If I recall, it was 2015. I was in grad school at Bowling Green State University, working on my Masters. I was also working on the first version of A Shrouded Spark. As I was working with Archway Publishing, they offered editing services for upwards of $2000. As a grad student, there was no way that I could come up with that money. Instead, I sought out other options.
I went online, researching editors and the typical price ranges. I was hesitant to choose someone hastily, especially a stranger who wasn’t invested in my cause and purpose.
My roommate at the time, Jay, suggested that I send an inquiry through the writing commons. I felt apprehensive about putting my book in the hands of a stranger, but Jay assured me that she knew someone who knew someone that could help me. Fast forward a few days, and I get an email from someone named Naomi N. It was very professional and to the point. We planned to meet in the coming weeks.
We met at a coffee shop in Bowling Green called Grounds for Thought. They’re well known in the city for their wide variety of coffee, tasty drinks, and sweet treats. I found Naomi at a table in the front of the shop. She greeted me with a polite smile and we chatted for a bit about the project, her prices, and a proposed timeline. It was all extremely professional.
I printed the manuscript, delivered it to her, and waited. Patiently. Nervously. I waited.
When the manuscript came back to me--after I went over the edits (if my memory serves me)--Naomi and I met up again, at another popular restaurant in BG called Two Foxes (great burgers, 10/10 would recommend) This time, Naomi’s seemed much more relaxed. She talked freely about the book and how excited she was to be a part of the vision; she truly believed in the importance of the story. I was thrilled, finally having someone who deeply understood the story and knew where I was trying to take it.
The two of us grew much closer; I invited her to my home in Cleveland, where she met and effectively charmed my entire family. When they found her in our kitchen, barefoot, making pierogies from scratch, I knew they’d never forget her. She also took me to my first writer's conference--Winter Wheat, in Bowling Green, Ohio. Going back to the place where we met, seeing old friends, and making new ones, all while digging into our creativity was an experience I'll never forget.
Naomi and I also had our daughters around the same time, and motherhood brought us even closer. In motherhood, we found sisterhood, we found solace, and we found each other. Journeying through such a time with Naomi as my friend and postpartum guru was something that I did not take for granted. I looked to her for so much advice and wisdom. I had so many questions and so many worries which Naomi quelled with grace and skill. The pandemic, and general distance, kept us from seeing each other and introducing our daughters, but that time eventually came, and it too was a time I will cherish. Every time we are together, we pick up right where we left off, never missing a beat.
It was for these and so many other reasons that I couldn’t wait to work together with Naomi on the sequel to A Shrouded Spark. Naomi understood the characters and the story in a way that no one else did; she was the only person I trusted with the story. The guidance she provided was honest, raw, and insightful. She helped me weave a tapestry of a story; she is the glue that holds these books together.
Naomi is a poet, a writer, an editor, and a full-time mom. She is meticulous, compassionate, fearless, and wise beyond her years. It is an honor and a privilege to have worked with her on two creative projects, and it is a blessing to be her friend.
Read the interview with Naomi below:
When did you consider yourself to be a writer? When did you consider yourself to be a poet?
When I was nine years old, I remember laying on my bed and talking out loud to God. I was staring up through the window at this huge blue sky filled with puffy clouds. It was summer, and the most delicious breeze was blowing in. I had this deep conviction, a sense that I was not a little kid anymore and that what I did with my life was starting to matter in a way it never had before. Call it an epiphany if you like. And I remember telling God, “I’m going to be a writer.” Even then, I wanted to be a part of telling stories that changed people’s lives, that help us to be better and live better, especially in relationship with each other, than we would otherwise. I’d never said it out loud before. I’d never told anyone that before. And saying it out loud terrified me. I was a weird kid. Most writers probably are. After that, I never told anyone that I was going to be a writer—not even when I got my BA in English.
But, I didn’t actually consider myself a writer until just before I started applying to MFA programs. My husband and I were at a crossroads in our careers, and we were under a lot of stress as a result. We got into the first real fight of our marriage, and it was during that argument that I realized I wasn’t just fighting for playtime for a hobby, I was fighting for the person I loved most in the world to understand that writing is a central part of who I am. I was fighting to be myself. And I realized that if I didn’t seriously start considering myself a writer, then no one else would either. (I should say my husband and I got through it—we both went back to
school, and now I’m writing full-time.)
I grew up in the middle of nowhere, so it wasn’t like poetry was a part of my life. There was no literary scene. But what I did have where I grew up was the earth itself. My dad would take us kids on backpacking trips. We’d be five or ten miles from the nearest logging road, and he’d say, “This is the real world.” So, whatever little patch of wilderness I could find always felt truer to me than anything else. Then, when I was fourteen, I became deeply sad and lonely in a way that is difficult to describe. I was facing some fairly serious challenges in my young life that crashed over me in wave after wave of relentless sorrow. One day in 9th grade English class, we were reading poems aloud from our textbook, and my teacher called on me to read William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”. This poem broke me. Of course, as a teenager, I was a goddess of apathetic affect, so I didn’t even let my voice quaver, but when the bell rang, I locked myself in a bathroom stall and sobbed. I copied the whole poem into my notebook. I memorized it. I whispered stanzas of it to myself like a prayer. And I began to start writing my own poems with a level of seriousness and curiosity that I’d never done with anything else except ballet. Poetry gave me a place to make a kind of beautiful sense out of what I was feeling and experiencing. It helped me to make joy. It helped me to embrace my own complexity. It saved me. And somewhere in there, I started considering myself a poet because being a poet helped me to be.
What are some topics/themes that often appear in your writing?
My current WIP (working title Keep Them in the fight) is a nonfiction manuscript in the style of a memoir that I’m writing with a retired Army Reserve Colonel and Afghanistan veteran who served in the war as a social worker. The central theme is the lifesaving and healing power of relationships, community, and compassion.
Much of my other work is done in search of what is sacred—to make sense of death and the inescapable fragility of our lives, to seek hope and kindness through generations of hurt, to find continuity with the past while setting myself free to build a present and a future that is worth living in, to be a mother and learn what it means to be in adoration. Nature always plays a role, and my poetry is very much in the body.
Do you have a favorite poem or line of poetry that you’ve written?
I do, but it’s not published, so I can’t share it here, unfortunately. Things have been a bit chaotic the past couple of years, so I’ve been sitting on two unfinished poetry manuscripts and not submitting the way I should as my focus has been on nonfiction. Once this project is done, though, I’ll dive back into poetry.
Of the poems I have out there in the world, this is one of my favorite passages. It’s from “Call Me, All You Dead,” which appeared in issue 7 of Adanna literary magazine a few years back.
The basement’s mildewed closeness, windows crusted
with grass clippings black against the moon,
a stone so pitiful small I’d have to be
en pointe to stand on its pocked face;
and God, too, it seems,
is lightyears away.
How important is “accessibility of meaning”? Should one have to work hard to "solve" a poem?
Ok, so I have feelings about this question. In our education, we spend a lot of time learning to write and read prose, how to construct arguments, how to not use “I” and how to erase ourselves, our personhood, from the page. Not that academic writing can’t have a humane purpose; these are just the standard conventions of Western academia. Of course, there are many rhetoricians and academics who’ve been pushing back on this style of writing for some time. My point is this: we don’t spend a lot of time learning to read poetry. So, we take the skills we’ve learned to read prose and try to read poetry with them. That can reveal a bit, but you miss a lot doing it that way, often the best parts.
We forget that poetry is inherently linked to music. Unless you’re studying a song, you don’t listen to it with your head. You listen to it with your heart. And that’s how I think we ought to read poetry—with our hearts. A really well-constructed poem will teach you how to read it. And, if you can find a recording of the poet reading a poem, that can be helpful, too. For example, I didn’t “get” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot until I listened to a recording of him reading it (about 20 times while I wrote a paper on it that was due the next day).
To answer more directly, I think “accessibility of meaning” is very important, but we shouldn’t expect the kind of meaning from poems that we do from prose. We should expect a kind of emotional shift in ourselves from poetry. Poetry longs to be understood, to be known.
To me, a poem is not a problem to be solved, though it could be a puzzle. This is something a poet should consider when writing a poem. Who is the intended audience? If there is a puzzle written into the poem, does the poet give the intended reader adequate clues? If you are struggling to “solve” a poem as a reader, are you the intended audience? If you are not, you’ll have to work harder to find the clues, but that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the poem. For example, surely, Wordsworth’s poem I mentioned earlier was not intended for me, but I was able to pick up on many of the clues when I first read it because of my knowledge of nature and my emotional state at the time.
Considering the audience can be discouraging because poetry often has a reputation for being highbrow, academic, and inaccessible. Take heart, though. There is an entire world and history of poetry written by the working class and oppressed peoples. A poetry of real life, of survival, of rage, of hope, of triumph, of joy that cannot be taken away. And trust me, these poets are the ones writing and speaking and performing the poems that really matter, that really mean something. You just might not find as many of them in the classroom—unless, of course, your teacher is Ms. Anglen.
How long have you been an editor? What is the best part about editing someone else's work?
I started editing as an undergrad at Pitt when I was working in the Writing Center, so about a dozen years. The best part of editing is you get to do all the fun parts of writing without the hours and hours of slogging behind the screen to make it work. You get to bring fresh eyes to a piece and get inside it and see how it’s working and see if you can make it work better. And, when a writer tells you their dream is a text, it’s like mending their favorite coat for them on a very cold day.
What has been your most interesting project to date and why?
Writing-wise, my most interesting project to date has been my current WIP, Keep Them in the Fight. I started interviewing the Colonel when I was in my early twenties. I was deeply anti-war. I still am, but I’ve come to realize, like most Americans, I didn’t really understand the people who serve in our military. What it comes down to is this: in the military, you have intense bonds with the people you serve with because it is
ingrained in military culture that you would give your lives for each other. This creates community and collective purpose and care for each other that we just don’t have in the civilian world. We should, but we don’t. We’re too bought in to rugged individualism. So, when people leave the military, they struggle with the isolation because they know there’s a better way to live. As one of my writing colleagues so poignantly put it, “We’re diagnosing as mental illness what is really a lack of community.” When you look at it that way, you come to realize that it’s not the vets who are sick, it’s us.
Editing-wise, the most interesting project I worked on was a dissertation by an international Ph.D. student of anthropology I was helping with his English. The dissertation topic was on the personal transformational effects of converting to Christianity in China. One chapter covered conversion through the lens of masculinity—how cis het male converts aspired to gentleness, better listening, greater respect for their Christian sisters and women in general. The chapter compellingly captured a version of Christian masculinity that was markedly different from traditional Chinese masculinities (post-Mao and Confucian) as well as white American conservative Christian masculinity.
Can you share some of your “must reads”?
This is kind of a smattering. Some, I’d answer differently on a different day.
First, the entire Noni and the God Tree series! You’re all in for a treat with book two. The twists! The turns! The drama! The danger! The love! Seriously, I had the best time editing.
- YA sci-fi: The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow (I think about this book all the time. It’s just such a comforting, beautiful
- Sci-fi: The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey (great female characters)
- Fantasy: Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin (This series is painfully beautiful.)
- Nonfiction: Together by Vivek Murthy
- Poetry: Love, and Index by Rebecca Lindenberg, Twelve Stations by Tomasz Różycki
- Books on writing: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver (a good book for learning how to read poetry, too!)
- Short stories: What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg (this is what revision looks like)
Who are some of your favorite writers/authors?
These are all writers that I’ve read multiple books from them throughout their lives. I return to them repeatedly.
Poets: Yusef Komunyakaa, Li-Young Lee, Mary Oliver,Seamus Heaney, Tomasz Różycki, Adam Zagajewski, Zbigniew Herbert
Writers: Neil Gaiman
What books are you reading right now?
Right now, I’m hammering books related to my current project, Keep Them in the Fight, so everything is either about the military service, mental/social health, the craft of writing, the business of writing, or that I’ve read to figure out how they wrote it.
These are books I’ve read in the past month. Each, in its own way, is worth returning to.
- Rule Number Two: Lessons I Learned in a Combat Hospital by Heather Squier Kraft
- Once a Warrior: How One Veteran Found a New Mission Closer to Home by Jake Wood
- Invisible Storm: A Soldier’s Memoir of Politics and PTSD by Jason Kander
- Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
- Memoir Writing for Dummies by Ryan G. Van Cleave
- How to Write a Book Proposal by Jody Rein with Michael Larsen
- and a sci-fi manuscript I beta-read for Robert Stokes
These books are on my Christmas list or at the top of my TBR pile:
- City without Altar by Jasminne Mendez
- Uncertain Ground by Phil Klay
- Where Cowards Go to Die by Benjamin Sledge
- War & Homecoming: Veteran Identity and the Post-9/11 Generationby Travis Martin
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Find Naomi on Twitter @naomithepoet