Joan Colby–Interview

Describe your creative space. Do you work at home, in public spaces, etc.

I work anywhere a poem strikes, which is occasionally dangerous if I’m driving. It’s important to capture a poem in the moment, like photographing a bird before it flies away.

What kind of materials to you use? Do you write by hand or type? What is your favorite writing utensil?

I write first drafts longhand revising as I write so the end result may be rather a scribbled crossed out mess. I let that draft cool for a while—days, weeks, sometimes months—and do a final (maybe) revision when I type it into the computer. There may be other revisions, all of which I keep as versions 1, 2, 3, etc. As for a favorite utensil, I favor a ball point pen that is not about to run short of ink.

What is your routine for writing?

I can’t say I have a routine, as I write poetry on the fly. For stories, essays, reports, et al, I set aside a period of time where I won’t be disturbed. Again, first draft is in longhand, final revisions are typed.

How long have you been writing? When did you start writing?

I’ve been writing all my life from the time as a small child writing little stories (poetry came a bit later) so let’s say well over 50 years.

What is your intended or ideal audience? Who do you write for?

I don’t write for an audience when it comes to poetry or fiction. I write for myself with the objective of discovering something I didn’t previously know. That’s what makes the writing process exciting and compelling.

What inspires you to write? If you are blocked, what do you do?

Inspiration might be a visual moment, something seen, or perhaps something remembered or heard, often something I have read. Generally poems pop into my head and writing them is akin to taking dictation. The best poems are not planned, but lead me on, sentence after sentence, or phrase after phrase. I don’t believe poems need to follow the grammatical rules that govern most prose. I never get blocked, rather I have too many ideas. I try not to overthink a vague idea as too much information can be death to the poem. When I taught creative writing, I often used prompts to help students get started and to thwart their tendency to focus solely on their own emotions. However, for myself I don’t think I’ve written many successful poems from a formal prompt, though sometimes I may pose a challenge to myself such as choosing at random five words from a dictionary and then using all five in every stanza of a five stanza poem.

What do you do besides writing? Do you dance or play golf, etc.?

Besides writing, I’m an omnivorous reader of all sorts of material: poetry, short stories, novels, essays, reviews, history, science, philosophy, nature, and so forth. I have had horses all my life and competed in horse shows and eventing. For years, I bred, raised, and trained Thoroughbred horses for the racetrack and as hunter-jumpers. Also, for nearly 40 years, I edited a monthly trade journal Illinois Racing News, which covered the breeders and trainers associations, racetracks, general equine information, and the political scene as it affected the industry. I also bred and trained German Shepherd Dogs, and currently have an 8 year old female GSD. I like camping, hiking, bird-watching, et al. As I live on a small farm, I have the opportunity to observe resident creatures such as deer, foxes, coyotes.

I would like to add that I feel it is important for writers to have interests beyond writing. Poems about poems can be insular and boring. Many of my poems feature horses, farming, nature, mythology, and so on. If your interest is baseball or knitting, use that in poems.

What is your favorite part of the creative process?

My favorite part of the process is completing a poem and finding out what it tells me. I enjoy the challenge of form, particularly the sestina, which affords opportunity for punning and other types of word play. The music inherent in poetry is important to me, and I find that many of my poems are replete with slant rhymes or particular rhythms that my unconscious inserts. Craft is a significant factor in the making of a poem.

What is your advice to aspiring writers?

Read. For poets, read the classics, the canon, as well as contemporary poetry and don’t confine your reading to poetry, have a solid grounding in literature from Beowulf to Shakespeare to the latest acclaimed poet, like Ocean Vuong.

Write. Write a lot, it is the only way to discover your own authentic voice. Don’t be afraid to submit your work while you are learning to write. Every writer needs to master how to distance herself from her work so as to benefit from criticism, judge its value and handle rejection. It is helpful, in fact necessary, to join a community of writers either an in-person writers group on an on-line equivalent. Those in MFA programs are already in that position. Mentors can be helpful too, so having a professional connection with a writer you admire can be invaluable.  As a final tip: be sparing with adjectives and intensify verbs, which are the engines of language.

Check out Joan’s work in Volume 4, Issue 2.

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