Ron Koertge: Everybody who writes likes to talk about process. You know mine: sit down every day with my solitariness and write something. End of story. Is yours more complicated?
Christine Heppermann: It’s only complicated in that I’m never completely solitary, I always have my insecurity and fear whining for my attention. Once I settle them in the corner with coloring books and crayons, I can get to work. Until insecurity asks me for apple juice. And then fear needs me to take her to the bathroom. Then we all settle down again and stay busy until lunch. But I’m wondering if your process is really as simple as you make it seem. Terrance Hayes says he always, in essence, wants to be the middle school kid fooling around with words in his notebook, not even aware that he’s writing Poetry. So what’s the balance between thinking and intuiting for you? How do you not get bogged down by craft?
RK: I may be the least crafty person in the poetry business. I never think about it. I’m much more like a guy who writes music than a guy who writes Poetry with a capital P. I write and read out loud, write and read out loud. I’ve got a good ear, and I can hear when things are going wrong. Rather than writing eloquently, I try to listen eloquently.
Now it’s your turn: I’ve seen whole books about how to overcome the dreaded writer’s block. Have you ever been blocked? If so, how did you get unblocked (Call Poetry Plumbers Now!) and if not how have you avoided it?
CH: I eat more fiber? Blockage for me is almost always related to perfectionism. So I just have to lower my standards and keep going. That’s the theory, anyway. And I think I stole that theory from Sandra Tsing Loh. I do have a project—a novel in verse—that feels hopelessly tangled, but I know that if I just sat with it every day and took some deep breaths, I’d eventually figure it out.
RK: For me, a Paul Valéy quote comes as close to explaining writer’s block as anything I’ve ever read: “. . . every blank sheet of paper by its very emptiness affirms that nothing is as beautiful as what does not exist. The presence of absence both spurs on and, at the same time, paralyzes the pens’ commitment.”
CH: That’s lovely. How much do you think Paul would charge to untangle my verse novel for me? But let’s go back to you. Would you rather be able to correctly predict the Triple Crown winners every year or have every poem you send out accepted by a prominent literary journal?
RK: Tough call. But I’d go for the Triple Crown. Lots of money to be made there while getting every poem taken would get tiresome.
CH: How about this one: Would you rather be shut in with Emily Dickinson or out dodging cannon fire with Walt Whitman?
RK: Well, Walt would be rhapsodic with an eye for the boys in uniform. (Peter Doyle, one of his faves, was a streetcar conductor.) I’d probably choose Emily. She was just so strange, all that lowering baskets of cookies and what not for the neighborhood kids. On the other hand, I seem to remember that she just wore people out. I forget who said that she just drained him of energy, maybe Charles Wadsworth. Back to you now. You’ve lived in different places, mostly recently Chicago and before that in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Does place have any effect on your work?
CH: What I can say is, I take myself with me wherever I go. No matter what place I find myself in, I have the same preoccupations, the same thoughts and feelings, more or less. Like I notice that my daily routine in Chicago is hardly different at all from my routine in the wilds of the UP—I get the kids to school, I write in a coffee shop, I exercise, I roam the library. It’s not as if when I lived in the UP I was writing all nature poems, and now I’m writing about rats and skyscrapers. The geography of my mind will always be Midwestern, since that’s where I grew up and that’s the part of the world that shaped me. I love exploring new places and having new experiences, but I’m always going to view them through my own specific lens. How has being rooted in the same place for 40+ years affected your writing?
RK: My hometown in Illinois seemed like a prison to me, and though I liked Tucson, Arizona, a lot (I got my M.A. there), when I fell into the job at Pasadena City College in 1965 I felt lucky. For a lot of Midwesterners, California was a mythical paradise. I felt an enormous sense of freedom here, partly because I didn’t know anybody. I wrote a ton of funny, wise-guy poems for indie mags like The Wormwood Review. There was a lot to do and see in L.A., some of it illicit and to me, anyway, novel. I tended to write about what I did and where I went and what happened to me. So there was always something to get me started every morning. And that brings up this question: how do poems start for you? A voice in your head? An odd triggering word or phrase?
CH: There’s no one way poems start for me, but I know I’m happiest when I have a few different possible ideas. So then I can say, today I’m either going to write a poem about my high school graduation photo or about a fairy tale character who shoplifts or about my daughter’s obsession with the Porta-Potty on the corner. Then I’ll play around with all three ideas and see which one feels most alive—and one is always perkier than the rest, which doesn’t mean I won’t get back to the others later. Then comes the fun part: discovering what the poem wants to be about. Because I never know until I’m finished. It’s like I start with a lump of clay, and my plan is to sculpt an elephant. So I’ll very carefully and deliberately mold the ears, and then the trunk, but when I step back to see what it looks like, it’s not an elephant at all; it’s an iguana or the Pope or Kim Kardashian. I love that.
All of which leads to the how-do-you-know-when-you’re-finished question. And I know the lofty, a-poem-is-never-finished answer. So the better question is, how do you decide when to stop?
RK: The poem pretty much decides for me. After a bit, lots of them just want to be left alone, like Gloria Swanson. Some have a little sister quality as in, “Stop pestering me.” Others, like only children, can’t get enough attention. They’re essentially never done. Even if they’re published they look up at me from the magazine’s page and whimper.
CH: Take another turn. Since you do both, what’s the difference between writing poems and writing novels or novels-in-verse?
RK: When I was writing, for example, Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs and I had to use pretty much every poetic form know to man, I still had my eye on the end of the novel. How did the sestina and what it was about fit in with the blank verse and its subject? And how did those two propel the plot or at least serve it? Also, I had to do things or say things to keep a middle-school reader interested. With straight up poetry, I write pretty much what I want.
Ron Koertge is the author of the forthcoming Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses (Candlewick, July) and many celebrated novels, including Stoner & Spaz, Strays, and The Brimstone Journals, all American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults; Shakespeare Bats Cleanup, and American Library Association Top Ten Sports Books for Youth Selection; and The Arizona Kid, an American Library Association pick for “one of the ten funniest books of the year.” A two-time winner of the PEN Literary Award for Children’s Literature, Ron lives in South Pasadena, California. For more information, visit his website: http://ronkoertge.
Christine Heppermann is a writer, poet, and critic. She has been a columnist and reviewer for The Horn Book Magazine since 1996. Her first book, City Chickens, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in May 2012. Visit her blog at http://www.