ASK PEAUXDUNQUE: Really, Ask Us
This issue’s inquisitor: Christian J. Collier
By J.Ed. Marston, Peauxdunque Review Features Editor
This month’s column features questions by Christian J. Collier, poet, Southern writer, arts organizer, and teaching artist. He is also a fellow Chattanoogan, which is how I’ve gotten to know him. In addition to his extraordinary poetry and abilities as an artistic performer, Collier is successful in encouraging and facilitating the work of other writers, both individually and as members of a thriving local writing culture and performance scene—all without having any kind of institutional platform. He is not a professor or K-12 teacher, yet he organizes and leads Manifest Voices, a summer poetry program for high school students. He doesn’t work for a non-profit, yet he puts on a continuing series of poetry readings and writing workshops. He engages other local writers as performers and participants, while also finding the resources to draw nationally renowned visiting artists like Jericho Brown. I’m continually amazed by what Collier manages to pull off through is individual efforts and outside of any conventional educational or cultural channels.
Yet, with all of that, he also writes prolifically, publishes frequently, and continually adds to his growing list of awards. Collier’s works have appeared or are forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Atlanta Review, Grist Journal, and elsewhere. A 2015 Loft Spoken Word Immersion Fellow, he is also the winner of the 2020 ProForma Contest and the 2019-2020 Seven Hills Review Poetry Contest. Be sure to look for The Gleaming of the Blade, Collier’s forthcoming book of poetry from Bull City Press.
Christian Collier: Over the course of the past year, what has surprised you most about your own writing?
Ask Peauxdunque: I normally write this column in the voice of a kind of “Peauxdunque Chorus,” but something about your question seems to demand a more personal response. I can’t say I was “surprised” by the content of my writing over the last year (except in the fortuitous turns in a character or story that I blessedly did not anticipate), but I was surprised by several things related to my writing process:
- How much my writing has depended on a sense of stability: The kind of fiction writing I try to do is about pushing beyond the boundaries of conventional thought, stereotypical characterization, and clichéd methods of emotional manipulation (I’m not saying that sets me apart as a writer—I think many work with similar aspirations). Yet, during a year when the COVID crisis, civil unrest, and politics untethered from reality called nearly everything into question, I frequently felt paralyzed as a writer by the very uncertainties that stretched wide the blank canvas well outside all past framing. While this was far from pleasant, I see it as an invitation (and a demand) to found my writing in something, well, more fundamental (this is only tangentially meant to be a “butt” reference).
- How incremental writing sessions can really add up: Probably my most successful writing effort over the past year involved working on a story a few sentences at a time while plodding along on an elliptical for a half hour every morning. While I still wish I had days or even hours of uninterrupted writing time, I discovered that the “slow-thought” nature of incremental writing can produce a narrative that really stands up—even though it rarely felt that way initially.
- Writing, though necessarily solitary, craves and benefits from affiliation: This observation is stupidly obvious, but at a time when the pandemic forced us into isolation and Zoom was an unsatisfying, low-fat substitute, I became even more acutely aware of something I knew before—how much I need my writing communities and friendships.
Christian Collier: If you could go back twenty years ago and give yourself one tidbit of advice, what would it be, and what would you want it to change?
AP: Ouch. This question is tinged with regrets, and though I admittedly have some (many), I don’t believe in indulging them. I figure I’ve always done the best I could with whatever wisdom, ability, and energy happened to be available to me at any given time. That’s why I’m going to turn this question just a little bit and instead offer something I’ve encountered recently that I believe will greatly benefit my next 20 years of writing (should I be lucky enough to count that many more). I recently read George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Of all the many books about writing which I love (and there are many), this one tops my current list.
In one passage, he relates how he managed to stop imitating his hero, Hemingway, and write the story that allowed him to discover his own idiosyncratic voice which was not nearly as grand as he’d hoped: “This is a big moment for any artist (this moment of combined triumph and disappointment), when we have to decide whether to accept a work of art that we have to admit we weren’t in control of as we made it and of which we’re not entirely sure we approve. It is less, less than we wanted it to be, and yet it’s more, too—it’s small and a bit pathetic judged against the work of the great masters, but there it is, all ours.” Likening this first work in our own voice to a little dung-hill (Saunders is less delicate in his terminology), he goes onto say that owning and committing to our first little mound is the key, “so let me assume that if I continue to work in this mode that is mine, this hill will eventually stop being made of sh*t, and will grow, and from it, I will eventually be able to see (and encompass in my work) the whole world.”
I find this mixed metaphor of artistic manure and magnificence to be simultaneously comforting and inspiring. That’s why I’m committing to my own little, weird way of working and seeing the world in the confidence that it will amount to something splendid or at least splendidly me, and I hope you’ll do the same. And, please do read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. The foregoing is just my favorite of the many very useful insights about writing, reading, and being human contained in Saunders’ book.
J.Ed. Marston writes stories about people fumbling to be heroic in cloudy situations. His fiction, poetry, and non-fiction have been published in Bayou, The Double Dealer, Urban Land, Wired magazine’s blog, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, among others. Marston serves on the Board of the Southern Lit Alliance and on the planning committee for the Conference on Southern Literature. Marston is a graduate of Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, where he earned a BA with a triple major in English, writing, and theater. He lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.