Maya Jewell Zeller’s essay “He Worked as an Electrician. He Enjoyed Television. (His Obituary was Plain.)” is featured in Issue 71 of the Bellingham Review.
What would you like to share with our readers about the work you contributed to the Bellingham Review?
I think this essay serves as part elegy, part confession, part meditation. I often work in verse forms, and prose allows a different sort of letting out and reigning in. I like to move back and forth between genres. Right now, I’m interested in medical intervention in birth, especially for mothers who plan otherwise, and prose forms are serving that dialogue well.
Tell us about your writing life.
When I was in fourth grade, my teacher, Ms. Jan Bono Todd, selected a few students to participate in a poetry reading at Pastimes, a restaurant on the Long Beach Peninsula. We were each supposed to read a few original poems at the event. I was flummoxed at the assignment, so my mother let me stay home from school one day to complete the task (I had a light cold, which was my official excuse). I spent the day writing rhyming poems about ALF (yep, from the planet Melmac) and my cat, Paws. (You can guess how bad these poems were.) I guess I’ve always been motivated by writing exercises; I like pressure and playing under pressure. So I also give myself writing assignments. My essays often evolve out of poems that seem incapable of containing their subjects, so that’s a way of giving myself a writing prompt: take a poem that doesn’t work and turn it into an essay that does.
My obsessions have evolved from ALF to the violence of the natural world to postpartum depression to madness and mermaids. My recent work has a lot of brains and internal organs
What writing advice has stayed with you?
My friend Jonathan once told me that the language in one of my poems was seductive, but the poem itself was a waste of his time. I’ll paraphrase: he said that I shouldn’t waste my time writing poems that were aesthetically beautiful but contributed nothing to the human experience. Since then I try to only write poems that matter.
Which non-writing aspect(s) of your life most influences your writing?
Last January, I started a private blog with some other women writers. It’s a mix of people I’ve known in and out of classroom settings over the last fifteen years of my life. We take turns offering weekly prompts; we all try to post new work each week. I didn’t know what a huge influence this group of women would have on my work. Collectively, we span a diverse spectrum of modes, so we tend to recommend a range of poetics/aesthetics via our prompts, which often suggest and/or link to readings. The range of inspiration, encouragement, and craft has reached into all aspects of my writing life, beyond the original impetus of poetry. I sometimes use the writing prompts as revision prompts, even if they’re meant to be generative. Other motifs that recur in my work: rivers/ water, fish, earth processes, landscapes, the human body, plants, working class issues, poverty, the violence of nature. Lately, so much of my writing deals with the process of being/becoming a mother. There’s nothing like growing an ALF in your body and then giving birth to really mess up your shit.
What is your favorite book (or essay, poem, short story)? Favorite writer(s)?
I’ll list a few that stick with me (not a comprehensive list—I’m really just listing what comes to me). Novels: Lolita, Housekeeping, Bridge to Terabithia; short stories: “Cathedral” (Raymond Carver), “Bullet in the Brain” (Tobias Wolff), “A White Heron” (Sarah Orne Jewett); other short story authors: Amy Hempel, Pam Houston; essays: “The Pain Scale” (Eula Biss), “Sing! O Bone” (Julie Trimingham), “Learning to Speak to Them” (Melissa Kwasny); poets: James Wright, Connie Voisine, Dorianne Laux, Melissa Kwasny, Rachel Contreni Flynn . . . not at all thorough, but there’s a start.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Alexandra Teague’s poetry collection The Wise and Foolish Builders. Would you like me to go on and on about it? Because I could. But I’ll let you go read it for yourself!
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
In prose, I’m generally working on essays on motherhood, and currently an essay on moving into the suburbs of Spokane; I’m also trying to write short-short stories; in poetry, my newest manuscript project is growing out of these impulses: docupoetics, the ekphrastic/poems based on photographs, neo-surrealism, and the role of motherhood in contemporary women’s rights movements.
Anything else our readers might want to know about you?
I attended WWU as an undergraduate in the late 1990s, where I ran cross country & track for one year. Before that, I was the 3200 meter State B Champion my senior year of high school (think small pond). But I learned early on that if you want to be good at anything, you have to do your training. (At that time in my life, I could bench press more than I weighed and I could do real pull-ups. What’s the equivalent of that in writing? I don’t think I’m there yet.)
Where can our readers connect with you online?
My website: mayajewellzeller.com
MAYA JEWELL ZELLER is the author of the poetry collections Rust Fish (Lost Horse Press, 2011) and Yesterday, the Bees (Floating Bridge Press, 2015). Her essays and poems appear in recent issues of Pleiades, Tahoma Literary Review, High Desert Journal, and James Franco Review. Maya teaches writing at Gonzaga University, serves as Fiction Editor for Crab Creek Review, and co-directs the Beacon Hill Reading Series. She lives in Spokane.