Last week I was tagged in a Writing Blog Roll Call where writers answer four questions about their own work and process and then tag others to do the same. It's a fun way to connect with writers and to see how people approach writing in very different ways.
I was tagged by my friend Mark Pursell. You can read his response here. I met Mark while I lived in Orlando, Florida. Over the years, he's become one of my best friends, and we still keep in contact since I moved to New York two years ago (In fact, he's coming to NYC in October to visit). In terms of what we we write, Mark and I are the opposite. He's writes mostly fiction, but some poetry, and I write mostly poetry, but some fiction. He was one of the few people I met in Orlando that I could talk to about writing, literature, and more (We actually talk about nearly everything). I'm honored to be tagged by him.
Here's my response to the four questions:
1. What are you working on?
My second poetry collection A History of the Unmarried is about to come out in September, but I'm currently halfway through a third collection. My current project, much like my second book, is focused around one central idea, and I'm writing it as a book, which isn't always the case for poets. But I really like working that way. I enjoy taking a theme or concept and exploring it in book length form.
This collection focuses on race, identity, and sexuality, which is challenging to write because I'm very aware of how people view discussions of race by white people and that's part of what I'm playing with. I'm particularly looking at race relationships between black and white people in a lot of different ways. The poems are using my own experiences, but also the experiences of others and incorporating more voices. Many of the poems explore Harlem where I've lived for the last two years. Some address the Harlem of 2014 and others look back at the Harlem Renaissance, which has been one of my favorite literary periods since I first studied it back in college.
I'm also devoting space to my hometown of Richmond, Indiana and examining the very disturbing history of the KKK in Indiana (a place many don't associate with the KKK, but at one time had one of the strongest groups of Klan members in the country). The book also takes a look at my own heritage, which includes a connection to two slaves from the 1840s.
The book continues my interest in what I call documentary poetry. I'm looking at history mixed with my personal experience, but through a poetic lens that blurs fact and fiction to get at a greater truth.
2. How does your work differ from others of its genre?
The most challenging part of being a writer is finding your own voice, but with a lot time, practice, and the help of others, I've found my own way into poetry. I don't often see a lot of work that is extremely similar to mine. Of course, others write about the same topics, but I attempt to bring something fresh in my delivery.
I often mix humor with dark subject matter. I also play with the idea of the narrator in my poems. It's often a version of me, but not fully me. I also try to have strong honesty and rawness in my work. I write about sex often, but my poems about sex are not what many poets write (especially gay poets). Personally, I'm sick of the "Greek god" kind of admiration of the male body poems that so many gay poets have written over and over and over (seriously, enough already). I never write those because that's not close to reality. Sex is funny, unexpected, awkward, surprising, and human. I try to bring that aspect to any sex poem I write. The same goes for other topics.
My work also mostly leans toward the documentary like I said before. Sometimes that's just documenting my own life or incorporating history or the real life experiences of others. I also often juxtapose daily events against news events or world events to show the personal against the public.
That's all to say that I think the voice in my poems makes them standout. You can spot a "Stephen poem."
3. Why do you write what you do?
It's important as a writer (at least if you want to publish) to think about your audience, but it's also important to write work that makes you happy or that you enjoy. I write what I do because I'm interested in what I write. I write poems I would enjoy reading. I write about topics and issues that I find fascinating. If I'm bored with my work, then I know it's not working.
I also listen to my instincts. If something catches my attention, I write it down, I play with it, and I see where it takes me. I don't always feel in control of what I write. Many times the poems drive me.
4. What is your writing process like?
My process isn't always the same, and I've tried a lot of different approaches or exercises before. Currently, I don't force myself to write everyday, but I typically do any way. I have a pretty flexible schedule at the moment, so that affects my process and makes it a little looser. When I've had a full-time forty hour a week schedule, I've had to set aside specific blocks to write.
With most poems, I start with an idea or a line. That line is often the title. In fact about 75 percent of my poems begin with a title and then I write the poem. That's partly because my titles normally direct the poem or setup the situation of the poem. From there I write a draft that is pretty sloppy and contains the general movement of the poem (or at least what I think the movement will be), but with a lot of filler lines. After that, I typically put it away for a day or so before I revisit the messy first draft. From there I built a more fleshed out second draft, which then turns into draft 3 and 4 and 5 and so on. I'm a big reviser. I reread the poem over and over (always aloud). Some get to a more final stage quicker and others I put away for months and revisit them down the line. Of course, plenty go into an idea folder that I have for poems that didn't work.
In terms of book writing, once I have enough poems, I start playing with them in one document to see how they flow together or where they overlap. It also helps me see what is missing. What other kinds of poems need to be in this collection to make the idea work? I let the poems start talking to each other as well. In a book, I like for there to be little reoccurring ideas or images or thoughts.
After all those stages, I move on to feedback. I ask friends and people I trust to look over the manuscript and give me their thoughts both small and large on how it's working as a book as well as small line by line comments.
I hope this gives you some insight into my process. I'm tagging a fellow Indiana poet named Walter Beck. You can read a little more about him here.