On a week when we have lost some of the world’s artistic greats, it seems fitting to share an interview with poet Genevieve Betts, especially since she lists C.D. Wright as a favorite. I hope you appreciate her words as much as I do.
1. Tell us about your book.
An Unwalled City is my debut poetry collection. It’s a book of narrative poems that attempts to capture a childhood growing up in the Sonoran desert in contrast to my experience with new motherhood in Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Moving from the Southwest to to the East Coast allowed me to see my time in Arizona in a new way and prompted me to write a series of poems that dealt with my life experiences. I hope that readers can relate to, be surprised by, and even laugh about what I recall and explore in it.
2. What stories, themes, motivations do you find yourself drawn to in your work and in the works you read?
I’m interested in what makes a place unique. In my own writing, I deal with the copper mines, cacti, and arachnids of the Sonoran desert, as well as the actions of people boxed and stacked in mid-rise apartments in the city. I like to examine these places for both their differences and similarities (such as the way guns play a role in both environments). I want to capture this uniqueness on the page, and within these subjects, certain themes usually emerge, like birth, violence, and death.
3. What made you believe you could write a book? How did you dispel doubt as you wrote?
After completing my MFA program at Arizona State University, I knew that I could create a book of poems; I already had. But it was difficult navigating a writer’s life without all of the support and motivation a program offers. I had a dry spell until I met some colleagues at Drexel University — another poet and two fiction writers. They invited me to be in their writing group and that was my turning point. With their constructive criticism and encouragement, I composed and revised most of the poems included in my book!
4. Describe the first 2-3 steps of your process in writing your book.
I had gone through a series of ideas and manuscripts, focusing mostly on generating poetry, but I didn’t know where to go from there. Then I stumbled upon an article while researching readings for my own MFA students (for Arcadia University’s low-residency program) called “Thinking like an Editor: How to Order Your Poetry Manuscript” by April Ossmann. In it, Ossmann covers all of the major manuscript concerns and provides a system for creating a book. She suggests lumping poems by theme, ranking them by strength, and so on. I took all of my poems, participated in her suggested process, and emerged from it with an early version of my book. I highly suggest this article to any poet attempting to order a collection.
5. What is more difficult – drafting or revising? Why?
This is a tough question! It depends on the writing situation, but for me, I would say that revising is more difficult. In the drafting stage, there’s that kernel of inspiration, some idea or image or fragment of language that generates the early version of a poem. That part is exciting. The mind plays and innovates and hopefully, something fresh and interesting is created.
Revision, however, can be tedious. I usually seek out feedback for my work, and then keep it in mind as I jump into the revision stage. Poetry can be especially challenging when it comes to revising because even just one word can change the way a poem affects a reader, and if any given word needs to be changed, it can take a surprising amount of time to find just the right thing to say. There are other concerns that are often unique to the genre as well. For example, sound and rhythm might be concerns at the forefront of a poet’s mind, whereas a writer of nonfiction might be more concerned with the accuracy of facts.
6. What is your favorite part about being a writer?
I love meeting and working with other writers! Personality-wise, I enjoy being alone and tend to be shy, but being a writer offers me many encounters with others in my field. I’ve worked with novelists and other poets on panel presentations for the conference circuit, invited poets both locally and abroad for readings and workshops with me and my students, and so on. All of these connections teach me something about writing and motivate and inspire me to write.
7. What is your least favorite part about being a writer?
Two words: public speaking. I’ve improved over years and years of practice, and teaching has certainly helped, but I still feel a strong sense of dread and anxiety before every reading and presentation.
8. What are a few of your favorite books of all time?
When it comes to poetry, I’d have to say that my favorites are C. D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining, Frank Bidart’s Book of the Body, Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars, and anything from the Modernists. I also binge-read all of the books from my favorite novelists: Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, and Louise Erdrich.
9. How did you learn to write?
I learned to write by reading. Ever since I was a kid, reading was encouraged in my household with family reading time, trips to the library, and book collecting. I learned to write poetry because I randomly bought a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass while book hunting with my dad. After that, I would buy a poetry collection each time we went out. This is what led me to try my own hand at poetry and take writing workshops whenever possible.
10. What are some things that get in the way of your writing? How do you move them out of your way?
There are multiple obstacles I face when I want to write, mainly balancing working as a college instructor and being the primary caregiver for two children under the age of 6. While I can’t necessarily move any of these things out of my way, I take advantage of the time I can find. Usually, I read and write when I’m commuting around New York City, when I have spare time in my campus office, and late at night when I should be sleeping. When something is worth doing, I make the time to do it!
Genevieve Betts’ first book, An Unwalled City, is published by Prolific Press (2015). Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Hotel Amerika, NANO Fiction, Digital Americana, The Literary Review, The Best Emerging Poets of 2014, and in other journals and anthologies. She teaches creative writing for Arcadia University’s low-residency MFA program and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.
My new book, Steele Secrets, comes out on February 9th. It includes an abandoned cemetery, the ghost of a slave, and a teenage girl determined to figure out the mysteries of her small town. Pre-order your copy here on Amazon – http://amzn.to/1RVJ2hw OR get a signed copy here – andilit.com/steele-secrets.