Interview with Barbara Yoder, 1992 (excerpts)

Do you feel it’s essential to keep a regular writing schedule? Why or why not? What happens when you don’t write? 

I do feel it’s important, though I have difficulty keeping to any schedule for long. Partly, it’s work that interrupts me. Partly, it’s me and the fear of accomplishing too little. It’s easier to do those things for which I’m being paid or which show results immediately, like writing memos or mowing the grass. But, regular writing keeps me feeling connected to whatever’s real in me, so when I’m not writing, I feel incomplete, unobservant, something like slothful.

How do your writing and other work come together? How do your other pursuits support and/or detract from your writing? 

I teach writing and literature, which on the one hand feeds my writing directly (and keeps me aware of standards), but it also acts in some way as a buffer between me and the world, keeping the latter at some distance from me and my work.

Have you struggled with the need to write and your basic survival–the need to eat, pay bills, etc. If so, how do you reconcile this struggle? 

It wasn’t much of a struggle. I wanted to write poems, but having grown accustomed to eating, I knew right away that something would have to get in the way. So, I chose a profession that I thought would help me a little as a writer, namely, teaching English. So, I got a Ph.D. and went to work. It has helped my writing to be an English teacher, but the greater truth is that teaching English is a job and it largely gets in the way of writing. But I do have the summers free.

Thomas Mann has said, “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” What have your difficulties been with writing? 

Making myself do it. Being regular about it. Writing poems is so often a frustrating experience that you can easily get into a frame of mind where you’d rather do anything than run the risk of writing more drivel. The hardest thing for me to accept about writing is that it is naturally inefficient. It is natural to have to wade hip-deep through swamps of inexact, ineffective writing to get to–what?–whatever wonderful thing that lives in a swamp.

Was there ever a period when you could not write because something inside stopped you from expressing yourself? What stopped you? How did you move past this block? 

This may be a bad tactic, but when I’m stuck, I just force myself to write–some way, any way. I have a little six-line stanza (complete with its own tone of voice) that I trot out in “emergencies.” I also have a journal, in fact two at the moment. I also think the question presumes that a writer should know ahead of time what he or she is going to write about. If I had to write that way, I’d be blocked a great deal. I write to find out what I need to write about. There’s a lot of waste in that but never much in the way of blockage.

Do you have tips for beginners on how to overcome small blocks? What do you do when you’re stuck? 

Try to let go of control, even if it means looking/ sounding/ feeling silly. Luckily, poets can sometimes make use of such material.

What are some of the things that people have said to you about writing that have impeded your work? 

Nothing (as in getting nothing on a rejection slip but the printed euphemism).

“If I were talking to a young writer,” John Berryman has said, “I would recommend the cultivation of extreme indifference to both praise and blame because praise will lead you to vanity, and blame will lead you to self-pity, and both are bad for writers.” What impact have public acclaim and criticism had on your work? 

Praise may lead to vanity, but good and significant praise–awards, say–energize and validate me. Bad or indifferent reviews, if they’re bad enough, can be dismissed. Plausible criticism makes one think. I like what Kingsley Amis once said about a bad review, something like, “It might make for an unpleasant breakfast, no more.”

How do you nurture an idea into a creative piece? Do you meditate on it? Tiptoe around it and then plunge in? 

More often than not, my writings–poems and essays–are writings in which one part talks to another part. Having said one thing requires that another be said in response. In that sense, my writings, however they start, come to be somehow self-referential or internally dependent on themselves.

When you are “between” projects, what kind of writing do you do–that is, how do you keep up the practice? 

Exercise, letters, new poems. Poems tend not to come as “projects” (though some have), so I seem always “between,” always carrying around 10-15 unfinished poems, some of which never do get finished.

Do you use writing exercises to get you going? If so, what are your favorite exercises? 

One year I devised a form to write in when other things wouldn’t work. A six-line stanza of iambic pentameter. After a while, these exercises took on a tone and life of their own, and I now have a book-length manuscript of them, [which came out in 2001 under the title, Savage Baggage].

Matthew Fox writes: “Creativity is not about painting a picture or producing an object; it is about wrestling with the demons and angels in the depths of our psyches and daring to name them, to put them where they can breathe and have space and we can look at them. This process of listening to our images and birthing them allows us to embrace our ‘enemies’–that is, the shadow side of ourselves–as well as to embrace our biggest visions and dreams.” Does this notion resonate with you? 

Fox’s notion is typical, it seems, of an age which has valorized the separate, individual unconscious as much as we do. All ideas are historically specific, and that one “spells” a post-Freudian age like ours as clearly as any I know. What the quote doesn’t acknowledge is that a poem (or a story, for that matter) is an artifact made by a writer. Once upon a time, a poet was called a “maker,” specifically a maker of poems. He was not thought of as “wrestling with demons and angels in the depths of [his] psyche.” He was an anonymous ballad writer or a stonemason adding a carving to a cathedral. What has intervened between these two notions of the artist is the invention of the individual. Which, to speak for myself, is not wholly a bad thing, just sometimes a distraction.