Amy Pickworth: You’re an accomplished poet and a co-founder of Omnidawn Publishing. How would you say those two roles, as writer and editor, inform each other?
Rusty Morrison: Amy, this is a terrific question, since there are so many ways I might approach it. Because I might answer it differently from one day to the next, it provokes me to consider how, today, at the instant, I experience these two roles. A provocation can open me to something new, some new way to see; it can offer an invocation, and summon a new sense of this issue, which is so important in my life. Invocations are important, if I want to avoid stagnation!
One way to approach this is to consider how the two roles may seem in opposition, and yet how fruitful opposition can be. But, also, how similar the issues may seem if one looks deeply.
For instance, I will start by sharing something about my writing. I’m working to start a very new set of poems. I finished a manuscript over the summer and I’ve been challenged to find the new form for the next work. I always work in long series, and when I finish a book I have to “grieve” the loss of that completed project’s form and parameters. I find myself lost for a while. Often for months, though I’m still writing, I sense the writing I’m doing isn’t breaking into the new trajectory. One of the most important ways I must hold the work is that I must NOT worry about how others will see it. I can’t judge it based on my last book—can’t ask “how do these new poems compare? will readers what to read them? will I be able to stand them a week from now?” Those questions are death to very new work. This is a challenge, since to silence such questions simultaneously provides enormous freedom and enormous fear.
Here’s a bit of neuroscience that I find helpful to remember: there is a part of the brain that inhibits one from making embarrassing noises, or stealing, or having angry outbursts (it’s called the PLPFC, and it controls impulses). Studies (using fMRI machines) show that when one is actively composing/writing a new creative work, the PLPFC is “silenced.” I take this to support my sense that I can’t worry if the new work is embarrassing or overly angry or crazily moving in directions that readers (or that I, later) might find ridiculous or outrageous or abhorrent. I give myself complete permission to silence that voice. I’m not always good at silencing it, but it is great help to know that, in the mode of first creation, silencing it is key.
Later, when the work is much farther along, I can ask myself to listen in the PLPFC, and decide it what it has to say is useful. Making such decisions can be very subtle work!
Interestingly, and in seeming opposition to this, as an editor I must put a great deal of attention, must stay hyper aware of the newest trends in publishing, in reader interest, in the evolution of the craft of writing, and in the evolutions that I sense in Omnidawn—and to keep asking if our evolution is giving us enough, and our readers enough. We cannot just rest in what we’ve been, but rather must ask of ourselves, over and over, what we want to keep becoming. These questions must attune to an awareness that is outside and beyond what I know, simply as myself, in myself!
But I must also, as an editor, trust my intuition, especially when Ken Keegan (Omnidawn’s co-publisher) and Gillian Hamel (Omnidawn’s managing editor) and I make decisions about new directions. And I must especially trust my intuition when I read new manuscripts and consider them for publication. As is the case for me as a writer, I want to read for the value of the work, as I see it, and choose works that I think are most exciting, even if they are nothing like the current or arriving trends. But it’s also true that I have to keep alert to what is outside myself, so that my own intuition can evolve, as both a writer and an editor. I don’t want to have the kind of limited intuition that simply falls back on what is easy, or familiar. Risk is the realm of aliveness. But how much risk, and when. These are crucial questions!
AP: Here’s another part to that question: You were also a secondary teacher for a number of years. How does that history play into it? Or, put another way, what experience do you lean on most heavily in your work as an editor: your identity as a writer, a reader, or a teacher?
RM: I do feel that those years of teaching at the high-school level gave me so much that I use now. And, I am still a teacher. I teach workshops, and classes, and at conferences.
I also see every creative work as a form of teaching (teaching myself! and if I’m lucky, offering something of value to others, which also means the process gives them the authority, the agency to take from it what is alive for them: that’s what the best teaching does).
As a writer, each new poem must be always teaching me something new, or it’s not finished, not awake to what it can become. I learned in teaching high school that I should always have a concise lesson plan, and then deviate from it at whatever instant my intuition tells me to. It might be a rowdy student whose outburst must be attended to, and brought into the work, without letting the class suffer from it. It might be a brilliant question from a student that suddenly wakes me to what the work might embrace. Every day is alive with so much. I know I missed so much when I taught high school! But I caught more and more, as I grew in the art of teaching. And I kept learning to attend to the moment, as best as I could, But also, always, to come in fully prepared. Writing and running a press, these ask the same of me, if I am awake to the challenge. I want to be awake, that’s always the first step.
AP: It really does seem like the surest way to shut new work down is to critique it as it’s being generated, and I love learning that there’s scientific evidence that backs that up.
I worked as an art teacher one year in my twenties, and adolescents, who are often preoccupied by what their peers might think of them, frequently sabotage their creative work this way. They’ll reveal this gorgeous little glimmer of themselves then take a step back, pronounce it stupid, and destroy it. It happens so quickly, and it seems like some of the best and most compassionate work of teaching—and sometimes of editing—is in anticipating this destructive impulse, and helping the other person to head it off and lean in.
RM: Yes, that’s so true. I love hearing your experiences in this. In thinking about what you just noted, I realize that, in the midst of the work of writing, it is important to keep a three-fold consciousness: I am those high-school students so quick to destroy what frightens them, and I am the teacher who can bring them a sense of deeper trust (which you were to them), and I am a fly buzzing in the room, which might lead the mind toward an imaginal flight out the window and into the air outside the room, and that flight may be just what my poem needs.
I need to keep both a deep focus and a wide one, and to be all the sentient beings that I am (and even some that are beyond my understanding of sentience!)—that’s when I’m writing toward what moves.
AP: When we genuinely “attend to the moment,” as you say, it often leads to surprising places. What’s something you’re learning now through your writing? What’s your latest work teaching you?
RM: As fate would have it, I’m having quite a challenging time in my new work because I’m writing in a subjective landscape that has not allowed me access in the past. I am going there again… and I feel blind in it. But there’s no way to go without going (I’m just now thinking of Roethke’s line “I learn by going where I have to go”), and my intuition tells me that this difficult subject matter is where my energy wants me to travel.
I remember when, after my father died, I did not want to write about him or his death, but that was what was in my imaginal environment. And, tough as it was, when I wrote into that energy, it slowly yielded a work that remains deeply significant to me, my book The True Keeps Calm Biding Its Story.
So, if I am traveling blind again, and I find that I’m falling off a cliff in the work, then that’s the way it is. I’ll just have to fall. The falling itself may be the work, if I can write that. This sense of trusting the process, whatever it is—this is what my work is actively teaching me right now.
But to do this work, I have to stay in the images as they arise, and not pull out to describe to myself what they mean. Henry Corbin (whose writings have illuminated the Sufi tradition for the Western mind) states that the symbolic image “announces a plane of consciousness distinct from rational evidence; it is the ‘cipher’ of a mystery.” A number of the poets who are able to manifest in image that “cipher,” that zero, that code, which allows us to access mystery, without attempting to de-cipher it, or bring it back to materialistic logic—they are guides to me in the dark, and kin for me to carry with me into this work. I think of poets as brilliant, and as diverse in approach, as Melissa Kwasny, Brenda Hillman, Lisa Robertson, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lucie Brock-Broido—all use image as cipher, beyond the parameters of the known.
AP: It’s hard to surrender to the vulnerability of not-knowing, isn’t it? Especially within the context of a culture that tends to value certainty and measureable productivity over the non-linear struggles of inquiry. (Personally, I like to remind myself of that E. L. Doctorow quote about the process of writing: “[I]t’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”)
RM: Thanks so much for this quote from Doctorow. I wanted to hear more of his view, so I put the quote into a google search and I found the interview that he gave to The Paris Review. He also says: “It can be a voice, an image; it can be a deep moment of personal desperation. For instance, with Ragtime I was so desperate to write something, I was facing the wall of my study in my house in New Rochelle and so I started to write about the wall.”
This information is such a gift to me right now (a provocation too!) since, just this morning, I was working in my current project, and felt stalled… and I started to describe the actual wall behind the action, behind the experience that I’d wanted to communicate in writing, but that I could not find language true and clean and honed, that could communicate the energy that I felt the poem desired, demanded. I felt odd writing of the wall, but I let myself.
Your sharing this quote, and then my reading more of Doctorow’s interview—these have let me trust that wall’s arrival.
AP: I loved that interview too. Trust the wall’s arrival—that’s actually a pretty good mantra.
Thanks so much for this conversation, Rusty. Before we wrap this up, would you mind sharing an image, by you or by one of these other poets you mention, that’s been guiding you in the dark?
RM: Wonderful question with which to end our conversation. It has been a pleasure for me to talk with you. You ask such thoughtful, insight-conjuring questions.
I’m glad to have the opportunity to share some provocations/invocations from the writings of others. Here are a few from the books and photocopied pages that I’ve brought to my desk to sit with me, beside me, as I work today. So many of them use sound (sonics of repetition, near rhymes, subtle consonance and assonance), which communicates more than can be discerned in simple logic:
1. from Melissa Kwasny:
“We choose the word warming, so that we don’t have to use the word threat. Which is incandescent this evening, yellow as a sulphur’s wing. The flicker of a living creek through foliage.”
2. from Brenda Hillman:
“Better? who wants better,/ said a moonbeam/ under the wire, /the soul is light’s/ hypotenuse; the lily’s/ logic is frozen fire—”
3. from Mei-mei Berssenbrugge:
“Not as moths for example, meld light and thought”
“Shade glows with no edge between space, grass.”
4. from Lucie Brock-Broido:
“Mouthful of earth, hair half a century silvering, who buried him.”
5. from Lisa Robertson:
“Here is a house. Here is a system. Time pours from its mouth. We design it a flickering. Here is its desolation. Here it crosses. Here it falls at last. Here it has its full gratification. Here on the yet visible remains.”
6. Lastly, I want to share a line from the writings of I. Rice Pereira, an American artist known for her work as an abstract expressionist. She tells us “life is the unknown essence concealed in the space which supports it.”
Rusty Morrison’s poems recently have been accepted or published by Boston Review, Iowa Review, Fence, Colorado Review, Lana Turner & elsewhere. She’s co-publisher of Omnidawn, author of five books, including The True Keeps Calm Biding Its Story (Ahsahta 2008), which won The Sawtooth Prize, Academy of American Poets Laughlin Award, Northern California Book Award. Her most recent book, Beyond the Chainlink (Ahsahta), was a finalist for the NCIBA and also for the NCBA Awards in Poetry. Her website is www.rustymorrison.com.
Amy Pickworth’s poems have appeared in journals including Dusie; Forklift, Ohio; The Great American Literary Magazine; H_NGM_N; Ink Node; New Ohio Review; Smartish Pace; and Two Serious Ladies. Her book Bigfoot for Women (Orange Monkey, intro by Matt Hart) was released in 2014. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.