked my world. My friend, anthropologist and photographer Veronica Davidov who in fact created the photo used for the cover for Turn, introduced me to her, translating a few of her untranslated poems from Russian to English, and then I bought If There Is Something to Desire which taught me so much about pacing and the use of short poems within a collection.
VW: What’s the story of your book—meaning, all the standard stuff, such as how did it start, what are some of the oldest poems, how many places did you send it to, what were some of your hopes, what didn’t work out, what did work out, etc.?
WCT: Okay, I’ll start with the standard spiel and then get into the nitty gritty. Turn is a memoir-in-verse that’s written in three parts or movements that correspond chronologically to three phases of life and symbolically to the three phases of revolution in Hegel’s theory of Dialectical Materialism: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
The poems in Turn engage with some of the big questions I’ve struggled with: how we reconcile childhood, race, the legacy of immigration, gender, abuse, love, sex, motherhood, betrayal, forgiveness, and death. The word “turn” has many meanings. In turning, we can revolve and we can transform. We can turn away from something, turn towards something, turn back to something, and turn from one thing into something else. Turn is about life cycle and emotional evolution, using my own life as a context and touchstone for speaking about how certain areas of change and transformation might be common to us all.
I started writing the book after ten years of not writing any poetry at all. As the wall of my writer’s block was broken open, I believe, by the ego and ethos shattering of new motherhood, some of the first poems to emerge that wound up in the collection stem from that experience. “Through the Bathroom Door,” for example, was a very early one. I also started to reflect a lot on my own childhood in a different way, as having a little girl at the same age that my mother had me created a kind of dual perspective of looking at the past and the present simultaneously. Other early poems were “Mother,” “In the Dutch House,” “I Cannot Say,” “No Moon,” and “Tempest.”
When I started writing the poems that wound up in the book, I really didn’t know that there was going to be a book, so there was a certain freedom and lack of self-consciousness to their making. Once I started accumulating more poems submitting to journals, and after a few trusted readers started suggesting that the poems I had shown them had narrative threads that could hold them together in a collection, I proceeded to flesh it out and also to educate myself about how to go about publishing a first collection. I submitted to a whole bunch of first book prizes and got some positive feedback. Turn (mostly in earlier incarnations) was a finalist eight times and rejected more than fifty times (I seriously lost count after that) before it found its happy home at Sibling Rivalry Press.
The big unsexy yet oh-so-crucial lesson during that frustrating time, which all in all took about three years, was, unsurprisingly, perseverance. With every new rejection, my thin skin toughened up just a little bit and I stopped taking them so personally. I just kept tweaking the manuscript whenever I felt the urge, I kept reading and fine tuning, I kept educating myself about which publishers were out there and whether or not they would be a good fit, and I kept sending my work out. I told myself: Be a human when you’re writing. Be a robot when you’re submitting.
What’s the untold story behind Mysterious Acts?
VW: Mysterious Acts by My People contains poems written over the course of nine years. As I said, it contains my very first poem and also more recent poems written during poetry workshops during my doctoral program at the University of Utah. While writing Mysterious Acts, I was concurrently working on another project, what will now be my second book, Call Me by My Other Name, which is a sort of novel in verse about a lesbian couple who lived as man and wife in the late 19th century Midwest. The second section of Mysterious Acts, the poems about Mary Sweeney, the “Window-Smasher” occupy that same world, and, in fact, Mary Sweeney was originally part of Call Me by My Other Name, but in the end I felt she was more distracting from the main story, and could exist on her own as an independent section of a different book. So while I was working on this book-length project, I was also writing what I think of as “one-off” poems, which make up the bulk of Mysterious Acts. These are poems that may be thematically linked through sex, desire, violence, heartbreak, betrayal, but were written to stand alone. These were the poems that were getting published when I sent out submissions, and after years of trying to get Call Me by My Other Name published, I decided to gather together these one-off poems, along with Mary Sweeney, and send them out. Sibling Rivalry Press was the first place I thought of, because I so admired the work they had produced, so they were the first place I sent the book (though I’d been submitting CMBMON for seven years), and it was accepted! Part of the reason behind this decision to publish Mysterious Acts first is that I kept getting feedback while submitting the other book that it would be a better second book than a first book, and I do think this was good advice. I was a finalist in contests a number of times, but it always came down to this second book comment. At the time it was heartbreaking, but now I’m very glad things worked out the way they did.
What is some of the best advice you were ever given as a writer / what is some advice you would give to others trying to place a manuscript / trying to get published?
WCT: Well, at the risk of repeating myself a bit, one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received about the business end (pun intended) of writing is that rejections are inevitable, dealing with them are just a part of being a professional writer, and the best way to handle them is to make a few changes and send the work right back out again. This goes for submissions of individual poems to journals as well as manuscripts to publishers.
VW: I think that’s good advice. When you’re first starting out, it’s so easy to take everything to heart, and take it so personally, but the longer you do this, I think the better you get at trusting your own voice. I’ve gotten a lot better at targeting my submissions now, and knowing when this or that poem or project isn’t a good fit for a publisher, no matter how much I might like that journal or press.