Interview with Molly Fisk

The Power of Tenuous Connections—an Interview with Poet Molly Fisk
By Millicent Borges Accardi

An American poet, Molly Fisk is also a teacher, Tedx presenter and radio commentator. Fisk was born in San Francisco and earned her B.A. cum laude from Radcliffe College/ Harvard University, her M.B.A. with honors from Simmons College Graduate School of Management, and after working as a sweater designer/manufacturer (Northern Lights) and at the First National Bank of Chicago began writing at the age of 35.  She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Marin Arts Council. Her prizes include the Dogwood Prize, the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize in Poetry, the National Writer’s Union Prize, and a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She serves as Poet Laureate of radio station KVMR-FM, Nevada City and has appeared at TEDx SanFrancisco, and TEDx GrassValley.

Her teaching career includes the popular on-line workshop Poetry Boot Camp, as well as a monthly poetry prompt gathering. She has been a California Poet in the Schools and, at Sierra Nevada Hospital, Fisk created a course called “Writing to Heal,” using a technique that boosts the immune systems of cancer and cardiac patients.

The More Difficult Beauty is her latest poetry collection, and other works include Listening to Winter (Roundhouse Press/Heyday Books, 2000), Terrain (with Dan Bellm and Forrest Hamer, Hip Pocket Press, 1998), the letterpress chapbook Salt Water Poems (Jungle Garden Press, 1994) and two CDs of radio commentary: Blow-Drying a Chicken, and Using Your Turn Signal Promotes World Peace.

By marriage, Fisk is the niece of American novelist John Updike.

In this interview for Poets’ Quarterly, Molly Fisk answers questions about her writing, her teaching, and Facebook.

Poet Molly Fisk at Tedx reading in Grass Valley CA

For the past four or five years you’ve run a successful poetry prompt group, of which I am delighted to be a part of. Can you describe it for those who are unfamiliar with what I am talking about? What do you think writers can do to enhance other writers and to build a literary community? How did you start the Prompt Group? Do you have plans for its future?  

I think these three questions are related. One of the dilemmas I wrestle with is how to make money, as a person and a writer, and yet how to honor poetry as part of what Lewis Hyde, in his wonderful book The Gift, calls a gift economy. One reason poetry belongs to the gift economy is because it’s been marginalized in our culture: people in the 21st century aren’t going to pay $5000 for a poem the way they might for a painting, it just isn’t done. But poems have always been gifts, in a way: think of Homer reciting the Iliad night after night to an audience. Poetry lives in the ear and the mouth, in the air, it wasn’t originally something to commodify, it wasn’t even written down, it was an oral tradition. Maybe Homer was supported by his community: fed, housed, clothed… I hope so, but I don’t know his history.

Anyway, over the centuries we established the tradition of passing poems along to each other, by recitation, or letterpress broadside, or self-produced chapbook, or Facebook post. I want to be part of continuing this generosity, so in addition to teaching writing classes, I was looking for a way to do something on-line that would be fun, and free or cost very little, and promote poetry-writing. Lots of people want to be writing who aren’t, who haven’t found a way into the process, and I thought this could help.

I’d been on Facebook for a couple of months, and it came around to April—National Poetry Month—and I noticed that someone was organizing a writing free-for-all where he provided a prompt a day. I decided to try it, since I’m always trying to write a little more than I do. This was Robert Lee Brewer, through his blog for Writer’s Digest. So I wrote 30 poems in April, 2009, and was so happy to have so much new work that I decided I couldn’t wait until the next time he was doing it, in November, and I advertised to my own students and friends that I was going to do this myself, in June.

Now we run it five or six times a year. I say we because first one of my Poetry Boot Camp alumnae, Lisa Cihlar, a poet from Wisconsin, asked if she could do the prompts one month, and then you volunteered to do them, so I’m now only doing a third of the prompting, although I organize the on-line classroom where we work, solve technical problems that crop up, and generally do a lot of encouraging and promotion. We get anywhere from 30 to 100 participants, many of whom come back, and at the moment the fee to join us is $17 (although that’s been made optional for April’s adventure). I can’t donate my time any more, after five years I need a little bit for the amount of time I put into it. I’m still writing as well as running it, although the last year or so has been fallow for me in general, so I’m not writing to the prompts very often.

I’m committed to doing it indefinitely, as long as people want to write. I think the next fun thing would be for you and Lisa, separately or together, to compile a book of the prompts. Think how many writers and teachers could use a year’s worth of prompts! It would be a great teaching tool, a great practice tool for writers at any stage of the game.

Can you describe your writing room or the space where you write?

I do many different kinds of work, and I use different spaces for the various kinds. I’m on Facebook a lot, building community and inviting people to work with me—as well as goofing off—and that happens at my desk in the back of the kitchen, on a MacBook hooked up to a larger monitor so my 57-year-old eyes can see what they’re doing.

I almost always write first drafts of poems by hand in a notebook (it’s a notebook for everything: grocery lists, what to be when I grow up, marketing ideas, poem drafts, radio commentary drafts, lists of chores I probably won’t get to for another three months, etc.). I get my notebooks and pens (Uniball Signos) at a stationery store in San Francisco’s Japan town, a three-hour drive from my house. That’s the only place I can find Uniballs in the .38 size—the U.S.-made ones only go down to .5 and I like them to be finer.

I write poems on my couch, or sometimes at my favorite café (Sierra Mountain Coffee Roasters). I write the radio commentary about half the time at the café and half the time somewhere else: down at the river if it’s summer, in my car parked somewhere, or if I’m really under the gun I’ll type the first draft into the computer, but I don’t like to do that if I don’t have to.

I grew up doing my homework at the kitchen table, with three siblings, two dogs, a cat, the dishwasher running, my parents milling around, the TV on in the next room half the time, and I feel very comfortable trying to focus when there’s a lot of bustle around. Café-writing calms me down rather than frazzles me, but I know it drives some of my friends insane just to hear this.

For my on-line classes, I critique poems on the computer, at my desk. If I’m teaching in person, it’s either in my living room or on my deck, depending on the season, and larger classes I hold at the café, which can accommodate 30 people or more. The cancer classes are at the hospital in a conference room, which I’m always a little afraid isn’t healthy for the participants. I’d rather have them in a more colorful, less antiseptic space, but they all know where the hospital is, and sometimes they need to be at MD appts. before or after, so it’s easier to do it there. When you’re a cancer patient, the hospital becomes so central, it’s oddly safe, I think.

I coach my clients either on the telephone or in my home-office, which is a little 12 x 10 building off my deck. I have a massage table there, so I can do bodywork if that’s called for, or sometimes we go for a walk or go swimming together, just to get the brain and the problem we’re working on some fresh air. The brain is wily enough that you have to surprise it fairly often to get real change to happen. (My coaching style is not traditional, as you can see.)

Your teaching work is varied and one of your jobs is teaching Writing to Heal, a technique that boosts the immune system, to cancer patients at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. What’s the most rewarding part?

I love being with people who cut to the chase. All the constituents I’ve taught: incest survivors, Viet Nam vets, cancer patients, even the kids with California Poets in the Schools, these are people who don’t tarry over bullshit. They’ve either been hurt and have no time for the surface disguises, or they’re young and haven’t really learned them yet. The social junk isn’t getting in the way of their true feelings, their true lives, the bedrock that makes for good writing. And usually they’re relieved to have me not go there either, so we get along well, and get down to it. With the cancer patients, the most rewarding part is when they live, of course, and not all of them do, but it’s mostly just how real they know how to be, now that they’ve faced their own deaths, the culture’s fear of talking about death, and learned in some way to reconcile the two.

You are related by marriage as niece to the novelist John Updike. Was he a presence in your childhood? Did he have any writing advice for you?

Ah, Uncle John. Before he passed away we’d have a friendly postcard once in a while but he was never someone who much wanted to schmooze with anyone, and definitely not his nieces and nephews. He was a big presence in my childhood, because we spent half of each summer with the Updikes, either in Ipswich (MA) or on Martha’s Vineyard. Four kids in my family, four in theirs, and the four parents. It was kind of a zoo, so I have memories more of the group of grown-ups playing tennis or volleyball and drinking cocktails than any of them individually. We knew he was famous, because people acted weird around him and sometimes chased us in the car when they recognized him. And often young male writers would want to come and hang out with him on the Vineyard, Nick DelBanco being the one I remember the most.

I think probably the big influence was growing up with a backdrop of interesting language and bon-mots, although John was only one of the people who slung those around. My dad was very funny, my mother and her sister Mary (John’s first wife) and their mother were excellent at the droll sarcastic New England jab, and my father’s mother was full of wonderful turns of phrase. The whole bunch of them were equally influential, but John’s language tended to be more perfectly thought out, he didn’t do much blurting.

My favorite line of his was what he said to my dad when they both divorced the Pennington sisters the same year (1976). My father said something to the effect of, “John, this is awful, we aren’t even related anymore!” And John replied, without missing a beat: “Irving, we are now connected by something so tenuous, nothing can break it.”

Millicent Borges Accardi, a Portuguese-American poet, is the author of three poetry books: Injuring Eternity, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, and Only More So. She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the arts (NEA), CantoMundo, the California Arts Council, Fundação Luso-Americana (FLAD), and Barbara Deming. The Voice Behind the Words, a collection of interviews with Portuguese-American writers, is forthcoming from Edwin Mellen press. @TopangaHippie (on Twitter)