Molly Rose Quinn was raised in Memphis, Tennessee and now lives in New York, where she is the Director of Public Programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, a nonprofit bookstore and event venue that raises money to fight AIDS and homelessness. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in PEN Poetry Series, Black Warrior Review, The Offing, The Agriculture Reader, and many other places. Her interviews and criticism appear in The Atlas Review, Literary Hub, The L Magazine, Scout poetry review, and The Brooklyn Rail. She is a fiction committee member for the Brooklyn Book Festival and co-organizer of the Moby-Dick Marathon NYC.
TBL Author Q&A Series: Molly Quinn
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!
What compelled you to become a writer? What jumpstarted your career?
Writing has always been linked to place for me, and will always be. I understand myself by thinking against and into the place where I am, and I do this on the page. My family moved around a good deal for the early part of my childhood, and I was an avid diarist and letter writer as early as I could write or draw. When I moved to Memphis, Tennessee at age 10, where I stayed until I left for college, my understanding of place and one’s relationship to it was transformed. I found solace and understanding on the page. As far as jumpstarting my career, such as it is, I had two incredible writing teachers during undergrad, poets Valerie Savior and Martha Ronk, whose generosity I am indebted to. I would not have pursued an MFA or taken any steps towards my life now without their encouragement and their electric minds.
Your poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Powderkeg, PEN Poetry Series, Four Way Review and other places. What changes have you noticed in publishing and what’s been your experience with finding the right publication for your poems?
I would never and do never consider myself an expert in these things, but from what I know of poets ten and twenty and thirty years ahead of us, I would say that the internet has been a democratizing and splintering force on how books of poems get put into the world and who reads them. I think when you look at independent publications run by one or two individuals (largely out of their homes, after their own full time jobs)—The Atlas Review & chapbook series edited by Natalie Eilbert comes to mind, or Action Books from Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson—and, simultaneously, look at the work that Saeed Jones and Karolina Waclawiak are doing with BuzzFeed, a gigantic media company, with their READER, what’s clear to me is that the concept of access has changed. And there is an entrepreneurial spirit in so many writers now, a desire to start something new and be editors and curators and founders, start new programs and redo syllabi.
That being said, I really, really want to emphasize that being white, being straight, being wealthy enough to get an expensive education and/or live in NYC, and keeping a homogenous circle is still an incredibly successful way of moving oneself forward. We have a lot of work to do. But also, a lot has changed.
As far as finding the right publications for my poems, I feel very lucky to have met so many writers who have come up through alternative and surprising ways. None of it is easy, but I do not prescribe to the belief that there is one way to become a writer or one right place for a poem or a book. And I think that belief is a recipe for bad writing, by the way.
What topics interest you? Do you find you write in a particular style? How has your writing changed throughout your career?
The biggest change for me has been moving away from my MFA when I felt there was a strong focus on writing the cleanest sentences possible. One of my fellow classmates called my poems “technically sound” once, very close to the end of my last term, and I remember being kind of heartbroken. School is wonderful for teaching sentences—in the few years since then, I think I have been learning my own heart.
What other writers have influenced your love of the craft?
Marguerite Duras, Maggie Nelson, Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton, Federico García Lorca, C.D. Wright, Flannery O’Connor, Jean Rhys, Theresa Hak Khung Cha, Henry Darger, Otis Redding, William Faulkner, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Jean Rhys, Joy Williams, Valerie Mejer, Hilton Als, Claudia Rankine, Terrance Hayes, Kiese Laymon, Shane McCrae, Cathy Park Hong, Cornelius Eady, Eileen Myles, Kate Zambreno, James Hannaham, Natalie Diaz, Bhanu Kapil, Natalie Eilbert, Morgan Parker.
What are your opinions on the elements of a successful poem? How concrete are these elements to you?
Not concrete in the least. What succeeds can often be changeable, entirely at the whim of a reader’s desires, needs, joys, fears, and lives. I can be a very picky and inattentive reader—the poems I know that succeed in staying with me do so often because they get into my body. What I may have wanted to pursue in the poem itself is no longer up for questioning. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Valerie Mejer’s Rain of the Future lately, and I cannot stop saying (aloud and in my head) and writing in my notebook, over and over, “sometimes the way is a fire…”
Tell me about your poem “West Memphis” that was recently published in Okey-Panky. What compelled you to write it?
The heart of this poem started with and remains inside the first words: “On the bank of something.” I’ve long been haunted by the stark and severe segregation of that region, and the Memphis skyline along the Mississippi River, overlooking the dramatically less-populated West Memphis, Arkansas – a small town directly across the river from us—is one of the better visual representation of all the walls and borders and lines and dividers of that place. In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, West Memphis was a lawless second Beale Street, where gambling and liquor laws were looser. Now, West Memphis is abruptly deprived when departing the big city of real Memphis across the river. We never went there besides to my favorite biscuits and gravy place: Earl’s Hot Biscuits (since closed).
My life in Memphis was always about leaving it, and as soon as I did leave it, (westward, over that bridge, beyond Arkansas to California), I realized I couldn’t or wouldn’t ever. That bridge is the direction I left. I left those I loved and those I forgot, and those who were dead, and those dying.
I will always long for bridges and rivers, for the expanse of a sunset’s glare across a flat unending landscape, a wide riverbed. I’m very restless with form, and I wrote West Memphis directly after I wrote a long poem that sits in a wide, fat, single, three-page-long stanza. The measured cadence of this poem, and the white space between the lines, are those borders. Those prison walls. Those lines. What happens when we cross them? What freedom are we claiming? What home are we dismantling? What are we turning away from that can never be turned back towards? Leaving and staying are everything to me. We are always doing both.
In the fourth stanza you bring up a well-known crime. The crime itself is haunting but the way you write about it is even more so. What made you add this into “West Memphis”?
I have long been obsessed with what this poem calls Southern death. Loss and violence are how we understand what it is to be alive. To be whole or broken but breathing. There was loss and violence surrounding my life in Memphis, sometimes in a distant periphery and sometimes not. Maybe it is childhood, maybe it’s something about the humidity—but death there feels more spiritual, more body and unbody, more terror and sick, and more heart. In Damien Echols’ Life After Death he writes about how places can be ghosts too, not just people. What’s Southern to me is a received nostalgia, as forgiving as it is condemning, as true as it is untrue. I have so much more to say about the West Memphis Three case, about the individuals involved and the community response. But in the case of this poem, I was looking from Memphis to West Memphis, from one place to another, across our river, which is the corner where Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas meet, and considering what responsibility we have to look at some things, and maybe what responsibility we have to look away.
Your images demand the reader’s attention. They are both innocent and sinister. How did you come up with the images for this poem?
This is an easy question. When I see a bridge, any bridge in any landscape, I immediately see the bridge between Tennessee and Arkansas. When I see a church, I see all our churches, every last one; the one spoken about here being a white-wash brick structure a few steps from the riverbank. As to their morality, to that too I really cannot take the credit. All my Southern images, which feel hot to me no matter how many years pass, are as sacred as they are profane, as evil as holy.
When submitting your work, do you keep a particular journal’s audience in mind? How do you approach the editors of the publications you submit to?
I tend to submit the way everyone else does (I think?), but I’m definitely lucky to have met and worked with lots of other editors and writers, which is a great way to open a dialogue about possibly publishing with someone. I probably think less about a journal’s audience then I do about the editors there and the work they’re doing, what electricity might come of an exchange with them.
What can you tell us about your experiences as the Director of Public Programming at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe? About working on the Fiction Committee of the Brooklyn Book Festival?
One of the several extreme privileges of my life is that I was able to figure out pretty early on that being handy with a spreadsheet and a to-do list was a meaningful way for me to contribute to my field. My position at Housing Works has been a life-changing job, it is the kind of thing that exists no place else and likely won’t ever. Both Housing Works and the Brooklyn Book Festival are roles I take as service towards other writers, something I’m lucky to do.
What would your advice be for young writers trying to establish a foothold in the literary market?
Stick with the people that love you, they will be the best ones for your poems in the end. Don’t feel compelled to have a certain lifestyle because a writer that you love has that lifestyle. Write to the writers that you love, tell them what you loved about their work. Read against your cultural background, against your style, habits, favorites, and against your education. Be kind, first. Don’t worry about timelines—write slow.
What are your current goals, after you’ve experienced so much success? Is there a particular type of poem you’d like to focus on?
To the first half of your question, I’ll say that I truly feel that I have just barely started out, especially in terms of the poems I’m making. But my goals right now… I’ve been at work on a manuscript since my MFA, from which most of my published work draws, and I’m hotly inside of new poems and revisions towards a new draft of that manuscript, after a long year of big changes in my life. I’m taking some time off from NYC and my job this summer to write, and I can’t wait. I’ve never felt as revved up by my pen on paper as I do right now. Like “West Memphis,” the manuscript takes as its territory my young life in Memphis, Tennessee, pressed up against some of the more notorious and romanticized events of that city. It hopes to enter the fervor of religion, racial tensions, and violence of that city and its history from the profoundly skewed lens of a young, white, wealthy, woman, meaning me. The work is concerned with the sensationalized violence within the white community there against the tolerated violence within the black community, as well as the facts of my own life, thinking through sexuality and religion and queerness and grief and nostalgia and lost friends and heartbreak. Like Memphis, the poems are erratic and impatient with form, intertextual references, influences, collaging, and history. I hope they will also, like Memphis, have music at their heart.
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