“At peace in the dark where writers work.”
October 26, 2020
Writing practices, influences, and making art in a time of catastrophe. A Public Space Managing Editor Megan Cummins speaks with the 2020 Writing Fellows—Katie Foster, Rosemarie Ho, and Crawford Hunt—about the art that has sustained them in an unsettled year.
Megan Cummins: What have your writing practices looked like during the pandemic?
Rosemarie Ho: How do you make art under catastrophe? This is something I have been struggling with for the past year, as a writer born and raised in Hong Kong… Whims, little scenes, snippets of dialogue occur to me and I jot them down, but I haven’t been able to sustain a regular writing practice, so to speak. I guess I try to journal regularly and grasp at the hazy smoke of my consciousness.
Crawford Hunt: I like to write in motion—while riding the subway or walking through the city after dark. But when the quarantine started, I stopped doing either. As my routines unraveled, so did my writing habits. Instead of writing, I sat on my front stoop and watched people. I littered my bedroom floor with collaging scraps and read the Japanese poet Mokichi Saitō whose moody tankas spoke to me. (“Sad / holding against / me / not a woman / only this book on psychiatry”). Most of the time my mind felt blank, but not in an enlightened way.
Katie Foster: I lost my job in March. My partner was working in a school that immediately went virtual. While first grade was beamed into our living room, I was confined to our bedroom. Everything was hard—most distressingly, reading was incredibly difficult. Losing reading felt like losing a part of myself. Thankfully, miraculously, somehow, writing never left me.
I’ve never been a writer who can stick to a routine or a schedule, but the circumstances of quarantine made me that kind of writer.
MC: At the beginning of your Fellowships, you each asked a question about your writing. Can you tell us what that question was, and how you’re thinking about it now?
CH: Does my writing feel withholding? Am I prioritizing rhythm and compression at the expense of the story?
I’m not sure how other writers start a story, but I can’t get to work until the sentences I’m writing start to snap. I’m talking about a feeling but also a sound. A Lucinda Williams song could tell you more about the relationship between rhythm and intimacy than I ever could (see “Right in Time”), but I will say, that for me, as both a writer and a reader, rhythm is always my way in.
I think intimacy makes shorthand possible. With good friends or a lover or even a reader you’re keeping close, you don’t ever have to overexplain. You can say less because what you do say is understood—intimacy fills the gap between what you say versus what you mean.
KF: How do I move from a sketch to a fully-rendered picture? My intuition as a poet is to trust negative space and trust the reader to make a leap.
On a surface level, negative space is a question of form. Quite simply, what will this poem look like on the page? How does the white, blank space of a page act upon the trajectory of the poem? I know one of my strengths as a poet is my keen eye/ear/heart for line breaks.
Beyond line breaks, even beyond the page, negative space is a force I am always negotiating… Mark Strand said it better: “In a field / I am the absence / of field.” I think this property is transitive, in that we can also say the field is the absence of “I.”
So, in terms of the novel, I am thinking of negative space first as a very simple, formal thing. What do I put in, what do I leave out…? The more interesting thing to me is the larger question of negative space as it acts on the lives of my characters, or, more honestly, the life of my main character… What happens when one is put in the position of having to consider one’s dream life as being as valid as waking, lived experiences?
RH: I’d like my style as a writer to be more lyrical and more experimental. How does one acquire a style?
Robert Bolaño had this to say about form and content: “Form seeks an artifice; the story seeks a precipice. Or to use a metaphor from the Chilean countryside (a bad one, as you’ll see): It’s not that I don’t like precipices, but I prefer to see them from a bridge.” I feel like I’ve been trying to build elaborate bridges around precipices that don’t yet exist, or ditches that don’t actually require any level of scaffolding, to preemptively ward off accusations that I am a boring engineer. Which is to say: I think I have (or can acquire) the technical knowledge to pull off formally ambitious stories and experiments in style, but have not really allowed myself to cultivate the modes of perception and sensitivity that would allow me to get close to my characters and truly understand them—and therefore to represent them, their alterity, in formally interesting ways.
MC: Can you tell us about a work of art, from any field, that has been important to you lately?
KF: The Collected Stories of Leonora Carrington. When I first came across this collection, I was enthralled by the strangeness, the beauty, and the images Carrington puts to page. There is a painterly approach to writing here, with colors and atmosphere and juxtaposition, and little care given to making sense or order out of the world except in reverse, as in, starting with surreality and working back to reality.
RH: I have loved ballet for as long as I have been conscious and find myself reaching to it whenever I am asked to talk about my writing process. Every aspiring ballerina is taught that there can be no artistry without deep technical proficiency, no transcendence without discipline, and there is no better demonstration of this than the classic Kingdom of the Shades scene from La Bayadère. In the scene, the corps de ballet descends a ramp in synchronized arabesques… Sometimes when writing, I think of the ballerinas floating down the stage: how do I lead the reader from darkness into grace? It is also sometimes instructive to watch a YouTube video of the Royal Ballet practicing the scene—and remind myself that every performance, every piece of art, requires a whole lot of work and attention to even the smallest of details.
CH: Summer, 1964 by Agnes Martin. I'm not sure I have anything intelligent to say about it except that it makes the back of my head tingle. I'm excited by its saturated blue color and its grid of thin black lines. It reminds me of swimming and of multiplication tables and of going to church one Palm Sunday when the preacher asked us to bow our heads and pray for the city’s aquifer. I like all of Agnes Martin’s paintings, but this one often makes me want to work.
MC: Rosemarie, I love this idea of taking a pause to study another form of artistry, letting the study of movement become a part of your writing practice. As a writer, do you see yourself as the choreographer, as one of the dancers, the composer, or all of these?
RH: Where technical proficiency mutates into artistry is how the individual dancer interprets the piece, how she situates it within the broader narrative arc of the ballet, how she contributes to the collective practice of making art while negotiating the demands of her ego. The variation becomes even more interesting when—and it is very rare when it comes to classical ballet—the choreographer intervenes and asks herself, How can I subvert the expectations my audience has of this piece, and forge ahead with something completely new?… So, as a wildly inept dancer first, spectator second, I guess my answers to your questions are yes; all of the above, sort of.
MC: Crawford, I’m interested in what you said about movement helping your writing. Why is that?
CH: I think movement helps my creative process because I need distractions to focus, or my body needs distractions. Even a kid, I used to make up stories in my head while racing back and forth across my parents' living room.
I remember writing the first lines of "Arnold" on the walk to and from the pool where I used to swim laps after work. I think I start most of my stories when I'm walking somewhere. At a certain point, ideas start to get lost, or the notes section on my phone can't contain the story, and I have to switch to the computer. But I like to revise lying down.
MC: Katie, you wondered if a poet would approach an ending differently than a novelist. How do you imagine a poet’s approach to an ending? Do you have an ending imagined for your novel?
KF: I think being a poet has forced me to be at peace in the dark where writers work. I’ve also learned to love the surprise of what happens when a piece speaks for itself. That said, I have an idea of where the book might take me, but I don’t want to force it. A poet’s approach to an ending is, perhaps, the same approach to the end of a line or a stanza—where does the silence come in? And, in this case, the big silence that is the end? When I hear that quiet, I’ll know.
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