I'm always excited to introduce a new poet to the Poetic Asides audience through our poet interviews series and such is the case with Christina Stoddard. Her poetry is great and so are her answers.
Christina Stoddard is the author of HIVE, which won the 2015 Brittingham Prize in Poetry (University of Wisconsin Press). Christina’s poems have appeared in journals such as Crab Orchard Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, storySouth, and DIAGRAM.
Christina grew up in the Pacific Northwest and has worked in both the Czech Republic and Japan teaching English as a foreign language. She currently lives in Nashville, TN where she is the managing editor of the Journal of Risk and Uncertainty. Visit her online at www.christinastoddard.com and on Twitter at @belles_lettres.
Here's one of my favorite poems from Hive:
I Ask My Father If the Green River Killer's Victims Go to Heaven, by Christina Stoddard
Because we are not equally loved on this earth,
because we are all God's children,
in the temple we baptize
lists of the dead. It is why
I step into the font, white dress
dragging like sailcloth.
An Elder takes both wrists
and pushes my body underwater
while saying a stranger's name.
In the water, I'm supposed to go absent.
I baptize you in the name of Lynette Snyder, who is dead
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost
As I go under, I glimpse
the howling green river,
the parade of persuaded girls.
I see you, I tell them. I know
you are here.
I baptize you in the name of Karen Haskill, who is dead
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost
Fifty times I drown.
I baptize you in the name of Melissa Porter, who is dead
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost
I am weightless, light as a nest.
To save the others, the Elder
has to hold me down.
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What are you currently up to?
My first book, Hive, came out in the spring and I spent several months touring and promoting it. The book tour was completely DIY. I loved doing it—it was a dream come true—but it’s been nice to be home for a few weeks. To let myself decompress, I’ve been emptying my DVR: Orphan Black, Game of Thrones, Halt and Catch Fire. I’m also applying to a bunch of conferences and festivals and trying to keep the momentum going. I’d like to put together more readings.
I’m working on a bunch of new poems too. But I’m trying to avoid thinking of it as writing a second book. Who needs that kind of pressure? Just writing without any baggage or expectations.
I noticed you're a managing editor of an economics journal. Does that help or hinder your poetry writing?
It brings me to some curious intersections, that’s for sure. I’m the managing editor of a journal that focuses specifically on risk and decision-making research. Some of the material that crosses my desk is truly fascinating, especially when economics and behavioral psychology collide. We’ve been publishing a lot of research lately on neuroeconomics and social or peer influences on risk taking, and that has led to some poem ideas. Everything cross-pollinates.
Another benefit of sitting on the editor’s side of the desk is that I understand the realities of publishing in many ways that I wouldn’t know as a writer. My journal has an acceptance rate that hovers around 10%. That’s actually a higher rate than many literary magazines, but even so, I find myself having to turn down good work all the time. Every single week we say no to submissions that are well done and interesting, but either we’ve got something similar already or it isn’t a good fit for what we publish. That’s helpful to bear in mind when rejection slips for my own work roll in.
Do you have a writing routine?
The short answer is no, and I never have. I used to feel bad about this. I have friends who maintain a strict regimen where they get up every morning before going to work and sit at the keyboard for an hour no matter what. I’ve tried doing that kind of thing, and I absolutely hate it.
I’ve always tended to write in fits and starts. My creative energy is cyclical and there are patterns to it. There are certain times of the year when I’m very productive with new poems and revisions, and other times when it’s like pulling my hair out. When I get going, though, I’ll basically go on a bender and write for days or weeks until that wave of energy runs out. Then I put the poems in a drawer for a while until I’ve forgotten what they say. Revising a poem that’s completely cold helps me be objective about what’s working and what isn’t.
I’ve learned to go with the flow instead of fighting it or shaming myself with should-haves. Writing isn’t supposed to be torture.
How did you go about putting together your collection?
I’m not sure the process was at all typical. Most of the poems in Hive are written in the voice of a teenage girl who’s coping with a lot of violence, which in turn leads her to push against the confines of who her family wants her to be and the existence of the God she’s been raised to believe in. But that girl is a persona I discovered halfway into writing the book, not something I was consciously trying to create when I started.
The truth is that I had actually written two other poetry manuscripts before Hive. I tried sending those manuscripts out to book contests and never got anywhere, so in 2011 I sat down to interrogate and overhaul them after getting some good advice from a mentor. As I did that, I realized there were a few recurring themes and decided to concentrate on those. This adolescent girl kept showing up, too, a voice who would eventually become the speaker in Hive. It’s amazing what you can learn about your writerly obsessions by reading hundreds of pages of your own work in one sitting.
So when I put together the collection, I did it by choosing poems from my entire body of work over the past ten years. In a way, you could say that the earliest versions of Hive were curated rather than written, but it didn’t stay that way for long. Although I cannibalized my other manuscripts to get material for Hive, as things evolved and I figured out what Hive wanted to be, I ended up throwing out most of those older poems and writing new ones. Only five of the 40 poems in Hive’s table of contents were written prior to 2011, and all of them have been reworked considerably.
If you’re wondering what happened to the first two manuscripts I wrote, they are moldering away in my file cabinet where they’ll probably never see the light of day again. But I’m okay with that. Even though it can feel impossible to let go of something that isn’t working, especially when you’ve put so much effort into it, sometimes letting go is the best choice. In economics, that phenomenon is called the sunk cost fallacy; people are extremely reluctant to give up on anything they’ve already invested in or purchased, even when it’s unwise or unhealthy not to.
Hive is a significantly better book than the others. I couldn’t have written it without having first done those practice runs, even if I didn’t realize at the time that they were only practice.
What's been your biggest surprise in the experience of getting your first collection published?
The most pleasant surprise is when complete strangers tell me they like the book, or that something in the book affected them. That’s the measure of a poem’s success, I think: did the reader feel it? Was there an emotional reaction? If so, then I’ve done my job.
But the biggest surprise, honestly, was a negative thing. A little while after getting the call that Hive had won the Brittingham Prize, I went through a pretty intense phase of hating the book and thinking it was terrible. That caught me completely off guard, because wasn’t this the big win? Wasn’t I was supposed to be celebrating the moment I’d been working toward for so long? I don’t mean to imply there was no joy, because I was over the moon! But when I sat down to do my final round of edits and got ready to commit to the manuscript’s final version for typesetting, second-guessing and doubt swooped in out of nowhere.
When I finally gathered enough courage to ask several friends if they’d gone through anything like that with their books, almost all of them had. I wish somebody had warned me that it can happen, so now I’m saying it publicly: it is perfectly normal to go through a period of thinking your book sucks after you’ve signed a publishing contract. Let yourself get over it. And if you can’t get over it, find a way to smack yourself upside the head.
The poems in this collection are first person confessional. Some poets are all about the truth; some poets are all about bending (or breaking) the truth. Where do you fall on the truth-fiction spectrum for confessional poems?
Emotional truth is always more important to me than historical truth. I have no problem throwing factual history out the window if it serves the poem to do so. For example, if the real life event that inspired the poem took place on a beach, I’m fine with setting the poem at the zoo if that change of scene is going to let me bring in images, colors, smells, and sounds that move the poem along. It’s pretty common for me to fold events together and conflate several things into one as long as the poem benefits from it. Poetry can be tricky. The pronoun options are limited, for instance, and if you want more than four people on the page (I, You, He, She), you’ve got to juggle. Changing location can also be a big pain. Ideally you’d want a more elegant transition than “and after that we walked to the supermarket”—so maybe you just keep everyone at home in the kitchen instead, even if that isn’t the way it really happened.
On the other hand, the poems in Hive are the most confessional and autobiographical work I’ve ever done. I put my own experiences on the page to a much higher extent than I ever have before and it’s a little terrifying. People often ask if things in the book really happened, like the donut crucifixion poem or the chaperone poem, and the answer is yes. Did Ted Bundy and I grow up in the same neighborhood? Yes. Did that man really set the house on fire with the girls inside? Yes.
Many of your poems were previously published in journals. Do you have a submission routine or system?
I’m very targeted when I submit my work. I always start by reading the journals I’m interested in. This step is easy to overlook, but most publication outlets have an editorial and aesthetic point of view that they actively curate—and this is something I really learned from working at an academic journal. Whether literary or scholarly, almost all journals have a distinct editorial flavor. For example, if you have a narrative poem about zombies, there is no point in sending it to a journal that only publishes experimental fiction about flowers. It’s a waste of time. Reading journals (which is a form of research) is a huge part of my submission strategy.
I also use the usual tools like Duotrope, Submittable, and an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of things. The hardest part for me is that my perfectionist tendencies get in the way—I rarely feel like a poem is finished and ready to leave the house. Plus, because I’ve worked on the staff of several literary magazines, I’m well aware of the sheer volume of submissions that cross an editor’s desk and I want to make sure my poems are ready for prime time before I impose them on anyone. But I also think that most writers are their own worst critics. I can nitpick and naysay my own writing until I want to crawl into a corner. That’s going too far in the opposite direction.
A favorite poet who nobody knows but should—who is it?
This is a little tough, since what constitutes well-known can be pretty subjective. But hands down one of my favorite contemporary poets is Phillip B. Williams. I first met Phillip a few years ago at a summer writers’ conference. We were in a workshop together and I have been a huge superfan of his writing ever since. Phillip’s poems astound me, especially how good their endings are. He has a real gift for that. His first full length collection, Thief in the Interior, comes out in January 2016 from Alice James Books. I’ve pre-ordered it and I’m dying to read it.
Best experience related to poetry—what is it?
Connecting with a reader or a listener, especially in live performance. That moment when you step onstage and ask the audience to come with you for a ride—it’s electrifying and frightening all at the same time. But the beautiful part is that it can happen over and over, and you never step in the same river twice.
I love performing. I did a lot of acting in high school and college, which came in really handy when I was nineteen and freaking out about signing up for my very first poetry open mike night. I decided to treat it like a show: I borrowed an outfit and a bunch of jewelry from my roommate that was much more outlandish than what I usually wore, and I stepped up to the mike with all the confidence of an actor playing a part. It worked as a way to get over my anxiety and soon I didn’t need the costume anymore. I still believe in entertaining the audience, though.
If you could share only one piece of advice for fellow poets, what would it be?
Writing is what makes you a writer. Not a book contract or an award, so don’t let anyone make you feel less than. And don’t quit.
Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). Follow him on Twitter @robertleebrewer.