What is the most interesting description of your writing you’ve heard that has impressed you and that you agree with?
I feel squeamish beginning with this, but I was knocked out when Huffington Post wrote some pretty stunning sentences about my first book. Here's one I rather liked: “Benson is preternaturally attuned to the small motions of man and nature, to the circumscription of big ideas in small packets of information....” I love that the reviewer picked up on my attention to the minute as it encompasses or accretes a larger narrative.
In my current work, I teeter on a phenomenological approach at key moments in the book, so this hasn't changed even as I've moved from shorter pieces into a novel.
And then anyone who gets that I'm funny, wins.
How would you characterize battles you have fought and obstacles you have overcome to be where you are today as a professional writer?
I want to contextualize “professional writer” first. I've had a book published – a collection of micro prose/prose poems with an independent press – and I've edited a few books. I've also received some grants and awards. Mostly, though, I earn my living as a writing mentor and editor. Even when I sell this next book, my first novel, and I say 'when' though it could be 'if,' I will continue the mentoring work. There's the great Toni Morrison quote that reading, writing, and teaching are all the same project. I get that. I really do. And also, there are ways that that isn't true, for me.
But to your question what have I overcome to get to this place as a writer, because it is a fact that there was a time when I had no poems anywhere but my notebooks. Not one manuscript completed, let alone published. No stories or essays out there. And now there is work of mine in the world.
What has been overcome to have achieved what's here so far? I'll say, forging on despite doubt and rejection. That's not particular to me, of course. It's a lot the nature of the pursuit. There will be rejection. There will be days (months, years) when the work refuses to fall into place or the acceptances don't come. I always, or eventually, return to the page.
You participated at AWP two weekends ago. Can you tell us what are some of your expectations from this event and others of its nature?
Regarding what I wanted of participating in AWP I will say that my first desire was to survive the experience. Seriously! The conference is tremendously overwhelming, even with careful planning and good hydration habits. As a writer I work in solitude, mostly. My days are never as populated as they are at a conference. It's like being the ball in a pinball machine, but with ten thousand others also banging about. That said, my hope was to connect with, to learn from, and to support other writers. This happens in a number of ways, from going to a reading of writers I've never heard of to attending a panel that might benefit from another person in the audience. It's easy to seek out what (or who) you know at these things. One of my best nights was going to a reading by myself where I didn't know anyone in the audience or on stage. I loved it.
Also, to put my two cents in, when it was my turn. To try to be of service with my words and to enjoy it, if I could.
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We’re driving and we’re late, but not as late as we have been other trips. It’s ridiculous, how close we cut it – like we have all the time in the world. One red light, one slowpoke we can’t pass, and we don’t get off the island for 24 hours. Soon as high season’s over, the ferries don’t come but once a day. We’ve tried to befriend more than a few boat owners out here through the years, but that doesn’t get the car over. Besides, the locals aren’t the easiest to get to know. “Next year,” he says, “let’s leave the car on the mainland.” “We always say that,” I say, “but then we always bring it.” Even on an island we’re car dependent. Shameful, really. Killing the planet and so on. We get to the terminal in the nick, the mechanized arm lifting for us as we roll into the line of cars driving on board the massive ferry. We inch forward slowly, each car gruffly pointed at and directed into place by Victor who’s got no patience anymore, if ever he had any. We wave to him and he gives us his chin, which is as close as we’ll get, we figure, to feeling like natives. “No really,” he continues as I manoeuvre us into our designated spot. “We can bring bikes.” “I don’t know,” I say. “It’s such a vulnerable position to be in on the road.” For some reason we’re both slow to get out of the vehicle, which we’re supposed to do for the duration of the ride. We know Victor will see us before too long and force us up on deck. We also know that we will, eventually, comply.
*** Civilians was originally published at FormerCactus ***
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Who are some of the writers/poets you’ve discovered by attending these major events about writers and publishers?
What a great question! At this most recent AWP I heard the poet Jaswinder Bolina read from his upcoming book 44th of July and thought it was brilliant. I'd not heard of him, which isn't to say he doesn't have work out there, because he does. Quite a bit, in fact. It's just, how can you know everyone who's writing? You can't. The pyramid that the publishing industry fosters within capitalism's worship of the individual makes it so that we all know a few names. But there are so many amazing writers (artists, performers, etc.) doing stellar things.
Another new to me writer I heard, Aisha Sabatini Sloan. She's so smart – and funny! There's a quality to her work and the reading of it that is at once multi-layered and also immediately accessible. At least the two pieces I experienced were. Now I'll get her books.
And while this wasn't discovery of the person, because s/he is already a friend of mine, tc tolbert's recent work was a great find. S/he's writing Dear Melissa poems to the woman s/he was before transitioning. These poems are phenomenal examples of what poetry can do with lyric intrusions and elisions. I can't wait to see more.
Also, someone I knew previously but heard read for the first time, Tyrese Coleman. She read both from her own book How to Sit and from the collection of flash fiction by people of color (edited by Megan Giddings), Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction. Both readings were knockouts.
Is there a piece of advice you’ve been given as a young writer and that you pass on to other newcomers in the business now that you are a published writer whose work is praised by many?
Always the advice is to read. To keep writing. Keep submitting. Get feedback on your work. Show up to the delicate balance of figuring out when to heed that feedback and when to chuck it in order to remain true to your own idiosyncrasies.
As a writer, is there a list of essentials that you cannot do without on a daily basis?
Time. To daydream. To wander archives. To start and stop sentences. Move a paragraph, then move it back. Put a manuscript in the proverbial drawer for a while. Think about it while looking out the window. Do you have a routine you turn to in order to replenish your energies and refocus?
I am big on walking in the woods as a way to clear my mind. What are your definitions of happiness and success?
I really want to avoid this one, so I'll push myself to give it a go.
There's the feeling of happiness, which can be a result of circumstances. Either internal or external circumstances – or both. By internal I mean brain chemistry, for example. Also, there's an attitude. I'm reminded of the Abe Lincoln motto that one is about as happy as one make's up one's mind to be. That's not entirely fair, or always fitting. See: brain chemistry. And also: circumstances. I think to tell someone or even a group of people who are being oppressed or experiencing trauma, for example, that they need to choose to be happy is bullshit. But, there is something to be said for choosing an attitude in certain circumstances that can foster something like contentment. It's too easy for me to default to irritation, or judgment. To be critical or malcontent. I do think I have the opportunity to choose, at times, and that it can be productive to interrogate my attitude to my life. As far as success, within the context of this interview about being a writer I'll say that satisfaction in the well-made thing is success. Or author Irina Reyn's “good enough.” The thing made that is good enough. I like that. Of course, it's nice when others think so, too. Add getting paid to the mix and we've got a trifecta. (See: selling my novel.) Would you like to share with us the funniest story you’ve heard lately? If only I could.
Cara Benson's stories and poems have been published in The New York Times, Boston Review, Best American Poetry, The Brooklyn Rail, Fence, and elsewhere. Author of (made), a collection of micro prose/prose poems, she received a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and the bpNichol Award. www.carabensonwriter.com