Happy April, writers!
In honor of National Poetry Month, I’m happy to offer this week’s writing prompt by Seattle poet Susan Rich. Susan is the author of three books of poetry: The Cartographer’s Tongue, Cures Include Travel, and, most recently, The Alchemist’s Kitchen. She has received awards from PEN USA, The Times Literary Supplement, and Peace Corps Writers. Her fellowships include an Artist Trust Fellowship from Washington State and a Fulbright Fellowship in South Africa. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, among them the Antioch Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Review, Gettysburg Review, New England Review, Northwest Review, Poetry International and The Southern Review. Susan teaches at Highline Community College, where she runs the reading series Highline Listens: Writers Read Their Work. Be sure to visit Susan’s blog this month — for National Poetry Month, she’ll be posting a Poetry Giveaway on her blog that will include a copy of The Alchemist’s Kitchen! And do check out her web site as well.
I love that Susan has chosen an exercise on interviewing — one of a writer’s greatest skills, right along with listening. Susan’s exercise is inspired in part by her interviews with new Somali citizens for the Somali Voices project (these poems appear in her second book, Cures Include Travel).
Enjoy — and don’t miss Susan’s lovely poem “Interview,” which appears after the exercise.
Applying Creative Research
Recently I’ve discovered a new love: interviewing. I think the type of deep listening required in the role of interviewer is something many writers – many people crave. StoryCorps is an independent non-profit which has made interviewing a part of the national conversation examining what makes us human.
In my work as a poet, a human rights worker and now as a teacher, asking good questions is key to understanding the woman (or man) who sits right in front of me. I love the feeling when the interviewee makes a discovery about their life prompted by my question. In some cases, I can see the flicker of awareness literally alter my guest’s expression. Isn’t this what we, as writers, want our work to do? Don’t we want to prompt our readers, our listeners into understanding their lives anew?
So here’s your mission should you choose to accept it: Begin by interviewing someone you know. Or someone you would like to know. Draw up a varied set of interview questions. I’m often surprised by which question prompts the best response. Once the conversation is moving, feel free to follow it wherever it goes. I’d suggest taping the interview (with permission) as well as jotting down notes. After you listen to the tape and look over your notes, write out the passages that resonate. Your final piece will be a mix of words directly from the interview as well as words of your own.
In my work, I often use phrases from the original interview, but then pour the words into a different form – a villanelle, a sonnet, or a two-lined call and response in order to take the interview somewhere new. The end goal is not to be a journalist but instead use the interview as a jumping off point for a poem or a story. Here’s a villanelle I wrote based on an interview with a young woman from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Just out of high school, “Lara” had been an ambulance dispatcher at the beginning of the Bosnian war. The facts in the poem are all true – the words are a mix of Lara’s and mine. Fans of the villanelle will notice I broke the form to leave the story unfinished – the final line of the form has been removed.
~ for Lara
In her mind, she needs to cross the boundary
navigate clear water, sleep again, be whole ~
she’ll erase her Muslim name, forget life’s memory.
Why not Bavaria? Why not the travel remedy?
Study without the Sarajevo Rose.*
Her mind a boat; she floats across the boundary.
Everyone said, the conflict? only temporary ~
She’ll call her family often; keep close by telephone;
pour the past away, skip the shit of memory.
But each night she pays, this is not her country.
The thoughts shoot back and forth, a mental palindrome.
Her mind: ocean without boundary.
Other students stare in disbelief as she leaves, quietly~
a homing instinct, streams; she charts the map alone.
Is the past no more than present memory?
For one moment, her return is almost celebratory.
Mortar rounds and shelling, a kind of pleasure dome.
Her mind circles round blue boundaries.
* The Sarajevo Rose is the pattern made by a mortar shell exploding; specifically, it is the imprint left on the tarmac.
Published originally in Harvard Review and republished in The Alchemist’s Kitchen, White Pine Press, 2010.
Photo of the author by Rosanne Olson.