First Books After Forty: Michael Morse and Robin Beth Schaer in Conversation

Michael Morse: We’re two writers in our forties with debut poetry books. At the risk of sounding snarky, but with a wink and a nudge, I’ll ask, “What took you so long?”

Robin Beth Schaer: What took so long? The quick answer is many-tentacled: perfectionism, divorce, disillusionment, lumbering pace, reluctance, fear, parenthood, weariness, revision, and bills. What about you, how do you answer when people ask what took so long? 

Morse: Right after grad school I found myself prioritizing salaried work over writing poems. I waited tables, I taught poetry in the public schools as a working artist at Teachers and Writers Collaborative; I taught as an adjunct; I worked as an editor and writer at an environmental consulting firm; I taught at a summer school for three summers. And while I didn’t make enough space for writing while I was working, I figured I’d be with poetry for the long-haul and had to figure out what other work I’d find sustaining. I think a more honest narrative would also cite my fear of prioritizing writing time and the fact that I work very, very slowly. And that it’s hard for me to ignore the Rangers or the Mets when they’re on television. But I want to come back to the list you gave me—there are a lot of tentacles there… can you expand on one or two?

Schaer: My path to poetry was slow and meandering. When I eventually found my way to graduate school at 29, making a life as a poet seemed like a bohemian fantasy. But maybe my zigzagging trajectory is just an excuse for tardiness, when fear is really the root of any reason I might give. My perfectionism and pace are certainly driven by fear that a poem is imperfect or incomplete. More significantly, my struggle to fully dedicate myself to poetry was a fear of failure. Here’s the logic: a half-assed endeavor that flops is no tragedy, but a wholehearted labor that sinks is a profound disaster. And so, I didn’t prioritize writing, I procrastinated, and I burned so much time out of fear—which is the true failure. What is at the root of your fear of prioritizing writing time and what does it take to push past?

Michael MorseMorse: I so romanticize the lives I haven’t lived—the ones where the writing took priority and I trusted that I’d find ways to pay rent. But I was scared to give everything to the writing. I’d gone to grad school to learn and absorb and didn’t know if I had any sustainable talent—all I had was this vocation that I idealized for spiritual and emotional sustenance, and who knew if I could make a go of it? It felt easier to focus on the pragmatic and take care of myself on that level. And what does it take to push past that fear? I still need to remind myself about the immediate pleasures of making—of play—and to be gentle enough to not completely dismiss my gaming and what it initially generates. To lose myself in play and thinking feels whole-hearted.

Schaer: As you’ve gotten older, has there been a change for you in focus and concentration? Have you shed the concerns and insecurities of youth? Are you able to get more deeply into a poem now?

Morse: If I’ve shed any insecurities, I’ve found new ones to take their places! But I think I can sit with drafts over time now, wait them out a bit to hear and feel if they have some staying power. How about with you? What’s changed over time, and how are writing and parenting coming together for you? I so admire that you can juggle work and writing and nurturing a child—how has being a mother changed the way you look at your work?

Schaer: Being pregnant taught me how to be a better writer. It was a lesson in negative capability and surrendering to necessity. Suddenly, my body instinctually yielded to the needs of this growing being, and I had no choice but to embrace what was happening and all that lay ahead, even if I was afraid and uncertain. So, while being a parent has made writing more challenging, it has also made being a writer more certain. There’s no room to procrastinate; there is to time for fear. There is only an urgency to choose poetry, to surrender to its demands and challenges, with the same commitment as motherhood. One has to be radically present as the parent of a young child. The body insists on that focus and actually shuts parts of the memory down so all that remains is the present moment. For me, it has been a necessary lesson (one I wished I learned earlier) in the deep immersion and concentration that writing and reading truly require. 

Morse: Shifting gears a bit, Robin, let’s get back to your next “child”—bringing out your book into the world. As we’ve been having this conversation, Alex Chee (on Lit Hub) and Robin Black (in the New York Times) have published essays protesting the culture-love for younger writers. Chee writes that “[p]ublishing still overwhelmingly loves the story of the genius child,” and Black claims she has “long grumbled about the conflation of the words ‘young’ and ’emerging’… and about the many prizes set aside for writers in their early careers below whatever cutoff has been picked, usually 35 or 40.” Well, true. I liked the content of these pieces, but as a “late bloomer” I certainly don’t feel like I’m leading any revolts. What, for you, feels essential to address when it comes to issues of age and publishing?

Robin Beth SchaerSchaer: I agree, I don’t think there’s any vast revolt underway against the preoccupation with youth. But the critiques by Chee, Black, and others are the iceberg tip of cultural shifts regarding age, as well race, class, and gender that the publishing industry is lagging behind. Career expectations and award guidelines were entrenched decades ago and no longer reflect how our lives are lived. For instance, the Yale Younger Prize was established in 1919 for an unpublished poet under forty. 1919! That’s before women had the right to vote in the US, before Civil Rights, before the Pill. Life expectancy in 1919 was mid-fifties, while now it is in the eighties, so the definition of “younger” when that prize was established nearly 100 years ago was actually much later in life than its current place in the middle of our lifespan. Of course, Yale is not alone here: The New Yorker, National Book Foundation, PEN, Granta, and so many other important publishers and funders bestow age-defined honors and grants. The publishing industry needs to catch up and truly reflect the different paths that writers take. Like many writers, you and I had financial obligations, familial responsibilities, and tacks that slowed down and twisted our trajectories. When we make it past the bends and obstacles of our journey, so many of us find ourselves already excluded or ineligible for opportunities and funds that would be truly useful and career-sustaining.

Morse: I find the idea of “career” interesting and tricky. I tend not to think of poetry as my profession even though it’s my preoccupation. And yet there’s more of a careerist sensibility in our realm that echoes the larger culture around us. Many of the younger writers I talk to urgently feel a need to get their books out right away—that somehow there’s something wrong if they don’t have a book out within two or three years of completing an MFA. I don’t mean to suggest that everyone or anyone should take as long as I did to accrue enough good material for a debut, but I worry about young writers feeling a pressure to have a book so quickly. And I wonder how publishers feel about more options and more writers to choose from? One good thing about the new scale of poetry publishing: the rise of so many excellent small presses and catalytic organizations like Cave Canem and VIDA that continue to address inequities in the publishing world.

Schaer: Like you, I’ve been working on my poems for a long, long time. The poetry landscape has changed a great deal in the decade since I completed my MFA. Maybe what I am observing are just fads, but still, it is quite different from when I first dove down to work on my manuscript. So many trends have swept past; so many lauded new journals and presses are already defunct; and so many celebrated debuts have disappeared. So, I’m left wondering where my book fits in this present instant, as well as how it will weather the changing currents ahead. I know I must sound like an old man complaining the music is too loud and doesn’t make sense. Maybe I’m just feeling nervous. What about you? 

Morse: I’m definitely becoming that old man, but I like listening to the music. I think that one great tension that fuels lyric poetry is its projection of an immediate voice in a present moment that allows others, over time, to inhabit that moment. So how might this tension play out, say, with last year’s controversy involving Kenny Goldsmith’s reading of “Michael Brown’s Body” and reactions to that work? Cathy Park Hong and Joey De Jesus, among many others, published sharp essays that discuss problematic issues with avant-garde poetics in general and, more specifically, problems with Goldsmith’s poem. Such discussions felt crucial as events like Ferguson and Charleston dominated the news. Calls to awareness—whether they involve long-standing social and political contexts or an aesthetic zeitgeist—will always challenge me to reconsider where my attention lies. I think about race often as a teacher making curricular choices, but I’ve rarely addressed race in my own poems. And while I’m thinking about all this, into the world comes a slim volume—mine, with its rehearsals for and engagements with loss and consolation—that doesn’t feel particularly edgy or “of the zeitgeist,” either politically or aesthetically. All I can hope for is that its concerns and music feel meaningful for some readers. Who knows? I’m for current zeitgeists and historical breadth. I love the vitality of what’s present and hope to make something with lyric DNA that lasts.

Schaer: I share that desire with you, that twinned need to both respond to the immediate moment as well as create a lasting art. I want to write towards all that inspires and terrifies me about each other and our planet. I want to yell about it most days and stop strangers in the street to share my outrage. But my mind is too serpentine to offer instant poem reactions. I can however stand back and examine the deeper ground, or at least that’s what I hope my poems are doing. I believe contemplation can be an ethical act and literature can be a profound agent of cultural change, so I hope in some way my poems expand the conversations about environmental decline and social responsibility. Though I do worry that my voice seems silent during the long stretches of researching, writing, revising, and then waiting for publication.

Morse: Given the issues of “what’s current” and fears that one’s work might not mesh with what’s hot, are there, on the contrary, any advantages, as you see them, to having a debut happen a little later on in life?

Schaer: Anything I might say is an advantage to publishing later in life, is also a disadvantage in its own way. For instance, time has tempered the green expectations and illusions I had about publishing a book, but time has also swelled the hopes that remain. I have collected a store of schemes, observations, and missteps over the years, which may either protect me from fumbling, or may lead me to be overly cautious.

VoidCoverMorse: Can you tell me more about those expectations and illusions?

Schaer: When I was young, my knowledge of the literary world was a distorted tabloid sketch of dazzling fame, suffering genius, and tragic glamour. It was all very naïve. Of course, the only part of the stereotype that has proven true is the suffering and the starving. Now, my fantasy of scribbling poems in a tower is gone, but an anxiety about reviews, book sales, and awards has taken its place. I am trying very hard not to have unreasonable expectations and set myself up for disappointment as this book enters the world. My hopes for literary success are not driven by the illusions of youth, but rather compelled by practical needs. At this point in my life, the success of the book has a very real impact on my ability to get grants, fellowships, and a stable teaching job. If I was still young and clutching my MFA in hand, I would be more wild and careless right now, but parenthood and debt leaves me farther to fall. How does your age and understanding of the literary world impact your own hopes and expectations for your book in the world?

Morse: When I was younger and finishing up at Iowa, lots of writers there were doing amazing things—I wasn’t one of them. I was twenty-six and knew that a book felt a long way away. Twenty-two years later, I have no illusions that my first book will throw open the doors of opportunity for me. For one, I’ve already built a twenty-year teaching career at an independent school. I’m lucky that I was able to take a leave from teaching in order to travel around the country and be “present” with the book—after all, who knows how long its shelf life will be, and what reviews, if any, will say? But I’ve had a wonderful time giving over-forty readings in eighteen states in the last year. I enjoyed revisiting my poems in the company of both friends and strangers in varied venues, and I don’t think I would have been able to support such a year—financially or socially—back when I was younger. And as for the literary world you mention, it has clearly morphed into an even greater conflation of literary and academic realms.

Schaer: The numbers of MFA programs have expanded since your time in graduate school—how has that growth shifted the poetry landscape?

Morse: When I went to grad school, I was a generation behind an incredible group of poets who made a niche for themselves in a shifting academic climate. Some of them—and their students—were my terrific teachers. I heard stories about writers who’d been at Iowa a decade or two earlier who had no problem finding teaching jobs even before their books came out: people would call the workshop asking about who could come and teach right away. In 1992, when I left Iowa, there were a handful of MFA programs: a terminal degree and a book could lead to a university job (and not merely an adjunct position). Today there are over 250 graduate Creative Writing programs. My first AWP conference was in Baltimore in 2003—I think about 4000 people attended. There were three times as many people at the 2014 conference in Seattle. The exponential growth of creative writing programs means that more and more people want to study, earn degrees, and publish books. And it means more and more people have communities—both inside and post-academia—into which they can tap.

Schaer: One of the greatest boons of debuting now is the support and wisdom of dear friends who have already published books. I am blessed to be surrounded by so many inspiring, innovative, and courageous writers. But, the gift of that beautiful community also makes me feel vulnerable. And here is where I spiral into utter neurosis and worry about what my friends will think of my book and by extension, me. I know this is absurd. Really, I do. How have you felt being among friends with long bibliographies while not having a book yourself?

Morse: As a teacher of young people, I’m used to being focused on others and what’s going on with them intellectually and emotionally. Reading is a similar encounter with otherness… there’s so much good stuff out there to celebrate that the ratio of what’s-out-there to what-I’ve-done feels necessarily skewed—and proper—in its proportions. So I guess I don’t worry much about long bibliographies. That said, I’ve been “emerging” for a long time! I watched friends in graduate school publish books, and by the time I got a fellowship for emerging writers at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, I was arriving where my peers had been fifteen years earlier! Most of my fellow fellows were in their twenties or early thirties, and some put out books before I did. And honestly, that felt fine—I was happy to see their good work out in the world. I had faith that sooner or later my work would land somewhere. I will say that the only bothersome corollary of long bibliographies occurs when writers vociferously insist that a first book “embarrasses” them. If you were a different writer then and had other priorities or different interests or different avenues to explore, so what? We can own different selves and different work over time; that seems fine and normal.

Schaer: That retrospective shame over first books coupled with the publishing world’s lust for youth is truly confusing. The combined message urges racing to publish while still young and beautiful even if the work is lousy. You have probably received the same advice as me, to just get the first book out of the way already, as though it were a husk to shed. Maybe it is unavoidable, but I never wanted to publish a book that I would inevitably turn on. I was never in a rush. So I kept writing new poems and abandoning old ones, until the manuscript was like the ship of Theseus, remade three times over with new planks.

Morse: Yeah, agreed… but the dilemma doesn’t seem too confusing to me, given that so many graduates come out of programs with what they—the writers or perhaps the programs—consider a “finished” thesis. And of course, I feel jealous pangs when someone in her twenties publishes a book with Norton or FSG; I can, quite quickly, board the why-didn’t-I-get-my-shit-together-earlier? train. And while I didn’t get it together when I was younger, I’m glad that I won’t have to slam my first book. If I look back and lament, I’m in trouble—it means I’ll have made my juvenilia in my thirties and forties!

ShipbreakingSchaer: Do you wonder how different your book would be if you published it a decade ago? Or even five years ago? For myself, I am grateful that I waited and kept writing. A decade ago, my poems were precious little boxes, small and claustrophobic, completely inward gazing. I didn’t possess the command to speak beyond the self. Over the years, my poems have stretched out, grown broader and grander. The intervening years of living and aging—with their portions of tragedy, triumph, and shipwreck—have earned me both the authority and the necessity to write on a cosmic scale. What about you? In what way has your work changed over the years?

Morse: I sometimes wonder about the first manuscript I finished that hasn’t seen the light of day, but it wasn’t ready to be a book. Nor was what turned into my book ready fifteen, ten, or five years ago. So I’ve had a little time to gauge how my work has changed over the years. I’ve always been very sound-based in my drafts and edits—I wanted to write short lyrics that sounded like Hopkins. A kind of direct clarity wasn’t something that I eschewed, but I often made edits based on sound… and if the meaning of a line was murky, so be it. One of the “later” poems in my book is the central long poem, and that poem was a bit of a change in my aesthetic… The long poem felt like a more sustained effort to privilege both music and clarity, and I wanted to privilege an emotional directness that was honest about a speaker’s dilemmas and ambiguities and ambivalences. And the only other change is that the most recent poem in the book, “(New Jim Crow)”, a response of sorts to Michelle Alexander’s book of the same name and the work of Wallace Stevens, is one that deals with issues of race, which I’ve started to explore more recently.

Schaer: I rarely hear writers encourage each other to take their time or slow down when it comes to publication. Everyone is in such a rush. When I was in graduate school, my classmates were submitting poems to journals immediately after workshop and sending manuscripts off to contests as soon as degrees were conferred. A few years ago, a colleague advised me to hurry up and publish a book; he said it didn’t matter where, that it might as well be “Fart Press,” but it needed to be soon. I would give the opposite advice if anyone asked. Surely there is no need to be precious about one’s work, and perhaps I am guilty of such, but writers should have patience and let both the work and the self develop, change, evolve, breathe, and find the right home—however long that takes. What is your advice?

Morse: To treat the work as craft—despite or in lockstep with whatever one’s career aspirations might be—and trust that patience and persistence will allow for good work to accrue and further allow for choices when it comes to building a full and sustained collection. And to create for oneself whatever necessary community one needs to feel that the work is out in the world—first with friends and trusted readers, then with journals and editors. The work and the life lived as main courses—and publication as dessert. 

Michael Morse was born in New York City and raised in Roslyn, New York. His first book, Void and Compensation, was published in April of 2015 by Canarium Books and was a finalist for the 2016 Kate Tufts Discovery Prize. The recipient of fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the MacDowell Colony, and Yaddo, he has published poems in various journals. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and teaches English at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. Robin Beth Schaer is the author of the poetry collection Shipbreaking (Anhinga 2015). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Paris Review, and Guernica, among others. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, Djerassi, Saltonstall, MacDowell Colony, Vermont Studio Center, and VCCA. She teaches writing in New York City and worked as a deckhand aboard the Tall Ship Bounty, a 180-foot ship lost in Hurricane Sandy. More from this author →