“Shoulds are ridiculous. I get one life. Why would I spend time on shoulds?”
I Held a Morning (Finishing Line Press, 2012)
What’s your chapbook about?
It wasn’t intentionally themed at the time, but now I see themes of loss, love, childhood, an attempt at the time to figure out what these things meant or at least, describe them in some way that would put the reader there.
I chose the poems for my collection I felt best described my work at the time. My style has evolved since then, as we all hope our work will.
Years ago, when the chapbook was published, I told stories, not traditional stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end, but incomplete snippets from my own life, moments like running through the yard as a kid or what thoughts and images came to me after I saw my grandfather in a hospital bed after he passed away. Honesty was an important part of my poetry and often, my fiction as well. These days, my poetry has grown to include a lot of stories that aren’t mine, that often, aren’t anyone’s. I like where my poetry is going.
If you have written more than one chapbook or novella, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
I was in junior high during my first attempt at a novella. It was terrible and clichédly about vampires. I still laugh about it but vampires who travel the world is actually pretty creative for a 13 year old! What prompted it is better than the book: I started it because I was in “in-school suspension” for yelling at a teacher who made fun of a boy with a stutter, a boy I had attended school with since I elementary school. Apparently, even when a teacher deserves to be called a “chastising prick” doing so still results in suspension. What better time to rebel against “the man” (ha) by ignoring your assignments and writing a novella?
My first novel would be published. It was my Master’s thesis at Marshall University (2005). It was titled “Canary in the Dark”. It was conceived around 1998, but didn’t become anything more than a few sketches until I entered graduate school and wrote the entire thing. It was published in 2010 under the title Waters Run Wild (Sweetgum Press 2010). It follows a family in southern WV during the WV coal mine wars of 1920, each chapter is narrated by a different family member and sometimes chapters are narrated by coal dust, leaves, and water. That novel was me beginning to find my voice.
My next project was a novel for my MFA program titled “Silver Bottom” about a coal camp in the 1940s. I finished it in 2014. It focused on sin, shame, forbidden, interracial and homosexual love, during a time where these types of love were not only frowned upon but reasons, to some people, to hurt or even kill the “perpetrators” of these types of love. I would not send this to a publisher, because I just don’t think it’s where it could be, but I’m glad I had the practice and help from advisors.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
The oldest is the title poem of the chapbook “(At 6 AM) I Held a Morning.” I think I was maybe 20 when I wrote that or younger. The intent of the poem was to explain not loneliness, but aloneness, two separate states, to explain it in a way that was as strange as I think the state can feel.
Describe your writing practice or process for your chapbook. Do you have a favorite prompt or revision strategy? What is it?
I like to hand write my poetry usually, while I type fiction. I hand wrote poetry as a kid in elementary school. When I was in junior high I started typing fiction (on a typewriter of course). Handwriting poetry works better for me, probably because the habit is so very old. There’s an immediacy to ink rather than type, to me and a more personal, intimate feeling. I do quick revision initially and often a revisit later with fresh eyes. I immediately scratch out lines that don’t work as I’m writing. I rewrite. Often, I go back weeks or months (sometime years) later and find the sentences that work and scratch out the rest. Sometimes new lines come to me and I add those. Sometimes, months or years later I’ll find only one sentence I like, pluck it out and place into another poem or use it as a thought for a new poem. I don’t like to waste a good line, even if it’s buried in a lackluster poem. Some poems are magically ready the very first time I put them on paper. That is unusual and some would say impossible. The people who write 9 hours a day would say it’s total bullshit, but it happens. Don’t ask me how. I have no process for that. Sometimes I’m happy with something the way it is.
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
I didn’t purposefully arrange the poems in any particular order. Finishing Line read some of my poetry and said they wanted to publish a chapbook. So, I chose the ones they liked plus those I thought were my best work, at that time, and put them together. Since there was no theme to this chapbook, I chose the title at random as well.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I had control over the cover of the chapbook to a degree. I was told to submit three possible covers. I chose an artist friend, Lou Perkins (aka Phoenix), a local artist out of Charleston, West Virginia. He makes these beautiful craft pieces he sells but also paints and draws. His work is very special. I told him to read the book and see what images came to mind. He sent me three works. I forwarded those to Finishing Line and they chose from those three. They chose how to situate the drawing, meaning landscape or portrait. I chose the paper color for the cover, which now I wish I’d have went with white to compliment the painting.
What are you working on now?
My new novel is called Native Trees. It’s told from the perspective of a woman in modern southern WV, who had moved away and returned. She has urban sensibilities, and both a love and a hate for her hometown. She has two sisters and they own a grocery store together. She is a seer (psychic). This ability was passed down through her family, the Mexican side, who practiced Mexican folk magic and healing traditions, herbalism, midwifery. My grandfather was a Mexican immigrant and we still have family there. This wasn’t something in my family, but I am intrigued by the parallels between that culture and the culture of Appalachia and the way their folk traditions are similar.
Her story is rooted in a sense of place, like my novel Waters Run Wild. The book focuses on female strength, female lineage, and the pain unconsciously passed down to the children of the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood survivors, the “ghosts” that remain. This was an actual disaster.
I grew up there along Buffalo Creek. I still visit family often. So. this knowledge of the area’s history is from my own experience and growing up with the stories of the people I know.
It’s about being haunted, by unconfessed love, painful history, things we regret and things we still cannot seem to have the strength to do or to lose. Feminine power is a big part of this story.
I’m very excited (and surprised) that I’ve recently been selected as a Virginia for the Center of Creative Arts Fellow. A “fancy” phrase meaning I will spend two weeks in residency there, in Amherst, Virginia, where I plan to complete this project. When I told my dad, he pointed out that Amherstdale, where I grew up and where my parents still live, was named after Amherst. I submitted this project to compete for that residency. Life is weirdly connected that way. I’m the kind of person who believes that’s a message/sign this book matters.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Best question ever. First, my advice to students is to take all advice with a grain of salt, including mine.
With that said, be sure you aren’t relying on a formal classroom alone. Formal creative writing teachers are great. I’m a teacher myself. That type of learning has value and can be useful. I’ve had some amazing teachers. But I’ve learned so much outside of the classroom. I can’t tell you what works for me will work for you. But I can tell you what works for me: I pay attention to my surround, to the mannerisms and stories of strangers, behaviors of loved ones, to the words of children. I especially pay attention to what children say and what they see. Anywhere I go, if there are children, they always try to talk to me or ask me questions. They’re always hanging around me. It’s because I listen I think.
My friend, writer and teacher Matt Wolfe, said to me once, “Children are little geniuses until about the age of ten, then the world ruins it.” That’s about the age when people start instructing them on what and how to see, how to think, he explained.
If you ask children or just take note of what they notice about the world, you’ll be astounded at what you don’t see, at what you’ve forgotten is there. My teachers have said some amazing things but so have seven-year-olds and cab drivers and drunk neighbors, old people at the store. They are teachers, too. And animals. Spend time with them.
Your topics, your inspiration, the lines you can steal from the mouths of strangers in line at the grocery store, all of it is around you. It’s all given to you. What you need to write a great poem or novel is already there. My advice, in two word is—pay attention. Then, go make it into something. If you don’t feel like writing that day, paint, even badly. Or dance. Sing. Go be terrible or fabulous at something your own. Creativity feeds off itself. Don’t be afraid to be awful.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chapbook authors?
Write poems and send them to people. Convince them you know what you’re doing.
What music do you listen to as you work and write?
Thomas Newman radio on Pandora. He composed the soundtrack to “American Beauty.” The soundtrack is gorgeous and quiet, haunting.
This station plays all sorts of compositions that allow me to think, that guide me. I also like Samuel Barber radio. I couldn’t name the titles of their works but it’s what I always listen to.
What was the last book you read that made you stop reading, just for a moment even, because you didn’t want it to be over?
All books make me stop reading for a moment if they are any good. Books that can’t do that make me stop reading them entirely. One book I’ve read a few times snags my attention every page or so, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. I read that book in high school and I still read it. No, it isn’t Moby Dick, but I love it.
If you wrote about one year from your life as a chapbook subject, which year would you pick? Why?
Probably the year I turned 21. Undergrad. The year 1999-2000. It was the most fun and one of the most tumultuous years of my young life. It was a year I made all these crazy ass artsy friends in college. We ran around and thought we fell in love (often), went insane from time to time (ok, often). We drank too much. We fought too much. We smoked cigarettes. We took things too seriously and not seriously enough. It was the first time I felt really free since I was 12 but often took it completely for granted. We were ridiculous and had no idea but wouldn’t have cared anyway if we had. It was a time of learning, of making mistakes. It was the year we played on swings at the park at 3 AM but started trying to talk like grown-ups, pushed and pulled between those two worlds. Obviously, debauchery cannot go on forever, (If you don’t want to end up in real trouble or dead) but it was necessary for our growth at the time. We were broken people. We were artists. Absurd. Wise. And completely stupid.
We all have to make choices about who we read in our limited free time. Many of us have demanding jobs, a house to keep up, a family to keep happy, a dog to walk. How do you decide which poets (or other writers) you want to read or should read, and how do you begin to understand what your own work might offer to benefit the literary landscape in the context of what else has been done?
Even though I don’t have a family to “keep happy” (whatever that means) I don’t read nearly as much as I’m told “real” writers read. I read so much in undergrad, in grad school, I’m burnt out right now, probably for the next decade, on reading what I “should” read.
I often read the work of my friends. I also choose to read what my friends say, “read this” because I value their opinions. Or I do what I do with Netflix; I pick a cover and title I like. Sometimes this results in horrible choices, but it’s never boring.
For me, there is no choosing what I “should” read. Shoulds are ridiculous. I get one life. Why would I spend time on shoulds? When I die, I will not get a report card of the shoulds I completed. I mean, some shoulds like “don’t be a jerk” and “help people” and “love” are great. Other than that? No shoulds.
I don’t worry about “the literary landscape.” It takes care of itself.
Who gives a shit what “has been done?” I know some people who have written about Buffalo Creek (and made bank) but I have not published a book about it yet. What I do will be entirely my own as what they did was theirs. No one “should” care what has been done when choosing their own topic. How limiting that would be.
Topics choose me.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
Dance/singing. I sang on the porch swing and danced in my room as a kid. Had I grown up in a more artistically privileged area, places that offer classes for children, places that encourage serious pursuit of those types of things, I would’ve immersed myself in training at a young age.
I come from a very talented musical family. I sang in bars for years with guitar players and songwriters in undergrad. But nothing serious. I have a bunch of uncles and cousins on my mother’s side (The Ojeda’s) and nearly all of them play an instrument or sing. My cousins who went after music careers have succeeded in those pursuits. Music came natural to me in both interest and some measure of ability and so I would’ve chosen that. When I saw the movie A Chorus Line as a little kid, I watched it each time it came on. I was great at remembering lyrics. I remember wishing I could dance the way they did. As an adult, I was jealous of Katherine –Zeta Jones in Chicago. I can’t watch musicals because my suspension of disbelief is disabled thinking more about the technical side of it and “could I do that?” I think about how they learned what they know and how many times they practiced a particular phrase or movement. I think too much about the fact that they are performing rather than the story.
How has your writing and writing practiced evolved? What old habits have you dropped and are there any new ones you’ve picked up that you’d like to share?
My work still often relies on things I know well (like West Virginia) but my work is no longer as autobiographical. I may draw from my hometown, but I’m not in the characters as much now. I’m not telling stories from my life in my fiction or poetry as much. I lie more often. But lies make for good stories, especially when laced with truth.
Which poem in your chapbook has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
Probably the “Childhood Hour” which I wrote for my friend Misty Adkins-Justice when she married. At the time, it was the best description of the magic of my childhood in southern West Virginia than any poem I’ve written, I think. It’s so difficult to explain how beautiful it was here and the connection we still have to our childhoods and those old friends (and cousins) once we’ve grown up. Thinking of my childhood friends when I sat down to write something for her marriage, somehow those two combinations of her bond with her new husband and us growing up together, produced something extremely authentic to place. Both of them grew up here, so that added to what I had to say about the topic, about growing up, about adult relationships.
What themes and images “bridge” your work?
For some reason I’m constantly mentioning the color yellow and blue both in poetry and fiction. I often write about mountains, valleys, being little. I also frequently talk about “dark” and I’m always (unintentionally) striving to find new ways to explain dark, and also green. But that’s about what you find most in Appalachia, isn’t it. This place is as ingrained in me as can be. Nothing I can do about that.
What kinds of writing (comics, dictionaries, magazines, novels, etc.) that aren’t poetry help you to write poetry?
I like essays in magazines and collections of essays like Best American Essays. Short stories. I love works that are poetic that are not poetry. Also, film, though not reading, helps me a good deal, both in writing fiction and poetry. I also like song lyrics.
What do you wish you had been told as a writer? What wisdom have you arrived at?
I wish someone would’ve told me when I grew up I would be published and read because as a kid, I always thought no one would ever care what I thought or said. I wish I had known that someday people would read my work, because I spent a lot of wasted time as a kid thinking what I was doing would probably never amount to a whole lot. Back then, that was the goal, to say something, to matter.
Now, though, the wisdom I have arrived at is that I realize doing something I’m good at, that I love, is freeing and worthwhile even if no one cares what I say or think. It doesn’t really matter all that much if no one reads it. It matters to my career, of course, but not to my spirit or self esteem. It also frees me up to say what I want. You can’t do that if you care too much about judgmental people.
It’s amazing and rewarding and exciting to be read but now I write because I enjoy it, which I think often results in the work being enjoyable to others, even helpful to them or healing. I no longer write for the sole purpose of publication. I no longer write for attention and validation. I write because I’m a writer, what else can I do.
What inspires you? What gets you to the page?
It would be easier to answer the question what doesn’t. Actually, no it wouldn’t. I can’t think of anything that doesn’t.
Andrea Fekete is a native of Buffalo Creek, West Virginia. She is author of Waters Run Wild (Sweetgum Press 2010), a novel of the WV coal mine wars. She is author of one poetry chapbook, I Held a Morning (Finishing Line Press 2012). Her work appears in many literary magazines. She sometimes teaches writing. She’s currently editing a book of writing by women. She resides in West Virginia.
Trees Catch White
branches swish, bend, tangle.
Train outside the trailer window
stuck on a high note
sings of coal miners,
bodies deep—black caves.
Next door, a baby’s cry.
A dog’s bark.
A shotgun blast echoes
among the hills.
Ice feathers across the window,
the night—a blue shade.
Fog glimmers, seems to crack
a white slit in the orange throat
along the horizon.
(first appeared in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review)