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Interview With Poet Laurel Snyder

Interesting (maybe only to me) story: This interview with Laurel Snyder came about after Laurel responded to one of my "tweets" on Twitter. (By the way, you can follow me there at http://twitter.com/robertleebrewer.) Yes, social networking really can benefit all writers--even (or maybe especially) poets.

In 2007, No Tell Books published Laurel Snyder's collection, The Myth of the Simple Machines. No stranger to publishing, Laurel has published several books with her recent titles for children, including Inside the Slidy Diner (Tricycle Press).

Here's one of my favorite poems from The Myth of the Simple Machines:

The Truth

Listen. My grandmother
died and we burned her

up in a fire but when we
went to dump her ashes
in water--because water
is cool and makes us feel

better--she refused to be
put under. She floated

until my uncle held her down.
He forced her--to swallow the
end and the water to swallow
her body. Then we drove

away quick. Didn't stare
too long at the spot. She was

horrible, my grandmother,
and that's the truth, though
my uncle pretended. "She
was a good old girl, just

the dog done lost her bite."
But no. "But no she

never did," we told him.
If only she had. The witch.
There she was--rising, biting
at us from the very end.

Trying to claw her way to
beyond her welcome, which

died about the time she
began. It's a terrible thing--
hatred. Of family, the dead,
water that isn't heavy enough

to pull things down and keep them.
"I love you," I said to her as she died.

"Yes, but you love lots of people,"
she growled back faintly.
"Not enough," I should've told
her then, "nowhere near."

*****

What are you currently up to?

Tonight? I'm playing a desperate game of catch-up with several little deadlines, eating half a roast beef sandwich, listening for the kids to wake up screaming (which they do EVERY night), and then, at last, going to bed with a copy of Searching for Mercy Street, which is awesome, and totally messing with my head.

You write poetry and children's books. So when you start writing, how do you know you're working on a poem or a children's book?

Hmm. In the beginning, I didn't. Back when I started writing for kids, the genres blended together a lot. Prose poems would become picture books, and stories would turn into poems. Most of them messy and unacceptable to everyone. Nowadays, I have a clearer sense for what I can actually sell as a book for kids. And that tends to limit some of what I'm doing (though I try not to let it). But there's still some back and forth, and lines I snip from my novels often make their way into my poems.

Do you consider yourself a children's book writer who writes poetry, or a poet who writes children's books?

This is a hard question for me right now. Inside myself, I'm a poet. I always have been, pretty much. I think in lines, in forms, and with the kind of attraction to language that we call poetry. But as time goes by, and I do more and more books that aren't poetry, it only makes sense that others will see the poetry as secondary. I haven't stopped writing poems, but a book of poems is a lot harder to sell than anything else in the world. I'm not even sending out my current manuscript.

There's a storytelling element to your poems. Did you grow up around stories?

I think everyone grows up around stories. But I absolutely did, and more than that, I grew up around fables. I'm very interested in mythology, allegory, fairy tale. The idea of narrative as inherently more. I spent a lot of college reading Eastern European poetry, and I think that reinforced my sense of fable as poetry.

How do you handle the submission process?

I don't do a very good job of it lately. I just submitted a poem to an anthology this month, because it was something that I desperately wanted to be part of. But I no longer take a terribly organized aproach to submissions. Partly because my current manuscript is a lot of tiny poems, and they don't work well as stand-alones. So I'm kind of building up the steam to send the book out as a whole. In general though, I try really hard not to submit to magazines I don't actually read. Which means, increasingly, that I submit to online magazines.

What do you feel makes a great poem?

I think a really great poem has two things--a veneer of accesibility (whether narrative structure, playful language, an emotional hook, a huge image, whatever). Something a reader can grab onto. Something that functions as an entry point. And then the requirement for a second/ third/fourth/ fifth read. I'm not interested in work that's only pleasurable or evocative or lyrical. But I also have very little time for work that doesn't grab me.

Who have you been reading recently?

I've been going back to Sexton and Plath, neither of whom (I'm embarassed to say) I've ever read seriously . I loved them in high school, and sort of dismissed them after, BECAUSE I'd loved them in high school. Isn't that silly? As a woman and mother and someone interested in myth and storytelling, this seems insane.

If you could pass on only one piece of advice to fellow poets, what would it be?

Lighten up. The things that matter--like the poems themselves, and the community you build around yourself to support this crazy thing you do--aren't going anywhere just because you don't win a contest or get into a certain magazine or a certain university job. I think the academic world we've pushed poetry into is problematic, and the rewards are easily quantifiable, and that brings a heavyness to the business of writing. Which limits what we write about and how we write. Which is sad. When I had my kids, and stopped teaching adjunct, I kind of gave up on all of that, and I've been happier ever since. Though I do feel like a goof at AWP, with no affiliation to claim. But what can I do--it's a good party!

*****

You can learn more about Laurel Snyder at http://laurelsnyder.com/.

Also, you can check out her publisher, No Tell Books, at http://www.notellbooks.org/.

And, while researching Laurel, I found this interview by my co-worker/boss, Alice Pope at her CWIM blog: http://cwim.blogspot.com/2009/01/blogger-of-week-laurel-snyder.html

*****

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