Megan Martin: Interview

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Megan Martin’s first book, Sparrow & Other Eulogies, is set to be published by Gold Wake Press in July 2011. Although she considered herself a fiction writer for a long time, her stories gradually moved away from conventional forms and became more experimental. She now considers herself simply a writer. Sparrow crosses the genre line between fiction and poetry.

Martin recently moved from Chicago, where she earned her MFA at the School of the Art Institute in 2004, to Cincinnati, where she works as an adjunct instructor of English at area universities and colleges.interviewed her via email. 

TriQuarterly Online: Your first book, Sparrow & Other Eulogies, will be published by Gold Wake Press in 2011. What is this project about? How long have you worked on it?

Megan Martin: I love that you called it a project: from the beginning it’s been a “project” to me rather than a “book” because it’s messy and plays around a lot with form. Content-wise, it’s very personal and deals with grieving the loss of a relationship that was very important to me. Conceptually and in terms of form, it’s really about how we construct narratives to define ourselves and what happens when we realize that a lot of these stories we tell ourselves are illusions, because we’ve mythologized ourselves or the person that we’re with in order to define ourselves. So in the first section of the project, the speaker has lost a narrative that was very important to her and thus lost huge pieces of her identity: she’s sort of left with shards of her former life and self, and trying to piece those together. By the end, it’s about how we go about constructing new narratives and identities for ourselves: how difficult it is, but also how necessary narratives are to our existence. It’s a chaotic project in many ways, so who knows whether any of that will be evident to a reader.

TQO: What has been most surprising to you about the process of publishing your book?

MM: Well, I sent it out for two years before it was accepted by Gold Wake, but the process of sending it out was much less torturous than I had imagined. Initially, I was concerned about how it would be received because it doesn’t fall neatly into any genre—it contains some things that are closer to stories, some that are closer to poems, and a bunch of things that probably qualify as neither. It’s a pretty chaotic collection of “things.” So I did a lot of research and investigated quite a few small presses as I was deciding where I should send it, and I was amazed by how many places exist that are open to work that’s odd or unconventional or hybrid. I had read a lot of books from small presses, but I really had no idea how many there were or how open they would be to work like mine. Another surprise was that editors are very kind people. Many who didn’t take the manuscript took the time to write me detailed responses or to tell me what they appreciated about the book, which was very encouraging and was what enabled me to keep sending it [out] for two years. Prior to sending the book out, I think I felt resentful that so many presses seemed to be publishing only conventional work. Now I feel that that isn’t true at all—you just have to be willing to sleuth around to find places that are dedicated to publishing strange things. The whole process for me, although long, was incredibly refreshing.

TQO: You earned an MFA in writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2004. What did the MFA do for you as a writer?

MM: It’s by far the most important thing I’ve ever done as a writer, and I’m so grateful to the program because I grew so much while I was there. In a different program I’m not sure that would have happened, but the faculty and students at SAIC are so diverse in terms of what they do that I felt a huge freedom to experiment and do things I’d never done. I did my undergrad at the University of Iowa, which is a really traditional program. I wrote traditional short stories almost exclusively, and I learned a lot about how to write a neat, conventional story. But the School of the Art Institute is not a conventional program at all—experimentation is very encouraged there. I resisted that for the first year I was there, and then spent a semester working with Beth Nugent, who asked me point blank: “Do you really enjoy the kind of work that you’re doing? Are you really engaged with it?” It was completely intimidating; I wanted to cry after our first meeting, but it was really a turning point for me. After that I really started questioning the conventions I was comfortable with and also began to consider writing a form of play and playing around a lot with form, doing automatic writing, and creating pieces that I couldn’t even identify in terms of genre. Now I only write what I enjoy. If I’m not enjoying what I’m working on, I scrap it.

TQO: You’ve recently moved to Ohio. What is the literary community like there? How does it compare to Chicago?

MM: It’s funny, I’m not much of a “joiner” when it comes to writing communities, although having other writers around me is crucial. I don’t like “writing scenes” and I tend to avoid them. So in Chicago, smaller groups of writers were my community. I went to readings and participated in them and worked on the Reconstruction Room reading series, which I loved, but I was sort of on the periphery. I just wasn’t cut out for it—I’m not very hip, I’m bad at mingling, and the enormity of the community there overwhelmed me. Here, it feels completely different. Cincinnati is a smaller city, and the literary community circles around the universities where I’ve been teaching, so it is much more concentrated and actually feels like a community as opposed to a “scene.” I’ve only been here a year but I’ve met many, many wonderful people, and the community is small enough that you can have actual conversations with other writers; there isn’t as much posturing, in my opinion.

TQO: You began as a fiction writer. Tell us about the process of moving from writing fiction to writing poetry.

MM: It was a natural move for me. I just consider myself a writer now, as opposed to a fiction writer or a poet. The project I’m working on dictates the form it takes. When I started working on Sparrow, the form that emerged was chaotic because what I was writing about was such a chaotic experience. It would never, ever have worked as a traditional narrative. But prior to that, during grad school, I discovered that I was much more interested in language and form than I was in things like plot and character, so I’d already changed a lot about what I was doing. My work still has characters, but I prefer to develop them in a couple of sentences as opposed to describing their life histories. What a character eats for breakfast is just not that interesting to me. I prefer work that has a sense of immediacy, which is why my work has gotten shorter and shorter. Focusing more on form and language has been a challenge, but I love tinkering with a single line or sentence and trying to pack as much as possible into a tiny piece through word choice and syntax. That kind of work is really satisfying to me right now.

TQO: Some of the poems that appear in Sparrow were first published in journals, both print and online. More journals than ever before only exist online. What do you think about this shift in medium?

MM:  Until about a year ago, I felt a lot of opposition toward anything writing-related that was happening online. I felt overwhelmed by the number of journals that existed and irritated that it seemed like anyone could create a literary journal if they felt like it, or that anyone could have a blog. Now I think about what an elitist I must have sounded like when I complained about those things. I still love the experience of holding a print journal in my hand and reading it all the way through in an afternoon, but I also love the accessibility and opportunity that online journals create. I read so many writers online that I would never have discovered through print journals, and there are far more opportunities for people who are creating interesting work. It removes a lot of the elitism that exists around certain print journals, and it tempers feelings of competition among writers because there are so many more publications that people who might have been marginalized in the past are [now] able to find their niches.

TQO: Tell us about your writing process.

MM: I’m a huge believer in process—it’s almost more important to me than the product. If the process of writing something is engaging to me, I’m happy. But what my process is depends on the project and on what stage of the project I’m in. When I was writing Sparrow, my boyfriend had just gotten me a typewriter for Christmas, so I composed the entire thing on a typewriter. That’s probably the reason I was able to finish it—the stack of pages next to me just kept accumulating, and one day I realized I was writing something book-length, which I hadn’t realized before. But I really just thought of it as “typing,” not writing, because I couldn’t go back and edit anything, and what I was writing was semi-incoherent, so there was a lot less pressure. I typed the whole thing before I put it in my computer. Now I never initially compose a piece on a computer—I use a typewriter or write by hand. Once I accumulate enough of a project, I’ll start putting it in my computer. But not before then—[otherwise] I get too controlling. My writing is pretty much automatic writing. I write what’s in my head and don’t censor myself. I believe very much in the subconscious and that not knowing what I’m doing is what allows me to create unique work. I never know what something is even about until I start editing and finding themes. I take the nonsense that bangs around in my head and make something out of it that has meaning. But I never say “I’m going to sit down and write about love” or something like that. I freeze up if I do that.   

TQO:  How does your day job affect your writing?

MM: I’ve been teaching for about six years, and I adore it. I could say that it prevents me from writing, because I don’t write very much during the school year. I become ridiculously obsessed with my students’ work. But the whole semester I’ll be thinking, “I can’t wait until I can write again,” which can get frustrating sometimes, but it also lends an urgency to my writing that I wouldn’t have if I could write all the time. During the semester I’ll write in bursts when I can. Then when I actually have time to write, I’ve stored up a lot of energy for it so I’ll write every day for weeks. It keeps the thrill there. Teaching is also great because it keeps me connected to what I truly believe about writing. I’m often a cynic in real life and can be very self-effacing about my own work, but when I’m teaching and trying to get students excited, it reminds me how much I believe in the importance of art and in doing things your own way as opposed to doing what’s expected of you. Teaching keeps me honest.

TQO: What are you working on now?

MM: I’m not exactly sure. I’m in the middle of a project that’s a bunch of short pieces. I’m trying to figure out what it takes to write a story in the smallest amount of space possible while still making something that feels thematically large. I’ve been trying to figure out what they’re about—they’re really disjunctive. I can’t say that I know what I’m working on, except that they’re stories.