Janée J. Baugher is the author of the collection of ekphrastic and travel poems, Coördinates of Yes (Ahadada Books, 2010) and her poetry has been adapted for the stage at University of Cincinnati, Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, and elsewhere. Since earning an MFA from Eastern Washington University, Baugher has attended Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and held residences at Soaring Gardens Artist Retreat, Centrum, and the Island Institute of Sitka. Her poetry and prose have been published in Verse Daily, Boulevard, and Portland Review, among other places, and twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Baugher’s performance venues include Seattle’s Bumbershoot Arts Festival, Get Lit! Literary Festival in Spokane, and the Library of Congress. For more information, visit here.
Janée J. Baugher interview with Meg Tuite
I love all three of these exceptional flash pieces: “Driving, Mid Break-up,” “Letter Abroad,” and “Waiting Room.” Each one of these deals with a different aspect of a door. In “Driving Mid Break-up,” the narrator finds herself fighting with the finality of closing the door on a relationship. I am captivated by the internal battles that infuse these pieces. Tell me a bit more about this first story and its inspiration.
I am bewildered by how we mis-see the world around us, and how this mis-seeing can be great fodder for the imagination. I touch on this topic in an essay I published in Boulevard magazine (2009), “Art to Art: Ekphrastic Poetry”
Seeing the word “finished” in the mindset of a character mid-breakup has enormous resonance, as compared to the benign word related to Finland. I wanted to follow this character’s associations with “finished,” which ultimately led to the jarring announcement of her rational, left brain – realizing that the word was actually something else. Every day we translate what the right brain sees to what the left brain must analytically articulate. Psychology and the left-brain/right-brain relationship fascinate me; therefore, I’m drawn to this type of exploration in my creative writing.
“Letter Abroad,” elaborates on the threshold itself, beginnings and finding oneself between two spaces, but not sure which way to go or if to go. I was reminded of some of Borges’ stories. Your writing is intriguing and allows the reader to enter easily into any of these mindsets and yet I find myself unraveling the layers beneath. How do you approach a story like this one?
When I wrote this piece, I was working strictly on the literal – an actual door, actual threshold, etc. Does the piece also exist on the figurative? I merely wrote the piece, so as the author that’s not something that I can answer; it’s for the readers to decide. At the time I conceived this piece, I was teaching the summer session at Interlochen Center for the Arts in Interlochen, Michigan. My students at the time were grappling with wanting to imbue their work with symbolism, metaphor, metonym, and the like. As an argument against that (intentional) approach, I found a stellar quote that expresses that it’s best to let the work come literally and perhaps, if you’re lucky, the readership can see it abstractly. Li-Young Lee writes, “The narrative in poetry works on the horizontal so that the vertical may happen.”
“Waiting Room,” is a killer. Imagining what is happening behind the door and then being called to it. It is a labyrinth that I see so visually as though looking in a mirror at a door that continues on forever. Now, I’m thinking of Edgar Keret and Lydia Davis. Sorry, to keep bringing up these other writers. Your voice is most definitely unique, it’s just the depth and philosophy that bring to mind these other writers for me when I read your work. “Bridges are doors from where you are to where you could be.” WOW! You said that this story stretched you in ways you hadn’t imagined. I can only admire this and wonder how it came to be, but how was the experience of writing this for you?
Setting inspired this story, as I literally accompanied my friend to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. I spent two days in February in that waiting room. My first love is the sciences – I completed a pre-med program at Boston University, and for many years I work as a laboratory technologist in the field of organ transplantation – so I’m relatively comfortable in medical clinics and waiting rooms. Thus, while sitting there, I imagined what it would be like to hear my own name called. I followed that idea and did free-writes while waiting for my friend. However, other writing projects took precedence and I filed that story away in my “work-in-progress” file folder in my metal file cabinet. Truth be told, if I did not compose another word as long as I live, I would still have a lifetime of revision work, just from the stories and poems languishing in that file cabinet!
But then you came along, Meg. I don’t think the average person gets how lonely our work is – hours upon hours writing and reading, the self-doubt that inevitably creeps in, the numerous rejection letters, the endless applications for jobs and grants and residencies, etc. After we met in March 2012 at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and began an online friendship, you became part of my writing community, for which I am grateful. Therefore, when I sent “Driving Mid-Breakup” and “Letter Abroad” to your magazine (although I did not know whether or not they were prose poems or flash fiction) and you asked for another “door” piece, it was as if the clouds parted on that little story I had put away months earlier. I excavated “Waiting Room,” assessed it for the possibility of expanding on the door image, and began to develop it. Were it not for your encouragement and deadline (!), I would never have ushered “Waiting Room” into a final product. Thank you!
That makes me very happy. It is so tough to keep that inspiration going and I’m so thankful that I had anything to do with this story coming into being! You made my month! Do you have a favorite genre to work with? Your prose is quite powerful and compact, like your poetry, but the language is very straight forward even if there are levels and levels to it. Your first collection was poetry. Is there a form that seems to come more naturally to you when you pick up that pen?
Three years ago I never could have imagined courting prose, but one day I went to the page “freely” – like I encourage my students to do – and out came this story from my childhood. I was stunned. I was hell-bent on my poem-making, so what was I supposed to do with a little memoir piece? I had the good notion to rip the pages out of my journal and forget that the whole thing happened. What that experience taught me was that we cannot strong-arm the writing borne of the unconscious mind. Once the words had landed, seemingly of their own private volition, I had to deal with them. That essay became the first in a collection of personal essays I’m close to completing.
I don’t believe in the concept of writer’s block. I believe we can be the obstacle to our own writing (i.e. with lofty expectations, unrealistic goals, self-flagellation). After the essay came that summer so did a piece of flash fiction. As a conduit for the writing, it was my job to process the writing, shape it into becoming what it wanted to, not what I wanted from it. The writings of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung taught me to trust the work of the unconscious mind, to submit to the words, to follow them out to the end. I trust the words, trust that they have an energy, shape, direction. It’s my job to follow the trajectory, to honor that organic process.
So, to answer your question, I let my free-writes announce the genre to me. If I see my imagination at play, I know a poem or story is emerging. If I see the truth of my personal history, I know creative nonfiction is brewing. I just follow the words out, hoping I do them some service.
Your fellowship at the Island Institute of Sitka sounds like heaven. Some place where no one can find you and you have escaped into the inner realms. Can you share some of your experience?
I was awarded the fellowship by the Island Institute of Sitka to work on my book of water-related personal essays. By nature I am a taciturn woodswoman, so spending a month alone in Sitka was profound and restorative. To answer your question, I’ll offer up two excerpts of my Sitka book in-progress:
While in Sitka I shut myself off from the outside world, shut myself in. I unmask myself in forest. I give up my true self to forest. Wilderness gives me anonymity. To up and disappear. I am grateful, I am silent, I am without thought or desire in wilderness. I am most myself as I am no one, the wilderness has taught me. Reticence slows the world.
We are composites of all our experiences. Somewhere cerebrally-stored is this very boardwalk overlooking a cove where the sun graces down on the waterline at the transition of afternoon to evening. Water laps-up on the rock-face, ravens spirit across the sky, and the Sitka Sound holds its secrets within the cavities of each creature that dwells in it. I cannot touch this moment with figurative language, will not compare it to any other remarkable memory. For, I’ll stuff this scene into my pocket and run home with it.
Do you have advice for writers grappling with a writing schedule?
This summer I taught at a writers’ conference where one of the instructors asked his prose students to write 5 pages per day. When the conference was over I ran into a student from that workshop. “My new writing goal is to continue to write 5 pages a day,” he beamed. I asked him a bit about his life: he works full-time, has an elderly mother, pursues other artistic passions, and is highly social in his community. “Is 5 pages a day realistic? What if you have to work a double shift or your mom ends up in the emergency room? How will you feel the first day you don’t make that lofty goal? What will you do day 2, endeavor to write 10 pages?” I challenged him to find a goal that was absolutely attainable, one that would set him up for ultimate success. “How about one sentence a day? That way if you only have a moment, one sentence is doable. Yet, most days you might easily write many more sentences.” His response: “You should be an app.” All jokes aside, I might suggest that, rather than page- or word counts, a person settles on a timed goal. For example, 15 minutes per day. A time goal honors the true work of writers: composition is just one aspect, revision, research, translation are other important aspects of what it means to be a writer.
I love your response to him and to all writers. We attain what we can every day and are thankful for it. You should be an app!! Who are your biggest influences as a writer?
I’m enamored by the art of compression, that’s why I love poetry, short fiction, and flash nonfiction. When I read long works, such as Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History or David Guterson’s novel The Other, I have such admiration for the form, but I know it’s all beyond me. I simply cannot sustain one thought for hundreds of pages. Lydia Davis, for example, is such a master at the short fiction – I could read her collected stories forever. People might notice how a certain Mary Oliver poem inspired the end of “Waiting Room.” I’m drawn to poets for whom language is rich and miraculous – Amy Clampitt and Jorie Graham, for instance. I am indebted to Peter Cooley’s ekphrastic work, especially The Van Gogh Notebook, which became literary inspiration for my own collection of ekphrastic poems, Coördinates of Yes. I could go on and on…
Who are you reading at this time?
I am a proud card-carrying member of the Seattle Public Library system. Thanks to SPL, here’s my current list:
Visitation(fiction, by Jenny Erpenbeck)
In Short: A Collection of Brief Creative Nonfiction(editors Kitchen and Jones)
The Poets Guide to the Birds(editors Kitchen and Kooser)
Andrew Wyeth(art book, with intro by McCord)
The Nature of Things(epic poem by Lucretius, trans. Stallings)
The Age of Wonder(nonfiction, Holmes)
Give me a link to a favorite song of yours that says something about your past.
Elliott Smith’s “Say Yes” (Either/Or album, 1997) was instrumental in helping me to settle on the title of my collection of poems, Coördinates of Yes:
LOVE it! Thank you for sharing that. Would you like to end with a favorite quote?
Today, I am certain, for all my terrible mistakes I did the right thing to love places and scenes in my innocent way and to spend my life writing poems, to receive like a woman the world in its enduring decay and to tell that world like a man that I am not afraid to weep at the sadness, the ongoing day that is draining our life and is life. (Richard Hugo in “Letter to Peterson from the Pike Place Market”)
Thank you so much, Janée, for your pure brilliance! I am honored to be able to feature you in this issue! You are a joy and deep, deep waters!