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Exclusive Interview With Valerie Nieman

Poet Valerie Nieman is a self-professed tomboy, who "fished for everything from native brook trout in the small streams of western New York, where I grew up, to cod and haddock by hand-lining on a head boat out of Eastport, Maine." In fact, Nieman has a bit of an adventurous streak within her that helps inform her writing.

As far as poetry, Nieman's published a couple chapbooks and a full-length collection titled Wake Wake Wake (Press 53) in 2006. But she's also published two novels and a collection of short stories. Plus, Nieman, who now teaches writing at North Carolina A&T State University, spent several years as a reporter for a small daily paper, covering everything from school board meetings to murders. At almost 50 years of age, she received her MFA in 2004 from Queens University of Charlotte.

Nieman recently set aside a little time to share a little about herself and her writing process.

You've mentioned homesteading a West Virginia hill farm and working as a reporter for a small daily before getting your MFA and moving into teaching. Can you elaborate a little on these occupations (and/or others you've had)? Have they helped inspire or shape your writing? If so, how?

I started out with a journalism degree and a job writing for a small West Virginia daily.That was a lucky and/or inspired choice (also one necessitated by money).Journalists, especially the jacks-and-jills-of-all-trades at small newspapers, are well placed to see and hear and do the things that find their way into stories and poems: You get the people, the stories, and especially the details--the mud that clings to the lugs of your Red Wings. A curious and at least moderately adventuresome journalist (and there shouldn’t be any other sort) can get a taste of so many other lives.

I’ve been three miles into the mountain in a longwall coal mining operation when a machine hit a methane pocket and the power went out for 20 minutes as the explosive gas was cleared. (You don’t know the sound a mountain makes until the machines stop, and you hear it groaning against the hydraulic shields.) I’ve watched the playing out of power and avarice in the most immediate way, not by watching CNN but by seeing small-town leaders manipulate and threaten to protect a small financial scheme. I’ve slipped on a man’s blood on the street running to a murder scene, heard the first bird (indigo bunting) sing in the pre-dawn dark on a breeding bird survey, watched a volunteer firefighter learn that his son was a passenger in a Corvette that left pieces of itself for a half a mile down a fence line.

It’s not virtual; it’s not research. It’s experience, like that hill farm--shaping a hayfield into a small farm, breaking the ice on the watering trough for cattle on bitterly cold mornings, feeling angry yet having to admire the beautiful rapacity of blue jays that pecked holes in the Lodi apples just ready for picking. I treasure all of it. Much of it has found its way into my writing, providing plotlines, stories, characters, settings, the quirky details and sensory moments.

You've published fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Is there one you prefer over the others? If so, why? Do you feel working in one form helps develop skills for the others?

I started as a poet, writing in college--even earlier, a poem published in an anthology when I was in sixth grade. But then I can claim a handwritten spy novel in junior high, so both threads were there early. I’ve always toggled back and forth among genres. Each tests a somewhat different part of the writing mind, like cross-training. For me, it feels physically different when I write a poem compared with a short story or a novel. I’ve never tried to write a play or screenplay, but maybe someday. I believe that working in various genres eliminates the dreaded “I can’t think” or writer’s block--because if one thing isn’t flowing, you can work on something else. At least in theory.

While many MFA students seem to go straight from undergrad to grad study, you waited until your late 40s to pursue your MFA. Why did it take so long? Also, what made you decide to go back to school to get it?

I truly enjoyed being a journalist, and didn’t see a problem with a two-track life (three counting the farm). And it gets difficult to go back to school the longer you are away. But over time, I began to wear down--journalism is demanding. It stimulates the imagination, but leaves little time and energy for writing--like wine that provokes desire and takes away the act. The pressures of the daily story push away the time for reflection and revision. I moved into editing, and then into teaching part-time. I completed the low-residency MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, and that opened doors so that I was able to begin teaching full-time. Of course, teaching has its own mental and physical demands.

Who are your favorite poets? Why?

Off the top of my head, Mary Oliver, Gerald Stern, Wendell Berry, Jane Kenyon, both Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Thomas Lux, James Harms, Joseph Bathanti, Susan Meyers, Robert Hayden, Jeff Mann, Irene McKinney, Betsy Sholl. Shakespeare, Hardy, Millay, H.D., Stevens, Rilke, Whitman. Springsteen and Emmy Lou Harris and Paul Simon and Tom Petty. Ancient Egyptian texts and the Book of Isaiah. Scientists’ and explorers’ descriptions. Read Scott Huler’s Defining the Wind for a gorgeous look at the Beaufort Scale and how it illuminated the economic and cultural and scientific life of the 19th century. I love detail, writing about nature--love to learn and to hold new names in my thoughts.

I open a journal and am sometimes just blown away by someone--I just read a long poem by Joseph Hutchison in an issue of Divider that’s been sitting around the bookshelf.

I’ll name a couple of friends and longtime inspirations: Timothy Russell, for seeing the living world inside the steel mill, and Sarah Lindsay, for her intriguing blend of science and geography with delicious fantasy.

When do you know a poem is ready for submission to a journal? How do you choose where to send your poems?

I think I send poems out too soon, or I just tend to tinker too long. I get angry with myself for sending something to a place I admire, getting it back, and seeing where I need revisions that I should have made six months before--but that can go on for a long time.

I send to journals that I admire, of course, ones that are beyond my reach and to ones where I have made a connection in the past, or that are looking for something on a theme where I have been working. You get to know the ones that have a similar aesthetic.

There are also places that I know just won’t be possible for my kind of poems.

What is the most surprising thing someone has said about your poetry? How did you feel about that?

Fred Chappell commented on a kind of moral force--“stout of heart”--in my work, and I had not thought of myself as showing a particular philosophical or moral stance. But I do recognize a kind of stubborn persistence in some of the poems and the people who inhabit them, a refusal to back down or give up.

Do you have any special writing routine?

I am a very bad role model. I do not have a set routine. I tend to write poetry when I need to scratch an itch, something has been triggered and I need to study why. A novel demands more slogging, and I am way too good at avoiding that--I have two in progress and have set aside one so that I can amp myself up to get the other moving ahead.

If you only had one piece of advice to give other poets, what would it be and why?

Keep the old stuff. I’m working now on a series of poems, a book, from pages of notes that I put on the computer years ago--tying together some existing poems with fragments and ideas for new ones. I set it all aside as I worked on a novel. Maybe it was spending weekends at the lake, maybe it was moving to a new house where Canadian geese fly over every morning--but I am working seriously on that book now. It pulls on threads that go back to childhood, to trout fishing and woods walking and reading Jack London and my father’s outdoor magazines. And it has a lot in it of friendships that led me to haiku and Basho, and to recent experiences such as taking up sailing--all coming together now. 

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To read Nieman's bio, go to http://www.press53.com/BioValerieNieman.html.

Here are some of her poems I was able to hunt down online:

* Adam and Eve as Fire and Water, from Blackbird Archive

* Eager, from The Pedestal Magazine

* Elaine the Fair Accuses Lancelot, from the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester

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