The Writer’s Chronicle September 2014 issue features Debra Spark’s mediation on research and writing fiction. She writes, “In life, you only get to be one person. You only get to go where you go, and do what you do. Not so in fiction. You get to be many people, to go places you’ll never get to go, and to do things you’ll never do” (98) and “Fiction gives you permission to have a bigger life. To go somewhere you’d not otherwise go, to read endless books about an obscure subject, to achieve a form of expertise in a field you’ll never actually pursue, to ask nosy questions” (99). Your chapbook Alternates (Dancing Girl Press, 2014) explores quantum mechanics, alternative universes, and love. Talk about how research and writing enables you to have a bigger life.
I really love these quotes, and the first one in particular feels so perfect for Alternates, because the idea of being more than just one person and living all of your potential lives is what’s at the heart of this book. When I wrote Alternates, I was experimenting with the lyric sequence form and I was also reading about quantum theory–specifically, the “many-worlds interpretation” of quantum mechanics. The many-worlds interpretation postulates that every possible future and every possible past are real, and each exists in its own parallel, alternate universe. Basically, there are an infinite number of universes in which everything that could have happened has actually happened.
The profound beauty in this idea blew me away–especially in the ways it relates to love (you actually are happily married to that one person who never loved you back–in another universe!) and the ways it perfectly lines up with the lyric sequence form–distinctly separate parts that sing in chorus together as a whole. Each page of Alternates, then, depicts one of the many different potential life paths of one couple. In one universe, one of them is dead. In another, they have a daughter. In another, they broke up.
I wanted the book to enact the feeling of time as quantum theory (or at least my understanding of it!) interprets it–time as a malleable, all-encompassing experience, not just a linear sequence. All of the past and all of the future are occurring at the same time–right now. That’s how love feels–the people you love are always with you, and all the potential lives you could have had with them are always with you, too–so in a way, they are always happening, forever. Heartbreak contains joy, and vice versa. That potentiality is extremely comforting to me.
As for the second Spark quote, I couldn’t agree more–research is such fun! I conduct research for every project I write. My next full-length book, Copper Mother, converses with NASA’s 1977 Golden Record, launched aboard the Voyager spacecraft, and delves into theories of extraterrestrial intelligence. I’m currently working on another full-length novel-in-verse called “Mega-City Redux” that remixes Christine de Pizan’s revolutionary 1405 proto-feminist text, The Book of the City of Ladies. For Alternates, I read Hawking, Einstein, and Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, as well as a lot of really fun, wacky books like The Physics of the Impossible by Michiko Kaku. My favorite scientist to read is Carl Sagan–he writes with a poet’s love of language, beauty, and metaphor. Reading about another world, another discipline, another set of terminology and another way of thinking–what could be better fuel for poetry?
The February 2015 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle features Jane Hirshfield’s essay “Strange Reaches, Impossibilities, and Big Hidden Drawers: Poetry and Paradox.” In her reflecting on Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Map” she writes, “Put flatly: good poems make us smarter” (47). I like that. I like the thinking poetry asks us to do. What poems have made you smarter and how?
Well, as a matter of fact, I’d say that Elizabeth Bishop and her poems have taught me a great deal. Bishop’s combined attention to spontaneity, accuracy, and mystery (she had a toucan named Uncle SAM!) have become a writing mantra for me, and her poems remind me of all the ways that observation is a practice that can be mastered and even queered. Her poems are demanding to me on an intellectual and spiritual level, and every time I read them, I discover something new—new questions, new ways of interacting with people and objects and poetics, and new techniques for probing at the deeper (“rainbow, rainbow, rainbow”-colored!) underbelly of the world.
I have two questions about teaching, a topic you invoke in Alternates in the opening poem. The February 2015 The Writer’s Chronicle roundtable feature on pedagogy asks, Who has time to read? First, how do you make time to read, especially readings that are generative to your own creative process? Second, how does teaching serve your creative work and are there specific activities that you use in the classroom that fuel your own writing?
This is an interesting question! For the first part, I honestly don’t have any kind of special system or anything for making time to read—it usually feels like I end up reading what I absolutely could not live without reading. For the book I’m working on right now, which is a non-fiction researched memoir about Super Mario Bros. 3, I read more than 50 books about video game history and theory during the fall semester. But that’s really ALL that I had time to read, so I’m looking forward to diving into all the poetry I’ve been stockpiling this spring—Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Olena Kalytiak Davis’ The Poem She Didn’t Write and Other Poems, and Matthea Harvey’s If the Tabloids Are True What Are You. I read a really eclectic mixture of contemporary poetry, short fiction, novels, graphic novels, and historical material (usually I’m reading and re-reading alongside my Masterpieces of World Lit class, which covers everything from The Epic of Gilgamesh to Paradise Lost). I also like to read non-literary non-fiction, like quantum theory (for non-scientists, of course!) or cultural criticism (hence all the video game books). So I’m usually reading what I feel like I absolutely must read at that moment—either for research purposes, teaching prep, as language-fuel to feed new poems, or to keep up with the work of the poets I admire most. I read graphic novels when my brain feels too crammed with words and metaphor and I just want to SEE something that’s directly visually stunning.
To answer the second part of the question, teaching plays a big role in inspiring my creative work. I usually teach more than 100 students per semester, so that’s 100 individuals with different life experiences, different perspectives, and different ways of thinking that I get to speak with. Every time I teach a class or sit down to chat with a student during office hours, I’m learning something new and having my brain stimulated by the point of view they bring to the table. So it’s always both broadening and deepening my outlooks on the world. Teaching stimulates the mind and keeps you intellectually alert, which is so important for writing. It forces you to keep your habits of observation, critical thought, and questioning all fine-tuned every single day.
Here’s one specific example—two falls ago, in my Masterpieces of World Lit class, we were reading Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies. A student raised the question, “Why are all the examples of strong, powerful female heroes that Pizan gives us in this text fictional characters and not real women?” I went home that afternoon thinking about the question, and didn’t stop thinking about it. A year and a half later, I have a draft of a manuscript called “Mega-City Redux,” which is a remix of/sequel to Pizan’s work starring my favorite strong, powerful female heroes of our times–Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xena Warrior Princess, and Dana Scully from the X-Files. There’s no doubt in my mind that this book would not have been written if I hadn’t been teaching that class.
What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? One chapbook I always go back to as an inspiration or model for my own work is Charles Jensen’s The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon. It’s a beautiful love story about a scientist in the 30’s who tries to find a way, through some spooky pseudoscience (no spoilers here!) to save his dying wife. It’s told through snippets of diary, interviews, and shredded documents, and it’s extremely imaginative and compelling–the characters are wonderful and it fits the chapbook form wonderfully.
What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? I want my chapbooks to feel unified in theme–the chapbook is a great form for projects, series, or sequences–and I want it to fully complete the work it wants to do while also experimenting with radical compression.
What’s next for you? I’ve got a couple of projects in the works–the novel-in-verse I mentioned called Mega-City Redux and the non-fiction Super Mario Brothers 3 under contract. I’m also working on a chapbook called “Epithalamia” full of love poems exploring the concept of marriages and weddings in our time. And I’m lucky enough to be working on a couple of collaborations with some really talented poets and friends, so that’s been a lot of fun!
Current chapbook reading list: I can’t wait to read Jeanine Deibel’s Spyre!
Number of chapbooks you own: Again, too many to count! Some of my favorites are A Conference of Birds by Christopher Martin, Backcountry by Sarah Marcus, and Jane & Paige or Sister Goose by Elizabeth Savage.
Number of chapbooks you’ve read: Again, too many to count! Most recently, I read Anne Carson’s The Albertine Workouts, which is beautiful.
Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. I have a deep commitment to the chapbook writing community. I serve as an editor of Gazing Grain Press, a feminist chapbook publisher. I founded the press in 2012 with poets M. Mack and Siwar Masannat because we saw the need for a press that would publish chapbooks of poetry and hybrid work by feminists of all genders and sexualities. GGP has published three chapbooks of innovative poetry/hybrid work, and this year, we are expanding by adding a prose contest, which will open in March. Our judges for this year’s contests are Natalie Diaz and Amber Sparks. I believe very strongly in giving back to the literary community in some way.
Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Gazing Grain promotes the work of our chapbook poets year-round by setting up AWP and Fall for the Book reading events, mailing out review copies of the books, and setting up online promotions such as interviews and guest blogging. We put a tremendous amount of work into making sure our authors’ chapbooks look exactly the way they want them to look (we started hand-binding books this year) and then we throw our full efforts into promoting the work once it’s out.
Where you spend your chapbook earnings: HA!
Residence: Anchorage, AK
Job: I teach English at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Chapbook Bio: My chapbook Alternates was published by dancing girl press in the summer of 2014.