An Afternoon with Heather Christle: Dixon Professor of Creative Writing

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– image from The Poetry Foundation

There’s one position in the Wittenberg English Department unlike any of the others: the Dixon Professor of Creative Writing.  This position “is an endowed semester-long Writer-in-Residence program, designed to expand on the valuable contributions made by Mimi and Kent during their tenure here, and bring additional breadth and innovation to Wittenberg’s Creative Writing program.”  And this semester, the English Department is happy to host Heather Christle.  Read on to learn a little bit more about her and her Wittenberg experience so far:

Witty English: What were you doing prior to coming to Witt?

Heather Christle: Last semester, I was at UT Austin.  I was teaching in their MFA programs, so I was teaching graduate students who were writing poetry.  There was a workshop and then there was also a kind of lit-craft seminar where we were looking at poetry and technology, but starting with written language itself.  So going way back and thinking about technology and thinking about how poets have made use of and experimented with different technologies.

WE: How did you learn about the Dixon Professor of Creative Writing position?

HC: Gosh, I’m trying to remember now.  Well, when I moved here, I think it was like two and a half years ago, I did a bit of research to find out about institutions in the area, and Wittenberg seemed like a lovely place.  But then I saw a job posting for the Dixon professorship, which I think is such a great program, you know, to bring in visiting people and give students the opportunity to work with new voices.  It’s so important for writers.  We all have such different perspectives as teachers, different approaches.  It’s nice to get that different aesthetic variation.

WE: What classes are you teaching?

HC: I’m teaching a Beginning Creative Writing class, and then I’m teaching an Advanced Poetry class.

WE: Here’s a different kind of question, who is your favorite literary hero and why?

HC: Oh, there are too many.  And hero is an interesting word because that sort of suggests not just at their writing, but at their life in a way.  And that gets complicated because the people who are my favorite writers were not always great people.  Frank O’Hara has been a longstanding figure for me.  And he’s someone whose energy in his poems I admire a great deal, his verb, his personality.  Then, looking at his life as well, I admire the way that he so fully committed himself to thinking about visual art as well as poetry and dance.  His sensibility was informed by ideas and artists beyond just literature, and I think that that let him write some very unconventional work for the time.  That’s something that I think I aspire to as well, not limiting my inspiration to the field of literature but to see what else people are up to right now.

WE: What’s your favorite thing to write about?

HC: Well, that’s an interesting questions.  When I’m writing poems, I don’t usually make any decisions about what I’m writing about before I start writing.  So my favorite thing to write about is just whatever the poem leads me towards.  But at the moment, I’m not writing a whole lot of poetry.  I’m working on this book of prose that’s about crying, so I guess you could say, right now my favorite thing to write about is crying.  (laughs)  But that has its downsides too.  That’s heavy work sometimes.  On the whole, it’s a fairly challenging, emotional subject to spend everyday with.

WE: Do you have any weird quirks or habits that you have when you write?

HC: I notice that I do better with writing if I’ve not showered yet.  Cause somehow it’s like if I shower that marks a partition in the day, and it means I’m ready to go out into the world.  It’s better for me to stay in my disgusting pajamas drinking coffee and remaining in that kind of private sphere if I want to get some good writing done.

WE: That’s interesting.  So do you prefer writing in the morning?

HC: Very much so.  And I always have.  I haven’t been interrupted yet in any way.  I find it difficult to quiet the noise of the day if I’ve already stepped out into it.

WE: When did you know you wanted to become a writer?  Is there any specific moment in your childhood that made you say, “Oh, I want to be a writer when I grow up?”

HC: Not that I remember.  I know that I always loved language, and I always loved writing.  And I even always loved writing poetry from a very young age.  I think that it wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that there were some things that you could do to continue to exist as a poet outside of the academic setting as a student.  I was the first person in my immediate family to pursue a liberal arts education in college.  So I think I hadn’t heard of grad school when I started college or I didn’t really understand it.  But I learned there that I could go and get an MFA, which is an exciting prospect.  It was really a kind of a gradual process of it.  And I can’t remember ever deciding to be a writer.  I just kind of was always writing, and whatever opportunities presented themselves along the way to continue it, I took up on them.

WE: What do you see yourself doing in 10 years?

HC: I think pretty similar stuff to what I’m doing right now.  I very much enjoy working with people writing new work.  I love the moment in a week where I get to encounter these very new poems for the first time.  That’s so exciting, you know?  And to constantly be in the presence of newly created work.  That’s a great way to live one’s life.

WE: What advice then do you have to new writers?

HC: So that’s a question that I get asked a lot, I think, and I have a couple standard pieces of advice that I feel are generally useful.  One is to read as widely as one possibly can, so to certainly find things that you love and hold onto those, and to also push yourself to find things that you find challenging or especially difficult as a way of broadening your sense of possibilities of your art.  And especially within that to push your reading beyond what’s discoverable to those voices that may not have been for whatever reason, whatever historical reason, heard as loudly as other voices in the canon, I think that’s really important.  So that’s on the reading side, which obviously affects the writing as well.  And then on the writing side, I would say to try not to despair too much if you feel that you are failing.  To know that a great deal of writing is trying and not succeeding and that it’s easy to feel that there are these great writers out there who you adore and who you feel like you can never live up to, but know that you mostly only read the stuff that they decided was good enough to publish.  You don’t get to see all of the stuff that ended up in the trash.  So filling up your own trashcan is totally part for the course and just a part of the work.

WE: What has been the best part about teaching at Witt so far?

HC: It’s been a short time so far.  But, I think just discovering that the students are game, you know willing to take risks in their work, try new things, try things that might seem strange or uncomfortable at first.  It’s a pleasure to sort of strike out on this journey with people  and learn that they have a great deal of verb and excitement themselves and can carry things off with flair.

 

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