The Na/GloPoWriMo Interview with Lauren Russell

Lauren Russell’s first book of poetry, What’s Hanging on the Hush, has just been published by Ahsahta Press. Russell’s chapbook Dream-Clung, Gone came out from Brooklyn Arts Press in 2012, and her work has appeared in boundary 2The Brooklyn Rail,  jubilat, and Tarpaulin Sky, as well as in in Bettering American Poetry 2015. She is the assistant director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, and a research assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

1. Why did you start writing poetry? Why do you still?

I started writing poetry in second grade, when the poet Cecilia Woloch began conducting afterschool
workshops at my elementary school through California Poets in the Schools. My practice has
taken many zigs and zags in the last 27 years, but Cecilia’s workshops are where it began.

When I was applying to MFA programs back in 2010, I said in every personal statement that
“language is what most thrills me” and that writing makes me feel “most acutely alive.” Though
writing may not be the only way to feel acutely alive, what I wrote in 2010 remains largely true. I have
always been more of a process-oriented poet than a product-oriented one, and for me, poeting
means being open to possibility. What I most love is the process of discovery that occurs over the
course of many drafts, that I can sit down not knowing where a poem will take me and emerge
somewhere I have never expected. Once at a Q&A, a college student asked me a question like
“Once you know what you want to say, how do you go about writing it down?” The question
presupposed that a precondition of writing is having “something to say” ahead of time, but I seldom
have a clear agenda when I sit down to write a poem. I take a form or a constraint that I will usually
drop as soon as the poem takes off, and I chase what the poem wants. In the rest of life, I tend to be
a worrier and hence a control freak to some degree, but lately I have been trying to approach living
with some of the faith in possibility that I usually reserve for writing.

2. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve gotten? The worst?

Joanna Fuhrman was the first teacher to invite me to experience poetry as an evolving, multi-step process—one of the great gifts of my writing life. I took Joanna’s workshop Genre and Games at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church way back in the fall of 2003, when I was twenty, and over the next eight years, I participated in a number of other workshops that Joanna held in her apartment. Her surrealist-inspired generative exercises always provoked exciting and unexpected raw material for poetry.

I cannot think of much truly bad writing advice I have received, but one moment comes to mind (and it was really only half bad). In my very early twenties, I participated in a Craigslist-organized reading somewhere in Manhattan—I can’t remember where. Afterward one of the organizers told me, kindly, that he thought I had a problem with endings. He said something to the effect of “your poems have all these amazing images, but they take us nowhere.” He wanted there to be some great revelation at the end of a poem. For a long time I thought about what he said, but the “revelatory ending” is only one way for a poem to operate. It isn’t even particularly truthful. Nowadays, I usually prefer a jagged ending or an ending that leaves the door ajar so that a breeze may enter and unsettle all the old assumptions. In college writing classes, I often ask students to move away from message-driven endings. If a poem is not a platform for a message—or a revelation!—how else might it function? What else might it be?

3. How did your new book come into being? 

What’s Hanging on the Hush is essentially my MFA thesis manuscript, with only one additional poem and some minor edits made after I graduated. The poems range from 2008 to 2015, but I wrote the majority between 2011 and 2014, my three years in the MFA Program in Writing at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s a versatile book of many borrowed and invented forms, and one of the challenges was trying to find a way to corral all these poetic possibilities into one volume. As I said in an author statement for the Ahsahta website, “What’s Hanging on the Hush is ‘about’ many things and concerned with construction—construction of self, of truth, of social identities, of narrative, of language, of home, and ultimately of the book itself.” Now with a few years’ distance, it is also a kind of document—not of but out of an extended moment in my life. As I wrote in the same author statement:

Over the several years that went into its making, What’s Hanging on the Hush became a kind of laboratory where I worked through questions around race, gender, sexuality, loneliness, madness, and grief, and reckoned with solitude and the struggle of being/making in the world. To some degree I will always associate it with a period in my late twenties and very early thirties when these questions were paramount—not because they will ever really recede but because how I come at them continues to evolve.

I am a core introvert and feel most myself at home with my cat and my books, my quilts and my kettle and my old skipping CDs, and in the three years when I was working on this book most intensely, my solitude held a lushness that would later become brittle. But in those days I reveled in my loneness. Within it, I contained multitudes. As I wrote at my desk in the little turret apartment I now recall with a certain nostalgia, the world entered onto the page, which could host, simultaneously, H.D. and Gertrude Stein, Lady Gaga, Osama Bin Laden, deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida, blues legend Robert Johnson, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and The Art of War.

As much as anything, the book is an exercise in holding multiple possibilities in one place, without prioritizing any, and seeing what that collision may generate. (Disclosure: Although I instigated and directed the collision, I’m not sure I could fully articulate how this book is operating until I read Michelle Lewis’s stunning, insightful review for Anomaly. I was always told that the best reviews can show the author something she does not know about the book, and Lewis’s review met that challenge.)

4. Is there a generative prompt, practice or ritual that you find particularly helpful, or that you would recommend to students, friends, or other poets?

The simplest one—probably the one I use most frequently—simply is to pull a poetry book off the shelf and start imitating another poet’s syntax, at the most minute grammatical level. This always gets me going, and usually the poem will take off within a few sentences. Often, though not always, I will later go back and excise the beginning that got me started.

If you have some friends to write with, here is an exercise in monstrosity and transformation I made for the course Studio in African American Poetry and Poetics, in conjunction with reading Ronaldo Wilson’s Poems of the Black Object:

  1. On an index card, write a one-sentence description of the body as monstrous, grotesque. Use no more than two adjectives or adverbs. Try not to use any.
  2. Pass this sentence to your left. On a new index card, take your neighbor’s monstrous sentence and make it pleasurable.
  3. Now write two secret shames on separate index cards. Bear in mind that you will have to part with one.
  4. Now write two secret pleasures on separate index cards. Bear in mind that you will have to part with one.
  5. Now pass me one secret pleasure, one secret shame, and your neighbor’s monstrous sentence.
  6. Someone, shuffle the cards.
  7. Everyone pick three cards and use this material, combined with your other three cards, in a new poem.
  8. Read aloud. Does anyone hear your secrets transformed in someone else’s poem? Your monstrosities?

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