Wombwell Rainbow Interview: Catherine Garbinsky

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Even Curses End Front Cover

Catherine Garbinsky

is a writer living in Northern California. She holds a degree in The Poetics of Transformation: Creative Writing, Religion, and Social Justice from the University of Redlands. Catherine is the author of All Spells Are Strong (Ghost City Press, 2018) and Even Curses End (Animal Heart Press, 2019). Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in Coffin Bell Journal, Flypaper Magazine, Occulum Journal, and others.

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

My mother was an English professor and I grew up playing writing games with her from the time that I could write (around 4 or 5 I think). I was probably 10 or so when I went to a writing summer camp, and that was my first most formal attempt at writing poetry. I wrote a persona poem about a toilet who was in love with the janitor! Later that same year my mother came and guest taught creative writing at my school, and introduced us to e.e. cummings. I remember being a little angry with her that she hadn’t introduced him to me sooner, like she’d been hiding all this beauty from me. It was the first time I realized you could break the rules I had learned about poetry and form. That was a turning point for me.

I still love exploring all of the different things that poetry can do, from erasure to sonnets to visual poetry to new forms being invented all of the time. There is incredible freedom when approaching the page, and it’s a different muscle from the careful plotting and world building of fiction (which I also love).

The simple why of it is that nothing else brings me the same ecstatic joy I feel when I read and write and listen to poetry. It celebrates, explores, and challenges language in such a unique way. By its very nature, it asks us to look differently at the world. Some poems and forms do this more than others, but I believe poetry is this incredible vehicle for change partly for this reason. To read poetry well, we must be open.

I’m speaking in generalities here, but it is the possibility that I see in poetry that makes it feel so alive in me.

2. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

My house was full of poetry growing up, mostly older and mostly men: William Blake, John Keats, William Shakespeare, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Theodore Roethke, and so on. At the school I went to we also memorized a lot of poetry. I was reciting William Wadsworth Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams, and others.

I didn’t know about many living poets until I was older. My high school poetry teacher introduced me to slam poetry and spoken word, literary magazines like Tin House and Poetry, and helped me feel involved in the contemporary poetry world in some small way. I attended my first poetry reading with living poets when I was 16 years old. I was in love! It also made me realize how much I’d been missing. I’ve made a point since then to read women writers, LGBTQ writers, writers or color, disabled writers, and other voices outside of the Western literary canon.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I currently work 8-5 every day, so I write in my notebook during lunch breaks and then at home in the evenings after dinner. It’s my favorite part of my day, setting everything else aside to focus on writing. I have some rituals to help ground myself before beginning: lighting a candle, preparing tea or snacks, making sure everything is in its right place before I begin. I’d like to say that it goes uninterrupted from there, but inevitably it gets very broken up hour by hour. That’s hard for me. I’m very phlegmatic, so I love to sit with one thing for a long time, and I don’t like to stop until it is complete.

My work goes in waves, writing for several weeks and then revising for several weeks. I love revision, the process of helping a poem to become its best self. It is incredibly satisfying. I have to stop myself eventually, though, or I could go on revising forever.

5. What motivates you to write?

The little voice inside of me that insists, even (or especially) when the world might tell me otherwise, that I have important things to say.

6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I was raised on fairytale and fantasy, and magic is a thread through all of my work, whether implicit or explicit. Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my greatest influences, in her poems and stories but also in her approach to language and the power of words. From her I learned that the true names of things are deeply sacred, that they hold a magic all of their own and that speaking them has power. After she passed away, I processed my grief through erasure poems of her books. Grief and remembering can be a lot like erasure in some ways, as memories shift and fade specific words or moments stay with you. Pouring through Le Guin’s work after her passing, I knew I wanted to work with her words. It was a lesson on loss, it was a celebration, it was the deepest honor. My small chapbook All Spells Are Strong Here (Ghost City Press) was the result.

Francesca Lia Block was another huge influence on me growing up, the way that she wove magic so completely into everyday life. It helped me look at the world around me with different eyes. She always acknowledged the messiness of life, the pain, the weirdos, — fairies, mermaids, magic, yes, but also the punks, & goths. I didn’t always feel like those parts of myself could coexist and her work made me see how beautifully they belonged together. Her prose style is also very lyrical, and I loved that. I’d never read books like that before, and it was thrilling to me to think that prose could be so poetic.

Mary Oliver’s words live deeply in me as well. Her love for the natural world, for wild things. She was one of the first living poets I truly loved, and the way she shared her heart so openly is an example I try to follow.

There are so many others — I could go on and on! The wonderful thing about reading is that those influences become so deeply rooted in you.

8. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

Oh, the list feels endless. I am always discovering new work and new writers to love! I am trying to be braver in my work, and the courage of Natalie Eilbert, Maggie Smith, Rachel McKibbens, Tiana Clark, Emilia Phillips, Kristin Garth, and Chelsea Dingman makes me feel braver, too. I am thrilled by the creativity and imagination of Paige Lewis, Chen Chen, Kailey Tedesco, E.K. Anderson, Chase Berggrun, Angelo Colavita, torrin a. greathouse, Sonya Vatomsky, Logan February, and Ilya Kaminsky. I’ve been sitting for a long time with poems that really sang to me by Ariel Francisco, Julia Beach, Jessie Lynn McMains, Ansel Elkins, Adrienne Novy, Sam Herschel Wein, Todd Dillard, and Christina Xiong. The more time I spend with the poems, the more they teach me. I am always looking to the incredible world building and plot weaving of Neil Gaiman, Patricia McKillip, Jane Yolen, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Terri Windling, Hiromi Goto, Nnedi Okorafor, and Jy Yang. So many others!

9. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Oh, I think we are always becoming. Writing is a practice, like any art, and I think we are writers as soon as we begin (publishing and/or making it your profession is a different question altogether).

The best way that I know to begin is through observation: in this case, close reading and attention to writing done well. What constitutes well is really for you to find, as art can be incredibly subjective. Find the work that calls to you and examine what it is doing and how. What words, what punctuation, what format did they choose and how did it affect your reading?

My other advice is to play — give yourself the freedom to ignore rules, or to make up arbitrary ones. Try some writing exercises (I love “poemcrazy” by Susan Goldsmith Wooldrige and “Sing Me the Creation” by Paul Matthews which are both full of fun exercises and games to play on your own or with a group). Your writing, especially in early drafts, doesn’t have to be flawless to be good, to be meaningful. Giving yourself permission to play can also help loosen your expectations and help you forgive the inevitable blunders. Learning to accept or even embrace my mistakes has been one of the biggest lessons in my own writing.

10. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

Oh, I always have a few too many projects going on at once: I’ve got a YA novel, several children’s stories, a full length book of poetry, and two poetry chapbooks in the works right now. I’m getting new ideas all of the time, and need to stop myself from taking on more than I can handle!

One thought on “Wombwell Rainbow Interview: Catherine Garbinsky

  1. Pingback: 2019 – Catherine Garbinsky

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