Martha Silano is the author of four books of poetry, including Reckless Lovely, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception (winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize), and Blue Positive. She is co-editor, with Kelli Russell Agodon, The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts for your Writing Practice. Saturnalia Books will release her fifth book of poems, Gravity Assist, in early 2019. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Paris Review, American Poetry Review, and New England Review, among others. The recipient of Yaddo’s 2017 Martha Walsh Pulver residency, Martha teaches at Bellevue College.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Martha Silano
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!
How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, or intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?
I can trace my writing career back to 1968—Mrs. Everett’s 2nd grade class at Moss Elementary. She read us some haiku, and then we wrote a few. I was 7.
You’ve published several books—what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?
I didn’t think of trying to publish my poems until I was in my teens, when I learned my high school had a literary magazine. I published my first poem nationally at age 30. This was while I was enrolled in the MFA program at University of Washington, where we were being urged to put together a book-length collection (we needed one to graduate), so I began toying with sequencing the few poems I determined to be book-worthy. Little by little it grew to chapbook length. I graduated with somewhere around 48 pages, then worked on that manuscript another five or six years, at which time it was accepted for publication by a very small press in Maine (now defunct).
I guess you could say I learned to put a book together in grad school, but the real work came those half a dozen years after. My second and third books, Blue Positive and The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, followed a similar pattern—write poems, toy with a sequence, get it out to 48 pages, send it out to contests. Office won the Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, a two-book contract, so with the next book (Reckless Lovely), I already had a publisher. Between 2014 and the end of 2017, I wrote two full-length collections. One of them, Gravity Assist, will appear from Saturnalia Books in 2019. The other, Glottal Stop, is making the rounds at several presses. Working on two manuscripts at once was certainly a new twist! The two books are quite different in subject matter, so it was an exhilarating experience to shift back and forth.
Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?
My topics include space travel, mothering, environmental degradation, endangered species, insects, gardening, social commentary, overhead conversations, etymologies, and, more recently, the current political climate. It’s hard to see my own themes, but I think they have to do with evolution of the self, overcoming adversity, grieving for what’s been lost, and reveling in all that we still have, all the good despite greed, selfishness, shortsightedness, and lack of empathy.
What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?
Basho, Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, William Stafford, Lucille Clifton, Barbara Hamby, Bernadette Meyer, Bob Hicok, Denise Duhamel, Dorianne Laux, Ellen Bass, Patricia Smith, and a lot more I’m forgetting.
What would you say is the most important element for crafting a poem, or for discovering a new mode of creativity?
It’s important to lower your expectations (I stole that from William Stafford). Get something on paper, and worry about making it a strong poem later. David Wagoner said to write your first draft like a madman. Then go take a nap. When you’re refreshed and well rested, revise like a disinterested editor.
In terms of discovering and experimenting with new modes, you have to be a little cocky, or at least have a can-do attitude. If you’re bent on writing a pantoum, you need to dive in with many attempts. Read a lot of pantoums. You also need to be prepared to fail miserably. I guess it’s like anything—even when you’re an Olympic skier, you can fall flat on your face. I am endlessly interested in writing a kind of poem or exploring a subject I haven’t wrestled with yet.
In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses? Blue Positive, The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception: Poems, and What the Truth Tastes Like have all been published by different publishing houses. I wonder what factors play into choosing and developing relationships with presses.
I don’t think my experience stands out when it comes to moving from press to press until a publisher (in my case, Saturnalia Books) expresses interest in continuing to believe in and support my work. But in terms of choosing where to send my unpublished manuscripts, generally I sent to prestigious presses with lists I admired—Sarabande, Autumn House Press, Southern Illinois U. Press, Pitt, etc. In the case of Saturnalia, I loved the poets on their list, which at that time included Sarah Vap, Sabrina Oren Mark, Tomas Salamun, and Natalie Shapero. Who wouldn’t want to be in that kind of company? I’d also heard that Henry Israel (Saturnalia EIC) was easy to work with (which turned out to be true).
What can you tell us about your experiences as an English teacher?
I can’t even begin to express my gratitude to the colleges that have permitted me to share my passion for writing and literature with their students these past 25 years. I can’t imagine what other job could inspire and sustain me more. There are so many things about teaching that I love, but near the top of the list is the constant need to innovate and experiment. Being forced by changes in pedagogical thinking to try something radically new. When it goes well, it’s pretty cool; when it fails, there’s always a chance to get it right next time. Finally, there’s the electric feeling of witnessing intellectual and emotional growth in my students. It’s exhilarating work, and I feel incredibly lucky to earn my living doing it.
Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?
There were a few things that happened early on that helped a lot. One was being awarded a Millay Colony residency (I’d published only a handful of poems at the time). Being deemed worthy of a month of time to write and read to my heart’s content had a profoundly positive effect on me.
Publishing my first book opened doors, including being granted a reading at the flagship Barnes & Nobel in Manhattan (one of my co-readers was Wesley McNair!). It also permitted me to submit to an anthology titled American Poetry: the Next Generation (four of my poems are included).
What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?
Charles Simic said “cultivate your madness.” This has worked for me, but it might not be good advice for others. I like what Richard Hugo says in The Triggering Town about not being afraid of accusations of sentimentality. What else? Don’t give up! Write your heart out! Attend workshops and readings. Read lots of poetry. Fall in love with a poet and imitate them. Do this again, and again, and again. Keep in mind that poetry is secondarily a form of communication, and primarily a way of making language pop and sing.
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?
I don’t feel I’ve come close to accomplishing my goals. I have many more poems to write, many more places to send my work, more feats to attempt, including writing a successful villanelle. I’ve finished five books, but I’m mostly focused on the 6th one (unpublished), and the one after that. I’d also like to focus on essay writing, perhaps when my oldest begins college.
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