“Stocking up on stubbornness” and the importance of reading
By Monica Prince
Brian Heston, born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was selected as one of the top ten finalists for the 2017 Literary Awards Program for his manuscript, Billy Penn’s Hat. His poems have won awards from the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Foundation, the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Foundation, and the Lanier Library Association. His first book, If You Find Yourself, won the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. He is also the author of the chapbook Latchkey Kids, available from Finishing Line Press.
His work has appeared in such publications as North American Review, Prairie Schooner, Missouri Review, Rosebud, Red Rock Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore, River Styx, and are forthcoming in Ghost Fishing, an anthology of eco-poetry to be published by University of Georgia Press. Presently, he is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at Georgia State University, and lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Find him on his website.
SFWP book reviewer and contributing editor Monica Prince asked Heston more about his work and practice.
Monica Prince: What is your educational and work background? Have either of these had an impact on your relationship with writing?
Brian Heston: I hold MFA degrees from George Mason University and Rutgers University. Presently, I am pursuing a PhD in creative writing at Georgia State University in Atlanta. I don’t know if my graduate work has so much impacted my relationship with writing as much as it has taught me the discipline needed to pursue the writing life. My relationship with writing was most impacted during my undergraduate work, most especially at the Community College of Philadelphia, where I was first put on to the idea that writing was a viable pursuit for someone like me. I was not a very good student in high school, and having come from the inner city, I didn’t know anyone who even read literature, let alone wrote it. CCP is where I met people from similar circumstances who were trying to write. The college also had professors who were publishing.
My relationship with writing was greatly affected when I transferred to Burlington College in Vermont. I had some excellent teachers who introduced me to writers who wrote about working-class issues. Before discovering these writers, I had already been trying to write about the neighborhoods and people where I grew up, but wasn’t quite sure how to go about doing it. For example, I had a lot of different jobs in my teens and twenties, like dishwasher, carpet layer, and McDonald’s crew member, yet I didn’t know how to write about any of it because none of the writers I was reading wrote about such things. So, the exposure to writers like Raymond Carver and James Baldwin was a revelation.
MP: How did you first get involved with writing? What does your writing practice look like?
BH: I first began to write in high school. Though, as I said, I was a terrible student, but I did always read a lot. I read everything I could get my hands on. I had a few high school teachers who introduced me to Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Frost, and Whitman. I had also read a lot of fiction, but usually it wasn’t literature. I remember reading lots of stuff about monsters, sports, and dinosaurs in grade school, so the introduction to more literary writers in high school is probably what first sparked my interest in writing. The very first thing I ever wrote was an incredibly bad poem for a girl I liked during my freshman year. I’ve been writing regularly ever since.
As for my writing practice, I do it every day, when I can. I am a teacher, so during especially busy times in the semester, I will rarely be able to write anything new. However, I do try to do some revision work, if possible. During breaks, such as the holidays or summer, I do write every day. I also have a hard time writing at home because I can get a bit lazy, so I have to get out of the house to work.
MP: What are you working on now?
BH: I’m currently working on a manuscript of poetry and manuscript of connected stories, Billy Penn’s Hat, the one that placed in the top ten of the SFWP contest!
MP: Why did you decide to enter the Literary Award Contest with SFWP? How do you think submitting to contests influences your future writing life?
BH: I decided to enter because I like the books SFWP publishes. I also liked the work of the judge. Entering contests, I think, is unavoidable in today’s creative writing market. Poets tend to have very few avenues to publish, and I think this is becoming even truer for fiction writers as well. Since the larger publishing houses are so difficult to break into without name recognition, contests seem to be the only route to get your work into the world with any sort of momentum.
MP: What advice do you have for writers just starting to make writing their priority?
BH: Well, I don’t know if I have any sage words. All I can really say is stock up on a whole lot of stubbornness because there are always going to be many more doors closing than opening.
Monica Prince is the 2017-2018 Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. She received her MFA in poetry at Georgia College & State University, and her BA in English Creative Writing at Knox College. She currently writes and reviews for the Santa Fe Writers Project, as well as reviews and edits for Aquarius Press. Her work can be found in MadCap Review, Fourth & Sycamore, The Shade Journal, Texas’s Best Emerging Poets, TRACK//FOUR, and others. Her choreopoem, How to Exterminate the Black Woman, will receive a staged reading as part of the Women’s Voices International Theatre Festival in January 2018, and will premiere as a full-length show in April 2018 in Selinsgrove, PA, where she teaches, writes, and performs. Keep up with her work on her website or follow her on Twitter.