Rebecca Stafford is the author of Fair Copy (Ohio State University Press, 2012), winner of the 2011 Ohio State University Press / The Journal Award in Poetry, and Vow, from Cleveland State University Press. She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison Creative Writing Institute and winner of the “Discovery” / Boston Review 2012 Poetry Contest. In 2014, she won a Pushcart. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The New Yorker, and Best American Poetry 2013 and 2015.
"Sonic Effects," An Interview with Rebecca Stafford
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Addison Rizer. Of the process she said, “Rebecca Stafford and Alan Michael Parker’s anthology, The Manifesto Project, delves into the minds of authors and the reason for their writing. It’s a fantastic idea, executed beautifully, threaded with creative manifestos and poetry.” In this interview, Rebecca Hazelton talks about co-editing an anthology, external influences on presentation, and what she wants readers to find in her writing.
Superstition Review: Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. While reading The Manifesto Project , I found the difference between each manifesto made every section refreshing and unique. It really speaks to creativity as both an individual and a communal experience. In the introduction, you also say these manifestos are a “responses to current circumstance” and that they’re written with built in expiration dates. With that in mind, can you talk about how your personal manifesto has changed since you started writing?
Rebecca Stafford: I think the biggest difference for me as a writer is that I now think about the possibility of a manifesto at all – that is, when I was a beginning writer I was mostly concerned about building my writer’s toolkit and refining my skills. As I’ve become more fluent in writing, I’m freer to think more about why I’m writing poems at all, and what I think poetry can do.
SR: Going from over 115 entries down to 45 had to have been difficult. Can you talk about the selection process? What was it like working with Alan during this time? Can you talk about the collaboration in general? What’s it like co-editing an anthology like this?
RS: I think whenever you’re screening work as an editor, it helps to be looking for something to wow you rather than something to reject. That might seem like a minor shift in outlook, but it makes for a more generous reading experience. You can always find problems in anything. I think Alan Michael Parker and I very much wanted to be wowed and surprised, and luckily found a wealth of poets willing to do just that. It was challenging because there is so much strong work out there from talented people, and we spent more than one video chat debating the pieces and how they would fit into the anthology as a whole. We were always conscious that we wanted the anthology to represent a broad range of viewpoints and voices. I think the fact that Alan Michael and I are from different generations really contributed to that impulse as well.
Before this project, I had never co-edited an anthology, and I didn’t really understand what I was getting into! We completed the project over two years, which I hear is fast for something of this size. I was grateful to have a supportive partner in this, both for his experience and for his encouragement. Alan Michael is a delight to work with because he’s whip-smart, has a terrifying amount of knowledge about contemporary poets in his head, and has an eye for detail while still maintaining big picture awareness. We screened submissions separately then came together via numerous video chats over months to talk about the pieces. Once we accepted the pieces, we passed proposed edits back and forth and then video chatted further. Although we couldn’t be together in person, the video chats meant that we were always aware of each other’s vocal tones and body language, the subtleties that can get lost if you’re just writing each other – the editing process always stayed personal and human, which I hope was reflected in our correspondence with authors and our devotion to presenting their work in the best possible light.
SR: Tyler Mill’s manifesto says, “The poet should think of the reader as someone who has decided to walk next to the poet for a time and listen.” Can you talk about how you see the relationship between reader and writer? What do you think about the idea of the relationship, as Tyler says, as two people walking side by side?
RS: I like her idea, because it speaks to the collaborative aspect of writing and reading – the poet gives the reader certain parameters, and the reader creates a world within them. It’s a world that can’t happen without a certain openness on each side. The reader has to want to listen, but the poet has to think about how that reader might receive their words.
SR: You’ve collaborated on a poetry book as well, with No Girls No Telephones co-authored with Brittany Cavallaro. How is collaborating with poetry writing different from editing collaboratively?
RS: With Brittany Cavallaro, I was incredibly lucky to be living in the same apartment complex in Madison, WI, and was already friends with her. So often we could just meet up for several hours and pass our work back and forth. One of us would start with a Berryman poem and then write its “opposite” -- I’ve seen this process referred to as antonymic translation. Then the other would take that opposite and write an opposite of that poem. Our process always took us somewhere weird and strange while retaining the structure of Berryman’s syntax. Whether writing or editing collaboratively, you are trying to create something new with another person. Editing, however, asks you to engage analytically in a way which is fairly foreign to my own method of creative composition, and I feel comfortable addressing a disagreement about analytical concerns in ways I would hesitate to do so for creative work.
SR: You said you’re working on a new project called Gloss. What can you share about the project?
RS: I’m still feeling it out in many ways, but the poems deal with self-representation, particularly women’s. The book is divided into Adaptations, Counterfeits, and Self-Portraits -- the ways in which our presentation to the world is often determined by external factors.
SR: In an interview with Compose Journal, you say part of your writing process is keeping stacks of poetry books around you. What books would we see in those stacks? Can you describe how you interact with those books as you work?
RS: Lately I’ve had Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Rebecca Lindenberg’s Love, an Index, some Carl Phillips because I always have some Carl Phillips around, and Louise Gluck’s Vita Nova, which I’ve been particularly looking at because it’s such a spare book, and so perfect in many ways in terms of what it wants to do. Poetry books are getting longer and longer, and while I admire the ambition of these books, I sometimes prefer a really tight, lean book of poems.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
RS: It’s clean right until I start writing and then it’s just a disaster. The aforementioned piled books are present on my desk. There’s usually a cushion for my cat to sleep on in hopes that the cat will leave me alone for five minutes. My computer is open and the cord is wrapped in electrical tape to keep it from fraying further. There is a ceramic Lucky Cat that has been broken and repaired. A collection of sit-arounds gathered in my grandmother’s cut glass tray. My desk is in front of a window that looks down into my backyard and beyond that, a playground. I listen to kids yell and they sound like seagulls.