20 Questions with... Raegen Pietrucha
Raegen Pietrucha writes, edits, and consults creatively and professionally. 'Head of a Gorgon' is her debut full-length poetry collection; her debut poetry chapbook, 'An Animal I Can't Name', won the 2015 Two of Cups Press competition; and she has a memoir in progress. She received her MFA from Bowling Green State University, where she was an assistant editor for Mid-American Review. Her writing has been published in Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol, and other journals. Her photography has been published in Rivanna Review, Olney, and other outlets. Connect with her at raegenmp.wordpress.com, on Twitter @freeradicalrp, and on Instagram @raegenmp.
1. Please introduce yourself. Where are you from? What was your life like growing up?
I’m Raegen. I often tell folks to just call me Raegen because my last name is a tricky one to pronounce, though actually, folks sometimes get my first name wrong, too. Such is the life of this little strangely named poet/writer here! I was born in Chicago but have lived a bunch of places along the way. Life growing up was cold — like, literally-got-frostbite cold — but you can read into that metaphorically, too, if you wish.
2. Did you always want to be a writer? If you also work, what do you do / did you do?
I enjoyed reading a lot as a child, though I don’t know that I wanted to be any particular thing in life — besides maybe happy, if only that were a paid occupation. But my love of reading and storytelling inspired me to get involved in the act of writing in high school and college. I think of writing more as doing than being, as action than identity, if that makes sense. And I feel fortunate to have been able to “do writing” and get paid for it as well. I’ve had several jobs in a bunch of different industries, but they’ve all required and have been related to some kind of writing, whether articles, newsletters, correspondence, reports, etc. I also consult with creative and professional writers on the side, which is fun.
3. Tell us about your most recently published work in a sentence.
My elevator pitch for my latest book, 'Head of a Gorgon', is that it’s a narrative in poems that reimagines the myth of Medusa, transporting her ancient tale of sexual violence into contemporary times via persona poems that enable readers to hear this story primarily and directly from a protagonist who’s often been sidelined or silenced in other tellings, thereby bringing the visceral experiences and effects of sexual violence out of the shadows and into the spotlight to reveal a path along which survivors might reimagine themselves within the societal structures that work against them. (Feel free to imagine a longer elevator ride, say, to the 50th floor while late ‘80s/early ‘90s instrumental music plays and I say all that.)
4. What are you working on right now?
Answering these questions and amusing myself by answering this question thusly. I'm planning a birthday party/reading for Head of a Gorgon in May when she turns 1, too. I have also recently organised a fundraiser poetry reading in support of survivors of sexual violence that took place two weeks ago (April 16).
5. Do you have a writing routine, and if so what is it?
I don’t. And I’m actually one of the few folks I know who writes that’s totally comfortable with that. I’m the kind of person who knows if I have a story to tell, it’s going to get put to paper/screen eventually, and I don’t worry too much about planning out how that might happen. I feel it’s much more important to attend to life in a holistic fashion where if other life demands must be prioritized at any given time, one just does that. Sometimes writing will be that priority, and sometimes it won’t be, and either way, I know within myself that what I absolutely need to create will be created in its time. For instance, I spent a bunch of time in the first year and a half of the pandemic drafting my memoir. When my poetry collection Head of a Gorgon got picked up for publication and it was nearing the time where I knew I’d have to start working on publicity-related stuff for it — around October/November 2021, roughly — I shifted my attention to that. That effort is winding down come May with the birthday reading, at which point, I expect to get back to the memoir.
6. Where do you write – always in the same space, or different places? Can you write ‘on the move’?
For the most part, I write at home these days, because I don’t spend much time in public places, given the ongoing pandemic. But within my home, I work wherever I feel like doing so since I’m primarily working on a laptop anyway. So sometimes, I’m at a desk; other times, I’m at the kitchen table or the couch or in bed. And every once in a while, an idea or line or something of that nature will strike me while I’m out and about running errands and such, and when that’s the case, I just put it in my phone and revisit it later.
7. What advice do you have for other authors who are starting out? What is the best advice you’ve heard?
Try to understand why you’re writing and what your needs are for you to feel supported and successful. I think there are a lot of reasons folks can have for writing, but if you ever find that you’re doing it and it’s not making you happy, that’s worth examining. I know a lot of folks who beat themselves up and make themselves miserable about writing-related stuff — not writing every day, not writing enough, etc. — and I believe it’s far more important to be at peace in life than it is to write, at least if you ask me (and, well, you are asking me). There’s so much to do and enjoy in life, and it doesn’t have to be writing or just writing! I also think there are a lot of ways folks can go about doing the writing thing; some may need groups and that kind of support, while others (like me) may find they work best alone, communing with others through the act of reading books and taking what lessons they may find there as opposed to workshopping, forming a writing circle, etc. Ultimately, I suppose, it’s a “Know thyself” kind of deal, but if you’re going to work with others, really do make sure they’re the right others. There are a lot of unsafe folks in the writing “community” — a lot of predators, gatekeepers, envious types, etc. — that can easily derail writers just starting out. So be careful. And write what you want to read, to paraphrase the famous Toni Morrison saying, because that way, even if your book doesn’t become some global bestseller, you can still be content knowing you created something that at least one person on the planet absolutely needed to exist.
8. Do you enjoy doing live readings or are they a necessary evil – or somewhere in between?
It’s funny, because at first, I thought that maybe it was live readings I didn’t like doing, but then I came to realize that it’s more reading my own work aloud that I don’t enjoy all that much. I realize that may sound strange, especially since I care deeply about my work, as I think writers should (see my response directly above this one), but I much prefer others to read it, whether aloud or silently, than to read it aloud to others myself. And I find that I enjoy reading others’ work aloud at readings more than I enjoy reading my own aloud in those settings — which, again, I realize must sound strange, but I think it has something to do with performance. With others’ work, I very much feel I’m entering a different character than I exist as, and I find that exciting and fun. With my own writing, I’m just me being me engaging with myself, even when it’s a persona like Medusa, so it just feels … different. I do think it’s important to hear work aloud, though, and it can certainly help authors sell books. I definitely encourage folks to do readings and make myself do them, knowing all that. And I have come to enjoy it more, especially as I continue bringing more of others’ work into my readings and creating a sort of dialogue among my work and theirs.
9. Are there recurring themes in your work? Where do you feel these emanate from if so?
For bigger-picture projects, like chapbooks and books, there is absolutely a recurring theme, and that theme is of survival, of overcoming obstacles, of transformation along the quote-unquote hero’s journey. For me, these are the stories I am most compelled to tell because, even if fictionalized in some respects, these are the stories that I feel I have lived and that have changed my life and my self. I don’t bother too much with the rest.
10. Should writers have a moral purpose? What is the purpose of a writer in today’s society?
I consider it a very privileged position to be in to not have to have a moral purpose as a writer, to be able to choose not to. To not experience any form of oppression, discrimination, subjugation, etc., that impacts you so profoundly that you absolutely must do something — in this case, create art — about it is the ultimate definition of being privileged. And I believe it’s an honor and a privilege of a different kind to embrace a moral purpose as a writer because there can be such power in our words and the act of storytelling. If we’re not trying to effect some sort of change, even in one reader, I’m not sure I understand why we’d be bothering to write at all. Even writing that many might consider light-hearted and humorous, as one example, can be incredibly healing for readers, and that to me is just one kind of moral purpose that is worthy and worthwhile. In other words, moral purpose doesn’t have to be serious like my writing and its subjects — survivorship, for one — tend to be. But to have none? That doesn’t sit well with me.
11. Do you write between genres or not?
I write prose and poetry. I write creatively and professionally. Head of a Gorgon is a sort of novella in verse. I haven’t thus far done vispo or other visual hybrid types of work, and I haven’t taken on any strictly genre-type writing in the traditional sense (for example, romance, horror, sci-fi, etc.), but never say never!
12. Which living writers do you most admire?
For me, it’s always less about who folks are as writers and more about who folks are as people. I admire folks who write but are also exceedingly kind, authentic, reject systemic hatred of all kinds, and are in this to learn what there is to learn from the act of creation and from life in general. And these tend to be the types of people who would be made uncomfortable with public shout-outs because that’s not what they’re about, but I’ve corresponded with several through the years, and they know who they are and how much I appreciate them.
13. Which dead writers do you most admire?
Billy Shakes. Sylvia Plath. Anne Sexton. Jason Shinder.
14. What’s the book you wish you’d written?
Averno by Louise Gluck and/or Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. Both very much influenced Head of a Gorgon.
15. What other external influences do you have: nature/place, music etc?
My biggest external influences on my writing have been the major turning points in my life and the folks involved in them. But there’s a whole soundtrack to each time in my life, very much tied to the physical places I found myself in at the time, and it all plays a role in my writing to some degree — from the beach and desert surroundings in Head of a Gorgon to the lyrics and song patterns that draw me toward poetic forms and inspire me to contemporize them, for example.
16. Do you suffer from ‘writer’s block’ and how do you overcome it if so?
I’m very lucky in that I don’t experience writer’s block. Even in my darkest times, even in my worst jobs, when I needed to produce a piece of writing, it happened, and I never missed a deadline. I think it has something to do with my relationship to writing. For one, writing has always been an outlet for me; it’s where I escape to, not from. I also don’t force myself to adhere to schedules/daily word counts/related goals, instead looking to the bigger picture and considering, especially creatively, what best serves the work, not me or an editor or a publisher or just impatience in general. But I actually don’t think most people experience writer’s block, either; I think it’s more that they experience just plain old block and then call it writer’s block, if that makes sense. But to overcome just plain old block, you first have to be willing to acknowledge that it is just plain old block — something separate from writing; then you have to be willing to delve within yourself, get to the root of whatever’s troubling you, and address it to overcome it, just like anything else in life. Easier said than done, of course, but I think these kinds of blocks will be recurring and perpetually tied to the writing unless addressed in this manner. All that being said, I’ve given a workshop in creating a poem draft from a single word that’s been helpful to folks, so if it really is a matter of writer’s block and nothing deeper, just getting the mind thinking in a way it hasn’t before can also be helpful — and if anyone’s interested in the workshop, I’m happy to host it again; just drop me a line through my website.
17. What’s been your favourite reaction to your writing?
A reader once wrote to me saying, “I've never recognized something so deeply at my own center in someone else's art than I just did in your poems,” and that was amazing. That’s ultimately what I’m going for in my work — making the reader feel seen, understood, and like there’s hope, because there is.
18. How do your family and friends feel about your writing?
Most of them readily admit they don’t “get it,” but they’re all supportive nevertheless, which I appreciate.
19. Do you have a favourite bookshop?
Who can pick just one? There are several I’d been to before the pandemic and before I had a book out that I enjoyed, and several now that I have books out who’ve carried one of my titles but that I haven’t been able to visit because of the ongoing pandemic. Life is strange that way, I guess — or at least my life is. But I especially appreciate bookstores that have large poetry sections — at least a whole bookcase dedicated to it, if not more — and those that continue to hold virtual events. And I tend to prefer the unique vibes indie bookstores have from one another and the big chains in general.
20. How do you see the future of writing? Will we become more or less dependent on Amazon?
I think folks are already finding ways to work within frameworks like Amazon and outside it, depending on what they want for their writing. There are so many more publishing options than there were even 15 years ago when I graduated from my MFA program, and I imagine this expansion and freedom of choice will just continue. From this perspective, I think in many respects, there’s no better time to be a writer.