Actress and Author, Poetry and Prose: How They All Intermingle

This is an interview with Carolyn Agee.

Carolyn Agee is an actress and author whose work is inspired by her experience teaching English overseas and a passion for performing Shakespeare. When she isn’t suffering from existential depression, she enjoys petrichor, walking down unknown forest trails and intimate gatherings of kindred spirits. Her forthcoming books include the multi-genre chapbook Drowning Ophelia (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2017) and the YA novella The Ambiguous Tides of Saudade (Wolfsinger Publications, 2017).

How did you get into writing originally?

I was having people transcribe my stories before I was old enough to read. One of my earliest memories is of being read Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood while snuggling with my cat. Technically, it should have been beyond my comprehension level. I was also read to from the King James Bible that, of course, is in Early Modern English. These happy early memories are probably part of the reason why I still swoon over Shakespeare.

When did your writing get serious was there a moment where you decided to work on it?

c-the-artshow
A glimpse back to the time of the art show.

Some of my friends were putting on an art show in Perth. During the preview, I wrote an ekphratic poem for each piece and a title poem to reflect the show as a whole.

They loved it so much, they displayed each poem next to its corresponding piece and used the title poem on their promo poster. Having my literary art put on the same level as visual art was a watershed moment. That art show changed my life!

Where did you learn about writing (whether school, in life, etc.)?

I learned a lot about my own relationship to language through growing up in a bilingual family, and through studying French– at one point I was majoring in teaching English as a foreign language. But probably through immersing myself in the great playwrights more than anything.

How is your poetry different from your novella?

“How is a raven like a writing desk?” I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer this question, since I can never have the same experience with my work as an audience. I tend to have a poetic prose style. The sound of the words, the rhythm, mean a great deal to me no matter the form, so stylistically, I think they are very similar. Because my poetry tends to portray isolated moments in time, it doesn’t explore character arcs in the way the way the novella does. Drowning Ophelia and The Ambiguous Tides of Saudade also have their own very specific themes and motifs.

If someone is a fan of my writing style, but can’t relate to the themes in one book, they may want to try the other. They could find it suits them quite well.

How was writing a novella different than writing poetry?

Having worked in film, I tend to think cinematically. My poems I view as close-ups. While writing the novella, I almost had a shot list in my head. Establishing, wide, medium, etc. Poetry also allows a lot more leeway structurally (unless you are working in metered or rhyming verse). If you don’t hit the right notes at the right moment, prose can collapse under its own weight. Poetry can too, but it’s very nature allows for a more stream-of-consciousness approach.

There is also the commitment factor. The first draft of a haiku can be written in two minutes. A novella, at a thousand words a day, takes around a month.

How does your work as an actress interact with your life as a writer?

ijg
Agee playing the role of Portia in “In Juliet’s Garden.”

I really learned to deconstruct a text through acting– how to build a speech, subtext, and dialogue, it’s all there. And as an actor, when you’re working with a poorly written text where those things are absent, you feel it. Whereas, when you perform the great pieces of literature, they get into your bones. You’re building character and story on a very intimate visceral level.

Where do you find your inspiration for your work?

Writing is how I process life. If I find myself too busy to write, I also find myself frustrated and overwhelmed. A lot of my pieces are response pieces– the kind of thing where something makes you want to scream? I scream onto the page. I also enjoy subverting tropes.

How do you get into the mindset to write?

I like doing image work from Michael Chekov. Technically, it’s for actors, but I find it enormously helpful as an author, as well. It focuses on tapping into our subconscious creativity and allowing that to guide our choices.

For one of the easier examples, imagine a sorceress turning into a castle. Don’t merely skip from one stage stage to the next, but follow fluidity of the transformation slight change to slight change. Feel any emotions they bring up. This will express itself in a way that is very unique to you and often surprising. It is important to fully feel any emotions to brings up.

Centering exercises, such as diaphragmatic breathing, being mindful of the back space, and simple stretches to warm up the body are also good.

What is your habit/schedule for writing?

I tend to be most creative at night, so most of my first drafts are written then (my first piece of the new year, was written at 3 am, January 1st). I will usually edit during the day.

Tell me about Drowning Ophelia specifically? 

It is a mixed-genre chapbook that includes eighteen poems, one piece of flash fiction, and a short screenplay. For Drowning Ophelia I chose pieces that touch on the female side of the spectrum or what it is like to be queer gender and assigned female at birth. All of the pieces were written in a certain melancholy dream-like style.

It will be released by Red Bird Chapbooks later this year and will be available through their website, author appearances, and select independent book stores.

It would appeal to anyone who has an interest in gender/women’s studies, or writing that packs a punch. I’ve been told that my last lines come down like hammers.

Because I chose these pieces so specifically, they represent a sampling of work from 2010 all the way through July of last year. As such, they aren’t tied to any specific event, though they do trace explorations of my own sexuality and gender.

What was the revision process like?

Most of my revision came in deciding which pieces to include in the manuscript and in which order. In that sense, I tried to think in terms of a film editor and keep some sort of unifying element from one piece to the next. It’s in the design phase now, which I’m really excited about, because that’s not something I usually get to be involved in!

Where’s the title from?

The title Drowning Ophelia has a two-fold meaning. For a lot of women, Ophelia is a symbol of the ultimate victim of the patriarchy. She exists entirely in relation to men. In the play, Ophelia has no agency in her own life outside of her suicide (and even whether she intended to die is up for debate). In one sense, the patriarchy is drowning us all, no matter where you identify on the spectrum. In another, we have the ability to destroy that messaging for ourselves and the next generation, thus drowning Ophelia.

Tell me about The Ambiguous Tides of Saudade too! 

The Ambiguous Tides of Saudade explores themes of the Spiral of Silence, ambiguous grief, and how individuals react differently to the to the rise of fascism. It will be released by Wolfsinger Publications later this year and will be available on Amazon and Smashwords. Although, it was originally intended to be dystopian speculative fiction, I think anyone with an interest in current affairs would now find it prescient.

My inspiration came from spending three years with an organization that was basically run like a totalitarian state. The favorite line of those in leadership was, “Perception is reality.” Meaning that anything those in power perceived to be true was true, regardless of what you knew to be true as an individual. Those who were fired were forbidden to talk to those still on staff, because their side of the story almost certainly contradicted the official one, so it was the kind of environment that causes you to doubt your own perception of reality. Like an abusive relationship. There was a lot of gas lighting.

After I left, it took a long time to retrain myself to trust my own instincts, and it was during this process that I began working on The Ambiguous Tides of Saudade. I was also experiencing a lot of ambiguous grief and the recent death of my grandfather, who I was very close to. All of these themes are woven throughout the novella.

My revision process for prose has 7 steps:

First, I analyze it on a structural level: Are the hook, plot points, pinches, reversal, and resolution in the right places? How does it fit with mythic or classical structure?

Second, are the majority of senses involved in the descriptions of each scene?

Third, what do the words sound like when spoken aloud, are there inadvertent tongue-twisters? Do the sounds and rhythm flow? If the cadence is broken in a way that doesn’t serve to punctuate the text, I will rewrite the passage.

Fourth, am I showing the scene through subtext or is it too on the nose? “Show, don’t tell.”

Fifth, I erase all of the attributions and make sure it is still obvious who is speaking through differences in vocabulary and grammar. If you listen to people on public transit, each speaker is unique, even if they grew up in the same family and have spent their entire lives in the same area.

Sixth, if nothing changes for any of the characters in a scene I either cut it altogether, or rewrite it into a scene that would be playable to an actor. This keeps the action moving.

Seventh, one of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from Strunk and White’s classic Elements of Style: Omit needless words!!! As a poet, I am also prone to take this even further and omit needless syllables.

The title came from my study of Portuguese and my journey through ambiguous grief. “Saudade souˈdädə/ n.: A sense of incompleteness mingled with the latent hope that something once loved shall be experienced again.” That definition coupled with the water motif in the book just worked.

How did you find Red Bird Chapbooks for your poetry chapbook?

Red Bird had been my first choice of publishers for years, but I was too intimidated to submit. It was through the encouragement of my poetry fam and the ardent support of my then boyfriend that I began putting together a manuscript. Around the same time, I was actually googling something else when Red Bird popped up, and since their submission window happened to be open I took it as a sign and went for it!

Why did you choose an e-book only route for your novella?

That choice was made by the publisher, since it was not a full-length novel. I think that the e-book is a wonderful format for novellas, since they are more in tune with the modern demands on our time and attention spans.


All images are credited to Carolyn Agee, including the cover photo of the Oregon coastline. 

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