Wednesday, September 19, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Paige Ackerson-Kiely

Paige Ackerson-Kiely's first collection, In No One's Land, was the winner of the 2006 Sawtooth Poetry Prize judged by DA Powell and published by Ahsahta Press. She was also the 2006 winner of Poets & Writers Writer's Exchange contest. Her work has appeared in journals like Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Bellingham Review and other places. She lives in Vermont with her family and works at a wine store. Also she is 31. And a fair swimmer.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I suppose the physical book, as opposed to the apparition of the book (i.e. “I am working on a book”) finally put to rest the fear that what I was actually doing with all of the alone time I deemed so necessary was not making fertilizer bombs or talking directly to the military/industrial complex in hushed tones, but in fact creating a rather benign artifact for which I could be implicated, but not taken to trial.

I am saying the book has afforded me some level of support. It has annihilated a droll but direct line of questioning: Where are you going? What is more important than the dishes? Why are you still working retail? Does solipsism hurt? In truth, I ask these questions too. But the book, its slim heft, has allayed concern that I am impossible, and therefor it might, if I am good and lucky, allow me to create a sibling, a whole family of books. My life is different only in that I can feel a very dubious level of legitimacy in this pursuit. It feels like the vague national anthem kind of freedom, whereby no one knows all the words but can hum the tune and feel a little swell in the chest and let that be enough—for now, and I don’t for one minute take that for granted.

But mostly my life is the same.

2 - How long have you lived in Vermont, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I moved to Vermont on September 10, 2001. I moved here from Albuquerque, a city I love save for the climate. I could not imagine a life in Albuquerque because every day I felt as though I was emerging from a dank basement into blinding light, and it took 7 hours to readjust. And I can’t keep a hold on sunglasses. I pined for the northern climes of my youth and heritage, and after taking the findyourspot.com quiz, we settled on Vermont.

I am not sure that the actual geography of Vermont finds its way into the writing, but I am always locating an imagined interior landscape, because mostly what I feel anywhere I go is an admixture of exile and wanderlust and I must bask somewhere. I must rest my head on some pillow. I simply have to cook a little meal for myself, even if I plan to leave at daybreak. Perhaps this restlessness impacts the work.

Of course I think that race and gender make an impact on my work insofar as I am a Caucasian female with all of the feints and machinations that inform my survival. I am an atheist only in that I love the questions with unabated passion, ceaselessly, over and over—this will change, maybe tomorrow even. I am sorry this interview sucks a little bit as a result.

3 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I tend to work manically. In No One’s Land was written on the quick—some poems hearken to days of yore, but for the most part it was created over several months. Lately my tendency is to ruminate for a few months, then tackle, though never strategically, but hopefully with enough hunger to pull the bread from the project. I wait until I can only grasp. I wait until I can factionalize and make myself an enemy and must produce a little somethingsomething to win myself back over. Because really no one else cares. I am not taking a stance of self-pity here—I think it is crucial for me to remember this. Honestly I don’t think I have been writing long enough to offer an answer that is instructive, or honestly even honest. I’ve only been writing in earnest for about 5 years.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

I don’t have much experience with reading. I am very shy--though I wouldn’t deem this proclivity as counter to the process, necessarily. I certainly don’t imagine an audience and their various mechanisms of swoon or disdain when I embark on a piece, nor do I plot the least enticing public read I could give. So it is not anathema, nor is it particularly helpful to consider the performance or audio offering of the material.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Most of my concerns have a practical nature. I suppose I am trying to talk about the subjugation of desire and how this affects economics, self-worth, relations between people, consumerism, reliance on a plan and worship. I often explore desire as a personal choice rather than manifest destiny. I am also interested in the differentiation between desire and passion; I think they have become confused! Blake’s quote “those who control their passions do so because their passions are weak enough to be controlled” has been terribly misappropriated (by me as well) as have the writings of Epicurus. Whether this is ‘behind my writing’, or next to it, or running far far away I can’t really say.

I think everything should be questioned, currently and historically. That is a total cop-out, but true.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I have never really used an outside editor, mostly because the people I know who would be of help to me are mired in their own projects, and I wouldn’t want to take ONE SECOND of time away from what they might produce—I look so forward to what they are up to! This is also a function of shyness, and maybe even vanity. I have prized the I-made-it-11-months-in-the-Arctic-with-limited-provisions-and-ended-up-eating-my-shoelaces story for too long. It will be my downfall, but I swear I could make us a great warming hut if we found ourselves stranded and exposed on a floe.

I don’t trust myself implicitly, but I like to be alone with the work. That said, you-know-who-you-are should expect a large attachment in the future.

7 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

Oh, probably when they were in season. The apple trees are bearing in VT right now. I view pears as an adequate vehicle for Crème Fraiche, but am not amped about their singular existence.

8 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Just ignore it and it’ll go away.

9 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

When I am writing prose (which is completely untested outside of myself) I often feel like I should be writing a poem. When I am writing poems I long to write prose. The tension this produces is not unbearable, but not particularly appealing. Neither genre has become a boyfriend that puts his class ring on a chain to hang around my neck indicating that I belong to any one thing at all. Nothing forbids me from visiting a paragraph late at night or a fragment upon rising. I look for signs, and when I don’t see them I proceed, in my perfunctory way, toward that which is most demanding. If it was easy I would find something else to do.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

The typical day for me begins with coffee and urging my children off to school. It would seem very honk-shoo to most, but the rituals of morning are paramount in setting the stage for a productive day. If my children are surly, which they often are in the wee hours, it can destroy me. I am mixed-up about my feelings toward public education. I would love to homeschool my kids solely, but fear I would resent my lot. I need a few hours of retreat every day-
not to write but to live with any level of optimism which prevents the brain from destroying itself.

Three days per week I go to a studio space and ‘write.’ Someone with keen insight gifted me a space last year, and it made all the difference as my current digs involve 3 other people, a large dog and only 720 sq.ft. I spend about 15 hours per week at my studio. I don’t have the luxury of squandering that time—but I give terms like ‘productivity’ a pretty big range—so sometimes I am editing, reading, outlining, starring out the window—and sometimes I am creating. When I leave the studio I effectively leave the work so I am not burdening anyone else with my resentment or distraction when they usurp my time, which of course they are entitled to do. The studio space has improved my filial relations ten-fold, and although I long to write whenever I feel like it, the knowledge that time away is on the horizon is enough to sustain me and keep me invested in my family/community etc.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

What is lacking in inspiration?

What is lacking in inspiration?

The other day a good friend told me that I am more generous and kind when I have a project going.

Of course I argued with him for an hour and then asked him to leave the house.

Truth is, he is correct. I don’t know if I am less generous as a result of creative impediment, or if I use some drama and surliness as a way to create inspiration when I am stuck. I am pretty ordinary in that I like to solve finite problems. I like to stack wood and see the neat piles and say, wow, Paige, you stacked a lot of wood! Perhaps I also like to create a little friction in my world, nearly wound, then bandage. A lot of the best conversations come out of division. I guess I am examining my use of lousy behavior, followed by back-pedaling and potential redemption as a source of inspiration. If what I suspect is the case, it is no way to live, rob!

Reading is also where I turn when I am stuck. Loud music, dancing with my kids, drinking wine, traveling when fiscal resources abide, taking walks—they help too.

12 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Oh I would say decoding platitudes and creating ambient social landscapes where honest dialogue can ensue is a form of art that I often engage with on a small but regular basis. I’m talking meetings or dinner parties with intention.

I am lucky to live in a natural of environment of exquisite beauty and variety. There is no way to deny this influence, even if only to say it makes me feel like things will be OK when I walk out my door and into the woods. As for other ‘forms’ of course I feel indebted to their existence. I couldn’t live fully without regular exposure to music and art and the questions of science, I don’t know that I can get any more specific than that except to say that I often view poem making as akin to running your hand over every known object on this earth and then putting your hand in your mouth and describing what it tastes like. A world without music would taste pretty raunch.

13 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I am endlessly obsessed with Beckett’s How It Is. I read sections of it every day. I am thinking of memorizing it all as a birthday present to myself. Otherwise, I am not a very monogamous reader. I would say newness is of the highest import. Sure, I go on jags with certain authors, but mostly I am looking for something that I’ve never seen or felt before. Also, I love to read what friends recommend, I cherish that intimacy above most avenues we are allowed intimacy! That said, I am comforted by Arctic Exploration literature. It is my beach-read. Nothing like softening frozen boots with your mouth so your frost-bitten feet can trudge another mile toward the pole to really relax a gal. I think that vastness is what is important to me right now, the ocean of publication and all those unmoored authors you can drift toward and tie to for a night and lie down in the keel together unashamed.

14 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Insofar as every choice constitutes a loss I would like to do everything that I didn’t do as a result of choosing something. Also I would like to be very calm and content—so calm that wild animals would approach me in the woods and let me pet them. And finish some projects. And travel to Greenland.

15 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

If I were to attempt another occupation I might be a Lichenologist. To move among Lichen and decipher if their relationship is mutualistic or parasitic. It would be comforting to have only 2 choices in a relationship. We love each other, or, you are sucking the life out of me but what are my options? I like those parameters. Even though there exists the idea of commensalism, I would ignore it. I would move to Tromso and travel between trees and rocks on a snowmobile and in the evening drink something that brought fire to my throat in my hand-hewn cabin that smelled both marine and boreal. It is late in the interview, and I have had a couple drinks and am now given to romanticizing myself.

In truth I have hustled all my life. I have few practical applications. I would probably be doing exactly what I am doing regardless of any accidental literary trajectory. Selling something with my personal brand of alacrity, which is rather disgusting, but easy to leave at day’s end. Now that I think about it I almost went to Law School.

16 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I’m not opposed to doing anything else. I believe I would write regardless, and that writing would only serve to embellish the other project/job—provided I did it in moderation.

17 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Last great book: Instructions From the Narwhal by Allison Titus
Last great film: a Korean film called The Bow.

18 - What are you currently working on?

I am working on a novel, a short story collection, a book of poems based on the writings of Epicurus called “The One-Life Theory” and an essay, “My Love is a Dead Arctic Explorer.”

12 or 20 questions archive

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