I don’t know about you, but after a spectacular string of sunny days, it’s hard readjusting to the norm of Portland’s rainy drizzle. While we all wait with crossed fingers in anticipation of summer, make sure you don’t miss your next opportunity to hear from talented writer and poet, Laura Read, who’s coming to campus to give a reading on Tuesday, March 26th at 7:30 pm in the bookstore. I had the honor of corresponding with her, and her lovely responses to my questions are below.
Not only does Read, residing in Washington, like yours truly, but she has an extensive list of accomplishments. In addition to being published in places like The New York Times Magazine, her second full-length collection Instructions for My Mother’s Funeral was chosen as the winner of AWP’s Donald Hall Prize for Poetry by Dorianne Laux. Her most recent collection, Dresses from the Old Country was just published last year. She currently lives in Spokane and teaches English Composition, Literature, and Creative Writing at Spokane Falls Community College, where she helps advise their creative arts magazine The Wire Harp.
How long did it take you to write Dresses from the Old Country and how was that process?
I published my first book, Instruction for My Mother’s Funeral, in 2012,
and I started sending outDresses in 2015, I think. I’d already been working on it though while waiting for the publication of Instructions, so I’d say maybe 4 years. The process was interesting because it was the first time I set out to write a book about one thing—what it’s like to live in the same place for almost an entire life, primarily focusing on the specific place, Spokane, Washington and the Pacific Northwest—but then it evolved into how place becomes a way to hold onto time and memory and to include other topics about the passing of time in my own life. I’ve seen this happen now with my third book as well: I just changed its working title to reflect how I see the collection changing.
As a literary nonfiction student, I’m struck by how the topics of Dresses from the Old Country sound like things I’d encounter in memoir. How is writing poetry similar to and different from the work of a memoirist?
I’ve noticed that many poets I know also write memoir or other types of nonfiction because they are similar. In fact, one of the panels I’m most interested in attending at next week’s AWP conference in Portland is called “Cheating on Poetry with Creative Nonfiction.” I guess I think what they have in common is that they take material from real life and give it artistic shape (though of course not all poets are writing autobiographically). But as someone who has tried to write creative nonfiction, less successfully than poetry, I think the difference, at least for me as a writer, is that poetry lets you hide a little more. You can string together a series of images and not explain everything, and in this way tell the truth but perhaps with a little more protection for the self. Also, when I’ve tried to write an essay, I get frustrated with having to explain so much, in part because I want my privacy and in part because I get bored because I already know what happened. And poetry can feel more magical to me: I like to move more quickly through a succession of images. Still, I really enjoy reading literary nonfiction and greatly admire people who do it well.
If you could plan a perfect Saturday, what would it look like?
Actually, I’m having one today! Our older son, Ben, is home from college for spring break, and our whole family just went out to our neighborhood coffee shop where our younger son, Matthew, amused us all, as usual. And this morning, I got to go to a poetry workshop given by three poets whose work I love, Keetje Kuipers, Geffrey Davis, and Erika Meitner. The workshop was about how difficult it is to write about family, and this is a subject I often write about, and a subject I struggle with writing about, so I really enjoyed talking with other writers about this struggle and also doing some writing together. Now I’m going to walk my dog, and tonight we’re going to dinner with friends, so it’s pretty much a perfect day.
Which authors inspire you?
The 3 poets I just mentioned but also Dorianne Laux, Sharon Olds, and Ada Limon. And my community of poets who are also my friends, Maya Jewell Zeller, Kat Smith, Ellen Welcker, Alexandra Teague, Kate Nuernberger, Rachel Mehl, Brooke Matson, Aileen Keown-Vaux, and Tim Greenup. And I know there are others I’m forgetting! Also, I read a lot of fiction and nonfiction as well. I’m a big fan of Maggie Nelson’s nonfiction, and my favorite book of fiction that I read last year was Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon.
You were the poet laureate of Spokane from 2015-2017. Can you tell me about what that entailed or the opportunities that you had because of that position?
I really enjoyed being the poet laureate. I did a project called I Am a Town for which I taught workshops at the library and at Spark Central, which is a local nonprofit that supports and creates arts opportunities for everyone. We wrote poems about Spokane and then we selected some for a public arts project in which we stenciled and painted lines from the poems on the sidewalks and streets by the places they’re about. This was such a fun project to be a part of. We have a strong arts community in Spokane, and this project and my position helped me build more connections within it.
Do you have a favorite city in the world, and what makes it your favorite?
Paris! I had the opportunity to study there for my junior year of college, and even though it was a hard year for me personally, I loved the city, maybe in part because I was young and homesick and it forged me. And I love the language and the art.
What do you wish someone would’ve told you when you were in college?
I wish someone would have told me the thing that my husband told me when we first met that made me fall in love with him: Life is long. People are always saying, Life is short, and sadly, for some people, it is, but I think sometimes living that way makes you rush too much and not calm down and let things unfold and realize there are so many things you can do and be. All in good time!
Photo from Read’s website.