Craig Finlay is a poet and librarian living in Oklahoma. His poems have appeared in numerous publications, most recently Coast/ noCoast, Obra/Artifact, Seven CirclePress, mutiny!, and Levee. His first book, The Very Small Mammoths of Wrangel Island, is being released in 2020 by Urban Farmhouse Press.
Note: Some questions in this interview touch on mental health and self-harm.
Q: As I was rereading the journal recently, your poem caught me because it was a lovely respite from everything going on in the world right now. So I guess my first question is, how are you doing?
A: I’m okay! It’s been strange. I moved to rural Oklahoma in early February to take a position as the head of a community college library. It’s my first director position and six weeks after I started, the university closed due to COVID and ever since I’ve been trying to run a suddenly online library to the best of my ability. Socially, it’s been rough. I didn’t know anyone when I moved here, and I expected an amount of loneliness. I did not expect complete isolation. I found a dog at a gas station, though, and I couldn’t find her owners, so I named her Lucy and she gets me out of the house every day for walks.
Aside from that, I think I’ve been going through the same as everyone else. At first I’ll admit I had the same thought that a lot of creatives did: So much time for projects? Then, as time wore on, I realized I was suffering from the same grief response as everyone else, one that kind of shuts down creativity, energy, anything really. Then I felt guilty for not creating, despite all this free time. Then I thought that the fact that thousands of people are dying of a plague is some joyous occasion to write more poems, so I felt guilty about feeling guilty.
And we’re still in it. We don’t know how it will end, what the world is going to look like afterwards. It’s this constant low-grade anxiety, which is only amplified by the fact that one of the responses to this has been what appears to be the 1.0 version of Trump’s Brownshirts engaging in open, armed political intimidation. But yeah, I’m doing okay, aside from all that.
I was bouncing back and forth between the two: that beige, academic voice of the social sciences and then back into poetry. And the idea popped into my head about a scientist trying to care for a poem.
How are you making space to be creative these days, to the extent that it’s possible with the grief and anxiety we’re all feeling?
A friend of mine and I keep each other honest. She’s an illustrator. We’re working together on a comic book, a ghost story set in 1898 Chicago. When we’re not working on that, we make time to hang out virtually and start a one-hour timer to just create. Not so much poetry lately, more prose. A lot of flash fiction, when I’m not writing comic book scripts. I also started volunteering as a reader for a poetry journal, trying to be a better member of my literary community.
I love how you portray a poem as a living thing in “Exercises in Interdisciplinary Biological Care.” What was the inspiration for that poem?
I wrote the poem as a flash-fiction piece for a fiction workshop I took last fall. I don’t know if this is a prose poem or a flash fiction piece. The line between the two blurs at some point. One of the perks of my last university gig was a free grad class per semester, so I finally got the chance to take workshops for the first time in my life. The first version came about as a free-write as I was thinking about the various types of writing I do. I’ve published a dozen or so peer-reviewed research articles, I’ve worked as a reporter for a daily newspaper, I’ve spent so, so much time as a student writing papers.
While I was taking this workshop I was also working on a journal article about collection development for graphic novels in academic libraries. I was bouncing back and forth between the two: that beige, academic voice of the social sciences and then back into poetry. And the idea popped into my head about a scientist trying to care for a poem. I was also thinking about a W.H. Auden quote, that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. He considered poems to be a kind of living thing and went back to some of them for years. So the poem in the story became alive.
How closely does your writing process mirror that depicted in the poem?
Not at all, haha. If I’m sitting down to write a poem, I grab a book of poems and read. After about an hour I’ll find that a poem has popped into my head and I can start writing. I usually write the poem straight through, then let it sit and gestate for a few days before going back for a rewrite. Then I kick it out of the nest because I’ve got more that need the space. Maybe that’s why my slush pile is so huge at this point.
Do you have a favorite poem from this issue of the Little Patuxent Review?
I kept coming back to Jay Udall’s “Doomsday Dog.” There is so much ugliness in the world right now: an unhinged, bigoted manchild with delusions of dictatorship thrashing about the White House, a sizable portion of the country apparently fine with the idea of literal fascism, the decades-long destruction of the middle class and labor so as to be feasted upon by the one percent. And I write my little poems and think, “Of what use, this little scribble?” I sometimes feel like I’m throwing pretty flowers into flood waters, hoping to make the world a little prettier that way. Jay’s poem captures a singular moment in the midst of all of this. Him, his daughter, his dog. I’ve been a fan of Jay since happening across The Welcome Table in a Chicago bookshop and finding a lot of inspiration to create my own work in those pages. I was thrilled to see I shared space in the issue with him.
Your first book is coming out this year! Can you share a bit about The Very Small Mammoths of Wrangel Island?
Yes! It’s being published by Urban Farmhouse Press out of Windsor, Ontario. The book touches on themes of obsolescence, mortality, and memory, as well as examining the division between personal history and the idea of objective world history. I wrote it over the winter of 2018-2019, in what started as a suicide note. A series of poems about poets who committed suicide. I spent time looking up every poet I could find who killed themselves, reading their biographies, recording their methods and ages and the years they did it. It was a pretty dark time, even for a South Bend winter, which can be very dark anyway. While writing, though, I found a font of creative inspiration and kept writing instead of moving forward with my plans for suicide. I just wrote more poems. I wrote about 400 by the time I punched through the other end of that depressive period and eventually whittled them down to the 108 that you see in the book.
What’s your most tried and true piece of writing advice?
Read a lot. It’s impossible to read too much. Devote an hour a day at least to reading in the form you want to write–poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction–and then an hour more for reading outside of it. Find your favorite writers and read everything they’ve written. And I mean really read them. Take notes. Highlight their moves and turns. Read them until you internalize them.