I believe that in our multi-media, internet content-saturated lives, it’s in many ways harder now to pull the signal out of the noise and to hear your own voice, let alone develop it. It’s important to keep the chatter at bay.
Deborah Fries is a poet, essayist and editor whose first book of poetry, Various Modes of Departure, was published by Kore Press in 2004. Her second book, A Field Guide to Temporal Habitat, will be published by Kore in 2012. She is an editorial board member and columnist at Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments, and in 2011 began an online journal, The New Purlieu Review. She is a recipient of a Kore Press First Book Award, a James Hearst Poetry Prize, a Leeway Foundation grant, and in 2006 was selected by Galway Kinnell as the Montgomery County (PA) Poet Laureate.
Read more by and about Deborah:
How Deborah Fries 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 (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 Deborah for saying yes!
1. Why did you want to become a writer?
As a kid, I loved the musicality of words, and they’d get stuck in my head like pop tunes. I think I must have walked around for years with “runcible spoon” just below the surface of conscious thought. Ultimately, I chose writing because it was the expressive medium that allowed me multiple chances to get it right. I always enjoyed writing, but growing up, I thought I’d be an artist. I headed off to college as an art major. But I could never make my hands create what my mind anticipated. At some point, I gave up on a process that seemed unforgiving and switched to writing, which offers endless possibilities for revision. It’s still important to me to maintain precision in writing, but I’ve learned to have fun through the medium of printmaking by not being so invested in the outcome. Printmaking offers me the option of impressionistically visualizing a final product, but leaves room for the happy accident – the unexpected neat thing that you see when you pull a print. Now I’d like to find a way to introduce those random elements of external agency into my writing!
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
Once I’d settled on the idea of becoming a writer, I ploughed through all the poetry and fiction writing classes I could take as an undergrad and graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I studied writing with Jim Hazard, James Liddy, John Goulet and Tom Bontly. My thesis was a collection of short fiction. The workings of narrative turned out to be immediately useful, when my plans for an academic life were derailed by divorce and I began writing for a monthly business magazine. I was living in the Rust Belt at a time when Wisconsin was losing manufacturing jobs to Mexico and businesses were making risky moves into new product lines or corporate structures to survive. They let me tell their turnaround stories, which often seemed as rich as fiction, with language as musical as poetry. Who doesn’t love the sound of Snap-on de México?
From business writing, I went on to government public affairs. Each new position relied upon the written word, but took me farther away from what felt was my authentic voice. I would not have predicted that I’d find my voice in Philadelphia.
3. Who helped you along the way, and how?
In the spring of 1994, I moved to Philadelphia, where I continued to work in public affairs but began to explore my new city as a literary tourist. I found myself in this wonderfully fluid Northeast corridor where writers seemed to treat the cities along I-95 as a single reading circuit. Being in Philadelphia made it possible for me to attend free readings by visiting writers, including Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Yusef Komunyakaa, Gerald Stern, Stanley Plumley, Kay Ryan, Joyce Carol Oates, Louise Gluck, Tobias Wolf, Jonathan Franzen, Stewart O’Nan, Sherman Alexie, and Anne Lamott, and to learn more about Philadelphia’s vibrant poetry community. I started writing and sending out poetry and by the summer of 1999, had a book-length manuscript that was a first book contest finalist at New Issues Press.
But three more years went by without publication of that manuscript and I had begun to think that New Issues’ interest had been a fluke. In the summer of 2002, I attended the Catskills Poetry Workshop in the hopes of working with Stephen Dunn. Everyone wanted to do a tutorial with Dunn, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize poet, so instead of Steve, I serendipitously ended up studying with Dave Smith. He believed in my writing. And although my sense of possibility as a poet would later be substantiated by other judges of my work — Carolyn Forché, Gallway Kinnel, Denise Duhamel, Yusef Komunyakaa and Molly Peacock – if it had not been for Dave’s sincere interest in my manuscript at that moment in my life, I might have given up. The sea of writers is so large, and when you’re adrift, writing in isolation, — well, you see where this metaphor is going. Dave Smith gave me what I needed at that point in my life to stay alive as a writer.
The next summer, at the West Chester Poetry Conference, I took Jeffrey Skinner’s advice on how to organize a manuscript, and a few months later, my manuscript, Various Modes of Departure, was selected by Carolyn Forché for the Kore Press First Book Award.
With the publication of Modes, my relationship with Kore Press has provided me with a sense of community that is much like that wonderful feeling of belonging you experience in graduate school. They’ve included my work in Powder: Writing from Women in the Ranks, Vietnam to Iraq, and adapted it for the one-woman play, “Coming in Hot.” As the Kore family of writers has grown, I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know many of these women, who like me, were welcomed into the world of publishing by Kore and for whom that will always be hugely significant.
4. Can you tell me about a writer or artist whose biography inspires you?
Because I published my first book decades after I had left graduate school, I am always inspired by late bloomers like Amy Clampitt. I am inspired by Annie Proulx, who rolls up her sleeves and embraces occupational language and untamed landscapes with the gutsy precision and aim of a cowgirl. I am inspired by women writers like Maxine Kumin who grow old with their craft as if it were the currency of the essential.
And I am inspired by all writers and artists who lose themselves in what they do; that is, they become unselfconscious in relationship to their work. When I was in graduate school, I had the pleasurable assignment of taking Grace Paley to lunch before she gave a reading at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I don’t remember much about the lunch, except that she seemed familiar and easy to be around. But that night in the middle of her reading, a tooth – a removable one – came out, and she looked at it, put it aside on the podium and continued reading.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Given that my daughter recently began writing short fiction, this is something I think about often. I believe that in our multi-media, internet content-saturated lives, it’s in many ways harder now to pull the signal out of the noise and to hear your own voice, let alone develop it. It’s important to keep the chatter at bay. I’d tell any aspiring writer to sharpen her observational skills, to collect real experiences, to invest in understanding human nature. I’d tell her to read, write, read, write – to engage in a kind of literary interval training. It’s important to study craft but it’s equally important to increase your seeing power. I’d tell her rejection is meaningless, and that if you write something you wouldn’t want your mother to read, it will probably get published.