I came to know Molly when I took a class from her called “Getting Your Work Out.” With her no-nonsense advice, her gentle and constructive questions, and her soothing, archetypal voice, she helped me get to a point where I was submitting regularly and objectively, instead of sporadically and with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. #forevergrateful.
I recently read Molly’s newest book, Blow-Drying a Chicken: Observations from a Working Poet (more on that title later in the interview), and loved it so much I wanted to know more about how this book came to be in the world. But before we begin, here’s a public service announcement:
Molly Fisk will teach a five-day on-line workshop on essay writing that begins this Sunday (9/22): Essay Bootcamp, a variation on her popular Poetry Boot Camp. For more information, contact her through her website.
And now, Reader, I give you Molly Fisk:
MS: This book came out of a weekly radio address broadcast by your local radio station KVMR. How did you first land such a sweet gig?
MF: I didn’t even land it, it was handed to me by KVMR’s News Director at the time (2004) Carolyn Crane, who said I could write about whatever I wanted to. I worried for a couple of hours, thinking I might not be able to dream up enough things to say. And I’d been a poet for 13 years by then, but not writing any prose at all except for letters. The friend I called for some advice said to me, “YOU? Not have something to say?!?!” in such a tone of voice that I was startled, and then laughed, and then took the job.
The corollary information is that I’d been a broadcaster for 5 years by then, and people were often saying that my voice was great on the radio, so that helped. And I had loved Bailey White when she was on NPR, too. So those two things helped egg me on to try it. And here I am still doing it, at 6:25 p.m. Pacific Time on Thursdays as part of the News Hour. (You can hear me streaming at kvmr.org) Three minutes. This week was a re-run, but next week will be essay #296.
MS: Three minutes. That’s not a lot of time — maybe as long as we sit at a red light waiting for it to turn green (and here in the Peninsula Town, maybe not even that long!). What was it like to work with a three-minute time constraint? In what ways was that constraint a challenge and a gift?
MF: It was incredibly hard at first, because they don’t mean three minutes and 30 seconds, or two minutes and 45 seconds, they mean three minutes, give or take 10 seconds. So I did a lot of reading aloud on the sofa to my cats – trying not to speed up or slow down, but to develop an even pace where the words could be understood and I wasn’t sounding too ponderous. In my normal speech there are lots of gaps and pauses, which I tried not to indulge in for the essays.
At the beginning, I think I wrote four in a row, and then practiced to get them to the right time. I wanted to have some in my back pocket in case one week I couldn’t think of anything to write. Now I have done so many I can just re-run things if I get sick or need to go out of town or just feel blocked.
The big unexpected gift has been that writing for radio taught me how to edit. When you’re writing for print, and you have an editor, you’re in luck – you can learn that way. Someone says “where is this going? you’re off the point” and you take it out or develop it more. But with this time constraint and no editor, I had to learn to do that for myself. I almost always write in a joke or a tangent that I love and then have to take it out again. Now I think I take it out before the sentence is even completed, with a kind “there you go again,” to myself in passing. The quote “kill your darlings” is attributed to about 15 different writers – I don’t know who originally said it. But it turns out to be quite true. The minute you like something quite a lot, you know it will probably come out because one reason you can even see it enough to like it is that it’s not in the flow of the rest of the work. It’s sticking out a little bit. And that means it won’t work when the whole piece is done. It’s like the kid in the 5th grade photo wearing orange when everyone else is wearing blue.
The other thing I learned about writing for radio is that big words can screw things up. You have to be able to speak clearly and make sense. Three minutes is longer than you would ever wait for a red light, even in your neighborhood – those are probably a minute and a half – but it’s not very long, and your audience is listening, not reading along. So you have to give them the gist of things quickly and seamlessly. I do throw in a lot of vernacular and words I learned from my grandmother – I say “ice box” and “groovy” and “whippersnapper,” which aren’t in your run-of-the-mill 21st century sentences much any more. But I do that in a calculated way. Ice box is a lot easier to pronounce than refrigerator, actually, when you come down to it. And that’s not manufactured for radio. I’ve been saying it since I was a kid, because my mother did.
MS: (*looking around sheepishly for so grossly misoverestimating how long I wait at traffic lights*) Aha, now we’re talking diction. My inner-poet’s ears just pricked right up. I’m curious: what has writing poetry taught you about writing radio commentary, and what has writing radio commentary taught you about writing poetry?
MF: Both poems and radio commentary are short forms, so in terms of how much I like to bite off and chew (or how long my attention span is), they’re quite similar. There’s more room in poetry for open space, silence, big leaps of understanding. In radio, dead air is frowned on, so you have to kind of rush right along most of the time. And in that rushing you don’t want to trip over your own tongue. I still probably use more convoluted words and phrases than the average NPR reporter, partly because that’s how I think and speak and partly because community radio has a little more leeway to be casual than big-time radio does. But I do always have my ear out for something that I might write easily but that would be hard to say out loud.
An example is the word “sesquicentennial.” When I moved to Nevada City, the town was getting ready to celebrate its 150th anniversary. Now as a show-off, I would love to be blurting out “sesquicentennial” on the radio at every possible opportunity. But as someone who likes to record in one take, and who knows how a tongue-twister can gather momentum and really screw you up, I backed down and wrote “150th anniversary” when I was describing my town in an essay.
In poems, I don’t have the same constraints about tongue-twisters, even though I read them aloud to audiences, because I can go as slowly as I want to. But in poetry I have my own personal constraints about not sounding too “poetical” or mannered. People half-expect you to be a puffed up idiot already, bringing on ten-dollar words just to make them feel small. So while I don’t stop myself from using longer words that come naturally to me in speech — like exquisite or desultory — I would never put something like “pulchritude” into a poem because I wouldn’t say it out loud. It’s just not one of my words.
I don’t think radio and poetry have influenced each other much at all in this arena, it’s more what do I find natural to say and when would I say it. I’ve always thought about poetry as being my profession and radio as being more like recess or a brief vacation, where I can lark around and get a little rowdy and not worry about things. In that sense I suppose my poems are a little bit more formal and carefully thought-through.
I am lucky enough, with each form, to be able to sit down often and spit out a poem or an essay then and there. They’re not always the best ones, but I don’t have to be waiting for Euterpe or whoever the muse of poetry is to stop buffing her nails and come whack me on the head with a good idea… I can almost always find one by looking around me.
Poet Molly Fisk writes weekly essays for community radio stations in California, Colorado, Illinois and Wisconsin. She’s the author of the poetry collections, The More Difficult Beauty, Listening to Winter, and Salt Water Poems, and the audio recordings of commentary, Blow-Drying a Chicken and Using Your Turn Signal Promotes World Peace. Fisk has been awarded grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. She’s the owner of Poetry Boot Camp (poetrybootcamp.com) and can be reached at mollyfisk.com.
Reader, stay tuned for part two of this interview and a chance to win a signed copy of Blow-Drying a Chicken.