This is an interview with Millicent Borges Accardi.
Portuguese-American writer Millicent Borges Accardi’s awards include Fulbright, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), CantoMundo, Barbara Deming “Money for Women,” and Calif Council of the Arts fellowships. She has been a featured writer at the Austin Poetry Festival, Nimrod, The Gathering at Keystone College, Lisbon University, Brown University, UMass Dartmouth, Valente Library in Cambridge and was in residence at Yaddo, Jentel (Sheridan, WY), Vermont Studio Center, and the University of Texas, Austin (Spanish/Portuguese PhD program). She is the organizer of the popular Kale Soup for the Soul literary series (that performs poetry and stories about family, food and culture). Her most recent book is Only More So (Salmon Poetry, Ireland).
How did you get into writing?
A counselor at CSULB (California State Long Beach) gave me sage advice when I was lost at a city college and taking classes all across the board: advertising, metal shop, poetry and logics and anthropology and art and geology, which is sort of the purpose of undergraduate study; however, I was racking up all these un-related units like girl scout badges.
So, this counselor said to me, “CSULB does not have advertising as a major, so you need to pick something else. “ I was at a loss. Ready to give up and just get an AA degree. But then I paused and thought about it and had a moment of clarify, similar to a story the creator of Hamilton (the musical) recounts. Miranda said, Pick a lane.
Pick a lane and run in it. Especially when surrounded by brilliant people who know what they are doing. It does not matter that you don’t. Just
Pick a lane.
The counselor showed me brochures about pre-law and journalism and English and marketing and even engineering, but, when he mentioned Shakespeare and Chaucer and I said, “Does that mean I can spend a whole semester reading The Canterbury Tales? And he said, Yes! And I said OK.
I picked a lane. I’m gonna read for the next two years: Joyce, Yeats, Eliot, Hemingway. I am gonna have to write papers, sure, but my job now is to read. They give degrees in READING?
What’s your writing process?
As far as process? I dwell in the world and notice patterns. I take notes and when something stays with me, I write it down. Most days I am in front of the window at my computer the better part of the time.
I’ve never been great about having a set-writing schedule, except when I have to work a day job, then I try and wake up early before work and put in some time. The past ten years or so I have been lucky to have worked from home and pieced together a living between technical writing, software testing, freelance writing, training and course design.
My “creative writing” is generally split into three parts:
- creation (free-writes, notes, scribbles),
- getting it out into the world (manuscripts, articles, marketing, submissions, book promotion, grants, fellowships).
Can you break down what those parts look like?
Creation: creation-mode can be remembering phrases I hear or imagine and then writing them down, scribbled in a notebook or slip of paper or on my computer. Those are snippets of a possibility. They may turn into a poem or a line in a poem or they may be nothing at all. The best snippets remain with me until they are “proofed” and I can sit down and expand them into a poem or a story or even an essay. Many or most of my poetry is started with snippets and then built as a trance or free write, when I start with the one word or phrase or multiple lines and build those into a poem.
Creation is also translating work from notebooks onto my computer. For many years I ONLY wrote free-hand, but it’s been years now since I did that. In college, I used a laptop to take notes, but felt for a long time that my “poetic noted” needed to be jotted down on paper, the old fashioned way.
Revision/editing: that is re-working. Primarily done on the computer. I take a draft and edit lines for clarify and flow. If pieces are long-ish, I might print them out and mark up the hard copy. I like to edit so that each poem has a through-line or theme and flows nicely without pause. Most of my edits are to make a poem work without pause. I also spell check and edit for grammar and capitalization. Sometimes I mess with titles and line breaks (enjambment) but mostly I edit to make the poem more clear.
Out into the World: I separate the “business” aspect of writing from the creation aspect. So, getting my work out into the world means many many things:
1) submitting manuscripts, articles and tracking them
2) general marketing tasks such as social media, Go Fund Me, dealing with libraries and booking readings, workshops.
3) grants (researching grants and fellowships which may support my work projects
It’s hard to discuss the business of writing in a general way, but, once I have a project in mind, I do research on which grants, funding and residencies for my project.
Then, I gather information and apply to those which seem the best fit and which have date-friendly deadlines. I strive for applications which are simple and do not require entry fees, but that is not always possible. I have spreadsheets and tracking software that I use—the applications which are the most difficult are those which require specific recommendation letters, sometimes three or more! And, unless you are in graduate school, those types of letters are difficult to come by. Plus, organizations know when you send them a placement file or generic reference, which can handicap you.
What’s your background and education in writing?
I have degrees in English literature BA and MA (ABT) and an Masters in Professional Writing. My educational goals were to teach and to try and make a decent living as a writer. In other words to earn my living writing: in any way, shape or form.
First, I attended community college and then a state university in California and, after that the University of Southern California (USC), with two summers studying abroad (in Paris and Prague). All while I was working multiple jobs (waitressing, sales, adjunct teaching).
What advice do you have about publishing?
Relationships. It is all about relationships.
My first book got published because a friend from college came to one of my readings at the Coffee Cartel in Redondo Beach and “pitched” me about her new press World Nouveau. She brought catalogues and her graphic artist partner in tow.
I was flattered and a little overwhelmed because I had been trying for so many years to land a book through manuscript contests. It was soul wrenching.
Always a bridesmaid and never a bride. You see, I was a finalist in WAY too many competitions Violet Reed Haas, Pine Press, Ronald Wardell Prize, RopeWalk Press, Paumanok, May Swenson, Philip Levine, Snake Nation Press, Paris Review, Zoo Press, Akron Press, University of Illinois Press Poetry Award, Hayden Carruth, New Issues (twice), Ann Stafford Prize, and Anhinga Prize (twice). It was sad and frustrating and expensive. The entry fees nearly killed me. To come so close and still end up with nada?
My vision as to how things would go is that I would, ideally, win the Yale Younger Poets Prize and sail off into eternity. The reality was more sundry. The reality was exhausting. There were student loans and rent and bills to pay. I was struggling and failing on so many levels.
Yet? After nothing and then nothing. AND THEN MORE OF NOTHING. Poof!
Suddenly I had more than enough. In the space of one year, my chapbook, “Woman on a Shaky Bridge” was published by Finishing Line Press AND my full-length book Injuring Eternity was taken by World Nouveau. A short year later, Salmon Poetry (Ireland) accepted my second book Only More So, but did not publish it until 2016.
The best bet is to build relationships, support other writers, work on journals and for publishers and in the publishing word as much as you can.
Besides that, it’s hard because you have to ASK to be published. You have to take a chance on yourself and put yourself in the line of fire.
The less you are known, the more you have to hussle, and the harder it is to BE published because you are an unknown quantity. So. . .collect, proudly collect rejections. I used to tape them up on my wall in the apartment where I lived in Venice Beach.
When you are starting out they don’t know who you are or what you can do or what value you have to offer. Journals and Presses do not care.
Do you want to change the world? If Yes? What part and how. How can you make a difference? What wrongs can you right? What injustices can you highlight and bring to light? Writing is not necessarily about setting goals, but about doing the most good.
Answer the important questions to you and see what happens.
One thing I have always been is focused. I try to show up. And I try to finish things.
How will your work be different than all others? How the hell can you be the same and yet different at the same time. How can you write about the same exact event as 100’s of other writers and yet be different. Picasso and Cezanne can paint the same flower pit and without looking at the names of the artists, you can tell who painted which piece.
Get a feel for what you bring to the party.
How is my vision. . . me? The world? That is why it is important to show your work and go to crits and readings and get responses. To read others’ work. To exist not in a vacuum but in a community. Listen, Pay attention.
Art does not exist outside of a social context But what IS that social context and how will you know it when you see it?
So, looking back at paying all those contest fees before that positive shift, would you have been better off only sending into fee-free publications or were those contests necessary?
I think it is a dirty business these entry fees, and I try to avoid them as much as possible. The best advice if you are in school or new to writing, is to set a budget and stick to it. Pick those competitions which are significant to you, which mean the most and apply to only a few.
If you apply without a plan. At $20-$50 a pop, even one competition a month can add up to $300-500 a year. Which is INSANE. Try to enter a combination of free/paid competitions.
Looking back? I probably could have made MUCH better use of that entry fee month by buying books, subscribing to literary journals, or putting it towards travel. Of course if you are lucky enough to win a major award, I would imagine it would all seem very worthwhile! I find these manuscript competitions to be impossible. Even the lessor-known contests receive 500-1,000 manuscripts which are browsed through by students and then MAYBE ten or 15 books actually make it to the final judge. You’d be better off buying lottery tickets and a beer than entering many of these contests.
How were residencies beneficial to you?
With residencies I have been able to establish long-term friendships and community. Long before Facebook, residencies were a social network, offering reviews of each other’s work, writing letters of recommendation, collaboration.
Residencies give you a chance to rub elbows with authors and artists, at various stages in their careers, from emerging to established. For example, at Yaddo, I shared jazz poetry with Michael S. Harper when he was there in seclusion working on his memoirs, and the poet Carl Dennis kindly offered notes on my manuscript after dinner while we sat on the veranda, over-looking the rose garden. Later, I reviewed his New and Collected Poems for an arts newspaper.
I went swimming with filmakers Lisa Cholodenko (High Art, Laurel Canyon) and Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale). I ate oatmeal with composers Daron Hagen and David Del Tredici,whose work Final Alice and Dracula I listened to, fascinated and intrigued.
Across the hall, a NY abstract painter named Henry Brown was my partner in crime; we caught bats together and played Scrabble. After the residency, my husband and I visited Henry and attended his gallery opening at Hunter College. In 2010, Henry and I collaborated on a textual piece for a show celebrating the life of Julian Dashper (1960-2009) at Minus Space.
Connections made at residencies can be life-long friendships.
At Vermont Studio, in the midst of a January snow storm, I made friend with my “dorm” mates, the poet Veronica “Spit” Noechel and the visual artist Fatima Tuggar, whose work at the New Museum in Harlem, I saw, years after we were in Vermont together. Last week, I interviewed Veronica for WordGathering (a journal of poetry and disability).
Jentel brought more snow and another residency, this one in Wyoming where I snow-shoed with Delia King, a reverse glass artist and muralist. Two years after the residency, I traveled to Philadelphia to attend her wedding at a Quaker meeting house. I never realized poetry would take me on such wonderful journeys.
In Spain at a month-long retreat, the residents were all women and I met Evelyn Conlon, a novelist from Ireland, Anne-Suzette from Denmark and Sonja Hinrichsen from Germany, an environmental artist who creates large-scale snow sculptures and performance art and documentaries from shipping containers. When she gave an art talk in Los Angeles, and participated in a curated show, she stayed with us at our hippie shack in Topanga.
Going to a residency is what you make of it. You can sit alone or you can reach out. It’s up to you.
Who should look into a residency?
Short answer? I think you should expect to be surprised. That whatever project you take TO a residency might change once you are AT that residency. Other than that? Do the opposite. Instead of looking for “any” residency that will have me, be specific about what YOU want. Ask yourself questions:
- What type of residency do I want?
- Where? In the states, or Europe? Is my project place-driven. Like, am I writing a book about Kentucky or Tennessee so I need to be there? Or could the residency be anywhere?
- What is most important to me? Time, stipend, environment?
- Do I want a residency where I will be alone in a remote place? Or do I want to be surrounded by other writers? Do I want to be surrounded by only women? Or do I want to be at a residency like Vermont Studio where there are artists, as well as writers?
- Am I willing to teach or give workshops, readings? Or would I prefer un-disturbed time?
- Do I need an all-expense paid residency? Or can I buy my own plane tickets? Do I need a stipend? Do I want somewhere I can drive to or where I will need my car?
- Time. Am I looking for a one week residency? A month? A year? Most residencies average 3 weeks to a month, so it you want a shorter or significantly longer duration, take that into account too.
- Basic things: do I want to cook my own food like at Jentel in Wyoming, or do I want to be served? Do I want to share a bathroom? Share a flat? Have my own room? Are there any restrictions for me. like do I need wheelchair access? Am I allergic to peanuts or perfume? Do I need Internet access?
- Lead time. Do I want a residency right now? or in a five years? Most residencies book a year in advance, so if you apply now, you’ll probably be accepted/rejected in six months or so and then scheduled another six months later.
What I do is I make a list of requirements and THEN look online for a residency that supports what project I want to do. It’s actually a lot easier to do it that way. It helps you narrow it down, that way you don’t spend hundreds of dollars on application fees.
Res Artis is a good resource for international residencies.
Your husband is a painter, what discussion about art happens between you? Is there ever an interplay between his painting and your writing?
One of the most interesting outcroppings has been that many years my husband goes with me and enjoys the AWP conference (Associated Writing Programs): Seattle, Boston, New York, Albany. Portland, Kansas City. Typically I have panels and readings and worry about him feeling lost or bored, but he absolutely is not. He NEVER feels left out of things.
In fact, sometimes he attends more panels than I do because a lot of the subject matter is transferable from literary arts to visual arts, from motivation, to deconstruction of topics. Plus, he does not have the conference burn-out that I sometimes feel. Oh no. Another panel? Let’s skip it and have some wine?
He even loves the book fair, with its marketing and commotion. Once, we were walking around and he noticed HIS cover from Blood Orange (journal) had been made into a poster and was featured at their booth. They had no idea who he was until he explained and showed them the issue—where his paintings had
Other than that, we have collaborated on two book covers: His paintings are featured on “Woman on a Shaky Bridge” and Injuring Eternity. He jokes that everyone buys the books JUST for the cover!
On the other hand, when my husband has had an art show, a bunch of my poet friends attend and we all end up going out after to talk about art.
Whether you paint pictures with words or paint, with a pen or a brush, there is an easy transfer of ideas. Art is art.
Although, I had to cave into giggles once because during his first semester of his MFA at Vermont College, one of his early assignments was to read symbolist poetry. I was, like, before you paint anything, you have to write papers about French poetry? Seemed like such poetic justice! Pun intended.
Banner photo credit to Sonja Hinrichsen.