Interview with Rita McGregor -- Grand Prizewinner, Tom Howard Poetry 2009
When did you start writing poetry?
I started soul-wrestling on paper when I was about nine years old to help me sort out my path and keep my sanity, but didn’t try writing poems until we studied them in English class in high school. The number of poems I had written since I was a young adult could probably be counted on one hand. As an English Writing major I took a poetry class at MSUM with Mark Vinz because I was encouraged to stretch myself as a writer. I wrote “Baby Girl” as an assignment for class.
How did you arrive at the subject of your winning poem, "Baby Girl"? Was it based in whole or in part on personal experience?
This happened one winter day on my bus ride to school. I had started carrying a small Moleskin notebook in my backpack to jot down references to things I saw and heard—and what I had thought about. I usually pick events that meant something to me—that touched me in some way. I love those light bulb moments in life—whether they are epiphanies or quick flashes.
How many drafts of the poem did you make before you finally reached the perfect final?
I was brand new to computers at 48 years old when I started college in 1999—discovered cut & paste and have written on a computer ever since! Greatest invention ever! Since I am basically a creative non-fiction writer I start at the beginning of the particular story I want to tell and slowly work and rework my way to the end. It is a very slow process for me. I start from the beginning--over and over—tweak and tweak—sit staring at the screen remembering—try out phrases and words to see what fits most accurately. I can even take out sentences, phrases, or paragraphs and store them on a blank word document—or save different versions. So much easier than using reams of paper handwriting--crossing things out, drawing arrows, cutting up pages to save parts and throw others. I have no clue as to how I could even count drafts because of my particular labor intensive, repetitive process. And, in my excitement, I still sent the copy where I misspelled aisle! (Makes me laugh and keeps a person humble.)
Approximately how much time did you spend writing and polishing this poem?
I think I was working on this poem for around 10-14 days for a class assignment. After I have finally made it to the end, I leave it alone for at least a day, preferably longer. Then I can come back to it with a fresh eye. If I can do that repeatedly for double checking there will come a time I can make it thru the story without tweaking. Then I know it is done.
Have you tried other areas of creative writing?
I started out kind of diary journaling—soul wrestling—hashing things out on paper until I could understand the whys—and I never stopped. I’ve also been an avid letter writer and verbal storyteller all my life. I prefer to think of it as sharing my path—hehe! A lifetime of freeform, stream of consciousness writing didn’t prepare me for professional, polished writing for strangers in college. (As you can tell, I developed a lot of bad writing habits over 50 years—probably why I am more comfortable blogging.)
I think my only saving grace was I have always been a reader, too. Not that I had knowledge about all the wonderful writers I was introduced to in college—but I’d read a cereal box if it was in front of me. I went to college thinking I’d take up Social Work and got such encouragement for my writing that I changed my major and had dreams of an MFA in English Writing.
Have you enjoyed any previous successes?
I was at Concordia in Moorhead, Minnesota for three years. Won first place in a couple of the contests at Concordia—published in their student literary magazine. Was encouraged to submit to literary magazines my sophomore year by my mentor, Doug Carlson. I nervously sent out 30 submissions of a short story called “Soft Breaths”. It was eventually accepted and published by Inkwell Magazine, Manhattanville College, New York! And then again by The Troubadours Lantern, Woodstock, Illinois—and later by Red Weather, MSUM, Moorhead, Minnesota.
My health was quickly failing. I transferred to MSUM so I could continue as a part time student, but I was physically unable to graduate. I have basically been living as a recluse of sorts with my cat—housebound—for the past five years. Had a poem published in the local paper (won an over 50 writer’s contest shortly after I left school)—“I Mourn My Body Past”. But, other than that, I haven’t been writing in any professional manner for five years. The way I write—just too labor intensive for me physically to sit at the desk computer for hours anymore. Recently a lady I met online years ago looked me up, had always remembered “Baby Girl”, and out of the clear blue sky offered to enter it in the contest for me because I couldn’t really afford to myself. So I thank Barbara Elliott Carpenter for her faith in me as a writer. This is my greatest success!
Any words of encouragement that you'd like to share would also be much appreciated.
It’s never too late. Dreams can come true! Have faith and trust in yourself—your own voice. Write from your truth. Believe it when people encourage you. And when a door opens—walk through it!
I wondered how I could ever manage to physically write again. With the miracle of winning this contest, I have been given the gift of a possible solution. I just bought a nifty new laptop and have reinvested in myself as an “author”. No matter what else happens in my life—this was glorious!! I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I worked most of the day yesterday on my February update for my art blog. Was actually on time this month--hehe! This afternoon Caroline comes to clean. Tomorrow is already Craft Night again--tada! Seems like this last week just sped by so fast--in a good way. :) Time to pick up cat toys...