Artist Strong welcomes Claire McQuerry for today’s Creative Spirit Interview. Claire teaches writing at the University of Missouri, where she also serves as an editor for The Missouri Review. Her collection of poetry, Lacemakers, won the Crab Orchard First Book Award, and her poetry and essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, American Literary Review, Mid-American Review, Western Humanities Review, and other journals. You can visit her website here: http://clairemcquerry.com/
Artist Strong: Hi Claire! Welcome to Artist Strong. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
Claire: I think I understood that I felt at home in the written word from a pretty young age. As a child, I had a notebook in which I would often write stories–and I loved to read, and I think much of my attraction to books came a feeling of affinity with the writer. It seemed so natural to me to want to make sense of the world by filtering one’s thoughts and perceptions into written form.
Artist Strong: What kind of writing do you enjoy most?
Claire: I don’t write stories these days, but I do write poems and essays. I like both forms for different reasons.
Artist Strong: What qualities of an essay engage you as a writer?
I like that essays allow for deeper, more sustained engagement with a topic. Sometimes, if there’s a question I want to investigate, maybe look at from different angles and research a bit, I’ll begin with an essay. And the essay may lead me to some insights or ideas that find their way into poems later on.
Artist Strong: What draws you to poetry as an artistic medium?
Claire: I really love words–and words are the raw medium of poetry. In the poem, more than in any other form of writing, it’s the choice and placement of words that matters. And I like that a poem doesn’t have to be linear, that all kinds of disparate ideas or perceptions–a janitor on a station platform you see out the train window, a story you remember from childhood, the troubling thing that someone just said to you, a red coat–can coexist in a poem.
Artist Strong: What was your first poem about?
Claire: The first thing I wrote that I could really call a poem was about watching a truck off in the distance–across a lake–driving up into some hills and trying to imagine who might be in the truck. I wondering why I was seeing that truck, at that moment and how the lives of the people in the truck connected with mine, if they connected at all. I guess the poem started from a point of curiosity, which is where most of my poems seem to start.
Artist Strong: When did you first feel like you could call yourself an poet?
Claire: I don’t know if I feel like I can now. It’s funny–the term “poet” has always somehow felt pretentious to me in a way that “writer” doesn’t. But I write poems, so I guess that makes me one.
Artist Strong: What has been one of your biggest challenges as a creative and how did you overcome it?
Claire: Probably my biggest challenge as a young writer was simply getting myself to produce work in any consistent fashion. I realized then, and I still firmly believe, that you won’t produce work if you’re always waiting around for inspiration. When I have a project I’m working on, I set aside a regular time each day–or several days a week–and tell myself that I will sit down at my desk at that time and write something. It’s hard work at first, and there are always off days, but after keeping up with this consistent practice for a while, I find that “inspiration” comes much more easily. It’s a discipline just like exercise, or practicing an instrument.
Artist Strong: What do you wish you knew when you began all of your creative endeavors that you know now?
Claire: I wish I’d known how important it is to constantly be absorbing myself in the work of other writers. At one time I believed, as I think many new writers believe, that I didn’t have much time to read because I needed to spend my free time writing. The trouble is that if you don’t read, you won’t produce good work. Other writers are my best “mentors” and sources of inspiration.
Artist Strong: What/who has been integral to your artistic development?
Claire: As I mentioned earlier, I think other writers have been the most integral part of my artistic development. I learn so much from reading work by poets and writers I admire.
Artist Strong: Who are you reading right now?
Most recently, I’ve been reading several books by the poet Franz Wright and some essays by David Foster Wallace. Wallace is so masterful and precise with his use of language; I find that reading his essays often makes me want to go write poems.
Artist Strong: How would you define creativity?
Claire: I guess I’d say creativity is divergent thinking. When I lived in Arizona, I visited this odd roadside attraction in Phoenix called the Mystery Castle. Years ago, a man had moved to the dessert and begun assembling junk: old railroad ties, telephone poles, glass bottles, rocks. When he had accumulated enough of these objects, he built an incredible castle from them for his family to live in. That’s creativity: looking at a junkyard and envisioning a castle.