In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–Majorie Saiser
Tell us about your poem “The Citrus Thief” in Volume 22. How did it come to be?
One of the joys of my life is to rock back and forth to summer on the Great Plains and winter in Arizona; the plants and birds of one environment to the plants and birds of the other. Our little place in Arizona has three citrus trees, beauties planted long ago by someone I don’t know, and I’m still reaping the benefits, going out to pick fruit, never getting used to it, like a fairy tale.
What excites you as a writer? What turns you off, makes you turn away or stop reading a piece of writing?
The word nestle turns me off: if a town nestles in a valley, if a person nestles, I stop reading. There are so many poems, novels, blogs to read in the world, and if something nestles, I go on to the next marvelous piece of writing. It’s unfair, I know, but I’m being honest here. For a novel, I will read the first page to notice the sentences. The sentences have to be clean as a bone, as James Balwin told us. Adverbs are tricky. If, on the first page, I run into an unnecessary adverb, I usually turn to a different book.
What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
In elementary school, Mrs. Fischer gave us free time to read. She didn’t view poems as puzzles to be solved, and when she read what I wrote, she seemed to read for enjoyment. When I was in a composition class at the University of Nebraska, Dr. Lemon read a paragraph of mine aloud and said it hit the mark for clarity and point of view. To hear my work read aloud by someone else was encouraging and helped me listen to my writing as a reader might listen.
What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work? Do–or have–you had any mentors in your writing life?
William Kloefkorn at Nebraska Wesleyan University gave instruction that sticks with me: (1) Write from all facets of yourself: the angry facet, the depressed, the euphoric, not simply the postcard-nice part; (2) Stay curious; (3) Follow the writing. When you happen upon an interesting lode, follow it down the page. Do not try to steer it to some predetermined ending. Let the writing lead you; you’ll learn something; and 4) Study your craft and the work of poets through time. Also go to readings and buy the books of your contemporaries. Study both the old and the new music.
Today I count myself lucky to have writers to whom I send my new poems, but not for critique. I do belong to several critique groups. Critique is valuable, but this is different. This is holding out one’s hands to catch new work. We do this catching/receiving for one another and I consider these writers to be my mentors.
What craft element challenges you the most in your writing? How do you approach it? What is your quirk as a writer?
One of my challenges is to make the time to write. There is much to do in getting the poems out into the world and that takes work and research. I call it po business; it’s fun, but can hijack the writing time.
I suppose one of my quirks is that I write at 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. I also write at other, more reasonable times in the day, but I keep my 5:00 a.m. appointment with my lamp and my chair.
How does the current political climate influence your art or creative process?
Like so many across this country, I am crying on the inside. I go about my day and my work, but if I stop for a minute to check out how I am truly feeling, I realize how sad I am. I keep going. I intend to work toward more fairness and inclusion, to work toward clean water and air and safe classrooms for students, as others before us have done for years. We can’t give up.
What does your creative process look like? How does the environment you are in shape your work or where do you like to write?
Early morning is my time to write alone every day. Later in the day I may go to a coffeeshop to read and to revise. I also schedule writing time with my friends monthly or weekly, and we sometimes use a timer for twenty-minute sprints, one sprint after another. I call it “side-by-side industry.” We are each working on our own writing, but we are company for one another. A group of six or eight of us will take a writing retreat in a cabin on the river several times a year. We have a schedule of times we can talk and times we keep silence. Too much talking waters down your writing energy. It is motivating to be around people who are writing, to be in the same room while they are working on their craft. This helps me to focus.
What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
My latest book, Learning to Swim, was published in 2019 by Stephen F. Austin University Press. The poem, “Citrus Thief,” is in that book. Learning to Swim is mainly poetry, but the middle section contains memoir dealing with the same topics found in the poems. Also, I’ve worked on my own “New & Selected” which is scheduled into the Ted Kooser series at the University of Nebraska Press for publication in late 2020 or early 2021.
Marjorie Saiser is the author of seven books of poetry, including Learning to Swim and Losing the Ring in the River, winner of the Willa Award for Poetry in 2014. She has received four Nebraska Book Awards and the Literary Heritage Award. Her work has been published in American Life in Poetry, Nimrod, Rattle.com, PoetryMagazine.com, RHINO, Chattahoochee Review, Poetry East, Poet Lore, and other journals.