Robert Frost once remarked that, “Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” This is exactly the case with the poetry of Samantha Schutz. Her memoir in verse, “I Don’t Want to Be Crazy” and her newest novel in verse, “You Are Not Here,” tackle mental instability and personal loss with such candid, honest writing that you will not finish reading either book without feeling fulfilled as a reader. What sets apart these books from novels in prose on the same topics is the language in her poetry. It is not sugar-coated or ambiguous – it is direct, clear, and will grab you in fewer words than prose ever could.
For more on this poetess visit her wonderful website (where she is hosting a National Poetry Month Contest inspired by the It Gets Better Project), read through the inspiring, touching poems and stories submitted by fans of “I Don’t Want to Be Crazy” at You Make Me Feel Less Alone, and immerse yourself in our National Poetry Month themed interview with Samantha below. Poems-in-progress by Samantha follow the interview.
SS: I usually have an idea and sit with it for a while. I’ll do some brainstorming and a bit of writing at my own pace. But the real work usually begins when I am under contract with my editor and have a due date. For my first book, “I Don’t Want to Be Crazy,” I didn’t need to do too much outlining since it was a memoir. For my second book, “You Are Not Here,” I tried fiction for the first time. I was pretty nervous, so I did quite a bit of outlining beforehand. I am working on a new novel right now and it’s a story about amnesia. I only have the beginning outlined and am thinking about just seeing where the writing takes me. As for revising, I revise over and over again as I write. And then when I get notes from my editor, I do additional revising. I’m not sure if I have a favorite part of the process, but I do love holding the initial draft printed out for the first time. I love how heavy it feels. Least favorite part would have to be struggling with distractions as I write.
YARN: Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing? What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before a due date?
SS: I often feel stuck. When that happens, I try to move on to a different part that seems more manageable. For me it’s very hard to sit still and focus while I write–especially since I spend all week at my day job as a children’s book editor. So it’s really important for me not to lose momentum if I’m in the zone. The other thing I will do when I feel stuck or overwhelmed is to free-write. It takes the pressure off because I tell myself that what I am about to write doesn’t have to be perfect…or even good. Then I just write. I don’t even stop to correct spelling or to punctuate. I do that for a few minutes and see what happens. I may even write “Uhhhhh I don’t know what i am doing.” But inevitably, there will be something in there–even one word–that will inspire me to keep going.
SS: I’m not sure if they are all that different. I am working on my first prose novel now. It doesn’t seem that different at this early stage. When I outlined and worked on my first two verse books, I thought of each poem as a moment. I see my new prose book in the same way—as a collection of moments. One thing that I immediately noticed when I started my new book was that my sentences were pretty choppy and I had almost no paragraph breaks. I’m trying to work on that as I go. But at the same time, I don’t want to lock myself into any conventions.
YARN: On a related note, what is different about reading and/or writing a novel in verse, as opposed to a collection of poems that might be related? What is similar?
SS: I think it’s all about the flow when it comes to a novel in verse versus a collection of poems. That’s why in “I Don’t Want to Be Crazy” and “You Are Not Here” the poems run together—as opposed to each poem starting on a new page. I want my readers to savor my writing, but I also want them turning the pages to find out what’s going to happen next. With a collection of poems I think the experience is more about sitting with one poem and digesting it for a while.
YARN: Being an editor of children’s books yourself, how do you approach editing your own material?
SS: I’m usually able to edit most effectively once I’ve gotten some space from the work. It could be a few days or even a week. While editing, I try to keep an eye out for phrases that my readers could easily finish on their own. For example: “cold as ice” or “thin as a rail.” Or words like “fun.” I think phrases and words like that prevent the reader from really being engaged.
YARN: What are your literary influences in the coming-of-age genre?
SS: I love to read memoirs and I sought out many of them while I was writing both “I Don’t Want to Be Crazy” and “You Are Not Here.” I really enjoy reading/hearing true stories—maybe even more than fiction. My favorite way to go to bed is to listen to either “This American Life” or “The Moth”—free podcasts of people telling incredible true stories. In fact, a story on “This American Life” inspired my latest book. Other influences include:
YARN: New writers are often told to write what they know. In “I Don’t Want to Be Crazy” you write about your most intimate feelings and fears, even conflicts with parents and boyfriends. Do you have any advice for our teen reader-writers who might be trying to figure out how to write about personal material for a public audience?
SS: I think the key part of the question is “personal material for a public audience.” For me, writing is solitary business. It’s me and a notebook/pen/computer in my house, a café, or library. It’s me and the words. So when I was writing “I Don’t Want to Be Crazy,” it still felt very private. As the book got closer to being finished and eventually published, the fact that I was putting myself out there became more real. But for the most part, I knew that what I was doing was going to help people, and I just had to take a deep breath and remind myself of that. As for advice, I’d say, start with writing for yourself. Do what pleases and interests you. Let the public part be secondary—or not a part of your process at all. But if you do put your work out there and feel uncomfortable, just remember that by telling your story you are possibly helping someone else feel less alone.
YARN: In “You Are Not Here” Brian takes Annaleah to see a Francis Bacon exhibit. In specific one painting is described, entitled Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X 1953. Why did you choose this piece?
SS: A lot of the details from “You Are Not Here” came from my own experiences. In “You Are Not Here,” Brian is a composite of several guys that I’ve dated. Some of the things that happen between Brian and Annaleah have—at least in part—actually happened in my life. Lots of things turned out like that. I had an interesting dream one night, and bits of it became a dream Annaleah had. Also, I was reading Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar” while writing “You Are Not Here” and that made it into the book as well. Same goes for a Francis Bacon art exhibit I saw while writing “You Are Not Here.” I had a postcard of the painting mentioned above on my desk and that’s where the idea came from. And thinking about going to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City also gave me the idea to create the scene that takes place in the Egyptian Wing—one of my favorite parts of the book. To read a blog post I did on this subject click here.
YARN: So often, grief is considered an emotion for the old, and most novels and memoirs about grief target an aging audience. Part of what makes “You Are Not Here” so striking is its portrait of a teen’s perspective on grief. Do you feel that the grieving process is different for young people, particularly if they are grieving someone who died young?
SS: It’s hard to compare. Everyone—regardless of age—experiences loss differently. But I do think that there would be commonalities between teens and adults. The one thing that intrigues me, however, is how very small children process grief. I wonder what it would feel like to grieve a loss without much knowledge or experience to draw from.
On YA and Other Books
YARN: What poets/poems would you recommend to a reluctant poetry reader?
SS: I would suggest starting with Ellen Hopkins, Sonya Sones, and Steven Herrick for YA. Other poets I’d recommend are Erica Jong, Louise Glück, Dorothy Parker, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton. And those are just the women… It’s a long list.
YARN: David Levithan, a YA novelist himself, is your editor. How cool is that? Were you a fan of his writing before you began working together?
SS: I think when David and I started working together in about 2004 his main credit was Rock Star Editor. Since then he can also add the title of Rock Star Author. It’s amazing working with him and being a part of the community that he’s created. I adore his writing and think that his instincts as an editor are right on. If he told me that walking through Times Square in a chicken suit would help my writing, I’m pretty sure I’d do it.
YARN: Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration for your 2011 National Poetry Month contest?
SS: This year I was particularly inspired by the efforts of Dan Savage (the well known sex columnist) and the It Gets Better project. Sparked by incidents of LGTB kids being bullied and committing suicide, Dan Savage created the It Gets Better campaign of video diaries from LGTB and straight people who are speaking about how life gets better after those wretched teenage years. The It Gets Better project perfectly ties into the blog I run www.youmakemefeellessalone.blogspot.com. It’s a place for people to post poems and prose about mental illness and other things that they are struggling with. The mission statement is: Your words are powerful. Your words can help people. Share them.
So, this year I’ve put out the call for submissions about how dealing with issues like mental illness, addiction, sexuality, and relationships GETS BETTER! Winners will receive a prize pack of books–several of them in verse. Check out this link to learn more about It Gets Better as well as the prizes and guidelines for the Poetry Contest.
YARN: Thank you, Samantha, for answering all our questions, and for your lovely poems…..
And without further ado, here are Samantha Schutz’s poems in progress:
SS: Here’s an alternate poem for Brian’s burial scene from “You Are Not Here.” It was never included because, technically, this tradition is practiced by Jewish people—and Brian’s family wasn’t Jewish.
The priest invites those that are interested
to shovel a bit of earth on top of the casket.
One by one, people dig the shovel
into the mound of earth and rocks
beside Brian’s grave.
For the second time today
I hear the sound of metal
scraping against rocks.
Then each person lifts
That sound is the only thing I can hear.
It echoes in my ears.
Why can’t people be more gentle?
For the first time since Marissa came to get me,
I let go of her hand.
I step forward
and reach my hand into a mound of dirt.
It is reddish and coarse.
I softly release it over Brian’s casket
and step back in line with the others.
My palm is covered in red grains.
It is also under my nails.
I don’t want to wipe it away.
I wonder how long I can go
without washing my hands.
SS: This is something I wrote that was never included in “I Don’t Want to Be Crazy.”
My therapist asked me
when the last time I had a panic attack was.
I couldn’t remember.
I managed to think back
about a month, to a time
when I was anxious in a bar.
But that was it.
Not a panic attack.
Not the sweating and the racing and the fear
of passing out or dying.
My therapist and I
had been going on like that for a while.
I could go weeks, even months
without an attack that resembled
what I had been through before.
photo © 2009 Steve Hardy | more info (via: Wylio)
But there was a disconnect.
I couldn’t believe
that things really were different
since I still lived my life
like I had an anxiety disorder.
I was still reluctant to go out too much.
I never stayed out very late.
I avoided crowded places
and sometimes worried
that I would start screaming
or do something embarrassing in a public place.
But there I was, sitting in the shrink’s chair,
realizing that I had gone
from several panic attacks a day
to not even one a month.
I had gone from weekly therapy,
to monthly visits.
But somehow that wasn’t enough.
I needed concrete proof that I was better.
I needed to quantify it.
So I got out my journals
and started reading.
I did a lot of laughing
at my high school self.
I stressed over petty fights with friends–
people I now had no contact with.
I freaked out about bad grades
and even worse haircuts.
I obsessed about boys and wrote
detailed accounts of make-out sessions.
I also did a lot of crying
because my college journals were painful–
sometimes I could only read one page a night.
I felt badly for myself—
a self that now seemed so foreign.
All I wanted to do was comfort her
and tell her that in a few years
things were going to be different, better.
Copyright Samantha Schutz, 2011
Samantha Schutz is a children’s book editor in New York City. She is the author of “I Don’t Want to Be Crazy” and “You Are Not Here.” She is currently working on her third book. You can learn more about her and her work at www.samanthaschutz.net.