If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
RC: Anne Sexton and grilled cheese. We’d eat standing up in the kitchen.
SP: Emily Dickinson and Hemingway. They both have to be there. I want to see those sparks fly. We’d have Whiskey and White Cheddar Cheez-Its for the appetizer. Then, with a nice Sangiovese, I’d make my Chicken Piccata. For dessert, my wife’s coffee brownies.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
RC: I wouldn’t say “scares” or “fears,” but I can get jumpy and impatient if long stretches go by where I’m not writing anything, and I have no strategy to combat that. It would be nice to have one, but no.
SP: I like that I can write on my phone. It’s less intimidating. I dash off a few lines and it’s saved. I can come back to it at a moment’s notice. Later, I'll open it on the computer.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
RC: Not a “crush,” but Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein is vivid as hell and deserved a lot better.
SP: Santiago, in The Old Man and the Sea. “I have seen Lions on the beaches.” That’s a badass catch-phrase.
What books are on your nightstand?
RC: None. They’re on the floor or shelves or my desk or in my bookbag or somewhere I can’t remember, which is driving me nuts. Mostly, they’re books I’m teaching in my lit. classes. But right now there’s Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich and Paradise Earth by Amy Barker too.
SP: I’m always reading many things at once, indulging my love of art, literature, comedy, and science. Cezanne by Alex Danchev. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Okay Fine Whatever by Courtenay Hameister. Seven Eves by Neal Stephenson.
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
RC: The question mark. Because questions are more interesting than ready-made answers.
SP: Definitely the m-dash. Nothing is sexier at the end of a line —
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
RC: Are you kidding, I read them all, and I was shocked when other kids said they didn’t do the homework. I lived in a small town, and my dad and mom were both teachers, and every teacher in my high school knew me. College, of course, was a different story. Freshman year, for instance, I thought Madame Bovary was in a contest all by itself for “Sucks the Most” and couldn’t read more than 40 pages.
SP: All of them. I hated reading in high school. I was a jackass that was always telling jokes and getting in trouble because of my mouth. My love of reading flipped 180 when I finally got into a creative writing class in college. Everybody seemed to be reading those V.C. Andrews books in high school. I especially didn’t read those.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
RC: I write longhand and type it up later, so “Thanks to all you pens for being so helpful and nearby.”
SP: Collections of paper and, by extension, books. I love the smell of it, the possibility of it, where it comes from, how it feels in the hand. Nothing looks better in a room than a stuffed bookshelf.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
RC: “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches” (Robert Frost).
SP: “A year ago, six months ago, I thought I was an artist. I no longer think about it. I am” (Henry Miller).
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
RC: Can I say it does both?
SP: It’s absolutely exhausting to think about doing it. I pretend I’ve been hit by a frying pan when I start — just dumb and willing. Once the first few lines are flowing, it energizes like no other activity and it’s hard to break away.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
RC: Too much aspiring and not enough writing. And mistakenly thinking that revision is boring or a burden instead of where the real stuff happens.
SP: Word salad. Nothing to hang your hat on. Throw a live rattlesnake in your salad! Write your way out of that!
What is your writing Kryptonite?
RC: Teaching a 4-4 course load and grading 700 papers.
SP: Not writing. Writing begets writing.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
RC: Yes, from being sent long policy changes to long university policies, or anything having to do with tech and tech training. That junk wins the Super Bowl of Boring every time.
SP: If I read the first line of a poem and there is no tension, no intrigue, no new information, I have a very hard time finishing it.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
RC: Probably, but they’d still have to feel strongly about finishing the work and doing it well. Writers have to be attentive and empathetic, but maybe being strongly emotional can turn your writing into a mess.
SP: Sure, look at Henry James and Wallace Stevens.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
RC: Lots, but I’ll stick to just one here: Simmons Buntin. He’s the Editor-in-Chief of Terrain.org, and after I won their poetry contest (which got me started on my collection The Book of Sharks), he asked me to write a guest blog. I told him no thanks. I told him I didn’t know what a blog was exactly, or how to go about writing one, but he wouldn’t let me off the hook until I wrote him something, so I gave up and did, and he liked it. He liked it enough, in fact, to have me keep doing it as a regular feature with its own series name: “Old Roads, New Stories.” That’s the material I subsequently drew from, revised, and turned into my book Accidental Gardens. So I hadn’t planned to, as you say, become a better writer; that’s just what happened because Simmons saw something in me--more than I did--and gave me a place for this new prose work to be published, which was very generous of him. Simmons is the man.
SP: I am a very lazy writer, as Rob Carney can attest to. However, I’ve never known a more loyal friend and reader. He always pushes me to stay true to my voice. I can’t thank him enough.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
RC: Stand alone. But then again, maybe not. Or maybe both, because recently I wrote a sequel poem that brought back a woman from my first book (Boasts, Toasts, and Ghosts) named Madame Kafelnikov. The first poem with her was called “If I Hadn’t Drowned in My 30s, She Says, Today I’d Be 73.” And now she’s back after seventeen years in a poem called “Best Healing Witch in Louisiana” (Facts and Figures; Hoot ‘n’ Waddle, 2020).
SP: My voice has been my ticket. Without it I’d be sunk. I’m lucky to have discovered it early as a writer. I let the books form as they want, I trust my voice will hold them together.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
RC: Well, it didn’t change my process as much as it changed, I don’t know, my belief. Like yes, a small audience is out there. Which didn’t mean the writing got easier--how magic would that be?--but I did feel a little more certain about it.
SP: I began filling up a folder with poems. Whenever I collected over 50 poems, I’d keep replacing the poems with better ones. I’d take the folder to readings and try stuff out. After a year or so, a book of solid poems would emerge. It began a daily process of living as a poet. I finally had license to just live the life of a poet.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
RC: The entry fee for the Robinson Jeffers/Tor House Foundation Award because I love Jeffers, so winning was a huge honor. Plus, it meant I got to do a reading at Tor House. That was somewhere I’d wanted to go just as a pilgrim someday, so to get to read there? Hallelujah.
SP: The first money I made off a reading. I think it was twelve dollars. I had been writing for ten years. I had two kids, a wife, and our household income was like $25,000 a year. I went to Wendy’s and bought a six piece Chicken Tenders. What a victory!
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
RC: When I first read Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at age 18, I didn’t see why it was such a big deal. Then I read it again at age 29--at a coffee shop/diner/tavern in Salt Lake City that’s since been razed to make room for this Federal Building that looks like a Star Trek Borg Cube; seriously, it’s the ugliest building in the Mountain West, and not the best message for a democracy to be sending: “Resistance is futile”--anyway, when I read it again a second time, I got it and was laughing so hard I thought I’d drop dead off the bar stool because I was no longer breathing.
SP: Shakespeare. I think it will be a life challenge. But I keep returning for more punishment. The writing is so thick, it kicks my ass and leaves me bleeding in the gutter everytime. It’s the only writer where I carefully open the book so it won’t hit me all at once.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
RC: I loved reading. It could make me forget that I was reading. And it took away awareness of time and could even make me cry sometimes (Old Yeller). I’m not sure I thought of that as “power,” but I knew it was amazing.
SP: When I wrote my weird thoughts down instead of saying them out loud. Instead of people looking at me like I was a freak, they looked at me with a smile and acceptance. That was absolutely life changing.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
RC: Anything by V.C. Andrews. Just Kidding. A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle.
SP: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
RC: Great White shark.
SP: A cinnamon colored micro-poodle.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
RC: Let’s call it three: There’s the book I mentioned earlier, Accidental Gardens. The publisher--Stormbird Press in South Australia--was destroyed (the publisher’s house too) by the continent’s worst-ever wildfires. Total devastation. So many animals dead, ancient rain forests now hanging on precariously. Then add a global pandemic and shutdown, and no wonder the book release is behind schedule. So that’s one. Two is a children’s book with no home yet: What Would You Do with a Mini Canoe? And third--not to jinx it--is I’m working on a collection called Lightning Factories: New and Selected, a hundred poems total. My eighth collection is forthcoming this February, so to think about the big picture after that seems hopefully not too presumptuous.
SP: I have two. A novel and a book of poems. The novel was written so I could say I wrote a novel. It was written three years ago, but it’s about a couple stuck inside because it’s too dangerous to go outside. With the current pandemic happening, I didn’t know I’d be living it. If you want to find out how we escape this situation, you’ll have to publish the novel.
What does literary success look like to you?
RC: Horizontal. And sort of bluish-gray.
SP: Not being able to stop rereading a poem I just wrote.
What’s the best way to market your books?
RC: Maybe this’ll sound too “analog,” but I’m a big believer in radio and think people who listen to NPR are the kind of people who buy books and enjoy hearing authors on the air.
SP: Using my public radio connections. Doing readings. Mentioning it on Facebook. Getting a good review in the New York Times Review of Books, Library Journal or one of those.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
RC: I’m not sure there’s a most difficult thing about having women appear in or speak in my poems. I mean, feeling and voice are feeling and voice regardless. Whatever their gender, if their voices and actions and characterizations aren’t convincing and authentic, then you’re cooked.
SP: Not talking about my penis.
What did you edit out of this book?
RC: Well, I didn’t edit out of as much as edit into. What I mean is, Unsolicited asked me if my essay collection was still available, and I had to say no, but then I suggested a different book instead: new work by me and by my friend Scott Poole, both of us together. I hadn’t asked Scott in advance, and then I had to ask him pronto because Unsolicited wrote me back with an immediate yes. How lucky is that!? Very lucky. So Scott said he was in, and I dove like a scuba diver into his uncollected work and came up with a working Table of Contents we could kick back and forth--emailing and changing and shaping--and this went on for a manic three days, and that was the manuscript. Why so fast? Because we were pleasantly stunned to have an acceptance in advance and didn’t want to disappoint.
SP: There were a few news poems that I really liked that just didn’t work outside of the context of the news event that birthed them.
Save an Author; Buy a Book
We Support Indie Bookshops