Interview with, well, Me

Me.

Me.

Earlier this spring, a young woman named Terra Ojeda, from Whitworth University, contacted me. She’d read my poem in Rock & Sling and, as a part of a class assignment, wanted to interview me. I of course said sure. I liked the questions Terra asked, and I thought I’d post her interview here.

Thank you, Terra!

Terra: Do you have a writing routine? If so, what does it look like? (I’m sure in the midst of life, it is difficult to find and time and place every day to simply sit down and write).

Susie: I do have a writing routine—of sorts. My mantra is, “write first, before everything else.” If I try to start my paid work first, or start with paying bills or anything else, I never get to the writing. Currently, I write at my kitchen table or at the library or at a coffee shop nearby (though I just had the very exciting news that I may be renting a small studio adjacent to my house as a writing space. I can barely contain myself at the thought of it). I can’t write every day, since I’m a college writing instructor and I have to teach, but I manage three days a week during the semester and four or more when I’m on break. Every so often I block out a Saturday or a weekend to work, too. I also set very specific goals and deadlines. I’ll aim to finish a chapter, a poem, a section of a book by a certain date—this motivates me and helps me not feel lost and depressed about how much there is to do and how little time I have to do it.

T: I have noticed that you are a vocalist in a band, Hotel Borealis. Do you contribute to the songwriting for this band? If so, how is it different from other modes of writing? If not, how does this band influence your creative writing process?

S: This is a great question. While I wrote the lyrics for one song on our upcoming album, and have tweaked Dave Mar’s lyrics here and there, the truth is I’m not much of a lyricist. I keep thinking this will come with time, but so far, it hasn’t. In terms of the music project influencing my writing life, it has and it hasn’t. Writing is very solitary. The music is much more collaborative. But playing and writing music has made me much more comfortable being spontaneous and taking risks—things that have been hard for me, historically. I’m hoping that riskiness translates into my writing at some point.

T: The same question goes for your role as a wife, mother, teacher, etc. How do these play into your creative process?

S: I love teaching, but it doesn’t inspire my creative process except insofar as my students and I discuss artistic process (I teach at an art school). Mostly, teaching is an exercise in forcing me to be super organized with my time so I can write. Parenting has certainly been the source of material for essays (not so much for poems—not sure why). And having such a lovely kid in my life makes me feel centered when my writing career is not going as planned. My relationship with my husband has been the main topic of the memoir I’ve been writing for ten years, so that’s been central. So, yeah, it all plays in….

T: If you could be any animal, what animal would it be? Why? Is this the same animal that you identify with now?

S: My son is crazy about animals, and he asks me every day what my favorite animal is. I always says cheetah, but that’s not entirely true, though I would love to experience that furious running somehow. I would be interested in being a bear or another kind of powerful predator; a powerful bird; or….I’m not sure what else. I’d actually be fascinated to be a male human for an afternoon, too!

T: I love how you include a variety of connections in your poem, “Postcard from a Sailor.” You mention a fragmented mess of thoughts: “as if the parking tickets were scattered everywhere.” You compare this also with “all the marriages torn asunder — the children unborn.” Then you close the poem with “all the tools tossed into the sea — if there were a sea if there were any stars by which to navigate –” The universality of this poem is undeniable, yet there is a sense that you are speaking from a specific, individual experience. How do you balance the two?

S: I see “Postcard from a Sailor” as a kind of thread that came rushing off a spool at breakneck speed. So, in other words: I started with this very personal idea of having a “mess of thoughts” (I like that, thanks), which was something that I was indeed experiencing: my brain was running me ragged with small and big life questions that seemed to be unraveling everywhere, and one day it occurred to me that “pensive” didn’t even begin to describe it. But then as I riffed on that in the poem, the whole world started unraveling (and the list of what would happen if the world unraveled came very quickly). The list I came up with was how I imagine the post-apocalypse, I guess. I tend to use a lot of quasi-fantastical, end-of-the-worldish images in my poems. I don’t know whether the poem, especially the end, feels depressing or whimsical. For me, the last two lines feel much darker than the rest. [Note: You can read “Postcards from a Sailor” below.] Something else is going on in there that you didn’t ask about. If you look at contemporary poetry, you’ll notice that this phrase “as if” is totally overused. It’s like all of us poets can’t create an image without a comparison to something that might or might not happen. I wanted to play with that by pushing it: I started with one “as if” but the next five lines all have an implied “as if.” I thought being relentless about it would subvert it. But that may not be working; maybe I’m just another poet overusing the phrase “as if.”

T: Who do you write for? Does the audience change for every subject, or do you lean toward one type of audience?

S: This is a tough one. With the stuff I’ve been writing lately—personal essays, memoir, more commercially viable stuff—I definitely have audience in mind. In fact, I even spend time thinking about my “target audience” and my “brand.” (I picture a smart woman around my age, probably a mother but not necessarily, who also feels muddled by the choices she’s making and the difficulties and joys of her experience.) But when I write poetry, I don’t even think about audience, is the truth. I just write.

T: On writing for yourself: How does writing function for your own personal purpose? Do you write for yourself? Is it a healing process, like writing in a diary? Or does it take on a life of its own?

S: Writing is definitely healing. For example, when I got things off my chest after writing a couple of essays about my inability to have a second kid, I actually felt that I could cope better with that huge disappointment. But writing is definitely not like a diary for me. I’m pretty obsessed with making things polished and viewer-ready. And yes, I would say all of my writing takes on its own life. That’s a beautiful thing about writing: you start with an idea for A and end up at Q, at Z, or in a different language entirely.

T: I’ve read and watched excerpts from your memoir “Quiver.” How has traveling with your husband Ben (before you were married) shaped your life?

S: That year with Ben was probably the most difficult and the most amazing year of my life to date, if I’m being honest. I still think about it all the time, probably because I’ve been writing about it for nearly ten years (!). Mostly, I think it was an exercise in solidifying what has been the most formative and important relationship of my life. But I think it also shifted my perspective as a writer. Before we went, I was working a very demanding job and barely managing to put together a poem every couple of months. On that trip, I realized that I wanted to be a writer, to really put writing front and center in my life. It also signaled the shift from me being a poet to being something else…whatever I am now.

T: When you contemplate taking “next steps” in life, what does that look like? For example, the last couple lines of the excerpt from “Quiver” on your webpage read:

He had made up his mind: he was going to travel for a year. There was very little I could do about it.

Except go with him.”

The white space in between the two sentences seems essential, because it represents that space in your mind that says, “Why not?” Does this explain the kind of leap of faith you have on taking big steps into the next stage in your life? Or are they normally subtle, baby steps that ease their way onto your path?

S: I wish I could lie and say that I often take those kinds of leaps, but the truth is that I’m a total chicken about any big change and I have to worry it to death before I do anything. That excerpt from “Quiver” ends there, but in the actual book, about two pages of angst and second-guessing and miscommunication with Ben follow before we actually decide to travel together. So I would say, subtle baby steps, for sure. And research. And talking. I’m big on reading a lot of books and having a lot of discussions and generally gathering as much information as I can before I make any big life decision. I have always wanted to be different in this regard. Oh well.

T: Thank you so much Susie, I have enjoyed reading your work. You have already influenced me to download a meditation app on my phone (which I gladly used earlier this morning). Sometimes I forget that all I need to do is sit down, come as I am, accept myself for all that I am, and breathe. You have been a lovely reminder, nurturing me personally with your words and honest stories. 

S: That’s so great! Thanks for telling me that. And you’re very welcome.

POSTCARD FROM A SAILOR (#6)

Arriving in California

just before Thanksgiving,

I’d say I felt pensive

if pensive were the sensation

of one billion thoughts colliding

in the cerebral cortex,

not pinprick stars,

more like dark matter chaos,

more like an unweaving,

a de-constellating,

the loss of any sense of order,

of any sense of navigation,

as if the parking tickets were papered everywhere—

and the email had begun to explode—

and the cars all crashed into one another—

and all the marriages torn asunder—

the children unborn—

all the tools tossed into the sea—

if there were a sea—

if there were any stars by which to navigate—

(© Susie Meserve. This poem appeared in Rock & Sling issue 9.2)

On Hunger, Fullness, and Self-Everything: An Interview with Author Kimber Simpkins

Note: this post originally appeared on Popcorn.

———————

Several months ago I had the great pleasure of taking an early-morning yoga class in a field by a creek on a farm in Northern California. The teacher, Kimber Simpkins, mentioned after savasana that she was about to publish a memoir called Full: How One Woman Found Yoga, Eased her Inner Hunger, and Started Loving Herself. I was intrigued (and blissed out from her class). I’m always on the lookout for a candid personal story, and the subject matter and title totally drew me in.

Better versionFull, Simpkins’s first published book, details her struggles with body image from her days as a teenage anorexic to her life as a budding yoga teacher who just can’t seem to nourish herself adequately. Eventually, through yoga, self-reflection, more than a little humor, and a hundred other techniques (think Ayurveda, motherhood, and meditation), she finds a tentative peace with her body and her hunger—and a lasting realization that she is more than enough.

Kimber Simpkins graciously agreed to be interviewed, and we caught up over email.

Q:  I’m sure you’re asked this all the time, but from having met you, and seeing your truly gorgeous author photo on the back of Full—well, do people express surprise that someone as fit and attractive as you has struggled so much with her body image?

Yes, I hear it a lot! What I’ve learned from my own experience and from working with hundreds of women around body image is that you absolutely can’t tell from looking at someone’s appearance how she feels about her body. Someone who has an ideal body in your opinion may utterly hate herself, and someone who is unattractive to you might feel very content and happy with her body. We just can’t know, because body image functions in what I call the black box of the mind, where no one ever sees in, and little light ever shines. At some point in my childhood I unconsciously started believing a story that I was unattractive because of my weight, and then that story played in my head no matter what the “truth” was of what I looked like. My natural weight and body type place me out of the range of Hollywood and Madison Avenue, which was what I thought I had to look like or I was unworthy. Because of unrealistic comparison, it took me an embarrassingly long time to start to see the beauty in myself, just as I am, without having to live up to some outer expectation or ideal.

Q: My memoir is about my journey through anxiety, and often, old friends are shocked to learn that I was a worried wreck my whole life. Many of us are so closeted about our own demons that people around us simply don’t know. Was writing Full a bit like coming out of the closet, or have you been pretty open about your anorexia and recovery throughout the years?

Yes, Susie, I can relate to that! Part of being anorexic was “looking perfect,” and even now it’s sometimes hard for me to let down that facade. In my line of work as a yoga teacher, there’s also a tendency to idealize and put teachers on pedestals, so there’s an unconscious drive to conceal the things that aren’t pretty and shiny and ready for prime time. Lately I find myself in the middle of a conversation and the person says, “I read your book,” and I have this moment of feeling utterly naked and exposed. But then I realized it’s a great shortcut for me: “So you know all about my demons, tell me about yours!” Coming out about my eating disorder and body image history has happened in layers, little digestible bites at a time, one person here, a small group there, so that I’ve slowly built up my resilience and willingness to be vulnerable over many years.

Q: You write so authentically about overeating while still inhabiting the mind of the anorexic. You say you had “the worst of both worlds”—you couldn’t stop eating, but were constantly judging yourself for eating. For me, that was a very powerful part of your memoir because I could totally relate, having had my own issues with body image and overeating. Was it painful for you to write about those periods in your life when you felt so out of control?

Yes. Writing about those periods was painful, and cathartic. For years I felt this weird loyalty to the binge-eating/starving part of myself, this idea that if I left her behind, I was leaving an important part of myself behind. Full is sort of a memorial to her. I will always remember her, but she’s no longer running the show. Sharing her story satisfied my need to remain loyal and not forget, but move on.

Q: I was intrigued by the structure of your memoir. There is a clear journey, from anorexic/overeater to a woman with a healthy, loving body image, but there is also more of an episodic feeling, with chapters organized thematically rather than chronologically. It read in some ways like part memoir, part contemporary philosophy a la Pema Chödrön or Eckhart Tolle. Was that intentional?

Oh dear. If you had only seen me trying to make any sense of the 400 pages of raw material I started organizing the book from several years ago. At one point I printed it all out and literally sat in the middle of it with scissors and tape, desperately hoping to emerge with a book someone would actually read. I still have a big piece of poster board where I used a different color bar for each chapter to show how it contributed to the overall arc of the story. So much had to be left out.  The first version I had people read wasn’t chronological at all, and I got feedback that it needed a lot more structure, so some chronology ultimately made it in. For me the experience of living the story wasn’t chronological at all, but vacillated between time periods as past memories became relevant again and recent events started to fade.

Q:  I had the sense, reading Full, that the journey was unfolding for you and the reader at the same time. Did you write the book while you were on the journey, or did you write it years later, reflecting back?

The answer is definitely both. I was in the midst of the journey during the writing of the book, and pulled from my memory those things that seemed to explain and elucidate what I was feeling now.

Q: How long did it take you to write Full? What was your process like?

It took almost ten years, for that very reason that I was writing the book as I was figuring out how to feel full. I decided to just start asking the questions: why am I so hungry all the time? Why do I hate my body so much? And then followed the questions where they led me. The great thing was being able to consult an expert and say, “So I’m writing this book….” It gave my journey an urgency and legitimacy that helped keep me going and keep me honest.

Q: What kinds of experts did you consult?

To answer my questions about hunger and body image, I talked to an eating disorders specialist, a nutritionist, an Ayurvedic doctor, a Western medical doctor, a yoga philosophy professor, a meditation teacher, a massage therapist/psychic, a Chinese herbalist, and an acupuncturist, among many others. I was open to a lot of different options and opinions. Many of those encounters didn’t end up in the book. The one thing I didn’t want was a one-size-fits-all answer from a book or seminar. Part of my journey was the desire to be seen and understood as a unique individual with her own past and longing for freedom.

Q: You decided to self-publish. Could you talk a little about that decision and the events leading up to it?

I spent two years contacting agents and publishers and got lots of rejections, lots of silence, and just a few nibbles of interest, one of which turned out to be very helpful and made the book a lot better. But I never closed a deal. The book still had to be birthed somehow! We had come too far together to give up. I feel lucky to be alive in an era when self-publishing is so readily available.

Full Cover jpegQ: Why? What are the strengths of self-publishing, in your view?

I loved having control over the cover and what it looks like, being able to set the price myself, contracting the interior design out, working with editors of my own choosing, and having the final say over nearly every aspect of the book. It’s interesting—more attention is coming from agents and publishers now that the book is a real thing, and not just an idea, proposal, or manuscript.

Q: That’s good news. What should someone contemplating self-publishing know? What resources was it important to cultivate?

Be persistent and patient. Find out what you don’t know and who can help you for free or low cost before paying thousands of dollars. Think of yourself as a contractor/architect who is building a house. The manuscript is the foundation, and you’ve got your editors to help you make it really firm. Then you need the walls, the folks who are actually going to publish your book, and make it a real thing, with the exterior and interior. Then you need the painters and designers who make it look all nice; these are the marketing people who help promote your book and get the word out and make it someplace folks want to visit/read. It’s a lot of work, but think of yourself as bringing together a team of talented individuals to serve this act of creativity you’re birthing.

Q: What has been the response to your book? Do you have any readings or events planned?

Response has been great! The Amazon and Goodreads review are wonderful and I’ve enjoyed invites to speak to many different groups. Just this week I’ll be speaking at a community-supported kitchen in Berkeley and next week at the university to a group of women there who are doing important work around eating disorders, body image, and activism. Plus, March 8-9 in Berkeley, I’ll be teaching a Love Your Body Workshop for women to develop the tools for loving your body just the way it is.

To learn more about Kimber Simpkins or Full, to see her yoga schedule and learn about her workshops and readings, visit kimberyoga.com. You can also follow her—and get a daily love-your-body tip!—on Twitter (kimbersyoga) and Instagram (loveyouryoga).

Tara Conklin Interviews Writer Oonah Joslin (on popcorntheblog!)

I am a part of a wonderful collective blog by a group of women who write in the West and Northwest. Popcorntheblog has musings on all things writerly, from summer reading lists to craft issues to advice. Today on popcorn, Tara Conklin interviews writer Oonah Joslin, whose work was featured recently in an anthology called Pangea: Stories from Around the Globe, about her writing habits, the need for a writing community, and what comes next.

Enjoy!

–Susie