March 28, 2014
Interview with Vanessa Blakeslee
by Caitlin McGuire
Vanessa Blakeslee’s poem “The Room of Gold” appeared in Fjords Review, Volume I, Issue 3.
About Vanessa Blakeslee
Vanessa Blakeslee's debut short story collection, Train Shots, is forthcoming from Burrow Press in early 2014. Her writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily,The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, the Ragdale Foundation, and in 2013 received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Vanessa earned her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Born and raised in northeastern Pennsylvania, she is a longtime resident of Maitland, Florida.
CM: What inspired "The Room of Gold"?
VB: The inspiration for this poem occurred while I was in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in the autumn of 2009, writing the first draft of my novel. Just before arriving at the VCCA, I had performed in a dance show and brought several props to the residency—finger cymbals, scarves, and a gorgeous golden veil make of silk. On several afternoons, after writing, I would play music in the fellows’ hall and get my exercise fix by rehearsing choreographies. So the poem is in fact quite literal, in that one day when these two young male residents walked by, the mood shifted entirely from the freedom of expressing oneself alone to becoming aware, suddenly, that you are being watched.
CM: "I read your Writers on Writing piece in Passages North-congratulations by the way-in which you talk about giving up dancing in order to be a writer.
And yet you belly dance through "The Room of Gold." Do you think there are ways of dancing without dancing?"
VB: Thank you-I think that the essay to which you refer, "Two Masters," speaks to a number of ways artists feel pulled between one creative realm and another. For some that other world may be raising young children, or teaching, or working in journalism, or editing. Society is fond of pigeon-holing individuals neatly into boxes, but among artists I am constantly blown away by how many of us excel at more than one medium-whether it be a musician/composer who is also talented at making short films, or a visual artist and photographer who is now writing her first novel, or an actor who is writing episodes for HBO and directing.
I wouldn't say that I'm the speaker in "The Room of Gold." No matter how true-to-life the situation that's rendered on the page, I'd still consider the "I" a persona-and just like you adopt a persona in poetry, you do as well in dance and any other performance art. You're wearing a mask to channel a certain aspect of your personality and create a desired effect. As for "dancing without dancing," once I think you've discovered yourself as a dancer, what the mind/body connection is capable of, the adrenaline rush of drilling at a studio for several hours, creating and performing as part of an ensemble-no, I don't think there's any substitute for that.
CM: What is your artistic routine?
VB: Oh my goodness, do I have one? Writing for me is an ingrained habit, not a discipline. I’ve always preferred to settle into my day, and usually spend my first hours with a cup of tea, answering emails, reading articles, and running errands. By the afternoon I’ve grown fed up by those things, and that drives me to my desk or notebook, where I’ll work uninterrupted for hours. I realize this is quite opposite from what so many writers I know practice—getting up and writing first thing, morning as a sacred time of day, etc. I’m more likely to look up and discover that it’s 2 a.m., and I had better get off the laptop as my eyes are watering.
I’ll add that this routine is possible because I don’t have many demands on my time. At the moment, I don’t have children and I’m single. When I was working on my novel, I was utterly consumed and would go immediately to work, bypassing the Internet, at 9 a.m. But right now I’m working on short stories and essays, and find myself in an entirely different mode. They’re easier to slip in and out of, and that’s why I think the afternoons and evenings works for me, with a walk or a swim in between.
CM: Tell us two truths and one lie.
VB: I’m fascinated with World War Two history and know quite a lot about aircraft, bombardiers, and the like. Once I spent a month by myself in Rome. I drive a Jeep Sport that is almost fifteen years old but still hasn’t reached 100, 000 miles yet.
CM: "If you could pair "The Room of Gold" with any piece of artwork, what would you choose?"
VB: I suppose I would pair the poem with the original choreography in which our troupe used the golden veils, dancing to the classic Middle Eastern song, "Miserlou." It's a slow, really lovely choreography and we all wore gold costumes, which look stunning on stage. In a way, we created a live "room of gold" before the audience.
CM: Do you have any writer's block advice?
VB: Switch genres. When I feel tapped out in short fiction, I’ll turn to essays, and so forth. If you’re stuck within a piece, sometimes the work opens up if you change your approach—whether it be point-of-view, the protagonist’s gender, the tense, etc. If it’s a problem that you’ve got to figure out head-on, like figuring out the next chapter of a novel when you’re 2/3 through, sometimes asking questions of the situation in a notebook can help, as well as taking walks, swimming, or practicing yoga–something physical and meditative that will let your subconscious tackle it. Naps can work for the same reason. Last but not least, learn to recognize that sometimes the writing won’t come because it’s simply not ready—maybe you’re going through challenges in your personal life, or other people or tasks need your energy. I don’t remember where I heard this, but I find this saying very sage advice, that at times your writing will lie fallow in you. The more you write, the more you develop your intuition about how the writing is working on you–when to back off, and when to push ahead.
CM: What are you currently working on?
VB: For the past several months, I’ve been revising short stories for a second collection. Lately I’ve been drawn to speculative and dystopian fiction, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up writing some new stories or even a novel in that vein. In between I’ve been working on essays and book reviews. Also, I’m hoping to record more of my poetry soon—perhaps even “The Room of Gold.”