VAH: Martin, what would you say has been the biggest influence on your development as a writer?
ME: I’ve had a few people who really helped me develop, and I’ve read several books that put me on a new or improved path in writing, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Twitter was the number one influence on my development as a writer. By connecting with a variety of writers, literary magazines and institutions on Twitter, I’ve seen more of what my peers are doing in the art world. I’ve been challenged to think about where I fit in, and I’ve been pushed to participate in a more active way. Every day, someone shares a blog post, article, poem or image that spins my wheels in a new direction. For example, just following someone like Don Share on Twitter for a week is an educational experience. More tangibly, I learned about The Found Poetry Review on Twitter. They published one of my poems, I participated in their Pulitzer Remix project for National Poetry Month in 2013, and now I’m their News & Resources editor. You don’t need to live in New York City to get in touch with people doing exciting things in poetry. Twitter is the new New York City for poets.
VAH: That’s an interesting way to think about Twitter. Making it so much more than a social media keep in touch tool.
Martin, as a writer, when did you know that was you?
ME: I spent a lot of time trying to make up short stories as a child. Fortunately, I didn’t save any of them. When I got to college, I took a class titled 16th Century Verse, and I started writing formal poetry from there. After a class on the Beat Generation my senior year, I started writing more personal poetry. After graduation, poetry stuck with me, and I found myself writing fairly regularly. I realized that it would be a lifelong pursuit in my early 20s when I started looking forward to getting home from work so that I could write.
VAH: What is your best advice for emerging writers?
ME: Build relationships with people doing things that you like, admire, envy, enjoy, can relate to, etc. The writing world is crowded, and everybody wants a bit of success. You can learn a lot from how others navigate their own projects, publications, readings, etc. On top of being crowded, the writing world can be lonely. Having a community whether online or local, will keep you engaged, motivated and fueled to move your own work forward.
VAH: In reference to moving your work forward – what are your thoughts on studying writing? How has a MFA contributed to your progress or development? Do you recommend the MFA as worthwhile?
ME: I have an MFA in from Lesley University. My experience was slightly different, in that the Lesley program is low-residency, and I worked full time throughout the program. Outside of the residency period, the majority of work is done on your own with a mentor. I had three different mentors at Lesley: Thomas Sayers Ellis, Don Share and Janet Sylvester. If you know any of these folks, you may know that they are vastly different from each other in craft and teaching style. My experiences at Lesley pushed me out of my comfort zone and into new and different territories based on each of my mentor’s personalities, likes, dislikes, beliefs and assignments. I didn’t learn a formula for writing, as some believe the MFA experience provides. Instead, I was challenged to define myself as a writer among the different priorities of my mentors.
Most importantly, at Lesley, I learned how to think about my writing critically. Before getting my MFA, I was finished with a poem when I stopped writing the first or second draft. I had very little understanding of the potential for poems beyond the initial stages. I learned how to build upon and bring forward the best moments in my work, while cutting away the unnecessary material surrounding those moments. Poems that I would have previously discarded found themselves at the top of the pile once I honed my approach to revision. I believe revision is the hardest part of writing, and learning new approaches to critiquing and refining your own work is a huge benefit of the MFA environment.
Do you need an MFA to succeed? No. Did it help me improve? Absolutely.
VAH: Your comment on revision is an excellent metric for the difference between someone that writes poetry and one that is a poet. I think when emerging writers understand the value of revision and its necessity, they’ve turned an important corner in the development of their writing careers.
You mentioned writing can be lonely, do you have a favorite writing conference, retreat, or seminar?
ME: I’m a bit of an introvert, so the idea of large seminars or conferences is a somewhat stressful for me. I’ve been to the Mass Poetry Festival once and AWP once, and I enjoyed both. My favorite parts are the readings and the book fairs. I get a lot of energy to write when I read and hear what others have done. My favorite retreats and seminars are small workshops with friends where the environment is casual and the candor is high.
Thank you Martin Elwell for your participation in Three by Five. More from Martin on days that end in three in November. Enjoy a few of his poems in the online journal Convergence. Follow Martin on twitter.