07 Jan Interview with Ms. Maureen Seaton
I am a poet myself and have taught writing for ten years and am always looking for ways to enrich composition essays with creative writing. My Ph.D. is in American literature so I work to bring this literary tradition into a composition classroom. My current research is concerned with women’s body issues, and I teach a Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) class along with my Composition classes at the University of Miami. My classes are concerned with making a positive impact in the local community through civic engagement, and this semester my students and I will be partnering with the Aqua Foundation for Women located in Miami. Through the melding of writing, literature, WGS studies, and civic engagement I create a multicultural and multimodal classroom experience for my students.
I spent some time with Maureen Seaton asking her questions about the craft and teaching of writing. Maureen Seaton has authored six poetry collections and is an associate professor of English at the University of Miami. In this interview we discuss everything from eReaders to classroom exercises. Seaton expresses how she experiences literature and how its influence colors her teaching. For Seaton, it’s important for the modern student to be immersed in literature, whatever the delivery device, because “it’s impossible to write well if someone doesn’t read.” With her decade’s experience as writer and professor Seaton takes on the creation process as well as the crucial revision process. Finally, like an amuse bouche, Seaton leaves us with a breathtaking excerpt of her latest poem.
1) What book is on your night stand right now and why?
My night stand is crying out to be rescued right now because, mid-semester, books are taking over every surface of my life, and my night stand, I’m afraid, bears a great portion of the brunt. I’ll single out two for you, though, that are occupying my brain (and night stand) at the moment—Each and Her by Valerie Martínez and The End of the World Book by Alistair McCartney. Each and Her is a cycle of short elegant poems that wrestle with the murders of over 400 women in Juarez and Chihuahua Mexico since 1993, as well as the recent suicide of the poet’s sister. It’s striking to me because it holds back emotionally in a way that is almost excruciating. Martinez braids taut threads of unthinkable death with the lyrical strand of “Our Lady of Guadalupe.” At one point in the final half of the little book, my breath caught in my throat, literally, and I found myself weeping. The End of the World Book is like a big dose of dark, dark humor. It was a gift to me from a friend at a recent writers conference, and I love that it’s about apocalypse from the perspective of a wild and witty ex-Catholic gay man. It’s McCartney’s first book, and it’s called a novel, which I also think is cool, because, to me, it’s like a fabulous abecedarium of prose poems that goes on for several hundred pages. What a genre buster. I love both of these books, and it dawns on me that I’ve been reading mostly about death this semester while teaching a course called “Poets Write History” to my grad poets. In the middle of it all, I was fortunate to hear Cornel West speak at my university. He’s been doing his usual thing lately: occupying, getting arrested, championing the radical notion of individual consciousness. He told our students and faculty that the reason we’re here on this earth is to learn how to die. I personally think there’s a lot of preparing going on these days. More than usual? I’m not certain. Either way, it can’t hurt to live, as West suggests, “more intensely and abundantly” (From the talk and also Hope on a Tightrope, Hay House, 2008).
2) How do you feel about e-readers (the Kindle, the Nook)?
I have to admit I’m open to all the new reading technology. I feel bad for any individuals in the publishing world who might lose their jobs in the fray, of course, and I love real books, but I’m more curious than worried to see where we go with all of this. I believe that readers are born and that you can’t keep them away from words whether the words are on computer screens, iPads, Kindles, cell phones, or paper. I also want to see what kind of new intellectual equilibrium is created as more people write. Just think of the hundreds of MFAs in Creative Writing programs that exist now as compared to the dozens of twenty years ago. I’m imagining all these writers—there were over 9000 at the AWP conference in Chicago this month—are creating their own new reading culture. And while many of my colleagues seem angry and frightened about losing books as we know them, I just love seeing people reading anything. The same colleagues sometimes bemoan our youth’s resistance to reading; they hold to the fact that it’s impossible to write well if someone doesn’t read. I don’t agree, at least not fully. I think the two are symbiotic, but that if we can speak, we can write and when we are encouraged to write and enjoy it and see its power, we’ll read. It seems democratic to me. It has yet to be proven, however, and I’ll be long gone before it is. Cycles take time.
3) In terms of your teaching, how do you get students to see your feedback objectively?
Honestly, I don’t think it’s possible to take feedback objectively, at least in the land of poetry. A rare student will say that s/he can do it, and therefore would prefer teacherly brutality, but I don’t buy it. I encourage my students to write poetry that comes from the gut, the heart, personal experience, and private brainstorms. Doesn’t get any more subjective than that. So I encourage them to enter into a conversation with me about their work. I like to see several poems at a time—packets of anywhere between 5 and 15 pages of work so the poems can converse with one another as well. This creates a vital space for dialogue and inquiry, a more subjective and progressive platform of discussion. Most young writers grow well this way in a classroom with other writers. When I advise a grad student on a thesis, I may ask permission to cut to the objective, since I’ve seen the work and it’s already been through several revisions—and that feels okay, then, to both teacher and student. But while the work is nascent, I assume and respect its vulnerability.
4) What is your favorite class exercise?
Always “Exquisite Corpse” or anything having to do with the surrealists. I must have played these games with my students a thousand times and I am never not amazed at the natural creative talent of human beings.
5) What writing tips do you give to your students that they ignore (at their peril)?
Well, the rhyming trap is sometimes present with my new undergrad poets. I’m referring to end rhymes with sing-song rhythms, not internal rhyme or contemporary syncopation. I don’t like to discourage any passionate impulse in a young writer, but I do try to steer them to a more natural word flow. And they sometimes get stuck in sad love world too. I value the romantics in my class, but it’s almost impossible to pull them out of the mire. They’re suffering more than I am, however, and it often ends at some point when they find a new love!
6) Is there a specific writing environment you suggest your students create for themselves?
I might suggest they read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones to help create the inner environment we all need to relax into our natural writing space. Goldberg has done more for my students with that little book than anyone else I know. She’s drawn from Allen Ginsberg’s “first thoughts” and the Buddhist principle of “beginner’s mind.” It all leads to trusting the self or trusting the process, however you want to put it. If I can help my students do that, the rest is easy.
7) Looking at your own writing, what challenges do you face when writing and how do you overcome them?
My most difficult challenge has always involved time, putting food on the table, that sort of thing: the fact that what I enjoy doing most and what I am, perhaps, best suited for, does not generate income, at least directly. I’ve dealt with this, as have most writers and artists, in various ways—some creative, some desperate, and all have worked for a time and then led me somewhere else to try something new. Basically, I feel very lucky that I don’t value things as much as time, that I can live happily with paper and pen and an active internal life, and carry my belongings in a backpack if I have to. As far as the writing itself is concerned, if I have the time and headspace, I write. I don’t always like what I write, but, eventually, it comes together. I’ve learned the trick of trust. It usually works.
8) What’s your revision process?
Very varied. I write in stream of consciousness much of the time, go back in immediately and begin to tinker. I just tinker, which I love love love to do, until it’s as perfect as I can get it. If the piece doesn’t come around, I’ll set it aside for days, weeks, even years. When a poem is finished I mourn the end of the process and look around for a new image or idea. Who wants to finish something delicious?
9) What role do you think creative writers play in society?
I’d say we see things that many folks don’t see. We notice things with all the senses, internal and external. For that reason, you might say we play the role of visionaries.
10) How did you discover your love for writing?
I’m one of those who had been writing her entire life, plotting a novel in fifth grade, winning a poetry contest in eighth grade, editing the high school newspaper, acing papers in college—then I quit school, got married young, and had two great kids. When the marriage ended after ten completely non-writing years, I rediscovered my writing, hoped to support my kids with it (ha), and was soon mortified when everything I wrote shrank before my eyes to reveal I was, at heart, a poet. I thought at the time it was a curse, and I was right. Best curse in the world.
11) Can you share a stanza of a poem in progress?
Okay, this is something I’ve been working on for a close friend. I can’t decide which couplet I prefer. I’ve been going back and forth for months. What do you think?
I love that your name has silence in it:
Bridge surrounded by water on all sides.
I love that your name has a bridge in it:
Silence surrounded by water on all sides.