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Words of Wisdom

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy . . .

— George Orwell

April 2008

EVAN: Do you want to know what it really takes to get your work published?  Well I sat down with Dr. Paul Dr. Christensen one more time and asked him exactly that.  What makes the best writing the best writing?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: It’s a wonderful question, and I’m not sure that I’m going to do complete justice to it because maybe no one can.  But I will say it is something like this, and I’m really stepping off a cliff here you know to get us back to the cartoon world.  But one thing that I think separates the exceptional writer from everybody else is the capacity to look at oneself as another person.  To stand outside the range of that person’s ego and to become thoroughly critical and objective about who one is and to be able to write recklessly and comprehensively about that person’s inner life without being ashamed or holding back anything.  So that oneself becomes almost an artistic object to be probed and examined through language.  One other thing more difficult to put into words is some writers are just lucky enough to be more representative of what America is than are other writers.  So that what they think becomes instantly recognizable by the readers who pick up that book.  They see themselves instantly in that person.  For example, if a poet can jump into those big, big roles, they will get big audiences for sure.  And you have to ask yourself that question: who were the Beatles that every youth population in the world saw themselves in what they were singing?  Their songs were lonely; they never really felt requited or gratified by the love, by the sex of another person.  They were searching for values that they knew their parents couldn’t give them or that society and the status quo wouldn’t provide.  So “All you need is love,” or “Love is all you’ll ever need,” “Give peace a chance,”  “Imagine there’s no heaven.”  I mean all of these things were quest figures in the global youth mind, and a more adult and sophisticated kind of rebellion and disillusionment with the 60’s comes out of the voices of Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan.  You know, wow, imagine being able to wrap your voice around something as broad and universal as youth in the streets not wanting war and looking for other values that would make for harmony and a decent life.  And he had it; he had it in every song.

EVAN: Can you explain to me the publishing process?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: Well the actual process should begin with what makes a poem come to life I guess.  And I don’t think any of the poets that I’ve mentioned would disagree with me that it’s a crapshoot.  It’s a total lottery whether or not this thing that you feel you’re carrying around your head’s getting heavier you got to get this thing out on paper some how or other, or it might begin with an absolute sense of void in you and a complete indifference a total blank when you go to the type writer. And then you start writing, and then it’s all of a sudden something makes you sit up and stare and say, ‘Did I write this? Where is this coming from?’  And then you continue with it, and then you start to clean it up, and the more you clean it up the shinier it gets and the harder it gets so that there’s nothing soft in it anymore.  The whole thing should feel like a beautiful rock by the time you’re done with it so that there’s no more dirt that you can scrape off of the thing so that there’s no loose piece of mica that your finger nail could pry loose.  Finally you’re at a poem where not one word can be budged without the whole thing falling to pieces.  Then you know you’ve got it; you’ve got a good poem, or you think you do.  Some writers do this, they might have a friend who will read, come in and look at it and say, ‘Wow, this is really, really tight.’  Then you say, ‘Ah, you like that ah?’  Then you batch it up with three or four other poems and you put it in an envelope because you know that there are these three different journals out there that publish this kind of work.  Well, what kind of work?  Well, let’s say a very realistic kind of gritty but with a slightly sardonic or ironic twist at the end, which is your style, and you know that if three editors out there that are always looking for that they don’t want the soppy stuff.  They don’t want the soft and sentimental; they don’t want the radically innovative or experimental where language is upside down and figures are emerging out of the type and all that kind of stuff.  They’re not interested in that.  So you say, ‘Okay, these are my guys.  Okay, here’s my first choice, second choice, third choice.’ Well, send them off.  And you have a return envelope with stamps on it and maybe write a little letter.  It’s very optional.  But you can say, ‘Dear editor,’ and if you know the guy’s name, so much the better.  ‘You know I really enjoyed your last two issues and I’ve noticed a real turn towards this sort of things that I’m interested in, particularly this poem ‘May Apples’ by so-and-so.’  So that the editor knows you’ve done your homework.  All right, ‘Please consider these poems and I hope within the next couple of months to hear back from you.  Thank you, sincerely yours, Evan Shulman.’  Well, you get it back in six months with a little faded mimeographed or Xeroxed statement that says, ‘The editors have carefully reviewed your poems and have decided, regretfully, that they don’t work for this magazine.  We wish you all the luck in the world in your future pursuits.  Sincerely, the editors, Canyon Review Press.’

EVAN: What happens if these publishers don’t like your work?

DR. CHRISTENSEN: Well you suck it up.  A lot of writers say, ‘That’s it. That insults me.  I’m not sending this guy anything anymore.’  Except if you put yourself in the editor’s chair, and so you got to keep bugging them.  You got to keep sending good stuff until finally he says, ‘I know this name, where do I know this name from?  Evan, Evan, what’s that, what, ya, ya, ya I think, I think, oh I know, ya sure, he sent me some stuff before.  Let me read it a little more slowly this time.’  Then you might possibly break through.  Well guess what.  The other two editors rejected you, but now they see that you’re in one of these magazines that publishes work they like and so when you start to send to them these editors are on a kind of alert for your name.  And if they see something they say, ‘Ya, ya, ya. This guy’s getting around; this is pretty good.’  But you may not actually hit this process.  You may in fact only find that your work, though you’re not aware of it, really, really needs much more discipline, much more editing, and better ideas, better sorts of language—all those things, which you’ll get in time if you stick with it.  But a lot of would-be writers probably say, after thirty or fifty rejections, they say, ‘Ahh, this is not for me.’  But it’s a tough process.  I always tell writers who are very, very serious, I say, ‘Get a lead gut so that you can stand the disappointment.’  Writers who have been writing all their lives and have published thousands of poems and twenty odd books will tell me, ‘You know, if I took my name off this manuscript it would be rejected.’  And they know that but the name is now doing all the talking.

EVAN: Well, that concludes our interview with Dr. Paul Dr. Christensen.  I’d like to sincerely thank him for coming to the studio to talk with us.

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