The Stillness of the Woods: A Q&A with Lillian-Yvonne Bertram
We are pleased to introduce Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, our keynote speaker on Saturday, August 24. She graciously shared some thoughts with us a Q&A this week. Enjoy!
HOLLIHOCK: Hollihock celebrates writers with a connection to New England-- those who have lived, worked or studied here. Elaborate on your connection with New England. Has this region inspired your writing?
LILLIAN: I lived in the Berkshires circa 2009-2011. I’ve spent a lot of time driving around, just looking at things-- the land, houses, anything. I’ve hiked and snowboarded in the Berkshires and Vermont. I love New England. There’s so much history here, tucked away in the corners of little towns. This region has definitely inspired my writing. In New England, you can really feel fall and winter coming. I’ve been inspired by the stillness of the woods on a fall hike, the way the fading light gives everything this purple hue. I’ve spent a lot of time in those moments, just thinking, writing. It was here that I put together the final draft of what would become my first book, But a Storm is Blowing From Paradise, and started my second, a slice from the cake made of air. New England makes long shadows in fall, and that’s where I like to think my writing comes from, these sometimes murky and shadowy places.
HOLLIHOCK: As a professor: if your students could walk away from your classes with you, what is the one thing you’d want them to learn or walk away with?
LILLIAN: I want students to walk away with a sense of possibility, that they are leaving with more options than they walked in with.
Talk to me about your writing process. Do you write better in the morning? At night? In long spurts? Do you have to be in a particular, controlled environment? Do different environments inspire you? Do you journal?
This is always the hardest question. I don’t have a defined process. If anything, I write in short spurts. Sometimes it’s early in the morning, sometimes late at night. Typically, things fester in my mind for at least a few days, maybe a couple weeks, and then it’s like a dam will give way or something, and I’ll do some writing. I try to do some kind of writing every day, even if it’s garbage writing, even if it’s lengthy descriptive emails to friends. I carry around a little notebook to take notes in, and I journal as a way of keeping correspondence with others, but it’s something I do specifically to show someone else. Environments do inspire me. When I have something to look at-- like a view-- I can get lost in that. I like majestic vistas, anything I can look at for a long time and still not take it all in. I miss the Berkshires because I could see the hills around the valley, the trees as they changed colors, the way snow stuck to branches, that sort of thing. Now I have a view of a parking lot. I see lots of cars get towed, people selling and doing drugs. But I never see who keeps scraping my bumper! It’s not more or less inspiring, just different. I like to travel so that I can get more pictures of the world in my head, see different things.
HOLLIHOCK: Tell me about your role as the director of the Chautauqua Institution Writers’ Festival. What do you enjoy most?
LILLIAN: I love doing this! I’ve been doing it for two years and I hope to continue doing it into the future. It’s a ton of work, but I think that what we (myself and Atom Atkinson) have been able to is really special. I direct the festival, which means a lot of organizing, finding faculty, and trying to establish some connections with schools. I am excited for the future and to continue growing the festival and being something really unique in the Southern Tier region of New York.
HOLLIHOCK: I know that phD programs for creative writing are few and far between. Why did you decide to pursue your phD and what would you say to other writers considering that path?
LILLIAN: Though few and far between, they are getting more popular! I think getting my PhD was mostly strategic, in terms of being competitive on the market. I knew that I needed some more book-learning in certain areas, and that was the way I would get it. I was on a teaching fellowship for a couple years, and I knew it would benefit me to have more frames of reference for the classroom.
HOLLIHOCK: What is your advice for other writers on how to handle rejection, criticism, and success?
LILLIAN: Just be easy about it, I guess. Fussing over it doesn’t change anything, at least not usually. When my work has been critiqued, it’s usually for the right reasons. Rejection is the name of the game, and I don’t take it personally. I know not everyone is going to like my work, it’s not going to connect with everyone, and that’s ok. I have no illusions about it connecting with everyone. When that happens, I feel very blessed. But I try and be easy about all of it and not stake my personal self worth on any of it. I send work out all the time that is rejected. It doesn’t sting the way it used to, when you’d have your best work sitting in a slush pile for months before you got a rejection. I think if you place all your hopes in getting a certain piece published in a certain place, or winning a certain prize, then it’s going to be so much harder to take when that doesn’t happen, and it will feel even better if it does!
HOLLIHOCK: What is the most interesting thing about you that doesn’t appear in your bio?
LILLIAN: I’ve played polo, on horseback. But only once. And terribly.
HOLLIHOCK: If you could have dinner with three writers, living or dead, who would they be and why?
LILLIAN: Toni Morrison, for the obvious reasons. James Baldwin, also obvious. And N.H. Pritchard, a somewhat obscure Black poet of the Umbra group who was doing some innovative and experimental stuff. I’d just like to be a fly on the wall for the dinner, listen to what they all had to say to one another. Take notes on survival, that sort of thing.
HOLLIHOCK: An important pillar of Hollihock is “community.” How has your writing/artist community played a role, if any, in your writing life or career?
LILLIAN: Community has been especially important to me. I’ve been blessed in that I have a pretty strong cohort from my undergraduate degree days. My primary reader is a friend from college, and we share work back and forth. I’ve also been fortunate to be a member of groups like Cave Canem, and they have such a strong community network. I would not be where I am without organizations like Cave Canem. So shout out Cave Canem there. But my community of folks from undergrad are my go-to people, and they’ve introduced me to other people who I am now close to, and they are the first people I run poems by, book covers, ideas, anything. They also recommend things for me to read, and keep me in the know. Community is incredibly important, it’s what sustains me as a writer.
Meet Lillian-Yvonne Bertram at Hollihock on Saturday, August 24, 2019! Tickets available here.