Monday, March 30, 2015

Being Part of the Writing Community

Over the past week, I had the pleasure of attending two book signings for first-time novelists. The first was for my longtime friend Patrick Robbins, who just published his novel TO MAKE OTHERS HAPPY (Three Wide Press). It was heart-warming to see Pat surrounded by copies of his book, as well as the crowd of friends and family who came out to support him. A friend stood by with a camera to snap pictures for a memory book (including the one below). It reminded me a little bit of a graduation party--one of those precious few days in a person's life when you are showered with so much love and support and admiration and pride. It can be overwhelming and humbling in the best possible way. Pat's busy with promotional duties at the moment, but soon I'll have a follow-up interview with him to fill you in on all the details about his road to publication.

Patrick, me, and my daughter, Kate.  (photo credit: Emily Richards)

The second event I attended was a literary introduction series co-sponsored by The Author's Guild and Richard Russo, who currently serves as one of the guild's vice presidents. Russo has long been a champion of young writers (myself included) and understands how difficult the publishing landscape is right now for unknown authors of what he describes as "hard-won novels" or literary fiction. To help these writers get discovered, Russo has launched a reading series where established writers interview up-and-comers whose work has caught their attention. There will be a few of these readings in Portland, Maine and in New York City, with the hope that they will eventually roll out across the country.

The featured author of the night was Eddie Joyce, author of SMALL MERCIES (Viking), a story about a Staten Island family devastated in the wake of 9/11. While I was waiting for the even to start, a woman sitting in the row in front of me turned around and noticed I was reading the book flap. She touched my arm and said, "It's a wonderful book, you know. My son wrote it." We both started to laugh and I offered my congratulations. As it turned out, Richard Russo happened to be her favorite author. Joyce and Russo share a publisher, so the young author's editor suggested they send Russo a galley in hopes that he might blurb the book. The fact that Russo had chosen her son's novel to feature among the enormous pile of requests he regularly receives was a stunning turn. Other members of Joyce's family were in attendance and once again, like my friend Pat's signing, the room was filled with the most wonderful spirit of excitement, joy, and awe.

One of the goals of this literary series is to not only to help new authors break out, but to establish a sense of community among writers. When it came time for the question-and-answer portion of the program, a man stood up and acknowledged that it was a difficult time for writers and asked what we, the public, could do to support them. It was such a brilliant question--so many questions in this type of forum are limited to the "inward" pursuit of writing, such as inspiration and process. How often do we, as writers, look outside ourselves and to the larger community of writers to see how we contribute to the culture as a whole?

Both Russo and Joyce stressed the importance of shopping at your local independent bookstore. We all know the economic arguments for shopping locally, but the added advantage to both writers and readers is that local bookstore owners read widely and can make recommendations. By developing a relationship with your local booksellers, they can learn your tastes and suggest new writers you might like.

So often it feels like we writers are at the mercy of a difficult industry, but the events of this past week made me feel empowered. If we--members of the writing and publishing community--decide to come together and support one another by attending readings, purchasing books locally, and taking a chance on lesser-known writers, then just maybe we'll begin to turn the tide in our favor.

In what ways do you support your writing community? Please share your thoughts. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

10 Questions to Answer Before You Give an Author Interview

When I was getting ready to go on my first book tour oh-so-many years ago, I spent a lot of time preparing for interviews and appearances. I had banners and posters made up for book fairs, created a tour schedule, purchased tasteful clothes and good pens for signings, sent out press releases and mailings, carefully selected and edited excerpts for readings and spent hours practicing reading aloud. In short, I felt I had done everything I could to get ready for the tour.

Unfortunately, I failed to do the most important thing of all--which was to understand my book.

I had thought that working on a manuscript intensely for five years made me an expert on the work. Hardly. It wasn't until I had a live interview for a writing website that I realized how underprepared I was for discussing it. The interviewer typed the very simple question--"What is your book about?" and I completely froze. I stared at the blinking cursor for five long minutes, prompting the interviewer to ask if I was all right.

It's not that I didn't know what my book was about, exactly. It was a novel that spanned forty years and followed two boys into adulthood. A whole lot happened in between, but nothing I felt I could pin down in two sentences. Or at least two interesting sentences. Much of what is appealing about literary fiction lies in the telling more than that concept. Or at least that's what I told myself. As I discovered too late, you still need to have a pitch.

Over the course of the next month or so, as the reviews started rolling in, I started getting a little perspective on what the story was about. Through other people's eyes I began to see themes and connections that I didn't realize were there. I know it sounds strange to be so removed from the story, but sometimes you can be too close to a project to see it properly.

I decided that in order to feel more comfortable discussing my book I needed to approach the story like a reader. I thought about some of the questions I was asked during my first interview and began writing down the answers. Basically, I wrote a report on my own book. I also came up with a list of commonly asked questions that I had often heard asked at readings and answered those, too. Even a question as simple as, "What is your favorite book?" can be difficult to recall in front of an audience. By taking a little time to think about my answers beforehand, I felt much more confident with each subsequent appearance. By the end of my book tour I had my pitch down and I was a bit more relaxed when answering questions.

Here are ten commonly asked questions I try to think about before I do an interview or reading:

1. What is your book about?

2. How long did it take you to write it?

3. Where did you get the idea for the book?

4. What is your writing process? How often do you write?

5. Who/what are some of your favorite writers/books?

6. How did you get published?

7. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

8. What are your thoughts on self-publishing/print-on-demand?

9. What advice would you give an aspiring author?

10. What are you working on now?  

Share your experiences. How do you prepare for author interviews?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Care About the Work, Not the Result

One of the best books I've read recently is comedienne Amy Poehler's Yes, Please. Part memoir, part advice book, it's chock-full of wisdom for anyone in a creative field. One of my favorite lines in the book is: CARE ABOUT THE WORK, NOT THE RESULT.

Creativity, Poehler says, is where we find our joy and comfort. We need to put our effort into making the highest quality art that we can. This is THE WORK. It's what sustains us, nurtures our soul. It's what we'd want to do even if we weren't getting paid for it. The work is what is in our control.

THE RESULT is something else entirely. It is how our work is received. The result is agents and publishers and bestseller lists and awards. It's our career--and much of it is outside our control. Poehler describes career as "a bad boyfriend" who "ignores you and doesn't call, who flirts with other people right in front of you. With a bad boyfriend, you're never satisfied." You'll always want more.
The best way to handle a career, like a bad boyfriend, Poehler says, is to ignore it. If you ignore it, it will come to you.

While this approach may work with bad boyfriends, it's easy to wonder if the analogy is truly apt for writing careers. How can we ignore our careers? We all know that in a crowded marketplace we have no hope of getting noticed if we sit idly by. It seems easy for Poehler to say 'ignore it' when she's among the most famous comedians of her generation. She can afford to ignore it, while the rest of us can't.

'Ignore' is perhaps the wrong word here, though I think her sentiment is essentially correct. Poehler references Buddhism many times throughout the book and what I think she's trying to espouse is the Buddhist concept of non-attachment. Yes, we must do all of those things required of us to bring attention to our work, but we need to free ourselves from caring about what happens afterwards. For instance, we should definitely schedule author appearances but try not to be upset if the crowd is small. We do what we can and then recognize the rest is out of our hands. We should promote our work to the best of our ability, but not be disheartened if it doesn't hit the bestseller list.

The hard truth is that fame and fortune in any creative field is a crap shoot. While we'd like to believe that if we work hard enough we can make ourselves successful in the most conventional sense of the word, luck and timing have a great deal to do with it. It's impossible to know what will strike a chord with the public. Just look at what is popular in current culture right now. What we choose to elevate as a culture is funny and unpredictable.

My daughters both participate in a computer programming community on the web. The most popular program? A three-second animated loop of dancing yams. Thousands of people like it. Personally, I don't get it--they look like orange polar bears to me. The point is, it's impossible to predict what is going to take off. I doubt even the kid who created up the program could have dreamed it would receive so much attention. [Actually, if you look at his comments in the sidebar, he's just as surprised as anyone.]

Instead of being discouraged by outcomes, we need to put our energy not into what we can't control but into the work itself--the very thing that sustains us. Do it for yourself and no one else. Take pride in creating your very best work, then let the rest go. The work must be its own reward.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Giving a Generous Critique

The first round with my writing group went well--but boy, was I nervous. I started having flashbacks of the creative writing seminars I attended in college. While most of my fellow students gave thoughtful feedback, we were all young, a little tactless at times, and maybe a little competitive, too. There was always a student or two who seemed to have an ax to grind and the tear-down could be brutal. Let's just say it was good training for future Amazon reviews. Luckily, this time around was a more pleasant experience.

Because our work is so personal, we writers can sometimes be--how should I say?--a little self-absorbed. Today, I want to turn the tables a bit. Instead of thinking about how others critique us, let's pause a moment and think about how we critique others.

If you're not currently in a seminar or writing group, there will come a time when someone will ask you to read their work. Remember--you're not required to read every manuscript someone hands you, but if your schedule allows and you're so inclined, then take a little time to share your expertise.

Here are some things to think about when you give a critique:

Always Ask First. The first question I always ask is, "What do you want from me?" There are so many ways to critique: readability, grammar and typos, structure, missed opportunities, etc. You don't want to spend an hour or two proofreading when all the writer wanted was a general impression. Ask the writer how to approach the piece.

Honor the Work. Keep in mind that it probably took a lot of courage for the writer to show you the piece. Approach the work with respect.

Consider the Writer's Ability. Writers of different abilities need different kinds of feedback. Beginners need to be reassured. Be supportive by focusing more on the overall mood and tone. For more experienced writers, you can delve into the technical aspects. Advanced writers often appreciate a detailed critique. Generally, the more advanced the writer, the more thorough the critique.

Be Complimentary. Every critique needs to begin with a word or two of praise. Sometimes that can seem like an impossible task, but with a little careful thought you can always find something to admire. If you have nothing positive to offer, the writer may dismiss everything else you have to say, even if it's valid.

Allow for Differences of Opinion. This is a tough one for me. By nature, I'm both opinionated and a fixer, which means I often have strong feelings for what I think a story needs and how the writer ought go about fixing it. While my intention is to be helpful, I have to remind myself that the writer has her own vision and style. There's more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. I still share my thoughts on how to fix a problem, but try to offer them more as examples of how it could be done rather than dictating how it should be done.

Opinions can also get in the way when you are asked to critique a piece that falls into a genre that you don't like. Good writing exists in all genres. Keep an open mind and judge the piece on its own terms. For example, don't judge a YA dystopian story by the same standards you'd apply to a literary satire. They are entirely different beasts with their own rules.

Provide Useful Criticism. Even if you love the piece from start to finish, there's always something that can be improved upon. Dig deep. Really give the writer something useful and specific to work with. If you have no suggestions for improvement, the writer might feel that you're not being honest or that you didn't take the time to give it a careful read.

Above All--Be Kind. No story is worth ruining a relationship over. It's always better to be kind than to be clever, supportive rather than competitive. A good, thoughtful critique is an act of generosity.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Preserving Your Literary Legacy

We hardly had but a minute to absorb the earth-shattering publishing news that Harper Lee's second novel will be published this summer, before social media was buzzing with questions : How could the manuscript go missing for 50 years? Who discovered it? Why now? And more importantly: Did the 88-year-old Ms. Lee, who is reportedly deaf and nearly blind provide adequate consent to having her work published?

Many of these questions have come from Ms. Lee's fans, whose interest in preserving her legacy has trumped their curiosity about reading this long-lost manuscript. I suspect Ms. Lee's representatives will have a lot of questions to answer before the public is satisfied that the beloved writer is not being fleeced. We should all be so lucky to have such loyal fans.

Whether or not Ms. Lee's manuscript is being handled properly, this situation should sound a warning bell to all of us who write. We need to think about the work we've produced--both published and unpublished--and how we want it handled when we are no longer around or unable to make decisions on our own.

Protecting Your Legacy

As we age, acquire property, and start a family, we are often encouraged to create a will and sign advanced care directives. The reason behind estate planning is to protect your assets for your heirs, but even more importantly, to assist your heirs in decision making. You may not realize it, but your creative works--even unfinished ones--are potential assets. Therefore, it's important to include them in your estate planning. Often, our literary heirs are people who don't know the first thing about the publishing business. It only makes sense to put a plan in place that helps them in the decision-making process. Literary estate planning is about more than just posthumous sales, it's about protecting your reputation.

Think about the unpublished works kicking around in your drawer right now. Do you have the first draft of a short story? Maybe it looks complete to the casual observer, but it's not up to your standards of quality and you plan on revising it. Would you want your heirs to publish it?  Maybe you have an editor you trust, who knows your style and vision. Would you trust them enough to revise it for publication? Or maybe the thought of anyone reading your unfinished story is horrifying and you'd rather have all copies of it destroyed.

What about a half-written novel? Would you be comfortable with having it published as-is, or would you want someone to finish it for you? Maybe you wouldn't want it published as a novel, but wouldn't mind if finished chapters were published as short stories.

What about published works? Would you want your work turned into a movie or a TV series? A stage production? A video game? What about merchandizing? Would you authorize someone to write a sequel on your behalf?

Would you want your characters made into action figures?

Right now, while you're of sound mind and body, think of your most trusted advisors. Who cares more about the quality of your work than the money it produces? At least one of these advisors should be named among those who will have decision-making power over your estate, preferably as your literary executor.

Put It In Writing

Once you have given a little thought to your literary legacy, you need to find good counsel. If you have many manuscripts and books, it might make sense to hire an attorney that is familiar with publishing law. If you're like me and your oeuvre is less extensive, you can simply add a rider to your will detailing how you would like your works handled.

Discuss Your Intentions

Like any good estate plan, it's better to discuss your intentions openly with your spouse, dependents, executor, agent, etc. than to rely just on the will. Be honest and clear about how you want your works handled and what kinds of decisions would align with your values.

Organize Your Papers

Did you know that your rough drafts, notes, and correspondence might be valuable some day? Special collections and universities often purchase and archive these papers for research purposes. Or maybe you'll have plans to donate your papers to a particular organization. Gather all your materials relating to a particular project and store each project's papers in a well-labeled sturdy banker's box in a cool, dry, secure place. Be sure to let your loved ones know where they can find it.

Have you thought about your literary legacy? What steps have you taken to protect it?

Monday, January 26, 2015

How to Start a Writing Group

Aside from the creative writing workshops I took in college, I've generally avoided writing groups. My reasons are varied and complicated, but mostly it's because I don't like to share my work with anyone until the rough draft is finished. I find that giving it away too early takes some of the steam out of it for me. I also like to trust my gut without any interference until that first draft is completed.

This past summer, however, taught me that maybe working in a vacuum isn't the best way and that it's time for a fresh approach. When I heard a friend talking about starting up a writing group, I immediately asked if I could join.

Our writing group met for the first time recently and it was great. I think we all felt a little apprehensive at first, maybe a little nervous, even. We started our first meeting by introducing ourselves, giving a brief history of our writing work, and why we wanted to be part of the group.  Then we each read aloud a page or two of a piece we were working on and gave each other positive feedback only for this first time around. We spent the rest of our time lay down the ground rules for how we were going to conduct our meetings. By the time we left I think we were all feeling pretty confident that this was going to be a good experience.

Are you thinking about starting a writing group? If so, the most important step is establishing ground rules before anything else happens. Here are some things to consider:

Keep Your Group Small. Our group is made up of six people and I think this just might be an ideal number.

Pick a Neutral Location. We chose a casual restaurant in a central location. This took the hosting pressure off all of us.

Try to Choose Members with Similar Abilities. After we read our pieces aloud, we all admitted to breathing a sigh of relief that everyone in our group was beyond the "advanced beginner" stage. If your group is made up of writers with vastly different abilities, you're going to find that the writers with more experience will be bored, while the beginners might lose confidence.

Create a Schedule. Our group has chosen to meet once a month. We've divided the group into two sections: Group A and Group B. Group A will turn in work no later than a week before our next meeting in February; Group B will submit work in March, and so forth. Our meetings will be two hours long. The first half hour or so will be for eating, settling in, chatting. We will then devote 30 minutes to discussion of each piece.

Place Word Limits. For now, we have limited each submission to 3,000-5,000 words, to make the process manageable for the readers. This rule will most likely need to be revisited as we go along.

Have a Facilitator. Members of the group that is not submitting work are each assigned a piece to facilitate. For example, since Group A is turning in writing in February, members from Group B have to take turns leading the discussion for one of the pieces. There are many ways to handle group discussion, but the bottom line is that it's important to assign one person to steer the group if they get off topic, to spark discussion if nothing is being said, and to mediate any disagreements that may arise.

What's your problem with the Oxford comma?

Decide on Rules for Providing/Receiving Feedback. This is the most important ground rule of all. Sharing one's writing is an extremely personal, humbling experience. Readers need to be sensitive and tactful. Every discussion should begin with the strengths of the piece. Sometimes it will be hard for readers to find things they like, but it's a great exercise to look for the positive--there will ALWAYS be something you can praise if you look close enough. Criticism should be honest, specific, and delivered with fairness and tact. It should always be framed with the intention of helping the writer. Saying something like, "I thought it was boring" is unhelpful. It's better to say, "The pace was too slow" or "It took to long for the story to get going". This is information the writer can use.

When it comes to receiving criticism, it's often a good idea for the writer not to speak at all during the discussion period unless a reader needs something clarified. This is a very difficult, worthwhile exercise. It forces the writer to really listen, instead of spending his time defending his writing. It's also excellent practice for reading future reviews, when you are forced to face criticism about your work but cannot respond to it. At the end of the discussion period, the writer may be given five minutes to ask questions.  

Be Flexible. Periodically check with writing group members that the ground rules are working. You may find that as time passes, you will need to make adjustments.

Do you have a writing group? What are your tips for running a successful group?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

An Interview With Poet Gary Rainford

I recently had the pleasure of hearing poet Gary Rainford read from his new collection of poems, Salty Liquor at an event called The Joy of the Pen, a literary awards reception sponsored by the Topsham Library.

Two things that are immediately striking about Gary. The first is that a love of language oozes out of his pores. The second is that he is eager to share that love with his audience. The minute he stepped out from behind the podium to read, he captivated everyone in the room. He is a family man, an educator, a resident of Swan's Island, and a unique talent. His winter tour schedule is as follows:

  • January 22 at Topsham Public Library, 6 PM, reading/book signing 
  • February 15 at Curtis Memorial Library, Brunswick, 1PM where he is a guest poet at Longfellow Days, a month long celebration of poetry  
  • March 19 at Monroe Community College, Rochester, NY, 1 PM, reading/book signing.
If you have the opportunity to attend one of Gary's readings, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, he was kind enough to share his thoughts about poetry, the creative process, and the writing life.

Congratulations on your new book of poetry, Salty Liquorand on receiving an Honorable Mention at the Joy of the Pen Literary Awards. I, like the rest of the audience, were captivated not just by your poetry but by your performance as well. You seem to have a genuine love of language that you're eager to share. 

Thank you. I do love language. Words have texture and configuration. A poem has texture and configuration, like a spectacular sunrise or sunset--it has that feel. Tom Waits has a song called, “That Feel.” He's talking about music, of course, songs, but that feel is everywhere. We know that feel when a movie scene twists our insides. We know that feel when we bite into the perfect combination of chocolate and salt. We know that feel when January's wolf moon cracks open the cloudy sky, like it did this morning at 4 AM when I got up to light the wood-stove and work. And I know that feelwhen I find it in a poem. I love that moment. And when we love, sharing spectacular moments makes perfect sense. How often do we call out for somebody to look outside the kitchen window with us to see a red tailed hawk or eagle soaring across the field or sky? Or some other occurrence that strikes us as original or spectacular? Similarly, I love sharing and performing my poems.  

Writers tend to be drawn to one literary form more than any other--why poetry? 

Poetry is an opportunity to tell stories, shape language, and it's a vocation. Although I've been writing poems since I was 12ish, two events during graduate school determined my way: 1. In 1991 I read a biography, Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California. I had never heard of Jeffers before but I was hooked on his poetry instantly and his way of life, living quietly and apart with his family on the rugged Carmel coast, honoring hard work while making poems. 2. A year later I was trolling poetry titles at Tower books and You Get So Alone At Times That It Just Makes Sense by Charles Bukowski hit me between my eyes like a sledgehammer. I devoured that book of poems and everything else he wrote. Bukowski and Jeffers taught me about life as poetry, and since my mid-twenties I've been carving out my own way as a poet. 

It’s been said that Maine has more writers per capita than any other state. As someone who grew up elsewhere, what do you think it is about Maine that lends itself to the vocation of writing? 

“We need the possibility of escape,” says Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire, “as surely as we need hope.” Maine is the perfect escape, especially for writers. Sublime ocean vistas. Mountains to the west. Farmland up north, if you have carrots and cabbage in your heart. Wild spaces still exist in Maine. Wild spaces are powerful and un-center creative people; they makes us recognize an important fact: we are not the center of the universe, or our community, or our household. Wild spaces remind us that we are all in this soupy chowder together. Plus, compared to other states I've lived, New York, California, and Oregon, Maine is affordable. The short story writer and novelist Doris Betts says, “Writing is a hard way to make a living, but a good way to make a life,” and I wholly agree. Life is expensive today, but a quality life, a writing life, is still possible, here, in Maine, The Way Life Should Be, if you're clever and independent.

Tell us about your writing life. Do you have a special writing space? What is your process?

My process doesn't change much, but my writing place is seasonal. Which means this time of year, especially when it's -9 degrees like this morning, I write as close to the woodstove in the kitchen as possible. The other six months I work upstairs in my office. Writing is a job. I wake up at 4AM, Monday-Friday, stoke the woodstove, microwave the cup of coffee I brewed the night before, set my laptop on the cutting board on top of the washing machine, and tap keys. I generally work on two to five poems at once, minimizing and maximizing documents as I need them. I take Saturday and Sunday off, unless I miss a morning due to extenuating circumstances, like my daughter recently who had pink eye and couldn't sleep and wanted to be with Daddy when he got up. I write for two / two and a half hours and wrestle as much inspiration out of this time as possible. Then my family begins to stir, and it's time for other things. Throughout the day I use an app on my phone or scraps of paper to keep notes about the lines or stanzas I'm working out in my head. Whatever it takes, whatever it takes . . .

Your poem "Nautica Pub" is about a waitress who reminds you of your grandmother, whom you describe as "a marked down, irregular sales event at Reny’s [a discount retail store] and a wrinkled chain smoker." The audience loved that line--it was a knockout. Another poem, "Smolder" is about your brother's substance abuse. Do you find it easy to write honestly about family, or do you approach the topic with some hesitation?

Every poem I write tries to capture what I believe is honest and real. My intent is never hurtful. Like I said before, poems have sunrise or sunset moments, moments of awe and/or discovery. My job is to flesh out that awareness, and the tools I use are the details of my life. My oldest brother has been sick with drugs for nearly 40 years, my mother is getting old and foggy, my body is not as strong as it used to be, and that is just the way it is. My observations are not unkind, I don't think, just literal. I learn a lot about myself by reflection. Reflection reminds me to act kindly, the way I want to be treated. My poems are reflections too, screen-shots of everyday life—it all contributes to who we are, where we are heading. I wrote hundreds and hundreds of poems before I landed on what I call a narrative-lyric style. Before this my work had no bones, breath, or conscience. In 1997 I was in my late 20s and published my first poem, “English Class For Stupid Kids,” a piece about me during high school. That poem discovered a public voice, one that looked outwardly as well as inwardly for muse, one that recognized the possible presence of readers. You have to write for yourself and you have to write for readers. Kurt Vonnegut said plot keeps readers reading, and as a technician of poetry, I believe plot keeps readers moving from one line to another to the next stanza. Readers connect with real people and real places, so I write without any hesitation about my personal experiences. If my grandmother were still alive, she'd light a cigarette and laugh like a rusty hinge at my description of her.   

I've never thought about plot applying to poetry.

I transferred to Stony Brook University as a junior, a declared computer science major, but not for long. One of my first classes was History of the English Language. My peers languished over our assigned texts, but I couldn't get enough. Beowulf, an 8th century epic poem, was one of our first readings—plot driven. Dante's 14th century epic poem, Inferno—plot driven. Evangeline, A Tale of Acadia, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow--plot driven. T. S. Eliot's, Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, published in 1915—plot driven. And just a few years ago contemporary poet Stephen Dobyns published, Winter's Journey. These are not epic poems in structure, like the others, but they are all plot driven: protagonist, narrator, conflict, action, setting, and language-economy compel these compact poems. I think plot in poetry is an example of everything old is new again. I was never formally taught about plot in poems, either, but our lives are all plot driven, every second, which is likely why I love working with this ancient and primitive structure.

Humor seems to be an important component to your work. Is it something you strive for or is it just a natural extension of your voice? 

This is all I need is one of the last scenes in the 1979 movie, The Jerk. Steve Martin's character, Navin Johnson, ascends from rags to riches, but by the end he's descending back to rags. Drunk and devastated he leaves his wife and mansion yelling, “I don't need you. I don't need anything.” As he shuffles away, pants around his ankles, Navin grabs an ashtray and says, “This is all I need.” Then he grabs a paddle-board, “This is all I need.” Then a TV remote control, matches, a lamp, a chair, and a magazine before the scene fades out, Navin slurring, “This is all I need.” The drama is tragic, but it's a hilarious scene. When I helped my mother relocate from upstate, NY, to Florida, recently, a similar tragicomedy played out. She was very stressed and agitated, not 100% ready move into a condo, but the house was being sold in less than three days.  As we headed out the door, so I could drive her to Logan Airport in Massachusetts, she stacked up miscellaneous items in her arms, including two full honey bear bottles, box of prunes, empty picture frame, backscratcher, teabags, mini open shampoo bottle, dog toy, and in my head I heard her saying, “This is all I need.” If you didn't cry, you had to laugh. Humor, for me, is medicine. I don't intentionally build humor into my poems, but if it arrives wearing a Bozo nose and white grease paint, I'm helpless. Who doesn't love to laugh? “The most wasted of all days,” says E. E. Cummings, “is one without laughter.” I cannot agree more.

In addition to being a poet, you also teach writing. How does teaching inform your work?

Every second I clock with students is a second I clock working on my own poetry. Teaching--literature, composition, and creative writing--is practice, and to prove I'm not a hypocrite, just ask my seven year old daughter how often I tell her, Practice makes progress. Teaching is additional time sharpening my ability as a thinker, reader, proofreader, editor, observer, decision maker, leader, backseat driver, skills I bring to every line I compose, every stanza. Talking to his students in The Triggering Town, a collection of essays, Richard Hugo says, “Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me.” And an unintentional consequence of teaching is learning about yourself, which is key for developing your own original voice and writing style. As a teacher, I give myself to others. As a writer, I give myself to others. Writing and teaching are joined by similar fates, the pursuit, insight, and medicinal effects of knowledge.   

 Tell us about your newest poetry collection Salty LiquorWhere does the title come from?

Salty Liquor is about fatherhood, family, hardship, and the power of place. Salty Liquor is not a euphemism for frozen margaritas, sea-salt rimming your glass, like some people first think.  The title is the closing line from the poem, “Low Tide,” which refers to the liquid inside a mussel shell, that last briny taste of delight, that complicated reward. Poems contain salty liquor too. It's the salty juices language leaves behind after we read poetry, a residue of words. Yesterday, at Town Office, a neighbor said she was thinking all morning about a line I wrote, “The path is lit with honey,” from the poem, “Clover.” She said she feels more like she's stuck in honey than lit by it and needs to make some changes in her life. That's the salty liquor talking.

Here's a poem from Salty Liquor--perfect for this time of year.


It’s early. A gaunt morning moon 
is a frozen hole 
in the gray, still sky. 

The Captain Henry Lee, our ferry, 
won’t be crossing today. 

The island, cut off, locked down, 
is without electricity. Or telephone. 

Giant and collapsed ice heaves 
like megaliths 
clutter Mackerel Cove. 

The roads are frozen. Snowdrifts 
are frozen. Deep, artesian well 
casings are frozen. Domestic hot water 
pipes are frozen. Septic lines, frozen. 
Gas lines, frozen solid, too, 
and my pickup truck wouldn’t start 
last Friday. 

Buddy at the dump described oil 
in his Cherokee as slushy. 

January doesn’t thaw 
until the very first purple crocus bulb 
blooms in May.
(Rainford, Gary. Salty Liquor. Unity, Maine: North Country Pres, 2014. Print.)