June 21, 2013

Working Writers Series: Kris Underwood

Welcome back to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRworkingwritersseries@gmail.com

Today’s working writer is Kris Underwood

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Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I’m a writer-poet, mostly-based in Montpelier, Vermont who has been in the business since 2006 and a mother to an eight year old girl. Currently, I’m at Hunger Mountain (Vermont College of Fine Arts) as the Social Media Editor. One of the best things I get to do here is attend parts of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA residencies. There is always such a rush of creative force listening to all the readings by students and faculty alike. Previously, I worked as an editor for smaller magazines.  I tend to get most of my material for writing from real life events mixed with the symbolism of dreams and health issues. As one would suspect, motherhood is a well-worn topic that pops up. In addition to poetry, I also journal fairly regularly; something I’ve been doing since about 15, maybe a bit younger. It has always served as some kind of therapeutic outlet for me-far better and cheaper than going to a psychiatrist-as well as something I can go back to when I have trouble remembering a certain event. At this point I have something like 68 journals, all in hardback. Some of my poetry and other writing has come directly from my journals on occasion.

My poetry has appeared in Literary Mama, MotherVerse (I also headed an online writing workshop here), The Barefoot Review and Poetry Midwest. One of my poems was part of the Portland Poetry Box project in Portland, Oregon and others have been displayed in PoemCity, a local event put on by MontpelierAlive! in Montpelier Vermont during National Poetry Month.

How did you become the Social Media Editor of Hunger Mountain, and how do you feel that journals are adapting or changing to benefit from a social media presence? Is there anything that you would like to see done that would allow magazines to more fully use social media to spread literature to a wider audience?

Well, it was kind of funny. I had just come off of Mamazina Magazine as an editor and wanted to get back into the literary scene. I also wanted to get out of the literary parenting atmosphere; my daughter was older and I felt like I needed to move on. Hunger Mountain (the journal at Vermont College of Fine Arts) is right in Montpelier-literally down the road from me. I had been reading it since they first launched in 2002 and always liked what I saw. I sent Miciah an email a couple weeks before Christmas 2010 inquiring about being an intern. In January 2011, I got an email to come in. I started as an intern shortly afterwards. At first, it involved a lot of filing, sorting, and reading submissions. Then, the internship morphed into social media person. The Hunger Mountain social media accounts were underdeveloped, so I bumped it up a bit. We now have a decent following on both Facebook and Twitter. Facebook seems to be more community oriented whereas Twitter is more like conversational business. You are more limited on Twitter because you have such a small set of words you can use. You have to be very precise and to the point. On Facebook, there is more room for personal conversation.

For example, every Friday I ask what everybody is reading for the weekend on Facebook. This always, always proves to be a lively exchange and gives everybody a great reading list! I also do this on Twitter, but it doesn’t get the same response as it does on Facebook at all. I’ll get anywhere from 30-50 comments on Facebook and maybe 10-20 on Twitter. Looking to the future, I’d like to get Hunger Mountain set up on some other social media sites, perhaps Goodreads and tumblr.

With social media, journals definitely have an opportunity for more interaction with their subscribers and fans. In turn, conversation is fostered between fans and readers of the journals. This was impossible five to ten years ago. The journals can advertise their work and the work of people affiliated with it more widely, put out calls for submissions and start a discussion on literary news as well as extend their reach to people. If your journal doesn’t have a presence (or very little) on social media, it’s going to be hard for you to stay afloat.  One of the things I get to do as social media editor is go to the residencies. During the last VCFA writing residency, I had the great idea to do a sort of play-by-play update on readings and lectures with the Hunger Mountain twitter account. The response I got was amazing! I’d like to do this again for the next residency. This is another example of a way to connect to your readers through social media.

I’ve seen a few journals post exclusive content on Twitter-like, a story in 40 characters, or a line from a poem for each update. Social media changes continually. What worked last year, last month is irrelevant now. I’m curious to see how social media works for journals in the future.

You mentioned the literary parenting atmosphere. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Also, has your writing habits or subjects changed as your child aged?

I started off reading mothering blogs like Motherhood Uncensored, Her Bad Mother and Dooce, all well- known and successful blogs. The media began to refer to these blogs (and others) with the abhorrent term “mommyblogs” and the people who write them as “mommybloggers.” The terms have always bothered me-it almost implies that writing about motherhood isn’t as serious or credible as “traditional” literature and creative writing. I also read Mothering Magazine and the more literary Brain, Child ravenously.  All of this opened a plethora of parenting websites such as The Imperfect Parent and Green Mom Finds, both of which I contributed to. Then I got the position of writer’s resource editor at Mamazina (previously Mom Writer’s Literary Magazine) and I thought: literature and motherhood melded into one! Excellent! It was all volunteer work, as a lot of literary magazines operate, but I took it as an opportunity to learn about the publishing industry and how it works. I did a little bit of everything here: read submissions, researched writer’s resources and conducted mother-writer interviews. By this time, I had a few pieces published around the web.

I discovered MotherVerse magazine soon after I started with Mamazina and worked with them for a bit as a creative writing workshop mentor. This was a turning point because it was not “mommyblogger” material at all. This was mother literature and the art was amazing-truly art. Sadly, this magazine folded as well. I’m still hoping it can resurface one day.

When my daughter was about six, I was tiring of the literary parenting scene. I really didn’t want to read about diapers, nap-times and temper tantrums anymore. I was done with that. Mothering Magazine was a huge source of support and advice for me as well as for millions of other moms for nearly 30 years. It was one of the most trusted parenting magazines, totally not mainstream as some of the others. I was beginning to outgrow the magazine as my daughter got older…most of it didn’t really apply anymore. Unfortunately, Mothering folded around this time and got a lot of backlash. People were not happy and took to social media to voice their complaints. It was very messy and quite a loss.

Another thing that was really bothering me in the online parental atmosphere was parents kind of…over-sharing. Waxing poetic on things their kids were doing and, probably the most bothersome, sharing pictures of their children on blogs and social media. This led me to think about issues of privacy in general and those of the kids whose entire lives-sometimes even from birth- are on the internet. How is that going to affect them down the line? Some people don’t see it as a problem, but I’ve always stood strongly against it personally.

I didn’t write any poetry for a few years after my daughter was born-maybe two or three. However, I wrote in my journal as much as I could in the haze of the new motherhood sleep deprivation phase. It was sporadic and filled with whatever my daughter was doing at the time and my relationship with her father. I suppose that situation dampened any words or creativity. The one constant creative thing was my extremely intense dreams. Later, many of them would make their way into poetry. I’ve always had an active dream state, but the ones that came while I was pregnant and when my daughter first arrived were particularly intense. I still use my dreams for the basis of a lot of my poetry and they have not lost their intensity. Some of them have been published.  Recently, a few have appeared in Literary Mama and The Barefoot Review.

Now that she’s older, my writing isn’t completely focused on motherhood as it was when she was younger. Other themes began to emerge like health issues, a broader view of the world and they seem to be rooted more in real life rather than dreams. Motherhood is still a central theme, but it’s not the only one. I find I have more time to really focus on the writing as well.

Could you tell us a little bit more about your dream-scapes, and how that influences your work? Do you struggle with taking abstract or even narrative absurdities our dreams (or, at least mine) sometimes present us with, and making what is personal appeal to the wider audience? Does that happen naturally? Is it a challenge?

I’ve been recording my dreams regularly since I was about 16. I did before that, maybe 13 or so, but very sporadically. I don’t know if they are completely abstract. They tend to be full color, with complete plots, symbolism, and sometimes very real events. Occasionally, it’ll just be a scene. I’ve had a few about events that came to pass in real life: dreams about John McCain losing the presidency, Gabby Gifford’s shooting, actor Heath Ledger’s death; more indirectly than the actual event. Dreams of family are prevalent. I was doing genealogy for a while and dreamed of certain cities where people related to me were from. Visits from family members in general and when I was pregnant with my daughter. Sometimes the dreams are so obvious what they are about and sometimes not so much. Sometimes I’ll have dreams where I am actually writing a poem and it being the most amazing poem ever. Then I wake up and it is, regrettably, gone completely. Also, I’ve had a few where I see my work in various well-known publications. This hasn’t come to pass…yet. Who knows what dreams really are?

I continually mine my dreams for writing/poetry whether it is a single line/idea or the entire dream. I know it’s time to write about one when it sticks in my head and does not go away. It begs to be written about. It might take a bit, but when I do, it always feels as if I am done with the issue. This applies to things that happen in real life too.

A lot of it is very personal. It’s hard to incorporate it into poetic form, so it stays in its written form in the dream notebook. Sometimes the dream doesn’t reveal itself until months, years later. You think-ah! That’s what it was about! Sometimes, I’ll have a group of dreams about a certain subject and will take a theme or idea from each of them and meld it into one poem. Then, there are others that just spill out, a fully formed poem. I don’t think I struggle with bringing the abstract or absurdities into the poem. In my experience, it either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, I leave it alone.

Since you ask your followers on social media, can you recommend us a good collection of poems that you’ve read recently? 

Just one collection of good poems? Impossible. I have to say anything Kevin Young, but the last three are really great:Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011); Dear Darkness: Poems (2008); For the Confederate Dead (2007). Also, A.E. Stallings- amazing word structure. I think she may have only two collections, but her individual poems are everywhere. Late Wife by Claudia Emerson.  Layers and layers of emotion here and so precise. I just recently read David Wojahn’s Spirit Cabinet. He read at the last Vermont College of Fine Arts writing residency in January. Two of the poems he read, “Decoy Birds” and “Study Skins,” are in the current issue of The Southern Review (Spring 2013). The other poem he read at the residency was one addressed directly to the Vice-President of the NRA, incorporating the Sandy Hook shooting and Dante’s Inferno into it.  That reading was so amazing. There was a collective, audible “Mmmm-hmmm” when he finished  It just felt like socially conscious, yet personal writing.  

You can follow Kris Underwood on twitter  @krisunderwood and @Hungermtn, or on her blog at krisunderwood.blogspot.com

About Alison Balaskovits

A. A. Balaskovits is a Ph.D. student in Fiction at the University of Missouri and the curator of the Literature on Lockdown series for The Missouri Review. You can follow her on twitter @aabalaskovits or at aabalaskovits.com

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