An Interview with Scot Siegel

Untitled Country Review is pleased to present our featured poet for Winter 2011, Ann Tweedy. Lena Drake’s review of Tweedy’s debut book Beleaguered Oases, a poem from the book, and an interview with Tweedy conducted by Untitled Country editor Scot Siegel follow.

Untitled Country Review editor Scot Siegel (“SS”) conducted the following interview with author Ann Tweedy (“AT”) during February of 2011.

SS: We have something in common in that we are both poets whose primary vocation is not writing or the teaching of writing. Please tell our readers a little about yourself and how, in your busy life as a professor of law, you find time to write poetry.

AT: Well, when I was practicing law (which I did until 2008), I had somewhat of an easier time finding time to write. I read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook many years ago, and that really motivated me to structure my writing time. I used to manage to write most evenings after dinner and then one afternoon on weekends.  Some people have complained that Handbook has a condescending or forceful tone, but I found it very helpful for my own personal journey.

I have been having a bit of a harder time since I started teaching. For one thing, teaching law, especially at the beginning, takes an incredible amount of preparation. I think another aspect of it is that, being new to academia, there’s a constant drive to produce a lot of academic writing in order to establish oneself. Also, since becoming a parent about a year and a half ago, things have been much more challenging. I’m still working out how to find time to write, especially time when I’m not completely exhausted. I think the key is to maintain dedication and to keep working on developing a workable writing schedule.

SS: I understand that you used to divide your time between San Diego and Seattle, but you recently moved with your family to Michigan. How has living in different regions influenced your writing?

AT: Different regions have a strong effect on my writing, but I find I have to be in a place for some time in order for that effect to set in. I lived in Washington State full-time for roughly seven years, and I found that I couldn’t write comfortably about it until I’d lived there for a few years (though part of that might also be that I was developing my nature writing skills during that period). Moving for short-term academic jobs has been difficult because location can be a strong influence on my writing, but I need to really get to know a place in order to feel that influence. I’m in a one-year position now but am happy to be moving to a permanent job in Minnesota next. Hopefully, I’ll be able to let the geography and culture there soak in and then produce some good writing out of that location.

SS: Congratulations on becoming a mother. How has that experienced changed your writing practice? Do you find yourself paying attention to different things, or seeing things differently, now that you are a mother?

AT: Thank you! I don’t know if it has affected my writing practice except to disrupt it, but the disruption is well worth it, I’m happy to report. (This was something I actually worried quite a bit about before deciding to have a child.)  I do see things differently in that life just seems incredibly fragile to me now. I think to some extent it always did, but it didn’t used to bother me as much as it does now. I think being a parent has caused me to have more empathy as well.

SS: Your poems reference the high desert of northern California. That is beautiful country; though, for some, the desert also symbolizes alienation or exile, i.e., the experience of many L/G/B/T individuals. What events in your life have led you to write about that particular landscape?

AT: I think you may be referencing the title poem of the chapbook, “Beleaguered Oases.” That poem was inspired by a road trip my husband I took on the way from Washington to Squaw Valley for a writing workshop. It was inspired in part by the landscape, which I find to be very beautiful. Also, I knew some of the areas we drove through from reading about them in legal cases about struggles between farmers and tribes over water. I’d been involved in similar struggles, though probably less dramatic, as a lawyer representing tribes in Washington. Somehow driving through that area and seeing the farmers’ signs helped me understand their perspective, which I hadn’t fully been able to do before. I could get out of my head, at least to some degree, and step back from my own passionate views about justice for tribal peoples and about the need to preserve the environment. In that poem, I wasn’t thinking of the desert as a place of exile, though I’ve used it that way in other poems. I was just thinking of how painfully beautiful and fragile that area is.

SS: Untitled Country Review is interested in personal discoveries and the ways in which story-telling through poems promotes human development. How did writing Beleaguered Oases help you better understand “you”?

AT: I don’t know if I can speak specifically regarding Beleaguered Oases, but my storytelling through poems always helps me understand myself and helps me heal from painful experiences. Somehow, writing about an experience poetically helps me establish some distance from it, so that it’s not just an experience anymore but a project involving poetic form and all the technical challenges that arise when revising a poem. I’ve heard this so much that it almost seems like a clichė, but it is true that my best poems surprise me and the surprising part is usually a source of self-knowledge as well. In other words, I learn something I didn’t know from the poems. It could be something about myself or about human relations.

SS: In the preface to Beleaguered Oases you say “Everything that appears valuable has multiple groups fighting to own it, and there is always the potential that it will be destroyed in the process…” In the Western United States, we have pitched battles over water, minerals, trees, wind, wildlife, scenic views… The list goes on and on. Poems like “Newts In Amplexus” and “Licking The Glue” bring us back to the elemental; these are accomplished nature poems, erotic and smart. But you also extend the notion of “threatened habitat” to include the human soul, which raises the stakes exponentially. In the poem “Outing” the speaker finds herself “caught between planets”, and concludes that “home is the structure/ you build when nowhere else will have you.” That passage is extraordinarily sad but wise. Would you care to elaborate on that?

AT: I’ll try. I wasn’t completely sure what I meant in including the human soul as threatened habitat, but it seemed right. Over a decade ago, I heard Tess Gallagher read, and she commented that, in writing her latest book of poems in which she struggled with grief over the loss of her husband, she had learned that she didn’t always have to know what her poems meant. That stuck with me and has been helpful to me in writing, and so the fact that I’m saying that I don’t know exactly what I meant doesn’t mean I question whether it was true. But to try to answer the question, I think that much of my poetry is a struggle against loss of self. This can occur in many ways for different people, but for me personally it probably is primarily a struggle against self-hatred. Also, I wrote “Outing” in the midst of a deep personal crisis involving coming out as bisexual. I felt that I’d built my life around being heterosexual and that, with this new information about myself, nothing made sense anymore. I also felt that I couldn’t fit in anywhere—especially as a bisexual person in an opposite-sex marriage. At the time, I really wanted to fit in with the lesbian community but didn’t think that I ever would. So “Outing” is literally about my coming to terms with feeling like I’d never fit in anywhere. In a lot of ways, this wasn’t a new feeling. I grew up with a mentally ill parent and was sort of an outcast in the small town I grew up in. But growing up, I concentrated on the future and getting out. Realizing I was bisexual and therefore couldn’t fit in with the community that I wanted to fit in with seemed much more permanent. But amazingly, things always get better. Even though my situation didn’t change that much looking at it from the outside, I changed in terms of my response to it on the inside.

SS: Is there anything else that you would like share? What is your next project?

AT: I have a full-length manuscript I’m hoping to get published. In terms of projects, I may want to write persona letter poems back and forth with the poet Gordon Henry. I have to come up with some personas to take on first. Writing from a fictional perspective is not the easiest thing for me. Another possible project is fairly macabre. It turns out that I have a few poems either about female killers or from their point of view—I thought of putting them together in a chapbook, but I have to figure out whether I want to write more of them. They can be draining and can be very depressing. What drew me to writing them in the first place was that I like to try to understand people, especially those that I most want to distance myself from.

SS: I appreciate your honesty. Thank you for sharing with our readers.