“The Way You Might Search a Dark Attic”: A Conversation with Faith Shearin, Author of Lost Language and winner of the 2021 NOR nonfiction contest

By Kay Keegan

Kay Keegan: Describe your writing practice and how you sustain it. Has your process changed over the course of your writing career? How about during the pandemic?

Faith Shearin: I write in little notebooks. I keep one in my bedroom under the bedside table, two in the study, one in the kitchen where it is frequently stained by soup, and one in the back seat of my car. These notebooks are full of images that seem to require my attention. One of my professors in graduate school, Thomas Lux, recommended writing ten pages a week about anything that captured my imagination; he though the act of putting pen to paper regularly kept a writer in touch with their own unconscious and creativity. (Two of my favorite books for writers The Artist’s Way and Writing Down the Bones offer similar advice.) He taught me to revisit this stream of consciousness writing with a highlighter the way you might search a dark attic with a flashlight if you were seeking love letters or fine china. I have managed to keep this habit in place, mostly because I enjoy routine and solitude. I write, in part, to see what I think since this is not always immediately apparent. In a letter to [her] literary mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily Dickinson wrote: “I had terror since September, I could tell none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.” Like Emily, I also write because I am afraid. I wrote much less than usual during the pandemic; my daughter came home from college and we went hiking together among the rows of slate headstones in old New England cemeteries; we hiked through the remains of four towns that were drowned to create the Quabbin Reservoir; we made soups, and tie dyed masks, and watched every rerun of Northern Exposure and M*A*S*H.

KK: What are you reading currently? Has there been a book you’ve obsessed over and couldn’t stop thinking about (or talking about) in the last year or so?

FS: I have been reading and rereading Lisel Mueller’s Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. I am haunted by so many of the poems in this collection, particularly “Monet Refuses The Operation” in which Mueller allows Monet to explain his affection for his failing sight: “I tell you it has taken me all my life/ to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,” Monet refuses to have his eyes fixed because he “will not return to a universe/ of objects that don’t know each other…” Mueller’s poems are expertly crafted and intensely moving; I find I am more hopeful and less lonely after reading them.

KK: In a previous interview with The Writer’s Almanac, you described yourself as a “failed fiction writer.” Can you describe any (real or imagined) shortcomings in your fiction that turned out to be strengths when you began writing more poetry?

FS: The fiction I wrote during graduate school often lacked plot. I wrote complete short stories in which almost nothing happened. Maybe a dog would vomit, or the sky would change color. I spent hours tinkering with the prose itself and, like Flaubert, placing and removing commas. I might have gone on and on like this but my roommate, a poet, invited me to share a private conference with her professor, Mark Doty. Writing the weekly poems for that conference became the highlight of my week. Doty gave me prompts, and books from his shelves, and I found, during that part of my life, that poetry was simply more available to me. (I did eventually become a fiction writer, but not in my early 20s.) When I was working on a poem, plot was no longer a problem; my attention to language was suddenly desirable.

KK: New Ohio Review was lucky enough to publish your poem, “Keeping Warm.” The language is so beautiful and haunting in its simplicity. It’s like a modern Sara Teasdale poem. Would you mind telling us about the inspiration behind this poem?

FS: After my husband died of a heart attack in 2018 I came undone. He died early in November and, immediately afterwards, I found myself plunged into a deep Massachusetts winter. I bought a half dozen pairs of mittens but I was so distracted I lost all of them; I left them on park benches, and in diners, or I just dropped them at the park while I was poking at my phone, so my hands were always cold. I was living in a drafty Victorian house: my bed was vast and cold, my living room was silent and cold, the staircase to my front door was eternally covered in ice. When I walked the dog my breath was ghostly, and I woke each morning to snow drifts and the scraping of plows. The cold was like death, or the cold was death, and I was trying, literally and metaphorically, to keep warm. This, I think, was the main inspiration for the poem, though I was also thinking about how it felt to be widowed at 49, after 24 years of marriage, about my new identity in a household that no longer contained my husband or daughter, about being alone. The fact that old boyfriends could remember me as a woman rather than a widow was significant in those early days; texting with them was one way I survived.

KK: In general, where does a poem begin for you? Does it start with an image, a line, a theme? Has there been a moment recently where you’re seen or heard something and immediately thought, “I’ve got to use that.”

FS: Most of my poems begin with images I can’t forget. For instance, this past summer, I was hiking in the woods when I came across the leg of a fawn; it had been ripped off at the hip joint and was all that remained of a baby deer. The leg was thin and dainty with a small, polished hoof. I thought of so many things when I saw it: the absence of the rest of the body, the hunger and jaws of the beast that had devoured it, the brevity of the fawn’s life, the way I used to enjoy watching fawns nap in the high grass of my meadow in West Virginia. My daughter had noticed a disoriented fawn passing through our neighborhood the day before and we felt certain that she had seen it wandering through the last hours of its life. I tried to imagine what had eaten the fawn. I considered the leg itself lying in the lush, green undergrowth of summer. I am still working on the poem that began with this image in one of the aforementioned notebooks.

KK: Do you ever like to give yourself formal constraints when you write or does the form of a poem take shape during revision?

FS: With the exception of very occasional pantoums or sestinas I do not tend to write in form. I find the rigid forms constrict possibilities for me rather than opening them up. I admire so many sonnets and villanelles but I have rarely found pleasure in writing them myself. I will, however, try shaping a failed poem I am struggling with into a form, in a final attempt to resuscitate it, and this has occasionally yielded an interesting result.

KK: Can you recommend any poetry collections that are absolutely spellbinding even for people who claim they don’t understand poetry?

FS: There are two gorgeous poetry collections I recommend to people who find poetry difficult: Claudia Emerson’s Late Wife and Like a Beggar by Ellen Bass. Both are accessible and moving.

KK: What are you working on now? Is there anything you’d like to promote?

FS: In 2020 I published a book of poetry, Lost Language, with Press 53 which was written at Yaddo the September after my husband died; it was composed more swiftly than my other books and contains, among other things, a poem that considers Amelia Earhart’s final distress calls and a poem about the iceberg that sank the Titanic. The great surprise for me, though, is that after years of devouring the young adult fiction of JK Rowling, CS Lewis, Edith Nesbitt, Philip Pullman, and Neil Gaiman I have written two YA novels myself and that these novels Lost River, 1918 and Horse Latitudes won Leapfrog’s inaugural YA Global Fiction Prize. It turns out that I am a late bloomer, that I did finally locate my plot, and that the fiction I was meant to write is the sort that creates magical worlds where housewives can also be mermaids and the dead can return to the living.

Kay Keegan is an Assistant Nonfiction Editor for New Ohio Review. Her essays can be found on Essay Daily and Hobart, and she’s had photography published in the New York Times. She’s pursuing a PhD in English at Ohio University, but prefers running, crocheting, playing chess, and visiting the tempestuous mistress that is the sea.

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