Jasper Kerkau Interview with Millicent Borges Accardi

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[Jasper Kerkau] Many of our writers and readers are new writers. You are by any metric a highly accomplished writer, having received numerous fellowships, including the National Endowment for the Arts. What advice would you give young writers/poets about finding an audience and perfecting their craft?

[Millicent Borges Accardi] It’s hard to give generic, one size fits all advice since most writers starting out have different strengths, but I would say across the board, two issues that seem to befall people just starting out: 1) they don’t read enough (like carpenters who want to make furniture but have never apprenticed or learned how tables are built), and 2) they have trouble finishing projects. Every new idea is like a brilliant butterfly that catches their eye and turns their head. One day they are super into the movies of Polanski, so they buy a new camera and software for film editing and sign up for screenwriting classes and all they can talk about it pitching their idea. Then, a few days later, they read a poem and suddenly want to be the next Keats. While it is good to explore, on a shallow level, to discover where your passion lies, there is also something to be said for Just, Finishing. Something.

So my advice would be to explore in your reading, read everything from botany textbooks to found poems to SciFi to Shakespeare, but once you find a project, even a mini-writing project, finish it. Even if you get bored. Even if it becomes irrelevant. Just finish it.

Everyone has interesting stories and a point of view, but not as many have the patience and tenacity to finish a manuscript. To follow one idea through to completion.

[Jasper Kerkau]I had this moment, which I speak of often, where I decided that I would begin to identify myself as a writer. For myself, it was a spontaneous event, can you speak to your experience finding your voice and deciding that you were a writer?

[Millicent Borges Arcardi]I cannot say I ever had an ah-ha moment where I was like wow. This IS IT. There was a time when I was a kid and stayed home sick in bed, for over a month, with pneumonia and I was convinced I would write the Great American sequel to Little Women. There were the notebooks and ribbon and pens and I settled them down around me like pillows.
When I got the call from Cliff Becker from the NEA, that was a seminal moment. At the time I was working with a group of IT programmers who knew nothing about my creative interests. I was doing a project where I worked as a Q/A person for a new software package, testing programs all day, running tests, simulations and recording bugs and errors. The call came in, “This is Cliff Becker” and I screamed and started to cry before he even got the rest of the sentence out. I think I ran down the hall and it was not long after that, thanks to the fellowship that I was able to take a year and a half off to write full time, and, since then, I’ve mostly managed to “buy time” to write, whether it is writing in the morning before a day job or taking a couple of months “off” for a residency, I treat time to create as a priority. Also, it helps I can write anywhere. As a kid, I was an only child so I rapidly learned how to focus even amid a party or when I was at work with my dad. Even now, if I am stuck at the airport, I sit down on the floor and start working on a project. The rest of the world fades away.

[Jasper Kerkau] One of the remarkable things about your poetry is the variety of places from which it springs. Your work seems to float between Americana to “the corner of Jilska and Mickalska” and every place in between. Do you feel your diverse background has made you a better writer?

[Millicent Borges Accardi] At a certain point in my life, there are filters, in which I look through to see the world and unless I expand these filters and explore other ways of doing and seeing things, through connections, reading. being in communities different than my own, as well as exploring my own community and communities in new ways, unless I swap up and change out these filters, a creative life and, also, compassion is lost. Filters have a way of ingraining and making life smaller, whereas witnessing and new experiences, new ways to say yes and to see through new eyes, these are avenues to expand existing filters and to take on new ones There is also a value to staying in one’s own lane and exploring in depth your own background and your own unique ethnicity and gender and age and way of being.

If you shut yourself down as a writer, you’re stuck. The wooden shutters are up and the storm windows beneath are solid. People say write what you know, but writing what you don’t know but want to understand it also a valid avenue. Being a better writer, for me, means paying attention to my own biases and listening, being open to conversations and differences and similarities. Being a better writer means witnessing and being able to take note of what is important.
Like the poem mentioned above, “the corner of Jilska and Mickalska” was an incident I viewed from the window outside the place I was staying in Prague. The city had been opened up for a large plumbing project and all traffic had been stopped at that one corner when, in the midst of installing sewer pipes, bones from old graves had been discovered. Archaeologists had been brought in and the area was classified as an official “dig.” All municipal work ceased and the priority was shifted to discovery and discovery.

One of the works that I had the strongest connections with was “This is What People Do.” I found it to be a stunning poem, in which I read some Beat influence. Can you expound on the work, perhaps giving some insight into the genesis of the piece?

Again, this was me staring out a window, this time it was in Venice Beach, where I lived for 12 years, in a white art deco rent-controlled building, that I shared with other like-minded artists, writers and actors. For a time, a friend of mine was the manager and the apartments felt more like a dorm than a building– my neighbor was Pegarty Long, a film-maker and twin sister of Philomene Long, the Queen of the Beats in Venice– she’d been a nun in the 1960’s and, when she left the convent, headed straight to Venice to hang with the poets and the surfers and neo-philosophers. She was Poet Laureate of Venice and married to beat poet John Thomas– whom she writes about in this poem

They are already ghosts
John and Philomene
As they pass
Along the Boardwalk
Where ghosts and poets overlap
As they pass, the gulls
Ghosting above their shadows
Everything’s haunting everything
Already ghosts
John and Philomene
Under the ghostly lampposts
Of Venice West
Their cadence
The breath of sleep
At rest
Lost at the edge of America
Already ghosts
And each poem
Already a farewell
Everything’s haunting everything
The sea is the ghost of the world
–Philomene Long

Through reading Philomene’s work and living in Venice, I guess I adopted the slang and the slants of the beat poets. “This is What People Do” is a collage between what I saw outside my window, the boardwalk, the street vendors below, the characters in the city and each two lines represent one aspect or one character of that one moment in time, as if they all existed, flat and round, together, sharing one nano-second of space-time.

 

Everyone has interesting stories and a point of view, but not as many have the patience and tenacity to finish a manuscript. To follow one idea through to completion.

[Millicent Borges Accardi’s Only More So is avaiable on Amazon. It is an amazing read, and sets the standards for so many of us trying to hone our craft. Please read my review of her book here.]

Author: Sudden Denouement

A Literary Collective

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