S. Whitaker is a high school creative writing teacher, a published author, a blogger, and a Figment user. We sat down to talk with him about a bunch of topics, including his newest book, The Black Narrows; his poem-a-day project; and his favorite words. Want to know what it takes to get a book published, as told by a Figment user? Keep reading to find out!
Tell us how you got started writing on Figment.
Teaching at a small rural high school allows me to wear many hats, including “Creative Writing Teacher.” Over the years I have had the luxury of recruiting the best writers from Pocomoke High School into a very small group, usually ten students or less, where the students workshop poems, stories, or whatever they are working on. I’ve worked with some talented creative minds over the years. Last year, when I was beating the bushes for potential students, I was exposed to Figment, and was encouraged by my students to join. I decided to make Figment a home for my quotidian project, which is a project where one writes a new poem a day for a year.
How did you get from your poem-a-day project to getting a book published?
Doing something everyday roots you. Our culture used to have to do lots of things daily just to live. Now it is reduced to checking your email, eating, checking into our social networks.
David Poyer, a best selling naval fiction/adventure novelist, is an acquaintance of mine and he champions a rigorous 2000 word a day regimen. He has to in order to write as many fat novels as he does. On the other hand when I worked with Robert Pinsky at Boston University he would always tease us with “you don’t have to write everyday” or something of the like, steering our young minds in the direction of quality not quantity. A few years ago HA Maxson, a Mid Atlantic poet, underwent a quotidian project and I had the pleasure of listening to him read from the cycle and I thought “I could do this.” One poem a day? That would be fun.
I try to keep that in mind as I reach the finish line of this quotidian project. Keep it fun. Play with language. It’s my craft. Try something new.
During the course of the year I wrote a lot of “cycles,” or poems about the same subject matter, parenting, movies, alien abduction poems, a series of poems about a pair of siblings doomed to a life of drugs and alcohol abuse, poems about the Star Wars universe, poems about the Beatles, poems about beautiful sociopaths, etc. There are quite a few arson poems, for my little corner of the world was “terrorized” by a serial arsonist over several months and I found that to be a fascinating flashpoint for poetry. Eventually I found myself writing about this steampunk do-it-yourself black market community, Black Narrows, that existed in the late 19th/early 20th century, built on the marsh. There were communities like this in my neck of the woods. Communities where commercial watermen would police their own oyster beds and kill anyone trying to rob them. The image of a lone shack on stilts in the middle of an expansive saltwater marsh made my mind race with possibilities and voices. I like the idea that on the edge of the America there existed this place where you could be anything you wanted to be, live a life that you wanted, if you chose to live by the very harsh rules of the environment. There’s a baker who buries his victims in the marsh, a tavern mistress who runs the opium market, kids dealing with their alcoholic parents, hurricanes, a virus that wipes out a small salvaging operation, and in all of these “stories” was the challenge of connecting them to a larger meaning, so to speak, and making them poetic.
I sent a few of the poems to Jamie Brown, writer and editor of The Broadkill Review, and publisher of The Broadkill Press and The Broadkill River Press, and he offered to publish them in his literary journal, and then asked me if I’d be interested in publishing a chapbook of poems about Black Narrows for their key poetry series. I’m lucky, and grateful.
How does being a teacher affect your writing?
I do learn from my students. Teachers say this sort of thing all the time, and it is true. I get to be excited about writing and literature all over again. And I hear about all the new YA books out there. My other job is being a critic and reviewer for the National Book Critics Circle, and between reviewing books and teaching literature and writing I keep my own garden green, so to speak.
One of my favorite things to do is to introduce a new writer to a young person who is passionate about storytelling and writing. I’m surprised at how few young readers have read Stephen King, for example, or Sylvia Plath. There’s so many great voices for young readers to explore, for example Erin Belieu is fun for her dark, rock n roll poetics, Frank Bidart’s character monologues will devastate you, and seeing a reader’s reaction to a way a writer approaches a subject is like reading it for the first time all over again.
In a practical sense, teaching allows me to connect with the same works of literature over time. When I read Macbeth every year I get something new out of it. Same with Raisin in the Sun, or August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, Plath’s “Daddy,” or Beowulf. As a writer I learn from the greats; I literally find a new passage every time I re-read novels, plays and poems that inspire me to “dialogue” with those texts by borrowing from them, if not their ideas, their language. My relationship with dead authors in the Western canon has grown tremendously since I have been a teacher, and that’s not a bad thing.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Revise. Revise. Revise. Look for opportunities to take with the piece. Every story you write will set up a different set of rules for you to follow or break. If you are a writer who doesn’t develop plot well then your opportunity is to try to set up a plot, in the best way you know how. If you are a writer who doesn’t write dialogue well, then your challenge is to write dialogue.
Most of the poems I’ve published on Figment are drafts. If you are looking for a little Schadenfreude look no farther than many of my drafts. I’ve published as many failures as successes this year. Writing a new poem after working all day, doing homework with my own two children, finding time to be an attentive husband, feeding the cat, doing chores, volunteering my time, is not an easy task. The fun, and the real work will be to revise them.
Sam Cornish, a poet, told me that I had a subject, the rural south and all that goes with it. He told me to explore it. Young writers from the rural south do not recognize their own subject, and that their perspective on living in the middle of nowhere is valuable. There’s a ton of mystery and a ton of mythologies to explore in your own background. Go explore them.
Robert Pinsky told us to keep our idioms and diction consistent, and it took me another decade to figure out what that really meant. I believe you must learn to control the language, so mastering usage, grammar, and forms of poetry and prose is essential.
You get to invite three writers to dinner. Who do you choose and why?
David Foster Wallace, William Shakespeare, and Sylvia Plath.
Wallace is so much fun for me to read, I smile all the time, even when his characters are getting put through the wringer. I’ve read Infinite Jest four times, and as a member of the NBCC, nominated the Pale King for the Pulitzer because I felt the promise in those fragmented 547 pages offered more to modern letters than other works published the same year. I have no idea what I would say to him at dinner, perhaps challenge him to a game of spoons.
At 16 I didn’t know anything about life, and when my English 11 teacher exposed our class to Sylvia Plath I woke up. For the first time in my life I read serious books (I read fantasy and YA adventure books voraciously in the early 1980s), and not just Plath, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Willa Cather. Plath isn’t my favorite female writer, she’s up there, but she was one of my first crushes, and I would like to thank her.
And Shakespeare? I used to hate him in high school. I saw Mel Gibson’s Hamlet in the theater, by myself, at 17 and understood it. I was floored. I don’t know why I went to go see it. I guess something drew me in about Mad Mel’s performance. I took Shakespeare classes in college and read the wacky, crossdressing comedies, fell in love with some of them, but the tragedies were always my favorite. Something very romantic about the doomed stories of those misfits. I’d like to hear Shakespeare in his own words. How does the man talk? How does that compare to elevated language of his writing?
Do you have a favorite word? A least favorite word?
Right now I like the words: machine and engine. I also love the word enlarge because the construction of the word, the syllable and their music mimics the definition of the word.
Least favorite word…currently, disaggregation, as in “disaggregate the data,” something teachers have to do, breaking down test scores into neat little rows and columns that define the student in terms of test indicators.