An Interview with Chella Courington
by Gwen Dandridge
With a Ph.D. in American and British Literature and an MFA in Poetry, Chella is the author of six poetry and three flash fiction chapbooks. Her flash appears in numerous anthologies and journals, including SmokeLong Quarterly, The Collagist, Gargoyle, and The Los Angeles Review. Originally from the Appalachian South, Chella lives in Santa Barbara with another writer and two cats. Her flash trio “Love Triangle” was published in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, which is available on Amazon here. Chella is a gem of a person. I met her years ago. Though I had been writing for a decade or so, her class was my first foray into college writing classes. Since then I’ve been fortunate in attending a number of her classes. She’s an instructor whom you can return to over and over and always be assured of picking up more insights into the writing process. Chella not only instructs but she inspires. She’s the embodiment of a strong woman who knows her strength and can therefore teach with compassion and understanding. Gwen: Thank you for doing this interview. It’s a gift. A rare opportunity for me. Chella: I’m very happy to be talking with you. Gwen: I know you’re from the Deep South, and I’m curious how it shaped you. Chella: The South has always been a place where it’s better to be living outside of it. I think [it gives you] the sense of going to the darkest place and not avoiding it. I grew up near the Appalachians near Scottsboro [where racial violence was commonplace]. So on the one hand, I wanted to get out of that rural area, but at the same time I loved my family, adored them. So there was a conflict. Writers like Hardwick, Falkner, and Tennessee Williams had the same feelings about the South that I do. Living there made me aware of voice, and I think that’s one of the stronger things in my writing. Gwen: How has your writing evolved over the years? Chella: I’ve become a little more subtle, my language more tuned. I try to get language to work on subtle levels. I always struggle with that. I have a tendency toward narrative but when I’m working on poems, there’s a point where I’d like to be more like James Dickie. So I think over the years it’s evolved, worked away a little bit from narrative. Gwen: You like to combine language and story, but within that, how important is accessibility of meaning in poetry? Should one have to work hard to understand a poem or should the meaning be clear?
Chella: I think somewhere in between. If you’re interested in the complexity of story I think you need to challenge yourself as a reader. You need to work, go back and reread it. Toni Morrison is a perfect example of that. You don’t just read it like a quick novel, you have to think about it. Gwen: Has being a writing professor changed your understanding of what it takes to be a writer? Chella: I know that I struggle like everybody else: today I’m not a writer, tomorrow I’m a writer. When older students come into writing class for the first time, you can just see the way they struggle to get their story. They can write a draft but those students are aware of good writing and use of language. I help to develop it. Playing with the language is so important. Narrative and story are important. Having the language work on a lot of different levels is important. Leaving gaps for the reader to fill in, not telling the reader everything. Gwen: What do most well-written poems have in common? Chella: They have heart and intellect. They get to those dark places and reveal. It’s uncomfortable but you work with it. That’s the beginning. A lot of it is aesthetic. I have a certain taste, I like a certain musicality and what is popular now is a cacophony of voice. Gwen: What is hardest thing to teach new writers? What is the easiest? Chella: The hardest is to get writers to go to that place they don’t want to go to. The easiest to teach is to just sit down and write. That’s why I always begin each class with free writing, just five or ten minutes, don’t edit…that’s the easiest to teach. If they get into the habit of writing, some things become a lot easier. Then when they sit down to a blank screen they don’t freak out. I have a tendency to obsess over every word and you just have to get past that. Gwen: What are the most common mistakes of beginning writers? Chella: I don’t think a lot of writers I see are readers. You have to read, even if you’re reading journals. You’ve got to read to understand whether or not you’re interested in pleasing an audience or just yourself. Realize you’re not working in a vacuum, you’re not remaking the wheel. There are writers who aren’t interested in audience, they’re writing for their own pleasure. But even so, you should be reading to get a sense of word, story, what’s going on. It’s informing yourself. Writers need to be readers. There are great online journals. It’s an alternative way of showing how words work, because if you’re involved in the language and the narrative, the technical things like structure work into your system.
Gwen: Is there a subject you return to again and again to write? Chella: I write a lot about female sexuality, issues that women face. I think the personal is political. You have to balance the language and the message and I think that’s a problem with political writing, it sounds like a rant and it loses its appeal and freshness. I’m always returning to woman-centered stories. As I’m working through these myths, I’m looking at those women whose stories weren’t told because women weren’t telling the stories. For instance in Greek mythology, I can imagine Leda having a relationship with the swan. She could’ve had a satisfying relationship with that swan. I’m concerned with the marginal: female sexuality and point of view, concern with how women are treated. I’m a white, privileged woman. I haven’t been consistently overlooked, though I have been sexually harassed and abused. So I’m pretty careful about my voice. I don’t try to enter the voice of others. Gwen: What’s the wildest adventure you’ve ever had? Chella: Well, when I was 22 I graduated from college and [my roommate and I] were backpacking in Valencia, Spain. We were ready for a hotel. We stayed in a place that wasn’t terribly expensive. Staying in the same hotel was the famous ballet dancer Nureyev. People were sitting outside his room, waiting to see him. I put on my dress, put my hair in a bun, and I came out, and saw his valet leave the room. I grabbed a tray, put a glass of water on it, and knocked on his door. “Who is it?” He cracked the door and I shoved my way in and caught him wearing his BVDs. So I just walked to the table and put the water down. He ran to the bathroom and was saying, “I know you don’t work for the hotel.” I didn’t get his autograph, but I got his glass. I still have that glass. I loved it. Then finally the guy I was dating at the time got us tickets for Swan Lake in Atlanta. We saw Nureyev and Fontaine in their last tour. Gwen: Any forthcoming or in-progress novels, poems, books, etc.? Chella: A series of poems, the retelling of the woman’s story in myths. I’m just beginning actually. Leda, Medusa, Circe. I’m just getting pieces out now. I think the #metoo movement gives energy to this. But actually I’m working on a series now retelling some of the great myths. Writers have done that for as long as they’ve been around, but you always have a different story to tell. Circe or one of the sirens is what I’m going to be working on next. Right now I’m working on Medea. Medea kills her children, but there was a retelling of that by Rachel Cusk, and she made a choice that Medea doesn’t kill her children. [Cusk] raises the question of abandonment, why men throughout history have been able to abandon their children, but women have not. Plus I’ve been writing some poems about the situation of all these kids and babies [children from Mexico being held at the border]. We have all of these disrupted separated families. There are all these stories…that’s much more difficult for me to work with. Gwen: Is there anything you’d like to add? Chella: For me, writing is a process. I’m an interior writer. I love the process of writing and I really don’t think too much about audience. I do at some point, but I enjoy sitting in the bed writing. That’s still my favorite place to write. I put on my ear phones, write and enter a whole other world. I try to write in the morning but actually late at night is my optimum time. Lately, I’m up until 2 or 2:30 writing. I’ve always loved the night. I love the feeling of isolating myself. Ted [her husband] is my first and last reader, and I do trust him. If anything I’m a little short-sighted when it comes to my own stuff. He’s good on dialogue. So even if I’m doing something like a poetic monologue, you want it to sound like dialogue, and he’s really good at that. I do need deadlines. I love creative challenges. The month of November we’re going to write a poem a day. I enjoy flash fiction and short writing and I’m sure my poetry strongly influences how I approach flash because I approach it much more like prose poetry. Gwen: Thanks so much for speaking with me today.
Gwen Dandridge is a writer of young adult and middle grade novels. She is also a lover of golden retrievers, maker of excellent pastries, breads, and funky art.