No Lobsters, No Lighthouse, Continued
June 7, 2016 § 2 Comments
A continuation of yesterday’s blog interview between Brevity Assistant Editors Alexis Paige and Penny Guisinger, on the subject of short prose, porcupine relocation, Downeast Maine, and Guisinger’s first book Postcards from Here.
Alexis: Stylistically, your writing mixes both plain, spare prose with bursts of lyricism. There’s a push and pull with restraint and letting go, with ordinary and poetic diction. Is this your style more generally? Is the style a function of form—of the micro-essay?
Penny: I want to say that it’s both? (Notice my lack of complete confidence in that answer.) It’s so hard for me to comment on my own style: it’s like knowing what the back of my head looks like. I need a mirror. Or an art critic.
Lyricism is certainly something I strive for no matter how long or short a piece is. I try to balance that sense of grace and lightness in the language with a concrete storyline. As a reader, I like pieces that are grounded in story and use language beautifully. I want a story to lift off the page. In a micro-essay, the charge is to make all that happen quickly, sometimes within the confines of one sentence. I think about Mark Doty’s poetry – his narratives are so beautifully aerodynamic that they soar well above the page. I bet I’ve read Turtle, Swan no fewer than a hundred times, just marveling at how that poem delivers language’s greatest hits: it narrates and pivots and twists and whallops us with beauty and fear at the same time. If I can do that – or even come close to that kind of magic – then I’ve done my job.
I will push a little on the use of the word “poetic” in your question. I hear that a lot: that my work is “almost poetry” and it always rankles me. It’s like there’s this general acceptance that poetry has the market cornered on beautiful language, and that’s really not the case. I love poetry. A lot. But I stridently believe that prose can be beautiful without striving to be verse. (I know you know this, but since you slid that soap box in front of me, well…I can’t help it.)
AP: This book is a portrait of a Maine that most don’t know. Yours is not the Maine of boat shoes and over-priced taffy and families who “summer,” as a verb. You live in the easternmost point of both the state and the United States, a place of rural poverty, guns, right-leaning politics, and scrappy ingenuity. How did you approach writing about place? What challenges did you face in capturing such an accurate portrait?
PG: This part was easy. I wrote about the place I actually live, not the place people think I live. I took a firm “no lobsters, no lighthouses” stance and wrote what I saw and what I know. As a writer always on the hunt for material, I certainly am drawn to those aspects of this place that are grittier than anything you’ll see on a postcard, because those things are more human and nuanced. The challenges of this place are generational and can feel intractable: poverty, drug addiction, isolation, hopelessness. But the gifts of this place are also generational and equally intractable: generosity of spirit, tightly knit families, ingenuity, and isolation. (See how I did that?) It can feel tempting for some writers to romanticize the challenges of this place. There’s nothing romantic about addiction or poverty or hopelessness or guns. There’s also nothing romantic about neighbors who take care of each other – it’s just survival. Plus – truly – I think the nearest overpriced taffy might be about two hours down coast from here. So there’s that.
AP: Many of your postcards render unvarnished moments in your relationships with your kids and/ or with your wife, Kara. Did you have any anxiety about writing or publishing such material? And if so, how do you cope with it?
PG: Of course. I wish I could write less personal stuff, but I haven’t figured out how to do it well. And I want to publish more than I want to avoid anxiety. So I walk that line of telling the truth but not being a jerk about it. I certainly don’t publish anything that will end up putting me in divorce court. I try to practice due diligence in terms of being more culpable than anyone else in a piece and holding people’s stories with respect and reverence. I haven’t always gotten it right. It’s risky business. I heard Roxanne Gay say at a conference, “Remember that you don’t have to write anything. You may really, really want to. But you don’t have to.” I keep that in mind. My decisions are my own.
I keep a line between writing and publishing, which helps. When I’m writing, I try not to think about the people I’m writing about and what they will think or how they will feel. I don’t engage in those thoughts until it’s time to submit something for publication. It’s an important distinction. I am often asked by students or beginning writers if they are “allowed” to write this or that, or if they are likely to get sued for telling X or Y story. The answer is that of course you can write whatever you want, and you should. Publishing is a different thing. And I say that as someone who has very little interest in writing things and not publishing them. If I’m thinking about publishing as I’m writing, I feel silenced. I have to pretend that nobody will ever see it, even though I know that’s a lie I’m telling myself. (Another precursor to authorial madness? Time will tell.)
AP: What is your writing process and practice like?
PG: About a year and a half ago, I quit a full-time salaried position to be a freelance writer. It’s not as romantic as it sounds. My clients are mostly nonprofits, and I’m writing grants, promotional materials, and web content. But I am writing for a living, which is really nice. For the first year, I was focused on how to be a small business owner, and didn’t write creatively much at all. This year, I’ve started trying to set aside one day/week for my literary career. I write for much of that day, then spend the rest of it doing things like this interview or setting up readings. It’s not enough, but it’s building toward something. I’m focused right now on finishing the manuscript for my second book – also a memoir – and it’s a mighty slow process. I’m immersed in the “in the weeds” part of that process, so it looks a lot like aimless thrashing around. Hopefully, it will lead somewhere.
AP: Congratulations, this is your first book! How does it feel?
PG: As you are finding out now, having a book is so fun! Congrats right back at you. I started writing my first book as a high school student, so this has been a long time coming. It’s wonderful and also very weird. It took a long time for me to believe that the book is good – that the publisher was not engaged in an act of charity or kindness. But I think I get it now. It’s very affirming. It’s also very addictive because now I want another one.
AP: In “Marriage,” you write about your wife chasing down and catching porcupines with trash can lids and then driving the rodents some miles down the road. You write, “I do not support porcupine relocation. I worry too much about babies being left behind or porcupine homesickness.” Has your position on porcupine relocation changed?
PG: In fact, yes! I am a flip-flopper on this issue, so I can probably never run for office. Last summer, we put an electric fence around our garden to keep these prickly critters out. It failed to stop this one particularly bad-assed porcupine, who kept walking right through it and committing acts of garden vandalism every night. I got on board – this was war! One night, Kara went outside and saw it in the garden. It ran and tried to climb a tree, but she knocked it out of the tree with this big plastic tub. (I’m not even kidding.) She trapped it under the tub and called for me to come help. Somehow, from inside the house with music on, I heard her and we packaged that animal up and took it for a ride. We will NEVER tell where we released it, but I’m certain that it’s happily munching on someone else’s tomatoes this year. But this summer, we have raccoons. We’re going to have to deal with them next.
Penny Guisinger is the author of the book Postcards from Here, published by Vine Leaves Press. In 2015, one of her essays was named a notable in Best American Essays, and another was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, The Rumpus, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, Under the Gum Tree, multiple anthologies, and other places. She is an Assistant Editor at Brevity Magazine, the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, and a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. This year, Penny will appear at the Fall for the Book Festival in VA, the Belfast Poetry Festival in ME, and will serve as the fall Writer-in-Residence at Bay Path University in Springfield, MA. And – since none of that work pays the mortgage – Penny makes her living as a consultant writing grants, web content, and other materials for nonprofits.
Alexis Paige’s work appears in multiple journals and anthologies, including New Madrid Journal, Passages North, Fourth Genre, The Rumpus, Pithead Chapel, and on Brevity, where she is an assistant editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Writings Nonfiction Prize, she also received two recent Pushcart Prize nominations, and features on Freshly Pressed and Longform. Twice a top-ten finalist of Glamour magazine’s essay contest, Paige holds an MA in poetry from San Francisco State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. She teaches writing at the college and community level, served as visiting artist at Saint Lawrence University in 2014, and was a writer-in-residence at Bay Path University in 2015. Her first book, a collection of lyric essays, Not A Place On Any Map, won the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award and will be published in December. She lives in Vermont with her husband and two dogs. You can find her online at alexispaigewrites.com