The Penmen Profile: Poet and Author Monica Wendel

by Rebecca LeBoeuf

MonicaWendel_AuthorPhotoMonica Wendel is a poet and a non-fiction author. Her newest chapbook, “English Kills,” published in March 2016, achieved the Coal Hill Chapbook Contest. Her other chapbooks include “Pioneer” and “Call it a Window.”

Wendel’s full-length book of poetry, “No Apocalypse,” was selected for the 2012 Georgetown Review Poetry Contest. Her poems have also appeared in journals such as the Bellevue Literary Review, Ploughshares and Rattle.

Have you always written?
Yes—I can’t remember a time when it didn’t feel necessary to put thoughts into written words. There was always something so concrete and final about it.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
As a poet, I tend to only find—or create—the storyline after I’ve written between five and fifteen poems. I print out the poems and arrange, then re-arrange, trying to see where the speaker stands at the beginning of the arc and where she stands at the end. A good question to ask is, what is she trying to find? And has she found it? The ending isn’t necessarily that she has found the answer (to whatever it is), but that there is some kind of new understanding or perspective that she holds.

Since I write autobiographically, the writing process mirrors my own emotional process. I’m often writing the poems in search of the answer to some question about love or family or home.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
Oh, man. Everything about writing is challenging! Let’s start with the usual suspects; Time. Money. Distractions. Loneliness. The dog needs to go for a walk and there’s laundry to do and work emails to answer…

Most of the time I feel like I haven’t overcome those challenges. After graduate school, I wanted to secure a tenure-track teaching job, or, hey, any poetry-related job. And in order to do that, I wrote—and published—like mad.

Now that I’m teaching full-time, writing doesn’t feel as important. The best I can do is set deadlines, especially by doing collaborative work, and meet with a writing group every other week or so.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
I began seriously sending out work after I finished my MFA. Graduate school was a time to refine and experiment, so I didn’t want to begin publishing then; I was afraid of being defined by work that wasn’t finished yet.

Part of what encouraged me to send out work for publication was an email chain I was on with some friends from graduate school. We emailed out whenever we sent out work, giving each other virtual high-fives.

My first chapbook, “Call it a Window,” was a revised version of my thesis, and it was picked up relatively quickly. “Call it a Window” was the basis for “No Apocalypse,” my full-length manuscript. Everything built on the next thing and the next. What was most challenging was making the commitment to send out everything and dive fully into trying to publish.

How do you market your work?English Kills
I’m active on Facebook, and to a lesser extent, Tumblr and Twitter. I do poetry readings, and when I have a chance, lead workshops. It helps to build strong relationships with editors.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
This is a tough question—because I feel like I know less now than when I first started, and that every year I realize how little I know.

I don’t think there’s anything a person needs to know. You need to be a reader first, and you need to be able to learn, and to respond to criticism.

Sometimes I wish I had known not to doubt myself so much. But that self-doubt propelled me forward. Since I doubted that the things I wanted would come to fruition—would I get into an MFA program? publish poems? publish a book? — I worked really hard to make them happen.

Who are the authors that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
Two authors come to mind: Jack Kerouac and Italo Calvino.

Kerouac awakened in me the understanding that writers don’t work in a vacuum. When I learned about his friendship with Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, I understood, for the first time, what a literary community was and what it would look like. Today I look at the writing group I’m in and my friends who are readers and writers, and I feel so inspired by them, and I know that part of why I worked for those friendships and created a life where we could share those parts of ourselves, was because of Kerouac’s work.

Italo Calvino challenged my ideas about what fiction even is. When I’m not sure what to read, I often find myself wandering through the M.C. Escher—like structure of “If on a winter’s night a traveler” or tracing the patterns of Marco Polo’s journeys in “Invisible Cities.” I love Calvino’s sense of joy and playfulness coupled with a serious engagement in deep philosophical ideas.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
Today, my answer is “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville, “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson, and “If on a winter’s night a traveler” by Calvino…but that answer will most likely change by tomorrow.

The “why” is for all the reasons that other writers, over the decades, have lauded these books. How could I add to that list except to say that these books have moved me, profoundly, and even, if it’s possible, made me a better person?