We have Beatrice Szymkowiak here to tell us about poetry.
Beatrice and I are alumni of the Institue of America Arts. We graduated with MFAs in 2017. Hers in poetry, mine in fiction writing.
My research includes environmental literature, Indigenous contemporary poetry, and translingual literature. I am also particularly interested in Caribbean literature.
I am currently working on my creative dissertation, entitled B/RDS, a poetry collection that questions the Western heuristic approach to nature, and that has for a starting point, the iconic Birds of America by John James Audubon.
Book title and blurb and any comments about any other of your books:
Red Zone (Finishing Line Press, 2018) explores the WWI environmentally ravaged landscapes of my childhood.
Praise for Red Zone;
“Before the shrapnel, before the night in hell on the way to hell, and after that night, too, we were: ‘naming the woods.’ RED ZONE does a lot of things, but it also draws our eyes to the risk of our own departure. Description, sure. Timing, of course. But cognition and argument also? Szymkowiak makes me want to read more.” Joan Naviyuk Kane
Joan Naviyuk Kane is the author of several poetry collections: Milk Black Carbon, The Straits, The Cormorant Hunter’s Wife, Hyperboreal, Milk Black Carbon, and forthcoming Dark Traffic. She is the recipient of multiple awards, fellowships, and prizes, including a Whiting Writer’s Award, the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, and an American Book Award.
“In a complex meditation on the destructiveness of war and the persistence of nature, poet Beatrice Szymkowiak explores France’s Zone Rouge, the area so devastated by war that people are still forbidden to enter, where things still blossom and explode. Where “crows burst” above the land of “unexploded explosives.” Where “slow soil & / shrapnel” yield to “a murmuration of starlings.” In the long poem “Fleury-Devant-Douaumont,” the page itself becomes the zone, mined & grenaded & shrapnelled by words, words that begin to merge, becoming neologisms of compost—”betweenroots,” “shrapnelspades,” “inboots.” In the end, despite human interventions, “yellow-bellied toads frogs salamanders / crested newts thrive” and “corpses tuber / into russets.” Szymkowiak has written a crucial book, especially critical as the entire globe quickly becomes a Red Zone.” Jon Davis
Jon Davis is the author of several poetry collections, including Improbable Creatures, Preliminary Report, Scrimmage of Appetite, and Dangerous Amusements. He is the recipient of a Lannan Literary Award in Poetry and the Peter I.B. Lavan Prize from the Academy of American Poets.
Do you write in more than one genre? I do write poetry and non-fiction
Tell us about your writing process: My writing process varies following the projects. However, I often start a poem with a list of words, images, and an idea or a conceptual arch. Once I have a first draft, I revise until I feel that the poem does or evokes what I wanted it to do. Then I let it aside for a while and go back to it for additional revisions. This pause between two revision processes is necessary, as it creates a new perspective on the poem.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? The very first word of a poem!
What kind of research do you do? As my poetry work often incorporates non-fiction, I do extensive research: reading essays, articles, historical documents, watching documentary films, etc.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I am interested in writing more non-fiction, and I have recently developed an interest in epic poems. But you never know what might come up!
How do our readers contact you?
My website: https://szymkow9.wixsite.com/bszymkowiak
Twitter account: @OhOldOcean
Buy your book?
Welcome – What book would you like to tell our readers about?
Don’t Leave Yet, How My Mother’s Alzheimer’s Opened My Heart (She Writes Press, 2015) recounts my journey toward understanding our complicated mother-daughter relationship as she struggles through the early stage of dementia-type Alzheimer’s, and my ultimate discovery of compassion and love that goes beyond familial duty.
Do you write in more than one genre? I enjoy the challenge of poetry, creating, and recreating experiences to connect with readers. Finding a precise image or metaphor and using concise and descriptive language engages my mind in sometimes unexpected ways. The discovery can be exhilarating.
What brought you to writing? I was an English major at the University of Wisconsin -Milwaukee. I admired twentieth-century novelists and poets and wondered if I had it in me to create my own work. It wasn’t until after my father died that I began to explore poetry as a way to express grief. A decade later, when my mother was diagnosed with dementia-type Alzheimer’s, my teacher, the terrific poet Ellen Bass, suggested I might explore my experiences further if I went beyond the parameters of poetry. It was then that I turned to prose. It allowed an expansiveness I needed to convey all that I wanted to say. I started by writing vignettes, followed by full scenes with characters, dialogue, and description. Soon I had pages of material with a sense of connectedness.
Where do you write? What, if any, distractions do you allow? I write in my home office, where morning light provides a calm atmosphere and from where I can observe a yellow rose tree and a bevy of finches on the thistle feeder. I don’t tolerate distractions. But I don’t mind my Shih Tsu, Cody, who snores ever so slightly on his bed directly behind me.
Tell us about your writing process: I usually begin writing with a black ballpoint and a Mead notebook. I wrote most of my memoir in notebooks. When I had enough material, I transcribed it into a document on my laptop. I labeled each draft so as not to lose anything interesting or significant. Now I use the same process when writing poetry.
What is the most challenging part of your writing process? Revision is the most challenging. Yet, it’s the part of writing that I enjoy most. I revisit each image and metaphor. When a metaphor doesn’t do its job, I make a list of ten others and then choose the one I think works the best. I also read a poem out loud to gauge the effectiveness of line endings and stanzas. I admit I’m a perfectionist.
What are you currently working on? I’ve recently discovered some old poems that go back several years. I’m trying to revise them but often find myself starting over. I hope to also return to blogging in the near future.
Has an association membership helped you or your writing? The poetry critique group of California Writers Club Tri-Valley Branch, which I lead two times a month, has offered much-needed support as I labor with some of my poems. The members are careful listeners, and they offer critique with enthusiasm. I’ve found the structure and discipline necessary to keep on writing.
Who’s your favorite author? It’s hard to choose just one. I always look forward to reading Jack Kerouac, John Irving, and Jennifer Lauck. My favorite author of all time is John Steinbeck.
What is the best book you ever read? The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I’ve read it at least three times. I admire its structure, honesty, and intense feeling.
How long did it take you to write your first book? It took five years to write Don’t Leave Yet. I belonged to a writing class in 2004 with Ellen Bass, reading pages each week from my notebook for critique. My mother passed away in 2008, and I was uncertain as to whether or not I could continue to write our story. Ellen, and my fellow writers, were instrumental in my effort to bring the manuscript to its completion a year later.
How long to get it published? Don’t Leave Yet was a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Conference writing competition in the memoir category in 2011. One agent from San Francisco who attended the Conference found the book interesting, but that was it. I pursued other agents with no luck. Then I heard about Brooke Warner, the publisher of She Writes Press. I worked with an editor she recommended. She Writes published my memoir in 2015.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew to enjoy? When I read Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, I thought I might cross her off my list. But when I discovered Truth and Beauty, I was hooked.
Do you outline, or are you a pantser? I began writing Don’t Leave Yet without an outline. By the time I completed the third chapter, I had decided an outline was necessary since I wove together scenes of the present with those of the past. It was a way of keeping characters and events clear in my mind.
Looking to the future, what’s in store for you? I plan to continue placing my poems in literary journals if I’m lucky. I will also enter my chapbook, Treading Water, in more literary competitions with the goal of publication. It was recently named a finalist in Blue Lights Press writing contest.
Do you have any advice for new writers? First and foremost, be true to yourself. Write what’s meaningful and what you love. Observe the world. Read widely. And don’t ever let others tell you that you can’t write.
How do our readers contact you?