“I wrote some stories when I was a little kid, and a handful of poems when I was a late teen, but mostly I read and read and read. I actually fell in love with poetry when I was about 13. Even then, I loved the feel of mystery and potency in that kind of language.
Also, the musicality.
I didn't really start writing poems until I was partway through my Master's thesis on E.E. Cummings, when my advisor Dennis Cooley said, "Where are your poems? Nobody cares this much about poetry without having a drawerful at home!" In truth I didn't have a drawerful, but I continue to be grateful for that nudge.”
How did you decide what you wanted to write about?
“Oh man, I never really know what I'm going to write about! A lot of my writing these days is creative non-fiction -- mostly musings about writing, music and mothering. The pathways always surprise me, which is generally how I know if the pieces are working or not. The more planned they are, the deader they tend to be.
With larger projects, like poem suites, I'm often the last to figure out what I'm doing -- I watch them emerge rather than decide what I'm writing about. Usually I'm toying with an image or a writing challenge, but I'm also exploring something elusive -- one of those big meaning-of-life (or nature or love or power or death) questions.
Sometimes life hands you material too. When my baby died, I knew at some level that I would have to write about that experience. At first, that was a reporting-from-hell enterprise: with the lamentations collection, I was recovering my voice and my language, both of which had been shattered by that loss.
As I became stronger and healthier again, I began to realize that I could share my story with others as a way of extending some support to other bereaved people and those who care for them. My memoir, Out of Grief, Singing, was written over a long period, and I realized when I released it last year that I had also been extending a hand back to my own devastated self as well. Grief is one of the most human of experiences, yet in our culture it's also one that frightens people. If we all shy away from it, we don't have an opportunity to discover that grief can also generate great beauty & joy.”
Probably my favourite picture of Charlene...
How do you usually write?
“Have you met me?! I'm not sure "usually" applies on any front, least of all writing!
These days, I mostly write to deadline – and there are many of them. I lean toward late-night writing flurries, partly because I love the late hours of the day, partly because my life quiets down enough then to follow those inner voices.
My most treasured writing times are when my poet self gets all revved up by an idea or an image. Then writing just takes over and fills up every available crack of time for several days in a row. Those visitations are absolutely unpredictable and (sadly) infrequent.”
What advice could you provide to someone attempting to publish his or her first piece?
“Read a lot. Write a lot. Seek out every opportunity to get mentored -- take classes and workshops, and meet regularly with other writers who are more accomplished than you are and who will speak truthfully.
Attend readings. Learn everything you can from the word zone around you. Really understand that you will always be a beginner because the art form will always be unfolding ahead of you far faster than you can master it. (Thank heavens!)
Write until you no longer care a whole lot about getting published -- the experience of writing has to be far more crucial to you than the experience of being published. (It's kind of like looking for a date: if you stop pushing for that desired outcome and really put your energy into becoming strong and happy and self-sustaining, you're going to be a lot more appealing...)
Practically speaking, be reasonable about your expectations. Submit your work to places which publish similar material. Prepare your submission carefully, mail it off, take a couple of days to feel jittery and excited, then get back to your desk and start making something else.”
If you could meet one writer, who would it be and why?
“Only one?! Yikes! I'm going to say William Blake. My first experience of being profoundly rewritten by someone's work happened when I was plowing through one of Blake's epic long poems. I think of that experience as the advent of adulthood for me --he literally changed the way I think.
Every now and then I revisit a shorter long poem, The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, to be inspired by his creative fire, but also to be reminded that powerful writing engages our personal, social, political, and spiritual selves. Blake was wildly eccentric -- he indulged in many curious behaviors, including regular conversations with angels. If he were alive now, I suspect he'd be highly medicated, but that intensity and drama animate his writing, allow us to feel the pulse across a couple of centuries. I admire the courage it requires to be so fully alive, than capture it in poems and images.”
Charlene Diehl is the associate editor of dig! magazine and the director of THIN AIR, Winnipeg’s annual literary festival. Her last book is a memoir, Out of Grief, Singing.