Tina Schumann on writing as therapy, sequencing a collection, and the writing life

You are the author of As If (Parlor City Press, 2010), Requiem. A Patrimony of Fugues (Diode Editions, 2016), and Praising the Paradox (Red Hen Press, 2019) and the editor of the anthology Two Countries. U.S. Daughters and Sons of Immigrant Parents (Red Hen Press, 2017). Talk about the emotional work of poetry. In what ways does creative work invite psychological healing, reframe our experiences, and cultivate perspectives that support writers as they write?

For me, writing has always been akin to talk therapy. I write to (talk to) myself first so that I might expand that rhetoric and talk to the exterior world. A mentor in grad school once told me that I seemed to be thinking on the page, figuring things out as I went along and that really resonated with me. I suppose I was seeking emotional healing from the beginning with my writing. It had to be personal first to keep my interest. By personal I mean a kind of introverted analysis of why I feel what I feel. How I am a self in this world of many other selves. Requiem is especially personal but universal as it addresses the disintegration of a parent’s mind and abilities. A situation that many of us will or have dealt with. There seems to be something about making art out of life experiences that not only reshapes them in some way but allows for a certain amount of command that was not available in the moment. And so a kind of phycological and emotional healing occurs in taking the incident in hand and really looking at it, offering it up to the reader and yourself. Pulling away the cobwebs if you will. There is a poem in Requiem called “Ocean Fugue.” It is built around a memory of my father holding me in his arms and walking with me into the ocean when I was around four or five years old. I was petrified of open water, I was screaming the entire time, but he was fed up with my fear and thought he would break me of it by showing me how safe it was. Of course, it backfired, and all I was left with was this horrifying memory. When I first realized that I most likely needed to get that memory into this chapbook about my father I rejected it immediately. My interior gatekeeper said, “Oh no, you can’t write about that.”  There was just no way my psyche was going to allow me to go there. Not only because it was difficult to look at after all these years, but I feared it would make my Dad look like a bad guy. It was full of complex feelings about my Dad (shame being one of them). Of course, he was no saint (who is?), but he was human, and this incident in particular lets the reader in on a basic tenet of his character and our relationship from the beginning. The push and pull of it. So, the poem got written and not only was no one hurt, but now I can relive that memory in a much softer light. I took hold of it and made myself the commander of the past. The memory now serves me instead of the other way around.

In the case of building the anthology, it allowed me to take a fact about my life, that of being the child of an immigrant and again take some control over it. To own it out loud. It not only validated my life experience but that of my mother and my siblings. It was very gratifying to give voice to seventy contributors whose childhood echoed my own and to claim the legitimacy of our American experience.

I suspect most writing is deeply embedded in the ego’s need for control. In our heart of hearts we know nothing in life is truly under our control. But we can at the very least use language to our advantage and communicate to the world at large how we view our “one wild and precious life.”

I love the idea of poetry as the way to “own it out loud” and use language to make art out of our “wild and precious life” with “a certain amount of command.” Talk about the process of writing the poem and writing the chapbook and collection of poems. What was the process like for you in creating Requiem? Is the process different or the same for a chapbook of poems when compared to a full-length collection? In your answer, talk a bit more about the reframing power of creative acts. Does the poet command the sequencing of poems? What opportunities does the poet have when owning experiences as recreated in art across the narrative arc or progression of a sequence?

I think the obvious difference between my chapbooks and my full collection is that my chapbooks are, for the most part, encompassing a singular theme. They are stand alones in a sense. I do not parcel out the poems into separate titled sections within the manuscript. Whereas my full collection of sixty-one poems has three divided sections and the poems within each section speak to each other within the subtext/theme of that section (adolescences, my parents, loss, questions of existence, etc.).

While I may believe I own the experience that sparked the poem(s) into existence, I do not own the poem, particularly after it is done. I do however own the intoxication inherent in the act of creation, and I think it is that resulting high that reframes the experience for the writer. That is where the feeling of command comes into play. You can say “Look I took something ephemeral and turned it into something concrete on the page to share with others.” It can almost seem like magic.  Hopefully, it will reframe something for the reader as well. In that duel act, the writer makes the personal public, and that takes guts. I think it is a false sense of security to think that one could ever come at a poem initially with command. I clearly remember a mentor in grad school telling me “Stop telling me what you want the poem to be! Let the poem tell you what it is.” It’s a rookie mistake, and I get that now. I do however come at it with intent, and I certainly do not believe I am a pure a vessel for the muse, but for me, I learn as I go.

With my first chapbook, As If I took what I felt were the strongest 24 poems from a full collection in progress and arranged them so that I felt each set of two poems facing each other resonated in some sense, even if it was my voice that was similar. Although all the poems deal with the idea of self and the reckoning of a finite life, I had a few other poets I respected read it over and got their valuable feedback. The full collection was coming in as a finalist in a few contests, and so I thought what the heck, maybe at this point a chapbook might be more cohesive, and sure enough in a short amount of time, it won a contest. Those poems will be included in my full collection coming out in 2019. The process of writing the sequence of Requiem was mostly cathartic, but of course mixed with emotional turmoil. Those poems were wrestled out of a stressful and somewhat unexpected situation of caring for a parent with dementia over a two-year period. The idea and need for the poems did not come to me until I was embroiled in the situation. The long-distance phone calls and visits with my Dad were fraught with poetic moments and dialog. The artist in me simply could not pass them up. And I knew my father would not want me to. This combined with seeing my father’s personality disintegrate (his love of music and poetry being part of that) also clicked into place for me and manifested in the idea of a collection of fugues. Using the language and lingo of orchestral music and opera in combination with the symptoms of dementia, as well as snippets of our dialog motived me to get as many poems as I could from that trifecta. It provided the scaffolding of the manuscript to build on. The fourth element that brought it all into fruition was a memoir by Philip Roth I had recently read about his own father simply titled “Patrimony.” The word was firmly planted in my brain, and I kept tossing it around. It says so much in such an unsentimental way. So I feel very lucky in this instance that the title came to me before the poems were complete; “Requiem. A Patrimony of Fugues.”  That proved to be a motivator as well. I would say about half of the poems were written after my father passed in 2014. Although many, many notes were taken before that.  I think I needed that phycological space to finesse them and look at them analytically as a reader. The current chapbook I am working on is a series of epistles. While they are all in the form of a letter, they each address a different subject.  Some are letters to the past, some to myself, some to the dead, etc. In this case, I was at a residency and working on random poems that were in the editing stage but had no solid home in a manuscript. I suddenly and happily realized that the group of poems could be easily shaped into letters. Again, the poems were telling me what they wanted to be. I was not imposing my wish on them or pressuring myself to find the theme. The pattern I see for me is that a chapbook emerges from an unbidden set of circumstances I can build on.

One last word on the sequencing of poems within a full collection, which is far easier to do in a strongly themed chapbook. My full collection went through MANY incarnations over a six-year period. Breaking the collection into three sections helped, although in my case they are not absolute distinct sections. They all give a nod to each other and support the overall tenor or atmosphere of the collection. If I were giving someone advice, I would say be patient and know that the placement of poems will change over time. Give yourself time to see them.

You’ve established a cool distinction here in the creative process of not owning the poems, but owning the art of creation as the poems tell you “what they wanted to be.” It’s interesting to consider the pieces that we draw together to build a collection. In Requiem, you established a trifecta (dementia, music, dialogue) that found it’s necessary forth element (patrimony) that made the whole. Talk about the beginning and end of the creative process. When you start writing, how do you invite inspiration? Do you establish a given amount of time for daily writing, engage in rituals to cultivate new work, participate in national challenges like NaPoWriMo or 30/30 in April, or something else? At the end of the revision work, what’s your method for ordering a sequence? Is the process the same for chapbooks and books or different? Talk about that “unbidden set of circumstances” from which a chapbook emerges.

For many years I berated myself for not having a consistent writing ritual. But the voice of authority (even self-imposed) has never motivated me. I now allow myself the freedom and room to write when I write. No guilt. I can rest assured that it will come back in its own time. Happily, that freedom results in almost weekly writing for me. This might include editing of work in progress or the jotting down of ideas, or a word that fascinates me. I remember reading the poet Robert Haas’s advice to do one thing every day that advances your writing career. THAT I could abide by. That instruction felt doable. It might be just thinking about the poems or reading one poem by someone else.  I will say here that I do not have children, which allows me to be a whole lot less self-disciplined and protective about my writing time.  I do have a very supportive husband and a full-time non-teaching job that allows room for my writing life.

Once I start to feel too far away from the process of writing, I find some way to get back in the seat and just make it happen, inspiration or not. But that might take me a month of no writing to get there. Some would say the fallow time in-between writing serves the creative process as well. One needs to rest that muscle to come back stronger.  I tend to feel mentally and emotionally ill if I neglect writing for too long, so that becomes a motivating factor. When I begin to feel that I am simply existing and not living, I know it is time to get back to the poems.

I do not participate in national challenges like NaPoWriMo or 30/30. Too much pressure and structured group activities rarely work for me. Maybe it is the introvert in me or the rebel. Hard to say. It feels unnatural for me. I am happy it works for others.

I do usually enjoy an in-person workshop where each participant shares their work, and we critique as a group. This process almost always leads to inspiration or at least fruitful editing on the work at hand. This was especially helpful in grad school. Now I share my work with a monthly workshop group of other poets I respect.

Any time I have tried to “invite inspiration” it usually backfires. Nine times out of ten a poetry prompt or exercise does not work for me. The words come out stilted and false. I have learned over the years that there are certain instances that usually result in inspiration for me, but I cannot think of them as a source of inspiration from the get-go. I must let it happen and then roll with the impulse when it hits me. A couple of instances is, of course, reading the work of other poets and participating in my monthly writers group. Another experience that inspires me to write over and over again is the act of driving. I believe it has something to do with motion and images coming at me as well as the isolation. I keep a notebook handy and pull over to write down lines, images or an idea. Once I have latched onto an idea that I want to explore that can serve as inspiration as well, as it did with Requiem and the series of epistles. I could not have anticipated the arrival of these two ideas in any way. I trust that my subconscious in working in my favor and it will throw me a bone eventually.

Ordering a sequence of poems within a manuscript takes several reiterations, on average at least 10 times or more revisits of me looking at the current table of contents and rethinking the order. Longer for full collections. I do not have one manuscript that has stayed in its original order. Once I feel I have seen all the connective tissue I can see from my limited perspective, I then have at least two other writers look it over, including a professional editor. Inevitably they will see connections I could not. This is where the poems begin to stop being mine and must make their way in the outside world. If the readers cannot see the larger thread or running theme of the manuscript, then it still needs work and has to come home for a deeper look. This process is the same for a full collection as it is for a chapbook.

The question of the beginning and ending process of a manuscript becomes muddled for me. The beginning is usually like dipping my toes in a cold river. I am not quite sure why I am doing what I am doing, but something is pushing me to test the temperature of that particular river. Once a few poems have come together for that manuscript that I feel good about, the water has warmed up, and I am now swimming in the river. Feeling safer. I tend to know when a manuscript is ready for submission once it has gone through the editing process by me several times and by outside readers as stated above. Also, not to sound too woo-woo about it, but a general indefinable feeling comes over me in relation to the manuscript as well. Something like a calm knowing that I have done my best and this is the end result. Once I reach twenty-four poems on a topic and I start to feel that I have said what I wanted to say, or the original impulse has worn out its welcome with me I assume I have a chapbook and start the editing process. I suppose it falls in line with the old adage about a poem never being “done,” it is simply abandoned. Truth is, one could tinker endlessly with their poems, but at some sane point one must let it go and move on.

One last comment on testing the waters; for me, it helps to submit individual poems that feel ready to journals. An acceptance or two (or three or more) can go a long way to telling me that I have something others see of value, and then those acceptances help to bolster the finished manuscript when sending it out to publishers.

How do you define chapbook? Less than thirty poems consisting of a theme or overarching voice/tone /atmosphere.

What makes a good chapbook? Elevated language, intelligence, insight, surprises. Everything that would be contained in a larger collection, but punchier and tighter as the author will have less room to capture and satisfy the reader.

What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? 

  • Arab in Newsland by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha (Two Sylvias Press)
  • Boundaries by Erin Coughlin Hollowell (Dancing Girl Press)
  • Between Dream and Flesh by Jed Myers (Egress Studio Press)
  • Dynamite by Anders Carlson-Wee (Bull City Press)
  • I Thought I Was Going to be OK by Peter E. Murphy (Diode Editions)

What’s next for you? My full collection entitled Praising the Paradox from Red Hen Press will premier at AWP in March of 2019. I will be busy promoting that and setting up readings. I am also working on another full collection and submitting another completed chapbook.

Number of chapbooks you own: Probably forty or more. My bookshelves contain more full collections.

Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I am the Assistant Director of on Orcas Island in Washington State, an arts organization providing fellowship residencies for writers and artists annually. I have also just accepted the role of poetry editor for Wandering Aengus Press. So, in those two roles, I feel I support the art of other writers.

Your chapbook credo: “Chapbooks stand tall!” I do not see chapbooks as less than a full collection. It is my wish that the industry would not see them that way either. A lot of work goes into them, and an author should feel just as proud to have them out in the world.

Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Earnings? Hmmm… that’s a new concept. I won $200 from my first contest winnings with As If and I think $250 from the second Requiem, but most of money went right back to the publisher for more copies of my own book to sell at readings. I honestly have not kept track of how much I have accumulated through sales of my chapbooks. I just see it as lunch and gas money, a nice bonus. The real payoff for me is getting the work out there by publishers I respect.

Residence: Seattle for the last 35 years. I also feel a part of past residence, such as New Jersey, the Bay Area, El Salvador, San Diego, and Phoenix.

Job: Prospect Researcher in healthcare fundraising for 20 years. Law Librarian for a decade prior.

Chapbook Bio: Tina Schumann  is the author of three poetry collections: Requiem. A Patrimony of Fugues (Diode Editions, 2017), winner of the Diode Editions chapbook competition for 2016, Praising the Paradox, (Red Hen Press, 2019), and As If (Parlor City Press, 2010) which was awarded the Stephen Dunn Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of the American Poet Prize from The American Poetry Journal, and her work was a finalist in the National Poetry Series, New Issues Poetry Prize, and the Four Way Books Intro Prize. She is a Pushcart nominee and editor of the anthology Two-Countries: U.S. Daughters and Sons of Immigrant Parents (Red Hen Press, 2017). Tina’s work has appeared in anthologies and publications including The American Journal of Poetry, Ascent, Cimarron Review, Crab Creek Review, Michigan  Quarterly Review, Nimrod, Palabra, Parabola, Poemeleon, Poetry International, Raven Chronicles,, The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, and Verse Daily.

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