Poet Interview #4: Lynn Houston

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? At what age did you start writing? Have you always written poetry? Who/what first inspired you to start writing? Who are your favorite poets?

When I was 16, I wanted to be one of two things: a poet or an environmental lawyer. I think both of those endeavors entail a passion for ideas and language, which was instilled in me at an early age by my mother. She was an elementary school teacher who specialized in children’s literature.

But the world can only have so many Erin Brockoviches. Most environmental lawyers go to work for the companies that are breaking the planet. Instead, I became a college English professor. And I stopped focusing on poetry years ago so I could pursue more analytical styles of writing: literary scholarship and cultural analyses, even teaching reflections. But the impetus to write creatively kept trying to resurface. Two and a half years ago I decided to devote my attention to poetry writing. The results have been amazing. Just over a year of having returned to poetry with regular discipline, I received a contract to publish my first collection, The Clever Dream of Man, from Aldrich Press. Now, some of my poems are even winning national prizes.

When I was 16, I read Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Blake, and W.H. Auden. Now that I’ve returned to poetry after a hiatus, I read Charles Simic, Kay Ryan, Stephen Dobyns, Louise Glück, Richard Blanco, Kim Addonizio, and Stephen Dunn. I also regularly read the work of contemporary poets who have mentored me at conferences: B.J. Ward, Catherine Doty, Arisa White, and Peter Murphy. Currently, I’m enrolled in an MFA program at Southern Connecticut State University where I attend workshops with Jeffrey Mock and Vivian Shipley, whose work and lives inspire me.

How do you first start writing a poem? Does it come to you out of the blue, or do you have a set time where you meet with your Muse each day and let the words just … come? Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poetry?

Usually the start of a poem is a phrase or sentence that comes to me while I’m doing something else, living my life. I always seem to have some fragments of language that echo or self-generate in my head. It has a tendency to scare people when I talk about it as “hearing voices,” but I think a lot of writers in many different genres would agree that there is a voice in your head that you tap into when you write. This voice usually gives me a start to a poem, and I try to sit in a quiet space to imagine what other images go with that fragment, or to imagine the rest of the story that finishes the initial thought. I keep a journal of these random poem-starters and when I can clear up some time, which I try to do in large blocks a few times each week, I sit with those ideas and generate a poem. So the answer to your question is both: a sentence or half-sentence usually comes to me out of the blue, but I have to sit with it for many hours to create a poem.

My idea of writing poetry has changed considerably from when I first started writing it as a teenager. I used to think that the whole poem had to come to me fully formed, delivered as if from on high. Now I know that the real work of poetry writing, just like any other genre, is dogged, tireless revision. For the best art, you have to work hard at it—refine it, polish it, delete the extraneous parts, get feedback, move things around, etc.

I also now make conscious life decisions around what’s best for my writing: using my time wisely, not committing to things that take me too far from my writing for too long, always carrying a journal to write down any image that comes to me, spending social time with people who inspire my writing, and saying yes to as many new life experiences as I can because I think they will give me insight into the human condition.

Are you on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media? Does that fit into your writing life, and if so, how?

So much of my time is spent alone in front of a computer screen or an open book. The life of a writer can be very isolating, at the same time it is incredibly rewarding to get your ideas out on the page with the hope that eventually someone else, a reader, will respond to them. In the interim, between the lonely act of putting words to paper and waiting for that eventual connection with a reader, my friends on Facebook offer me so much support. They share my sorrows and successes. I am very committed to them and my time in that community. I have friends on Facebook, other writers, whom I have not met in person, and yet we are valuable parts of each other’s daily lives, sharing our process with each other.

Do you have a writing group or community of writers you share your work with? Who are they? What are you reading right now?

I recently moved from NY to CT, so I am keeping in touch with writer friends and mentors via email and social media as I get to know the other poets in my MFA program here at Southern Connecticut State University. But much of my poetry network is now centralized around the small poetry press I run, Five Oaks Press. I am grateful to the poets I have published who inspire me and stay in touch, finding ways we can collaborate through joint readings and sharing publication opportunities.

Right now, I am reading the 70 chapbook manuscripts we received for our summer contest. When I break from that, I am reading a book about cowgirls from the West that I picked up randomly at a used bookstore one day on a bike ride trough town. It includes their biographies and excerpts from their journals, and I find their voices compelling. I would like to write a sequence of poems about these strong women after I finish some of my current projects.

What words of encouragement can you offer other poets who are trying to get their work noticed?

A few months ago, I sent out for publication poems written by a friend of mine who was too busy to send them out herself. I did it because I believe in her work and I had this hypothesis that, after a certain level, it wasn’t a question of whether a poem was “good” or not, but it was just a matter of correctly matching the poem’s aesthetic to the aesthetic of a journal. I was able to get my friend her first publication and a wider audience for her work. But after that experience, I realized that my friend was missing out on important steps in the learning process providing by sending out your poems, and that by sending out her work for her, I was robbing her of an opportunity for growth.

My own poetry improved vastly because of rejections from journals. Before sending out my work, I first read excerpts of what a journal has previously published, and then I pick which poem of mine most closely matches what they seem to like. If they reject the poem I send them, I go back and try to see what didn’t quite match up. I often end up revising the poem after that.

I think breaking into the field of poetry is very much a process of trial and error. You have to be open to recasting your ideas and the way you are writing. I know some friends who will never get their ideas out there because they are opposed to trying to learn what editors like these days. And I’m not saying to just write for editors, for what they like. But I think there is a middle ground between saying, on the one extreme, “This is my art. Take it or leave it,” and on the other extreme, “I will write any way I have to in order to get published.” I found that when I started trying to form a cause-and-effect narrative about why one of my poems was accepted by a given journal and why another one was rejected by a given journal, that the process unlocked something in me and allowed me to produce better quality poems even according to my own standards. I could see that I was getting closer to producing the kind of poetry I’d always loved reading.

My best advice to poets trying to get their work published is to pay attention and learn from the process. To do that, you’re going to have to learn to be at peace with a lot of rejection. Maybe don’t call it rejection; call it a writer’s education. It’s a gift that you can learn from this process. I am winning and placing in national contests now, but just a year and a half ago I received something like 48 rejections in a row. It’s possible to break in. Just keep at it in a mindful way.

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Published by

hrholt1986

I am a dreamer, as well as a doer, who lives in the North Georgia mountains. I started my publishing journey August of 2013, have had moderate success, but my utmost passion is my "daytime" job, which is working with adults who are constantly striving to better their lives as they obtain the GED credential.

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