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The Habitual Poet: Michaela A. Gabriel 

Installment #53

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The Habitual Poet is an ongoing series of contributor interviews. If you are a Poemeleon contributor and would like to participate copy & paste the Q's from below and e-mail your answers to: editor@poemeleon.org.

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Q: Where do you prefer to get your books?

A: I buy mostly online. The reason is that I live in a German-speaking country, but almost exclusively read English books. Novels you can get (I tend to buy them at Thalia or Shakespeare & Co), but when it comes to poetry, forget it. When I travel to English-speaking countries, it's quite a different story, of course.


Q: How many poetry books do you think you own, and what percentage of these have you actually read?

A: About 120-150, I guess. I've read most, though certainly not every single poem.


Q: When, where and how do you usually read? (i.e. at bedtime under the covers, cover to cover, etc.)

A: I read practically everywhere: on public transport, in waiting rooms, in the car (when I am NOT driving, mostly *g*), during breakfast, in bed, on the escalator … and usually more than one book at any given time. Cover to cover, unless I am rereading a poetry collection, when I sometimes just pick out certain poems.


Q: What books of poetry have you read this month?

A: Arlene Ang's "Seeing Birds in Church Is a Kind of Adieu", Kelli Russell Agodon's "Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room", Leonard Cohen's "Let Us Compare Mythologies".


Q: What other books/magazines/backs of cereal boxes have you read recently?

A: I reread "Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder, I read "In the Blue House" by Meaghan Delahunt, Cati Porter's "(al)most delicious", a couple of books that deal with learning languages and with the acquisition of speech, Leonard Cohen's song lyrics, and I'm now reading Alan Paton's "Cry, the Beloved Country" and Anthony Reynolds' "Leonard Cohen: A Remarkable Life".


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Q: When, where, how do you write, and why? (i.e. at dusk on a dock, longhand in a notebook, because...)

A: Usually on a computer, because it's so easy to move bits and pieces of writing around. It just fits the way we think – our thinking is not linear, but associative. Of course I carry a notebook with me at almost all times. As for where and when: in times when the muse is willing, I can write everywhere and any time. I have written poems while at tennis matches on the ATP tour, on chilly mountain tops, in the rain forest, on buses or trains, as well as at home at my desk on Sunday mornings. I tend to work best at night, though.


Q: How many first drafts do you think you complete in a week? A month?

A: That varies. I've been blocked much of the past three years, so it's only been a handful of drafts every few months. But when I do rounds of a-poem-a-day, well, obviously I manage to finish a first draft every day. The longest streak of a-poem-a-day was 180 consecutive days.


Q: How long do you wait before revising a poem?

A: That varies, too. Sometimes straight away, if I have the time and I feel that it just has to be done, sometimes it takes ages, because I have no time or because I feel I need to give it some time and space before I return to it. There are of course also those that are never revised and just left alone.


Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

A: That's difficult to say. Some might never be done. Some poems I feel are done after I've played with them for a day. But then I've said that about certain poems and then made a few changes years later.  


Q: Have you ever given up an invitation so you could stay home and write?

A:  I don't think so, but I am sure I have been late for some appointments, because I just had to scribble another line or two. 


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Q: What is your system for sending out work?

A: I have an Excel spreadsheet where – in times when I write regularly – I list certain magazines I find interesting and their deadlines (if they have any), so I check these out for my poems. I try to get a mix of online and print, I prefer magazines that accept simultaneous submissions, and I try new magazines but am also "faithful" to certain publications that have published my work before, because I still love reading them.


Q: What have you more recently received: a rejection notice or an acceptance? Was it what you expected?

A: Acceptances. I sent out four submissions after a long period of not submitting anything, and all four magazines accepted at least one poem. That was certainly more than I'd expected, and I was particularly thrilled, because the poems that were accepted are mainly recent ones, so it seems I've still got it in me, even after the long dry period.


Q: Where do you generally publish: online, in print, or a mix, and do you have a preference?

A: Both. Online is fabulous, because more people have access to the poetry, because it is easier to spread the word about it, but of course it is also nice to hold a magazine or anthology in my hands. For me, a problem with print magazines is usually getting hold of a sample copy, because it is rather expensive to have them sent to Austria (which normally means overseas), and sometimes they  don't even offer that. Certain magazines only accept mail submissions, and the IRC stuff is just such a hassle, so I often pass on such magazines.


Q: What is the worst (or weirdest, or best) experience you’ve had with a journal/magazine/press & its editor(s)? (No names, please!)

A: One print magazine published by a university chooses poems they've published for their English Literature students to write papers on, and one of my poems was among them. It was of course an honour, but it was also quite funny, because that particular poem was part of a series that had begun as a kind of joke, and my answers probably turned the poor student off poetry (or at least off poets) for life. 


Q: Have you ever received any fan (or hate) mail? If so, what was that like?

A: Yes to fan mail. The first time was not actually an email, but I found my name mentioned in an interview that another poet (whom I didn't know then, but with whom I became friends quite a while later) had given. The magazine had asked him about his favourite small press poets and my name was there alongside two others. That made my day. I've had people write to me to ask if it would be okay to use one of my poems in class, or just to say that they loved one of my poems. That's fantastic, because it means that something in my work resonates with somebody out there.



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Practical considerations


Q: What is your day job, and how does it affect your writing?

A: I work in adult education, teaching English. Before that, it was teaching computer skills. I've actually been inspired by classroom situations. Now that I teach 37 hours a week (yes, I know that's insane, but that's what we do in our job) and have to do prep work, it's hard to get back into the swing of things, after the long period of being blocked. So I would say that there is less energy than there used to be.


Q: How does your significant other’s occupation affect your writing life?

A: It doesn't much. Except – the flat is rather small, and occasionally we both work from home, and sometimes it'd be good to have a room for myself, a study or something, where I could lock out the rest of the world. :)


Q: Have there been periods in your life when you couldn't write?

A: Oh yes. The past three years, mostly, starting with a really massive crisis that culminated in horrible panic attacks and depression in the autumn of 2007. And once, before that, a period of about 8 months of absolute writer's block, when there was nothing at all, not even a line.


Q: Do you have a “poetry budget”?

A: I wish. Although I tend to spend money I get for published poems or prize money from contests on poetry books.


Q: Have you ever suffered (or made someone else suffer) in the name of your art? (i.e. picked up your kids late from school so you could finish a poem, forgone lunch to buy a book, left a relationship because the other person just didn't understand, etc.)

A: I am sure I have made others suffer. In my marriage my husband was definitely jealous of the time I spent locked up with the muse, at least at times, and especially during rounds of a-poem-a-day. At the beginning of our relationship he loved the creativity and there was a lot of support for many, many years, but towards the end of our marriage things changed, and he was even bitter about it sometimes. In my current relationship it has not been a problem, since I have not been writing much anyway. But I doubt it would actually be much of an issue, my boyfriend is away often, both for work and with his hockey team. He is interested in my writing and encourages me to write more, and loves when he comes home and finds me working on a poem. As for suffering – I remember nights spent on polishing poems, forgetting to eat etc., but that's just part of the whole poetry business, isn't it?


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Random nonsense


Q: Do you have any superhuman abilities? (i.e. can you tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue, or write a double sestina with both hands tied behind your back?)

A: I can actually tie a cherry stem in a knot! I have managed to write a double abecedarian that actually makes sense, and many abecedarians. Sestina … not yet, not yet. And I can teach 37 hours per week and still stay relatively sane, surely that must count!


Q: You write a scathing poem about your mother and she learns about it. You:

a.) Move to South America and leave no forwarding address

b.) Delete the poem and insist it never existed

c.) Show it to her (she’s already written you out of the will anyway)

d.) Do none of the above; instead you: _____


A: D. Keep her away from translators. My mother barely speaks English.


Q: If the best medical specialists in the world told you that if you didn’t give up your poetry habit today you would die in six months, would you get your affairs in order or would you leave that up to your family?

A: I might actually have that "medical specialist" checked by another specialist …


Q: If you could be a vowel, which one would you be and why?

A: Hmmm … an "e" perhaps. Can be pronounced several different ways, comes with accents …


Q: Finally, what piece of advice would you most like to share with our readers? (This can be on writing, the writing life, or anything else...)

A: Read and observe. Read: not just poetry, though. For some of my poems I've had to do extensive research, e.g. on chemistry, physics (and I used to despise chemistry and physics at school!), mythology, illnesses, countries, people, … I am so grateful for the Internet, because all that information is right there, and books on just about everything are so easily available these days. Observe: open your eyes. Watch people, watch yourself, watch whatever is going on around you. Notice random things, little things, flaws ...

Go through life with your eyes wide open. Stop for the little things. Enjoy the so-called little things. Don't take yourself too seriously.


Michaela A. Gabriel lives in Vienna, Austria, where she works as an English teacher for adults and a translator. She has been published in English, German, Italian, and Polish, both online and in print, and is the author of two and a half chapbooks: apples for adam, the secret meanings of greek letters, small confessions and pebbles of regrets (with Alex Stolis). Although afflicted by writer's block for a while now, she has not entirely given up hope that she will one day finish her full length manuscript, elemental.

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