Tyler Robert Sheldon on the interaction of art and writing to look deeper into the creative processes

Susan Sontag wrote, “Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.” We had a chance to talk a bit about your chapbooks First Breaths of Arrival (Oil Hill Press) and Traumas (Yellow Flag Press) here, focusing on reading practices, what haunts a poem, inspiration, and structuring chapbooks. Your chapbook Consolation Prize forthcoming here from Finishing Line Press explores issues of trauma with a close attention to language. As the author of two chapbooks, with a third chapbook and two books forthcoming, can you talk about loving words? When art and writing interact, what gifts do they bring?

It makes good sense that loving words is essential if you’re a writer, but not everyone enjoys words in the same way. Appreciating the structuring of individual words—their composite parts, their etymology and historical applications and alterations—is a very different thing from appreciating how they align in a sentence, a paragraph, a line, or a stanza. I think poetry is unique in that it approaches words from each of these angles at various times. I also think Sontag really nails it with that dictum: for me, approaching a larger structure like a poem requires a progression from word to line to stanza to whole poem, analyzing each in turn to craft a polished piece of writing in the end. It’s just a way of writing, as William Stafford put it, but a logical one. It helps with revision and finding my way out of a rut, as well as with keeping overwhelm at bay.

But that’s not to say that one must do this right away. Like anyone, when I write a poem I often just start writing—but then later, once I have something like a draft, I do apply that progressive analysis to it, reading aloud along the way to see whether things feel good on the tongue and to the ear. This point is where loving words is crucial—whatever it is you’re writing, poem or otherwise, you must begin to know what you enjoy in order to chase after it in your writing. Stepping away from poetry for a second, the same is true for academic writing and personal essay; because each genre requires a different approach to writing, the type of words you love best will be very different for each, varying by diction, application, complexity, and other factors. In poems I often seek simple, direct language that can be structured in arresting ways; some of the best poets I’ve read use this method, because simple, clear writing leaves little room for diminished impact through misinterpretation or distraction. Academic writing (at least for me) tends to be more complex because its goal isn’t always pithiness first and foremost. CNF is often a mix of these two impulses.

The relationship between writing and art is fascinating. One might think of ekphrastic poetry first: poetry based on and in conversation with an art piece. This type of writing seems to differ from other poetry, because its needs are more specific. A poet might use words and phrases they wouldn’t otherwise because of what the art depicts. But it seems that ekphrastic poetry grants the poet new revelations about their writing style, as they bend their self-imposed rules to accommodate an un-usual subject. Art made about writing works in a similar way, at least from what I’ve witnessed. The artist Alexandria Arceneaux, my best friend and spouse, has made artwork about my writing in the past, and it has usually turned out differently than their usual work.

Where art and writing are very similar seems to be their depiction of emotion. This extends beyond a discernable similarity in technique to the realm of gut feeling, but I’ve noticed that artist and writers who depict intense emotion in their work (love, pain, joy, suffering) often intensify their normal methods. An artist might use more concentrated pigments, looser gestures when carving in wood or engraving on metal, or wilder execution of form when making a fiber piece or stone sculpture. The converse might be true if the artist’s usual mode is loose depiction, and in that case they might be intensely controlled to the point of suggesting anger within the piece. It varies, and the same can be said for writers. A poet whose lines are normally Whitmanesque might work in severely brief phrasing and truncated line length when aiming to convey emotional contrast.

As for the gifts that writing and art bring from their interactions, I’m not sure I have the ethos to give a really solid answer—but I do think that because they complement each other so well, they can emphasize each other’s strengths. This allows the reader/viewer to appreciate each in a deeper way than if they weren’t juxtaposed. Consolation Prize, a chapbook based around personalized common trauma and around surgery in the aftermath of injury, came about after I wrote several poems for my good friend Taryn Moller Nicoll. Taryn’s artwork is informed by the surgeries she witnessed as the Artist in Residence at the LSU Neuroscience Center. When she asked me to write some poems to accompany her art for her MFA thesis show, I did a lot of research to understand surgery and the mindsets of trauma sufferers—and through that work, I realized that these poems would have to be more visceral and condensed than my usual writing. So, I think that art and writing not only inform one another, but they help artist and writers to look deeper into their own creative processes. Actually, I’m not convinced that this sort of introspection is possible without a contrast between different art forms.


In “Poetry is not a Luxury,” Audre Lorde writes, “Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” Can you talk more about translating trauma into writing and the process of writing personal or witnessed trauma that seeks to explore the universal? How did you explore this in Consolation Prize?

I have to say it’s buoying to focus on how Lorde thought so highly of poetry. Everyone should. Translating trauma into writing is such a healing exercise—my earlier chap Traumas explores this, of course, but that was decidedly more personal work than most of this current chapbook. Writing trauma that explores universal themes seemed easier here, given that surgery (and even physical trauma) is so universal itself. Writing trauma requires attention to what that trauma does—how it impacts the sufferer or witness, and also what causes it. Sometimes these elements aren’t known for a long time, since everyone works through traumatic events at their own pace and should never be rushed. Because of that fact, writing can be therapeutic and cathartic but must be undertaken with sensitivity to individual situations. To address trauma accessibly, too, that time and distance from the event is necessary. One of the poems in Consolation Prize that doesn’t converse with artwork is about a car wreck I experienced in 2012—and it took me a while to write about it, because my first draft attempts ended in post-traumatic stress reactions. To write that poem with any degree of objectivity, I had to sit on the event for quite a while. So, even though certain traumas are universal, and the concept of trauma certainly is, to attempt writing it in a universally accessible way takes time, and everyone finds their own way to the right moment. So far, I haven’t found a decent “rule of thumb” for writing trauma except for that idea.

Traumas cover art © J. Bruce Fuller.

We’ve discussed art and writing, trauma, and loving words, in these first two questions, which add to your chapbook reflections here. I’m wondering if you might talk a bit about your work as a teacher and editor. You served as an editor of Flint Hills Review, tutored English and writing, and taught composition while pursuing graduate degrees in English and creative writing. Why do you teach? What’s the best thing about teaching writing?

Teaching English is the work I feel best about, apart from the act of writing. It comes naturally to me, I’d say, and I learn more about my teaching style with every class period. Teaching has always been part of my background—my grandfather taught English in the 1960s and 1970s; my parents met as GTAs at Emporia State, and now teach English as well. I grew up seeing my parents grading every night, and as a kid I sort of thought that’s what everyone did: you go to college, get a job, and then grade papers at night. The irony being that I do that myself now as well! Before I started teaching in the classroom, I tutored English and writing at Hutchinson Community College. I learned how to convey ideas with efficiency: parallelism, parts of speech, and larger concerns like relation of points to a thesis, as well as what I now see as key to all good writing: reading your own work out loud to assess fluency.

When I started teaching English in the classroom it was daunting at first, but soon I discovered that I knew more about my subject than anyone else in the room. Further, my students seemed eager to learn. The structure of the Composition classroom is one I enjoy—spending a semester on a single focused topic, honing and shifting that focus through a series of four or five essays. Perhaps the best part of teaching is seeing a student improve across those essays as they apply feedback and get a feel for their own writing style. Most students in any given class I’ve taught have improved (modestly or otherwise) as the semester moved along. Right up there is the moment when a student understands something that’s been bugging them for a while. You can almost see the clouds move away from their face—or the lightbulb turn on, which is a cliché for a reason. That’s always gratifying to witness.

Editing and teaching go hand-in-hand for me. Editing Flint Hills Review (really more copyediting and layout work) involved direct edits to layout, and there I learned to notice tiny details like spacing, punctuation, grammar, and other “lower order concerns.” Editing higher order concerns was part of that FHR work too, though: ordering pieces in the journal to reflect a theme and a conversation between pieces.

When I began editing novels in 2012 it became much more about higher order concerns like fluency of plot, consistency of characters, and tone regularity. Does the plot hold enough back from the reader until the appropriate moment to do otherwise? Are the characters lived-in, as Geraldine Brooks puts it, or do they read as fabrications (or worse, as vehicles for plot advancement)?

More recently I’m working as a Fiction Editor with Veterans Voices Magazine, reading and editing work from US military veterans, which is a rewarding and wholly different experience. I feel as though I learn new things about the larger world every time I sit down to edit a story or flash piece, and I’m grateful for the experience.

Photos © Tyler Robert Sheldon

Moving from writing to teaching and now to reading, I read Strangers in their Own Land, a 2016 National Book Award Finalist for Nonfiction, by Arlie Russell Hochschild. You are attending a graduate program in writing in the geographical area in Louisiana the book explores and previously you attended a writing program in Kansas. In both places, you also taught. Can you talk about your reading practices? What books have invited you to reflect deeply about the stories we tell ourselves about who we are?

That Hochschild book sounds excellent, I’ll have to check it out. My reading practices are influenced not just by location (Kansas and Louisiana have suggested distinctly different material to me, certainly) but also by the people I’m surrounded by. I often glean books for my to-read list from colleagues and friends, and that’s always been the case. I mentioned Geraldine Brooks earlier; her novel People of the Book is a recent favorite. The protagonist, a book restoration expert, is called in to restore the Sarajevo Haggadah, a holy book, and the artifacts she finds inside (a feather, a wine stain, others) have their own narratives that lead to their placement therein. The book has a modular structure, with many chapters devoted to the history of these found objects. The protagonist learns about her own tendencies along the way, which is key to reading—what we read influences how we think about the world, which further influences what we read. It’s a cycle, I’m convinced. I like your phrase: the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. That seems right on the money. Because what we read influences our thinking so strongly, that reading becomes the stories that compose our assumed identity.

Another in this vein, for me, was Jonathan Livingston Seagull, by Richard Bach. Very dense ideas about identity formation—the narrator is a seagull who enjoys highspeed flying so much that he is cast out by his kind. He doesn’t base his life around the fishing boats that provide sustenance, as his fellow gulls do; he lives to fly. After his death he learns the greater purpose of life, and it’s not at all what the other seagulls expected. Jonathan goes on to become a spiritual leader to others, learning and teaching the true meaning of speed. I like that the character rejects heteronormative assumptions about gulls—a funny thing to say—and I think doing so for ourselves is absolutely imperative.

How do you define chapbook? A chapbook, to my mind, is a condensed collection of poems (16 to 30, or thereabouts) that focuses on an overall theme.

What makes a good chapbook? A lot of factors go into this one, but I would say the theme and a high level of focus on how the poems interact with one another on larger levels (like subject) and smaller levels (like similarity in structure and style) are both important.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days?  Then Winter, by Chloe Honum (Bull City Press) and Like a Beast, by Carly Joy Miller (Anhinga Press).

What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? I’d still say that war/lock by Lisa Marie Basile and Flood by J. Bruce Fuller are two of the most powerful ones I’ve read. Each captures and condenses an emotion alarmingly well. The former is surrealist and very dark, and the latter recounts the Louisiana floods of 1927 and 2005.

Photos © Tyler Robert Sheldon, Traumas cover art © J. Bruce Fuller.

What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? It’s still that theme—a chapbook should have a powerful driving focus behind it. Even though lots of full-lengths do this, for a chapbook it’s absolutely imperative given its length. I’m only speaking for my own thoughts there, but one can’t really afford to keep wildly unrelated poems in a chapbook, where in a full collection they can either hide out or relate tangentially.

How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? I’m reading as many as I can get my mitts on! Recent favorites include Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, by Warsan Shire (my MFA colleague Laniesha Brown recommended that one), and it’s dark and moving—such condensed, powerful poems. Another good one is Delta Summers, by Cody Smith, which captures regional impulses really well. I’ve also been reading a lot of underground zines—the chaotic but concise work in so many of those is something I feel I could learn from.

What’s next for you? I’m currently working on my side of a collaborative full-length collection with Kansas City poet James Benger, a good friend of mine. It’ll be out soon from Spartan Press. I also have a chapbook under review with Yellow Flag Press. Fingers crossed!

I’m about to enter my thesis year in the McNeese MFA, and I’m looking forward to that. After I complete my MFA, I’ll be applying to PhD programs for both English and Medieval Studies.

Current chapbook reading list:
Salsa Night at Hilo Tavern, by Kristofer Collins (Hyacinth Girl Press)
In Defense of Monsters, by B.J. Hollars (Bull City Press)
Dynamite, by Anders Carlson-Wee (Bull City Press)
Climates, by Ruth Fainlight (Bloodaxe Books)

Number of chapbooks you own: Around thirty—and many have wildly different binding, which I enjoy. Some are eyelet-bound, some hemp- or ribbon-bound, some saddle-stitched. The chapbook as art object is part of my motivation to procure them.

Number of chapbooks you’ve read: A few more than the number I own. I’m a sucker for good chapbooks, and my collection is beginning to reflect that.

Talk about your commitment to the chapbook writing community. I buy other poets’ chapbooks, and I often review them. I also love to read manuscripts in progress and have been lucky enough to do that occasionally. I promote chapbooks I enjoy through social media and word of mouth. And I love to discover new ones at a library or bookstore—when I do, my commitment shows in my loud (and probably obnoxious) excitement.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: Social media, attending and participating in poetry readings, reading and buying chapbooks. More recently I’ve had the happy task of writing blurbs for a few poets’ chapbooks and collections, and the foreword for another.

Your chapbook credo: Focus on both the overall theme and on how the poems interact with each other.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: At the grocery store, often! Or at a good restaurant with Alex. When I can, though, I do like to buy new chapbooks—soon we’ll need a new bookshelf.

Your chapbook wish: To write a chapbook so lush and interconnected that readers would recommend it to one another. Or so provocative/troubling of the status quo that it gets banned in places. Both of those seem like barometers for success, though the former is obviously more desirable.

Residence: Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Job: English instructor.

Chapbook education:
Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, McNeese State University, 2019
Master of Arts in English, Emporia State University, 2016
Bachelor of Arts in English, Emporia State University, 2014
Associate of Science in Psychology, Hutchinson Community College, 2012

Chapbook Bio: Tyler Robert Sheldon’s newest books are the collection Driving Together (Meadowlark Books, 2018) and the chapbook Consolation Prize (Finishing Line Press, 2018). He received the 2016 Charles E. Walton Essay Award and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the AWP Intro Journals Award. His poetry, fiction, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Pleiades, Quiddity, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and other venues. He holds an MA in English from Emporia State University, and is an MFA candidate at McNeese State University. He lives in Baton Rouge. Learn more at his website.

 Photo © Kevin Rabas

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