SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: COLLIER NOGUES
Collier Nogues is the author of The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground, which was selected as the winner of the inaugural Drunken Boat Book Contest, and On the Other Side, Blue. She also co-edits poetry for Juked. She is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, and Fishtrap. In March 2016, her bilingual digital collaboration with poets Jhave Johnston and Mei Kwan Ng will launch in Hong Kong, where she also hosts an English-language poetry craft talk series CALLED RAGGED CLAWS.
Collier Nogues! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?
I was paid for poems in a journal once. I always just assumed I shouldn’t expect to be paid for them, and then I got a check, and it was wonderful. Then I got paid for a reading, which made me feel like a boss. I like getting paid! It doesn’t happen often. Books are a little different, but not much. I got paid $800 for my first, and the prize money for the Drunken Boat Contest was $500, which mostly disappeared into author copies so I’d have some to sell at non-bookstore readings. The lack of money in poetry means that acts of buying poetry become very important—it means a lot to someone (to me!) to buy her book. If you buy an early-career poet’s book and tell her what you like about it, or you buy it at a reading and you ask her to sign it, her goodwill toward you is going to last forever. And poets use other currency with each other: it means a lot to show up to someone’s reading, to repost good news on social media, to send a note saying you loved someone’s work, to curate reading series for touring poets. That’s the upside. I like that a lot about being a poet. Not so much the no money. I’m thinking about this more lately, partly because of Jessica Piazza’s Poetry Has Value project, and I’ve been following some Facebook threads about whether writers should be paid for book reviews, etc. As an editor at a journal which doesn’t pay, I’m thinking of ways we might change that—even a nominal payment would make me glad.
Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?
Not remotely (see above). I’ll be starting a fully-funded PhD program at the University of Hong Kong in September, though, so my academic research and writing will provide me a livelihood for four years. After that, who knows. In the spirit of Ann Bauer’s Salon article about writers disclosing the ways they actually afford to write, I should also note that my husband teaches at a university here in Hong Kong, and it’s his supplementary insurance that gets my teeth cleaned, and his salary that made it possible for me to take my current part-time creative writing job instead of finding something I liked less but was full-time.
If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?
I teach creative writing in an MA program, and I do freelance tutoring via Skype in creative writing and college application prep, so the day jobs are several. The time I have to write expands and contracts with the rhythm of my workload, though not in the way I first expected. When my schedule is busy with freelance work, especially during college app season in the fall, I get writing done much more efficiently, in the early morning before my paid work. When my schedule is more flexible, or emptier, I get less done, which is not a paradox I’m happy with, but there it is. “Enough time to write” appears to equal “two hours I’ve fought for.” If it were the writing earning me paychecks, I wonder how that would change things.
How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?
With my new book, which is erasure poetry, revision works differently than with conventional poems. There’s a limited palette of words to work with, so revision is creative in some surprising ways. I might start out with a rule about only using words that are full words in the original text, but I’ll get halfway through the poem and want the line to say something specific. So then I’ve got options to make it happen: I might find a slight rephrasing possible, and go with that, or sometimes I just say to hell with the rule and start breaking apart words, spelling out the words I wanted the poem to include. Or when I need it, I’ll make punctuation out of other letters (“g” works well for commas in most fonts, for example). There will be trouble spots I return to over and over, and I’ll weigh how far to push the material text so I get what I want in the poem. Whether the poem is an erasure or a more conventionally-written poem, there are usually some trouble spots I can’t solve. So I always feel I could revise, even if I can’t figure out what, exactly, needs to be done.
When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?
If I would rather start a new poem, that’s the sign—new poems are hard, hard, hard, way harder than fiddling with poems-in-process. Wanting to start a new one instead means I’m sick of the old one and it’s time to leave it alone.
Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?
Definitely a choice, though I’d loved reading and writing since I was small. I didn’t major in English at college, and after college I fell into jobs doing production work at advertising agencies (using Photoshop, InDesign, etc.). I did want to write, though, so I took writing workshops at NYU’s extension and at the New School for a couple of years, and during that time my mom had a relapse of breast cancer. It was only after I took time off work to be with her that I decided to apply to MFA programs. It was a complicated choice: my mom’s illness was part of it, because I was living my normal desk job life alongside this intense, hospital-frequenting, caregiving life. Writing became necessary in a way it hadn’t been before. But I also really wanted to get away from advertising.
BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?
The Clan of the Cave Bear. Friends and I in eighth grade used to sit around reading the dirtiest parts to each other, and I’ve still got them memorized. Though I guess I can’t say I read it too young—that book is perfect for your early teens. The sex is the selling point, and it’s crazy, made-up-sacred, sort-of feminist sex. It was good for me. Give it to your daughters! And your sons!