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Interview with Erica Goss

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ERICA GOSS is the author of Night Court, winner of the 2017 Lyrebird Award from Glass Lyre Press. She has received numerous Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations, as well as a 2023 Best American Essay Notable. Recent and upcoming publications include The Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, Oregon Humanities, Creative Nonfiction, North Dakota Quarterly, Gargoyle, Spillway, West Trestle, A-Minor, Redactions, Consequence, The Sunlight Press, The Pedestal, San Pedro River Review, and Critical Read. Erica served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California, from 2013-2016. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, where she teaches, writes and edits the newsletter Sticks & Stones.

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Erica Goss
 

"Use your writer skills to dissect the world around you: the more you do it, the better you are. You're a writer, it's a curse and a blessing."

The editors of Eucalyptus Lit recently had the privilege and opportunity to speak with Erica Goss, former poet laureate of Los Gatos (2013-2016). Her works “Odysseus” and “Un Día Ordinario” feature in Issue 3, Reconciliation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How did you start writing?

That’s a great question. I feel like I've been writing so long that it's hard to think.

It's like, how did you start breathing? I'm like, hm. But I looked back on some of the things I wrote as a child and I think I started writing my first coherent little poems and stories when I was about eight years old.

Then I went through this phase where I made little comic books. They were stapled together and I had crayoned the covers, and I wrote a couple of words on each page and made a picture. I did a lot of those when I was younger.

I was always most interested in short forms. Poems. I really liked Haiku when I was little. I thought it was great—you could say so much in just three lines. My parents had a great home library, and we had lots of books of poetry. They got lodged in my head even though I was too young to really understand what they were about. I think that's the value of having a lot of random things for your kids to explore when they’re young. Poetry and things that—they may not get it right away, but they'll get it later.

So I started writing, I would say, between eight and ten years old. And by the time I was 11, I had a little collection of poems that I wrote that I put the date and titles on. I would also write little letters and leave them for my parents to find on the table when they came home from work. So, yeah, I guess it started around then. The middle of elementary school.


Where do you find your inspiration? How has that inspiration changed since you were 10 or 11? What has stayed the same?

Weirdly, inspiration comes from being engaged with a community and also spending time alone. I know that those are contradictory things. But in my community here in Eugene, there are a lot of poets and writers and it's really wonderful to be here.

There are always poetry readings happening and I try to go to as many as I can. Young people should be doing that as well, or creating them. You can make your own poetry events just in your house and have people come over. That's what the Beat poets did, and they started a whole revolution.

So as much as I can, I get out and I try to hear poetry. I read and read and read and read tons. But I also need to spend time alone to process what I've seen or heard.

I'm also really inspired by visual art and music, and those things show up a lot in my work. I write about paintings and sculptures and photographs and that is a sort of a never-ending source of inspiration for me.

I also have this wonderful critique group. We meet every two weeks and talk about our work and go over it. We talk about the strengths and weaknesses and help each other get better at what we're doing.

I also tell myself that writing is not optional—it's something I have to do every day. And so I have to discipline myself to write when I don't feel creative. Sometimes my better writing has come out of that practice. You build discipline, and then creative ideas follow as you train yourself to sit down and do the work.


That was good advice. I think we can all learn from your discipline.

You're all very young! and you can start doing this now and the, the younger you start it, the more it will be carved into your neural pathways. You'll have less of a problem with it when you get older.


You mentioned finding yourself in a community of writers. Could you tell us a little bit about your work as the former poet laureate of Los Gatos?

Oh, that was such a great time!

To me it was a huge deal, but, you know, I didn't really meet everyone in the whole town, so I'm not sure that they knew me. But they may have seen a little poetry card that I had owners of local businesses put up by the cash register. I’d found a bunch of short poems by William Carlos Williams, and I tried to fit the poem to the business.

There was an ACE Hardware in downtown Los Gatos, and I had them put something about red wheelbarrows. A lot of people would say, oh, I love that, even if they didn't recognize it as a poem. So I loved sneaking a little poetry into the lives of the townspeople.

I met a lot of other cool people who are still my friends today. A lot of other Poets Laureate around the Bay Area from Cupertino to Berkeley, all over the place. And the Santa Clara County Poet Laureate—we became good friends.

I also planned some cool events at the Saint Patrick's Day Poetry Walk. It was really fun and I couldn't believe how many people came! And then we did a Beowulf reading at the library where people just read Beowulf out loud and we filmed it and then we streamed that live so people could see people reading Beowulf. And I was surprised at how many people got interested in that.

You know, I thought, no one will come. I'll be here by myself. I was wrong. I was very wrong.

A class at Los Gatos High School decided it would be an enrichment activity, so a lot of students came over. They were kind of fumbling over the words because they're very hard—the old English—but they got into it because it's such an interesting story. So that was a lot of fun.

I also got to connect with some people from Ireland, in a town called Listowel. Los Gatos is a sister city with them, so we did a creative writing author thing. That was a lot of fun.

And the last thing that I did that I was very proud of is that for two years in a row, we raised money for a scholarship for students at Los Gatos High School who wanted to pursue creative writing in college. We gave two scholarships away and that was one of the highlights of my tenure.

I was meeting with the winners and talking to their parents. It was nice that they valued creative writing—thought it was enough. That was really wonderful.


Could you tell us a little bit more about your work as an educator? What do you find is the most rewarding part?

Almost as much as I love writing, I love teaching writing. Here in Eugene there's a really wonderful nonprofit called Wordcrafters. That's a plug! They run a bunch of creative writing classes for all ages—they have fiction, they have a sci-fi camp, I think.

They have all these great ideas for getting young people and people of all ages interested in expressing themselves through writing. And it's not meant to produce professional writers like an MFA program. It's just meant to give people an outlet in creative writing. I've taught several classes for them in writing, specifically ekphrastic writing. I've said that word so many times and I still stumble over it! Anyway, it’s writing inspired by visual art.

I also teach private students and mostly adults who have a particular area in their writing that they want to move forward with. Once or twice a month we'll meet together and talk about what they're working on and I'll provide them with some direction and some critiques.

I also taught California public schools when I was living in California. They have a really wonderful program that introduces poetry to elementary students of all ages.

I mostly got called to middle schools, which I thought was really interesting. Middle school students seem to be very open to creative writing, and not quite as critical as the kids get when they're older and they start to feel shy and embarrassed about everything.

I found that kids were very open to poetry—especially students whose teachers may have told me they were less academic. They seemed to understand more about what it could do for them. We would introduce things like poems that had no punctuation, no rules, nothing, and these kids would understand that right away. That was a way for them to express themselves.

That was really an eye opener for me, which is one of the reasons I like teaching. I learn a lot of things, but I'm never ever sure what it's going to be. You know, I can't go into a classroom with a preconceived notion because I have no idea what I'm gonna learn there.

So for me, the most rewarding part about teaching is that I'm always trying to create a community of writers, whether they're middle schoolers at a school in Los Altos or somewhere else. Those kids know that they are now not just writing on their own, but they're writing together. These kids are now empowered to be part of this community and to offer their opinion because their opinion is just as important as anyone else's. I love when those connections happen and you can just kind of step back as the teacher and watch the positive energy flow through the group.

I've also never heard anyone be harsh to someone else or criticize them unduly. Once you set that ground rule, students seem to get the right way to behave in that situation. They’re a classroom of random people at the beginning, but at the end, they are a community of friends. That, to me, seems like the ultimate goal.


Thank you. I think I can speak for all of us when I say we've all had teachers who have inspired us to pursue creative writing.

I've had many teachers that I remember fondly. I remember all the way back to like second or third grade—some just seemed to have that magic touch.


What ultimately made you pursue writing as a career?

I come from a family of writers. My dad did a lot of writing. My grandfather was a professional writer in Germany and he published many books.

I think the urge to write comes from some place that's really hard to describe. I did a lot of other creative things as a child—I learned to play the piano and I took dance lessons and I painted and I still love doing all those things. If I had to give all of them up, I would be sad. But if I had to give up writing, I would be devastated.

It's just the best way I found to express myself. I know a lot of people say, oh, writing is therapy, but I don't find it to be particularly therapeutic. It's something that I have to do. I'm usually pretty happy when I'm writing, even though sometimes I get frustrated and want to walk away. It's a good place for me.
Could you tell us a little bit about your favorite author or work?

It's so hard to pick a favorite. But I always return to the work of Denise Levertov.  

She was born in England in 1923—oh my gosh, over 100 years ago—and came to the United States when she was a young woman. She was one of these wunderkinds who sent her poems to T.S. Elliot when she was 12 years old. And he wrote back!

I feel like she’s a really good poet to introduce poetry to children because her work is very dense and complicated. But in between, there would be these short little beautiful poems that anybody could understand. Just a few lines, a few words on each line. Those poems really got into my psyche as a young child.

I still go back and read her regularly, but I also read a lot of other poets, too. I'm totally in love with When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz. I'm rereading it again and it's getting me even more—I really think Natalie Diaz is the voice of our generation. She's amazing.

I would also recommend Terrence Hayes. I really like Joy Harjo. She was our Poet Laureate a couple of years back. I used to think her work was kind of ‘simple’, but now that I've read it more, I'm like, no, no, you just weren't getting it.

There are so many good poets out there, as you guys know. So, yeah, my favorite author is kind of a shifting thing.


What have you've been up to recently?

I've been writing a lot of prose lately. I have been working on a series of essays about mental health, especially in youth. There's a whole genre of people writing about mental health. I wrote some essays for Epiphany Magazine as well, but I get a little antsy when I write too much prose.

I start to feel kind of emotionally bereft, and then I'll have to go back to poetry. Poetry is always waiting for me and, and it's very patient and, and that's wonderful, but I have to go back to poetry when I write too much prose I also, I'm hopefully gonna create some online courses that people could take like an introduction to things like ekphrastic poetry or other things that are kind of a little bit off the beaten path as far as writing goes.

And then I'm always writing book reviews, I write tons of book reviews. That's something that I would recommend for young writers to try: to write a book review. I write reviews for my newsletter, which is called Sticks and Stones, and I write my blog a couple times a month.

As far as big projects, I have my latest poetry collection which hopefully will be published soon, and then I have some poems that I am collecting for another collection. There's always a lot going on.


Do you have any advice for young writers?

I have two pieces of advice. One is philosophical and one is more practical.

First, and I don't quite understand this myself, but if you announce to the world that you are a writer or that you want to be a writer, many people will try to discourage you. They'll say well-meaning things like “What a nice hobby! You could do that after you're done working all day or taking care of your family.”

There's this subtle message in there that's telling you that they don't take you seriously. I don't know why that is, and I don't know why it is about writing, but I have experienced it often and I imagine you may have already experienced that too.

It's true that when you start out writing, you're going to be doing it around the edges of those important tasks. You have school, you have after school activities, you probably have a job. But subtle discouragement can keep you from pursuing it, and that would be a real tragedy because your voices are important and you need to start doing the work now so that you can be the writer you want to be in the future.

You have to start somewhere, and the earlier you start the better; I've always believed that. A lot of young people think, Well, what do I have to write about? You know, I'm only 16. But you have a lot to write about, and it's important that we hear your voice.

So when people are being well-meaning, you can just thank them for their concern — and ignore them, and keep writing. You're gonna have to build a tough skin against that kind of stuff because it can be very discouraging. If you're a writer, then you have to write.

For practical advice, I have two pieces of advice for young writers. First of all, you must start keeping a journal immediately. It could be a handwritten journal; it could be when you write on your computer or your phone, and I have both.

You are young now, and you need to build up a reservoir of material, and you need to start doing it by writing about your own life. Anything in your life can spark a piece of writing, but if you don't write it down, you will forget it. You'll lose it.

So keep those bits of writing, keep things you wrote on, keep napkins, keep receipts, keep stuff that you took notes on and write things by hand. Because I do believe that writing things on the computer is one way to record things, but to really get it to memorize things, to get them into your brain, writing by hand is a good practice to engage in.

To me it's like when an artist makes a sketch of something. That's your sketching, it's your practice. You're remembering something you saw or heard or learned, or something that just popped out of your head. And the more you do it, the more you will gain from it. You look back over a journal of the year and you've got 365 ideas to put into writing.

And then the other thing is probably pretty obvious, but I'll repeat it anyway. All writers need to read a lot, but especially young writers because it's another way to fill your reservoir. And it's also part of the apprenticeship of being a writer. You have to read a lot, read widely, read out of your chosen genre, read, if you read another language, read the great classics in the other language. Read books, read magazines, read blogs, plays, read all of it, go to movies and try to figure out what the screenplay said. Use your writer skills to dissect the world around you: the more you do it, the better you are.

You're a writer, it's a curse and a blessing.


Is there anything that you wish we touched on or that you might want to add?

I have a question for you guys. You selected Odysseus and Un Día Ordinario. What did you see in those poems?


We really loved the pacing in Un Día Ordinario. It was just so good.

For that one, I kept thinking about this story of these children who were in the jungle for 40 days and those 40 days and 40 nights. And that's where the poem started to come from. If you get to be my age, you have all this stuff on your head, and if you're lucky, it will come together in the right way. And I think that poetry is a really good way to use up all those scraps and bits of stuff that you have in your head.

I was obsessed with that story about those children, and I kept thinking, I want to write about it. How am I going to write about it? The form of the poem is an abecedarian, so it starts with the letter A and it ends with a Z. And if I can put it into a form like that, it will seem less daunting; it’s a way to put a frame around it. I've used that form a number of times and sometimes it can work for very strange and weird news events and things that seem odd and unformed.

So that's the thing I would recommend too, is to experiment with forms. There's a million forms out there and some of them are really fun to work into your practice.

 


Do you write in other languages?

I don't write in other languages, but I speak German because I was raised in a German speaking household. I very much appreciate German poetry—and especially modern German poetry is really interesting, and it really gets me thinking. If you have another language at your disposal, there's a wealth of German poetry. And there's Polish poetry, French poetry and Spanish poetry. There's a lot out there and there's a lot of stuff in translation too, which is helpful. There's so much to read.

 

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