This is a Q&A with Rita Anderson.
How did you get into writing initially?
I grew up the anomaly in a large, working-class family and, although I had lots of responsibility at home, I was always stealing time to read—which was not encouraged. I won my first “writing award” (in the form of movie tickets) in 3rd grade for an essay on Thanksgiving. I volunteered to write skits for class projects and I was the only one in my honors English classes who didn’t groan when we reached the “Creative Writing” unit on the syllabus. But I also wrote outside of school because writing was fun, and I’ve kept a journal as long as I can remember—even when I called it a “diary.” Poetry filled the pages as if it was my first tongue or a primitive utterance that just came out when my censors were “off.” The early me was quantity over quality and that mountain of poems was angsty and terrible, of course. But you could say the form “grew” up with me, and poetry was ever present. Like a shadow. Training wheels. A body cast. The cocoon from which I would eventually emerge.
Where did you learn about writing?
Oooh, I could answer this many ways! And to answer it “well,” maybe even “correctly,” I must address a few of the trails that appear when I hear this. First, in some ways I’m not sure I’ve learned anything, really—except for what NOT to do (as brutal graduate writing workshops will teach you), and I’m not convinced that talent can be “taught.” It can be shaped and molded, but the gifts of voice and style are either there or they aren’t. Second, I’m still learning and I hope to be a lifelong student of poetry and playwriting. The arts are no different from medicine or technology in that, to remain relevant, we must stay current in our knowledge and awareness of the ways that our field shifts and changes. But, finally, am I technically trained and, if so, from where? Yes, I have not only a “background” in writing, but also I taught English for 14 years. I have a BS in Journalism and two graduate degrees in writing: MA Playwriting, and an MFA Creative Writing (Poetry Emphasis) from the University of New Orleans where I was Poetry Editor of the annual literary magazine, Ellipsis. Currently, I am the Senior Poetry Editor at Red Dashboard Publishing.
What’s your writing process?
I think in metaphor–it’s my primary literacy–so poetry was a natural extension of who I was. A writer writes, and I was doing it because I had to [to survive, to find identity, to understand the world] long before I identified as a “writer.” The label came much later. But, suffice to say, it’s easier for me to do what I do than to explain how I do it.
I write every day. Sometimes all day. –And this is going to sound unbelievable, but I don’t get “writer’s block.” I have more ideas that I will ever have time to write them. But I do organize my time and I pay attention to how I’m feeling and what I think my mind is capable of for any given day. If I’m tired or know that I lack focus, then I will spend the day editing an older piece of writing, since editing is a different mental muscle. –If I’m feeling creative, however, and I’m, as Edward Albee said, “with play,” then I just write it out until I run out of energy or ideas. I do not edit at this stage, when I’m courting the muse. You have to allow your mind to experiment. If you are lazy (and don’t want to rewrite, revise, etc) or you refuse to write a word down unless it’s contributing to your one-draft first-draft “masterpiece,” then you won’t get anywhere. But, if you do luck out and get to first base? You won’t last. If you want to be a writer, then prepare yourself for the long game, and the big picture requires discipline. And no writer should ever [have the gall to] say, “I don’t revise.” This is mistake Number 1 with beginners and those destined to write immaturely and amateurishly.
For whom or what do you write?
I write from a female perspective for the underrepresented voices who should not have been silenced or missing from the cultural lexicon and literary canons. I grew up in an exhausted industrial city, lost within a large, working class family where poetry was a luxury for the rich and elite so I hid what I wrote. I write for all those who turn to writing for identity, self-preservation, and survival.
What’s a piece of advice you have for other writers?
I am an omnivorous reader and I believe every writer should be. You want to be a better writer? Read everything you can get your mitts on. And read critically. Pay attention to patterns, clever word usage, and how a poem develops. What makes a poem “good”? How do you know? In what ways is the writing striking, memorable, different from the mundane? It is more than “mushy” love poems and less than a cerebral exercise: it’s smart but it tastes of the heart. Poetry that reaches the level of art isn’t verbose just to be verbose, and it definitely doesn’t sound like thesaurus-vomit.
As such an inspired reader, what’s one poet that has inspired you?
Can’t do one but let’s see. Ai taught me the dramatic monologue. Jorie Graham and Jon Ashbery, the exotic weirdness of what happens in the air between words. Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, and Sharon Olds, the pain and beauty that it is to be a woman born at a certain place and time. Sappho just for being Sappho. And Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” destroyed me for weeks after I read it. But Wislawa Szymborska is my all-around favorite! Others include Pablo Neruda, Robert Hass, C.K. Williams, and Audrey Lorde.
What advice for a poet trying to find their voice?
Be true to yourself but know that this isn’t an easy path. As an English teacher, I realized that everyone can learn to write (to some degree of efficiency) but precious few “become” writers. In the 14 years I spent teaching literature and creative writing, I happened upon two students who had what it takes to make it as a professional writer—and I had many bright, talented students. But neither bright nor talented are enough. No, a writer has to have this whole, magic package in order to make a dent in one of the toughest fields, professional creative writing. And somewhere tucked deep within that enigmatic, magical package that a writer must have is the most unique ingredient that we call a “voice.”
Skills can be learned that improve storytelling, and suggestions or techniques may amplify the impact a poem or an exploded moment has on the reader, but “talent” either is or it isn’t. And “voice” is that mandatory element that is both hard to define but impossible to miss when you’ve heard it. I think of it as the “soul” of the writing, the heart, mind, and innerworkings that beat underneath the words. For example, a writer whose work has “style” can learn the mechanics of good writing and how to edit, but a wooden writer will almost never develop that something that makes writing feel alive, no matter how good their organizational tools are.
There are no shortcuts, no recipes for “making it big”—and if there were, I wouldn’t trust them. Having said that, however, I think the best “hack” to learn to identify “voice” is to read. Read everything and read all the time. From classics to contemporary literary fiction. You may not be able to imitate the “masters of the craft” but the only way to improve your “game” is to run hard with writers who are better than you and whose work has been used to establish the foundation of what you’re up against. The standards are set so learn them—if only to get good enough one day to break all the rules and to do it well.
What would you say about trying to gain exposure as a poet?
Yes, “exposure”. . . Well, I’m not going to pretend to tell this current youth culture about “exposure”! They were born with computers in their laps and smart phones in their hands. This is the age that brought us “selfies” and a preponderance of social media, channels which are clogged with YouTube videos of everything from stupid pet tricks, to you doing your cover of a Beyoncé or a Florence and the Machine song, while sitting on your unmade bed with the disaster of your room on camera all around you.
All I can say is, The internet is forever, and “Don’t put the cart before the horse.” Everyone is in a rush to promote, promote, promote. I’m more a fan of, Get good first. Find a writing group and help each other. Listen to feedback and let your work simmer. Let the ideas ripen and mature. I wrote, privately, in journals for years. [I still journal!] And now I know that not everything is ready for primetime. Not everything we write is “gold,” but you’ll always know when you’ve written something amazing, that’s a cut above your previous work.
When I started grad school for poetry, I was turned down by many programs and I was the weakest writer in my MFA, at first. So I went to the library (because I couldn’t afford to buy the books I wanted) and I read and I read and I read. Then I wrote and I threw poems away, every day for two years. –I remember my first, breakthrough poem, “Dandelion,” and when I finally shared it with the writers in workshop, it was nominated for an Intro Award. I went on to become Poetry Editor of the university’s literary publication, Ellipsis, the last year of my MFA.
What makes a poem memorable?
It can be an elegant expression but normally it’s heart. Voice. Style. Someone is moved by a passionate moment and they express it so well that I am also moved. But not with adjectives or adverbs—or even the shock value that some words have. Put away the thesaurus and paint for me with words how it feels to be you. Natalie Diaz’s, When My Brother Was an Aztec does this beautifully.
Rita Anderson, an award-winning playwright and poet, has an MFA Creative Writing and an MA Playwriting. A winner at the Kennedy Center, she went on scholarship to the O’Neill. Frantic is the Carousel was the National Partners American Theatre nominee, and Rita won the Ken Ludwig Playwriting Award for “best body of work.” She has numerous publications to include Early Liberty, internationally published at www.offthewallplays.com, three plays with www.indietheaternow.com, and two books of poetry: The Entropy of Rocketman, and Watched Pots (A Lovesong to Motherhood). Contact Rita through her website.