The Blog Tour: Some Notes on My Writing Process

Valerie Wetlaufer is incredibly kind and lovely, and she invited me to take part in this blog tour. V. is the editor of Adrienne: a poetry journal of queer women and the author of Mysterious Acts by My People (Sibling Rivalry Press 2014). V. published my work in the first issue of Adrienne, and we met at AWP this year. You can read her post in the blog tour here amidst her National Poetry Writing Month book recommendations.

What are you working on?
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In this moment, a lot of things. For a while recently, I felt between projects. I had been working exclusively on two manuscripts for about a year (with no other side projects), and I was restless. I was looking for something new. I think because I didn’t have anything to write in as a break from Imaginary Kansas (a chapbook, by intent, that’s becoming something else) and Theater of Parts (full-length), I started to feel stuck in these two as well. No new project, stale current projects. First I wanted a new project because these were “done.” Then I realized they weren’t done–I just needed to look at them new. I’ve been wanting to pick back up a chap called [     ]vert, which engages with the early and quirky sexologist Havelock Ellis, but I haven’t had a lot of luck getting back into the mode or mindset.
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Then, I stopped worrying about it so much, stopped actively looking for something to work on, and suddenly, I am rich with collaboration. I’m working on a project with Valerie Wetlaufer, a few projects with Alyse Knorr, and a group project with Alyse Knorr, Brian Fitzpatrick, and Rachael Lussos. I will speak vaguely of the projects to protect their innocence. These poems are such a surprise, and I think the surprise is what makes them feel so good. Creating a new thing takes such a different kind of energy than shaping and working within and writing into. These projects are play. I wrote a poem a few weeks ago as an address between two known cultural characters, and I keep going back and reading it. It came easily, and I want to read it and read it. What a strange delight.
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And now that I do have something else occupying my brain, I am re-entering both of the manuscripts that I had felt stuck with. Imaginary Kansas is made of fragments and small poems, and I’ve been writing some new ones. Theater of Parts has a cast of characters and something like a narrative arc, and I’m starting to understand what needs to be done with that, how to handle (or not handle) the conflict arcs that intertwine. I’ve also written a few new scenes, though they may stay outside of the book, based on this fabulousness [Paloma Faith’s cover of “Never Tear Us Apart”]. Milquetoast really liked Paloma’s work here. Milquetoast was inspired.

How does your writing differ from others of its genre?
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One of my biggest interests in poetry, scholarship, teaching, and life in general is genre. I’ve taught literature and creative writing classes themed on gender and genre, and this is where my work is based. Genre is an organizational system that enacts many other kinds of cultural systems. Genre is therefore a place for blur and for breaking.
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So if I consider how my work is like or not like other work in the same genre, I first have to decide which kind of genre to consider. It used to bother me–this idea of “genre fiction” for example–that we don’t have a different word for genre (poetry, drama, fiction) and syntactical structures (verse, prose) and subgenre or flavor or classification (horror, sci fi, fantasy). Genre gets used for everything. We talk about trans genre and cross-genre and hybrids. And I love this now, because this lack of language for classification (which is rare in our culture) leads to a further blurring. Because if my work is in between genres, and you ask me about its genre, I get to say:
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If genre means queer poetry, then. Or if trans* and genderqueer poetics, then. If genre means pop culture, then. If genre means lyricism or lack, then. If genre means obscenity or rating, then. If genre means poetry of received and manipulated form, then. Of drama and theater, particularly. Then? I want to spend more time with each of these, but I am prepared now to answer this last one. I have been obsessing over characters and narratives and how other people have them or don’t. When poets write theater (and they do), they choose what to take and what to leave. Often, the narrative gets left. It exists in small pieces, or as the organizing conceit, but not in the page-to-page development. I thought I had done this, too, or that I had diluted the narrative. But I need to re-visit if that’s true. I need to re-think the closure of the book.
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I’m much more interested in what genres my work converses with than defining those conversations, but I’m intrigued by this question and I think I will return to it.

Why do you write what you do?
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Everything came together just so, during my M.F.A. after/during a huge period of struggle. I’ve always written from and through my life. For years, I had been writing the stories OF my genderqueer life and body in ways that felt awkward in their forms (and in my body), and often were accused of being too didactic, or having arbitrary line breaks. I started writing obscene humor in very plain language, and I had about six months of success with this, and then a dear friend died and another dear friend died and my partner and I split up and my life felt like that genre of old country songs and I couldn’t see the humor in it yet. Then I started writing barbaric collages and then lyric prose. I was reading for my M.F.A. exam. I was reading Sappho and Kafka and Ovid, Ronaldo Wilson and Jack Spicer and Federico Garcia Lorca and Gertrude Stein. I’d been trying to figure out, thanks to Caridad Svich, how to write my own Impossible Theater. I’d decided that I would, but I didn’t know how I would. I just kept reading, knowing that I’d proposed to write a book this way, but trying not to think about the im/possibility of that.
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Then, one night my dear friend Michael Verschelden and I were going about our lives, watching old movies. We love (deconstructing) Westerns. I was newly in love with Buster Keaton. We read the Netflix description for Keaton’s Go West. Buster’s character was described as a milquetoast. We spent the next few hours on the internet, listening to dictionaries whisper milquetoast in robot voices and finding a wealth of pop culture. I was reading about Caspar Milquetoast and listening with new ears to Tom Waits’ “The Piano Has Been Drinking,” and Michael found a tiny purple cockroach, in an ugly green dress, who had been a lot of different things before. And then I had my first character, a sum of all these things and parts of me that had no home before. I wrote his (our) origin story. It was lyric, it was queer, and it was funny. It, and a disambiguation of milquetoast, acts as the prologue to Theater of Parts.
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I wanted drama to be impossible in a particular way. I wanted bodies to be able to do anything, and then anything else. Nothing and everything is physical. Nothing and everything has consequence. I want to write plays that operate the opposite of how my body does. But the plays are of my body. Genre is a body.

How does your writing process work?
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milquetoast in the crepe myrtle
Grayscale Milquetoast, as the Little Tramp, buys flowers from The Blind Flower Girl

In bursts. With other people. Of character. In my body.

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I’m a fiber artist. I sew plushies and crochet and embroider and needle felt and just about anything else. In 2012, after we graduated, Susan Falcon suggested I sew plushies as gifts for my committee. First, I sewed a Milquetoast for Michael as a going-away present. I made it in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the major subject of Michael’s work. And when I gave it to Michael, this little felt Milquetoast had a life. Milquetoast in Michael’s hands. Milquetoast in a Crepe Myrtle. I wrote three poems that day. And since sewing five more Milquetoasts (which I still have because Introversion), I’ve been planning to sew the rest of the characters in Theater of Parts. I have a sketchbook full of plans for plushies and embroidery hoops. Now that I’m working on the book again, I plan to sew these this summer. As soon as this semester ends, in fact. Sewing is meditative, and so is revision. So each of these characters (and their conflicts) will get some time and intention, and then I will finally figure out who gets to be satisfied, and who remains frustrated. And it will be freaking cool to have them there with me when I write.


Thanks for reading! 
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I’m tagging two dear friends who are great models for me–of continuing to write and send out work even when life gets to be full of other things in the way. Check them out! Their posts will go up next week, and they’ll each tag two more folks.
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Kathy Goodkin lives in Denver, where she co-teaches poetry workshops in a correctional facility and directs writing center and tutoring services at Regis University. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, RHINO, Redivider, and elsewhere.
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Sarah Ann Winn is the 2013-2014 Completion Fellow at George Mason University, where she just won the Virginia Downs Poetry Prize. Currently, she teaches poetry in the public schools through a Sally Merton Fellowship. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Great Weather for Media, Ilanot Review, Two Thirds North, and 111o, among others.

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