I want to thank Allison Boyd Justus for answering my questions for the Meet the Writer series. You can read more about her work at her website, or check out her newest book of poetry, Solstice to Solstice to Solstice, now available from Alternating Current Press.
Grab the Lapels: What was the first poem you wrote that you remember being happy with?
Allison Boyd Justus: I was very, very happy with a poem I wrote in second grade. It was “published” in one of those “anthologies” of poetry by children. It was something of a scam — no contributor copies; I think the organization made its money selling $40 books to parents and grandparents of the children whose work was included. But I was so proud of my poem “My Cat.” I copied it out into several different notebooks over a period of at least three years. The same illustration, too. I’m a little embarrassed to think of that now — such a self-important young artist, basking in the glory of a single success for so long. But I also feel some admiration for my younger self’s ability to savor and feel satisfied with a finished piece, to take such full enjoyment in my own creation.
GTL: What is your writing process like? Which do you favor, starting or revising?
ABJ: Starting and revising are so different that it’s hard to say which I prefer, but maybe I favor revision in that I gravitate toward it. I love the ordering, the arranging. It feels like sculpture to me. When I was a child I spent hours and hours sculpting and re-sculpting tunneled cities in the sandbox, or building elaborately patterned structures from blocks, and when I’m revising poetry I sometimes feel my mind working in that same way. Also, I at least have raw material by that point, so I have some thing to act upon, and I feel I have little to lose even in wild experimentation. I can work in hope, confident the piece can only get better. I usually don’t fear damaging a piece until I’m down to making the final calls between one word and another.
The initial creation can be terrifying. It can be electric and thrilling, or it can be torturous, grinding, even humiliating — and the feeling that accompanies the initial creation may not correspond at all to the quality of the work! It’s terrifically frustrating. I do feel like I have something to lose at that stage — as if there’s a certain current in the air, and I have to position my mind or kite just right to catch it, and if I don’t catch it, I’m never getting off the ground. At least, that’s what it feels like. That may not be how it actually works. I try not to hold self-limiting beliefs, but sometimes they sneak in.
GTL: How has your writing process evolved?
ABJ: It’s evolved with my identity, I think. When I was eighteen and nineteen I lived in some kind of magic: an intense awareness of language and sensory input coupled with a sense of an almost musical narrative structure to everyday events. My friend Benjamin Apple built a website specifically for our college community (before Facebook existed), and the “journal entry” feature was my favorite. I wrote odd little anecdotes that veered off into fancy; I also kept trying to work out an understanding of absolute truth. Back then, “starting” a piece was never scary because the stakes were so low. I didn’t think of my writing as “writing”; I just wanted to celebrate truth and beauty, grasp both more deeply, and have fun with language as I tried to explain.
Alongside that rather innocent, unselfconscious creation, though, I was deeply afraid of failing to achieve my own ideals, of “polluting the world” (as I phrased it) with bad art. Since I was afraid to create art intentionally, to deliberately risk, my process couldn’t mature.
I survived several frightening bouts of depression in my early twenties. I kept journals (as I have since elementary school), but I was writing to breathe, not to create — until one day I reread something I’d written and realized it was poetry. Strange poetry, but compelling, and perhaps justifiably art. I recall a sense of giving up — in the best way, like giving in to a kiss. I gave in and acknowledged to myself that I was writing poetry and that what it did for me was worth the risk of failure.
It wasn’t long after that I embraced writing as a discipline and a vocation. That commitment strengthened my process: I could bring my idealism and perfectionism to bear on what I now saw as raw material to be wrought into finished form. I maintained a ruthless mindset toward my own work for several years. This phase was useful in that it helped me steel my nerves, hold myself to a high standard, and welcome criticism.
I’ve learned I need to shift my mindset back and forth if I’m going to stay productive. Ruthless perfectionism has its uses, but I also have a duty to protect part of my creative mind as if it is a young, playful, vulnerable creature. Sometimes I have to deliberately shield my eyes from my own standards and ideals in order to protect creativity, especially in the early stages of writing.
GTL: Do you have a relationship with book bloggers?
ABJ: I don’t know any book bloggers, but if any are reading this, hello! Let’s be friends!
GTL: What would you like readers to know about your new book, Solstice to Solstice to Solstice: A Year of Sunrises in Poetry, now published and available from Alternating Current Press?
ABJ: I really did watch sunrises for a year. That’s the answer to the most frequent question I get about the book. I had just finished graduate school, and I was living with my parents as I researched new opportunities and plotted my next steps. I was feeling depleted and craving a return to a certain way of being — whatever it was I’d experienced back when I was creating unselfconsciously and living as a poet. I wanted a sunrise, in some spiritual or psychological sense. I needed a project that would demand commitment, attention, and risk.
I also would like to say that back when I was in high school I had an incredible AP Calculus teacher — Mrs. Linda King. She was beautiful and terrifying in her love for mathematics, dedication to teaching, and expectations of her students. I sometimes hear people question the use of studying higher mathematics, especially for those who aren’t planning to go into a STEM field. While I do not “use” calculus on a daily basis, I can confidently say that studying trigonometry and calculus changed my life. That study strengthened my higher-level thinking skills, bent my brain in weird ways, and expanded my imagination. Some of that influence is evident in Solstice, along with the attention to science — and on that note, I’m adding a shout-out to another high school teacher, Mrs. Nancy McNeal! I never felt confident in that AP Physics class, but the study strengthened both my analytical thinking and my appreciation for the world around me. And I’ll never forget the mind-blowing exploration of how colors of light interact in Mrs. McNeal’s 9th grade Physical Science Honors class.
GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your book?
ABJ: So much. During the initial composition process, I learned to dig my heels in like never before — early mornings, and so many of them gray! I learned to look hard at what I saw. I re-learned to let myself enter a state of play. Play can feel aimless, but it’s a way into flight. I learned that I’m okay with life. That sounds bleak, I know, but for a person stuck feeling suicidal for months on end, being okay with life (and all its unresolved questions) is a big deal, and hard-won. I re-learned to celebrate beauty — and truth, whether I could grasp it or not — amidst pain.
I wish I could tell you that through writing this book I arrived at an exhaustive, mathematically precise understanding of absolute truth — naïve as it is, I still somehow desire that! Instead, I wandered deep into a lush forest of paradoxes: freedom and commitment; infinity arising within finitude; the unreliability of perception and the necessity of relying upon it; the concomitant inescapability and unknowability of reality; the relationship between light and shadow. I found the airy sort of existence I sought — so I learned that, yes, that state of being can be recovered, though it’s an elusive state like happiness, something to be cultivated rather than grasped.
During the process of writing I frequently felt a longing to be overtaken by beauty, truth, even God himself — and I learned what’s probably obvious to most people, that I can’t simply stroll out into the backyard at dawn and be swept up, enraptured, into the third heaven or what have you. Desiring that kind of experience does not at all entitle me to it. I may have to look hard — and work hard — to find beauty, truth, and awe. Not that those rapturous kinds of experiences don’t happen — sometimes they do, most often not on demand. Commitment and persistence are what really count here. They build the house which makes an inner hospitality toward new experience and new learning possible.
Throughout the initial writing process, I kept watching whimsy wrestle with skepticism. In examining perception, language, and thought, I found all untrustworthy. I ran up against limits. Yet I must trust perception, else how could I make it through the world — or through any physical space? How could I know anything? I encountered the same kind of tension in language and thought: I must trust at least some words to convey truth, some thought to progress understanding.
It isn’t useful or healthy to embrace every thought, but I get to choose. If I don’t get angry or panic, I start to feel strangely light when I think this way — as if all of reality or life is a game — which itself could be a terrifying thought, except that games are usually fun. So instead of the paralysis of uncertainty or despair, I’ll choose life, that I and those around me and after me may live.
Words mediate experience — they communicate it, but they shape and change it, too, don’t they? There are moments in which awed silence is the best and most truthful response — yet at some point, how can I but speak of what I’ve seen and heard?