TreeHouse recently had the pleasure of interviewing poet and author Anna Leahy about her incredibly busy life and successful work as a poet, writer, director, and professor. Anna Leahy is the co-author of the nonfiction book Generation Space: A Love Story (Stillhouse Press, 2017) and the poetry chapbook Sharp Miracles (Blue Lyra Press, 2016). She and Douglas R. Dechow write Lofty Ambitions blog. See more at http://amleahy.com.
TreeHouse: You teach in both the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University, are the Director of their Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity and the Associate Director of the their MFA program, oversee the Tabula Poetica Reading Series, edit the international journal TAB, are a board member of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, run the Lofty Ambitions blog, write numerous articles, and probably participate in a million other things I’m not mentioning. How do you find the time to do it all? And what about your personal writing – where does that fit into your schedule?
Anna Leahy: I wrote a piece for Minerva Rising’s website a while back about saying yes and saying no, and this balance continues to be a struggle day to day and as I plan for the longer term. Someone had advised me early on in my career to wait 24 or even 48 hours before replying to anyone’s request to do something. One semester, I decided never to check my email before noon, and, though I tend to write better later in the day, it was amazing how that allowed me to write before my brain got involved in other tasks (and how it slowed the back and forth of email). I’m only sporadically good at following that good advice, but it helps.
It also helps to have great colleagues. Professor Jim Blaylock directs the MFA and handles most of the program logistics; Professor Claudine Jaenichen serves as Creative Director for TAB, which has been exciting for both of us and has led to offshoot collaborations; and Lisa Kendrick coordinates OURCA on a daily basis. They are all smart, hard working, and ambitious, and we each understand the other is also juggling other responsibilities. While I’ve been able to choose rewarding responsibilities and tasks, I’m at my limit at this point (though I’ve probably thought this before), in part because there’s a toll for switching gears among disparate tasks hour to hour and day to day. You’re right that choosing to take on other responsibilities—no matter how great they are—means, at some point, less writing time.
It’s difficult for me—for most writers, probably—to make writing time sacred. Books like The ONE Thing are good reminders, and, to some extent, I schedule writing time. Deadlines help me, too. Neil Gaiman, in a commencement speech, suggested that a writer can build a career by doing good work, be easy to work with, and produce work on time—and that two out of three is okay.
TH: Tell us a bit about your writing process: where do your ideas come from? And how do you go about turning that inspiration into reality? Do the various settings you find yourself in affect your work in different ways?
AL: I’m amazingly productive during writing residencies, which makes sense. Dorland Mountain Arts Colony doesn’t have wifi, and I’m removed from my daily routine and usual physical spaces. It’s impossible to replicate that experience at home or on the job, but that sort of compartmentalization and focus is a great goal.
Steven Johnson wrote a book called Where Good Ideas Come From, which draws from a lot of others’ research into concepts like serendipity and the slow hunch. Especially when I’m writing regularly, I have more ideas than I can manage, though I can’t pinpoint where they come from. The hard part is doing something with an idea, turning ideas into something until you find one that works well enough to keep working on. Writers risk failure because not every idea is worth pursuing, and we often don’t find that out until we’ve pursued it a while. So it’s good to keep generating new ideas and variations on ideas.
TH: Do you share your writing with anyone in particular prior to publication? A writing group, community of writers, or trusted colleague?
AL: Some of my writing projects are collaborative. My husband and I wrote Generation Space: A Love Story together, so we’ve shared all of it through many drafts. What We Talk about When We Talk about Creative Writing, which I edited, was co-written chapter by chapter with a host of contributors. I’m also writing a book about cancer communication with Dr. Lisa Sparks.
I have projects all my own, too, and I sometimes share those with long-time writer-friends. Nancy Kuhl and I went to graduate school together and now read through each other’s complete poetry manuscripts every few years. I was in a writing group for five years; it’s up and running again without me, though I may rejoin after I wrap up a couple of projects this year. I’ve developed some great writer-friendships in school and on the job.
TH: In her article “Contemporary Poetry’s Influence on Cross-Cultural Perceptions,” writer Kristina S. Ten states: “It is through the fine arts, particularly literature and perhaps even more specifically poetry, that people can find the human connection they are often unable to establish in their everyday lives. When it comes to addressing the misperceptions of any given culture, sometimes all it takes for readers to understand that a cultural misperception exists is for the author or poet to take the narrative perspective of either the “self” (the local, the citizen, the familiar) or the “other” (the foreign, the unknown, the misrepresented or misunderstood).” Do you agree with her? Does the poetry of today help to influence our own human experience, and if so, how do we strengthen that connection by utilizing poetry as a tool to unite understanding across cultures?
AL: Poetry—using language, sound, metaphor, and so on—is one of the most human things we do, so it makes sense that it’s a place or time to understand our connections and differences as individuals and as cultures. My stance is that such connection or exploration is an inevitable effect of fine poetry, that the self is always already there in the writing and the reader always already finds relative proximity or distance. I heard Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein compare poetry to music, in that not every listener likes every type of music and not all songs are equally meaningful to a given person, but a given poem may make a world of difference to someone or stick with a particular reader.
TH: What are you reading for pleasure right now?
AL: I had a piece on the Brevity blog recently about selfish reading that made me realize I’m always reading as a writer. It’s pleasurable, but it’s rare that I read something without thinking about what I can learn as a writer. Right now, I’m reading Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir The Telling and Patrick Ryan’s story collection The Dreamlife of Astronauts. I plan to review the latter, and I’d suggest emerging writers review more of what they’re reading. That can heighten the pleasure of reading in a nerdy way.
TH: You have a new book coming out February 2017 called Generation Space: A Love Story. Can you tell us a bit about it? How long have you been working on it? Where can we read it?
AL: My husband and I went to Florida for the last launch (which was delayed) of the space shuttle Discovery in November 2010. By the time we witnessed the last launches of Endeavour and Atlantis the following year, we knew we were writing a book, part memoir and part cultural and historical commentary. Generation Space will be published by Stillhouse Press and available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble as well as from the publisher. As I answer these questions, we’re coordinating with the editor on final tinkering at the sentence level and looking at book cover designs. This project has been incredibly important to us, and I hope the book will resonate with a lot people who grew up with the Shuttle program humming in the background of their lives.
TH: Do you have any advice for those of us who aspire to be more creative?
AL: Encourage your curiosity broadly and deeply. I’ve written before about curiosity, and that’s among the most important things for me to cultivate in my students. It’s not bad for a writer, especially one who writes in more than one genre, to have a lot of interests and questions, a general openness to and excitement about learning. Curiosity is likely what allows a writer to finish that novel to find out exactly how scenes unfold or allows the poet to try out new forms and new phrases. Curiosity is like peripheral vision; it fosters serendipity. It’s no coincidence that the most ambitious Mars rover to date is named Curiosity and that it’s far exceeded its original mission plan.
Anna Leahy is the co-author of the nonfiction book Generation Space: A Love Story (Stillhouse Press, 2017) and the poetry chapbook Sharp Miracles (Blue Lyra Press, 2016). She and Douglas R. Dechow write Lofty Ambitions blog. See more at http://amleahy.com.