E. Kristin Anderson: Finding the Words

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E. Kristin Anderson is a poet, Prince fan, Starbucks connoisseur, and glitter enthusiast living in Austin, Texas. A Connecticut College graduate with a B.A. in classics, Kristin has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. She the co-editor of Dear Teen Me, an anthology based on the popular website and her next anthology, Hysteria: Writing the female body, is forthcoming from Sable Books. She is currently curating Come as You Are, an anthology of writing on 90s pop culture for ELJ Editions. Her writing has been published worldwide in magazines and anthologies and she is the author of eight chapbooks of poetry including A Guide for the Practical Abductee (Red Bird Chapbooks), Pray Pray Pray: Poems I wrote to Prince in the middle of the night (Porkbelly Press), Fire in the Sky (Grey Book Press),We’re Doing Witchcraft (Hermeneutic Chaos Press) and Acoustic Battery Life (ELJ). Kristin is Special Projects Manager for ELJ and was formerly a poetry editor at Found Poetry Review.Once upon a time she worked the night shift at The New Yorker. She now works during daylight as a freelance editor and writing coach. She blogs at EKristinAnderson.com and tweets at @ek_anderson.  

Managing Editor Erin Keating speaks with E. Kristin Anderson below.

What drew you to found poetry?
I think the first time I wrote a found poem was when I got an email from Crazyhorse with a challenge/mini-contest asking folks to write a found poem from a specific passage. I later became fascinated with using found poetry to subvert or poeticize materials that were traditionally considered sexist or shallow. Of course, I’ve used a lot of different materials in my (short) career, but this is definitely where it started. I also have found that a lot of texts that I thought would be shallow turn out to be well written. So that’s been interesting and fun as a poet practicing erasure and other types of found poetry, since you’re always looking for juicy words.

Your poem “Singed, unhurt” is an erasure poem that uses the text of Stephen King’s Carrie. Where are other places you are likely discover inspiration for found or erasure poetry?

Stephen King is great because he seems to be trying so hard to be feminist sometimes and yet missing the target…so there are lots of great words. And he has a great vocabulary, and he tends to have juicy words that he comes back to frequently. That makes for great found work. And as I alluded to above, found poetry is part art and part challenge. Teen and women’s magazines are some of my favorites. I love challenging myself to make a poem out of the pages that just have recommendations for this month’s favorite new lipsticks, but of course the meaty pieces are great, too. I like newspapers, contemporary YA novels, science fiction, science news, other poems (especially Emily Dickinson, I’ve been working on some stuff using her Collected—I have several copies at my house for messing around with, and her collected was one of the first books I remember picking out for myself at about six years old), and recently Nintendo Power Magazine and the YA thrillers of Lois Duncan, a favorite author who passed last year.  

How does your process writing found poetry differ from when you are writing more traditional styles of poetry?

A few years ago my answer would have been a bit simpler—you have a limited palette to work with when you approach a found poetry project, especially with erasure. You have to work with the words in front of you to create a new narrative in your voice. That’s thrilling. An erasure is like a choose your own adventure with words, a cento or a remix is like putting together a puzzle. But you have to tell your own story, just like any traditionally written poem. This is all the same now, of course, but what’s changed is my brain. I struggle with aphasia due to side effects from medications I take for a rare kidney disease that presented at the end of 2015. It’s taken me a long time to recover my writing skills, and many of my communication skills. I’ve had to give up freelance editing. I forget simple words, drift off in the middle of sentences. But where I have been very unproductive in the past year or so in traditional poetry, I have been prolific with found poetry. Found poetry allows me these choose-your-own-adventures and puzzles with which to find my words. Aphasia takes the words away, found poetry gives them back.

As the poetry editor of Found Poetry Review, could you explain how you think found poetry fits into the poetic community?  

I was mostly just a slush reader at FPR, and FPR has also recently closed its doors as a magazine but has left us waiting for what it will be doing in the next phase. But I think it contributed a ton to the community with projects like Pulitzer Remix (which is how I became involved with FPR) in which 88 poets (I believe it was 88) created 30 found poems each (one for each day in April) for National Poetry Month in 2013. Through projects like this over the last several years, FPR has built a community around itself that has also gone on to teach workshops, edit magazines, and submit found poetry all over the world. So even though FPR is no longer publishing as a literary journal, the community it fostered has made found poetry more accessible and acceptable as a form in contemporary writing.

I was struck by the imagery of your lines, such as “Scorched hearts have been saying for centuries that this small mortal / —guarded, graceful—lies on the rim of shattered wreathes.” How do you develop your own images out of the images that already exist in the source text? 

I think it’s like I mentioned above—these are erasures, and in erasures, I’m really looking for ways to connect the juiciest words while still maintaining syntax and saying something that represents a truth—either my own truth or a societal truth that I want to represent. Early on, I’d photo copy pages and go through circling words and phrases I wanted to use, then write the poems in the margins of the page. Now I am able to eyeball the page and write directly into a notebook. But it’s not easy. There are a lot of false starts. And false middles. And when I transcribe from the notebook, I do another check for grammatical sense, for truth, for voice, and I make cuts. I never add anything, I never change tenses. I do implement my own punctuation and capitalization, but that’s it. I’m pretty strict on myself. And I probably write two to three times as many found poems as make it into my submissions pool or into a manuscript. Sometimes it’s trial and error.

I interpreted your last stanza as a commentary on intertextuality: “Rip a line from a poet, serve as epitaph, decide / some paranormal reason is like a weed, pretty in the world.” Do you think the world needs more intertextuality, or at the very least, a deeper connection between writers?

I think that the way the community is being built right now—Facebook groups, Twitter conversations—we all get to know each other, if we want to. There’s also AWP and MFAs and workshops and residencies. But you don’t have to do those in order to know a poet and their work at the same time. So when you read a poem, you are more likely to have a poet’s background. Which is both fascinating, but so different from how I was able to read Elizabeth Bishop in college.  

I think when I wrote that piece, I was more thinking about how we romanticize the poet, but do not value her. Perhaps our interpretations of these lines are interconnected. But of course, neither is less valid. That’s how poems work.

How do you decide which form will best serve the function of your work?

I don’t know that I really decide, especially since the aphasia. When I have a line pop into my head, I write it down. Sometimes I keep writing, sometimes I collect a few until I can connect them together. That’s how my traditional poetry works. Found poetry is more of a planned effort. I will plan a manuscript around a theme of “I’m going to write an entire manuscript of Stephen King erasures using these three books.” And then I go get the books at Half Price Books and pick out a few notebooks from my stash and get started. And then I throw out half, because half come out unsalvageable garbage. Part of that, perhaps, is that editing a found poem is about deleting or perhaps moving parts, depending on the form you’re using. You can’t just throw some new verbiage in.  

How has your use of form evolved over the course of your writing career?  

I think that one of the coolest things I’ve learned to do is found poetry using traditional forms, which I have to give credit to Doug Luman from Found Poetry Review for. He’d created some formal poetry spreadsheets in Google Docs for FPR challenges and he put one together for me so that I could write some pantoums using Seventeen Magazine. I really can’t count lines, and just about everything about writing formal poetry makes me anxious, so I just wouldn’t have tried it without the help. But now I love blending formal poetry with found, it almost feels like a perversion. It’s sneaky. I also think I’ve just gotten better at it. I’ve gotten better at using language in all parts of my career. Found poetry’s limited palette requires even more of a conservation of language than traditional poetry. I also think it’s helped me in terms of discipline and focus. When I find a found poetry project that I want to work on, I finish it. I’ve always been the type to finish a project, but I’m able to give myself harder deadlines with found poetry. It’s not that writing a found poem is easy, but it’s structured. With something more formal, that you know where to begin and end, you can go and put that on paper. Even when you’re having a hard time finding your own words.