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The Habitual Poet: Lisa McCool-Grime

Installment #63

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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: Lately, directly from small presses.  But I do really love having a long hour to spend in a used bookstore.  I especially enjoy copies previous readers wrote in. 


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

A: This got me curious, so I started counting and quickly stressed out about what passed for a poetry book (the Tao Te Ching?  The House on Mango Street?  That collection of hand-stapled, Kinko’s-run chapbooks?).  Counting conservatively I got to 60 in my kitchen. So probably 200 bona fide poetry books in my apartment.  Too many for my bookshelves to hold.  I’ve read from about 90% of them, but only about 20% of them cover-to-cover.  


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

A: There’s very little method to that madness.  I can read prose just about anywhere, anytime in large or small chunks and I tend to prefer starting at the beginning.  With poetry, not even the beginning is a guarantee.  I cram poetry in whenever I can by keeping stacks within reach of my bed and couches and a book in every purse/bag.  Although my best poetry reading is done when I feel I have a luxury of time before me and lots of sunlight, which usually means propped up in my bed in the early afternoon with the curtains wide open.


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

A: Those stacks of books probably totals somewhere around 50 and I probably have dipped into at least 10 this month, but I’m not sure exactly which ones.  I do know that I nearly finished Kim Dower’s Air Kissing on Mars this month and that the last book I read a few poems from was Dead on Arrival by Jaki Shelton Green.


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

A: Ugh—75% of the article links posted by facebook friends, “Chinese proverbs” on tea bags, tarot card interpretations; children’s ibuprofen warning labels—I have a hard time ignoring text if it’s in front of me.  But reading I’ve enjoyed in small to large chunks this month includes: Paulo Friere’s Teachers as Cultural Workers; Savage Love; Dear Sugar at the Rumpus; Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles; WOMPO archives (a women’s poetry listserv); literary journals (the last two I’ve read from—A Cappella Zoo and Rabbit Catastrophe Review)


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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: I write when my son is napping or with a trusted adult.  There’s a schedule to it, but it’s too crazy to reproduce here.  I write either on my laptop or in a journal (which is also where I keep my to-do and grocery lists).  If the poem has sufficient constraints that guide me through the drafting, I can write anywhere, but if the world of words is available at every step along the drafting of the poem, then I need to be in a quiet room with plenty of sun where I can pace and talk out loud to myself.   Or driving in my car and then I don’t write it down, but memorize as I compose.  Sometimes I tell myself that I write so that I can teach others to write, and while I have taught and will teach, I know that’s not the real reason I write. I have no idea why I write.  I wish I had a good justification for the writing of poetry, but I don’t.


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

A: It ebbs and flows.  Slow months, maybe 2 poems a month.  Muse-inspired months, probably around 15 poems. 


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

A: A long time.  I wait a day or two to make sure the first draft is really gelled before I even send it to friends for feedback.  When the feedback comes, I usually skim it and then sit on it for months at a time.  One to twelve months later, I will feel the poem start to nag at me again.  I’ll pull out all of the feedback and most of it will make sense finally.  I’ll revise.  Then repeat.



Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

A: I think that poems get ripe.  As in, they become the best realizations of what I am capable of at that time as a reader and writer.  If I read it and things about it bother me but I don’t know how to fix them, then it isn’t ripe yet, so I put it away for revision.  But if I read it and reread it and I love it enough to see no flaws, then it is ripe and ready to go into the world and I’d better do it soon enough because in a few years it will be spoiled.  Wait too long, I will likely read it and feel embarrassed I ever wrote it. 


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

A:  My dishes regularly attempt to engage my attention and I regularly refuse in order to write poetry.  But passing up social invitations?  Not that I can remember.  I am not afraid that my poems will abandon me.  But people might if I made a habit of refusing their invitations.


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Q: What is your system for sending out work?

A: Read, read, read journals.  Then submit in batches.  Wait for rejections to come back.  Gear up for another batch of submissions with more reading.  I want to feel that my work will have a good home and will contribute in a positive way to the conversation already taking place at the journal—that I will be giving and receiving, not just one or the other.  So I start with reading the poetry, but I also consider presentation, notes from the editor, submission policies and stats (found via Duotrope).  If I feel the community created by the journal is a good fit for something I’ve written, I submit.  I keep track of where I’ve sent work using spreadsheets—one is organized by Journal, the other by Poem Title—and I rarely do simultaneous because it’s a headache to keep up with.  I also put the info into Duotrope, not because I find their tracker helpful—I prefer my spreadsheets—but because I find their stats helpful and I want to contribute to those stats so that other Duotrope users can benefit.


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

A: A rejection.  Yes, I usually expect rejection—journals are so swamped with submissions.  But this was a personal rejection, very encouraging and specific in what the editor liked, why the poems weren’t a good fit and what would make a better fit.  I think I like personal rejections of this type better than form acceptance letters.


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

A:  I do like print journals that don’t just rely on a basic print fetish, but truly explore the three dimensional and tactile options that the internet can’t provide.  Bookbinding as art.  Experiments in size and shape.  Game-like objects one can hold…  But generally, I prefer online.  It’s eco-friendly.  Online publication reaches a greater audience and can also offer audio, video, hyperlink, response boxes, etc.  The online submission process is more natural to me (although I know some print journals offer this too)—an extension of all the other conversations I already participate in.  I use snail mail to submit to print publications/presses and send my grandmother letters.  My grandmother is worth it, but she doesn’t like my poetry. 



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: I recently had an exchange with an editor over her decision to begin charging writers a small fee to submit to her journal while keeping it free to readers.  The exchange was respectful, but left me feeling sad about a lot of things poetry- and money-related.


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

A: 8-10 years ago, when I was doing a lot of spoken word and passing out cards with my email address, occasionally I’d receive a nice email from someone who’d heard me perform.


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Practical considerations


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

A: I take care of my 2 year old son.  I find it to be a creative force for my writing—not that my son directly inspires my content, but that the ever-changing rhythms of the day require me to use my creative brain a lot. “How will I meet his needs and mine?” has evolving answers.  Those answers effect my poetry in a long list of ways and keeps it from becoming stale. 



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

A: My husband is in the Air Force.  When I married him, I was one year away from tenure in the NC public school system and wrote poetry in my spare time.  Moving every 2-4 years for his career means I really don’t have options for fulfilling career paths that also bring in money.  So now I just write.  Even with the kiddo, I have more time for writing than I did when I was teaching.  Which pretty much makes my husband my patron.


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

A: Yes, if I’m changing addresses or on vacation.


Q: Do you have a “poetry budget”?

A:  Kind of.  Books, childcare, journals, conferences, the occasional submission fee...  I definitely spend money on poetry and its not enough to break our bank, but I’d rather not know exactly how much. 


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: Sometimes I skip exercise to work on poetry.  I regularly write or read through hunger and then emerge on the other side light-headed and cranky.  If I’m in a particularly fertile poetry-writing period (one of those 15-poems-a-month phases) I tend to be irritable in social settings because I would rather be writing poetry.  Maybe I should consider turning those invites down, huh?  


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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 have had fewer than five nights of uninterrupted sleep in the last two years.  I don’t know if other people consider this a superhuman ability, but I do marvel that I can still write a complete sentence.


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:  c) This already happened except the will part.  My mom said she did the same thing to her parents.


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 have had to say goodbye to people and things dearer to me than poetry.  I would grieve the death of poetry in my life, but I would live. 


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

A:   E.  Because I admire its stubbornness:  it resists double entendre more than any other vowel.  Also its silent presence has the power to make other vowels long, which is a lovely ability.


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:  If you are teaching poetry to nonpoets, keep in mind that words like metonymy, trope, alliteration, spondee are unnecessary for and sometimes antithetical to cultivating a love of poetry.  Those words are best saved for lovers.   


Lisa McCool-Grime loves Sappho, collaborations and wallflower women. Her publications include Splinter Generation and some wallflower women are forthcoming in PANK and Phantom Kangaroo. Her collaborative work with Nancy Flynn can be read at Poemeleon. Tupelo press awarded one of her Sappho-inspired poems first place in their Fragments of Sappho contest.


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