Monday, December 13, 2010

Somerville Poet/Writer Cam Terwilliger: From the Nursing Home to the Atlantic Magazine

Somerville Poet/Writer Cam Terwillger: From the Nursing Home to the Atlantic Magazine

Cam Terwilliger is a tall man and holds one mean pen. This Somerville poet and writer is equally adept at verse as well as fiction, and has the credits in top tier magazines to prove it. He teaches at GRUB ST., Emerson College, and has an MFA from that same college. He is the author of the short story collection Man & Machine, and stories from that manuscript have appeared in The Greensboro Review, The Mid-American Review, and The GSU Review. I talked with Terwillger on my Somerville Community Access TV show: " Poet to Poet : Writer to Writer."

Doug Holder: I first heard of you when I interviewed several elderly poets at THE SOMERVILLE HOME. They told me that you ran a memoir workshop.

Cam Terwilliger: The program was held during the winter/spring of 2009. We met every Thursday morning. I got a small grant from the Somerville Arts Council. It really went well. We had a range of folks who would appear. We had a number of regulars. Some who were quite young--in their 50's and 60's--one woman was in her 90's. Often my students told me that they had nothing to write about, but we would have these prompts that were very specific to the memories they had. I was invariably surprised that at the end of these prompts they would conjure up these vivid stories about childhood, the Great Depression, or the trials and tribulations of living in a nursing home. I was always stunned by the level of detail and imagination that was displayed in their writing.

DH: What were the prompts?

CT: Stuff like " Write about your first memory of riding a bicycle." One woman wrote this memorable story about the first time she witnessed her mother riding a bike. She had never seen a woman ride a bike, and she thought this was the most magical thing.

DH: Did you ever print an anthology?

CT: No, but we did have a public reading. The Boston Globe covered it. The group members had great stuff that we would revise at the end. I always tried to get them to have that great sense of voice.

DH: You have worked as a reader at top shelf literary magazines such as: the Atlantic and Ploughshares. How much of a chance does an unsolicited manuscript have of getting in these magazines?

CT: I am going to be perfectly honest--the chances are very small. The top tier magazines have a flood of submissions. But they all are read--that was my job at the time. It was very difficult for a fiction manuscript to make it up from the slush pile. You have a better chance with poetry--perhaps because they are shorter, and people are willing to take a chance on them. Half the submissions at Ploughshares are solicited by the editors, the other half are collected by staff.

DH: What qualities do you look for in poetry submissions?

CT: Each poet has his own style. I am looking for that level of surprise. Some poems surprise you but then they falter. In that case you often write a letter to the poet and encourage him to keep submitting. It takes a long time for a poet to perfect their craft: the line breaks--the sound, etc...If you have the desire to perfect your craft you can but it takes a long time. There is not one answer as to what makes a good poem

DH: You got your MFA at Emerson College in Boston. A lot of great folks teach there. I've interviewed writer/poet Richard Hoffman, Tracy Strauss, the late poet Sarah Hannah, and I have had the opportunity to publish Daniel Tobin in the latest issue of Ibbetson Street. Who did you study with?

CT: For poetry I studied with David Barber, the Atlantic's poetry editor. I also studied with Bill Knott. He is different from Barber, but brilliant as well. Knott has some real problems with the way the publishing industry works. I studied with fiction writer Pamela Hunter--a great writer of Flash Fiction.

The Extinct

I see them at museums—arrayed
as the animals they must have been.
Steel rods force their bodies together.
Their faces assemble like jigsaws.
Because no one alive has ever seen them
one missing bone changes their message.
Without the ankle: No one outruns
the asteroid. Without the jaw: Hunger.
It doesn’t matter. All bones are synonyms.
No species can outlast its fossils.
Skeletons totter around their case
like antique alphabets, longing to collapse.
They long to disband the characters
for disease, for ice—whatever composed
the irresistible song: their last evolutions,
the chorus of silence we are not required
to understand, only required to join.

----Cam Terwilliger

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