Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with poet Annette C Boehm. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Annette. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Annette: I grew up in what was then West Germany. As a kid I was always the odd one out; I was awkward around people and mainly lived in books. I was a voracious reader. My favourite fare were the books of Astrid Lindgren, especially “Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter”, and an oversized book of illustrated fables and stories from around the world. I think that book is still in one of my many boxes somewhere. I guess it was just a natural outgrowth of my interest in stories that got me started writing. A lot of my poems tell a story or subvert stories told by others. I’m currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Morgen: Do you write poetry to form or as it comes? If to form, what are your favourites? Are some easier than others?
Annette: Actually, I try to avoid form. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s more about knowing one’s own limits. It’s difficult to write in form in such a way that it sounds natural, and a natural flow is important to me. I like forms that are subtle, forms that don’t announce themselves loudly on the page. Ghazals are nice, but I’ve yet to write one I’m happy with.
Morgen: I tend to agree. I write very little poetry and I have found writing some forms such as a pantoum or villanelle interesting but as you say, it can be more constricting. Do you generally write rhyming or free verse?
Annette: I like to play with rhyme, alliteration and assonance. I like the music they create in the poem. My poems don’t tend to have fixed rhyme patterns though.
Morgen: What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Annette: I’ve had poems in some journals, both in print and online, but my largest project so far has been “the five parts of love: confabulating sappho”. It’s a chapbook of poems inspired by and built around the surviving fragments of Sappho’s poetry. You can get a taste of the result online – elimae published the title poem and one other poem from the collection: http://elimae.com/2011/02/Five.html
I don’t use a pseudonym but have made a point of including my middle initial, simply because there are so many people with my first and last name – there’s a judoka, a swimmer, a child psychologist, and probably a bunch more I don’t know about. That last name is about as common in Germany as Smith is in the US, so there’s plenty of room for confusion.
Morgen: I would have thought that ‘Boehm’ would be an unusual surname but I’m running a novel on Novel Nights In on Sunday nights by Rose Mary Boehm so that proves me wrong. 🙂 Which author(s) would you compare your writing to?
Annette: That’s one I can’t really answer. I have read a lot of poetry and literature, and there are some writers I wish I could write like, but I’d not compare myself to them. I absolutely adore Virginia Woolf, for example, but my writing is nothing like hers. Dylan Thomas blew me away the first time I heard a recording of his poetry, and still impresses me greatly, but I don’t think I’ve been able to emulate him much either. My writing is more pedestrian, and a little playful.
Morgen: It’s an unfair question really because every author is supposed to have their own voice. Another tough question: have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Annette: I can only say, thank goodness for electronic submissions! Else I would have a thick folder full of rejection letters. As it is, they take up a little space in my inbox, and that’s fine. I’ve had many rejections – and some of them were actually lovely. Getting a personal note with a rejection makes my day almost as much as an acceptance. Almost! (laughs) There is this one particular journal I have submitted to several times over the past few years, and each time the rejection comes with a little note from the head editor asking me to send more poems. He likes what he sees, even if it’s not what he’s looking for right now.
Morgen: I do have a folder as I print off my rejections. 🙂 Do you enter competitions? Are there any you could recommend?
Annette: I do enter competitions occasionally – on a graduate student budget I can’t afford to enter those that charge entry fees, but when I come across a free competition that resonates somehow, I do send poems or even a whole manuscript.
Morgen: I don’t enter competitions very often but I love themed ones as they get me writing something new. Do you go to poetry slams? If so, could you tell us how they work?
Annette: Not really a slam poetry person. My type of poetry is kind of like anti-slam; it’s non-competitive, it’s fairly quiet, although I hope that at times it is somewhat disturbing. I do see that people have a lot of fun with poetry slams, and I’m glad that they do.
Morgen: I’ve been to a few open mic nights and although they’re a mixture of prose and poetry, it does give me the idea of what a slam would be like (very fast!). Do you deal with publishers directly or do you have an editor / agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Annette: No agent, no editor. I doubt anyone could make a living being either to me – as I said, I’m on a graduate student budget, so not in the position to pay anyone, and poetry does not often make the bestseller lists either. I don’t think a poet needs an agent to be successful – it’s about placing the right poems in the right places at the right times and being read.
Morgen: Are your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process?
Annette: I have not published any eBooks. I’ve never even used an eBook reader. For me, it’s always going to be paper and ink; I love the tactile aspect of reading too much to settle for a screen. Especially for poetry, I think print publications are much more appropriate. Poetry is so charged with meaning that it deserves you taking time for it, making space for it. I can see how eBooks make sense for textbooks (many of which are bulky and heavy and very expensive) but I’d rather not publish in that format.
Morgen: I love eBooks but poetry is very visual isn’t it, so I can’t say I blame you. Do you think eBooks will change poetry?
Annette: There are things you can do in electronically enhanced publications that are new and exciting – you can add sound, video, animation and the like. You can make the text interactive. This opens up great potential for many genres, including poetry – hyper poetry finally becomes portable. I like that idea. I hope that there are poets and writers out there who play around with these things and share their best results with the rest of us. For me, however, it’s going to be paper for now. I’m a book lover, I can’t help it. Books need no batteries, they survive water damage and being dropped, and they each have a physical body. Anyone can use them, even centuries later.
Morgen: That’s true. We just need to look after them. What / who do you read?
Annette: Right now I read mainly for the classes I’m taking. A PhD program in English means lots and lots of reading… I do still enjoy it, although can be frustrating to read with deadlines. Some books you’d rather savour and make them last for a long time but you have to finish them in a matter of days to keep up with the pace of the seminar.
Generally, I read lots of different things. I like it short – short stories are great. I especially love the old science fiction stories from the 50s and 60s. And of course poetry, particularly by contemporary poets, and hybrid texts. I thoroughly enjoyed Jenny Boully’s books, for example. When I can, I post notes and comments about what I read on my reading blog. That started more as a notepad for myself – I read so much that the blog posts help me keep track of ideas and reactions I had while reading.
Morgen: Short stories are my favourite reading matter. I love being able to read a whole story in one sitting, and my ‘sittings’ are sadly always too short for novels. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Annette: I’m not good at that sort of thing. I like doing readings when the opportunity arises, but other than blogging occasionally I don’t really do any marketing. I should probably work on that…
Morgen: It’s a tough area for any author, and usually the answer to “What’s your least favourite aspect of your writing life?” because it’s so time-consuming. Do you have a favourite of your poems or topic to write about?
Annette: There is a cycle of poems I have been working on for years now. It’s about the lives of my great-grand-mother, great-grand-aunt, and grandmother. There are some remarkable women in my family. It’s difficult to really capture them, probably because I did get to know and love them when I was a child. The more you understand something or someone, the more magical and indescribable they become.
Morgen: How lovely, and great for poetry. Presumably you choose the titles of your poems – do you get to keep them or are you ever overridden?
Annette: Poems usually go through several drafts – anywhere from three to twenty – and often I don’t find “the right title” until I’ve been through a few drafts. No editor has ever asked me to change a poem or a poem’s title.
Morgen: Do you show / read your poems to anyone before you submit?
Annette: Yes. I find it helpful to get feedback from my poet-friends. Especially when I’ve worked on something for a long time, it can help me take a step back and look at the text from a more detached perspective.
Morgen: ‘Detached’, exactly. A second opinion’s always worth seeking, even if you don’t agree with it. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Annette: Currently I’m particularly interested in nature and living organisms such as insects – this may have something to do with living in Mississippi. (laughs) Even after a year, I’m still amazed at the size of the bugs here! On the other hand, biology has always been interesting to me. My parents both studied biology and made sure my sister and I became very much aware of the plants and animals around us. I’ve written some poems on symbiotic relationships between animals and plants, and want to look more into that when time and energy allow.
Morgen: Giant bugs. Eek! We’re very lucky here in the UK, although we’re only ever a few feet away from a rat, apparently. I’ve seen one, when out with the dog and needless to say he went nuts. Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Annette: To be honest, no, I don’t write every day. At least not poetry. I did write a poem a day for a whole month in April, which was poetry month, as part of a poetry marathon organized by some fellow poets. It was exhilarating, but haven’t been able to write as regularly since. Writer’s block does happen to me occasionally. It’s a very frustrating experience every time. But then it goes away every time, too.
Morgen: That sounds like NaNoPoMo. It must have been exhausting, but a great discipline – like NaNoWriMo or Story A Day.org for me. Why do you think poetry is such a difficult market to break into?
Annette: Because so few people read poetry. And because many people think poetry is easy.
Morgen: It’s certainly not. I struggle with it. Are there any tips you could give to someone wishing to write poetry?
Annette: A few, maybe. If you have an idea, however simple or odd, however ill-timed or inconvenient, write it down there and then. Keep a notebook for those ideas so you can flesh them out later. You may also want to think about what you want to do with your poetry. Are you writing it mainly for yourself (which is perfectly legitimate!) or are you looking to share it? Who do you want to reach with it? And most of all, if you do send out your work: Rejections happen. Often.
Morgen: Do you write any fiction, non-fiction or short stories?
Annette: I did write a bit of short fiction some years ago. In German. My short fiction was very short, and ended up reading a lot like poetry, so I figured I’d just stick with poetry. I haven’t written creatively in German since – it seems that my brain uses German for fiction and English for poetry.
Morgen: How funny. Maybe it uses different parts of the brain (as typing or writing do apparently). Do you do a lot of editing of your poems or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Annette: Each poem is different. Sure, over time it becomes easier to spot ‘bad habits’ and the likes, but I think that writing can never come out perfect the first time around. Poetry is a process, it needs the impetus, the drafts, the elation and frustration.
Morgen: Not too much frustration, I hope. I used to write a lot of 60-word stories and found the more I wrote the closer they came out to the word count. It’s obviously not a direct comparison but do you find your poems come out at similar lengths, or do they really vary.
Annette: Funny, I guess that yes, my poems are all fairly similar in length. I do have a short attention span, which explains why virtually all are less than a page, but you may be on to something here. There are a few outliers – three liners, four liners – but usually they come out around 15 to 20 lines. It’s a good length for publication, although that was never a conscious factor for me when writing. Really long poems are hard to place. Really short poems can be, too.
Morgen: Haiku (three lines) are very popular (and possibly one of the hardest formats?) but in my experience most competitions do have a 40 line limit. Do you have to do much research?
Annette: When I write a science or biography related poem, I want the facts to be accurate, so I try to find out as much as I can. I think that’s a vital part of being a poet: being interested in pretty much everything. Sometimes when I research something for one poem I come across words or concepts or images that trigger a new poem, so I can only say I find the research aspect of writing very rewarding and enjoyable.
Morgen: I say research and editing are my least favourite aspects of writing but the internet makes the former much less painful. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Annette: Oh yes. I have written some poems that are truly awful. I hope nobody will ever read those – but I still keep some of them around because it feels like there’s a challenge I’m not done with yet. Every once in a while I’ll dig them up and try to rewrite or salvage bits and pieces.
Morgen: I have a lot of short stories like that. We’re older and wiser now, aren’t we? What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Annette: My favourite part is the kick of the initial idea, the first and second draft. My least favourite part is when writer’s block hits.
Morgen: That’s tough. What advice would you give aspiring poets?
Annette: Read all you can get your hands on. Love it, hate it, play with it, and keep reading.
Morgen: 🙂 If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Annette: Hmmm… I’d set the table for Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Jane Bowles. I think they’d be an interesting, though possibly explosive combination. Dinner would be two leisurely courses: crab bisque, then crackers and cheese. A few glasses of wine. I like it simple, and I’m not a great cook.
Morgen: I don’t know of Jane Bowles but an all-female dinner party sounds like a plan. If you had to choose a single day from your past to re-live over and over, what day would it be and why?
Annette: I think it would have to be the day I found out I’d been accepted into the PhD program. I had been working toward that for some time, struggling with health problems and such. My manuscript for ‘the five parts of love’ had recently been accepted for publication, which gave my confidence a boost. I’d have picked the day I heard from the publisher, but on the same day our (very old) cat had to be put down, so that was a bitter-sweet day. I’d not want that to happen over and over. Then, the acceptance letter arrived. Well, several acceptance letters arrived and I got to pick.
Morgen: Oh, bless. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Morgen: Ah yes, Douglas Adams’ answer to life the universe and everything… we just need to work out what the question is. I think I was 42 when I realised I wanted to be a writer so that’s my question. 🙂 Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Annette: As part of my graduate assistantship I teach English Composition to freshmen here at the university. It’s a different kind of writing, but just as important. When a student realizes how powerful writing can be if you only know how to use it, that’s a great moment. For some of these students, writing becomes enjoyable. That makes me happy.
Morgen: It was definitely a light bulb moment for me. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Annette: I read… lots. I play arcade type games on the computer. When I have the time and the resources, I like to bake or cook for friends. Oh, and I really like watching Doctor Who. Sometimes I spend my free time (little as there is) making bead bracelets and anklets. I have a childish fascination with things that glitter and sparkle. And recently I’ve started volunteering with librivox.org – it’s a site where people record and collect audio files of texts in the public domain. I think it’s an awesome project. Literature to the people!
Morgen: It’s a great site. I subscribe to their podcasts. Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Annette: I use Google+ as well as Twitter and LinkedIn. So far, they have not really benefited me professionally, but then, I’m in the middle of graduate school, so I have my work cut out for me right now.
Morgen: What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Annette: A cracked china Elvis bust wrapped in Christmas lights. Cat hair in three shades of soot.
Morgen: <laughs> Where can we find out about you and your work?
Annette: I blog at http://acboehm.blogspot.com and my twitter is @annettecboehm. And of course there is my chapbook, which you can get that from Dancing Girl Press: http://dulcetshop.ecrater.com/p/14676929/the-five-parts-of-love-confabulating
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Annette: No… I’ve probably said too much already.
Morgen: Not at all, it’s been great chatting with you. Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Annette: Just out of curiosity – who would you choose, if you could be stranded on a desert island with anyone, dead, alive, or fictional?
Morgen: I’d be torn between Roald Dahl (my favourite author, Kate Atkinson is a close second) and my father (who knew Roald when I was younger and although I loved reading I didn’t pay enough attention to want to be taken along… if only. If I had to pick either I’d say my dad (who died late 2011). He could tell me about Roald and everything I don’t know about himself, which I’m sure would keep us amused for time immemorial. He was a very funny, though quiet, man. If I could be greedy and have both of them, I’d be the happiest girl alive.
Thank you, Annette.
I then invited Annette to include one of her poems…
rosy pink paper courtesan
the faces on the magazines are all Doricha’s
each half-opened mouth gives orders, for not
the letters address you, but the photographs
a vastness of unblemished skin: her top pride
your fingers loitering like young men
voices like blades of grass call her beloved
winter trees burst by their own sap
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