Ellery Akers on Failure as the Normal Practice of Writing
An interview with Ellery Akers, from The Write Stuff series:
Ellery Akers is the author of two books of poetry, Knocking on the Earth and Practicing the Truth, as well as a children’s novel, Sarah’s Waterfall. She has won 13 national awards, including the Poetry International Prize, the John Masefield Award, and an Independent Book Publishers Award. Her poetry has been featured in The American Poetry Review, The New York Times Magazine, and on National Public Radio. An award-winning visual artist as well, Akers exhibits her paintings and drawings in galleries and museums nationally. She has taught writing at Cabrillo College and at conferences and currently teaches private poetry workshops. She lives in Marin and likes to write and paint outdoors.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I’m a writer and an artist. And I teach writing.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
Staying present and centered. Working on climate change issues without getting discouraged.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Fail joyously on a regular basis. I was lucky enough to take a workshop with William Stafford, who said, “Lower Your Standards.” Quantity is what you’re after: pile up those bad freewrites. If you succeed in having fun and writing junk, you’ve met your goal. Quality only appears in flashes. We don’t see Muriel Rukeyser’s wastebasket, but that was what made her a poet. Failure is the normal practice of writing: I often get one page out of thirty. Marvin Bell says: “It’s more important to write badly than to write well, for writing well always involves some imitation of the routine, while writing badly always involves something original and raw.”
Lowering your standards is one of the five “secrets” of writing I teach my students. The others are: stealing words whenever you read and keeping an ongoing word list of strong verbs and nouns, as well as a list of names—names of clouds, plants, etc; using repeated phrases in the beginning of a line, so the inner critic we all have thinks you’re just filling in the blank and leaves you alone (good repeated phrases I use are I can still remember and That was the year); freewriting rapidly, a practice I call blather; and always including the senses and the body.
You have to keep taking risks. If you find you’re repeating yourself with one competent poem after another, try something new—prose poems, persona poems—anything to go back to writing that’s alive.
It’s helpful to have other passions that feed your writing—birdwatching, say, or baseball.
It’s crucial to have a writing group for ongoing critique and encouragement. Don’t do this alone. Take classes. Go to conferences and readings.
Don’t give up when you’re rejected. My second book was turned down for ten years.
Find books with poetry prompts and do exercises. Good ones are: Getting the Knack, by William Stafford and Stephen Dunning; and In the Palm of Your Hand, by Steve Kowit, Read the classics: Whitman, Dickinson, The Bible to be Read as Living Literature.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Yes. I feel lucky to be able to do work that has meaning for me. I write, paint, teach, and spend a lot of time outdoors, all of which I love. I’m grateful to have had books published and paintings exhibited, but being able to make art is what success is all about.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I always wanted to be a writer. Some time between 10 and 14 I read Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, and it electrified me and inspired me to spend as much time outdoors as possible.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
The ideal: camping in the Sierras by a lake with my sweetie and several close friends. Seeing the granite sparkle. Waking up listening to Western Wood Pewees calling and watching the shadows of Lodgepole pines flickering across the tent. Singing at night and looking at the stars as they blur in the water.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
An end to fracking. A reversal of climate change.
What are you working on right now?
A collection of prose poems, The Parallel and Not Inferior World. A prose nature memoir. A series of paintings and drawings, Love Letters to the Earth.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
Because I write a lot about wilderness, I admire poets who are able to describe nature in pure clear terms and yet never lose a sense of mystery: Linda Gregg, Kenneth Rexroth, W.S. Merwin, Li Ching Chao.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
Forty years ago I taped an aspen leaf in a sketchbook, and last year, cleaning up, I opened the sketchbook: the leaf was still soft and green, though the scotch tape had turned yellow. I wondered if I should mention this to a botanist. The next day, the leaf had vanished: the only thing left was a stain.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
With 50 words you can write a poem. With 50 dollars you can make a donation to Rain Forest Trust and save about 100 acres of rain forest.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Tarweed. The sea. Buckwheat and gravel after a rain.