INTERVIEW WITH LEAH UMANSKY
Leah Umansky: In your second book, Swoon, you have a sequence of poems around “Women.” Now, in Woman Without Umbrella, you have a similar sequence at work. Did you know when you finished Swoon, that you would have a similar sequence in your next collection?
Victoria Redel: The sequence in Swoon I saw in the way a visual artist might consider a sequence of gesture drawings—which seemed to me an extension of the overall notion I had for Swoon to try and render the many faceted and simultaneous aspects of a woman–mother/lover/thinker/daughter. In contrast I see Woman Without Umbrella as having a kind of narrative arc and so the thread of poems using the same titles is a consideration of time. And though “Woman” in the title is singular I think of this as a book inhabited by many women both contemporary and historical.
To answer the second part of your question—the sequence in this book was not anything I knew when I finished Swoon. It wasn’t anything I actually knew until I was well into working on this book of poems.
LU: This collection is full of intimate and tender moments in love and in loss. How would you say you avoided sentimentality in this collection? Do you ever consider it a risk? I think all love poems risk something of the writer. I’m thinking specifically of poems like, “Kissing” and “Almost Fifty.”
VR: Risking is central to poem making I’d wager for every poet. If the tightrope I walk in making these poems is that of sentimentality, I’m okay with that challenge–mostly because I didn’t have a lot of choice in the matter. These were the poems I needed to make here in the middle of my life. Death, illness, love, divorce, hilarity, hope, foolish hope–none of these are sentimental. The courage to get up everyday is not sentimental. Living is not for sissies. Or avoiders. If I “avoid sentimentality” that’s good–but it won’t be because of “avoidance”. I’d rather run headlong toward that difficult possibility.
LU: How do you feel about the state of poetry in the digital age of 2012? Are you a fan?
VR: Years ago when I was first asked to publish a poem on-line, I thought, who would ever read a poem on a computer? Well obviously, that question was pretty foolish. I’ve come to love the free flow of poetry across the world—the opportunity for poets in other countries to connect with readers here (and vice versa). In that sense a larger audience is wonderful. On the other hand, I hold books in my hand. It is what I like to do. I also like to make poems with pencil and paper. I kind of miss my typewriter. I’m such a lousy typist that I always had to retype to correct typos and when I did, I always found myself fixing, changing, and revising. I’m not exactly sure I let my hands off a poem quicker now—its just different.
LU: What advice would you offer someone who is just starting to find his or her footing in the poetry world?
VR: It would be to think as little as possible about the “poetry world” and to think and live as much as possible with great poems and great books and the vision and mind of other artists and thinkers. I’d tell someone starting out to think more about bugs and flowers and weather and the tributaries of rivers than about the “poetry world”. That’s the world to find footing in, that’s what will yield.
LU: I love your novel, Loverboy, because of its lyricism, its honesty, its directness and its heart. I always recommend it to friends. You’re one of the few poets I know who also write fiction. Where do you see the distinction between fiction and poetry?
VR: Thank you for that reading of Loverboy. Of course there are distinctions between the two but for the sake of brevity (in this question) I’ll assert that there are essential similarities—at least for me. I’m a poet more driven by the sentence than by the line, and I’m a fiction writer driven more by language than plot. In fiction I tend toward compression—sometimes that works to provide a lyric intensity but often I have to work hard to open a paragraph, a page, a scene. In Woman Without Umbrella I was very interested in having a many-charactered narrative and shifting points of view.
LU: Thank you so much, Victoria.
INTERVIEW WITH JIMIN HAN
Q & A with Victoria Redel
In this series, we interview emerging and established writers as well as professionals in the publishing world to give you insight – and tools – to make the art and craft of writing easier.
Poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist Victoria Redel took time today to share her thoughts on her writing life and work. She is on the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College and has taught at Columbia University. Her novel,Loverboy (2001, Graywolf /2002, Harcourt), was awarded the 2001 S. Mariella Gable Novel Award and the 2002 Forward Silver Literary Fiction Prize and was chosen in 2001 as a Los Angeles Times Best Book. Loverboy was adapted for a feature film directed by Kevin Bacon. Her most recent collection of poems, Swoon (2003, University of Chicago Press), was a finalist for the James Laughlin Award. Many stories from Where the Road Bottoms Out (1995, Knopf) have been anthologized.
Her latest novel, The Border of Truth (2007, Counterpoint) was a Barnes & Noble Discovery Selection. Forthcoming from Four Way Books, in 2012 and 2013, respectively, Woman without Umbrella, a volume of poems, and Make Me Do Things, a collection of short stories.
Excerpt from The Border of Truth:
“There it is – I’ve written who I am and what I want. Simple, clear facts, the lesson accomplished. Yet the facts tell us nothing. Or they tell a dreary story of stations and inspectors, the endless waiting on endless lines. Visas, Papers, valises tied with rough, frayed string. Tell me, who wouldn’t want that story to hurry up and end? But this is also a story with the long, grand hallways of European libraries. There is a fox stole and bright caged birds in my story. Here there are trains and disguises, the loosening of a woman’s coiled hair.”
“Redel is one of the most talented scary writers to come out of musty old New York in the last few decades. She’s a writer with her fists clenched so tightly that her palms must bleed, and when she opens her fists, suddenly, in front of the reader, powerful, hurtful truths come flying out.” L.A. Times
Jimin: Whether it’s witnessing Victoria Redel give a reading or being a part of her fiction seminar, Redel has the uncanny ability to make one feel braver. Versatile by the many forms in which she excels, whether it’s poetry or prose, short stories or novels, Victoria is dedicated to language to the nth degree (“Everything you need to know about the next line in a story is actually present in the words of the sentence that preceded it,” she said once). Heartening for the writer who wonders what comes next. This is her very candid response to our questions. She was as open and kind as I remembered.
Jimin: What inspires your creativity and makes you want to write?
Victoria: Gosh, I don’t actually think in terms of inspiration. If I waited around for inspiration, for a pretty muse to beckon, I’m not sure I’d get a whole lot done. That said, I’m a little promiscuous when it comes to inspiration. I love faces and bodies, the way people walk or sit, the gestures they don’t know they’re making. I love color and smell. I love words, chunking one word up next to another. That’s a rush! A major rush! I love all the difficult, heartbreaking ways we manage being human.
Jimin: Dawn Raffel called your story, “En Route” (Guernica, 2007) “an inquiry into the enterprise of story-making itself.” Can you speak to that and tell us about how ‘En Route’ came to be written?
Victoria: That’s a nice thing – what Dawn said. It’s probably a really bad idea to break down one’s own work at all, but I’ll do a little of it. The germ of the story is from something biographical, and I’ve been trying successfully and unsuccessfully to find my way to write about this for many years. So there are somewhere – overtly or covertly – the layers of those attempts.
Starting a story with the sentence “Another boat” means that there have been other boats, other attempts, voyages. In the second sentence I simply state who is present and their relations to one another. But the third sentence comments on the nature of those relations. In that way the nature of the storytelling shifts and begins to declare that the writer is interested in being out there as a shaper not only as the witness of what happened.
Jimin: What sort of writing ritual do you set up for yourself when you’re working on a story, poem or novel?
Victoria: I like ritual when it comes to writing. I set schedules for myself, clear hours when I need to be at a desk. That said, once I’m at the desk, I just hope for a few good sentences. Ones that I’ll still dig the next day when I sit down at the desk. Ok, here’s something really corny. Sometimes I light a candle. And I say: I hope for the courage to write what is necessary and the courage to find the right words. I already regret admitting that.
Jimin: What experience from your childhood informs who you are as a writer today?
Victoria: My childhood, my imagined childhood, powerfully informs my work. By that I mean not only what I did, what happened to me, etc. but what I saw or invented about what I saw around me – the lives of my neighbors, the trees in the woods around my house, the smell of lilac, the crazy pink of azalea, all this gets mixed up and reinvented in fiction and poetry. The lives of my parents, my relatives that I met or never met, all the languages spoken in my home, my nine broken noses, my sisters’ rooms—the list is inexhaustible. I’m as interested in what might have happened, what I guessed was happening as what I know actually happened. And these moments, these fragments of memory enter into the work in ways that probably only I recognize. And, truthfully, most of the time it’s long after that I realize a character is based on something from my childhood.
Jimin: Do people recognize themselves in your stories?
Victoria: I have long been interested in blurring the biographical with the invented. So there are some stories I’ve written where my relatives’ names are used, the streets of my childhood are named, certain neighbors appear by name. But what occurs is my narrative invention. Or partly so. I’m sure that’s frustrating to some people – like looking at themselves in a funhouse mirror. On the other hand, I’ve had other people see themselves in stories when in fact they weren’t being represented at all.
Jimin: Do your dreams ever inform your work?
Victoria: All the time – night dreams, daydreams, the living dream.
Jimin: What was your favorite childhood book?
Victoria: I read all the time and I read everything. And I was big into reading things again and again. I gobbled Nancy Drew. I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I loved Archie comics and Richie Rich comics. I memorized a lot of the poems in A.A. Milne’s Now We Are Six. The list goes on and on.
Jimin: What is your favorite short story?
Victoria: Stories by Grace Paley, James Salter, Christine Schutt, Flannery O’Connor, James Purdy. Mark Richard, Noy Holland, Dawn Raffel, Alastair McLeod, Isaac Babel. That’s a very partial list of writers I love to read. I think the American story form is flourishing.
Jimin: What is your idea of earthly happiness?
Victoria: I am perhaps delighted by too many things. But I am superstitious enough that I think calling attention to one’s happiness is a recipe for bad news.
Jimin: What persists for you as a constant source of worry or hope?
Victoria: I’m the daughter of war refugees which means I am brilliantly schooled in worry and certainty of disaster. I am worried all the time for fate of children all over the world – raised under various political and religious oppressions and wars, raised without enough food and opportunity for education. As for hope? I am over and over again amazed by human resilience and the resilience and flowering of the imagination.
Jimin: Where could readers find out more about you?
Victoria: They could read my fiction and my poetry. There are some odds and ends that might be interesting at Victoriaredel.com