By Carol Smallwood
Aline Soules is the author of numerous poems and prose works. Her most recent publication, Meditation on Woman, is a mix of prose poetry and flash fiction. A small selection of pieces appeared in the Kenyon Review under the book’s working title Woman Acts. Her chapbook, Evening Sun: A Widow’s Journey, will be published by ADC Press in 2014. Aline earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles in 2003. She also holds master’s degrees in English and library science. She is widowed with a grown son and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Carol Smallwood invited Aline to talk about her passion for writing about women and mothers; how form enhances her themes; and the influence of other writers, the Internet, and writing classes.
Carol Smallwood: Your work focuses on the roles of women and mothers. Why are those themes so central to your writing?
Aline Soules: Women’s roles became a passion when I was a university student in the mid to late 1960s. I learned how vital it was for women to expand their rights and opportunities. I value career, marriage, children, and the independence that has become possible for women over the decades. I worked, cherished my family, and spent years in “the sandwich generation,” caring for both parents and child. Looking back, I note the recurring presence and importance of all women in my work—daughters, mothers, workers, women living daily lives and coming into their own—perhaps because I have experienced those roles.
C.S.: Can you describe how those themes appear in your work and give us examples?
A.S.: In The Size of the World, the title piece dealt with how my mother’s world shrank as she neared the end of her life. In my most recent publication, Meditation on Woman, I created an “über-woman,” who embodied all these elements. In my forthcoming chapbook, Evening Sun: A Widow’s Journey, I explore a condition that so many women will experience and include my relationship with my son and how that relationship affected decisions at the time. Some of these poems appeared in literary journals such as the Houston Literary Review and Straight Forward, but my chapbook draws them together into a thematic whole.
Motherhood is a key element in all my poems, whether I am writing about my grandmother, my mother, or me. In “Links,” my child is a nursing baby, but in “Jogging,” he is grown and leaving home. I think every mother experiences that full spectrum and all the experiences in between. The universality of motherhood is inescapable. Even when I write surreal work, such as some of the pieces in Meditation on Woman, motherhood creeps in. In “Golden Handcuff,” a woman becomes a man, but the biological imperative is still there and s/he adopts. Being maternal is inescapable, both a passion and an experience.
C.S.: How does form contribute to the expression of your ideas?
A.S.: I have definitely experimented with form to explore my themes. My earlier poetry was more traditional poetry with line breaks and stanzas, and my prose was primarily in the form of short stories. In Meditation on Woman, I mixed prose poetry and flash fiction to create über-woman because I wanted to focus on the confluence of as many factors as I could, even the confluence of forms. I love intersections—where poetry meets prose, where fiction meets nonfiction—anything that blends genres. In Evening Sun: A Widow’s Journey, I sought a reflective, calm environment where the reader can follow a widow’s journey, and I returned to more traditional poetic forms to achieve that.
Now, I’m working on a novel. It’s early yet, but I am exploring story and character first and will develop description and other elements later. It’s part of a “novel in a year” process guided by Ellen Sussman, author of The Paradise Guest House and other novels.
C.S.: What writers have influenced you the most?
A.S.: So many writers, so little time! Among poets, I would choose lyric poets in particular, e.g., Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver, but also Stephen Dunn, Seamus Heaney, and many others. In prose, my influences range from Isaac Babel to P.G. Wodehouse. I name these two to illustrate both the wide range of my influences and the eclectic nature of my reading. Babel is fabulous for description—never a wasted word. His description isn’t just description; it contributes to the story. Wodehouse is an amazing plot master. Every author gives you something.
I do not choose authors by gender. I deeply admire Doris Lessing’s work, just as I admire the discipline of a writer like Anthony Trollope who rose and wrote every morning before going to his job at the post office. Of course, he was not disciplined while at the post office, being late and insubordinate and disliking the work, but he was certainly disciplined as a writer.
C.S.: Can you share with us your experience with writing classes? Which ones have helped you the most?
A.S.: I have taken writing classes all my life and every one of them has given me something. When I lived in Michigan, I drove to Iowa City every summer for a week and a weekend of classes at the Iowa Writers Summer Festival. Jane Mead and Gordon Mennenga come to mind, particularly Gordon, who showed me so much, including how to conduct a writing workshop and not get hung up on one piece. He kept critiques moving and we covered much more work that way.
In 2000, I began my MFA on a low residency basis at Antioch University Los Angeles. It was fabulous from the design of the program and generosity of its founder and director, Eloise Klein Healy, to my mentors, such as Jim Krusoe and Frank Gaspar.
I once enjoyed a week-long workshop with Mark Doty—amazing. He both guided our work and created a safe and artistic space to foster exploration.
Now, I’m part of the “novel in a year” process guided by Ellen Sussman. It’s been a steep learning curve and I’m far from where I want to be, but the twelve of us met half a dozen times through 2013 and became a community. It’s very interesting to work with such diverse writers. All may be writing the first draft of a novel, but the works are very different. There’s historical fiction, young adult, women’s fiction, literary fiction, and memoir. Conversations draw from all these perspectives and we inform each other’s work in ways that wouldn’t happen if we were all writing in the same genre.
C.S.: How has the Internet influenced you as a writer and how do you use it to help promote your work?
A.S.: The Internet connects me to the world. I have “met” so many authors I would never have known, read so much work that would have passed by unnoticed, and entered a wider writing world. While there are new challenges for writers—more competition, a more cut-throat business approach, a greater need for self-promotion—there are also new opportunities.
My website combines website and blog and I try to post every couple of weeks. I work full time at California State University, East Bay, as a library faculty member and a teacher, and there are times when I fall behind. I also get busy with editing work on the side and that can derail my posting plans as well, but any post I provide must offer content or perspective. I’m not interested in simply promoting my work. Although I have been published by small presses (most recently by Anaphora Literary Press) and marketing is now every writer’s responsibility, I want to offer something of meaning that stems from my love of the English language and my desire to convey ideas, emotions, or thoughts clearly and effectively.
C.S.: What advice would you give to other writers?
A.S.: Keep writing; keep sharing; keep reading; keep taking classes; keep going to conferences; network, network, network; write, write, write. Never give up. Enjoy the process; otherwise, you’re not in love with writing, you’re in love with “having written” and seeing your name in print. Even if some of your work is never published, if you’ve enjoyed the process, then you’re a winner and a success. And that is what I wish for every writer—success.
Carol Smallwood’s over four dozen books include Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching on Poets & Writers Magazine list of Best Books for Writers. Carol has founded and supports humane societies.