'Prospect Park with My Mother During an Ectopic Pregnancy' by Ivy Raff
- When and how did you get into writing?
I've been writing poetry and (rough - very rough) travel essays since I was a teenager. I loved writing and knew it lived at the center of me, but the thought of a degree or career in the arts didn't occur to me at all. I grew up with the notion that if something feels good, it's probably bad for you - or at least overindulgent.
Instead I built a twenty-year career in public policy and health technology. At a rough point in that career, I took a two-week writing intensive - and put in my notice three days after it ended. I dove into cobbling together a poetry manuscript from two decades' worth of scribbles in my notebooks. I made a part-time job of submitting individual pieces to dozens of literary journals and magazines. I gobbled up all the craft classes I could - including a workshop with the legend Bruce Smith at the Colgate Writers Conference. I sought community in writing, joining a writing group, a couple of artist collectives, and the editorial staff of two literary magazines. I found that writers deeply need each other.
Fast forward to today. A little over two years after leaving my last full-time job, I have two books forthcoming for publication in 2024. Rooted and Reduced to Dust is available for pre-order today from Finishing Line Press. What Remains / Que queda is a bilingual English/Spanish collection that won the Alberola International Poetry Prize and will be out from the Andalusian press Editorial DALYA in the next few months. I've been awarded residencies for 2024 at Atlantic Center for the Arts and Under the Volcano, where I'll study with Kwame Dawes and Jennifer Clement, respectively. In this short time, I've learned that as a full-time writer, there can be dramatic feasts and famines with respect to uptake of our work. I'm thankful for it all. Thankful for the feasts for obvious reasons. Thankful for the famines because they never fail to bring back to the barest essence of writing.
- How often do you write? Do you have a writing routine? And what inspires you to write?
I write five to seven days a week. "I write" here includes the ten-minute spurts I force myself to do when I'm physically exhausted or feel I have absolutely nothing compelling to say. On afternoons when my heart is feeling generous toward me, I can dive into a juicy half-hour meditation followed by a long stream-of-consciousness writing session. On afternoons when my inner cranky toddler is driving the car, it's more like three (3) slow, deep, concentrated breaths followed by aforementioned ten-minute spurt.
I've come to view inspiration as an unnecessary - though lovely and welcome, when it arrives - ingredient in my practice. I don't know if canaries feel inspired to sing; I would guess not. They do it because it lives in them, and if a canary is not singing, it's probably terribly sick. I need to write. When I was working a mentally demanding corporate job that drained me too much to write, my spirit was terribly sick. Writing is where all the images, concepts, constructs of my life go - the lost loves, the complicated relationships with my family and community of origin, the sweeping silver Jersey Shore views outside my window right now. These things don't inspire my writing so much as writing is where I locate them so they don't ferment inside my brain.
- How does it feel to have your work recognised?
I mean, what can I say - it feels wonderful. We all feel inescapably alone sometimes, and recognition of something as visceral as the poetry one writes is a way of saying and hearing, "This touched me too." That said, I thank g?d I'm not an artist whose primary motivation is the pursuit of recognition.
- How did you develop the idea for your LISP-selected story? Is there a story behind your story? And, how long have you been working on it?
In its first draft, this was a poem about a pretty straightforward emotion - gratitude for short walks during autumn when I was dealing with a life-threatening medical condition. My mother, who stayed at my apartment to look after my basic needs, was a tangential figure.
When I read the piece to my weekly writing group, my dear friend and soul brother Mario Montoya commented, "It's good, but some depth is missing. I wanted to know more about the mother." My eyes rolled so hard I saw my skull. "This isn't about her! It's about me," I protested, ego ablaze. This is a lesson in why writers need writing groups - and the humility to heed their advice. I reworked the piece. It turns out it really wanted to be a mother/daughter story, the multi-generational deaths of mother/daughter bonds both literal and figurative. Mario, that son of a gun, was right.
- Can you please give us a few tips about writing Poetry?
For the first draft, get your frontal cortex out of the way and let the writing flow out however it wishes. Easier said than done; most of life here demands we try to control or regulate what's around us. The page is not the place for that. Meditation before I begin writing helps to clear out the to-do lists, the self-judgements. And then I accept whatever comes out of the pen. First drafts of poems - at least mine! - very often don't even make linear sense. If an image of a blue tiger skin rug on a frozen lake pops into my head, you better believe I'm writing that down - even if it's in the middle of a piece about abortion rights. First drafts of poems are one of the few places in life we can get really, intensely wild and nonsensical with zero consequences.
During revisions, I can go back and extract that tiger skin rug and create a new piece about it, or insert it somewhere else, or make a note of it on my "To Be Written" list. Oh yes - keep a "To Be Written" list. This is an idea from (who else but) Natalie Goldberg. We already keep To-Do lists - items that pop into our heads so we won't neglect them. A To Be Written list functions that same way. Don't lose to the relentless daily grind the proud feeling that bloomed in you when you saw your brother's flourishing tomato plants. Add the item to your To Be Written list. Come back to it later.
- What's the best thing and the most challenging thing about competitions?
Entering work in competitions challenges me to gain distance from my work and try to look at it as a judge might. The standard of competition is so high that an unnecessary extra syllable, or a metaphor or image that hits 90% of the mark instead of 100%, could be the deciding factor between the longlist and the shortlist. When I subject a piece to a final round of edits before entering it in a competition, I check myself for any emotional attachments to words or lines that may not serve a vital function - for example, an adjective I like just because it's pretty, but has already been "shown." This is actually not the most challenging thing, but the best thing as it drives higher-quality poetry. The most challenging thing - yes, I'm going to say it - is the high financial cost of entering multiple contests. It really adds up. I fantasize a future where governments and the public venerate poets, and put their money where that particular mouth is.
- Lastly, do you recommend the writers submit to LISP?
Yes! I appreciate LISP's obvious interest in the writers they select as people - not just machines that make yummy literature. LISP has been clear in its communications and faithful to its stated timelines throughout the process. This may seem like a small inconsequential thing, but hungry writers really appreciate it.