In February of 2006, Lisa Phillips had the privilege of interviewing Appalachian poet Rita Quillen, the author of such books as Counting the Sums and the staff leader of poetry at this year’s Mountain Heritage Literary Festival at LMU.
Phillips: Are there any writers who have been particularly influential in the development of your craft?
Quillen: I would have to say that the four writers I studied and wrote about for my masters thesis at ETSU were very influential. I spent about two years reading and rereading and corresponding with them personally. Fred Chappell, Jim Wayne Miller, Jeff Daniel Marion, and Robert Morgan had a profound impact on me because I knew the world they wrote about. They all were kind enough to take an interest in my poetry and offered me helpful critiques of my early efforts.
Phillips: Is there a certain setting in which you prefer to write, or a particular routine that you tend to follow?
Quillen: The only time I have the opportunity to get into a writing routine is in the summer. During the school year I don’t write very much, and then it’s just sporadic. I just don’t have the time and energy; I wish I did! But when I was working on my novel, I generally went down to my office and worked for about 3 hours in the morning, after I’d gotten a couple of cups of coffee under my belt. That was my limit because I’m such a fidgety person. I have to get up out of that chair after a few hours, no matter how well the writing is going. That’s not a good thing, but that’s the way it is. The most important thing about writing fiction is putting the time in the chair.
Phillips: What are your greatest sources of inspiration?
Quillen: conversation, an image, a song, time alone in the car or on a long walk.
Phillips: Where does the unique voice of your poems come from?
Quillen: My life. Growing up in my particular family in that particular time and place. I think everyone has a unique voice—what makes a person a writer is learning to recognize and trust it and let it be there on the page, no matter how “wrong” it seems or whether a certain journal or editor will publish it. It’s being comfortable in your own skin, warts and all!
Phillips: What is the revision process like for you?
Quillen: Revision—that’s tricky. I have to say—and this isn’t a good thing—that I often do very little revision. The poems revise themselves in my head, sometimes in an almost subconscious way, before I ever write them down. Once I get them on paper, I type them up, play with the line breaks. I usually remove all the prepositions and isolate the verbs, putting them back as they were originally or lining up a couple of options down the side of the margins. I sometimes find that the first stanza or lines are “white noise” or misdirection and have to remove them totally, realizing that the actual poem doesn’t start until line 4 or stanza 2. Someone said that you never finish poems, you just abandon them and that definitely describes me.
Phillips: What do you perceive to be the most important aspects of Appalachian writing?
Quillen: That we’re such a close-knit community. Maybe it’s that way in other regional or ethnic groups of writers, I don’t know. But I think it’s extraordinary how we help each other, encourage, support, critique, promote each other in our work and how we reach out to new writers to bring them into that writing community to grow with us.
Phillips: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Quillen: I don’t want to presume to give much advice. If you want to be a writer, I think it’s inspiring and helpful to read books by writers about their writing and their lives to sort of demystify the whole thing. We don’t have any special knowledge really; no one else can make you a writer. If you’re a writer, you’ll write—no one will be able to stop you. Not even that 1000th rejection letter from that big-shot editor. Not even a friend, family member, or neighbor who rolls the eyes when you mention your work It’s a way of life, a “habit of being” as Flannery O’Connor called it. Just do it and don’t think it only has meaning if someone publishes it. -e-