An Interview with Rachel Custer
UTSQ: How long have you been writing? What made you want to be a poet? What do you do besides write?
Rachel Custer: As soon as I could write, I started writing stories and poems. Since I’ve been an adult, I’ve found things that I wrote as early as kindergarten. I always enjoyed reading; it became a way to escape, to experience new things and places and people. I think my love of reading led directly to a love of writing. I wanted to be like my favorite authors, to be able to transport people into exciting, or new, or safe, places, through the power of words. It always amazed me that these writers, who I had never met, could make me feel, and could let me know what they felt. I wanted to be able to make people feel, and to communicate who I am.
As I’ve gotten older, poetry has become more of a compulsion, a necessity. In many ways, poetry has had a healing influence in my life, in much the same way confession does. I think that’s why I have, to this point, been drawn so strongly to the confessional poets. Poetry has been a way to say things that simply can’t always be said any other way. I often say that if I was shipwrecked on the proverbial deserted island, I would scratch poetry in the sand with a stick. And I would. Writing is the way I understand the world.
UTSQ: What poets inspire you the most? Do you have any favorite modern poets?
RC: I am inspired by many, many poets, though, as I have mentioned, I tend away from much of the “post-modern” poetry. Poets such as Sharon Olds, Sheryl St. Germain, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath inspire me because of their brutal honesty and ability to write poems about things some people may not find “poetic” or “high-minded.” Franz Wright’s ability to portray his joy at his salvation in his more recent poetry, while still remaining firmly rooted in the bitter realities of life on earth, is wonderful. I thoroughly enjoy Erin Belieu’s raw style in “Black Box”, as well as the crushing anxiety evident in Richard Siken’s “Crush.” There are so many modern poets I find amazing. Mostly, though, I am inspired by the deeply personal, thoroughly female poets who seem to write from the same compulsory place I do. I suppose I feel a sort of kinship with them.
UTSQ: What does poetry mean to you? What does your poetry in particular mean to you? How do you remind yourself that your writing is important, not only on a personal level, but on a universal scale?
RC: There have been times in my life when poetry has been life-sustaining, by which I mean I kept on living because I still had poems to write. There have been times when I resented, almost despised, the compulsion to write and to continue writing. Friends who are also poets talk about poetry as a hobby, or as an area of interest – frankly, I’ve never understood that. I’ve loved poetry, and I’ve hated poetry, but above all, I’ve needed poetry. I can’t understand either how poetry can be a choice or, if it were, why anybody would ever choose its particular frustration of their own free will. That being said, when I write that perfect line, or even that perfect word, the feeling is like no other high. As for reminding myself that my writing is important on a universal scale, I don’t. That simply leads to severe writer’s block.
UTSQ: You are currently working on your BA in English. Was this degree choice a hard decision to make knowing the competitiveness and limitations of this field? There are many “writers” who do not take the time to study good writing, yet expect to be called a good writer. Why do you feel it is important -as an English major and poet- to study poetry, literature and analysis to be a good writer?
RC: This degree choice was extremely easy to make and extremely difficult to stick with. When I first entered college, there was no question I was going to major in English; it was what I loved. After taking time off to work, I began to question the practicality of the decision. I ended up in the school of business, majoring in accounting. By the time I realized I hated every minute of what I was doing, making the decision to go back to English wasn’t hard. As for studying literature, while I certainly feel they are important for a writer’s development, it is more a question for me of why somebody who loves to write would not want to read everything they could get their hands on. For me, the two things necessarily go together. It would be like playing the guitar without listening to music – sure, some geniuses can do it, but why would one want to?
UTSQ: How do you feel about American Contemporary writing? In relation to these other writers, how would you compare and contrast your own writing? How will you carve your niche?
RC: My writing seems to be about a generation out of date. While I like a lot of American Contemporary writing, I loathe the idea of “post-modernity” as people seem to apply it to poetry. This is a point of some contention among the poets I know. I realize that not all poetry needs to be as narrative as mine to be good, but to me, if the reader can’t understand anything about the poem, it fails at writing’s most basic endeavor, which is to communicate. I want to be clear, there is a lot of image-based poetry that is absolutely excellent, but I compare it to Picasso’s work – to break the rules in an amazing new way, one must first learn the rules. Simply adding numbers or throwing words together with spaces and weird line breaks doesn’t cut it. As far as carving my niche, I’ll continue to do what I do, which is to write poetry. If I get a niche, that would be great. If not, I’ll just be that crazy person scratching words into the sand. I can live with that.