Hugo House instructor Carrie Fountain is the author of two collections of poetry (Instant Winner, Burn Lake), the YA novel I’m Not Missing, and The Poem Forest, a children’s book about the life and legacy of W.S. Merwin. Her third collection of poems, The Life, is set to be published by Penguin Random House this spring.
On February 6, Carrie will be teaching The Image as Fuel for Writing (And Living), a one-session workshop focused on the craft of image-making and how a friendly relationship to image can bring clarity and depth to our writing. We recently caught up with her via email to learn more about her path as a writer, her approach to teaching, and her advice for writers working to see marvels of the everyday world.
Can you tell us a little bit about your path as a writer and what drew you to poetry in particular?
I started writing as a child. My writing practice has always been a place I’ve come to try to make sense of my own experience and to figure out what it means to be a person. I’m still surprised every morning to wake up and return to my daily work as a writer. I can’t think of doing anything else, but, at the same time, it surprises me this is what has stuck.
At the same time, I don’t think being a writer is very different or more interesting than being anything else. I think what surgeons do is incredibly interesting. They wake up, drive to work, and quite literally take people’s lives into their hands. I think what real estate agents do in their day-to-day lives is tremendously interesting: going into people’s houses when they’re not there and walking around, helping other people imagine what their lives would be like in that space. That’s a wild, interesting job! Making food for a living is interesting. Serving food for a living is interesting. Being a writer means observing, and doing your work with the larger world in mind. I find that very useful. Sometimes when I’m up early doing my writing practice, I think about the donut shop in our neighborhood. They’re up early doing their work, too.
You’re the host of the poetry podcast This is Just to Say. Are there any important or surprising lessons about poetry that you’ve learned from your guests on the show?
It’s funny you should ask, as I always ask my guests how they came to poetry. Every story is interesting. Every story is very personal and involves coincidence, leaps of faith, and almost every poet I ask this question of answers with wonder at their luck and life path to poetry. Roger Reeves was going to be an astronaut. And I don’t mean when he was a child he wanted to be an astronaut like everyone else. I mean that when he decided to pursue a path of writing he let go the path to space travel.
I will never get over that.
Your upcoming class, The Image as Fuel for Writing (And Living), focuses on the art and craft of image-making. What are you most looking forward to this class?
I honestly love reading people’s work, especially work that comes out of exercises that take the writer to the center of their own life experiences. One thing I love is to write a sentence together as a group. Just one sentence. It’s useful because along the way we discuss how to move toward surprise and specificity (and away from cliché and abstraction). But what I really love about it is that we make something together. We describe something that none of us were thinking of before, something that didn’t exist until we pulled our little rag-tag sentence together. It’s not always obvious to us what a miracle the process of writing and reading is, how mysterious the experience of engaging the imagination and pulling forth images, the things of the world. I believe what the 15th century French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche said: “Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.” Cultivating a writing practice means paying attention, a little more each day. Paying attention leads us to the surprising and specific. I believe that our greatest poems grown there, but more importantly, I believe our souls grow there as well.
In the description for your class, you talk about how image can bring clarity and depth not just to our writing, but to our lives. The poems in your forthcoming collection, The Life, home in on this idea—capturing the “delicate, fleeting moments” that exist in the midst of our routines. What’s one piece of advice you would give to a writer struggling to see the marvels in their everyday world?
It’s not mine, but it’s the best writing advice I’ve ever read, and I have it clearly visible in my writing space at all times. It comes from the great poet William Stafford and has to do with the way we learn to talk to ourselves when we make writing a daily practice, something we return to each day with the great, human desire to make something worthwhile—a desire that can really mess with you, paralyze you even.
“Lower your standards,” he said.
If you’re looking around your own life and can’t find something worthwhile to write about: lower your standards. If you’re staring down a blank page because you only want to write great things: lower your standards. You may write brilliantly about grief or love or justice or God. But if brilliance is your daily standard, you’ll never write a word. Not today, not tomorrow. And if brilliance is your standard, then sitting down to your practice becomes unattractive, and you avoid it. Trust me. Lower your standards, and just get started.
How would you describe your approach to teaching?
I like to present writers with exercises and approaches they can take with them into their own practices. These are easy things that can spark attention, shake out little details, create a sense of abundance. These are all things I do myself.