Q: Do you have any super secret rituals that help your writing process?
A: Super secret, no. I do make blood sacrifices to the writing gods every full moon. Don’t all of us? Seriously, though, my rituals involve a good amount of music, both in preparation and in the writing itself. It helps to channel my emotions / inspiration. I listen to all genres of music but for poetry purposes I tend to go for instrumental scores or synthesized tunes (some of it referred to now as ‘chillstep’). Not too much of my writing music has lyrics unless I know the songs so well that it doesn’t bother me. Here lately I’ve gravitated toward CHVRCHES album “The Bones of What You Believe” and Blackmill. And if there’s a certain song that gets the muse mojo going then I set it on repeat while drafting.
Q: What parts of your writing have you put the most focus on?
A: Image. I want to show my readers what I’m seeing, and through that description channel the right emotion. In my poem “Grief, Some Questions,” all I had to start were images. Days after my grandmother passed away, my eyes were like little cameras, taking snapshots of her house, the house I grew up in. I remember drafting a different poem with those images in it but it didn’t work. I was trying too hard to explain how I was feeling, to hammer down the emotional impact of losing someone after such a long stretch of illness. So I cut the draft down to these six questions, two of which are images that I hope convey the sense of confusion one feels while grieving. Everything seems to mean something and nothing at all. But yes, image has been and always will be a huge focus of mine when writing poetry. That and a damn good simile.
Q: What is the thing you tell yourself most when you are revising your poems? Do you have advice for other poets in this regard?
A: I tell myself that this draft is just that, a draft. It’s just a work in progress. I (and I suspect many other writers) put too much pressure on myself to create some kind of perfectpolished, shiny thing after a few revisions. That goal stresses me out which inhibits inspiration, which then begins stunting the poem. It’s all one scary cycle. So I constantly remind myself that the poem will be done when it wants to be done. I’m not in a hurry and no one is standing over me judging my revisions, no matter how silly they may be. That’s the advice I would give other poets. Leave yourself breathing room to play. The poem always has time to evolve into something else entirely.
Q: If you could describe your writing aesthetic in one word, what would it be?
A: Haunting. Love to read it. Love to write it.
Q: A lot of people talk about MFA factories churning out carbon copy writers. What are your thoughts on authenticity and integrity in writing in such a competitive field?
A: I think it can be easy to fall into a pattern of writing what workshop wants to see. But if you stay true to your style, write what you want to write, you’ll come out of the experience stronger all around. My MFA program at Southern Illinois was invaluable to my progression as a poet. Those I worked with, professors and students, challenged me in ways I could not have done by myself. The writing world is competitive, yes, and I’ve found that sometimes it’s a bigger struggle when your subject matter or aesthetic isn’t what’s popular or mainstream or whatever it is that defines the standard of that time and place. But I think that’s even more of a reason to do you. There are a dozen or more little creatures on my shoulder echoing past workshops and rejections, professors and editors. I listen to them. I thank them. And then I tell them to shut up and let me write.
M. Brett Gaffney, born in Houston, Texas, holds an MFA in poetry from Southern Illinois University and is the Art Editor for Gingerbread House literary magazine. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Exit 7, REAL, Still: The Journal, Scapegoat Review, BlazeVOX, Sugared Water, Stirring, Fruita Pulp, Rogue Agent, museum of americana, and Zone 3 among others.