Writing, Publishing, and Retirement; Oh My! [Q&A]

This is a Q&A with George Amabile.

How did you get into writing? Once in, where did it lead?

I’ve been writing since grade six.  I was home from Holy Rosary School in Jersey City, NJ, for six weeks with a broken ankle, and discovered poetry in the family library, mostly Shakespeare and late nineteenth century.

In my second year of high school, we moved to the country a few miles east of  Princeton where I was an editor on the school paper and wrote feature editorials, one of which was chosen for a state-wide award.

I attended Amherst College, published in the Amherst Literary Magazine and was elected class poet.  I wrote an honors thesis on Dylan Thomas, studied Creative Writing with James Merrill and met two other well-known Amherst poets, Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur.

After that I took an M. A. degree at the University of Minnesota where I won a small Creative Writing Scholarship judged by John Berryman, took courses with Howard Nemerov, Allen Tate and James Wright, and began to publish in small magazines.

I did a Ph D at the University of Connecticut on Richard Wilbur, but it took several years with time out to teach at the University of Manitoba where I stayed after completing my degree.  By this time, I’d published with The New Yorker and several other highly regarded lit mags.

In 1972, My first book,  Blood Ties, won the Canadian Author’s Assn. national  prize.

You’ve published extensively, how did you go about publishing?

Well, it was laborious.

I read every literary magazine I could find, in libraries and bookstores, as well as all the prize-winning poetry books, which in those days wasn’t as prodigious a list as it has become, with only two main prizes, the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.  These books received intense and nearly continuous attention.

I wrote, and revised, revised, revised.  One of the New Yorker poems went through 56 different revisions.  When I felt (temporarily) happy with a poem or three, I’d send them off to a magazine.  Most of the time they were sent back, usually with nothing but a rejection slip, sometimes with an unkind comment scribbled at the bottom, and rarely, with a note explaining why they’d been rejected.  I found this really helpful and later, when I was editing a magazine, I always tried to say something useful when I returned manuscripts.

I once counted over three hundred rejection slips and notes in the box where I kept them until I had become reasonably “established” and burned the lot in a fireplace while I sipped a snifter of Cognac.  I guess the process was, keep trying.  When a poem came back, I’d revise it again and send it somewhere else.

What sources of inspiration do you typically use for writing?

Most of my poems have been attempts to communicate a particular experience as vividly as possible.  So I guess my memory of actual events has been the source for those poems.  But I also learned to empty my consciousness, and let whatever bubbled up get written down, without intention or judgement.  This has produced some of the most interesting and unpredictable poems of the past half a dozen years, but of course, it doesn’t always work, and even when something exciting happens, it is messy, and has to be revised very carefully to bring it into focus.

What are you doing currently?

Well, I’m retired now, renovating our master bedroom, working on my tennis serve, developing a marketing plan for my crime novel, and writing a new book of poems called Seeing Things.

Here’s a short description of it which I used in a recent grant application.   “Seeing Things will contain three sections keyed to three aspects of the title, observation, imagination, and understanding.”

What challenges did you face with writing?

Finding the time, motivation and discipline to develop areas of consciousness in which it was possible to write, and continue to write, always pushing a little further, trying to do whatever I was doing better, keeping it fresh.

What about challenges with publishing?

Publishing wasn’t a challenge so much as a required but not very interesting part of the job, and mostly drudge work.  I also found, surprisingly, that publication was not without its own problems.

One of them was the fact that publication of a book interfered significantly with and often busted up the new project I’d already become immersed in.

Another, and this has to do with the psychology of success, was that winning a prize or being represented in very prestigious publications took the edge off my determination to improve, to discover, to experiment, to find new directions etc.  There was this very subtle relaxation into an easier acceptance by my critical sense of what was merely a competent imitation of what I’d already done.  Or worse, a general slackening of the ambition to take on new technical or imaginative or aesthetic challenges.

What moments or years were especially memorable or important?

I guess the first few years when I was publishing in The New Yorker.   And the years after I retired from teaching at the U of MB.  I still find writing a challenge, though I sometimes question why I still bother to spend so much energy and attention on something very few readers will see and even fewer will ever care about.  So thank you for setting up this interview.  It’s always a wonderful surprise to discover that someone I don’t know has read my work and is interested in it.

George Amabile has published ten books and has had work in over a hundred national and international venues, including The New Yorker, Poetry (Chicago), American Poetry Review, Botteghe Oscure, The Globe and Mail, The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse, Saturday Night,, Poetry Australia, Sur (Buenos Aires), Poetry Canada Review, and Canadian Literature.  He has won the CAA National Prize; placed first in two Writers Digest contests; placed third in the CBC Literary and Petra Kenney International Competitions; placed second in the MAC national poetry contest, “Friends”; received a National Magazine Award and is the subject of a special issue of Prairie Fire. His most recent publications are a long poem, Dancing, with Mirrors (Porcupine’s Quill, 2011) and Small Change (Fiction, Libros Libertad, 2011) both of which won Bressani Awards.

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