“Writing is something I have to do in order to exist with any kind of contentment or deep awareness.”
Between Work and Light (Dancing Girl Press, 2018)
What was the main reason you decided that writing was the path you wanted to take? Was there a tipping point that made you decide to write for the rest of your life?
I feel the most alive, satisfied, and challenged when I’m writing. I recognized this when I was journaling while studying abroad in Russia when I was twenty-one. I’d written a lot of poetry and fiction between fourth and eighth grade, and had wanted to be a writer at that time, but in Russia I committed myself to pursuing that childhood dream.
Writing is something I have to do in order to exist with any kind of contentment or deep awareness. The recent movie Paterson is the best on-screen depiction I’ve seen of how some writers (myself included) move between creating, their job(s), and being present with loved ones and out in the world.
What are your favorite books to read during mentally or physically hard times? What are your favorite books to read during happy times?
When life isn’t going well, I look for hope, comfort, or humor in books. The last few years, I’ve returned to A Book of Luminous Things, an international anthology of poetry edited by Czesław Miłosz. As he says in his intro, these poems remind the reader that there are other ways to approach the world than confrontation. For fiction, I’ll reread passages from James Baldwin’s Just above My Head. His characters love each other deeply, and the narrator comforts me because he can be angry or sad without becoming cynical. As far as humor goes, Calvin and Hobbes never fails to make me laugh.
During happy times, I read widely and voraciously. Recently I’ve been reading a lot of fiction in translation.
You recently published a short story for One Story, Inc. Which writing medium do you prefer? Do you consider yourself a fiction writer or a poet?
I consider myself both a fiction writer and poet because I’ve always written both fiction and poetry. I consider myself more of a fiction writer because I spend more time writing fiction and am more ambitious about publishing it. In both mediums, I’m concerned with internal and external landscapes—but in fiction, I’m following and/or imagining the landscapes of my characters, while in poetry I’m often investigating my own.
What is your favorite piece in Between Work and Light?
“Winter Sketches 3,” with “Returning” a close second. I also love the two poems inspired by Andrew Wyeth paintings.
You often include a subtitle that connects your poem with a painting or artist. Your poetry stands by itself, but after studying the paintings, I found deeper meanings and a stronger appreciation for your work. For example, in Edward Hopper’s painting Pennsylvania Coal Town, which inspired your poem “Between Work and Light,” a man pauses from raking a plot between two houses, and the speaker of your poem wonders if the man is tired after a long day’s work and why he chooses not to rest. What aspects of a painting inspire you to make a poem connected to it?
I’m drawn to a painting by its colors, light, images, and/or emotions, and usually I’m celebrating the beauty of a painting or my visceral love for a painting by making a poem out of it. Once in a while, I’ll write a poem because I identify with a person in the painting. For example, I wrote “Between Work and Light” one summer when my friend lent me her garden plot. I didn’t always feel like making the trip across town to work in it, but whenever I did, the gardening improved my day.
What’s the oldest piece of writing in your chapbook? What were the circumstances that inspired it?
“Fridge Note #52.” I wrote it in the summer of 2010 when I was working checkout at a grocery store. I turned to a page in a food magazine and challenged myself to write a poem that used ten nouns on that page.
In “Overnight UPS, Colorado to New York City,” you reveal that your grandpa and grandma were a hardworking mill worker and bus driver, respectively. How has that affected your view of “blue-collar” jobs when you work in a more academically driven field? Do you see a need in literature for better representation of the blue-collar world?
A mentality I inherited from my grandparents and parents is that any kind of work done well is good work. This mentality has served me well in every job I’ve had. I don’t see enough characters in contemporary literature who think that any work done well is good work, so I sometimes include characters in my stories who hold that view.
There is quite a bit of good poetry and fiction that explores blue-collar worlds, however. A few contemporary American examples that I’ve read: the poetry of Dorianne Laux and B. H. Fairchild; the fiction of Annie Proulx, Wendell Berry, Alice Walker, Dagoberto Gilb, and Edward P. Jones.
How do you approach the idea of vulnerability as a writer? Do you protect pieces of your life or are all possible topics on the table for your readers?
While creating, I don’t think about the reader or vulnerability. My responsibility is to the work itself. However, once a poem is on the page, sometimes I’ll notice something in it that I don’t want to share with the world. The poem might be good, or I might have learned from writing it, or I might gift it to a loved one, and for me, that is enough. I do have pieces of my life that I don’t want to share with a general reader.
I also don’t think a feeling of vulnerability in a piece of writing has to come from the writer recounting details they consider private. Through precision, observation, and imagination, a writer can convey an openness to the world and to experience without being confessional.
Is there a valuable lesson you’ve learned that you’d want young writers to know about the process of publishing a chapbook?
I’d tell them that finding your chapbook’s necessary arc is an intuitive process that sometimes takes time and help from friends. Some poets have a theme in mind, but I myself was looking through more than two hundred poems, wondering which ones to include and in what order. My friend, the poet Charity Gingerich, read a couple drafts and gave me helpful comments.
What is your writing routine? With a successful editing business and as a managing editor for Ruminate, how do you find time to write for yourself?
Currently, I write on Saturdays and Sundays, usually morning to early afternoon. If I’m between editing projects, I’ll write on weekday mornings as well. I make concrete goals for myself. To write a specific number of words in a week, for example, or to finish a project by a certain date. My friend Charity and I give each other poetry challenges.
It can be financially challenging to support myself primarily thought contract work (I work one day a week at a library, too). I’ve considered going back to having one full-time job. But whatever my life circumstances, I remember Wallace Stegner’s words in “To a Young Writer”: “You will always be pinched—for money, for time, for a place to work . . . it is not a new problem. You are in good company.”
Does having editing experience shape your writing in any way?
For my business, I copyedit (mainly line editing and regularizing style) and do light developmental edits (moving around or deleting sentences, paragraphs, or passages). I tell authors that I strive to make their sentences grammatically correct and their meanings clear. Examining others’ work in this way has made me more productively critical during the process of revising my own work—as well as more dispassionate toward it.
What are you working on right now? Can we expect more fiction or poetry?
I’m working on stories set in the same world as my One Story, and I’m trying to find a home for a novel set on the Oregon Coast in the late 1960s. I’m also dreaming up a new novel told from the point of view of a female Uber driver/Portlander.
I’d like to publish a full-length poetry collection, but I need to improve my game first. In the meantime, I’ll keep poeming, and maybe publish more poems or another chapbook.
Rachel King is a writer and editor who lives in her hometown, Portland, Oregon. Her fiction has appeared most recently in One Story, and her poetry chapbook Between Work and Light is available from Dancing Girl Press.
Find out more at booksrachelking.com.