Thursday, October 11, 2012

Interview with Finishing Line Poet David Ebenbach

One of the pleasures of being a Finishing Line Poet is having the opportunity to connect with others. In this case, I’m happy to have gotten to know a local author, David Ebenbach. Thank you to David for answering some questions about his writing and writing life. As a poet, fiction and craft author, he offers a unique perspective on the art.

David Ebenbach was born and raised in the great city of Philadelphia, home of America’s first library, first art museum, first public school, and first zoo, along with David’s very first stories and poems, although those early efforts went on to become (deservedly) less famous than, for example, the zoo. Since then he’s lived in Ohio, Wisconsin, Philadelphia again, New York, New Jersey, Indiana, and Ohio again, picking up some education (formal and otherwise) along the way, and he now lives very happily in Washington, D.C. His poetry, fiction, and essays have been published in a wide variety of magazines, and in collections of fiction (Between Camelots, and, forthcoming, Into the Wilderness), poetry (Autogeography, forthcoming), and essays (The Artist’s Torah, forthcoming). David has received fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center and an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council.

You have been publishing fiction and nonfiction. This is your first poetry chapbook. As a teacher of prose and poetry, I find that the genres overlap more than bookstore shelves or most class descriptions would suggest. What do you find that’s similar in your poetry and prose writing process?

That’s a great question! I agree with you. I do think it’s relevant that I write short fiction rather than novels, because stories feel (to me) a lot more like poems than novels do. For me, poems and stories are really about finding significance and power and drama in small moments, everyday things, whereas a novel seems to be about accumulating significance and power over a lengthy series of moments and things, building and building and building. I think that’s a cool thing to do, but I’m more interested in zooming in on a single striking event than in building on it to something else. Poems and short fiction are both good for that.

But they’re not the same thing, of course. I think of it as a matter of emphasis; in my prose there’s going to be more of an emphasis on narrative, on story, whereas in my poetry there’s going to be more of an emphasis on imagery and language. The line between them can be hard to find (I teach a class where we try to find the line, and it’s always hard), but I’ve had a few experiences where I’ve been revising a poem and struggling to get it right and suddenly I’ve realized that it really needs to be a short story (or vice versa, a story needing to be a poem), and in those cases that’s been the turning point, switching forms. It changes the way I think about the piece; it might shift my focus from narrative to imagery, say, and maybe that’s what I need to be focusing on to make the piece work. That’s why I like having both options—they’re two different ways of handling somewhat similar things, and sometimes you need one, and sometimes you need the other.

I’m also looking forward to reading The Artist’s Torah. What creative techniques from that book did you use when you were writing Autogeography?

I wrote The Artist’s Torah mainly to dig deep into the purpose of the creative process. I mean, the book’s got a pretty big interest in practical concerns— how to determine what you need to work on next, what to do when you’re blocked, how to approach and wrestle with the rules and traditions of your artistic discipline, how to revise, when to take the day off, etc.—but above all I think the book is about the bigger questions of what we do and why we do it. I wrote it in large part to keep those questions in front of me. It helped me to remember that this process is about discovering what really matters to you and to the world, and writing (or painting, etc.) about those things; it reminded me that the creative life is a life of sharp attentiveness to the beauty and the brokenness all around us; that it’s about engaging with the unknown, about uncovering and talking about truth. I definitely tried to write with all that in mind (or somewhere deeper than the mind, maybe) when I was writing the poems in Autogeography.

You’ve attended a number of writing residencies. What did you take away from them that you’ve been able to integrate into your “everyday life” away from the residencies?

Boy—I find that it’s really hard to bring the residency home with me. The amazing thing about those opportunities is just how impossibly un-everyday they are; you write all day long, and someone cooks your meals for you and keeps everything neat and clean, and you’re surrounded by artists. You have no responsibilities except to your writing. It’s so far removed from real life, where you’ve got all kinds of chores to do, and whatever your paid job is, and you’re surrounded by people who aren’t totally sure what this whole writing thing is about. I’ve heard other artists refer to coming home as “re-tox.” But it’s not as desperate as all that, of course. First of all, in my case, my little family is pretty wonderful and also supportive. And the relationships that you develop during residencies—those stay with you, and that’s unbelievably important. You find—and hold on to—like-minded people who root for you and your work, who are happy to give you feedback on what you’re doing (and you’re happy to do the same for them), who (along with the other important people in your life) just help you feel like you’re on track, doing the right thing with your life. The most important things I’ve taken away from those residencies are, without a doubt, the poems and stories I’ve written and the relationships I’ve begun.

Autogeograph is available for pre-order from Finishing Line Press.

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