Dispatches | March 19, 2014
Working Writers Series: Kristin Maffei
Welcome 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 Kristin Maffei.
Tell us a little about yourself:
I grew up in Mahopac, NY a little town about an hour north of New York City. In the 19th century, it was a huge resort town, with ornate hotels surrounding a large lake in the middle of town. There used to be a railroad there and apparently things were quite glamorous: horse-and-carriage races to the hotels, enormous parties until 4 a.m., that sort of thing. My college, Sarah Lawrence, even had a little cabin there in the 1930s, where students could pay a small fee and spend the night in the country. I’m still surprised to sometimes meet people who summered there when they were kids, though, because when we moved there the train tracks were all overgrown and the hotels had been burned down for decades. Athough I once saw a Mahopac, NY postcard in our pharmacy, it really did just seem like a normal suburb where there was nothing for kids like me to do. I guess the most recent thing that’s gotten us into the news is there was a rumor that Angelina Jolie bought an island on the lake to give to Brad Pitt for his birthday. There really is a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house on that island, but Angelina didn’t really buy it.
Anyway, my childhood was idyllic — almost completely, with picnics and swimming and school plays — and then I went to Sarah Lawrence, which was also idyllic, and studied for a year at Oxford which probably took the idyllic cake. But you know, I’m a poet, so I had all sorts of emotions despite these idyllic settings, and I write extensively about that very thing: darker emotions inside of lovely places. Mahopac also played a small role in the American Revolution, so I write a fair amount about colonial America, as well, and I don’t think it’s any secret that there was an underbelly to that existence as well. It’s a place that is incredibly central to who I am as a person, and a place with so much history that I can’t help but have it inform my work. My parents still live there and since I live in the city, I visit frequently. Possibly because I grew up in a place that has seen so much change, my work is very much centered in liminal places: moments of transition, of transportation, of double-being. I’m a Pisces, so I’m drawn to water, and that particular liminal space comes up often, too. I’m fascinated by history and the personality and movement that can be hard to see in textbook versions of history, so I try to capture that in my poems when I can.
After working for a few years out of college, I missed school terribly and decided to go back to my original plan of being a writer. I’d never really stopped writing, but I wanted to take it more seriously and give it the respect I once had and that I felt it deserved again. In 2010, I took a wonderful continuing education workshop with Miranda Field at the New School, and the following year I enrolled in NYU’s creative writing MFA. The program was incredible; I loved all of the faculty and all of my fellow students deeply, and I can’t say how improved my life is as a result of the work I did there. I continued to work while I was in school, and it was very difficult and stressful at times, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. While I was there, I finished my book, Brack, under Yusef Komunyakaa’s supervision. For now, my writing life is mainly focused on sending out individual submissions, though, I want to send out the whole book to some contests soon. I’m also a copywriter now, so I feel really privileged to spend my days writing for work as well, though of course that’s very different than writing poetry.
You note how growing up in Mahopac really influenced your poetry. Has moving to New York City affected it as well?
I had a very hard time my first year living in New York. I lived in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, with two of my best friends, in a beautiful 19th century woodframe house with a backyard garden and a chandelier in the living room. There was even a tile with our college mascot in the fireplace, so when we moved in, it felt destined. But the year was hard and full of adjustments that come with working full time, paying rent, and living in a major city for the first time. I felt ceaseless pressure and didn’t hold up particularly well under it. I’ve wanted to write about that time but still haven’t. I didn’t write much that year, but three poems of mine that I like quite a lot came out of it, so it wasn’t all bad. Looking at them, though, they all feel very distant, and they’re all looking in on something from the outside. I think they must reflect the way I felt very much like an outsider during that year. Five years hence, living in Harlem, I feel much more at home and comfortable, both in the city and in my own skin. I’ve written a few poems about New York, but I often shy away from them because I worry they feel too stereotypical. There are only so many times you can compare the subway to veins, you know? Still, three of my four grandparents moved to the city at some point in their lives, and I like to imagine they were searching for something. My fourth grandparent (my maternal grandmother) and my parents all grew up here, and I was actually born here as well, so I do like to explore it from that sort of personal aspect, and I find myself a bit drawn to its history as well. Overall, though, I think I’m overwhelmed by it in my poetry as I was during my first year here — it’s just too vast a topic to really cover.
That said, living in New York has certainly affected my writing life in many ways. I’m not sure if there’s a more welcoming place for writers in the US. The cost of living here is absolutely prohibitive, so I do sometimes wonder how freelance writers make rent; once you’ve paid those bills, there are endless opportunities. It’s possible to find a free reading every day of the year, and there are so many chances to meet other writers at formal events and casual parties. Knowing so many other writers here has made the city feel less isolating and more full of potential than I could have imagined. I know there are vibrant poetry communities in other areas, and I’m sure I could be happy living in other places, but right now, New York feels like the place to be. Being here is part of what has made living a life in writing feel possible for me.
You mention how you are fascinated by history. How much research do you do when you write a poem?
It depends on the poem. For some, I do completely shameful research. I’ll read one Wikipedia article and then call it a day, writing a poem from just that. I feel okay about this for the most part because what I want to do in these poems is create a voice and pull something that feels authentic to me from a given event and not necessarily give someone an accurate play-by-play of the event. If I pique someone’s interest to do their own research further, then I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
And then of course other times, I have the exact opposite problem, where I research for hours and hours and then never write the poem or barely write the poem. For example, I have an idea in mind of a poem about Stephen Hopkins — a Mayflower passenger, possible inspiration for Stephano in my favorite Shakespeare work (The Tempest), and ancestor of my next-door neighbor and childhood friend — and I think it could really and truly be wonderful and pull together so many of my interests in a beautiful way. And I’ve been thinking about it and reading about it in one form or another since 2006, and I’ve never written a line of it, so, you know. There’s the opposite problem as well.
But, I think ideally, for a poem to feel authentic and accurate to me and still hold my own voice, it’s good for me to have some strong prior research in my background and then let myself take flight from there. Things that are a part of me and a part of Western culture feel like the best jumping off point — the Bible, classical mythology, that sort of thing — are the things I’ve studied extensively for many years. I find that if I can remember one of those stories from previous study or from my childhood, and then perhaps do a bit of extra research (say, three or four hours, total) and then write, then that’s the sweet spot for me.
Once you have finished researching, what is your poetic process? How long does it take you to write a poem? How much do you revise? Do you write daily?
It really depends on the poem. For some, I’ve been able to write down a complete piece in twenty minutes and then do just a few minor revisions later. I feel like those come from somewhere outside of myself, and I love them for it. And of course they are infrequent to say the least. For a normal poem, it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks to get a solid first draft done, and I’m rarely happy with the first result. I like to give myself some space from those pieces, maybe a month or longer, and then come back to them with fresh eyes and see what can be tightened or fixed and what needs to go. For a normal poem, I usually go through three or four drafts, usually with just minor tweaks to the last draft, before I’m ready to send them out for submissions or consider them “done.” But, I will say, once something is accepted to be published somewhere, I consider that really finished and don’t really go back to edit it afterward. Even as I’ve been putting together my book, the edits I’ve made to most of those poems were fairly minor.
I don’t write daily, although I would like to. I know that getting into the habit of it is a good idea, but I’ve had trouble doing that. Perhaps one day! For now, I try to do some sort of work on my writing everyday, but that can be really flexible. For working on my writing, I consider reading, revising, submitting, editing my resume, going to readings, and talking to other writers to be some form of success. It isn’t the same (or as good) as sitting down to write a poem, but it keeps me feeling like I’m in the game, and it inspires my actual writing quite a lot. And, of course, when the mood strikes or I feel some inspiration, I usually drop whatever I’m doing to jot down at least a few notes, if not the whole poem.
You said you work as a copywriter, too, and that you appreciate being able to write for your job. Do you ever wish you could just write poetry or do you like the balance?
I think that if someone would pay me to just write poetry that would be the greatest thing to ever happen but extremely unlikely. A professor told me once that Seamus Heaney, who was at that time possibly the most famous living poet, made only £10,000 a year off of his poetry book sales. The rest was from teaching and lectures and such. So, I don’t really see that as an option for me ever, and while I would love to making a living off of writing and teaching poetry, for right now, I’m extremely happy being able to balance my poetry writing with my copywriting.
I think they play off of each other really easily, but it’s still a different enough sort of writing that I don’t ever feel drained from it. I never come home and think, Ugh, write a poem? But I wrote all day! Some days, of course, I don’t want to write a poem because I’m tired or cranky, but it’s never really because of the work I do. In fact, I think being a copywriter helps me hone my poetry writing skills because I know I only have a person’s attention for a limited amount of time, so I really need to choose my words carefully, picking only the best ones and not using too many. It’s a very different style than poetry, but both copywriting and poetry condense complicated ideas into a smaller format without losing any of their complexity.
How did you start writing poetry? What made it the best creative form for you?
I think that childhood is one of the relatively few times in our lives when poetry surrounds us, and so it makes sense that that’s when I started writing my own. At that point, I was pretty obsessed with rhyme, and it came much more easily than it does now, probably because so much of what I was reading and singing and memorizing was rhymed. The first poem I remember writing was a very long piece about Christmas, which I then typed up, decorated with holiday-themed clip art and printed out to give as gifts in fourth grade — my very first broadside. I spoke with my fourth grade teacher not so long ago, and she told me she still has it framed in her house. She probably has the only extant copy.
I’m honestly not sure what made it the best form for me. I think it has to do a lot with length and the importance of each word. When you only have a very limited space in which to convey meaning, each word needs to really do its job, and bending words to get them to mean the most they can has always been fascinating to me. I also like that poems are often quite small, and lend themselves to re-reading. It’s rare that I’ll read a novel more than once, even one I love to bits, but certain poems I can read endlessly, and come away with different meanings each time. Creating something that does that for another person — beg for and reward multiple readings — is my ultimate goal in all my writing.
Who are your favorite poets? What draws you to particular writers?
I was lucky enough to have some incredible professors and fellow students throughout the years I’ve spent studying poetry, and all of their work, though very different, is incredible, so I feel like I need to give them all a shout out when talking about favorite poets. The poets who have probably influenced me the most over years of reading and re-reading their work are Ted Hughes and Anne Carson, who both draw inspiration from classical works in very different ways. I also love Srikanth Reddy, Dan Chiasson, Traci Brimhall, and Margaret Atwood, and I think that Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars is a complete masterpiece. I think what each of these writers does that draws me to them is that they’re able to write emotion or personal experience within a set frame of references, and the emotions and the references play off of each other to lend a sort of familiarity to the reader. Maybe you don’t know much about outer space, but you can understand loss, or vice versa. I think all these poets play within and around those lines beautifully. While I once had a friend tell me that it didn’t really matter if I was a good writer or not, what mattered was whether I was telling good stories because people read for the stories, not for the writing. Obviously I’ve found this not to be the case; how a story is told is just as important as the story itself. But it’s something that has stuck with me through many years, and I think the thing that draws me to certain writers is their ability to tell stories, even familiar ones, in new and interesting ways. It’s not necessarily that I love narrative poetry, but that I like having a familiar touchstone — maybe a classical work, maybe a universal emotion — that helps me find my way through a piece of poetry.
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