“Most of our lives are interpretation and the story we tell of it”: An Interview with William Stratton

William Stratton spent his formative years on his great-grandfather’s farm, where he was heavily influenced by the rural landscape and the people native to the area. While his professional career began in journalism, his gradual move towards poetry led to him pursuing an M.F.A. from the University of New Hampshire, where he is currently an adjunct professor of writing.

We recently exchanged emails with Stratton, who was in the Adirondacks, and discussed teaching, approaching the senses, and publishing as “the ultimate revision.”

Your first book, Under the Water was Stone, was just published by Winter Goose Publishing. Can you describe that process for me a little bit, specifically how this experience differed from say, having a single piece published?

The process of publishing a book I suspect differs pretty radically from publisher to publisher. Winter Goose has been great: responsive and friendly, involving me in every step along the way. I’ve never felt as though they were tearing my work away from me or pursuing their own agenda with my poems. On the contrary, the whole process has been very empowering. Since this is my first book, I don’t know if that’s a common experience, but I suspect it’s not.

What I can say, though, is that I was fairly unprepared for (and I’m still struggling with) the self-promotional aspects. I’ve never been good at selling myself, so that’s a skill I’ve been slowly developing. The rest of it–editing, formatting, order, concept, cover–all takes time. But it’s the best kind of time to take: you’re working with something you love and which holds a great value to you. At least, that’s how I felt. I suppose that, as writers, we are constantly making decisions about our work, and this is just an extension of that process. In essence, publishing a book is the ultimate revision.

You talk about revising your work during the publication process as a kind of labor of love Have there been some difficult times as well? 

Certainly I’ve found it challenging, even maddening. Few things in life are as frustrating and soul-sucking as having problems with your writing, or any art for that matter. There’s something of your own self-worth and self-image in it, and when you fail, you often have the illusion of failing as a person, or at least that is the case for my own experience.  That said, I try not to feel too sorry for myself, even when I’m down and out in terms of my writing. Keeping perspective is key for me. I have a poem which addresses this as a larger issue in my book (“A Good Measure”), and I’ve tried, with varying measures of success, to make sure I remind myself that this thing I do is a thing I am deeply passionate about, and that makes me pretty lucky.

Teaching is the same, though I think I have more of a natural talent for it than I do for writing, in that I feel confident standing in front of a class in pretty much any situation and I always seem to have to put more work into my writing to get similarly satisfactory results. They do have a lot in common though, teaching and writing: different every day, requiring a good amount of self-reflection and growth, revision if you will. Both are challenging, time-consuming, and ultimately deeply rewarding. Yes, I love what I do, and, having done many other things which I did not love (oh the jobs I’ve had!), I am very grateful.

That all being said: any advice for writers who might be ready to submit a book for publication?

I can only tell you what I did: research. A lot of it. I can be obsessive (surprise, an obsessive writer), but in this case my obsession helps. I spent months online finding publishers who accepted unsolicited manuscripts for consideration. I compiled a list, and began sending queries. I researched each publisher, and tried to find out who might be reading my material, or what the publisher had accepted already, and tailored my queries accordingly.

I was lucky in that it only took me a few weeks to find Winter Goose, but I was prepared mentally to pursue it for much longer. I was also lucky to work with David (Rivard), Mekeel (McBride) and Charlie (Charles Simic) at UNH, who not only helped my writing tremendously, but also helped me see my manuscript in some ways which might have otherwise been impossible. Though not everyone has access to writers and teachers in the same way, there ought to be some way for you to find objective, informed and interested opinions on your work.

That’s great advice. I imagine that there are people who think that feel they should send their manuscript everywhere, hoping that something will stick. What you said about teaching writing made me think of a phenomenon that I’ve heard about from several teachers, that they tend to learn as much if not more from their students as the students do from them.  Do you find yourself learning things about your own writing from your students?

Absolutely. I subscribe to the idea that we ought not to stop learning just because we become professionals…in anything. When I taught at UNH as a grad student, there was a little poster on the wall near my office that said—and I’m paraphrasing now—‘It is not the job of the student to worship at the altar of what is known, but to question it.’ I find this exactly in line with how and why I teach. I, too,want to question everything, and I would be dissatisfied with teachers or students who were not willing to put forth the same effort. I’d like to point out that this doesn’t require being contrary or pretentious; it just requires critical thought, and on occasion, action.

I like to think, in part because of that philosophy, my students have a great deal to teach me. In large part what I have learned from them so far is how to be a better teacher, which is a good thing. But they’ve also taught me about how poetry evolves in a writer, or maybe how a voice evolves, which is difficult to see in yourself as you grow through it.

I could go on: I’ve learned about how readers who are not long-time poets interact with poetry (which is the majority of the world’s population, I imagine), about how we construct meaning through interaction with both the writing and the people we surround ourselves with, and so on.  And of course they end up influencing poems yet unwritten a great deal. More than once a class has been an inspiration for a new poem, which is each a tiny treasure for me.

Stratton Book Cover

Let’s switch gears if we could just slightly as talk about your poem, “My Lands are Where My Dead Lie Buried.” It occurred to us that it has such a wonderful sound to it when read out loud.  Do you find yourself consciously paying attention to the sound of the words, or does the image and its presentation override any consequences (positive or negative) that the sound of poem might have?

First of all, thank you, it’s nice to hear it made an impression. At the risk of sounding…I don’t know, amateurish? I confess I do not spend a lot of time considering the sounds of things, but rather let my ear and intuition do the work. I admit to reading things aloud to myself and with a somewhat alarming frequency, which I like to think helps. Still, to me the core of it is with the image and the narrative.

I wrote a piece for the North American Review on my writing process, and in it I spoke about how what most often concerns me is getting down a faithful record of what happened. I like to consider my poetry to be non-fiction, and usually finding something true there is a big part of how I construct the poem. I can hear when the sound is not working, and the subconscious irritation this causes will often find a way to correct itself almost without me noticing. I hate to think of having to choose between sound and content, but when I make mistakes they’re usually mistakes of music.

For this particular poem, there was an almost trance-like state which I remembered, the vast loneliness and empty space and the feeling of inhabiting it in every way I was able. It’s beautiful there, but in autumn, in the middle of the week, there wasn’t much in the way of people or their markings. In some way, the music of it is as important a reflection of what I felt as the story itself, I wanted it to hum and drone in a way I imagined the prairie and its long brown grass stretched out forever in each direction did.

I have a strong urge to tell what really happened, but I also have a strong urge to allow the reader access to what it means to have experienced what happened as well. Here, the lines blur a little, and I’m glad they did.

I find that blurred lines you mentioned speak to a certain fairness we see in poetry where the poet opens a world to the reader and allows that reader to discover their own interpretation of a particular piece. Do you believe that approaching poetry as non-fiction has an effect on the reader’s interpretation, that is to say is it limited in any way?  Enhanced in any way?

Well, I’d obviously like to believe that my approach enhances access to or interpretation of my poetry, but I don’t have any way of measuring that, and I don’t want to presume I understand how people read poetry. I certainly enjoy plenty of poetry which does what I would consider to be the exact opposite of my own, and I would suppose there are just as many people who are into association, surrealism, or anything else.

I’m not afraid to be who I am as a writer, but neither am I convinced that what I do is somehow superior to other poets because I imagine my writing accessible. I hope that what I am writing and how I am writing it is enabling in some way access to an experience other than the self, other than the previously known or comfortable. In my most self-indulgent moments, I imagine my poems being read by someone who might not otherwise ever read poetry, and getting some sort of agreement from them, or appreciation.

I might also say that I think we as readers are in the business of interpretation, much in the same way we as people are. I agree that poetry opens a world for the reader and allows them discovery and freedom. I would say too that prose does this, as does painting, sculpture, photography, dance…or encounters with strangers, dinners with family, walking to your car in the morning before work, etc. I suppose I believe, in essence, that most of our lives are interpretation and the story we tell of it. I hope my writing gives some semblance of this, and I strive to bring something to the poem that can find life or meaning in that space.

—interview by Samson Dikeman

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