November's Author of the Month is Karen Press. Karen is the author of four collections of poetry, including her recent Turnstone Press release, Exquisite Monsters. Her collections have received much critical praise and have been shortlisted for the Pat Lowther and ReLit Awards. In 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Karen Press (below), she shares a few thoughts about her creative process.
Karen Press's book with Turnstone Press is:
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
Probably when my first book was published—how happy I look in the photos! That was 2001. But nothing really changes, does it?
Do you still submit new work to magazines and journals for publication, or do you stick to full-length manuscript submissions? Why or why not?
I do only on a very limited basis. For one thing, I just don’t write as many poems as I used to. For another, people tend to ask me for freebies, to post on blogs and stuff, plus there’s all that social media to fill, and journals generally don’t want your work once it has appeared online. I’m also trying out new genres right now, and I am not confident enough yet to market the new stuff much.
Has your writing routine changed from that at the time of your first publication?
My writing routine is now more dictated by necessity, though, if I could, I would still prefer to do the immersive thing where I write like crazy for a month and then do a real job the rest of the year.
Is there a particular time of day at which you write best?
I prefer to write late at night, but again, I now tend to write more just “whenever I can", which tends to be the evening. The wee hours of the morning can be my most productive times. However, I have a job and a family and generally have to choose sleep instead. (I get annoyed by that classic piece of writerly advice that tells us to get up two hours earlier than otherwise and get writing done in the morning. Seriously—I get up at 5:30 a lot of the time, so I’m not about to start getting up at 3:30.)
What inspires you?
Visual art, other writers, human struggles, settings, juxtaposition, confluence, surprise.
Do you only write poetry or do you write in other genres/modes as well?
I write a lot of things, though I am not confident enough to market myself much in other genres. I sold a short screenplay—I don’t know if they’ll ever actually make it, but I got paid! I’m also working on a YA fantasy novel. And a play. And some comics. And some short stories. And a feature film pitch. And and and I need to finish something.
How conscious are you of form when you compose poetry?
I’m probably not conscious enough, which is funny, because when I was young I was all over forms, doing all the glosas and sestinas and such that we used to do in the ‘90s. Now I tend just to go where the poem leads me, though sometimes it leads me to a form of its own, then when I’m revising I can make it conform more to its own internal logic.
“Exquisite Monsters” is a challenging piece. What made you think of setting up the flip poem as the structure and how difficult was it to compose an entire interchangeable suite within the rules you set up for yourself?
I don’t think of it as challenging. I kind of hoped the flip-book thing actually made it more accessible, like, as an entry point for people who don’t do poetry. I got the idea from drawing monster flip-books with my daughter. I think we started doing it because we downloaded an iPad app that did the same thing.
I actually wrote all the “monsters” from top to bottom, as what I considered to be coherent individual pieces, then I mixed up all the body parts. Later I added a couple of additional monsters that stayed together on the same page and didn’t get mixed into the rest. So readers should try to figure out which those were, and which other pieces originally belonged to the same monsters! I felt like certain sections made good openings and closings for the piece, but, other than that, I did not have a systematic way of arranging the monsters.
Some writers prefer the process of composing a manuscript while others prefer the editorial stage of fine tuning and polishing. Do you have a preference? Why?
I think they are both their own kind of hell.
Composing is “easier,” but only because you are allowing yourself to write shit, and then the realization of how shitty it is hits you like a foul manure-soaked farm wind.
Editing is just—endless. It can never possibly be good enough.
So basically both are just exercises in despair. Why am I a writer again?
While editing a manuscript do you ever start writing or working on something else?
See above! I am the kind of writer who tends to have a million things going at once. I need to stop that.
Do you journal?
No. I hate journaling. I tried when I was younger and I felt like a fake. I think I just put that stuff straight into the writing.
What do you think about a writer’s need to be part of social networks?
My people are on Facebook. I’m actually there because I enjoy participating. The majority of my friends are writers, so that makes my feed a thoughtful, non-stop flow of well-written witty repartee and useful writing-related links. It’s great. I don’t post a whole lot, but I care.
I feel the “need” to be on other social media because I’m “supposed” to be there. I really can’t keep up with more than Facebook. Because I don’t really care about other platforms, I feel like a fake on them, and I have to stretch myself to come up with something to post. And anyone who knows anything about social media will tell you that inauthenticity is exactly what will make your posts suck.
In your opinion, what are the benefits of participating in writing retreats, either in a formalized setting or on one’s own?
Oh my god. I love retreats. Give it another 10 years, and my child will be 16, and I can go on retreats again. Right now, I don’t like to be away for longer than a week, maybe 2, and that is not enough time for a real retreat, though I am definitely considering going to Sage Hill again, or applying to Deep Bay. Sometimes I go to Vancouver for a week to the UBC MFA summer school. It’s not a retreat, but the residence rooms are kind of like sensory deprivation tanks (one of my colleagues there came up with that comparison, not me, but I can’t remember who I stole it from!).
I’ve been to longer retreats on Toronto Island, in Scotland at Hawthornden, and in Iceland. For all three, I spent pretty much the whole first week catching up on sleep deficit, which is why a one-week retreat isn’t really enough. I think 6 weeks would be the perfect length. And you need someone to cook for you and do your laundry. Seriously. Go to Hawthornden, it was awesome.
My dream, if I ever get rich (ha!), is to start a fund to support artists with children to go on retreats, so they can bring and house their children and caregiver in an nearby location.
Some summers my husband goes away with my daughter for a week, creating a “retreat of my own” at home, but it’s really not the same—see the part about laundry, cooking, etc. I do get more done than usual, but when in one’s own house, one constantly sees other things that need to get done. The possibilities for distraction are much greater than if you go away somewhere.
Do you enjoy giving public readings?
I think “enjoy” might be too strong a word, but I don’t mind them. The more I do the better I get, naturally—I used to be much more comfortable giving readings when I published more frequently and therefore got asked to do readings more frequently. When I started out, I used to memorize my favourite pieces and perform them. That came naturally to me, because as I child I use to memorize and perform poems for fun—Carroll, Service, Tennyson. I came up with that myself as a pastime, no one made me do it. Eventually I stopped working on performance, but it might be something worth coming back to.
One thing I’ve noticed about poetry readings is that no one, or hardly anyone, wants to laugh. I try to make my poems funny. You might be thinking, “huh”? I am not known as funny. Maybe I just have a really, really deadpan sense of humour (actually, I’m pretty sure that I do). But when I give readings, I often try to pick the most obviously funny pieces that I can. And I sometimes I give people permission to laugh before I start. Just so they know that it is supposed to be funny. Is that lame? It’s just that people take poetry readings So Seriously.
And now a few fun questions:
Do you draft long hand or compose at a computer?
Mostly computer. I can’t actually read my own handwriting a lot of the time, it’s that bad, so computer is best. However, I do need to print things out and scribble on them and cross things out in order to revise and edit effectively. It’s not the same on the screen.
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
I’m lucky to be able to find a surface clear of debris to sit on. Lucky charms are beyond me.
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write?
Not really—I’m generally a consumer of coffee, tea, and wine (though I hope the wine is not habitual!), but since I do most of my writing in the evening, I try not to drink coffee or tea then. It’s bad enough getting to sleep after writing—my mind is usually racing —and caffeine just makes it worse. I’ve occasionally tried to drink wine while writing, but it doesn’t help! I know some people swear by writing buzzed, but seriously, it just makes the words unfocussed.
When I write I tend to get all “zoney”—I often completely forget to eat, drink, or move from my chair for hours on end. Then I wonder why my mouth is so dry and I have a headache.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
Mostly anything from my library that doesn’t have words, at least not in English. Songs with words screw me up. Generally it will be classical or ambient.
If you could not be a writer, what career might you have?
I love to organize and categorize things, which is weird for someone who lives in so much clutter, and I love research. I’ve sometimes thought that I missed a calling as a librarian. My librarian friends will now probably sigh and roll their eyes.