Tuesday, January 8, 2013

eighteen: katrina vandenberg and john reimringer

 Katrina Vandenberg is the author of Atlas and co-author of the chapbook, On Marriage. Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in The Southern Review, The American Scholar, Orion, Post Road, Poets and Writers, and other magazines. She has received fellowships from the McKnight, Bush, and Fulbright Foundations; been a Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference; and held residencies at the Amy Clampitt House, the Poetry Center of Chicago, and the MacDowell Colony. She teaches in The Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and lives four blocks from campus with her husband, novelist John Reimringer, and their daughter Anna.

 A former newspaper editor and a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, John Reimringer lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota, with his wife, the poet Katrina Vandenberg. Vestments is his first novel.

Tell us about your relationship to your art.

KV: I had a magical first-grade teacher, Mr. MacDonald. He was a former opera singer and Fulbright fellow, and he believed that children were capable of learning difficult concepts. He taught us songs in French, and complex math using abacuses. He also taught us to use the ITA, the Initial Teaching Alphabet. ITA is a now-defunct education fad, and there are lots of downsides to it, but the up side is that even a five-year-old can write long stories using its symbols, right away. When I think of the best part of my relationship to writing, I think of him. Nothing’s hard if you’re playing.

JR: Katrina dealt with beginnings, I’m going to deal with the present. My relationship to my art is at arm’s length right now. I’m absorbed in our 14-month-old daughter, Anna, and absolutely enjoying her, and I don’t feel any particular need to work on my next novel at the moment. I will, maybe even soon, but at some point in this first year I was not writing it and feeling guilty about it. It was affecting my enjoyment of being a parent, and so I made a conscious decision to set novel writing (or the guilt about not doing it) aside for the moment. And instead I’m working on a screenplay of my first novel, which is creative, but not so much generative.

What's a project (yours or another's) that has been exciting you lately?

KV: It’s lyric essay. I can’t talk about it yet. Right now, it feels like a good secret. I also don’t want to talk about it because it’s going to take me a while to finish it — in addition to being a mother, I teach full-time. Those two endeavors, plus supporting my husband in his work, eat all of the energy I have and then some.

In general, I’m really excited by lyric essay and the hybrid forms that poetry and creative nonfiction are taking on. There’s so much great new writing. I’ve loved John D’Agata’s anthologies, the work of Eula Biss, Lia Purpura’s On Looking, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets.

JR: I’m co-writing a screenplay based on my first novel, Vestments. I’m working with a local guy who splits his time between here and LA, and has written, directed, and produced indies, made-for-TV, and a couple of Hollywood features. He’s very serious about mentoring me as a screenwriter, and I’ve really enjoyed working with him and in the new form. Movies seem like a big form, but really a screenplay is a very tight space in which to fit a novel, so one has to make all kinds of decisions as to what stays and what goes, what will best move the story forward, and so forth. I think the entire process is making me a better novel writer.

Tell us a little of your motherhood / fatherhood journey.

KV: I wanted children with my first partner, Tim — we were together from the time I was 20 until I was 23 — but he had hemophilia and was HIV positive, and he refused. He was probably right. He didn’t want to infect a child or me. He didn’t want to bring into the world a child he wouldn’t live to raise. Those children, if we’d had them, would be in college now.

I was 36 when my husband and I started trying to have a child, and I miscarried three times and had to have surgery before I could carry our daughter Anna. Do we ever love that little girl! Now we both would have loved it if we had started a family sooner. But what can I say? She is the child who came when the time came, and we rejoice for her.

I’m not explicit about all this in my new book, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, but you can see flashes, if you look. Anna was born shortly before the book went to press, and it was a fun coincidence that the cover has a big letter A on it; our friend Michael saw it and quipped, “A is for Anna.” His remark’s the dedication.

JR: Absolutely. I’ve just published my first novel, just really settled into a teaching career at Normandale Community College. Just fathered a child. I wish I’d been able to accomplish all of those things earlier, but I couldn’t be happier than I am at the moment, so it was all worth the wait.

What are some crucial elements of your process?  How has that changed since having children?

KV: I always loved having solitary time for my thoughts to meander. That kind of time no longer exists in my life. It’s frustrating. Some days, I can hear a poem in my head all day long, and can’t stop to receive it. On the other hand, I’ve never felt more creatively awake.

I write when I can, sometimes a manic three minutes’ worth of notes while Anna is tugging on my shirt and saying, “Read!” If I sit down with my notebook and my coffee in the morning, I have no idea whether I’ve got two minutes or an hour. The result, so far, is that I have nothing that feels polished or finished. But I do have a haphazard bunch of drafts to tear into, when the time comes. I write the drafts so fast and fierce I don’t remember writing them, so when I find them in my notebook later, it’s as if someone else wrote them. That’s exciting.

I wish that I could say: Yes, I did this, and look how well it worked! The truth is, I don’t know what will happen with that pile of messy pages. Which makes it no different than writing ever is, I guess.

JR: Procrastination has always been crucial to my process, in both teaching and writing. What I’ve found so far with a child is that she’s a great motivation not to procrastinate. If I’ve got a stack of papers to grade, and we’ve got childcare or it’s Katrina’s turn to watch Anna, I sit down and do it with no hesitation or fuss because that window’s only going to be open for so long. You don’t leave anything until the last minute, because with a child in your life, they may need you in that last minute. So, even though I haven’t been writing in this past year, I’m looking forward to the moment I decide I’m ready to return to it, because I think these lessons in seizing the moment are going to be very useful and liberating.

What are some of the ways your family and your art interact?

JR: At four months old, Anna sat on my knee one afternoon in the Hilton lounge bar at the AWP conference in Chicago and she and short-story writer Alan Heathcock took turns screaming at one another. Is that what you mean?

KV: My family has always appeared in my work, but it’s not really “them” – mostly, something personal serves as a trigger for a bigger idea, in the way personal essay fans out. You can see this in both my books, but especially the more recent. It’s nice to live with a writer, because John gets it.

Once, on my way to a reading, I was practicing poems aloud as John drove. I read the poem “On Marriage.” We then hatched a plan: during the open mic, he would get up, clear his throat, and announce “On Marriage: A REPLY.” Then he would scream, WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME, KATRINA?! I HAD TO PUT THE PLASTIC ON THE WINDOWS! EVERYTHING IS NOT A MOMENT! We laughed so hard I thought we’d crash.

Do you find your attitude towards your art might be different because of your parenting / has it changed since you became a parent?
KV: I watch Anna struggle all day, every day, at something like getting applesauce in her mouth with a spoon. She tries and tries. She fails and fails. Then, one day, I realize she is holding her spoon in such a way that the applesauce is going into her mouth, or she’s crawling, or whatever, and I remember once again that trying and falling short is the norm. I had my daughter late, so I spent half my life in the squeaky-clean and shiny adult world; how refreshing to really know again, with my body, that life and art are usually messy, with results that often aren’t the ones I planned on. I’m much kinder to myself as an artist because of her.

JR: I’d second that. Moreover, following Anna through the world, both literally and intellectually, pulls me in all sorts of directions I wouldn’t go on my own. I’ve spent more time sitting on the floor or on the grass in the backyard in the last year than in my entire adult life. I’ve learned to play “Do, Re, Mi” on the xylophone. I’m not sure exactly how all of this will affect my writing, but it certainly will, in ways I’ve yet to see unfold. And that unfolding will only continue as Anna grows and her interests multiply.

Are your children ever subjects in your art? 

KV: I think I address this in the question above, about how my family and art interact. I’ll add that writing about one’s child is tricky, because there’s an inherent power imbalance. It’s one thing to write about pregnancy, or motherhood, or fertility, and another to write about her attempting to make her way through the world.

JR: There will be more children appearing in the next book. Vestments is about a young priest doubting his vocation, and part of his doubt is that he wonders about having children. Fancy that. So part of the next book is going to be about characters dealing with parenthood. But it won’t be so much Anna in the book, as simply the experience of parenthood and permutations of that. In part because people in novels tend to have some serious dysfunctions, and I hope our family is more functional than the people I’m going to be writing.

How does travel figure into your art?  Do/did your children come along?  How has that worked out?

KV: We don’t travel much now. Once, we left Anna for two days with a nanny, for a conference. We brought wine glasses and our writing stuff with us, but all we did with our free time was sleep. We also took Anna to Chicago for the AWP conference, but spent most of our time in the hotel room, because the crowds at the bookfair freaked her out. Both my books were deeply inspired by fellowships elsewhere — in the Netherlands, in the Berkshires. We’re still working this one out.

JR: Like so much else, I’m looking forward to traveling with Anna and seeing the ways showing her the world—and following her through it—broadens the experience. As with the writing, this past year hasn’t been a convenient time for travel, and I’m perfectly okay with that. Except for a trip to friends’ cabin in Wisconsin last New Year’s, and the writing obligations Katrina mentioned, we haven’t been out of the city limits overnight in the past year. I’ve never been so rooted in a place, and at the same time have never had my mind stretched in so many directions.

What about promoting the arts with your own children--any fun projects to share?  

KV: She’s still pretty little. She does love looking at a book of Renoir paintings from her friend Gretchen. I try not to wish her any older, but imagine in our future there’s libraries, museums, foreign travel, concerts. . . .

JR: Not yet. But even though it seems as if Katrina and I have had no time to read in the last year, we must do enough to have made an impression. Books are Anna’s favorite pastime. She likes to get cozy on the couch and be read to. She likes to sit on the floor and thumb through her board books by herself. She has a one-syllable title for each of her books, and she brings them to us saying “House” (The House in the Night) or “Moon” (Good Night Moon) or “Jam” (Jamberry). Needless to say, we’re keeping well-hidden our copy of Go the Fuck to Sleep.

How do you escape?

KV:  The best escape is getting up before anyone else, when the house is dark and my head is clear. The spell lasts until someone else wakes up, or I make the mistake of checking my e-mail. Or taking a walk, which can be done under the guise of running errands. I sneak books again, like I did when I was little. I’ve pretended to be walking a book back to the neighborhood library and instead stood behind the garage, in the alley, reading. Now the secret’s out.

JR: I’ve always been a night person, and have fought all my life to be a morning person. I love the early morning, perhaps because I see it so rarely. And I feel like morning people are more virtuous than I am. (I’m certain Katrina is more virtuous than I am, even if she does sneak books in the alley.) But, as with so many things, having a kid around has forced me to take a straight look at myself, and the fact is that if I’m going to get creative work done in the near future, it’s going to be after Anna goes to bed.

What advice do you have for expectant mothers / fathers in your field?

KV: 1. You’ve added a full-time job to your life, so you can’t do everything the way you did before. Be patient and realistic.

2. Your e-mail inbox is a to-do list created by other people. You don’t always have to get on that train.

3. Your writing is worth the cost of child care, and often makes you a better parent.

4. Taking notes for later counts.

5. Chekhov said, “If you want to work on your art, work on your life.” You will.

JR: The child is an opportunity. Remember that in art, restriction forces your creativity in new directions—the restrictions that dramatic structure puts on a novel, for instance, or choosing to write a sonnet puts on a particular poem. Form in art is a restriction that forces creativity. If you choose to have a child, you’ve chosen to add a new form to your life. Be open to the opportunities your choice will create. I should follow my own advice.

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