Chip Livingston is the author of the poetry collection Museum of False Starts. His fiction and non-fiction are also widely published, in journals including Ploughshares, Cincinnati Review, Potomac Review, Court Green, Subtropics, and Crazyhorse. He holds a BS in Journalism and a BA in English from the University of Florida, an MA in Fiction Writing from the University of Colorado, and an MFA in Poetry Writing from Brooklyn College. He teaches creative writing, poetry and fiction at Gotham Writers’ Workshop, where I am currently taking creative writing 101. I asked Chip if he could do a short interview for my blog, and he kindly agreed. Some of you submitted questions for Chip; they are included in the interview. I appreciate your participation very much. I would also like to thank Chip for his insightful responses.
Natalie (reflectionsinapuddle): Do you write for a specific audience? If so, how would you describe your ideal reader?
Chip Livingston: Usually I don’t write with a specific audience in mind. With poetry, I keep in mind that not all my readers are poets or even poetry readers. I don’t want to deny anyone access to my work, so I hope I am making myself as clear as possible.
There are times when I’ll see a call for submissions from a literary magazine I admire having a special themed issue, and sometimes this will spur me to come up with something appropriate to the theme, but that’s not a common inspiration. Usually I just try to write what I think will translate to the page.
N: What are you working on right now?
ChL: Right now I’m proofing the layout of my new book of poetry, “CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK,” which will be published May 1, 2012 by New York Quarterly Books. I’m writing new poems for the eventual third poetry collection. And I’m trying to revise an old novel manuscript to see if it’s salvageable. And constantly working on short fiction. I’ve always got a couple of stories in process.
N: Could you tell us more about CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK?
ChL: CROW-BLUE, CROW-BLACK is a project I’m really proud of. It’s poetry, and the book is divided in two sections, Crow-Blue, which covers the southerner’s experience in New York City, and Crow-Black, which covers the experience of the North American in South America. The first section is strongly influenced by the New York School of poetics, whereas the second section is more influenced by Native American and South American literature.
Catherine: What are your suggestions on getting published. In your experience, what was the best route to take? What were some of the challenges you faced?
ChL: Catherine, the best way for an unknown writer to publish a book is by getting it in the hands of someone who would seriously consider it. In poetry, the typical route is through “first book contests” run by small, independent or university presses.
Usually, the manuscripts that win these contests contain poems that have already been published in literary magazines, and especially when sending a manuscript to a press for publication consideration in a non-contest scenario, being able to mention that you’ve previously published some of the contents of the manuscript individually can help you get your work a more serious look. The best way to get individual poems and stories published is to read and submit to literary journals. There are many hundreds, if not thousands, of literary journals in print and online that accept submissions from writers, and these are usually the first places beginning poets and prose writers “emerge.”
Catherine: How do you feel about self publishing now that companies like Amazon and Apple make it possible to do?
ChL: Another good question. I think electronic books and the ability to distribute them through Amazon, Apple and other outlets allow for a lot more writers to have access to sharing their words/works, and there are several well-known examples of these self-published titles getting such a record of sales and recommendations that they catch on to big presses and get the book put into ‘print.’
The drawback [of self-publishing] is advertising and distribution. If a writer self-publishes, how does he/she let the world know that the book exists. Traditional press publishing comes with some plan of media promotion and the press has contacts at bookstores across the country or world as well as access to online and electronic sales.
If you want your book to change the world, you need an agent or publisher with a network of connections to get your book to the world.
Malena: My question is about the roles of writer and author. When is it that one can say he/she is an author?
ChL: Malena, the way I think it’s generally accepted is that an “author” is a writer who has published a book. I think of the ways authors and writers are written about in bios in literary magazines and blurbs, and if they have published books, the bio will generally refer to the writer as “The author of __.” Or “Jane Doe has authored five books of poetry.”
N: You travel a lot. Do you find your inspiration in discovering new places?
ChL: I absolutely attribute much of my inspiration to new places and new things in new places, new perspectives. And learning and speaking Spanish has also given me a lot to think about in terms of sentence structure and the ways words can combine to modify each other.
N: Have you ever experienced being “chased” by a poem or a creative idea?
ChL: Yes, there have been times, even with the writing of “Yesterday my father was dying,” where the words themselves rattled in my head over and over until I had them on paper, though the initial impulse was witnessing the ants carry the cricket like pall bearers carrying a coffin.
And I had the experience of having the ghost of a poet follow me around and whisper poems to me. It was a once in a lifetime occasion. A professor loaned me a poetry collection by Tim Dlugos because she said she saw something similar in my recent work to his poetry. I became obsessed with the poet, felt like his presence was literally following me around, and I asked the poet Kenward Elmslie, who was the owner of the building I lived in, if he knew anything about Dlugos, and he told me that Dlugos had lived in my apartment twenty years earlier.
N: Sounds like a great idea for a novel! Speaking of which, your first novel is unpublished, but won numerous awards. Can you tell us more about it?
ChL: Yes, it’s the project I’m thinking of returning to. It won a contest from University of Arizona Press, but the press had a very similar manuscript under contract (two gay Creek Indian novels) and they worried the two titles would compete with each other. My agent at the time didn’t want me to sell it to a university press, so we agreed not to publish it with Univ. of Arizona. It won another contest as a short story collection, because much of the novel had been published as short stories, but the contest press said they thought it was a novel and not a story collection, so they withdrew it from consideration. I took a lot of the material and turned them into poems that went into my first poetry book, and lent its title, MUSEUM OF FALSE STARTS. But I worked so hard taking it apart that when Univ. of Oklahoma asked me if they could read and consider it a few years ago, I felt it was unpresentable. Now I have it in mind to see if I can put it back together again. Wish me luck.
N: Good luck with your novel! I would really like to read it some time.
N: We often hear that a writer has to “show-up” to do his or her work. But what about talent? Do you think it can be taught?
ChL: I think talent can be taught. Ideas can be nurtured and texts can be studied as examples. I don’t think any writer starts out great. It takes practice and practice and practice and practice, and then editing and editing and editing and editing. I don’t think it takes any special gene or gift to make something artful, but it’s not easy. It takes showing up for the work and the prewriting (of reading) and postwriting (of editing). I absolutely believe that everything I know about writing has been either taught to me by my mentors and professors or has been taught to me by the authors of the books I read.
N: What was the best piece of advice you received from your mentors? And what is the best piece of advice you can give to your students and aspiring writers?
ChL: The best piece of writing advice I received was from poet/novelist/memoirist Linda Hogan, who remains my all-time favorite writer in any genre. She told us in a fiction workshop to always try and “write two pages past what you think is the end of the story.” I particularly had the tendency to end the story right before the punchline, so it was good advice for me.
My advice to aspiring writers: Read good literature and study it. Don’t give up.
N: Once again, thank you very much for the interview! Maybe you could share with our readers one of your favourite poems by Chip Livingston?
ChL: My favorite poem so far is from my first book. It was first published in Ploughshares literary magazine.
poem by Chip Livingston
That owl was an omen
Driving home from the airport
Not once but twice
It rose in my headlights
From rain black asphalt
Great white wings nearly touching
Windshield wipers that low flying escort
Stretching sixty miles toward Alabama
The owl was always right
Something died and something else
Was just about to
I checked my daughter’s red-eye slumber
In the rearview mirror
No need to worry her with divination
An hour drive delayed by rain
And now this trepidation on the slick black road
Certain as miscarried fortune
Her coming home to Mama in an autumn storm
And no such thing as California
Just a red clay creekbed down the road
From the house I birthed her in
Filling up to bathe away a sorrow
Blinking lights behind us
Before I hear the sirens
Firetruck passes on the narrow bridge
Then Crabtree Church in flames beyond the graveyard
My daughter wakes and guesses lightning
But I never heard the thunder crack
And only saw the lightning white of dreaded wings
I pull in step out open an umbrella
Stand with the firemen watch the frame fall down
The Marshall asks if we saw anything
Like kids driving away in a four-wheeler
They found tracks in the mud
Whiskey and beer bottles a gas can
Burn! All those years of homecoming
Annual dinners on the grounds
Hymns around a weather-warped piano
Burn! My granddad’s Indian education
Walls that heard a thousand lessons
A thousand prayers in high soprano
Burn! Fifty paper funeral parlor fans
Cokesbury hymnals and sixteen pews
Reduced to flakey carbon tamped with rain
The death of wood and glass
And half a baby’s ashes in my daughter’s pocketbook
All the little names we’ll never sing
I aim to find that messenger again and scare him off
Litter the road with his insolent feathers
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