CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH
The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: How has teaching creative writing affected your own writing?
Vanessa Stauffer: Teaching creative writing has kept me from going astray a few times—kept me from cynicism, from laziness, from devolving into self-imitation—as working with young writers is probably the best way to stay excited about language. And it saved my writing life, profoundly, a few years ago. I didn’t write for a long time, including most of graduate school. Part of the problem was emotional—a bad taste in my mouth from an unhealthy formative relationship gone wrong—but I know now that it was also physical: I had a whole slew of undiagnosed diseases, literally for years, that wreaked havoc on my ability to simply think, let alone remember and imagine. I honestly don’t know how I finished my degrees.
I taught composition as an adjunct for several years after graduating, a period during which I made attempt after attempt to recover my writing life while my health deteriorated to the point that it was finally evident that I had real physical problems, not just a nasty case of writer’s block. Towards the end of my cancer treatment, I landed my current teaching gig and started teaching introductory creative writing, poetry workshops, and some upper-level lit courses. I got the job on the strength of my CV, which, unfortunately, was largely supported by the work I’d done as an undergrad: all of the prizes and fellowships and publications were awarded for work I barely recognized as my own. So when I found myself in front of a classroom full of passionate, engaged young people who wanted nothing more than to learn how to write from a Real Writer, I could not have felt more like a fraud.
In my years teaching composition, I’d developed a pedagogy that depended almost exclusively on striking the idea balance between authority and authenticity. But because I wasn’t writing poems myself, I wasn’t able to engage either persona. (I guess you can fake authority—many do—but you can’t fake authenticity.) So I started writing again, because there was no way I could teach it well if I couldn’t do it myself. This time, though, my brain cooperated. Without that job, there’s a good chance I’d simply have thanked the gods I was still alive and gotten a 9 to 5. Now, though, I hear Zbigniew Herbert echoing: “you were saved not in order to live / you have little time you must give testimony.” Of course, it’s not all Robin-Williams-standing-on-desks. It’s a serious demand on my time and my intellectual energy. At one point last fall, I was commenting on 48 drafts per week. I probably don’t need to say it, but: that’s a lot. I’ll be switching gears for the upcoming academic year—more lit, fewer workshops—and as much as I enjoy teaching writing, I’m glad for the time to refocus on my own work.
RR: Could you tell us a bit about your recent chapbook, Cosmology?
VS: Cosmology is recently published, but the poems are quite old. They’re mostly ekphrastic, using the paintings of Jan Vermeer as vehicles through which to explore what the work of all young poets explores: questions of origin, both metaphysical and familial. The chapbook is the first section of a manuscript that also employs the paintings of Caravaggio and J.M.W. Turner towards similar ends.
RR: “Saint Mary’s Dawn” is such a beautiful portrayal of Kraków. What is your relationship to that city?
VS: That’s nice to hear—I have been writing versions of that poem since 2006, when I had the good fortune to attend the Krakow Poetry Seminar as a participant sponsored by the University of Houston’s creative writing program. The seminar was the project of Ed Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski—both were teaching at Houston around that time—and gave graduate students the opportunity to study the Polish poets in greater depth, as well as develop a dialogue with the young poets of that country. It was an incredibly valuable experience and we were treated with such generosity: we each had our own flat near the Rynek Główny and spent the morning in seminar at Jagellonian University, then, after a typically enormous and excellent lunch in the square, attended afternoon sessions. It is such a beautiful city, both in the aesthetics of its architecture and the poignancy of its long history. “Saint Mary’s Dawn” is named for the short piece of music played each quarter hour from one of the towers of Saint Mary’s Church, which anchors the northeast corner of the square. There’s a legend that claims the song was played as a warning by a sentry who saw the Mongol army approaching; each time it’s played, it ends abruptly, meant to mimic that call-to-arms being cut short when the sentry was silenced by an enemy arrow. I don’t particularly care how much of that legend is remotely true, though, as it stands in my mind for the experience of being in that incredible old city—surrounded by beauty, yet keenly aware of the many tragedies of Polish history. One of the optional seminar excursions was a visit to Auschwitz. For a long time I tried to write that experience into “Saint Mary’s Dawn,” but I don’t think there’s a way to do justice to that much beauty and that much horror in the space of a single poem.
RR: What was it like when you were first published?
VS: At the time, it was exhilarating—I was still in college and had only been writing for a year, at most, so the affirmation was beyond my wildest, twenty-year-old dreams. I’d been an avid reader my whole life, but had never thought I’d be a writer myself; I was probably so convinced that I’d fail that it did not occur to my conscious mind that I ought to try. But I got talked into a creative writing course and wrote the first poems that weren’t lousy high school Edgar Allan Poe knock-offs, and year later published three of them in two different journals. So it was such an exciting time. Not only was I realizing the great joy of the writing life, I was finding out I wasn’t half-bad at it. Looking back, though, I can see that publishing that quickly—and in the manner that those poems appeared in print—set me up for inevitable disappointment of the sort that a young writer doesn’t have the necessary experience to deal with. I’d been encouraged by my teacher to send out some work—he thought that I should, for the sake of my upcoming grad school applications. I didn’t feel like I was ready for that step, but I agreed to talk about it, and gave him some poems I was considering sending. But when I arrived at his office for our meeting, he handed me back my empty folder and told me he’d sent them off himself. A few months later, the acceptance letters arrived, and the violated feeling I’d been carrying around faded: now I had proof that my poems were good, so who cared how that proof was acquired? What I didn’t understand, new as I was to the whole scene, was the degree of nepotism at work in those first publications; my teacher had close personal ties with editors of both journals. So when I hit a dry spell a year or two later and couldn’t place anything anywhere, I just gave up. I thought it meant I’d lost whatever it was that had made me successful. In reality, I had lost it—but I didn’t realize that it hadn’t had much to do with me.
RR: What are you currently working on?
VS: I hate talking about work in progress. Like Mallarmé told Degas, poems are not made of ideas—they’re made of words. So I feel like the best way to answer that question is with a list of words I’ve lately been repeating: bronze, canted, turn, muscle, open, angled, wake, savage, distant. If you are a word-association sleuth, you might derive therefrom that I’m working on some poems about the work of French sculptor Auguste Rodin, which is probably a better answer to the question.
Vanessa Stauffer’s work in Issue 1.4:
Vanessa Stauffer holds a Ph.D. from the University of Houston. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Cimarron Review, Third Coast, and West Branch. She is the author of the chapbook Cosmology (dancing girl press & studio, 2013).