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"I Was Steeped in All These Ghosts": An Interview with Anna B. Sutton

Anna B. Sutton is writer and publisher from Nashville, TN. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Third Coast, The Boiler, Southeast Review, Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, Brevity, Phoebe, and other journals. She received her MFA from UNC Wilmington and a James Merrill fellowship from Vermont Studio Center. She is a poetry editor at Dialogist, nonfiction reader at Gigantic Sequins, co-founder of the Porch Writers' Collective, web editor at One Pause Poetry, and works for a publisher in North Carolina.

Her essay, "Ghosts," appeared in Issue Sixty-Five of The Collagist.

Here, Anna B. Sutton talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about revisions, vulnerability, and Wilmington, North Carolina.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay “Ghosts.” What sparked the initial idea or caused you to start writing the first draft?

When I started this piece, I was twenty-five and just realizing what it might mean to let go of some of the things that were haunting me, what we somewhat unfairly refer to as “baggage”—old pain.

During this time, I lived in the strangest town, Wilmington, NC, which has an inescapable weight to its air, the constant sense of an other, as well as many purported hauntings. It is the city equivalent of catching a shadow moving out of the corner of your eye. Unlike Savannah or New Orleans, the eeriness in Wilmington is not laced with Southern gothic charm. It feels dangerous and quite oppressive. Although I was in a warm and productive MFA program full of wonderful people, we all felt at a constant sense of unease.

Because I was steeped in all these ghosts, I wanted to explore the idea of being haunted in different ways—an unexplainable encounter in the old building where I worked, the Seneca Guns phenomenon, the death of a friend, the loss of an organ, scar tissue…all these disparate things that clung to me.

Concision is a major part of what makes this essay so powerful. A great deal of material—people, places, events, emotions—is packed into these five brief paragraphs. How did you achieve this economy of words? Does this level of brevity come through in a first draft, or is it cultivated through revisions?

Revisions. Revisions. Revisions. Revisions. While I always lean toward concise language, that doesn’t automatically make my early drafts clear and tight.

With nonfiction especially, I tend to fall into the trap of wanting to tell the whole story. Specifically, my whole story. Unfortunately, a balloon only inflates so much before it pops. I’m learning to prioritize information, to balance between enough and too much. What is important to me as a person can sometimes be a burden to me as a writer.

What seems to work is to let myself say everything I think I need to, until the piece hits a wall or crumbles under its own weight. Then I go back and cut away what isn’t necessary. I can usually trust my gut and my ear to make that determination, even if it takes a little time. I might spend months fretting over a sentence that doesn’t feel or sound right, moving and rephrasing it, only to glance at it one day and realize it isn’t vital.

If prose writing is a subtractive process for me, poetry is usually additive. I tend to write first drafts very quickly, and they are often only the meat, no bones. Then, I have to go back and add the supporting structure.

Most of your writing is poetry, but you have also published both nonfiction and fiction. What lessons have you learned from poetry that have informed how you write prose, or vice versa?

I think the primary lesson I take with me from poetry into prose is that language is important. It needs to be handled with care and intention. When I write an essay or a story, I read it aloud to myself. I want it to sound good, to hit the ear right. If I speed up or slow down, stumble or stutter, I want it to serve a purpose. It can be exhausting, and it’s a lot tougher than when I do this with poems—by the end of a prose writing session, I usually sound like Selma Bouvier—but it makes a difference.

And then, writing prose has opened up my poetry. I have written poetry for most of my life, feel the most comfortable with it, and have the greatest understanding of my inherent voice in that genre. When I started writing prose seriously, it challenged all these habits. Poetry can also be a dangerously solitary, intimate experience. Prose, in a weird way, feels more social and has taught me how to write something that is complete not just for me but for the reader.

In an interview with Grab the Lapels, you said, “I can think of a few poets from workshops whose images are so enviable, so original, so gorgeous, and so tightly phrased, but there isn’t a connection. It’s a floating image, like a really beautiful painting of a horse. Great for Jack Donaghy’s office, but ultimately forgettable.” Can you speak about how this problem might be solved? How might a writer go from just a beautiful image to establishing that real connection?

Man, if I knew a failsafe way to do that, I would spend so much less time revising and fielding rejection letters. This is something I’ve seen in peers and definitely in myself. I used to think I needed to keep secrets from my readers because that would make the writing more sophisticated, which was the exact wrong thing to do. Sophistication comes from knowing how to use your language to tell the truth, but I was using it to hide behind.

I didn’t want to be earnest because I didn’t want to be uncool; I didn’t want to be honest because I was afraid to show my vein. Especially writing about the female experience, I worried readers would think I was crazy or inappropriate. I creatively slut-shamed myself.

The turning point came in a visiting writer workshop I took with Mary Ruefle. She is this incredible, otherworldly, spirit witch genius who can see right into your soul, and that woman knows how to cut the crap. In our one-on-one meeting, I showed her a poem that I thought she would like. Instead, she went through line by line, stanza by stanza, and kept saying, “This doesn’t make sense. What do you mean?”

Obviously, Mary Ruefle could have “interpreted” my little poem with her ears plugged and a blindfold on, but the point was to get me to tell her why I was writing the poem at all. What it was about to me and what I hoped it would reveal to a reader. When I told her, all she did was look at me and ask, “Then why didn’t you just say that?”

So, after that, I went back and addressed older pieces like “Ghosts.” I made sure I was being honest about why I was writing, and in turn, my writing became more truthful and therefore more capable of striking a nerve in a reader.

Connections aren’t made with readers unless you reach out first. I guess that’s what it is. Don’t get so enamored of your cleverness, so afraid of your vulnerability, that your writing becomes closed-off. This isn’t to say that you should cut your beautiful images and interesting language, only that they can be a scaffolding instead of the entirety of the piece.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I have been writing a short story about Wilmington since July. With poetry and nonfiction, the trajectory of the piece is somewhat laid out for me. With fiction, it’s my responsibility to direct it. I’m still learning how to do that.

Otherwise, I’m starting a second book of poems. The first one is still out there trying to find a home, but it feels done, or as done as it’ll get without an editor. I’ve been doing a lot of research about animal parenting and conservation efforts, and I’m trying to figure out how to turn this pile of new poems into a cohesive manuscript.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

I work at a publishing house and have been busy editing a novel that I’m very excited about. We’ve also been busybusybusy with title submission season. That has left a large stack of books on my bedside table and a promise to read them soon.

These include Maria Hummel’s House and Fire, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (which everyone and their mother says is amazing).

A book that broke my heart in the last year was T.J. Jarrett’s Zion (also, please go now and read her first book Ain’t No Grave more than once because she is a woman who knows how to write without fear). And I’m hoping that if I keep rereading Binocular Vision and Bobcat, I’ll figure out how to successfully shape a short story.

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