Samantha Duncan and I share great people – most notably the amazing Allie Marini Batts, a mutual friend and one of the greatest supporters of other writers that I have ever met. So when Samantha said she had a new poetry chapbook coming out, it seemed only natural that I do what Allie does and give a fellow writer a little boost. So here, Samantha Duncan.
My newest chapbook, One Never Eats Four, is out from ELJ Publications. The title poem is dystopian, and I wanted its name to pay homage to Orwell’s 1984 in some way. Hence the title, which is a subtle play off the Orwell title. The rest of the poems chime in on themes of life, relationships, despair, family, and motherhood, with both an atmospheric tone and staccato style. I’m a fan of contrast and dichotomy in poetry, and many of these poems contentedly simmer before they punch you with their revelations.
As for projects in much earlier stages of development, I’m contemplating a full-length poetry collection and some creative nonfiction, both centering on childbirth and motherhood, which are topics I’ve hesitated to embrace until recently. They’re written about so pervasively, nowadays, that I’ve found them challenging to write about in an original and relevant way, but I think I’m finally getting my thoughts and ideas on them organized.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
Books were very prominent in my life, from an early age. Before learning to read, I made my parents read to me so much that they eventually recorded themselves reading my books on cassette tapes, so I could listen to them over and over on my own. I recall many weekend trips to the bookstore, where I’d always find something appetizing in the children’s department.
In elementary school, I graduated to reading more adult fiction. While my peers were reading Beverly Clearly, I was reading Michael Crichton (and I’m so grateful to my parents, by the way, for never restricting my reading choices because of my age). It was this transition that drove me to start writing more. Around age ten, I read The Diary of Anne Frank and immediately started a journal that I kept for over ten years. There wasn’t a huge outlet for children writing creatively when I was young, but I was fortunate to have parents and a few teachers who encouraged my passion and helped squash any doubt I may have had that writing was what I was meant to do with my life.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
The way I write has changed a bit to accommodate other changing facets of my life. Now that I’m a parent, I don’t have the luxury of peace and quiet or a four-hour-block of uninterrupted writing time. A lot of composition occurs in my head, as I’m going through my daily tasks, and it gets transferred to paper or the screen when I have a free five minutes. It’s not ideal, but it works, and as most parents know, having kids quickly makes you realize you’re capable of more than you thought you were.
When I do write, it’s almost always with my netbook and a hot beverage present. Poetry is the only medium I’ll draft by hand, for which I prefer using recycled graph paper and a Papermate or Bic ballpoint pen. I’m simplistically picky, I suppose.
4. Who are you reading now?
I tend to take on big reading projects in the summer months, so I’m currently moving through some of John Updike’s work, in anticipation of reading his latest biography. I’m halfway through the Rabbit Angstrom quartet and will probably dip into his short stories, as well. I just finished Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, which is the best essay collection I’ve read in a while. I’m also halfway through Morning in Serra Matu: A Nubian Ode by Arif Gamal, which is part of the McSweeney’s Poetry Series. Hopefully, I’ll have time for some Dostoyevsky before summer’s over!
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
There are a handful of books that have left impressions on me at various points in my life, so I’ll try to pick three from different stages of my development. As I mentioned, one of my childhood favorites was The Diary of Anne Frank. When I first read it as a child, I was astounded by how much I could relate to her on that universal adolescent girl level. I wasn’t expecting to share the same feelings about boys and clothes she had, and it really intrigued me that she wrote about a mostly commonplace and mundane daily life juxtaposed with the chaos going on around her. Additionally, I was struck by her resilience when she wrote, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” I was set on a life of writing before reading it, but her words gave me the confidence to do it and believe I could publish someday.
Fast forward to college, when I discovered Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. For a long time, I felt that the kind of work I wanted to read and write was largely absent from the mainstream book world. Johnson’s story collection was, at the time, like nothing I’d ever read, and I studied the pieces over and over. The book remains my all-time favorite; it not only changed the way I write for the better, it taught me the value of playing with the boundaries of what fiction is and could be.
A more recent favorite is Light Boxes by Shane Jones, another book that challenges the conventions of the novel and has garnered attention outside the small press world. Magical and despairing in its allegory, both sparse in prose and heavy in emotion, Light Boxes is everything I desire in a great, short novel. Any writer looking to experiment with form, whether in fiction or poetry, should read this book and question not just what story to tell, but in what shape to best tell it.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
I’m still relatively new to the world of publishing, with two chapbooks and a handful of pieces in literary journals. I’m of two minds about my potential platform. On one hand, I do periodically stop to consider how my first books will fit into the context of my larger body of work, later on – are they leading my identity as a writer in a certain direction, and if so, is it a direction I’ll be happy with and proud of for the foreseeable future? When I grow as a writer, will I be able to look back on my early work without cringing? On the other hand, my goal with my work is to get it out in the world. I try not to think too much about the context the actual writing fits into and how it paints me as a writer, because I suspect I wouldn’t submit as much work, that way. I’d rather spend my time creating and sharing than on wondering how it’ll be perceived, though there is probably a healthy way to balance both.
7. What is a typical day like for you?
During the week, I’m an unpaid intern for my toddler and newborn, so any productivity depends largely on their cooperation. I’m up early to feed them, and I call mornings a success if I’m able to get in a shower and walk a few miles. Between this and chores, appointments, trips to the park, cleaning up after kids and dogs, etc., mornings can be hectic, so I try to get everyone down for naps in the afternoon, allowing me to write, edit, submit, or just read. I know everyone advises that you sleep when the baby sleeps, but I’ve always insisted on finishing chores and errands while the kids are awake, so I can use their nap time to be productive with my work. It can be a lot to juggle, but I get more accomplished when I have more on my plate, so I’m happy with the balance right now.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
A quiet one?! I’d probably most enjoy a patio or porch with a view. Either the beach or something more mountainous – I’m not picky. Comfortable weather, no noise aside from nature, and an endless supply of chai lattes.
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
I wrote a short story for a college workshop that was based on actual events in my life, and it was shot down by the workshop group for being too melodramatic. Witnessing your life reduced to a soap opera by your peers is pretty disenchanting, if you’re aiming to be a serious writer. I can look back now and agree that they were absolutely right, but the feedback was a little jarring, at the time.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
You. Must. Read. A lot. Read stuff you like, read outside your comfort zone, read highbrow, read lowbrow, read to be educated, read to be entertained, read widely and often. There really isn’t a way around this, if you want to be a decent and/or published writer. Yet I know many aspiring writers who just won’t do it. If you don’t see the importance in reading the words of others, how can you expect anyone to care about reading your work?
The other advice I’d share is to not rush to submit the first thing you write. Set it aside, sit down, and write another piece. Then, maybe another. Writers starting out often don’t realize how intense the editing and publishing process can be – and how long it can take to create something that resonates with someone, somewhere. It’s helpful (or perhaps just reassuring) to have multiple pieces under your belt before you start revising and submitting.
Samantha Duncan is the author of the chapbooks One Never Eats Four (ELJ Publications, 2014) and Moon Law (Wild Age Press, 2012), and she serves as Managing Editor for ELJ Publications. She lives in Houston. You can read more of her work on her blog, find her on Goodreads, follow her on Twitter