concetta principe writes prose poems and creative non-fiction, and writes academic articles exploring the bond between messianism and secularism. This Real is her fourth book of poetry, and, in being a project on love, is a sequel to Hiroshima: A Love War Story. She is Assistant Professor of English at Trent University.
I first came to concetta’s work when asked to write a blurb for This Real, which I read and loved—I felt there were a number of interesting parallels to my book The Politics of Knives, although it certainly stands alone as a much different book.
1. What do you want to talk about, but nobody ever asks?
I want to be asked about the origins of my name and who my parents are because everyone makes massive assumptions about me based on my name, and so no one ever knows that half of me is New Brunswick Scottish, way back, with a distant uncle who married a Mi’kmaq woman and had children and that whole clan has disappeared from us … it never comes up because everyone assumes I’m Italian, a failed colonizer, and eat lots of pasta—not.
2. What advice do you wish you’d received, but didn’t, when you first started to take writing seriously?
Never give up: never take a rejection personally because it rarely is and if it is personal, avoid or confront the source of that ‘personal’ attack; never believe that the so-called supposed-to-know knows better than you what you’re doing; never give up; take a break, take lots of breaks, but don’t give up; don’t do it for someone else; write it for the one you love; you are the only one who knows what you mean; trust yourself; give your work space to take shape; trust yourself.
3. What are your regular habits as a writer?
There are certain habits I should do regularly and don’t. I don’t regularly exercise. I don’t always trust myself. I don’t have perspective, not regularly enough, at least. There are certain habits I do, regularly: read and write. I read and write a lot of different things, so the writing and reading are activities that are ongoing. I am not always so disciplined in sticking to one thing, but I never give up, so I’ll come back, eventually to something I’ve started and failed at. One habit I have developed is to never throw anything out. A habit which may or may not be good (undecided on this one) is that I rarely give up.
4. What is your editing process?
My editing process is one I would say is gross and crazy and destructive and not at all pleasing to early readers of my work. It wasn’t until I saw a documentary of Picasso painting and his process, how he’d start with an image, such as a woman lying on a couch, outlined in broad strokes, paint around it and through it and then paint over it and bring back an element, a short curve, a twist of the neck, of that first image and then cut up that image, and then reshape that image, then bring back more of some of what he took away, and move some elements over, and recreate her across the page with every iteration, until he brings her back to that original position on the canvas, but with these other dynamic elements working through it… it wasn’t until then that I realized his process was my process.
Until that point, I thought I had no process. Until seeing Picasso’s working through, I thought I was a crazy loser who didn’t know which way was North. So when I saw what he was doing, and how fluid he was, and how much joy he expressed in recreating the page at least ten times over without worrying about harming the page or being redundant in the process, but giving in to testing the ‘edits’ and allowing for the palimpsest of method to be the creation, I realized I could relax with my crazy writing method.
So I do. I move things around, I push things here and there, and sometimes, I do come back to what I began with, but with these other delicious elements. Most of the time though, my end is barely every like my beginning. So, I am like Picasso in that I have a manic active process.
5. What is your greatest difficulty as a writer?
Publishing: selling: convincing people my work is worth reading. I’m an introvert. I don’t like stage situations—I’m a poet who loves music and the music of poetry, and would prefer someone else make my poetry heard. I write and I like my writing life, even if it can get lonely: the difficulty is being published and going out there and marketing myself. I don’t know how to convince myself that I’m the best writer there is so that I can convince people to buy my books.
I’m reminded of Russell Smith’s article in The Globe in which he talked about Proust who paid his publisher to publish Remembrance of Things Past, already rejected by the main publishing houses. He was convinced it was the most important work written and so he made sure to share it. He had the luxury of money to make his fame happen by buying its publication and then planting (writing/commissioning) good reviews in newspapers to draw attention to the book … So, while Smith does believe that Remembrance of Things Past is a masterpiece, it is hard for me not to wonder if it is really the masterpiece it is considered, since, if it hadn’t been published and hadn’t had those reviews that gave readers a reason to see its ‘virtues’, it might have disappeared into some historical slush pile with all the other unknown masterpieces written by nobody.
6. How do you decide which book to read next?
I have several books on the go, partly because I need to keep up with the newest publications in my fields (creative and academic and teaching), partly because I have a secret passion for suspense, murder mysteries, and science fiction, and partly because I don’t have enough time to spend all my time reading. So, I read them all, and am moved by my mood and by deadlines. Low moods have me looking for comfort reads like suspense, and high moods get me reading theory, biblical studies or philosophy, and hungry moods, poetry and literary fiction, or anything new. If I have a course to prep for, or an article to finish, or a conference paper to write, then my reading is very focused, usually involving re-reading, and is determined by the deadline. Mostly, I’m toggling between serving my mood and meeting deadlines.
7. What is your greatest single ambition?
Ah to rule the world—not. To save pedestrians by being a super-hero that can slash tires or kill engines with a flick of my wrist—big wish. To not feel anxious that people will hate me for what I write—big anxiety, obviously. To have a book of mine be reviewed. That’s not the greatest single ambition, but it’s a great ambition. To write the masterpiece, as per Gertrude Stein—sure. Or how about that luxury Anne Carson talks about—to write and not worry about conforming to an audience or a publishing mandate because it will be published because she wrote it. That would be a brilliant achievement. Or to live in a house in a small town and write and not worry about money, and follow in the footsteps of Gertrude Stein, chasing masterpieces.
8. Why don’t you quit?
I don’t quit not because no one is asking me to write because no one is and right now, that’s a very comfortable position for writing.
There have been many critical events when it would have been alright to quit. For example, my grade 5 teacher showed me that my verb tenses were wrong, my subject/verb agreement was bad, my spelling was worse, and my plot was non-existent. I didn’t quit. In grade 12, a guy in class laughed at my awkward archaic language. Mortified, sure, but I didn’t quit. I could have quit when I was rejected by both Windsor and Concordia U creative writing programs—the first time round. I could have quit when my Master’s supervisor in Creative Writing wrote to break up our relationship blaming it on my ‘portentous’ writing. I could have quit in response to any of the thousand rejections—oh and every rejection burned like venom and I bristled and splattered bitter cursing tears and trashed my work for a few days or a week, but did not quit writing. I could have quit when my manuscripts were rejected, each response a long deep sinking into darkness. I could have quit when someone confided to me that my writing was no good, or when a publisher, a long time ago, in reaction to my trying to negotiate a clause in the publishing contract, told me my writing was bad and this negotiation was not worth the issue.
In all this, every one of these terrible things had a reason, but they were only the series of failures that I eventually accepted or healed over, like sword or shrapnel wounds, and through it all, even through the pain sometimes, I kept writing. After a while, those failures turned into other failures—successes are always qualified and I may never write a masterpiece—but I haven’t quit and it’s not because I might be an almost good writer now, but mostly because I am in the middle of things. It’s habit now.