Timothy Schirmer currently lives in the last lovely little corner Manhattan, a place called Alphabet City, where he’s happy to walk down the street with his headphones on. His writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in RATTLE, FRiGG, The Adirondack Review, The Monarch Review, Crack the Spine, Quiddity, Bluestem, Gertrude, Punchnel’s and elsewhere. You can find him online at: timothyschirmer.com.
Geosi Gyasi: Your poem, “Orange Marmalade” was a semi-finalist for the 2013 Rattle Poetry Prize. How did the idea of the poem come to you?
Timothy Schirmer: The initial idea for “Orange Marmalade” sprung from an interesting photograph. The photo is of a public trashcan, the kind with a dome-like top and a gaping mouth-like opening. The can was overflowing with these gorgeous flowers. Roses I think. They were peach colored. Someone had thrown them away and it almost seemed as if the trashcan was spitting them back up. I started free writing about the image and it quickly grew into a metaphor for the careless attitude of the female character in the poem.
Geosi Gyasi: Could “Orange Marmalade” be described as a love poem?
Timothy Schirmer: I myself do not think of it as a love poem. But RATTLE seemed excited to include it in their issue of love poems. I had no problem with that. I love that readers and editors bring their own associations to the work. I cannot remember who said it, but someone did say: “All poems are love poems.”
Geosi Gyasi: How then would you describe “Orange Marmalade” if you don’t think of it as a love poem?
Timothy Schirmer: I don’t think love is at the crux of this poem. I see it as a poem about two people in a relationship who each experience the world rather differently. I suppose maybe they are trying to reconcile themselves to each other’s perspectives. The narrator is more tender and contemplative with the world around him, and I think that naturally, when you’re that way, you often wonder whether it might be easier if you weren’t that way.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you intentionally set out to write it in the style of a prose poem?
Timothy Schirmer: No. I wasn’t sure what I was writing at first. I knew it was a poem, but really, I was just free writing at a breakneck speed. I usually can feel a poem or a story pulling in its own direction, stylistically, and I try to follow its lead.
Geosi Gyasi: You’ve said somewhere that, “you feel elegant when writing a poem…” Could you explain what you actually meant?
Timothy Schirmer: I don’t always feel elegant, I usually feel frustrated. But I have a moment, or moments, with almost every poem or piece of fiction, when I hit my stride. Things quicken. I literally feel nearer to something beautiful, and I myself feel more beautiful. Your pulse quickens. It’s like you’re dancing gracefully, hitting all the right steps, but you’re not dancing, you’re just sitting and writing.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you encounter any difficulty writing “Orange Marmalade”?
Timothy Schirmer: There was very little difficulty with “Orange Marmalade”. Sometimes, but not often, the muse is right there with you and it all comes very easily. It sort of spilled out of me and was nearly finished in the first draft. I sent it to a musician friend of mine who used to read some of my poems, and he told me that it was “Amazing!” otherwise, I might not have known it was any good. It underwent a second and third draft, mostly little changes to some of the imagery. I sent it to RATTLE on a whim, just because my friend had liked it so much. I was very surprised when RATTLE got in touch and mentioned that it had floated up through 8,000 entries, into the top twenty poems competing for the 2013 RATTLE Poetry Prize. It was a wonderful moment for me! There’s a lot of rejection in writing, so when you’re validated a little, I’m not ashamed to admit that it feels really good!
Geosi Gyasi: Come to think of it, your poem “Blood-Meal” has a sharp, unique title. What did you have at the back of your mind choosing this title?
Timothy Schirmer: It’s funny that you ask that question, because the title comes from an interesting and gross experience. My building in New York City was suffering a bed bug infestation around the time I wrote “Blood-Meal”. I was luckier than some of my neighbors, who had struggled a lot with the little bugs. I did my research and became mildly obsessed with protecting my apartment. I took a blow dryer to my sofa and curtains, washed all my linens in scalding hot water, bought covers for the mattresses, and found this nifty snow-white powder that kills the bed bugs pretty effectively. Turns them into little husks. Anyhow, in all of my research, the most unsettling thing I learned about bed bugs was that they need a ‘Blood-Meal’ to advance to their next stage of growth. In other words, they have to bite a human being many times. Bed bugs are parasites, and ‘Blood Meal’, the poem, is very much about parasitic behavior, in humans, and in the universe. The desire to take, to grow, to advance, but at what cost?
Geosi Gyasi: What about “Found”? Did you have a specific audience in mind at the time of writing?
Timothy Schirmer: I never have a specific audience in mind. The audience is anyone and everyone who will read the writing.
Sometimes though, I am writing to someone specific within the poem (a friend, a lover, a crush, a family member, an enemy, etc…) someone who is very much on my mind for some reason while the poem takes shape. Sometimes that someone is imaginary, or, they represent some hybrid of several people. Anyhow, readers bring their own associations, so it doesn’t matter who exactly I am writing to, as long as the reader can relate.
Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever been rejected for your works? How do you receive rejections?
Timothy Schirmer: For every story or poem I’ve published, I can match it with about ten to fifteen rejections. It’s draining! But I’ve come to realize that it serves an important purpose. Firstly, it makes the successes so much sweeter! Secondly, and more importantly, rejection affirms that a writer truly wants to be writing, that it is not in any way a superficial endeavor, because if it were, nobody would stick around to endure so much heartache! It’s kind of like being romantically involved with someone who is complicated and difficult; you wouldn’t stay with them unless they were really worth it.
Geosi Gyasi: Tell us a little about Alphabet City?
Timothy Schirmer: Alphabet City is a wonderful neighborhood to live in! There’s a large park holding it together at its center. It’s full of community gardens, coffee shops, lovely bars and restaurants, and yet, it’s still sort of gritty, holding onto its rougher past. It was a pretty dangerous neighborhood in the 70s, 80s and even well into the 90s. What I love most about Alphabet City is that it’s off the beaten path, and the streets are not clogged with tourists and moms with baby strollers (as so much of Manhattan is). There’s an interesting and diverse mix of people who live in the neighborhood.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you consider humour in your writing?
Timothy Schirmer: I never consider humuor in my writing. But it happens a lot, organically. I’ve been told that I’m a funny guy, so I suppose it leaks into my writing. I’ve recently been participating in a workshop on the Upper West Side, and we read our writing aloud to each other. I am always surprised when people laugh at something that I didn’t realize was funny. I suppose I like that it happens on accident. If I tried for it, it would probably feel inauthentic.
Geosi Gyasi: When you write, do you approach fiction the same way you approach poetry?
Timothy Schirmer: It depends. Usually I start with an idea, not a genre, and I write very freely until it takes a direction. They key is to stay loose, to be messy. You can clean up the pieces and put the polish on later. If you stay loose, the work will turn in the direction it needs to go. For me, it’s very dangerous to set off with a map in my hand, because it puts limits on the piece. Sometimes I write a whole story and then, at the end, I extract one scene and make it into a poem. Or, I write a poem, and at the end, I expand it into a short story.
Now, with longer stories (pieces larger than 2,000 words), I generally know that I’m subject to more rules and regulations. I have the story loosely mapped out in my head, but I stay rather uncommitted to the intended plot structure, that way the work can take you somewhere wonderful and unexpected.
Geosi Gyasi: What inspired the story, “The Man Who Couldn’t Hold His Own Cigarette”?
Timothy Schirmer: I sort of casually collect vintage magazines from the 1920s through the 1960s. I love the old art, ads, and images. I’ve recently become interested in cutting up some of the old imagery, and reconfiguring it in offbeat collages. The reconfigurations can be strange and intriguing. “The Man Who Couldn’t Hold His Own Cigarette” was inspired by a 1940s Chesterfield Cigarette ad that I hacked apart and pasted back together. In it’s altered state, there’s a man, smiling, who appears to be guiding the burning tip of someone else’s cigarette into his mouth. I didn’t start the collage thinking that a short story would emerge. It was a nice surprise, though.
Geosi Gyasi: Your story, “A Choir of Small Creatures” has been included in Paragraph Shorts issue #86, on an app that makes stories available to download for free. What do you think of free stuffs and making a living as a writer?
Timothy Schirmer: I think Paragraph Shorts is a stylish and sophisticated platform for showcasing writing and writers. I have no problem with the fact that I’m not getting paid for it. Most Literary Magazines operate on little-to-zero profit; most are labors of love. If the magazines were making mountains of money, then they’d probably be sharing with the writers, but they’re not. The fact of the matter is that the Internet makes lots of stimulating content available for free, and I think it’s exciting, not depressing. I’ve never made my living with writing, and I may never reach that mark in my career. In a way, it’s liberating, to be doing the work for myself, and not to pay the bills. I’m more concerned with sharing the writing with larger audience, than I am with making money off of it.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you feel you’ve not yet written the greatest story or poem of your life?
Timothy Schirmer: Oh Gosh, I hope I haven’t! I’ve only been writing seriously for the past four years, and I plan to write seriously for the rest of my life. So there’s a lot out ahead of me hopefully!
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any writers you admire or look up to?
Timothy Schirmer: I’ve had some really expert and wonderful writing teachers: Laurie Stone, Patrick Michael Finn, Sally Ball & Melissa Pritchard. I admire them all, for sharing their wisdom and techniques. Aside from them: Simone De Beauvoir (her fiction is so good it’s dangerous!), Rumi, James Baldwin, Michael Cunningham, Anne Lamott, Betty Smith, Edith Wharton, Raymond Carver, George Orwell, Truman Capote, Charles Bukowski, Sylvia Plath, Tony Hoagland, James Salter and Patti Smith.
Geosi Gyasi: What is the best time to write?
Timothy Schirmer: I tend to write earlier in the day, before all my energy is used up on other things. I find that writing in the morning is best for me, but I’ve been known to switch things up now and then.
Geosi Gyasi: What does your family think about your writing?
Timothy Schirmer: I’m not sure that they’ve read much, if anything, of what I’ve written. They’re supportive of my path in life, probably because they love me, and also because I’ve always been financially independent and responsible. I’ve carved out a nice little bohemian life for myself. I don’t keep anything from my family, but I also don’t drop my writing in their laps for approval. My writing is as available to them as it is to any random person on the internet.
Geosi Gyasi: Your website boasts of some beautiful photos. One of my favourites is the photo of Kenzie, Grandma and yourself. Could you comment on the photo?
Timothy Schirmer: That photo was taken at my grandparent’s 50th wedding anniversary party. My sister (Kenzie) and I have always been very close with both of our grandmas. I feel kind of sad for people who never had the chance to know their grandparents, or to know them well. It can be such a special and complex bond, very different from that between a parent and a child. I feel like a more fully formed person for having known both of my grandmothers so well!