[A] mysterious poet visitor was sitting in an undergraduate workshop at the U of MN. Someone said he was a famous poet from China, and honestly I don’t remember what his name was. I wouldn’t have known who was famous then. Why was he there? He came up after class once and said, “You’re going to be a good poet one day.” It kind of shook me.
Carrie Oeding’s first book, Our List of Solutions, won the Lester M. Wolfson prize in 2010, selected by David Dodd Lee. The book was released in 2011 by 42 Miles Press, a new poetry series from Indiana University South Bend Press. Carrie’s work has appeared in such places as Colorado Review, Third Coast, Greensboro Review, Mid-American Review, Best New Poets 2005 and elsewhere. She is currently working on a second book of poems and a book of creative nonfiction essays. A native of Minnesota, Carrie has lived in Washington, Ohio, Texas and now resides in West Virginia with her husband, poet Kent Shaw.
Visit Carrie’s website: http://www.carrieoeding.com/
How Carrie Oeding Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (er, or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Carrie for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
I was really in my head as a kid. Books excited me, but they excite a lot of young people, so who knows. When I grew older, I knew I wanted to make art, and I was closest with language as an outlet. When I was a junior in high school, I started telling people I was going to major in creative writing at the University of Minnesota, and then I did.
I was born on a small Minnesota farm, a small working farm where my dad grows corn and soybeans and sometimes raised sheep. I never write poems about where I grew up. There’s no negative or traumatic reason for this. I have, however, one piece in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Creative Nonfiction that is about my relationship with growing up on a farm. I want to say “in isolation on a farm,” but I think of my husband laughing when I said we lived 5 miles from town, which was hardly isolation. But it might as well have been 50 miles, as I spent most of my life on the farm. And, anyway, the “town” was Luverne, MN–population: less than 5,000. My husband also likes to chuckle at the image of me stretched across my bed, literally waiting for something to happen, anything. People like to look back and find meaning after the fact about how they got here, some of this is true and some is storytelling. Storytelling is meaning-making, I understand, but I don’t always trust it. This distrust works well in essays as it creates a constant need for questioning and rethinking.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
In a pretty conventional way. B.A. in English with creative writing emphasis. Attending an MFA program immediately after at the age of 22. Ph.D. in creative writing right after that. But this doesn’t necessarily explain how I became a writer. I became a writer by writing. I remember almost all of my undergraduate creative writing teachers saying, “Just write, and things will happen,” and when I began to see it was true, I never doubted this. I still don’t. Even when I’m anxious about what’s next.
Was I too young to leave Minneapolis after undergrad and pursue an MFA at 22? Probably. But I was right to make the decision, and I immediately had a real writing life because if it. If I hadn’t left Minnesota to get an MFA at that time, I likely would be a very unhappy person today who doesn’t write. Maybe I wouldn’t, but I wouldn’t want to go back in time and find out.
I heard someone on NPR a number of years ago, a fiction writer, who said he taught himself how to write stories by retyping Grace Paley’s short stories. It was an “I had no idea what I was doing” confession, but I loved the idea of it. And Grace Paley should be retyped by all of us. I can’t remember who it was, but then I think he went on to somehow fall into some famous novelist’s lap who schooled him.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
This is another interesting question, because I again want to answer it in different ways. Some of the people who helped me in the beginning of my writing life were practically strangers whom I had brief encounters with. For instance, a mysterious poet visitor was sitting in an undergraduate workshop at the U of MN. Someone said he was a famous poet from China, and honestly I don’t remember what his name was. I wouldn’t have known who was famous then. Why was he there? He came up after class once and said, “You’re going to be a good poet one day.” It kind of shook me. It didn’t stay with me, though. I just remembered this recently.
The writers I read whom initially helped open up the idea of what writing could do—Stevie Smith, Amy Hempel, Mary Ruefle, Frank O’Hara, Barry Hannah, Larry Levis, Claire Bateman, Russell Edson, Lydia Davis. I feel incredibly unsatisfied stopping here, but I’m just making lists.
My editor, David Dodd Lee, for being such a smart reader of my first book (and of poems, period), seeing that it is doing something new, understanding its humor and seriousness, and publishing it. Publishing it in a gorgeous book that completely lives up to my in-print dreams! Also, my husband, Kent Shaw, who is a poet, who has read more contemporary poetry than anyone I’ve met and sees the book in the same vein. His writing keeps me excited about poetry, which is funny because when we first started dating we didn’t read each other’s work. We are both very critical, and we secretly worried we wouldn’t like each other’s poems. Our writing was a huge surprise to each other. Then we got hitched.
Some who currently help me are the writers and artists who keep me excited about making things: Alice Notley, Eula Biss, Maggie Nelson, Mattea Harvey, Werner Herzog, Miranda July. I am absolutely on fire about artist Sarah Sze, but you should see the installations in person.
Something that has helped me from stopping writing after I completed my first book, is taking art classes during my two years in Houston. I saw a Martin Puryear show at the SFMOMA in 2009. I had finished my first book, and it was unpublished. I was alone and at god-awful MLA, and it was one of the best art experiences of my life. Something about walking closely around his sculptures made me feel like I was breathing for the first time in two years. I moved to Houston nine months later and took art classes at the Museum of Fine Art’s Glassell School. I remember the first night of just intro to drawing and how it felt electric to be sketching terribly in the humid Houston August. I think there were times I slept with my art supplies. It’s stupid, I hate these kinds of narratives, but I am going to own this one. Two years of classes weren’t enough, but having that kind of excitement about making anything recharged my writing.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
Joseph Cornell and Henry Darger were easy to get obsessed with. There is no line between their artistic and personal biographies. Going back to the writer who copied lines of Grace Paley, I like the idea of trying to figure things out on your own–having a hunch of what you want to do, and like Darger, finding ways on his own to get his collages “right” for him.
Also Ana Mendieta, I’m fascinated with, her performance pieces, during which uses her body in ways I’m usually very cynical about.
Louise Bourgeois is one of my favorite artists. Her wit, side view, darkness, and play are right up my alley. And she just works in so many mediums. Never stopped exploring.
I’d like to be around Marianne Moore. Have her as a neighbor, but I don’t want to read her biography.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Write and read, and things will happen.
If you’re a poet, consider making something in addition to poetry. You need to be making something all of the time, whatever it is. Poems, collages, pancakes.
Be humble. Don’t romanticize being humble. Don’t be so easily impressed.