Interview with Nancy Scott
WG: Nancy, some of your poetry appeared in Kenny Fries' Staring Back, one of the first anthologies of disability literature and the one that has become a mainstay in the teaching of disability literature courses at the college level. I'd like to start off by asking you how your work came to appear in Staring Back?
NS: Before Staring Back was published I had work in several disability magazines and a poem in the Ragged Edge Anthology . Perhaps the editors at Staring Back had seen some of that and knew who I was. I probably responded to a consideration and they accepted poems. I was very honored to be in the book with so many famous writers. It was especially exciting for me because it was produced by a mainstream publisher.
WG: As you just mentioned, in addition to appearing in Staring Back, your poetry has appeared in The Ragged Edge and several other magazines including - I believe - The Ragged Edge, Disability Studies Quarterly, Kaleidoscope and Disability Rag. A number of your pieces were also recently included in the Behind Our Eyes anthology. To writers just breaking into the genre of disability literature, that is a pretty formidable resume. Can you talk a little bit about how you began writing, especially what motivated you to begin working in poetry?
NS: As a young person, I never expected that writing would be so important. In my teens, I wrote bad Star Trek and Dark Shadows stories. I never showed them to anyone. In college, I wrote the obligatory papers and hated the only English course I took. My interesting writings were concert reviews for music courses. I could be funny and imaginative. But I never thought of this as writing, just class assignment.
My real writing began when I got laid off from a difficult and low paying job. My husband was ill at that time (early 1980s), so I decided to take the unemployment and stay home. But I needed something to do besides cleaning the bathrooms. Like many people, I decided to write. How hard could that be? I started with science fiction because I read lots of it. I never looked at style or craft books. I barely read The Writer.
I wrote really bad fiction, but I knew enough to send it out. And the editors knew enough to reject it. To this day I don't like writing prose unless it might go into the world.
My first published piece, in Dialogue magazine, was not fiction. It happened because I took a correspondence course for blind writers where one lesson required a list of good titles. I ran out of fiction thoughts and, without thinking, switched to personal experience titles. One of my nonfiction titles was good so I wrote the piece to go with it. "Biking Without Boredom" was a piece about exercise bikes published in 1983. They paid me $15 and said "send more."
Soon after that, I began a free workshop at Lafayette College. I met Len Roberts- a teacher and published poet. I began writing bad poetry. I also became fascinated by Emily Dickenson. My first published poem, a haiku, came out in Dialogue in 1985.At the beginning, I wrote for blindness magazines and got involved with the National Federation of the Blind Writers' Division. That involvement made others think of me as a writer. It took longer for me to think of myself that way.
My real introduction to poetry happened after Lafayette in my first community college class. The instructor took one of my poems apart in class for about fifteen minutes with little good to say. But she said one thing that helped me more than anything. "Your ideas are wonderful; your language use sucks." When I later took classes with Len Roberts, I finally began to learn to write better poems.
WG: Given that appraisal of your work - that your ideas were great but your language sucked - how did you go about remedying it? (Assuming, of course, that you accepted his assessment.)
NS: Criticism from editors made me pay attention. I wanted my work to be published. I took writing classes, most of which were designed to critique poetry. I read more poetry and paid attention to writing and disability magazines. All of my instructors took me seriously. I am still taking a telephone poetry course from University Without Walls in New York City and I ask other poets for critique.
WG: Can you talk to us a little bit about the process you go through in writing poetry? How does writing a poem work for you?
NS: There is nothing more satisfying than a finished and published poem. I usually think of poetry as the emotional side of my writing. Lots of things trigger poems: words, phrases, ideas, memories, moods and exercises. I almost always try for a whole first draft. Then, I revise a lot. Ten to fifteen drafts for a poem are usual. The poems that don't work stay in rough draft files. I also keep an ideas file that is messy and fun. Most of my poems are short. Most don't rhyme and are in free verse. Sometimes, though, I'll play with forms.
I can create poems in my talking word processor now but, at some point, I need them in Braille under my fingers. I now have time to write, but I still need deadlines and possible publications and other discipline tricks like I'llone big writing project per week." Usually, it just takes a few hours of reading poetry to get me into writing it. But, if that fails, my next class starts in October so I must have five poems ready.
WG: You mentioned being fascinated by Emily Dickinson when you first began writing. One comment that several women writers have made to me in previous interviews is that when they first began to take writing classes, they were still reading poets like Yeats or Eliot and were told by their instructors that they were going to have to begin reading contemporary writers. Did you experience anything like this? Which writers would you say have had the biggest influence on your poetry and what do you think attracts you about their work?
NS: Before Emily Dickenson, I mostly read poems forced on me in high school and college. That never made me want to write poetry. In my first creative writing class-the one with the tough instructor-I was introduced to Hayden Caruth's work. He was the first poet I heard read live. I liked his poetry, but more than that, I wanted to do what he did. After that, there were more poets. A friend sent me a tape of Stephen Dunn and I liked him. Len Roberts had a major influence on my poetry. He was the first person who said I had a good ear.
I've read everything from May Sarton to Mary Oliver to Naomi Shihab Nye, although there isn't much available of the latter poets in audio or Braille. I've heard readings by Paul Muldoon, Molly Peacock, Gerald Stern and Billy Collins. I still want to do what they can do.
There are things you remember from lots of encounters. John Timpane taught classes here when he was working at Lafayette College. He said that all food poems are actually about sex. Things like that are impossible to forget.
On my Braille pile, I currently have Mary Oliver's Wild Geese and two poems by lesser known writers. Some poems just speak to me. I hope people will keep my poems on their messy shelves and pull them out when they need them.
WG: Nancy, you brought up a couple of points that I would like to discuss a little bit more. The first has to do with the audio books. In the March issue of Wordgathering we reviewed Dave and Dan Simpson's Audio Chapbook, a very successful recording that works well not only for listeners with visual impairments but for sighted readers who want to listen to poetry as they drive or relax. In fact, the Simpsons' book is available only on audio CD. I know that Steve Kuusisto also has audio recordings of his work and, I believe, you also made an audio copy of your last book. How important do you believe it is for poets who are blind or visually impaired to make audio recordings? Are audio recordings with the projects that you have been involved with something that you have tried to promote?
NS: Sighted people are more used to listening now. Some sighted people say they like hearing me read my work. Also, many blind people don't read Braille so an audio format is acceptable for them. I would not like to publish a book without an accessible format.
My first book was produced in Braille and then in print. The Brailling organization gave me a good deal on cost, but they no longer exist. In general audio is more accessible.
I've advertised in disability magazines and I do readings and always have books for sale. Being non-technical and unable to drive limits my marketing ability.
WG: Dan Simpson relates that when he first started writing he was concerned about line length - how the poem looked on paper. When poet Molly Peacock reviewed his poems she asked why he cared about visual line length when what was really important for him in the composition of poems was sound. That set off a bit of a light for Dan and he realized that this was the case, that being blind was an organic part of the poetry that he wrote. Steve Kuusisto's poems are full of the images of the way that he perceives light, images whose philosophical implicates he develops. To what extent do you think that being blind has influenced both the content and style of your writing?
I still think about line breaks, but line breaks happen for many reasons. You might want emphasis or sound or a pause or to pull readers to the next line. And sometimes, it's intuition. None of my instructors talked about line breaks differently with me. Most of my published poetry appears in print so it needs to work on the page.
I don't think that blindness has influenced my style, but it has influenced my content. Sometimes, I write poems about blindness. Also, I probably write about hearing more than the average sighted poet. I do avoid long poems about sunsets and the like. When I need details, I ask friends. Sighted people are surprised that my poetry is so imagistic. I always want specific images and better language. I don't need lots of details; just the right details.
WG: I'd like to switch gears for a minute and talk about a piece you recently had published in Behind Our Eyes "Keeping an Artist's Journal". Will you talk a little bit about what prompted you to keep an artist's journal and what you think the value of it is? What do you think that you learned from the process? I was also curious to know if this is an excerpt from a longer work.
NS: As I said in Behind Our Eyes , I first needed to track writing and revising hours. Five hours of writing and revising time per week was one of my annual goals in the early 1990s.
I learned a great deal from the journal about my artistic process and patterns. I found tricks that worked and frustrations. I found quotations and the books I loved. Every six months or so, I would re-read at least that year's entries. I would often find pieces I had started but never finished and I would revisit some of them. And it was amazing how motivated (guilty) I felt when I didn't write for several weeks in a row.
The piece itself mentions many of my motivations. I had worked on shorter versions of it. I asked Marilyn [editor Marilyn Brandt Smith]if she would like to see a longer version. Writing that piece was very personal for me. I suspect I'm closer to the end of my writing career and perhaps I needed to write a retrospective piece. It was really hard to edit. Maybe I was too close to it. I would like to write more intimate work, but I'm still not sure if I am good enough at it. But journal form helps. It is also the longest article I've ever had published.
Maybe I needed to see, in print, that I actually had a long writing life. I think you don't always see the big picture while you are doing each step. I wanted other authors to know the power of such a journal. Everyone has unique ways to develop artistic joy and discipline. What are your annual goals? What kinds of work do you finish? What time of day do you write? Where and how do you work? What inspires you? What are your consistent bad writing habits?
A good friend is helping me with emails. Kathy is also my first reader. Without her, this would take much longer.
WG: In looking back at the big picture that your journal provided you with, how would you say that your poetry has changed since your first began writing? When you write a poem today, what is it that you are trying to accomplish.
NS: At first, all of my poems were very short. These days, I'm more willing to draft longer works. I always want to make people think and to get my work into the world. Normally, whatever inspires the poem drives the poem. Sometimes, a line will come to me and change everything. Also, someone will critique a poem and suggest something I hadn't considered. I hope my judgment and ability to edit my own work have improved, but I'm not always sure that is true.
WG: Most poets who have written for quite a while when looking back upon their initial work see that what they were writing when they were younger differs substantially from what they now write. This may, of course, be merely that they see the original poetic techniques that they were using as naive or immature, but even when they feel that their first poems were good ones, they now see their purposes for writing in a different way. It is a change in aesthetics that I think most would consider growth - or at least a metamorphosis. So my question is, aside from what others may have to say about your work, how do you personally feel that you have grown as a poet? An alternative way of asking that question might be, how do you look at poetry differently now?
NS: It is hard for me as a poet to analyze my own work Perhaps I write fewer inspirational poems now. Some of the early poems rather badly rhymed. But I like some of my early work. And I feel out of my depth analyzing my own work. I hope I've always tried for best effort and energy on the page. But I still wait for the muse or the dead relatives to send me great lines. I owe them a lot. What I think of my poetry matters less to me than what other people think of it.
WG: Nancy, I want to thank you for taking part in this interview for Wordgathering and give you a chance to add anything else you would like to say about your work that perhaps we have not covered.
NS: My writing life has largely been propelled by happy accidents. Because of this, I believe that I was called to write. I still hope to get published in some big journals so I can brag and be thoroughly obnoxious. But I also hope that I have given back. Writing gave me a reason to know where forward was. It's easy to focus on the difficulties, but there has been a lot of fun along the way. Thanks for asking me to do this. Reflection is sometimes a good thing.