Olivia Stiffler – First Book Interview
Interview by Kallie Falandays with Olivia Stiffler, the author of Otherwise, We Are Safe from Dos Madres Press (2013)
Your book, Otherwise, We Are Safe, was published by Dos Madres Press. How did you find them and how did they come to publish you?
I met a young poet/professor named James Tolan in Savannah, Georgia, at a writers’ group I was participating in at the time. He was visiting and reading his poems and listening to ours. He didn’t have time to hear me read but invited me to email him some of my work. That was the beginning of a relationship that continues to this day. He was effusive about one poem in particular, “Learning to Lie,” agreed to edit for me, and ended up holding my hand through the entire process of manuscript creation. Then he contacted Robert Murphy, editor at Dos Madres, who had published Jim’s chapbook Red Walls, and Murphy agreed to read and then to publish my manuscript. Though the rest is history, I could wax a long time about both Dos Madres and James Tolan and the special connection I have to each.
* * *
What was it like when you received your first copy of Otherwise, We Are Safe?
I was on the sun porch reading when my husband joined me. He had the book in his hand, but I was focused on our conversation and didn’t notice it. Finally, he held it up for me to see. It took my breath away, not just because here it was, my lifelong dream made flesh, but because it was beautiful right on its face.
* * *
In your biography you explain that you were threatened with expulsion because of a fairytale you wrote. Can you talk about this fairytale or provide us with any excerpts, if you have them?
To my knowledge no copies survive. I discuss this experience at some length in my new blog, “Dear Mom,” at oliviastiffler.com, which should be online in the near future. I was a senior in high school, participating in an extra-curricular creative writing class, and I wrote the fairytale for an assignment. It was essentially about three inseparable classmates of mine but also involved a character dubbed “Wee Willie Winklewoman,” a dimly veiled reference to our school superintendent, Fr. Winkleman. Someone put a copy of it on his desk, and the trouble began. He thought I was suggesting he was gay (neither a word nor a concept I knew at the time), and he came down not only on me but on the entire community of nuns who staffed the school.
* * *
Were you reading any books when you wrote Otherwise, We Are Safe? And, if so, did they affect your book at all? And, if so, how?
Otherwise was written over a three-year period, and I certainly would have been reading during that time because I am an indiscriminate reader. But reading is to me like breathing air. Its impact is ubiquitous, invisible.
* * *
Who are five contemporary poets that you admire?
Together with much of the rest of the poetry-reading world, I am in love with Dorianne Laux, Sharon Olds, and Mary Oliver. Also Terrance Hayes, so spot-on he makes me cry; the poems in James Tolan’s new book Mass of the Forgotten; the writing of Anne Webster in A History of Nursing. Whoops! That’s six. There is a universe of fine poetry out there, and more coming.
* * *
The poems in your book span from childhood to older adulthood. Is there any moment that is too sacred to write about? Anything that you left out?
More is left out than is included. And I don’t know about “sacred,” but some experiences that I am interested in exploring I am not certain are the stuff of poetry. I have begun to test the waters with various writing groups to determine if some of it’s just too heavy, too maudlin, too hard to read. The verdict is not in, but I like the question.
* * *
One of my favorite lines is “. . . having failed/at holiness and in the throes of divorce,/I remember that I could have had a bicycle.” Why a bicycle? What does that represent for you?
A bicycle because for real I wanted one of my own, not one I had to share with my older brother. And a bicycle because it’s a means of escape, a way to pedal out of misery.
* * *
What is your favorite poem from the book and why?
Probably the same as yours, “First Holy Communion.” And I think I like it so much because it’s tight and nails its material. It’s one of those I wrote quickly, without the agonizing that typifies my writing process, and I felt completely satisfied with it when I was finished. An easy birth.
* * *
If you could talk to your 19-year-old self right now, what would you say?
* * *
Where do you see yourself and your writing in five years?
Old age and all that it means is watching in my rearview mirror. Still, I think I may have another book of poems in me. Experimenting with some prose via the “Dear Mom” series in the blog and have several short stories that I want to return to. But five years means more to me every day, and the voice in my head that says “get busy” grows louder and louder.
* * *
What are you currently working on?
I am writing a sermon for the local Unitarian church, a lecture for Savannah School of Art and Design, and a speech for a luncheon club where I live—opportunities to exercise my voice in new ways that have come about from the publication of Otherwise. Simultaneously, I am working on yet another poem about my mother and one about no longer saving things, i.e., wearing your best clothes because it’s Monday. In other words, I think I’m working on Book 2.
* * *
What is the title of the last poem you wrote, and what was it about?
“Rooted in the Heartland.” It’s a long, winding poem of place, very lyrical and unlike anything I’ve ever written before, about how I feel about the Midwest, specifically Missouri, which was my home for most of my life. It’s a poem that pleases me so much I worry no one else will like it.
* * *
Many of your poems in Otherwise, We Are Safe explore personal moments. How do you balance truth and fiction in your poetry?
My poetry is all truth, no fiction. Also no balance. I am unabashedly confessional. I set out to write the story of my life, and I’m not finished.