A Chat with Heather Macpherson

Interviewed by Katya Cummins

Heather J. Macpherson writes from New England.  Her work has appeared in many fine publications including Spillway, Pearl, The Broken Plate, and OVS. She has twice been a features editor for The Worcester Review, and is the Executive Director at Damfino Press. Besides writing poetry, essays, and occasional fiction, Heather teaches poetry writing workshops and works part-time as a high school librarian. She is a visiting instructor at Framingham State University. She holds a Masters in Education (Library Media Studies) and is completing her Masters in English, spring 2016.

NICHE: I’ve always been curious about beginnings. When did you begin to write?

HEATHER MACPHERSON: I started writing when I was in elementary school, making-up stories on my own, or with my friend Allison. I have fond memories of our precocious stories, and sitting at my mother’s typewriter, pecking away at the keys. I started writing poetry in high school, but developed a more serious attitude toward the genre in college.

NICHE: How do you personally begin a poem?

HEATHER MACPHERSON: I observe and watch. Many of my poems are based on personal experiences, but also observations of others. I take a lot of ‘notes,’ recording everything and anything swimming in my brain whether it makes sense or not. Then I focus on word choice, next, the line and punctuation, play with form. I’ve come to realize that not every poem works syllabically or formally. It’s fun to play.

NICHE: How has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?

HEATHER MACPHERSON:I would say that my idea of “what poetry is” changed after constantly reading and re-reading an anthology called “The Body Electric: America’s Best Poetry from The American Poetry Review. Through that particular volume I discovered poets like Stephanie Brown, Yusef Komunyakka, and others I had not engaged with in my reading life. It was an incredible experience to discover this volume, which then led me to reading single poet collections, journals, and international poets.

NICHE: Who are you reading now?

HEATHER MACPHERSON: I am reading a few different things at the moment. I am currently at work on my thesis, which focuses on the relational discourse in some of the animal poems by Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. I am constantly reading and re-reading those specific poems, selected letters, and other sources. Besides that, I am reading Patrick O’Brien’s novel Master and Commander. His writing has a wonderfully lyrical line that reminds me of one of my former professor’s novels, Ever and Ever. Besides, it is always fun to learn the language of a subject that is unknown to me. I don’t know anything about ships or sailing, and it’s a whole other diction to explore.

NICHE: I’m interested in the idea that there is a space in writing where poetry and fiction intersect. Which sentence from Master and Commander strike you?

HEATHER MACPHERSON: One sentence in particular that stands out for me in O’Brien’s novel is the following from chapter 10:“The Sophie was standing in with her starboard tacks aboard, steering west-north-west; hammocks had been piped up and stowed in the nettings; the smell of coffee and frying bacon mingled together in the eddies that swirled on the weather-side of her taut trysail” (362).

Reading a novel so out of my comfort zone allows me to consider language I might not otherwise encounter, i.e. ‘tacks’, ‘eddies’, ‘trysail’. O’Brien uses sensory detail, assonance, alliteration, and the rhythm in his lines, throughout the novel, mimic the oceanic motion of the sea. There is a lot to admire and consider as both a reader and poet. I think stepping away from what typically draws us in is a good thing.

NICHE: I noticed that you’re also a scholar. Most recently, you wrote a paper entitled, “The Impenetrable Wood: Gender Identity in Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Moose.” It was published in Parlour: A Journal of Literary Criticism and Analysis. Congratulations on this recent publication! I got my degrees in English Literature and creative writing, and I found that, as a scholar, I was taught to look at writing differently than I do as a writer. Do you believe that viewing poetry as a scholar enables you to write poems better? Or do you feel these pursuits are separate?

HEATHER MACPHERSON: Quite honestly I have difficulty separating poetry writing from analytical and critical writing because, for me, I think there are ways when both areas are complementary to each other. I definitely think my poetry writing is influenced by scholarly work in the way ideologies are examined and I often include a silent commentary in a poem whether it is about gender identity, politics, or one of poetry’s favorite topics, love. Although I love writing both poetry and essay, I love the challenge of brevity in poems and what I can get away with. You can break rules in poetry that you cannot in other genres and I like that rebellious nature of the writing process.

NICHE: You’re also an editor. You’ve been a feature editor of the Worcester Review twice. What do you, as an editor, look for in a poem?

HEATHER MACPHERSON: As a features editor at The Worcester Review I looked for poems that made solid connections to the features topics and also to the essays accepted. Typically a features section for that particular journal requires ties to the Worcester County area. I am actually working on a third features section on screenwriter John Michael Hayes who was born in Worcester and went on to write screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock among others. He also adapted Peyton Place. Submissions are open for the features section….I need submissions!

NICHE: What can you tell us about Damfino Press?

HEATHER MACPHERSON: Damfino Press is a concept developed by my partner, Lea C. Deschenes and I. We were ready to create something of our own focusing on poetry and essay and we also wanted to publish print books. We have our Five Poem chapbook series, and so far we’ve also held our Annual Afternoonified Poetry Chapbook Contest, and we’ve received outstanding submissions. We also host workshops. We have a weekend workshop coming up with Ilya Kaminsky in August, but this year we are really going to focus more on marketing. Submissions to our journal are open through September 1st and then we’re taking a brief hiatus to overhaul our website. Writers can submit to the feature section by emailing me directly at heathermacph@gmail.com Submissions remain open! Send us your writing! Everyone!

NICHE: What advice would you give to aspiring poets?

HEATHER MACPHERSON: Don’t give up. In 2015 I received over 200 rejections. You have to keep going. Every once in awhile I have moments where I don’t think I can take another “your poem just isn’t the right fit for us” but the best thing you can do is turn your rejection around and send it to someone else. Also, read a lot, find your inspiration don’t wait for it, get into a supportive and constructive poetry workshop if that is of interest, and be a strong observer. Explore areas that may not be of interest because you never know what you’ll find. Be fearless in your writing and have conviction.

NICHE: Can you expand on this idea of being a “strong observer” and exploring interests? This particular idea/philosophy, if you will, seems important to you. You said, for example, that you’re reading Master and Commander in part because it allows you to explore a different type of diction. I’d think that opening yourself up, or having access to new language, words, diction would be very important to any writer but poets in particular, right?

HEATHER MACPHERSON: Observation for any type of writer, I think, is crucial. When writing fiction you observe your characters as if they are real people, watch their development, eavesdrop on conversations. As a poet you must be willing to observe with all the senses and take in what is around you whether it is uncomfortable or not. I spend a lot of time people watching, listening. I wrote “Milepost…” after stopping at a rest area at 3 AM. I walked in and this young person is watching an instructional video on youtube; it was fascinating, but at the same time I felt intrusive. The moments in that experience, passing by the individual and catching everything I could see, and then stopping at a nearby sink allowed me to observe and capture moments that reminded me of another experience from many years ago, which is why I attempt to play with time in “Milepost”. Twenty years ago I worked in a bookstore, stepped into the restroom and a beautiful transvestite was applying lipstick in the mirror. The connection between that memory from the bookstore restroom and the more recent rest stop experience drove me to respond in some way.

NICHE: What are you working on now?

HEATHER MACPHERSON: Well, besides my thesis and a features section for TWR, I have a few poems in the works, and I have an idea for a chapbook collection, although I likely won’t flush the concept out completely until my thesis is done. I’ve also submitted a few conference proposals so hopefully I’ll have an opportunity to participate in one of those, but we’ll see. If not, I’ll try some others. I also recently interviewed poet Stephanie Brown, which was very exciting, and I’m looking to place that piece and I’m sure it will happen eventually.

Be sure to follow Heather on Facebook and WordPress!

This interview was originally published on Niche’s website on August 26th, 2016

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