The Usonian Interviews, No. 7: Poet Shannon K. Winston on her new poetry collection, "The Girl Who Talked to Paintings"
Process, clarity vs. mystery, and finding inspiration in artwork
In each installment of “The Usonian Interviews,” The Usonian spotlights a new storyteller or artist from a different corner of the globe. This week, The Usonian spoke with poet Shannon K. Winston about her writing process and her new poetry collection, The Girl Who Talked to Paintings, from Glass Lyre Press. You can buy the book directly from Glass Lyre Press or Amazon. Scroll down to the end of the newsletter to read a poem from the collection.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
THE USONIAN: How and where do you find inspiration as a poet?
SHANNON K. WINSTON: I love that poetry forces me to pay attention to the quotidian. When I’m writing, I look for small details in my day that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. This is hard for me, at times, because I can be fairly rushed and oblivious to my surroundings. Writing forces me to slow down, shift my perspective, and dwell in the present. When I write, I can feel myself becoming more attuned to the smallest, everyday details.
I took a fantastic class with Nickole Brown called “Writing in the Age of Loneliness: Eco Literature and the Writer’s Task.” We had an assignment to write down all of the things we noticed during the day (however small) in a notebook. I remember seeing an orange peel in dirt and thinking: I never would have noticed this if it weren’t for this assignment. And then, suddenly, I started noticing orange peels all over town. I love the way that poetry helps me see the world in newer, more precise ways.
TU: How would you describe your writing process?
SKW: I try to write every day. Sometimes, I write for an hour, sometimes I only have ten minutes. In my course called “Miniatures,” I always encourage my students to write in “miniature” chunks of time. Writing is never easy, but consistency and regularity are helpful.
In terms of the way I approach a poem, I usually have an opening line in mind or an image that I mull over for a couple days. During this contemplative time, I explore different avenues for the poem to go and see which route seems best. I do this by jotting down notes, experimenting with form, and pursing different details to see where they lead me. There’s a lot of trial and error and I’ve learned to accept that. When I first started writing poetry, I was anxious about getting the whole poem on the page because I was afraid that I’d lose an image or idea. Now, I give myself more time and more permission to wander in the nonlinear paths of the creative process. I start with fragments and then see where they take me.
TU: What made you want to be a poet? What have been formative moments in your development as a writer?
SKW: My elementary and middle school years at Carolina Friends School really instilled in me a love of writing and creativity. I’ll always be grateful for that. In fifth or sixth grade, my teacher—Henry Walker—had us go outside for one of our first assignments. He asked us to find a spot that stood out to us and write about it. I sat by a tree trunk and started writing and writing. I was amazed by just how much I noticed. Afterwards, we read a Frost poem (or maybe an Emily Dickinson poem) about nature. Although I don’t remember much else, I have a distinct memory of thinking: I want to try to write, too.
Shortly after that experience, Carolina Friends School opened its first writing camp for middle schoolers. I enrolled and took my first poetry class.
My creative path has been winding and circuitous. As an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College, I took several poetry classes, but I was also busy double majoring in English and Italian which required juggling a lot of coursework. When I was pursuing my PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, I published a chapbook-length collection (2010), then gave up writing creatively to write my dissertation (completed in 2014). I returned to poetry in 2015 when I took Sarah Rose Nordgren’s “The Sources of Poetry” at Pearl Street 24. Over the years, I’ve taken many wonderful Pearl Street 24 courses, which have allowed me to write—albeit intermittently at times.
It wasn’t until I decided to pursue an MFA at the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College that I committed myself fully to my poetry. Warren Wilson was a life-altering experience for me—in terms of what I learned, the community, and the lasting poet-friendships I made. My mentors—Sandra Lim, Daisy Fried, Alan Williamson, and Matthew Olzmann—all encouraged me, in their different ways, to think about the “so what?” behind my poems. I was often asked: Where is the speaker in this poem? Why does this poem need to be written? To be clear, my mentors believed in me and my poems, but they were pushing me to put more onto the page. This was very challenging, but I grew so much as a writer during this time.
TU: What’s a project you’re working on or one that you’re excited about right now?
SKW: Since finishing The Girl Who Talked to Paintings, I want to write about the life and cyanotypes of Anna Atkins. She was a famous botanist and artist from the 1800s. She’s considered to be the first female photographer alongside people like Fox Talbot, but she’s received much less recognition. One of the pieces in my current collection is an ekphrastic poem based on one of Atkins’s cyanotypes. I’m developing this creative project around her life and her experiments with algae and ocean as they intertwine with our current climate crisis. A few years ago, the New York Public Library staged a beautiful exhibit with her cyanotypes and contemporary artists who have been inspired by her work. I want to do more with this work and dig into archival materials. I put this project on hold because of COVID, but I want to get back to it. I also want to interview some of the contemporary artists from the NYPL exhibit and then write poems based on those interviews (with the permission of the artists, of course).
TU: Who are your influences in poetry?
SKW: There are so many, but I’ll mention a few. I love Diane Seuss’s work. She works with form in fascinating ways, as does John Murillo, especially in his Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry. Ada Limón’s work has been so helpful in my quest to explore my speakers’ inner lives and their relationship with the outside world. In one of my MFA essays, I wrote this of Limón’s work: “What I found over and over in Limón’s poetry is that the seemingly objective world is always a place of meditation and possibility for her speakers: it is through the outside world and nature that Limón’s speakers can discover themselves.” I think that this really captures what makes her poems resonate with me. Jessica Jacobs’s Pelvis With Distance was crucial for me in thinking about the possibilities of the ekphrastic form.
TU: You just mentioned ekphrasis, a type of poetry which is inspired by artwork. And a lot of your poems are ekphrastic. What draws you to this type of writing?
SKW: I love working with and pushing against the formal constraints of the ekphrastic form. What do I mean by this? For me, it’s about starting with an existing image or artwork, observing it, and then imagining possibilities within and outside of that given form. But I think (and hope!) that my engagement with ekphrasis has become more interesting. When I first started writing ekphrastic poems, they tended to be largely descriptive in nature. I’d think: Okay, here’s a beautiful piece of artwork, and I’m just going to describe it. I realized that wasn’t very fruitful because the question remained: why would a reader want to read my poem when the artwork already exists? The more I worked with this form, the more I became interested in what can be imagined beyond the frame.
Then I started thinking more and more about artwork as catalysts for moments in which a speaker can either find themselves or imagine what they might become. I started thinking about artwork as an “imaginary friend” for my speakers. Thinking about the dialogic possibilities between speaker and artwork has been fruitful for me and has spurred me to discover new vantage points and new narratives. Working with ekphrasis also allowed me to write both about my own personal experiences and the unknown.
TU: Tell us more about the themes in the collection.
SKW: There are many interwoven themes in The Girl Who Talked to Paintings. A lot of the poems are about a speaker being too shy to speak or to express herself and her desires; she thus turns to paintings to find consolation and alternate narratives to the ones she grew up with. This collection is about a quest for selfhood, an absent father, and struggles to fit in. Gender, sexuality, and domesticity are also central themes. I love language, puns, and word play—there are quite a few definition poems, as well.
TU: Do you have any advice for people interested in pursuing poetry?
SKW: Yes! It’s so important to read as much and as widely as possible. I’ve learned (and continue to learn) so much from other poets. Also, find a journal that you love and want to follow. There many journals out there that I think sometimes it can be a little overwhelming. I suggest picking one and starting there.
Below, check out a poem from The Girl Who Talked to Paintings, previously published in The Citron Review:
When you say peer, I hear pear. I think of the day in late August when I pulled over and snuck into a stranger’s backyard to steal fruit right off the tree. I left three seeds in recompense. Somehow, the trade seemed equivalent. The way I substitute an “a” for an “e” or an “i.” Peer, pear, pair. The way I rearrange a phrase until it becomes another: read paper, appear dear. Things work like this too. An almond: a pendant. Blue canvas: a strip of the sea. A hand: the state of Michigan. Appear dear. Your face, too, reminds me of someone I once loved. Please understand then why I call you by a different name.
Shannon K. Winston's poems have appeared in RHINO, Crab Creek Review, The Citron Review, the Los Angeles Review, Zone 3, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and several times for the Best of the Net. Her poetry collection, The Girl Who Talked to Paintings, is available from Glass Lyre Press. She currently lives in Princeton, New Jersey. Find her here: https://shannonkwinston.com.