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Author Q&A: Lauren Russell

Lauren Russell’s first full-length book, What’s Hanging on the Hush, will be out from Ahsahta Press in the spring of 2017. A Cave Canem fellow, she was the 2014-2015 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, was the 2016 VIDA Fellow to the Home School, and is a 2017 National Endowment for the Arts fellow. Russell’s chapbook Dream-Clung, Gone came out from Brooklyn Arts Press in 2012, and her work has appeared in Betterboundary 2, The Brooklyn Rail, jubilat, EK • PHRA • SIS, and Tarpaulin Sky, among others, and is forthcoming in Bettering American Poetry 2015. Her reviews may be found in publications including Aster(ix), The Volta, and Jacket2. She is a research assistant professor and Assistant Director of the Center for African American Poetry and Poetics at the University of Pittsburgh.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Lauren Russell

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

Note: This interview was originally conducted in 2015.

Tell us about yourself. How would you say you began your writing career?

I don’t know that I think of my writing as a “career,” exactly—or at least, I don’t think of my poetry that way. It is more of a vocation. I have always experienced reading and writing as an essential life force. I grew up in Los Angeles and started writing poetry in second grade, when the poet Cecilia Woloch began to conduct after-school workshops at my elementary school through California Poets in the Schools. I read, studied and imitated a variety of poetry as I got older, and after I moved to New York City in 2002, I started volunteering at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, where I got to attend workshops and readings for free. There I met a lot of poets and was exposed to a much wider range of styles than I had previously known existed.

I can identify that period as when my poetry really matured. I studied with the poet Joanna Fuhrman, first at the Poetry Project and later in private classes, and she recommended Goddard College to me. When I was 24 I started Goddard College’s Individualized BA program, which is where I began to read through a critical lens, and developing my critical faculties has ultimately impacted my creative practice.

I left Brooklyn in 2011 to pursue an MFA at the University of Pittsburgh. By then I had been writing for a long time, giving readings and publishing some, and I arrogantly thought I could do anything I wanted, but by being pushed beyond my comfort zone, I pretty quickly ran up against my own limitations. At Pitt I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors in Dawn Lundy Martin and Terrance Hayes, who challenged me at every turn while still affirming a belief in my writing. For my three years there, I felt like I was always ripping apart and reinventing my practice, as muscles rip when we exercise in order to grow.

What can you tell us about the publication process? How does the process differ when aiming to publish a chapbook versus a full-length collection?

I have to acknowledge my privilege as I say this, but all of my chapbooks and pamphlets were published by people I already knew, who were familiar with my writing already and wanted to give it a boost. I do remember Joe Pan at Brooklyn Arts Press asking me if I knew anyone with a chapbook manuscript, probably in early 2010, and I said, “Oh, I’m working on one.” He didn’t seem particularly interested then, but in 2011 he asked me for it.

The full-length manuscript was a completely different matter. I started sending it to contests and some open reading periods in the summer of 2014, shortly after I finished my MFA, and ramped up my submissions after I started my fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing last fall. The manuscript was a finalist three times and was picked up by Ahsahta in June 2015. I feel pretty fortunate in that it only took me a year to place my book, although it won’t actually appear in print until March of 2017.

The problem with this system is that the entry fees add up. Without much public support for the arts in this country, many presses are relying on the fees to pay their readers and fund their projects, but it does perpetuate a kind of classism in poetry, as many poets simply cannot keep shelling out $20 and $30 entry fees, and so much is dependent on taste that even excellent manuscripts sometimes take years to find a home. Of course, there are some presses that will give you a free reading through open reading periods or responses to queries, but the contest/entry fee model seems to be the norm.

What are some of the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? Can you speak to the process of artfully investigating the intersectionality of gender, race, and sexuality in your forthcoming book What’s Hanging on the Hush?

Well, you named a lot of my themes. I have often written about hair as a way of writing about race, gender, and sexuality. My relationship with my hair often feels politicized—as a mixed-race black woman and as a feminine-of-center queer woman. I have never straightened my hair, but growing up I felt a lot of pressure to do so. What does it mean when simply being yourself, as you genetically are, is considered too “unruly” by the mainstream? I am hyper aware of the politics of hair in a place like Madison where there are few people of color. When I moved here I asked every black woman I met where she got her hair cut, and the replies were Milwaukee, Chicago, “my bathroom,” or “I just don’t cut my hair.” I went back to Pittsburgh for two days after the Cave Canem retreat, and the highlight of my time there was finally getting a haircut! In Madison I feel hypervisible and simultaneously invisible, and my hair is a manifestation of that contradiction.

The last poem in “What’s Hanging on the Hush” is a five-page poem called “_____ than Cake” that I began in one of Dawn’s workshops. I don’t remember her exact prompt, but it was something like—“write around a text to write about some theme related to the body.” In the draft we turned in to class, you couldn’t use the actual language from the text in the poem itself. I had been thinking a lot about celibacy and singleness, as I felt like my life as a single woman was constantly devalued, and I happened to watch the 2011 documentary (A)Sexual, directed by Angela Tucker, on Netflix. I am not asexual, but as a perpetually single person, I can identify with the struggle to be accepted as one who is whole in herself, while the dominant narrative is telling me I need another to “complete” me, which I know is hogwash but occasionally cannot resist buying into. At one point in the documentary an asexual-identified individual named Cole explains, “The idea of asexuals and cake came about because somebody posed the question ‘What’s better than sex?’ and everybody seems to universally agree that cake is just fantastic. Jokingly, cake would be the asexual sex.” I wound up writing this sprawling collage poem that uses sexualized language to describe cake while investigating celibacy, singleness, and solitude. Over two years later, my relationship to sexuality has changed enough that I don’t entirely agree with my own poem, but it’s still my favorite poem in the book because it is the most ambitious, and the page became this laboratory where, over several months, I worked through all these ideas around my own ways of being and making in the world.

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

Harryette Mullen has been a big influence—I love her wordplay and language experiments and the playful but oh-so-sharp social consciousness that infuses her work. Muse & Drudge was particularly important for me because it is pushing against essentialized notions of black female identity and also because Mullen’s use of allusions is meant to appeal to a range of audiences, so that everybody will “get” something but nobody will get everything, and we are all making our own meaning as we go. I guess that is not such a novel idea to literary critics, but when I first encountered that book, it seemed revolutionary to me. Kristen Prevallet’s I, Afterlife: Essay in Mourning Time made me think about grief as a formal consideration, as does virtually all of Dawn Lundy Martin’s work. I’ve also been influenced by Alice Notley’s radical honesty and feminist poetics, Dana Ward’s expansive sense of community and his emotional truthfulness, particularly in “Typing Wild Speech,” Terrance Hayes’s restless energy and commitment to making it new, and Bhanu Kapil, Michael Ondaataje, and Claudia Rankine’s approach to hybrid work. I just read Tyehimba Jess’s book leadbelly last month, and that has given me a lot to think about in terms of history, form, and biomythologies, which are big concerns in the project I’m working on now.

As a teenager, I really loved Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. I carried Howl around with me everywhere and read it aloud to myself, and while it set me up with a lot of romanticized bohemian illusions, it also trained my ear and eye through the reckless energy and imagery, the chanting quality of the anaphora, the long-lined velocity. I love what happens when I teach that book. Even after all this time, it jogs students’ conceptions of what a poem can be and do. And finally, I feel like this is an unpopular sentiment, but I love T.S. Eliot, specifically The Waste Land. It leaves me breathless every time.

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a good story, poem, etc.?

Emotional truthfulness, which is not the same as factual truthfulness. And that the content and form must work together—they are inextricably linked.

In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when applying to contests or journals, or approaching different presses?

Oh, geez. This is not my strong suit. For presses, yes, I look for presses that are interested in the kind of thing I am doing—that is, hybrid forms, an expansive approach to innovation, socially conscious or feminist poetics. Also, if it’s a contest, I consider who the judge is and whether that person might be a good reader of my work. I really am not very good at keeping up with the latest journals. Most of my journal publications have actually been solicited. But in general, I think it is good to keep the same concerns in mind. If you can think of your work as part of a conversation, where are the other writers in that conversation publishing? And what magazines are instigating that discussion?

What can you tell us about your experience as a teacher of writing? 

When I was writing a teaching philosophy statement, the through-line was “challenge while affirming,” which is what all my best teachers have done for me. I demand a certain degree of intellectual/critical rigor from students that some are not expecting from a creative writing class but that ultimately pushes them to think, read, and write more deeply. Some students are resistant to being pushed, but a lot of them thrive on it, including some who did not previously think of themselves as writers.

When I taught Introduction to Poetry Writing, I made the theme “process and play.” We did a lot of in-class exercises that were meant to be generative—imitations, cut ups, homophonic translations. Several were exercises I adapted from Joanna Fuhrman’s workshops. If you can think in terms of process rather than product, you will discover possibilities for your writing that you would never arrive at if bound to your original intention. I also give students a lot to read from across the stylistic spectrum. If you have to choose between reading and workshop, I would choose reading. If you don’t have models, you don’t know what is possible.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

See #1. Well, we could go all the way back to Cecilia Woloch and California Poets in the Schools in second grade. When I was eighteen I was a corps member in AmeriCorps*NCCC. I travelled all over the Southeastern U.S. as part of a team of twelve, and that really challenged my own assumptions, which is also what I do in my writing. The Poetry Project was huge, Goddard was huge, the University of Pittsburgh was huge, and the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing was also a significant challenge and opportunity. Teaching has really informed my creative practice, as has critical reading and writing. The Icarus Project, which is challenging mental health paradigms, inspired me to transform limitations into opportunities. Finding the right teachers, readers, and friends. Most recently, Cave Canem—the moment I got on the bus to the retreat and realized that for once in my life I didn’t stick out.

I’m not sure that you can talk about “opportunity” without talking about class, about race, about gender, about sexuality and ability and geography. I was born into an upper-middle class family, raised in central Los Angeles, spent nine years in New York City, and when I fell apart in my early twenties I did not wind up on the street or permanently institutionalized or dead because there were people who cared about me who could negotiate the system. That is what you call privilege.

Is there any advice you would give to fledgling writers/artists?

When I was younger (I’m talking teens, early twenties), I put too much emphasis on publication. I thought that in order to be a “real” writer, I had to be published, and I started submitting to journals when I was about 13. This was not the most productive use of time. I wish I had focused less energy on “getting published” and more on learning how to write. Most of the time I feel like I’m sending all this stuff into a void that spits out rejections, and it is wonderful when somebody digs what I do. But recognition in the form of publications and fellowships and reading invitations does not make you a writer. What makes you a writer is to keep writing even when nobody is interested and to keep pushing the boundaries of what you can make and do.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

“Successfully accomplished so much”? Really?

I am thigh-deep in a new book project, a poetic hybrid work based on the family line of my great-great-grandfather, Robert Wallace Hubert, who was a Captain in the Confederate army. After the war, he fathered twenty “mulatto” children by three of his former slaves, who were also sisters. When I acquired a copy of Hubert’s diary, I became interested in the role omission plays in the diary—what is left out is perhaps more significant than what is included. Thus omission is a primary structural device in the project, but I have also done a lot of peripheral research in my effort to write into that space. I am concerned about the construction of biomythologies, race, history, and legacy. And since most of what I know comes to me via Hubert—his diary, his military records, even his grades—I also want to give a voice to my great-great grandmother Peggy and her sisters, black women who have been silenced by history. The construction of history is all about power.