Behind the Words: Katie Darby Mullins

Posted by on Apr 25, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Katie Darby MullinsKatie Mullins’ poem “Coming to Terms” explores the collision between the past and the present, more specifically what it’s like to learn that an old friend committed a terrible crime. Word for word, image for image, this poem will make you think about the complexity of friendship and why sometimes it’s the good memories that haunt us the most.

 

 

Kelly: So you and I actually know each other outside of our Spry connection–I recently earned an MFA in fiction from Spalding University and you’re a current MFA candidate there. What made you decide to go back to school?

Katie: That was part of the reason I was so excited to do this interview! I started my MFA at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, but deferred after my first year to get married and start my family. One thing led to another (one of those things was a house fire!), so I was unable to go back to SIUC when I planned. During that time, I started my dream job teaching at my alma mater, the University of Evansville—but I knew I’d never be more than an adjunct if I didn’t finish the MFA. I probably would have put it off longer, but my husband encouraged me to focus on my writing again, and between his help and love and finding the perfect program for me in Spalding, I have been incredibly fortunate. The distance format and the one-on-one mentorships, especially with writers like Mary Clyde and Robin Lippincott, were instrumental to my “becoming” a writer: though I’d written and published some, I’d had quite a “cooling off” period and their encouragement helped me change the way I viewed myself and my writing. The story has a very happy ending, too—I started full-time at the University of Evansville this January, teaching First Year Seminar—a class that focuses on critical reading, writing, and thinking. I’m also teaching Creative Writing this summer. I have been unbelievably fortunate, and I owe a lot to Spalding.

 

Your poem “Coming to Terms” was published in Issue 1 of Spry. Can you talk about what inspired that poem? How long did it take you to write it? What drew you to tell this story as a poem versus a short story?

I wish I had a better answer than this: at the time I wrote “Coming to Terms,” I considered myself a poet to the exclusion of fiction. That’s probably strange to hear because my MFA is in fiction, but I was trained in metrical poetry and actually sometimes guest edit issues of Measure for the University of Evansville. I’ve always thought you could do more with narrative poetry than most people realize, and though I sometimes think a “turn” at the end is a cheap trick, I felt like it worked in this poem because there was enough space to characterize the narrator and her friend earlier in the poem. I was honored to be a part of the inaugural issue!

As for how long it took me to write it: I usually write poems in one sitting and then throw them in a rotation of “things to ignore” for several months to a year. I actually wrote this poem when I was in Cincinnati, so it was almost four years old when Spry picked it up. I’d only started sending it out to journals, though. I feel like I need a lot of time away from my poems to be objective about them. My cooling off period isn’t quite as long with fiction.

I was inspired to write it because I was thinking about a friend of mine who had basically “disappeared”—wasn’t on Facebook, didn’t have an email address, and no longer answered his phone—and I thought, “It wouldn’t shock me if someone called and told me he was dead.” I was devastated by that random thought, so I actually turned it around and made him the murderer in the poem (I have sort of a dark sense of humor, and it was a weird way to deal with his absence). Strangely, we were back in contact before the poem was picked up, and I was happy to find that he’s doing really well. I wish I’d written that poem instead!

 

 

Most writers fall into one of two camps in revision: either we spew out everything and cut, cut, cut in revision or we lay out the bare bones of a piece and fill in the details later. What’s your revision process? How different is the revision process with poetry as compared to fiction? Do you ever read your work aloud?

I fall so absolutely into the former camp. I am known for doing things in one sitting and cutting mercilessly once I feel disconnected from it. I love the question about reading my work out loud—religiously! I’m not sure I’d really “hear” it otherwise. I catch stupid mistakes that way.

Revising fiction is slightly different for me: I move things around, I cut tons, I add, I usually change the ending. With poetry, I cut. I almost never add anything. I find my poems usually come out far too prose-esque and I have to absolutely minimize my “overtalking,” a problem that I’m sure shows even just in this interview. In fact (and perhaps a writer is never really ready to let go), I think “Coming to Terms” suffers from some lines that are too prose-y. Sometimes you just have to throw your hands up and hope the good outweighs the talkiness. Sometimes I move lines around, though. That’s a trick I’ve seen songwriters use, and I love it—cut each line up, toss them around, see what you get. It’s a surprisingly fun technique when writing sonnets and villanelles: as long as you keep the rhymes in the right places, it can be a lot of fun.

 

 

Music plays a big role in your life too. You’re the founder and lead writer of the music blog Katie Darby Recommends. How does your love of music feed your creative process? Do you listen to music while you write?

Thank you so much for bringing this up! Music is incredibly important to me. I’ve often joked that I write because I don’t sing. (I do, but you know…) Music was the most important language I had growing up, and I would say it is still how I communicate with the people I most love. I just feel like the metrics, the melody, and the expression of music, most especially rock ‘n roll and alt-country, is one of the most divine ways to be human. And maybe a simpler answer: my mom and my dad taught me how to love music. They both managed record stores. And even during the difficult teenage years, my father and I were able to connect and show our deep love for each other in sharing music. It’s still one way we share and love each other: the speaker of the computer up to the iPhone speaker, saying words that move us all. Really, it was one of the first ways I connected with my husband: our love of music united us immediately.

I think music feeds the creative process in a few ways. First, I think that any time we say other people’s words out loud (any time we sing), we are making those words a part of “our” story. And I think the stories we tell ourselves—especially anything we breathe into life—help form who we are, how we think, and what affects us. How could that not affect every creative part of a person? There are so many characters I’ve written who were born in songs, so many meters and rhythms that I’ve blatantly stolen from writers who understand meter and rhythm better than I do. And sometimes I do listen to music while I’m writing, but often, it’s because I write about music. A few of my more recent stories even feature specific songs, and when that happens, I usually listen to the song on repeat, trying to really assimilate the emotions and lyrics into my work without having to stick them in there plainly. I actually have a story coming out at Prime Number Magazine called “How to Listen to Otis Redding When Your Husband Leaves” that actually follows a woman as she listens to the Otis Blue record. That’s a case where I listened to the record itself while I was writing.

 

Everyone’s writing process is so different. What’s a typical writing day for you?

Honestly? A good writing day, I get a few thousand words out. I probably have a good writing day every other week. I’m finishing the graduate program, teaching a 4/4 load, and living with a very active 9-year-old—all incredibly rewarding pursuits, but not totally conducive to writing. But because of my revision style, even on a day where I’m not actively writing, I can always find something to revise here and there. I’d say I spend more days revising than I do writing. I’ve finally got a rhythm going. However, I accidentally started a novel (something I swore I’d never do!), and now things have changed a little. I find myself writing anywhere from three sentences to a chapter at a time. I have no idea how that experiment is going to turn out. I do know it’s about the grunge music scene, though, so I’ve got that going for it.

 

Do you set goals for yourself in terms of page count? Are you an outliner?

I never have, honestly. If anything, I have to work to limit my own verbosity. Sometimes I see a draft of a short story and I cringe, knowing I’ll have to cut 5,000 words before anyone will look at it. Page counts are never on my side. I wish I could outline, but I’ve found if I know where I’m going, I get bored before I get there. I’d love to say it’s just because I subscribe to Frost’s “no surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader,” theory from “The Figure a Poem Makes,” but it’s more laziness than anything.

 

You’ve had a prolific year. Last summer I was thumbing through a copy of Harpur Palate and stumbled across your poem “Fishing.” And I saw recently that you were nominated for a Pushcart – congrats! What was your first publication? How do you decide where to submit your work?

Thank you so much, Kelly! It has been an exciting year. I was especially happy about Harper Palate because, first, it’s a great journal, and second, they took a sonnet! I always love when I can pull off a metrical poem. I did have a particularly prolific year, and was very fortunate. So much of publishing is good luck! I can’t honestly remember my first publication, but I think it was in 2010 with a journal called Big Lucks—they are a great journal, and I was honored they took my poem, “What I Think About When You Say You Aren’t Afraid of Anything.” The most proud I’ve ever been, though, was earlier this year when Hawaii Pacific Review published my story “Finding Your Place.”

I am always happy to share my tricks with other writers, especially since they seem to be working: I have roughly 100 submissions out at a time. That sounds overwhelming, but I’ve got it down to an art. Currently, I have a few less—but that’s only because of good luck! I need to generate more content now. I find journals by scouring Writer’s Digest and by subscribing to Allison Joseph’s brilliant CRWROPPS email list, which sends out calls for submissions every day. (It’s a Yahoo! Group and anyone can sign up!) I also subscribe to NewPages.com, which sends out calls for submissions every week. Once you’ve submitted to a journal, they usually put you on their mailing list, so you’ll be contacted by journals, too. My other advice is read, read, read. The more journals you read, the more you’ll be aware of. I also (and this is a particularly nasty technique, but it works) go through other people’s contributor’s bios and search for journals. After reading through the journal, I can determine whether or not it’s a good place for my work. It’s time consuming, but it seems to be working!

 

What are you working on these days? What are you reading?

I am so ambivalent when I say, “I’m working on a novel.” I never saw myself writing anything longer than a poem—it is completely overwhelming to me to be staring down the barrel of hundreds of pages. That said, I feel like I know the character I’m following really well. He’s an amalgamation of my obsessions—a love letter to all the selves I’ve been and could have been throughout the years. I don’t know that I’m getting anywhere, but I’m spending a lot of time with it.

I’ve read a couple good books in the last few months, but I’ve re-read Ben Greenman’s Please Step Back and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity to prepare for my lecture next month on how to use song lyrics (invented and real) in fiction effectively, and they have really been a fun escape. Hornby’s a great writer, and Greenman is an expert at re-creating the free love era. I’m also teaching my favorite book right now, so I’ve been living in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I am so happy to be able to teach a book that is so engaging—between the convoluted plotting, the dense characterization, and the incredibly thorough research and placement of the gods, I feel like Gaiman teaches me how to be a better thinker every time I read it. So I’ve been doing more re-reading than reading, but sometimes that feels just as valuable. Next on my list: Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Kelly Morris is a recent transplant to Los Angeles. She holds an MFA from Spalding University, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Spry Literary Journal, Sundog Lit, and Red Savina Review. She blogs with three other writers at Literary Labors. When she’s not writing, Kelly can be found hanging out with her kids, who remain unconvinced that being a writer is actually a very cool job.

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