I am very excited to share this interview with poet and memoir-ist Caroline Goodwin, whom I have known for a couple of years now. We met through OneRoom, a coaching service for creative writers, and I worked closely with her for a combination of 12 months, first when completing my poetry manuscript and now while working on my own memoir. Please enjoy this enlightening conversation:
Caroline Goodwin moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999 from Sitka, Alaska to attend Stanford’s creative writing program as a Wallace Stegner Fellow. Her books are Trapline (2013), Peregrine (2015) and The Paper Tree (2017). She teaches at California College of the Arts and the Stanford Writer’s Studio; from 2014 – 16 she served as the first Poet Laureate of San Mateo County.
The writing process often seems mysterious, even to writers who practice consistently. Tell me a little about your writing practice and how you keep yourself returning to the page.
I like to see it as an adventure, a process of discovery. When I’m connected to the work (and this has definitely come and gone over the years — I have gone through long and painful “dry” periods), I look forward to seeing what might occur. I find that if I make it a priority to at least look at the work early in the day, then often the rest of the day is at least partially spent connected with the developing poem. For example, I have two texts set up in my kitchen next to the stove, and my laptop opened to the previous day’s work. I make this a part of my nightly routine, like taking my meds. The texts are: Common Plants of Nunavut and Li: Dynamic Form in Nature. I am working on a series of poems that explores the environmental degradation of our precious Arctic region, infused with my grief journey after losing my husband in August 2016. I think of them as a series of love poems, both for Nick and for the Arctic. I have rules: every poem must be seven lines (I am modeling this after my friend Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s wonderful collection Shy Green Fields). I make my tea and stand at the counter until I have seven lines. I love seeing what comes out in each piece, and I look forward to seeing what the next challenge might be. It’s kind of a puzzle, and it feels like a spiritual practice to me because I depend on a lot of serendipity. I am aiming for a full-length collection of these little guys. They are really weird.
I see that you have published two collections of poetry, one with Finishing Line Press and one with Big Yes Press. It’s easy to assume that once a poet gets a book published, it suddenly becomes easy to publish other works. How would you compare your experiences between your first publication and your second? Do you find it easier to publish now than before your first collection?
Actually I also published with JackLeg Press in 2013 — a print-on-demand book entitled Trapline. So each of my books has been a different experience. Publishing has changed so much in the last twenty years, as we all know, and there are lots of small presses making terrific books. So I wouldn’t say it’s gotten easier, because the creative work itself is the same (VERY hard). It’s a matter of hanging in there, networking, staying grateful and showing up, staying committed to the art form and putting your hand out to fellow poets. I’ve found each of the presses lovely to work with and most days I can’t actually believe I have 3 books in the world! I also have a tiny chapbook called Text Me, Ishmael, handmade by the Literary Pocketbook series in Wales, UK. Oh, and two more self-published chapbooks, Kodiak Herbal and Gora Verstovia. I sewed these books up myself, punching the holes for the spines with a push pin. It was fun.
Since you are also a writer of non-fiction, tell me how the two genres dovetail for you.
Great question. I recently carved out a writing retreat for myself in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. My goal was to finish a memoir about my daughter Josephine’s life and death (I’ve been working on this for more than ten years). However, I went to the Yellowknife bookstore and found a book by the poet Roo Borson. Well, before I knew it, my writing retreat was overtaken by a long poem that was exciting to me, that spun out from a line I found in her book: “unreadable book that will not close.” That line seemed, to me, to speak to the experience of grief. Poetry “won” and I stayed with that poem and the memoir was not completed.
I also have three pieces of nonfiction published now. One is about my daughter Josephine and Sitka, Alaska (entitled ROY) and another recent piece entitled AMARANTH. This one surprised me because I finished it six days before my husband died, and it’s full of these crazy premonitions. And I just published an essay in the South Dakota Review entitled “What They Do”. Currently, I’m working on an essay about online dating. So I think I’d say poetry and nonfiction dovetail and help each other, distract from each other, feed and deplete each other, if that makes sense. At the end of the day, they simply help me to figure out what I really want to say about something. The prose is slow for me, but I do hope to finish that memoir someday, I just have to let my mind wander where and when it will.
What other creative practices do you pursue?
I knit and crochet (I love Granny squares) and hang out with my pug, Jimi Hendrix. I also like to go boogie boarding in the ocean whenever I can and I’m working on my home garden.
I know that you are a writing coach with OneRoom in addition to teaching, writing, and publishing. How do you juggle it all?
Very, very, very, very, very chaotically and with a whole lot of help from the Universe. My motto is “slow and steady wins the race” and to give myself lots of slack. If I show up for my own creative work, even if I just look at it briefly, that’s a good day for me.
Would you recommend writers get an MFA in creative writing?
I have always seen the MFA as a gift to the self. I went to the University of British Columbia partly because needed to get out of a relationship, so I didn’t apply anywhere else. I just knew I needed to leave, but still be close to Alaska. Luckily I had the resources to do so. It was one of the best things I ever did for myself. I still am in touch with and admire the poets in my workshop from grad school. It’s a privilege to have an MFA and I remain grateful for the experience and all it taught me about how to be a poet in the world.
Are you working on any projects now?
Yes, the manuscript is temporarily called Common Plants of Nunavut. Nunavut is the newest, largest and northernmost territory of Canada. I like the name, and the fact that it was nearly named “Bob” (true story). I love the Arctic; each poem’s title is the common name of a plant.
When I was in Yellowknife I learned that the city is sitting on 237,000 tonnes of arsenic, the byproduct of a shut-down gold mine, the Giant Mine. That’s enough to kill every human on earth. The landscape is incredibly beautiful, and fragile, lots of colorful rocks and lichens. Many of my childhood weekends were spent on a lake north of Anchorage, and these experiences were profound for me. Going to Yellowknife was a spiritual journey back to the landscape of my childhood, so I’m writing about that. I started another manuscript entitled Old Snow, White Sun, which takes its title from a song by the Japanese acid rock group Kikagaku Moyo (Geometric Designs) and is about a recent love affair among other things. I also hope that my writing might play a small part in valuing and preserving this beautiful earth. I studied biology as an undergrad, so I love plant names. Plants are magical. They are the producers, really the only living thing that MAKES something helpful. They give us everything, really. So when I write I let the sounds of the names and also the ideas and emotions evoked come onto the page, interact, be weird, and possibly add up to a poem.
Can you share one of your poems with ZPR readers?
In a Time of Mourning