1. I loved your book, Lost in Seward County. It seems your poems are inspired by everything from what you see outside your window at your home in Nebraska to a classroom experience you had as a little girl. Do you like writing from memory about memories or about life as you see it taking place?
The first few poems in Lost in Seward County, the ones about being on airplanes, I wrote those while on the planes. “Looking for Ted” was written a couple of days after the event. A friend and I were writing in a coffee shop, using this prompt: Since I saw you last . . .” I began to laugh while writing and to exaggerate what actually happened. A couple of days lag time was about right for that particular poem.
A poem I wrote this morning deals with a memory from age six, when my aunt lied to get me to eat fried squirrel. Anybody who has had a childhood has a trillion entries into poems (If it was an unhappy childhood, probably two trillion.). We keep learning from things that happened long ago. We get a different perspective.
2. It is especially interesting to me when the poet pays special attention to detail--those lines that describe something you’ve noticed, but have not been able to explain. Do lines of your poetry come to you suddenly and all at once, or piece by piece over a long period of time?
I’ve had some poems come “whole cloth,” just tumble out during a free write. That happens, but it’s not good to rely solely on that. I like to write first thing in the morning before “monkey mind” kicks in. I like to write by hand, sitting up in bed, then get to the laptop for a print version. Next comes the fun part: revision and shaping. Later, several months maybe, I’ll revise again. I don’t ever quit thinking of revising. But I have to admit; sometimes you can revise the life out of a poem.
3. Do you have a favorite poem? One that you value more than the others? If so, why?
I like some new poems I’m working on. Feels like the poems have deepened and I’ve turned a corner. Those will be in a new book. Also there are some old favorites that are old friends. I like “Pulling Up Beside My Husband at the Stoplight.” People seem to relate to it and it’s funny. I have memorized it (and a dozen others) so I like to say it at readings if it feels right. By the way, memorizing some poems has been helpful in an unexpected way: if I have trouble committing a line to memory, I’ve found it’s because that line needs to be revised, polished, and streamlined.
4. Writer’s block can be so frustrating. Has there been a time in your life as a poet when you’ve wanted to quit? If so, what kept you going?
Once I went home thinking: if this is what it is to be a poet, it’s not for me. That was after a reading when the poet and audience adjourned to a local bar. It was smoky and boring and I had my kids at home. But eventually I started writing again and decided I could define for myself what being a poet meant. As far as writer’s block, yes, I’ve had that. It helps (a little) to rename it “lying fallow” or “composting” and take some time off guilt-free. Sometimes I think writer’s block happens when the ego wants you to write a certain way and you need instead to write whatever is there in the pipeline.
5. How do you come upon titles for your poems? Are they important or necessary to understand a poem?
I like to read poems where the title does its work. It’s part of the poem; it’s forward motion just like any other line of the poem. Having said that, I’ll also say sometimes I will title the poem whatever the first line is. I am currently studying the poems of Thomas Lux and he sometimes does that for titles.
6. When you write a poem, do you know whether it is good or not? How can emerging authors tell if his or her poem is good? Even further, what are the most important things that you consider when revising your poems?
When revising, I listen to sound and meter. I read the poem aloud. I give it time. I give it to my most trusted readers and ask them to read it aloud to me and talk about what puzzled them in the poem. I am very interested in clarity. I want the poem to convey, to communicate. I am also interested in mystery, but I don’t like a poem that is coy, where the poet knows what he means and I have no clue. Find yourself a couple of good readers and listen to them. They will want the poem to succeed. It’s also good for me to send my work out to journals because then I look at each line as if I were an editor who didn’t know Marge Saiser from Adam. What is she talking about? Sending them out is a good way for me to let go of the poem and then, having let go, I don’t feel married to any line. I can tinker with it and make it the best I possibly can. It is also good for me to give readings. Readings help me know what to revise.
It is hard to know if a poem is good or not, but the thing is to keep writing and keep reading. Suppose the poem IS good. You keep writing. Suppose it’s not good. You keep writing.
7. Do you have any techniques to spark ideas for your poems?
Write regularly even if you don’t feel like it and it’s crappy. Write sometimes in form. Whenever a little image flashes through your mind, it is because it hasn’t fallen through the sieve. Everything else falls through the sieve but you keep remembering some little flash. That means you are supposed to write about that image and see what develops. For instance, I was making notes, jotting down words, and I kept getting an image dealing with my friend’s sadness when her horse died. That was years in the past; I had already written about that. But because it showed up in the sieve, I began to write about it and got a much stronger poem, more complex than the first one on that topic.
Another thing I like is assignments. I like (and hate) deadlines. I sign up for workshops with poets I admire, and mostly nowadays I go to workshops where the description says “I will give you assignments.” Dumb, I know; I could give myself assignments, but it’s different if everybody around the table is bringing in new work in the morning.
8. Does one topic seem to be more successful than others when you write? If so, why?
I guess a lot of my poems deal with love or love that didn’t work out. A lot deal with loss. Some are about goofiness. I don’t know why.
9. Besides writing, what are your passions in life?
They’re poetry and family for me. I don’t have a lot of energy right now, so if it’s not poetry or family, I’ll probably pass it up. My husband loves to travel and, fortunately, he doesn’t mind traveling to these workshops I want to attend around the country.
10. Many people do not aspire to be full-time poets. Is poetry your full-time career or do you just write on the side?
I taught school for years, which is a good way to spend your life, and it took a lot of my creative energy. I would write on Saturday mornings. That worked for a long time. Now I’m retired and I have had to make a schedule, a discipline for myself. I don’t let myself do email until I’ve written. I write early in the morning; then I can fritter. I belong to several critique groups. I belong to several triads, three writers who meet to generate new work on a regular basis. We get together, have some food, and shut up and write. Then we read aloud to one another the pages we’ve written. Four times a year, I am lucky enough to join five other writers in a cabin on the Platte River. We keep to our schedule: breakfast at 9:00, silence until noon, and silence again at 2:00 and so on. We shut up and write. It’s wonderful.
11. Do you have any suggestions you could share with young poets who are serious about improving in their writing and moving forward with their writing careers?
Read. And read aloud. Read the old masters. Also find new poets that appeal to you and read them.
In a file on your desktop, assemble a book, or two, of your own poems. Title page, table of contents, everything, to honor your work. Also on your desktop or in a file folder, you might consider compiling an anthology of favorite poems by others, as if you were an editor of a journal.
Sign up at The Writers’ Almanac (or similar) to receive a poem by email every day. It’s a way to get to know poets whose work you may want to read.
Support poetry. Put your money where your heart is.
Don’t be afraid to write what you seem to have written before. We have central images that we come back to over and over, deepening. Also sometimes make yourself write on a topic you would rather avoid.
12. What is something not many people know about you?
Last year I painted in acrylics and belonged to a co-op art gallery. I studied painting and that was good, but I realized I needed to give the time to writing.
Rachel Talen Interviews Marjorie Saiser
by Rachel Talen
Submitted on March 1st, 2010