What was the inspiration behind “Conversions?”
The process of converting from Christianity to Judaism is an issue that I have wanted to write about for a long time, but it took working with nonfiction writer Ana Maria Spagna to figure out how to tell that multi-layered story. What empowered the actual telling was two-fold: first I did some playing around with the formal constraints of short prose poem “postcards” (an exercise which became a separate piece published in my collection How Formal?); then in my class with Ana Maria at the Whidbey Writers Workshop, we read and discussed W.G. Sebald’s book The Emigrants. When I realized that a nonfiction narrative could work as a series of snapshots, I felt like I knew how to tell the story.
How do you write? With a pen? A keyboard?
I generally use a keyboard, although for journaling I use a pen and notebook, and even sometimes a pencil! The changing of materials is very pleasing and somehow energizing, because writing with a pencil means you a little kid learning to write – which we all are, somehow.
What is your writing process? How many drafts do you go through?
The number of drafts is variable, but I always have to write several. When I edit, I do a lot of cutting, because I tend to write a lot in an early draft. So I prune and in some instances hack words and even whole scenes. In the final iteration I usually put a little bit back in, or write something new, because I can now see where the free spaces are. I generally read the final draft out loud, just to be sure there are no “elbow” words or constructions catching the reader in the sentences.
Where did you publish you first piece?
I published my first piece – a poem about Helen Keller – in Mosaic, the creative writing magazine at UC Riverside, where I used to teach. I was encouraged to submit by a student!
What writers have influenced you and why?
I’m influenced primarily by writers who are not English speakers. I learned French when I was a kid, thanks to my Francophile Russian grandparents. So I always felt at ease with that literature and culture. My mother was a big fan of German lit, and I fell in love with German when I started studying the language in college. My favorite French and German writers in no particular order are: Franz Kafka, Peter Handke, ETA Hoffmann, Rabelais, Amelie Nothomb, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Colette, Christa Wolf, the Grimm Brothers, and Hélène Cixous. But I also love other authors from language traditions that I really don’t know anything about. Sei Shonagon and Haruki Murakami have been a very important influence on me, as have Roberto Bolaño and Italo Calvino. Finally, writers like Jeannette Winterson, Edwige Danticat, Sandra Cisneros, Octavia Butler, and Aimee Bender have helped me see how rich and weird and funny and sad stories can be.
What are your favorite writing resources?
I love Wikipedia! I admire and use Janet Burroway’s book on writing fiction. I also want and need to take writing classes. Learning from different people keeps the wheels turning. I use New Pages for submissions, and of course I’m a devotee of Poets and Writers. But honestly – my favorite writing resource is: public transportation in whatever city I’m in.
Shout out to your favorite small presses and magazines –excluding us.
wonderful edgy magazines:
Fairy Tale Review
Hayden’s Ferry Review
Los Angeles Review
Tahoma Review (they pay!)
exciting small presses:
Dancing Girl Press
Spout Hill Press
Write Wing Publishing
Do you have a blog or author website that we can direct our readers to?
Sure do. www.stephaniebarbehammer.net
Do you have any upcoming work that we should keep an eye out for?
My full-length poetry collection How Formal? launches April 26th with Spout Hill Press. The book has beautiful block print illustrations by Ann Brantingham and takes readers on a wild ride from formal verse to the prose poem and beyond. Available for purchase at Amazon. Or if you can’t support Amazon, you can email me about procuring a copy.
What keeps you motivated as a writer?
Being connected with artists, writers, and intellectuals who get my work and whose work I admire and respect keeps me going in the very tough economic environment that we labor under in the early 21st Century. My advice to any writer/artist: don’t go it alone; find other people. DON’T be a rugged individualist. Give and receive help. Don’t be afraid to take a class, go to a workshop, reading, cultural event, and talk to someone. And last but not least: if you love it, don’t give up. Unlike Olympic athletics, it’s never too late to become a published writer.