Hobo Camp Review: You've been one of my favorite poets for years. How would you describe your approach to writing?
Destini Vaile: If I have an approach to writing, the details are overseen by some high security part of my brain, where I’m not allowed to venture in case I break something. It’s mostly instinct. However, I usually do one thing on purpose when I want to make sure I’m at my best, and that is to knock out as many inner voices as I can. This might lead to more dreaminess than is warranted in a story or an essay, but I think with a decent outline, you can keep the car on the rails.
HCR: I know you as both a poet and a journalist, and I can see how one style might inform and influence the other. Or do you feel they separate approaches entirely?
DV: Poetry feels closer to screenwriting than journalism for me. Both mediums rely on rhythm and the sensory, while journalism sits closer to fiction because of the narrative aspect. Still, there is one pair of ideas I’ve found to be critical for both poetry and journalism, while not as necessary in other formats. Be precise and concise. If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you’ll know there are a few standard points of feedback in every workshop. One of them is to point out which words are “overused” or “weak.” Yeah, maybe that advice is technically correct, but it misses the point and turns writing into a game of finding obscure and punchy words that often don’t fit and eventually become the new overused words.
A teacher of mine replaced all this nonsense with the sentence, “Be precise.” Revision was suddenly less about lexical acrobatics and only about using the right goddamn words for what you mean to say. She also insisted a single word always exists that means exactly what you’re trying to say. This subject might be old news to some of your readers, but I’ve taken it to heart, and it’s the practice that has improved my poetry and fact-based articles more than anything else in the past fifteen years.
HCR: We've left 2017 behind us now, but what was the best thing you read last year? And who else are you looking forward to reading in 2018?
DV: Most of what I’ve read over the past year was for school. So, mostly screenplays and screenplay-writing books. Actually, the absolute best thing I’ve read this year was the letter Sherman Alexie wrote when he cancelled his book tour in July. He has a knack for prodding into those hard-to-reach and still-bruised wounds of human experience that every writer hopes to brush against in their own work. To see him apply the same level of emotional vibrance found in his stories to a description of his own real grief was both cathartic and breathtaking. I only read the letter once, but still feel it’s worth a recommendation. Look it up if you can.
As for future works I’d like to read, I feel lucky to be in an MFA program where the level of authorship among the students, staff, and guest lecturers intimidates me. I can’t wait to see more from them.
HCR: If you could enact one rule of thumb that all poets or editors or writers in general must follow, what would it be, and why?
DV: Attempt something earnest. The world of art has become increasingly cynical, self-hating, and small-minded over the past couple of decades. How can this be? You are the spiritual and philosophical innovators of the age – act like it! End your story on an optimistic turn, for the love of all that is holy! Or end with a tragedy, but let the tragedy be sincere. Let there be crying in the audience and crying from yourself as you write the scene. Fatalistic, minimalist plots have their place, but the world is glutted with them just now. They no longer hold the same impact. Instead, create impact through sincerity.
Optimism is just one casualty of this new fear of vulnerability though. Depth is the real loss, because it’s easy to mistake gloom for solemnity, shock-value for realism, or cleverness for insight. I just saw this in real time last week. We had a book festival here in Missoula, and I went to quite a few of the events. Each writer was obviously competent and had mastery of their craft. Unfortunately, many of them (whom I won’t name, obviously) were mediocre, sometimes even boring, despite absurdly action-packed paragraphs and wild manipulations of poetic license.
Those who were most engaging though - they had written something more than the scenes on the page. I didn’t have it in words at the time, but there was a sense of relief that the real authors had arrived. The difference was a vulnerability that leveled up the humanity of everyone in the room during the reading. It’s the same with any kind of art. Whether they end up succeeding or not, I’d rather read a hundred sincere attempts that don’t quite hit the mark than one more contrived or snide line written for the sake of “craft.”
HCR: Do you have any new books or projects that are you working on? Tell us all about it!
DV: There’s not much currently beyond the planning stages, to be honest. It was an especially rough year and a half with some health problems, and I’ve only recently gotten to the point where I can start doing real-life things again. So, the only sizable writing project I’m working on is a suggestion from my therapist to write an autobiography or memoir. At the moment, it’s a more therapeutic than publishable endeavor, but most of my poems extend out of journal entries that became a little too abstract, so maybe this project will lead to something else in the future.
Other than that, I’m working on a couple of short screenplays for school and trying to launch this podcast I’ve been putting off for years. Years.
HCR: Ok, my last question I give everyone: You’re on the road with three other artists, of any era and medium, of any level of fame, success, or anonymity. Who do you choose to travel with, and why?
DV: You have me thinking about writers exclusively. Lidia Yuknavitch, Debra Earling, and Dostoevsky. Debra has been my teacher several times, and she is one of my favorite people in the world. How can someone be so luminous and, at the same time, so present in the world of ghosts and wrenching darkness all at once? That sentiment applies to her writing as well. I feel like we would have a great time telling ghost stories and swapping film ideas, and I’d be inspired in more than one way to improve my character, let alone my writing. I’d recommend checking out her novel Perma Red, which is currently in the early stages of being made into a film.
Lidia Yuknovitch is sometimes a guest speaker at the Institute of American Indian Arts, where I’m getting my MFA. I haven’t spent any time with her, but she gave a reading last year that was so vulnerable I felt shame in the light it cast upon my own stilted writing. And it wasn’t vulnerable in the sense that so many people misunderstand the word these days - as narrating an embarrassing or terrifying moment in their lives. Her story was open in a way that opened up all the people who were listening. She also gave a craft lecture that focused highly on wonder, and from what little I’ve seen, she seems to embody this spirit of wonder and openness (with a little bit of bite) that would be great for a road trip.
As for Dostoevsky, he is so ingrained in my psyche, that I feel it’s obvious what he would bring to the table, but I’m maybe too close to make out the details of exactly why. It’s like your partner asking why you love them. Sure, you have your reasons, but listing them aloud just makes your feelings sound generic and inadequate. If you like Dostoevsky at all, you’ll probably have an idea of why he would be good for a road trip. If you don’t like him or haven’t read him, I’ll just boil his value down to good conversation during those long stretches. And what more do you really need from a traveling partner?