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Virginia Konchan: Writer-in-Residence at Marist College

On Friday, April 7, English intern Meghan Jones, Marist ’17, interviewed Writer-in-Residence Virginia Konchan about her writing and teaching techniques.  Dr. Konchan has been at Marist since January 2017, teaching Intro to Creative Writing and Art of Poetry.  She has degrees from Beloit College, Cleveland State University, and the University of Illinois at Chicago.  Her chapbook of poetry, Vox Populi, was published in 2015.  Check out Dr. Konchan reading her favorite poem for Marist’s National Poetry Month celebration:

Q.  Do you find that your classes have a lot of English majors, or are they mainly people doing their core English requirement?

A.  It’s mostly [the latter].  I would say 85-90% of the students in [Art of Poetry] are Sports Comm majors, or Business majors, Accounting, Psychology….I don’t even think I have one [Writing] major in [Art of Poetry].  Maybe a couple minors.

Q.  So what’s the biggest difference between teaching English students and non-majors?

A.  I think for teaching non-majors, or a class of mostly non-majors, it’s all about finding lines of interest.  The first class, we always discuss poetry influences that they might have encountered before, either as kids, or in high school…everybody has some kind of preconceived notion about what a poem is, and what the genre of poetry is…This isn’t a conversion process.  It’s obviously wonderful when someone takes a Creative Writing class and decides to elect it as a minor or even a major, but I think it’s all about trying to make the class for non-majors as fulfilling and interesting as possible.

Q. So you recently published a chapbook of poetry. I looked up that term to find that they are pamphlet-like books with a long history in literature and poetry.  What inspired you to use that form, that style?

A. Most chapbooks are between 20 and 35 pages, so it was more a length thing.  The form I ended up writing in was the abecedarian, the alphabet, so obviously there’s only a fixed number of letters in the alphabet.  When I finished the project, it was only 26 poems, and then I was like, “Oh, this is a chapbook.”  It just made sense.

Q.  Oh, so you didn’t set out to write one?

A.  No, no.

Q.  So you were just writing alphabet poems, and it turned out to be a chapbook?   What inspired you to use the alphabet?

A.  It’s a time-honored form, both the abecedarian and what’s called a bestiary, which is kind of an encyclopedia or a compendium of animals.  I think it dates back to Biblical times, like Adam naming all of the creatures coming into being.   It has a creationist background in terms of both sacred literature as well as secular literature.  I wrote the A, the B, and the C poem, and then I was like, “Oh, I really love the form.”  I don’t usually do project-based poetry, at least it doesn’t come very naturally to me; usually I just write first and then I figure out what I’m writing about, but this was a defined form that I could write into.

Q.   How has that been, having that published?

A. It’s super exciting and fun!  It was my first bound publication, other than just individual poems and stories.  I gave some readings in Montreal, because when it came out I was living in Montreal, which was fun, and I’ve been able to give readings elsewhere in academic and literary contexts….It’s been reviewed, and that was really great to get that feedback about how people are receiving the book, so it’s been exciting.

Q.  You write in many different genres: poetry, fiction, essays.  What are the biggest differences between how you go about writing in the different genres?  Are there overarching similarities?

A.  I think nonfiction and fiction are more related because they’re both in sentences, but they do require…very different parts of the brain.  When I’m writing fiction, I start with either an image or a piece of dialogue that I put down to kind of work around, so in that sense it’s similar to poetry because it might often start with an image or a feeling, or a scene, or some kind of anecdote that I want to relay…I’m more inspired to write in all three genres by reading.…with fiction, often it’s just the quality of writing.  I read a story that I’m just floored by, and I’m just inspired to write in a similar theme… I love trying to capture a character’s voice…With poetry, it’s usually more language-based, like on the level of the word…thinking through what would happen if I bored really deep into, not a concept, necessarily, or a character, but the texture of a word, or a series of words…and then for nonfiction I’m more curious about playing with ideas about multiculturalism, or language differences, or issues relating to feminism, things like that.  More…not academic, necessarily, but more conceptual-type ideas.

Q.   How do you decide which writers and works to teach?

A.  I pick authors to teach that somehow define or challenge the genre….I pick books…that get students thinking and questioning about what it means to write a poem.  Some of the fiction stories I’ve been teaching this semester, some of my students have said, “Oh, these are really sad and depressing!” And that’s funny because I don’t read them the same way.…I’m thinking of a George Saunders story called “Home,” and another story he wrote called “Sea Oak” that my students read.  I read the satire, I hear the irony and the cultural critique in the stories, whereas my students are just like, “Oh, the plot is very depressing.”  It’s authors that both either challenge or reinterpret the form, especially in a contemporary sense.   In my opinion, as a professor, they kind of create canonical examples of what it means to write a compelling character, or create a heart-racing plot, or whatever it might be.

Q. You also seem to write a lot of things in a short period of time.  How do you find both the inspiration to continually write different things, as well as the time to do that?

A.  The broad answer is I don’t really find the time.  I just kind of try to make the time.  I’m definitely guilty…of biting off more than I can chew sometimes.  But having said that, I do what I love, so I work seven days a week.  I’m either always tinkering on a poem or a story, or emailing people and having literary conversations, or mentoring people. It’s my milieu, and it’s my context.  It’s kind of what I live and breathe.  If I didn’t love it, and it was just something that I taught that I didn’t really have an intimate relationship with as a practitioner, I probably would be like, “This is where my life ends and my teaching begins, or my art begins,” but for me it’s all kind of mixed together.

Q.  What are you working on now?

A.  My first short story collection comes out in September, this year, and then I’m working on a second short story collection, just cobbling together some stories.  And my first book of poetry, which is in press right now, is coming out early next year, so I’m working on a second book of poetry as well, and a few essays.  A friend of mine curates an essay series for Drunken Boat, so I’m working on a third essay in a series for him.  All these things feed each other, so if I’m working on a story, I might have an idea for a poem…it’s always kind of cycling around.

Q.  What advice would you have for aspiring writers, or for college students studying writing who are nervous about their futures?

A.  I guess my answer to that question is twofold.  I would say think widely…of other careers you can do besides careers in creative writing.  A lot of creative writers end up teaching creative writing, but not necessarily all creative writers have a gift or a calling for teaching, or even really like teaching.  There [are] a lot of other jobs you can do with a liberal arts degree and an English degree that don’t involve teaching, so I would say cast the net widely, think broadly.…In terms of creative writing itself, my number one advice is just to read widely.  That’s my number one inspiration for my own writing: reading other people’s work.  And also just [stay] active in the literary community, and [be] interested in other people’s work.   Zadie Smith…a great fiction writer and essayist…gave a really great piece of advice…that I’d love to share.  She said: “When you’re in workshop, you should read your own work with the kind of self-criticism as if it [were] someone else’s work.”  [Think] about it and [read] it when you’re editing it as if it’s not your own.

Q.  How long will you be at Marist?  Will you be at Marist next semester?

A.  I hope so!   A couple things are in the works…we’re hosting a literary salon [in October] with a couple regional writers on the subject of poetry and mythology.

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