"If Writing Poetry is Your Passion? Just Write."
Lisa Zaran, American poet, essayist and the author of six collections; her poems have appeared in hundreds of literary journals, magazines, broadsides, anthologies and e-zines. Lisa is the founder and editor of Contemporary American Voices.
Interview by Carol Smallwood
Please describe your website and your duties as editor/writer.
Contemporary American Voices was created in the late evening hours of December 2006. As a writer who has submitted primarily online, I wanted to establish a place for poets I felt truly loved not only the craft of poetry but the music of language. My hope was and still is to create a space that is consistent, trusted and tasteful. A place where writers can proudly have their work displayed, where other writers and readers can discover voices with poignancy. My own life has been positively altered when I discovered a writer that was able to say something in such a way that caused me to shut up and pay attention.
In the beginning I invited poets I admired, poets I wanted to hear more from, writers that articulated their thoughts into vision. CAV went live on January 1st, 2007 and published monthly through January 2013. The journal, unfortunately, went on hiatus, unexpectedly in February 2013. Without going into minute detail, life events took precedence and CAV simmered on a back burner. I re-established CAV in April of this year and the response has been significantly positive. My hope lives on and I plan to publish monthly, on time on schedule with some of the best writing to be found.
Duties as an editor, well, that’s easy. I read the submissions that come in unsolicited. I give my time and attention to each individual submission, each individual writer. I read the biographies and I especially pay attention to the opening hello, those short introductions that give me a glimpse into the person behind the poem.
Duties as a writer is a little tougher to detail. I write when I can. I think more than I write and I can’t write as quickly as I think, but I try.
Tell us about your own work as a writer.
I have been attracted to poetry since childhood. I don’t know why as a child poetry moved me, but it did, I felt a connection to the language, the music in poems. I used to write anonymously for years. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties when I took the plunge and started submitting pieces I’d written. Those first few acceptances are what turned the page for me. I grew wings then and began submitting anything and everything I felt meant something. Most was rejected for various reasons, a few were accepted and that’s what kept me going. This is a vicious circle. It still holds true today. Often times I’m surprised what has been accepted, for instance, a piece that took me two minutes to scribble out. A piece that took me weeks is rejected over and over again. It doesn’t stop me. I write what I want to write regardless of an audience, although audiences are nice. It used to be very important to me to have a “book”. I wanted that credit. Now, it is not as important to me. I feel that now at this point in my life I’m back to how it was when I first wrote. I’m that pre-teen sitting in her bedroom writing away without a soul as witness but it feels right.
Trust your voice, hone how you portray your words. If you’re in the middle of a strong emotion write write write it out.
What writers have influenced you the most?
This is a loaded question. It often depends on where I’m at with my reading. I can say with absolute certainty that I was heavily influence by James Whitcomb Riley as a child, a favorite poem “He’s Just Away”. I will always adore Fernando Pessoa, Goethe, Bob Dylan. I discover daily writing that makes me stop in my tracks, from a song on the radio to an undiscovered author at the library. I find writers in people I encounter on a daily basis. They may not be writers but their language makes them a natural to me. I go through many phases. I can give you a list that would be unending here and my mind spins just thinking about it. I have also been heavily influenced by music, something I am so inept at, but that interests me to the degree I call musicians writers.
How has the Internet benefited you?
Enormously. My own writing as reached places and people that it may never had if it weren’t for the internet. When the digital age started really coming into fruition I was wholly onboard. My own work has been translated into multiple languages, been displayed in museums in other countries, performed in theatre groups, incorporated into translation courses in schools, turned into songs and performed by musicians in places I’ve never been, brought me invitations to speak in colleges across the country and into other countries. To be honest, it is invigorating but it can also be frightening. The internet attracts both the true and the truly questionable. I’ve had work plagiarized because of having it available online. For the most part, I’ve had great experiences and have made connections that I hope to maintain.
What classes have helped you the most?
I have never taken courses on writing, if that is what is meant by this question, although I adored my high school literature teacher, Mr. Jacobsen. Life has assisted me the most, life experiences to be precise. Reading has been my greatest asset. I will always be a thinker first. Reading is extremely important to me. Writing is something I do and it always surprises me when I get a generous response. It’s almost as if I am putting something “out there”, like the world is my personal diary and when I receive a response it surprises me, but in a very good way. I smile and try.
What advice would you give others?
If writing poetry is your passion? Just write. Read a lot, listen to those you trust but most importantly trust yourself, trust your own voice. Do not be indifferent to others’ advice. You’ll be amazed by how much other people know. Don’t judge, don’t criticize. Trust your voice, hone how you portray your words. If you’re in the middle of a strong emotion write write write it out. Let it rest. Then revise. Trust your intuition. If you know something is right, it’s right. READ. Research. Discover. Everyone has a story, every life is a poem.
Carol Smallwood's over four dozen books include Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, on Poets & Writers Magazine list of Best Books for Writers.