I N T E R V I E W S
Inverted Syntax’s Editorial Assistant Allissa Hertz talks to Kathryn Winograd about how to balance life as a writer and a teacher, writing in the woods, and Kathryn's new book Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, which will be out March 16th and is available to order now.
Transcript of the Interview :
A: How long have you been a writer and a teacher?
K: Like so many writers, I started writing as a kid. There are so many people that have the knack or way of looking at the world. They have this language and they want to record it. I remember standing by my mom and having her type up poems that I had written or contests. I was very young then. I think I really got started more serious with writing in high school. There was this moment where this guy stood me up. I felt so bad. I went into this little pink bedroom and I was looking out. It was a very gray day and I started writing this poem. By the time I got done with the poem I felt great. Forget the guy. I felt great with the poem. So I’ve been writing for a long time. I got my BA at Ohio University in Literature and Creative Writing. Then I went to Iowa and got my MFA in Poetry. Then I went to the University of Houston and worked on my PHD in literature with a creative dissertation, which was poetry. That was for three years. I stopped for a while and ended up at DU and got my PHD there and did a creative dissertation. I started teaching at Iowa. I had a chance to be a tutor at the writing center and I loved it. I really liked being able to help people. Once I got to Houston and DU I got to teach some Creative Writing, which I like quite a bit. Then I started teaching Creative Writing workshops for various schools around here. I have taught for a lot of schools the schools in this area over the years, but I ended up at the Arapahoe Community College and started the Creative Writing program there. I developed the Writers Studio program and taught a lot of Creative Writing. Then I started teaching for Ashton University’s MFA program. I taught Poetry and Creative Non-Fiction. Now I’m at Regis University teaching for their Mile-High program, Creative Writing, Poetry, and Non-Fiction.
A: That’s awesome. That’s a lot.
K: I have taught every age. I have taught Kindergarteners. I did a book for Scholastic on stepping into poetry for teachers. I have taught 9-year-olds. I had this fabulous experience where I got to go down to the four corners with a history department at the University of Northern Colorado. They had a five-million-dollar grant when Obama was in office. We worked with the Navajo Indian teachers. My job was to teach them how to teach poetry writing to their students, so that they could write about the history of their life in context of the culture and history around them. So that was really exciting as well.
A: That sounds amazing. How do you find that balance between being a teacher and being a writer?
K: I went into teaching, because I knew I wanted to be a writer. I don’t think it’s as much about time. Though, for a while I worked for an internet company here for internet education called Real Education that become an e-college for I think three years. That was difficult, because my head was in a whole different area, very techie. But then I co-authored two books on online learning and teaching with a professor from the University of Massachusetts. Then I started writing for journals about education and technology. I think it’s not so much about time, but about the headspace. If you teach you are in the craft. You are reading the wonderful writers who are publishing all around you. You are reading craft books yourself that you can help your students with. You are reading your students work. All of that keeps you wanting to write your own stuff. It just becomes part of the daily rhythm whether you are somebody who gets up early in the morning and does that before you go off and teach or you are coming home at night and writing then. You just find space. I think for so many writers that I have talked to, they have to. I know I’m not the most pleasant person when I’m not writing. I get a little wacky. I get a little hyper, a little overly sensitive. When I’m writing and I’m deeply engrossed in a project it doesn’t really matter to me what’s going on in the world, because I’m in that space. It’s such a wonderful space to be in.
A: Like many of us in Denver, I recently saw the “Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature” exhibit at the Denver art museum. There were several paintings that he painted from the back of a boat. He was standing on the boat when he painted those scenes. Do you find yourself writing in nature? Do you physically go to the places that you are writing about?
K: I grew up on a farm. I grew up in the suburbs, but my parents had a farm in Indiana that I would go to every weekend until I was 12. I would spend my time out riding a horse, swimming in a pond, exploring creeks, and picking up all these dead things. And then we moved to a farm, so I lived on a farm. I rode on that farm. I was surrounded by our cattle, our sheep, our dogs, and our cats. My mom had promised me I could have any animal I wanted once we moved to a farm, and so I took her up on it. I spent a lot of time walking through the woods. I have a cabin now up in Phantom Canyon. The title of my last book is Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation. I am surrounded by and in nature. I write outside. I write at a table by the window. Nature is all the clichés. It brings me solace, and it brings me wisdom, and it brings me spirituality. A lot of the essays in Phantom Canyon came from short journal exercises. I would write at night after being out. I would try to remember what I’d seen. And then as I went back to them later, I realized there were images and moments I needed to develop into an essay. I think that’s how. It’s being out, it’s walking, it’s observing and just experiencing, and then coming in. And whether its writing something down in a journal or else putting it into an essay that you’re working on, all that comes together. My heart is in nature. And as for the exhibit, I love the ones of the winter woods with those houses, because they remind me of my mom and dad's farm. The landscape is so stirring and beautiful in the snow.
A: You also have a new book coming out.
K: I do. I do have a new book coming out. It's coming out in March. It's called Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children. And that is the book that started in my immersion in the area around my cabin. We had 40 acres when I did that book and I just bought 80 more. Owner carry. Gotta make those loan payments. My cabin is up by Phantom Canyon, Victor, and Cripple Creek. It's a mining area. It's beautiful. There’s Aspen trees and then there's big, high-altitude meadows. There's conifer tree, large outcroppings, and fabulous 360-degree views of Pikes Peak. And gosh, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Arkansas Valley. It's not like Aspen. It's not like Snowmass. It's a little more arid. You look at it and you're thinking, OK, well, there’s another rock, there's another tree. But as soon as you start digging down into the history of the place, you start digging down into the natural science of the place, it's amazing. It’s so rich and incredible. So those essays in Slow Arrow came from a project I did with an online journalism site. I wrote a monthly column. I use my cabin in that area as a microcosm of both the natural wonders that I've found that are out there just waiting in the world for us to discover them and of the environmental concerns that are going on. But as I wrote those, I knew that they were just placeholders. I knew that I was going to use them and that they were going to become metaphor for the human migrations that were going on in my own family. I started by actually going around the area because my mother, who was 85 at the time, she's 91 now, she came out to be with me. She left Ohio where she'd been born and raised. She wanted to be close to me because she's going blind and she was readying herself. She thought she was going to die soon. Thank goodness she has not. I don’t think she's happy about that. But here was her migration. And I had not seen her– I mean, I've seen her every year, of course, with visits, but I had not lived with her since I'd been 18, before I went off to college. And I had not been home living near her since I went off for college. And so here suddenly I was responsible for this lovely woman who now wanted me to help her in this last stage of her life. I knew that these places I took her to, the places that I saw, the physical characteristics of those places, the history of it all, all those were just such ripe metaphors for the family story I had to tell. It became an interesting process of writing the book. I had the columns, but they were focusing on the environmental issues, which has become very important to me. Then I said, OK, but I want to braid in here– weave in here– the family story, my mother's, my daughter's, the spiritual journeys I've gone on. In Creative Nonfiction and the lyric essay there's a beautiful form of the essay called the lyric essay and the braided essay. And in the braided essay, you have a series of threads that you begin to weave against each other. And I think what's so exciting with that is when you try it with threads that you think, well, how did these fit together? But as you begin to weave them, they begin to speak to each other. They become very metaphoric. And so I would take these columns and I would look for what I always tell my students are like the hot spots. You can tell it's where the little hairs on back your neck go up like there's a deeper story waiting to come here. And then I would bring in these threads and just started spacing them through the piece and seeing what seemed to work with each other. Doing that led me into new directions and new discoveries I hadn't expected to meet. It was a exciting process of writing. It was a very long process of writing. And it was very frustrating because if they didn't come easily it took me a while to figure out how they were going to fit in there. But then once I did, I could just feel it inside me. And then the writing became much easier to do.
A: I love that metaphor of hotspots. Your writing is also very poetic. You're talking about the lyric essay, which I've often had trouble distinguishing the difference between a poem and a lyric essay. And I wonder what are your thoughts on that line between genres, especially when it comes to poetry vs. nonfiction?
K: I was hoping you wouldn't ask me that question, because it’s not a very easy question. I think the first misnomer people have about the lyric essay is that they think it's just about pretty language, being very musical and very rich with metaphor, etc. But it's more than that. It's more closely connected to poetry because it works metaphorically. If you think about creative nonfiction on a broad spectrum, you have nonfiction that is leaning more towards the journalism side and then you have nonfiction that’s more towards the poetry side. Journalism side, you're going to be factual, beautiful writing, narrative, informative, everything else. You're going to tell a lot, right? I mean, I think that as a poet going into creative nonfiction, that was the hardest part for me was the telling. Poetry, you're not going to tell anything, right? You don't tell. There's this whole thing about how you reflect and I'm going to write my reflections.
But as you get closer to the lyric side of it, then that changes. There's still the telling, but maybe it's in a different way. And then there's white space where you are asking your reader to trust you and to look out how image and image may bump up against each other. And then if they can then kind of feel their way into understanding what you're writing about. There's beautiful prose that's poetic. And then there's beautiful poetry that might be a little prosy. I've read from essays or written published essays that have been, five, six, seven pages long, and people say, “oh, that was a beautiful poem.” And I’m like, well, that was five pages long and they thought it was really a poem.
Yet, you'll read these beautiful lyric essays that are collage essays where you'll have a piece here, and then you have whitespace, and then maybe something else that’s coming in, an image. And they're very poetic. And they go on for very long. I think that there's such a genre blur now that I don't think I care if I don't know what is the difference between a poem and a creative nonfiction piece? I'll tell you this, a number of years ago I was asked to write this piece for a magazine about food, about my experience with food. I couldn't figure out what to write about it. And I found this poem that hadn't worked. I just took it out of its line breaks. And I gave it to them. And they published it as an essay. It was a short essay, but it was there. I think that's the beauty of writing is that you can blur genre. So I say creative nonfiction. It's fiction. It's poetry. It's nonfiction. It's just this beautiful melding of it all. I think that's why I've fallen in love with it so much.
A: Right. I definitely have to ask that question because at Inverted the blurring of genre is something that we focus on, being able to cross that line between, is this poetry? Is that nonfiction? I think it's just such a beautiful thing.
K: It is a beautiful thing.
A: This is kind of the oddball one. But when I was doing a little research, I saw that you have done a couple of audio magazines called Shoo Fly. And these are children's magazines. Can you talk a little bit about those?
K: I studied poetry so much when I was younger. I was only writing poetry up to till in my forties when I started looking around to prose. My daughters were born when I was 30. I had twins. as I was writer, and they knew I was a writer as they grew up, and I thought, well, you know, the old cliché about sex and death? I can't really share those poems with my daughters, but I'd love to share work with them. So I started writing a bunch of children's poems, which I loved doing. I had a few of them published in Cricket Magazine, which was wonderful, because you're getting Cricket Magazine, and they have a picture somebody has written. A lot of those poems ended up in a lot of nature magazines for adults. I really don't know if I was writing children's poems or just nature poems for adults. I was never quite sure what I was doing, but I was loving it. I didn't record them. I sent them. That was an incredible experience, because they did a story of mine and they did a couple of poems where they had an actor or actress tell the story and do the poem. They had fun music so I could put it in a little cassette player, because that was a while ago, for my daughters. And there would be this fun music playing and here comes this actress. They'd have noise effects and everything. It was really fun.
A: Yeah. That sounds awesome.
K: It was awesome.
A: That’s a really cool project. As far as your writing goes, who are some of the people that have influenced you over the years? And then, in addition to that, I have the question, who are your favorite writers? This is probably going to be a little bit of the same, but maybe a little different too.
K: It is a little bit of the same. Early when I was a poet, I was influenced by Louise Gluck, a poet I just could not get out in my head. Then as I got a bit older, Jorie Graham. She has this gorgeous book called The End of Beauty, which I love. There were a lot of women poets back then that I love. As I got older, I met some other poets like Deborah Digges. She died a number of years ago, but she writes beautiful poetry. I think that poetry then ended up influencing my creative nonfiction writing. Lia Purpura is an incredible poet who writes creative nonfiction. It's amazing what she does. One of the last books I read was On Looking. It's a beautiful collection of essays. Diane Ackerman, her book, The Moon by Whale Light, just that title. I read it when the daughters were young, before I really gotten into writing creative nonfiction, but I felt so inspired by that book. It's a series of essays. She goes off on these explorations and then writes this beautiful meld of lyrical, and scientific, and narrative pieces. I just love that. Another one is Gretel Ehrlich. She did The Solace of Open Spaces. That's been so instrumental to me. Brenda Miller, I think is someone who's been a wonderful example to me of what you can do with the lyric essay. She's very much about the braided essay. So that's been wonderful. And then there's Annie Dillard. And of course, there's Terry Tempest Williams. I think I'm drawn to the writers who are very involved with nature. And then there's my cohorts know that I had it at Ashland. Jill Cristman won the AWP Award and creative nonfiction a number of years ago. She's a fabulous writer. She will have some fabulous book coming up soon. Robert Root has published about 24 books. Steven Harvey. The nice thing is that as I've gotten older, and now that I am where I am, I've had the chance to be in these MFA programs where they bring in these just these fabulous writers. I've had a chance to meet them, and get to know them, and call so many of my friends. They influence me all the time. Recently, there was a piece in The New Yorker by Michael Chabon. It was about his father dying in the hospital. It's just these individual pieces. I ended up writing a blog about it, because I was just so struck by the writing of it. I liked reading anthologies. Joyce Carol Oates, I found an older one. She did The Best American Essays of the Century. This was a little while ago. But there was this essay in there by Gerald Early called Life with Daughters: Watching the Miss America Pageant. And I just read that. It was written in 1990. That was when my daughters were born. It just blew me away. I mean, it's such a beautiful piece. And it's such an interesting piece in terms of craft, because he begins with this very everyday thing. You’re sitting with his young daughters and his wife. They have a ritual watching the Miss American Pageant. They're African American. And yet then he goes from there into this incredible, searing analysis of racism in America at that time. That's what I find so exciting about creative nonfiction. I can begin with this doorknob right here on this door and God knows where I'll end up if I do it right. And that's the beauty of creative nonfiction for me and of the writers that I like so much.
A: Right, those strands that you were talking about that don’t seem to connect.
K: That's right.
Kathryn Winograd, writer@9600ft, is the author of Phantom Canyon: Essays of Reclamation, an INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award Finalist, and Air Into Breath, a Colorado Book Award winner in Poetry and Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, a collection of essays forthcoming from Saddle Road Press (March 2020.) Her essays have been notable in The Best American Essays and her poetry has received three Pushcart Prize nominations and a Special Pushcart Prize Mention as well as won the Chautauqua Literary Journal’s Poetry contest on War and Peace and the Writers Digest Annual Writing Competition for non-rhyming poetry. Winograd’s essays and poems have published widely in journals such as Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and Hotel Amerika and Cricket magazine and The New Yorker. She currently teaches poetry and creative nonfiction for Regis University’s Mile-High MFA program.