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In Memory of a Banyan Tree: Poems of the Outside World: 1985 to 2022
Three Wooden Trunks
The Country Where Everyone’s Name Is Fear: Selected Poems
BECAUSE YOU ASKED: A Book of Answers on the Art and Craft of the Writing Life  
  Katrina Roberts

ISBN 978-0-9908193-5-6     $24  /  $28 (Canada)     5.5 x 8.5       

424 pp      
PUB DATE: Fall 2015       Anthology Nonfiction


Borne out of over fifteen years curating the Visiting Writers Reading Series at Whitman College, Walla Walla, Washington, Katrina Roberts’ Because You Asked is an anthology that brings together anecdotes, approaches, aspirations, confessions, warnings, challenges, passions, foibles, secrets, prompts, craft notes, manifestos—that is, perspectives from writers, their insights and revelations shared often during “Q & A sessions” with young—or simply young-at-heart—writers and readers. A peak inside the writing life, for readers of all sorts!

Here, novelists, poets, essayists and others weigh in on questions such as “What does it feel like to be an Indian?” (Sherman Alexie); “What’s the Worst that could happen?” (Kim Barnes); and “How do you feel about being a heretic?”  (Christian Wiman).  There’s Nick Flynn on the “purpose of storytelling”; Tess Gallagher on “finding by losing”; Lydia Davis on “Endings and Order; or Order and Endings”; Bonnie Rough on raising daughters, Jo An Beard on how fiction and nonfiction overlap; Kazim Ali on God; Galway Kinnell on animals that “swam into my consciousness”; Molly Bendall on what poetry and ballet share; Stephen Burt on personas; Robert Olen Butler on yearning; Brenda Shaughnessy on “radical spontaneaity”; Marvin Bell on rituals; Anthony Doerr on writing the unknown; Camille Dungy on “periods of silence”; Billy Collins on “what’s happened to rhyme and meter”; Mark Doty on a poem’s “underlayer”; Joy Harjo on tattoos (among other things); Paul Lisicky on the influence of music; Carmen Gimenez Smith on “work”; Donald Hall on living with another writer; Judith Kitchen on courting failure; Terrance Hayes on adjectives that describe him; Naomi Shihab Nye on “what’s right here”; Garrett Hongo on heritage; Mat Johnson on what he dislikes about writing; Sean Hill on displacement; Cara Diaconoff on “cultural tourism”; Dorianne Lux and Joesph Millar on the “human spirit”; Tod Marshall on the failure of language; “Six thousand lessons,” from Barry Lopez; Christopher Merrill on poetry, philosophy, and prayer; Aimee Nezhukumatathil on “becoming an astronaut”; Robert Pinsky on “how to read a poem”; Lia Purpura on questions that “strike fear in her heart”; Paisley Rekdal on what it means “to be a biracial woman writer”; Mark Strand on the diary; Geronimo Tagatac on the writer’s journey; Richard Wilbur on the pencil-written word; Sarah Vap on “the tyranny of meaning”; Robert Wrigley on inspiration; Carolyne Wright on travel; Jess Walter on the best e-mail he ever got; and (among many others voices) Terry Tempest Williams on “where to begin.”



Because You Asked: A Book of Answers on the Art and Craft of the Writing Life

F Newsmagazine
March 14, 2016
by Sophie Lucido Johnson

When asked to answer a question—really any question—about writing, the author Stephen Burt responded by composing a written conversation between himself and his female persona Stephanie. “Hi Stephen! It’s weird to correspond this way, where we agree to write everything down: but it’s a good excuse of talking to yourself, or for asking questions about the self,” the entry begins. Burt’s take on the challenge to advise young writers (in the form of an answer ) is just one of 85 such responses in the stunning new anthology, Because You Asked: A Book of Answers on the Art and Craft of the Writing Life. While most writers provide a traditional type of question-and-answer response to the prompt, there are plenty (like Burt) who break the rules. One writer includes a poem in the form of a crossword puzzle, another uses a visual map.

This anthology isn’t quite like anything else that exists. Compiled and lovingly edited by the poet Katrina Roberts, everything here is brand new and until now unpublished. It provides a fascinating look at the diverse practices of some of the greatest living writers, including: Aimee Bender, Billy Collins, Naomi Shihab-Nye, Jericho Brown, and Galway Kinnell. The book came about after Roberts spent just over 15 years coordinating the Visiting Writers Reading Series at Whitman College, in an aim to capture the always-informative Q&A that takes place after a reading. She told contributors that they didn’t have to recall specific questions; rather, she suggested they “share responses they believe might be most valuable, challenging, amusing or revelatory.” The results are spectacular.

I have witnessed Roberts as she introduces a writer to a crowd. Roberts worships the craft of writing, and her passion illuminates her face when she talks: Her introductions for the writers she brings to the stage are long, loving, and thorough — worthwhile lectures unto themselves. In creating this anthology, her fervor for the varied work of these writers is apparent. Following the advice of Judith Kitchen, the works are organized according to “her own heart,” and they flow like a river. There’s an unexpected, unexplainable order to them all, and one naturally follows another.

The first entry, by novelist Anthony Doerr, is a great piece to start with. Doerr has an air of euphoria in his voice; he makes the reader want to stand up and start writing immediately, as he translates the act of writing into one of true love. He poses to the reader, “Don’t all of us, really, know something about love? About longing? Maybe we know just enough to understand that it’s a mystery?”

That’s a terrific jumping-off point, because what follows are snippets of advice from writers who sometimes (unknowingly) contradict and disagree with each other, and whose notions of what is most critical to relay to a hungry novice writer are vastly different. Kazim Ali writes extensively—if ambiguously about God; and Christopher Merrill looks at the same blurry line between religion and art in a totally different way. Plenty of writers tackle the typical “how did you get started” types of questions. (Perhaps most usefully, Camille T. Dungy explores its underlying reason: “Behind this question seems to be another series of questions: How on earth did you get it in your head that writing poetry was a thing someone could do with a life?”) There is a good crop of unusual questions, too (one would hope for as much from a group of writers). Brian Doyle, for example, tackles, “Why in all of your work is there no mention whatsoever of the radical lesbian community in Australia?”

Bonnie J. Rough, Rachel Kadish, Joy Harjo, and Sharma Shields (among others) write about feminism. Pimone Triplett, Jericho Brown, and Paisley Rekdal (among others) write about race. Nothing is left untapped, and the reader emerges—as one should after reading any truly great work of literature or nonfiction—with more questions than she feels she has found answers.

My copy of Because You Asked is full of notes and underlines, and I’ve returned to it repeatedly since I finished it, as a source of inspiration as I dive into my own writing practice. Although I could fill this article with my favorite ideas, this one from Aimee Nezhukumatathil probably takes the cake: “I hope that I never ever stop being curious and feeling like a student on this planet. There are always insect wings and jellyfish bells to marvel over. I still need to learn the color names of glaciers—so much bounty and life that I want to record on the page.”

It’s good to know that the people you admire the most have floundered and failed, and ultimately found themselves in the position to speak assertively in front of strangers. More than that, it is a tremendous gift to understand, in one tidy volume, how radically different all these writers are. There is no secret to being great. The only secret, it seems, is to be your honest-to-God self.


Sophie Lucido Johnson is the web editor for F, and has written for The Guardian, VICE, Jezebel, The Nation, and others. She is a cat person.



Questioning Creativity
Sean Singer
June 23, 2016
Because You Asked: A Book of Answers on the Art & Craft of the Writing Life
edited by Katrina Roberts
Lost Horse Press, $24 (paper)

Because You Asked draws from fifteen years of Q&As after literary readings at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. A varied collection of essays, lists, letters, and interviews in which writers address and respond to their audiences about the writing life and craft, the volume presents post-reading patter blown open. It gathers pieces from eighty-five writers, including major figures such as Mark Strand, Lydia Davis, Charles Simic, and Galway Kinnell, as well as a variety of younger writers, among them Carmen Giménez Smith, Sarah Vap, Oliver de la Paz, and Camille Dungy.

Q&As can be revelatory or awkward; they are always unpredictable and often dreaded. A writer must try, as Mark Doty says, to “be spontaneously articulate, reasonably insightful, funny, and perhaps entertainingly quirky as well.” Taking into account that many writers have an impulse to retreat from Q&As, to flee without the blanket of pre-scripted language, Katrina Roberts’s introduction argues that the compilation gathers their remarks “not to suggest a writer necessarily will have much desire to decipher ‘meaning’ beyond what she’s already said,” but that the Q&A can “become a dramatic postscript to our readings, a rousing confrontation, a symbiotic celebration.

The tone of the Q&A is markedly different from that of the reading itself, the formal presentation of the text. Many readings are punctuated by introductory chitchat (“I wrote this while I was babysitting my neighbor’s cat”), and some proceed with the sing-songy lavender voice that rises at the end of every phrase. The Q&A marks the end of those conventions. Because You Asked invites the reader to listen in and observe that post-reading space. Since the anthology derived from a reading series intended for students, the pieces are mostly pedagogical in nature and intent. Beginners are eager to uncover the secrets of success—techniques that, once and for all, will make them into writers or help them find a voice. “Do you type or write with a pen?” many ask. The sheer range of responses to such questions shows that the shifting and obscure rules of writing are as varied as the works they shape.

Most anthologies of writing craft offer exercises (Robin Behn’s The Practice of Poetry), discussions of form (David Lehman’s Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms), combinations of book reviews and close reading (Stephen Dobyns’s Best Words, Best Order), or instructions in clarity of technique (William Zinger’s One Writing Well). Because You Asked is either all or none of these. The questions and answers address technique, gender, identity, form, inspiration, truth, and criticism. Some pieces are meditative, others prescriptive; some are autobiographical, while others are about particular texts. Most of the writers included wrote new pieces for the collection. There are lyric essays, answers to questions posed by audience members, explorations about God, and notes on technique, among other forms.

Because You Asked will be useful for graduate students looking to expand their frames of reference, for seasoned writers looking for insights into readings by other writers they may not have had opportunities to hear in person, and for writers trying to get the gears moving again after a winter, or a year, or writer’s block. Kazim Ali’s description of a party at AWP and the late writer Craig Arnold is profound and mysterious. Marvin Bell’s advice should be required reading: “Use workshops for community, but not for criticism. Avoid theories, flatterers and debt. Do not bow to insult: it always comes from one’s inferiors.” Lydia Davis talks about revision to improve an ending: she describes how she changed one sentence—“Yet my confusion must be this: her capacity for betrayal is still young and fresh, even though her body is old”—by revising it as “Yet my confusion must be this: though her body is old, her capacity for betrayal is still young and fresh.”

The strongest pieces ask readers to rethink the very nature of their questions. Paisley Rekdal’s essay on the difficulties of navigating racial politics in poetry cuts to the front of one of the major questions in contemporary American letters. Rekdal describes what, if anything, makes a poem biracial. She considers that we are all fragmented, or “in between” identities. She says that the “I” in her poems may not be a cohesive self. She goes on to wonder how poems and beliefs put pressure on catharsis and identification for the writers of such poems. Dorianne Laux’s piece is a long list of Facebook responses to a poem she published in 1994 that used the words “retarded child.” It shows how the reader is responsible for at least half of the meaning of a poem. Laux teaches both how easy it is to write a poem, and how difficult it is to write a poem.

Some pieces offer insightful but predictable bits of wisdom: Donald Hall suggests to “read everybody who wrote in the seventeenth century. Read contemporary stuff too, but remember that most of it is going to look fatuous in fifty years.” Richard Wilbur simply says that “a pencil-written word is tentative and erasable, and has none of the fatal decisiveness of words punched out on a keyboard.” Galway Kinnell says that he doesn’t care which particular angle readers approach his poetry: “I think to me a poem is just half a thing until it’s read—then it’s a whole thing.” Mark Strand, in what may be one of the last poems he wrote, some years before his death, writes a “Diary”: “Each night with nothing more to do I stare / Into your pages blank as air; / How pure, how blameless I appear— / A silent self in its more silent mirror.” Other pieces, like Garrett Hongo’s on his sources, are master classes not only on inspiration and landscape, but on how to use materials of place and history in poetry. Merrill Feitell describes writing everyday on the F train to Coney Island and getting stuck rewriting the same scene over and over; she shows us how even experienced writers are still, at the level of daily effort, amateurs.


Review by Ron Slate
A Book of Answers on the Art & Craft of the Writing Life
edited by Katrina Roberts (2015, Lost Horse Press)

As Whitman College’s host of visiting writers and impresario of readings, Katrina Roberts has welcomed over one-hundred-fifty poets and prose writers to campus over nearly two decades. She asked many of them to provide post-visit statements, sometimes in response to questions asked by students. Eighty-five of those prepared remarks are now published in Because You Asked, a collection offering much topical and formal variety. The writers speak is if familiar with their audience, as indeed they are, and with generosity for having been asked to come to Walla Walla in the first place.

Roberts suggested they could share responses they believe might be most valuable, challenging, amusing, or revelatory to questions (real or hypothetical) from throughout their careers,” Roberts says in her introduction. Sometimes typical subjects are addressed—about one’s background, influences, and process. But the style is “patter-blown-open, it’s hypertext, a virtual marginalia lingering around edges of words by writers perhaps you’ve loved.”

Joy Harjo begins by describing the Tahitian tattoo on her hand, created in two-and-a-half hours by the artist Roonui, whom she quotes: “‘Polynesian tattooing is not a simple exercise in aesthetics. Polynesians carve into their bodies the symbols of their actions, their promises, their games.’ . . . The tattoo represents assistance for my work.”

Jericho Brown confronts issues of identity: “I’m not foolish enough to think I’m everybody’s cup of tea, but it’s a damn shame if I’m offering the flavor you need and you’re looking for socially constructed excuses not to quench your own thirst all because of my author’s photo.”

Mark Doty quotes Eileen Miles to describe the sense that a poem’s direction has been discovered: “She says coming to the end of a poem is like that moment at a party when you know it’s time to go. ‘You get this visceral feeling,’ she says, ‘and you just go.’”

Pondering the topic of “getting stuck,” Merrill Feitel recalls a moment when she happened to open a 1950s eighth grade science book to a diagram of the phases of the moon: “I began thinking about how an emotional trajectory and satisfying storyline might correspond with the cyclical nature of the moon. After all, my characters were stuck in repeated behavior patterns, always hoping to evolve into stronger, better humans . . . before, well, slipping into old habits again.”

Paul Lisicky talks about the influence of music on his work (he is a trained musician) and the “destabilizing and disorienting patterns” of Bjork, Kate Bush, James Blake, Toro y Moi, and Joni Mitchell. Camille Dungy reexamines the impulses behind “frequently asked questions” and provides fresh responses to inquiries like “why don’t you write fiction?” and “do you ever experience writer’s block?” Nick Flynn is asked “How do you deal with making people sad with what you write?” while Kazim Ali answers to “But what is it you really think about God?” Some of the writers phoned in their responses with already-published bits but most of the material here is new

Other contributors include Lydia Davis, Katie Ford, Anthony Doerr, Dorianne Laux, Terrance Hayes, Robert Olen Butler, Oliver de la Paz, Peter Ho Davies, Sherman Alexie, Stephen Burt, Aimee Nezhukumatahil, and Brenda Shaughnessy.

[Published October 21, 2015. 404 pages, $24.00 paperback]


A Review of Because You Asked by Katrina Roberts
by Jody Handerson
Vol 59 Issue 03
(Because You Asked: A Book of Answers on the Art & Craft of the Writing Life. Sandpoint, ID: Lost Horse Press, 2015)

I have a deep appreciation for writers. Our lives and talents are wildly diverse; we are poets, novelists, essayists, journalists; introverts and extroverts; storytellers and diarists—we are the voice of imagination, the truth-tellers and fabulists that define the ethos of our time. The process of writing is often inexplicable, occasionally tortured and unfailingly interesting from an outsider’s point of view (if they only knew how much time is actually spent staring blankly at a sadly unsullied pad of paper or computer screen). Staring aside, the writer’s practice is as varied as those who partake in it, with no one process or outcome defining the norm. Ask ten writers about how they pursue their craft and you will receive ten (or fifteen!) different answers, each one of them compelling and utterly distinct. Because we are masters/slaves of the intangible, our materials are essentially fungible, and our work is hammered into whatever progression happens to be working that day, that hour, that minute. Our clay never hardens or bakes to permanence in a kiln; our paint is never quite dry.

In her new anthology titled Because You Asked: A Book of Answers on the Art & Craft of the Writing Life, Katrina Roberts has assembled a remarkable collection of writers’ responses to self-chosen reader queries. The questions span a broad swathe of reader interests, from the standard whys and hows, to the offbeat and quirky (my personal favorite being “Is that your real nose?”—asked of author Brian Doyle by a kindergarten student who then proceeded to add some rather pointed observations of the proboscis in question). There are questions born of personal agenda, practical questions of craft and compensation, and those so bluntly personal they make me squirm and whisper a quiet blessing that I’ve been spared that particular inquiry.

For nearly fifteen years, Roberts has been the curator of the Visiting Writers Reading Series at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, and has hosted close to one hundred and fifty writers during that time. She describes the book thusly:

[This] anthology collects the answers to questions asked of writers: anecdotes, admonishments, confessions, craft notes, manifestos—that is, insights and revelations about life and work.

This collection is an opportunity that many of us, writer and reader alike, have been longing for: the chance to continue that underlying dialog that extends beyond what the writer has gifted us on the page. For anyone who has pondered the mystery and mechanics behind the storyteller’s work, Ms. Roberts has given us a magnificent codex for the writers’ oeuvre.

The organization of the contributions is organic, more like the flow of a conversation than sorted by category or genre. Whether the reader chooses to read cover to cover, or by random selection, plucking out bits as they speak to your curiosity, there is wisdom and humor with every turn of the page. I gravitated first to the fiction writers, since that is generally what I choose to write—poetry being a terrifyingly raw and mysterious language that I appreciate but have no understanding of. But that is the beauty of the collection: a reader, or writer-reader, can settle into the familiar, or venture into exotic territory.

I was struck by the equanimity and innate kindness of these writers as they dealt with the most prosaic inquiries, questions they must hear and answer dozens of times, if they are gracious enough to teach or participate in public readings. The insight and wisdom of their answers is as stunning as their work itself, and speaks to their success in an often challenging career choice. That they openly and freely discuss work habits, elements of craft, the mysteries of overcoming a blank page—that they are so present, so willing to be vulnerable about such personal practices – both astonishes and validates me, because writing is an eviscerating process, not at all pretty, romantic, logical, transferable, or even explicable.

I am deeply grateful for Ms. Robert’s work, in both providing access to a broad and talented pool of writers for Whitman College, and coalescing that experience into this eloquent and enlightening collection. My favorites?

Mat Johnson’s response to, “What do you dislike about writing?” which is one of the most poignant and elegant explanations of a writer’s life that I have ever come across:

The time it takes to create something worth anyone but yourself reading it. Every book you see lined up on a shelf is an artifact of a beautiful day that was not enjoyed, a conversation that was never conducted, a moment in the world not experienced.

Sean Hill’s piece, titled, “What Spills Over and What Urges the Spill: Some Whys and Wherefores of Dangerous Goods,” where he details the inception of his postcard poems project:

I wanted to write poems that explored the dramatic situation of the postcard rather than capturing the essence of Postcards—those short sentences that seem to leap from subject to subject. Sans envelope, a postcard is out in the open the way a poem is.

Sarah Vap’s piece, titled, “Katrina is Holding the Baby While I Adore and Annoy the Students,” an utterly and perfectly vulnerable discussion of the elusive nature of meaning in poetry:

That line, out of context, I probably replied—you’re right, it means nothing. Even in the context of the poem, one could argue, it “means nothing.” But in the context of a book, I tell them, that is where I think and hope it accumulates a “meaning.”

And of course, Brian Doyle’s response to, “Is that your real nose?” and even more so, his answer to a later question asked by a high school student who wanted to know how he retained his dignity in an auditorium full of disinterested teenagers. His reply is a must-read, and a credo for the writer’s life:

I suggest that the sooner you wake up and get it that there actually is a wild grace and defiant courage in people, and there actually are stories that save and change lives, and that there is a lot more going on here than we can ever find words for, and that love and attentiveness and creativity are real and wild and immanent, the cooler and wilder a life you will enjoy while you have such a priceless and in explicable thing as a life . . .


Jody Handerson is a working writer and editor living in Boulder, Colorado with an enormous black cat, five bicycles and eighty-two pairs of shoes. She is a contributing editor to The Literary Review.

. . . What do you recommend to young poets who seek a lifestyle of word slinging? Read something. then write something, then read something else and write something else and—here’s the secret—show in your writing the influence of what you have read. Read a lot, write a lot. Don’t depend on the judgments of others. Build your own standards through reading. Ignore the village explainers: books about poetry are not poetry. Try always to write something at least one person will hate. Use workshops for community, but not for criticism. Avoid theories, flatterers and debt. Do not bow to insult: it always comes from one’s inferiors. —Marvin Bell