Dunes Review Interview Series: John Linstrom
John Linstrom’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Commonweal Magazine, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Broad River Review. In 2015, Counterpoint published his centennial edition of Liberty Hyde Bailey’s ecological manifesto, The Holy Earth, with a new foreword by Wendell Berry. He is ABD in literature at NYU with an MFA from Iowa State. Read more at johnlinstrom.com.
John's poem “Losing Track of the Conversation” appears in the 2018 spring/summer issue of Dunes Review.
What do you prefer to write: prose, poetry, or both?
I find that prose and poetry allow me to explore different kinds of ideas in different ways, and I don’t really have a preference between them.
When did you first begin writing?
I remember practicing my name in crayon, sitting at the dining room table with my mother when I was probably in kindergarten. She later taught kindergarten and developed a specialty in reading and writing—every one of her kindergarteners went into first grade reading and writing—and she has always been an incredible tutor and presence in my life. The small public school district in South Haven, Michigan where she still teaches and where I attended K-12 used to host a “Young Authors” program each year, and from kindergarten to sixth grade I wrote a self-illustrated science fiction short story in a blank little hardcover book every year, winning best in my class twice. That was a huge motivation, and I wish schools didn’t have to deal with all the high-stakes testing that they are given from above these days, because that kind of inspirational pedagogy is much harder to make time for than it used to be. I first became interested in poetry, though, in a “creative writing” class that I took as a ninth grader through the Spectrum program in Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development, which turned out (to my surprise) to be all poetry—Abe Louise Young worked wonders on me during those three weeks, and my copy of the Norton Anthology of Poetry from that summer is a treasured possession.
Do you need to be inspired to write, or is it a job, a routine?
Inspiration is very helpful, but I’ve been trying to routinize my process more. The poem appearing in Dunes Review was actually first written for an assignment when I was an MFA student years ago, so it was part of a routine I had then, but it was inspired by reading the work of Alberto Ríos.
What is your writing process like? Do you have a schedule, a favorite place to work, a favorite type of pen you always write with?
I could use a schedule! I’m in a PhD program in Literature right now, and between being a good student, a good Teaching Assistant, a good Grad Housing Resident Assistant, and a good writer, I have not been able to nail down a writing schedule that I’m satisfied with yet. The place can be anywhere—actually, right now I’m with a group called the Space Poets that make it our business to write in a new *space* at least once a month. I usually draft new poems and do initial revisions by hand. I do like having a designated journal for writing them, but sometimes you have to make do with what’s closest. Later revisions I like to do by computer. And I write most of my prose on a computer from the beginning, for better or worse.
Do you think of yourself as a writer?
I do. I think it’s something I’m legitimately good at. There’s a lot of bad writing in the world—even in terms of relatively formulaic business writing. It takes a level of patience and long-term commitment to growth and change that I think many people don’t find the time or energy to invest in. It’s quite a marketable skill, really. But I don’t consider myself an “author,” somehow. Something too imposing about that word, with its etymological tie to authority. Maybe if I publish a book I’ll become comfortable with that.
What's the first thing you do when starting a new piece of writing?
A historical/literary hero of mine once wrote, “There are two essential epochs in any enterprise: to begin, and to get done.” So, the first thing I do is put my pen on the paper or my fingers on the keys, and then, if I’m lucky, later on, I might get “done,” or more done than I started. But those two epochs are essential.
What's your least favorite thing about writing?
If there's one thing about the activity itself I dislike, it's the long necessary periods of aloneness. I also wish it were valued in our economy as worth a person’s living. If any visionary politician gets the Federal Writers' Project rebooted, sign me up.
Do you let other people read your works in progress? If so, whom?
Oh, yes. It’s so important for me to get perspective on my writing; otherwise I run the risk of narcissism. Sometimes I send it to my parents or my girlfriend—people who don’t call themselves “writers” in a professional capacity (even if they are; my dad's a pastor, so he has a weekly practice). Recently I sent a chunk of my academic dissertation to a former colleague who teaches high school history—his feedback was invaluable. Lately I’ve also been extremely grateful for the help of my friends, the Space Poets, who I mentioned earlier.
Can you tell us about a piece you are particularly proud of?
One of my favorite pieces I’ve written in recent years is a poem titled “What was Precious,” published in Valparaiso Poetry Review. You can read it here. I think I captured my childhood perspective (which, of course, is part of my everyday perspective—it doesn’t just go away) better in that poem than I have elsewhere. That piece also explores a concern of mine about how we come to a sense of awe in the normal, commonplace, everyday elements of our local environments in such a way that we are moved to care for them.
Who are you currently reading?
Ross Gay’s gorgeous book, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. Also lots of work by Liberty Hyde Bailey, on whom I’m writing a dissertation chapter. Check out his books The Outlook to Nature (1905), The Holy Earth (1915), and The Harvest of the Year to the Tiller of the Soil (1927).
Which writer would you most like to meet, and why?
His name is Liberty Hyde Bailey. He and I shared a hometown—South Haven, Michigan—but we shared it about 130 years apart. I’ve been obsessed with him for years. I really think the places we live shape our thoughts and writing, so I’d love to meet a fellow South Havenite who left behind such a rich body of literature.