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MFA Spotlight: Rachel Adine Phelps

Rachel Adine Phelps is a poet from the wilderness of central Pennsylvania currently living in sunny central Florida. She received a bachelor’s degree in Writing, Literature & Publishing from Emerson College and a Master of Fine Arts from the Pan-European Program at Cedar Crest College. Her work can be found in Bitterzoet Magazine and the Bitter Oleander.

Rachel Adine Phelps

Many authors point to contemporary voices that influence their work but much of yours is influenced by Nordic, Greek, or various other kinds of mythology. Where does this inspiration come from and do you feel like it defines your work differently compared to those of your peers?

My inspirations tend to come as moments of recognition. I think, perhaps, that's the vanity of writers. We constantly seek to re-invent the world in our own images. I think, too, that's why these classic mythologies are told and re-told, as both spoken and recorded word, in poetry and in prose, echoing in every medium. There is an eternal truth that is always current, always relevant, reincarnating.

I think that my work is distinct in the sense that I aim not only to tell my personal narrative with classical elements but also to re-examine the stories and lives of these characters while utilizing contemporary elements. I look for the connections. I believe deeply in our connections, our overlapping heartlines.

Most specifically, I’m interested in the voices of the marginalized and the outcast, particularly those of women, both contemporary and historical. I want to create voices that will not be limited to footnotes.

Your poem "Settling" was published last year in Bitterzoet Magazine. I love your use of color and place in the poem, particularly the line "like Appalachian brush." What is your process for coming up with such strong and evocative imagery?

Thank you so much! This shade of brown is very dear to me.

My process is half meaning, half sound. I knew the image I would be describing as it related to the color and significance of place in the poem. Finding the music that could exist only in this exact moment, with these exact words, was the next step.

This is my favorite thing about writing, this inextricable weaving together of meaning and sound.

What do you like about poetry over other genres of writing? Have you written prose, and what was your experience with that, if any?

I've always been an avid reader. I think most writers are keenly aware of the connection between their childhood love of reading and their career choice. The same is very true for me. In the beginning, when I was primarily reading prose, I focused on writing prose. I’ve written fiction and creative non-fiction and I still write a bit of the latter. I noticed that the more I wrote, the more concise I became, the more focused on the lyricism of language. My inclination was always poetry, only I hadn’t realized it.

Also, poetry tends to be seen as the somewhat pretentious, overtly dramatic, both sentimental and somehow aloof, probably misunderstood, dreamy cousin of prose writing. Of course, none of this is necessarily so, but with or without misconceptions, you either love poetry or you loathe poetry. I may see myself quite a bit in that, too.

What do you think are the most important tools for a writer, especially those who are just starting?

There are two things that I would offer as advice:

1. The ability to remember that it’s only what we read that can make us what we are.

Please read. Read every day. Even when it’s late and you’re exhausted and your eyes are gritty. Even if it’s only for twenty minutes. It matters. Please, read.

Read things that challenge you. Read things that you wouldn’t normally read. Read things that will make you a better reader. Do not settle for the known.

Read things that you enjoy. Read things that inspire you because you love them so much you want to share them with the world. Read things that make you want to write, too.

2. Do not limit yourself. I felt for a very long time that my work was unworthy because I wasn’t “ready” yet to be a writer. That someday, when I was prepared, I would have this revelatory moment and become “ready” to be published. There is no such thing. There is no distant moment. This is your moment. Don’t wait to be “ready.” Your work will never be finished and you are worthy now.

You teach creative writing at Cedar Crest College. What is one of the most important lessons you've given your students?

I’ve been very blessed at Cedar Crest College with the most amazing students.

One of the most important lessons I’ve given my students relates to both their writing, and perhaps, to their lives. (At some point, our writing and our lives overlap, of course, and then overlap again. We’re folded like napkins.)

I was discussing workshops and the potential of feeling wounded by creative criticisms and the need to learn to make a distinction between creative discussion and personal attacks. Sometimes, this is easy. Sometimes it is anything but.

The important thing to remember is that we can only do our very best. Every day, we are growing, as individuals and as writers. When someone doesn’t like what we’ve done, it can hurt. But we cannot control whether someone likes us or not. We can only control our responses, our own actions. The best thing we can do is to remember that criticism is not a reflection of our own worth. The best we can do is listen, reflect, and then make the choice of how we will respond. The best thing we can do is choose to grow.

 


Interview Credit:  Pattie Flint
Photo Credit:  Rachel A. Phelps