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Literary Prestidigitations on Display

15 Questions: An interview with Laura Madeline Wiseman


15 Questions  

Tell me about your book.

Exploring the mercurial myths of mermaids, nautical lore of drift bottles, and unmapped beach parties at the Pacific, Drink(BlazeVOX Books, 2015) questions the changeable stories we tell of water, those connected to plane disappearances, downed ships, lost girls, and forgotten lives. Drink seeks to understand what terrorizes us, be they forgotten messages, murdered sisters, or women living in water.

What influenced this book?
Mermaids, planes lost at sea, the beach, art museums, my dad’s obsession with privies, the gendering of ships during WWII, tsunamis, oil spills, drift bottle lore, prompts from NaProWriMo. 


Where does this book fit into your career as a writer?
I’ve been trying to write this book for a long time. It’s one of those kinds of books a writer writes one way, takes apart, rewrites it another way, retakes apart. Repeat. Repeat. Some books are harder to write than others. Originally, when I was putting Drink together, I had the opening sequence of poems on lost planes, poems I’d written after following the news coverage on a plane that was lost and the ways in which the media fixated on its disappearance. I knew the mermaid poems followed that sequence and the poems on drift bottles also belonged in Drink, but it was when I’d written the final poem for the book, that I had a chill, one of those moments a writer has when she backs away from the manuscript, knowing that the entire book has suddenly changed. I got up from my desk and walked around my office. I made a cup of tea, tapping my foot as it brewed. My book turned on that final poem. I knew that if I was going to put that last poem in Drink, I needed another section, a section that earned the final poem. I sat with that idea for awhile, going about teaching my classes, biking around town, going to yoga, and doing all the things one does to live—cooking, laundry, walking the dog. Somewhere in that living, I knew what poems to add. I had a book manuscript I’d put together while a writer in residence at the Prairie Center of the Arts, but had left it mostly alone after writing it, letting it hunker like a monster in a drawer. The third section of Drink was from that book, a sequence of poems I had ordered and reordered, placed in one book manuscript and then another. The final poem of Drink made that third section possible. Hilda Raz, one of my teachers in Ph.D. school, said that you have to earn your abstractions in a poem. I think that’s true with poems—too—within books. Big poems must be earned. 


If you had to convince a friend or colleague to read this book, what might you tell them?

Poetry will save your life. 

Tell me about the last literary reading you attended.
Just one? Would a few be okay?
Recent festivals, conferences, and readings series I’ve attended include Indiana Writers’ Consortium and Conference, MMLA, Engaged Citizen Conference, Poetry & Pints, Sunchild Austin Summer Readings, Art & Words Show, Hudson Valley Writing Center, University of South Dakota Visiting Writer Series, Fox Chase Review Reading Series, Omaha Lit Fest, as well as readings in art galleries such as The Apollon, Connect Gallery, Monongalia Art Center, Paradigm Gallery + Studio, White Ripple Gallery, and many others. Some of the readings and talks I’ve enjoyed were given by Barbara Shoup, Meg Day, Meg Eden, Rainbow Rowell, Shevaun Brannigan, Cat Dixon, Liz Kay, Brenda Sieczkowski, Lisa Kovanda, Marilyn Coffey, Kendra Fortmeyer, Bruce Bond, Sara Henning, Marion Cohen, Jennifer Perrine, Leslie Adrienne Miller, Susana H. Case, Jennifer Franklin, Margo Taft Stever, Sarah A. Chavez, Rosemary Winslow, Megan Burns, Michael Henson, and many more. 
There’s nothing better then attending a reading by a writer I admire and hearing them read from and talk about their work. I eat up these readings like really good dark chocolate. For the future, I’m looking forward to AWP in Minneapolis, CEA, Steel Pen Writers Conference, Nebraska Book Festival, and several others.


When did you realize you we're a writer?
I’ve loved to write ever since I was a little kid, but when it came time to make the move from high school to college, I almost became a chemist. 
As I got materials ready to apply to college, I knew I needed two letters of recommendation. I asked my two favorite teachers, my AP English teacher, who said, “Of course,” and my chemistry teacher, who said, “I’ll only write a letter for you, if you major in chemistry.” When I told my dad this, whose own major had been geology, he said, “Chemistry is a great major! You’ll need a job when you graduate.” So I did. I went to Iowa State University as a chemistry major. During midterms my freshman year, I went to the writing center to get help on a chemistry paper. My teacher had given me a C+ and had written, “You could have done much more with this paper.” When I visited him in his white, austere office, he said, “You don’t write well,” but said I could revise. As I trudged through the falling snow to my writing center appointment, campus felt cold, dark, and empty. The wiry aide in the English department helped me attend to my grammatical errors, but he also helped me attend to something else. He asked what I wanted to do with my life. “I need to get a job,” I said, but explained about the major, my dad, the scholarships I’d received to study chemistry, and about my thirst to write. 
“Do what you love. The job will come.” 
As I trudged back through the snow, I didn’t know what I should think, didn’t know what I should do, but did know how to improve my chemistry paper. Before my sophomore year was completed at ISU, I changed my major to English Literature and went on to graduate school to study the craft of writing by practicing it. I never did get the name of the writer center’s aide. Whoever he was, wherever he is now—thank you for putting me back on course to becoming a writer. 


Tell us about your process: Pen and Paper, computer, notebooks ... how do you write?

I write poems with pen and paper and then transfer the good stuff to the computer. In my writing classes, I begin most classes with two or three seven minute poems with writing prompts. We also go on writing field trips to local art museums and history museums. I always write with my students, following the prompts I assign. All writers need to write, to practice writing, to write badly, to write when they’re not feeling like writing, and to write in places and situations that are not ideal for inspiration. Because I teach what I practice, I often find that some of the rough, seven minute poems that I write with my students are the first drafts of what later becomes solid material. Virtually all of the first drafts of the mermaid section in Drink, I wrote with my introductory and advance poetry students one semester at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  

How do you handle a bad review of your work?

Which writer would you most like to have a drink with, and why?

Only one? In the land of the living or the dead? 
In looking at my book shelf beside my desk for names, I love to share a cup of coffee with Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Emily Dickinson, Sappho, Daphne du Maurier, Anne Frank, Marion Zimmerman Bradley, and several others. For the living and also on my bookshelf, I’d love to drink tea with Margaret Atwood, Marge Piercy, Jeanette Winterson, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Ann Patchett. There are several others I’m too shy to admit I’d love to sit with over coffee. But here’s the thing, I’ve found that by being a writer, I’ve had the opportunity on more than one occasion to meet and talk with writers whose work I’ve admired (and crushed on, for a long time). I count some of those moments as the greatest highlights of my life. 
If I had to pick only one, the women writer I would love to have a drink (of the temperance variety) would be Matilda Fletcher, my great-great-great grandmother who was a suffragist, lecturer, and poet. She spoke on stage with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. There is no known photo of Matilda, but I image that she was the type of woman who’d grab your hand, hold your eye, and tell you things you always wanted to know, but never had the courage to ask. 

What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Waiting so long to publish my first book. 


What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?

I think one of the hardest things to do is to write a book and once a writer has done this, the writer is then expected to promote the book, swimming in this weird and strange waters of promotion, engagement, salesmenship, advocacy, readings, festivals, book trailers, features, interviews, radio samplers, guest blogs, podcasts, etc. I run a chapbook interview feature on my blog where I interview poets about all things chapbook and one the questions I often ask is the “promotions” question. The answers I receive are varied and smart. I ask it because I don’t know the answer. “Promote your work” is the advice often given to writers, but how one does that—good, bad, worse, best, okay, fantastic—is a practice I’m still learning how to practice. 
What scares you the most?

Where do you buy your books?
I get the majority of my books at readings, but I also buy online directly from presses. 


Who are you reading now?
I am currently reading Margo Taft Stever’s Lunatic Ball (Kattywompus Press, 2015) and Kristina Marie Darling’s books The Artic Circle (BlazeVOX Books, 2015) and Fortress (Sundress Publications, 2014). 


What is your favorite TV show at the moment? 

This semester, I watched every episode of Awkward Black Girl

Bonus Round: 
What do you want the world to know about you? Make it juicy ....  

I love to participate in long-distance bicycling rides like RABGRAI and the Cottonwood 200. To train for those multi-day and week-long rides, I like to do shorter one-day rides of the 40, 50, 70+ mile variety.