The QME Interview

Sandra Kolankiewicz has a B.A. and Ph.D. from Ohio University, and
attended the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins.  Her collection of stories
titled Isla was a finalist for the Hudson Prize at Black Lawrence Press; her
collection of stories Consequential Monologues was a finalist for the Spokane
Prize; and her novel Blue Eyes Don’t Cry won the Hackney Award.

Her poetry collection Turning Inside Out was a Black River Chapbook
Competition winner and was published by Black Lawrence Press.  It received
a review  in the 2010 QME Anniversary Issue.  Ms. Kolankiewicz de-bugged
her computer to write this e-interview with QME editor Suzanne Sunshower

QME:  You have either won or been a finalist in several literary competitions, which can become a costly
gamble depending upon how many competitions a writer enters.  Did you feel, each time, that you had a
winning manuscript?

SK:  My stories had been appearing regularly in literary magazines since the 80’s, but I had never
made a concerted effort to get any type of collection out.  In fact, during the 90’s I probably spent a
lot more time writing grants to introduce at-risk children to leadership theory and skills than I did
trying to get anything published.  Then I had my daughter in 1998 and my son in 2000, and I
planned to pursue getting a full length collection out.  However, by 2002 we had ‘lost’ my son to
autism, and any plans I had to do anything other than try to help him and raise my daughter flew
out the window.  I was writing a lot of poetry and sticking it in a drawer.  For me, contests seemed a
good way to get my stuff out there.  We did not have a lot of money, but my husband encouraged
me to go for it.  I am not sure if I felt I had a ‘winning’ manuscript; I just knew that I needed to do
something about publication rather then nothing. I also felt that I was supporting small presses in the
process.

QME:  I have an English professor friend who spent a fortune entering publication competitions, trying
to get his first collection published.  Have you entered particular competitions for the prestige of the
award, or for recognition, or hoping for publication?

SK:  Learning about the ‘market’ is just as important as writing the poems or stories, and I must
admit that, while I always spent time in the shed working on my chops, I neglected the professional
side except for sending out the occasional story.  At the time I started entering contests, I had already
had about 35 or so stories and poems in print, but I had made no over all effort to reach an audience.
That step seemed mysterious and overwhelming to me.  Contests were a good place to start.  Luckily,
I won two, which paid for the contests that I entered where I did not win.  I did ask myself why I
suddenly cared about getting published when for so long I had ignored it and focused just on
writing—and I guess it was because the autism changed my sense of self—I had quit my job and
turned into one of those fierce mother advocates—I was very shaken by the autism experience—and
entering the contests was a good distraction.  However, if I had not won one of the contests or not
been a finalist, I think that disappointment would have amplified my missing sense of self—which
was a risk I knew I was taking.  One thing is obvious: there are a lot of talented writers out there who
do not get much recognition but who are dedicated to their craft.  Sometimes that’s hard to remember
when you feel you are just slogging away and not getting even a pat on the head.

QME:  What luck have you had sending poems out one at a time, or in batches, for publication in
journals?

SK:  This summer I made a concerted effort to bundle up my poems into groups that go well
together.  I sent out to about twenty-five journals, and eight poems have been accepted by four
places.  Four places declined the poems.  The rest of the places probably haven’t even read them—and
may never read them for all I can tell.  Right after Turning Inside Out won the prize at Black
Lawrence Press (several years ago), I sent out poems to probably fifty journals, using standard
business envelopes, etc.   Much of the time I never even received a rejection note—and when I did,
some of the rejection notes were from poems that I had sent out two years earlier.   I am not sure why
this summer is any different, but I will enjoy it while it lasts!  The main thing is to research the
publication you are shooting for, give it your best, and don’t let disappointment keep you from trying
again.  Have so much stuff in the mail that it doesn’t matter if one place rejects you.  As I said earlier,
reminding oneself how many talented writers there are and how few the venues can be helps keep
things in perspective.

QME:  I tend to feel that some of my ideas are meant to be poems, others plays, while still others should
come out as fiction.  Are you drawn to one genre more than another?

SK:  Right now I am doing poetry, but at the beginning of the summer I was working on an essay.  I
am trying to decide whether or not the novella I am working on really wants to be a play.  So, yes, I
am drawn to different genres—and this sometimes makes be feel as if I am all over the place.
Balancing is the key.  I have to balance between my writing life and my family life.  Within my
writing life, I have to balance whether or not I will start something new, revisit something, spend a
day researching the market, or just sit around and feel sorry for myself because I know so little about
all of this!

QME:  What has happened to your Hackney Award winning manuscript Blue Eyes Don’t Cry?
I understand you spent quite a few years working on it.

SK:  The Hackney Award was a blessing!  At the time, we were really struggling to pay the bills, and
I was probably at the bottom of the initial autism pit that we fell into as a family and which I was
mired in personally.  The Hackney gave us the money we needed and also was an extra boost to
getting me my first full time job (which I still have) after I resigned to try and help my son.  I write
The Cecil Hackney family a letter every February, telling them that they changed my life.  Blue Eyes
was a finalist for a competition the following year, but as yet I have not found a publisher.  Contests
can give you a boost, but there is a whole other side to marketing a book and finding a publisher that
I have yet to come to grips with.  I wish I were better at the business side, but that’s my biggest
challenge.  Like I said earlier, I am trying to balance so much between family, work, and writing that
I occasionally drop a ball or two.  I do believe the story in Blue Eyes needs to be told, though.  I have
requested of my husband that, if I croak suddenly in the near future, he should just self publishBlue
Eyes
and also the two collections that have been finalists a bunch of times.  He could send them to
libraries across the country.

QME:  Do you think writing programs and seminars are worthwhile, and for whom – the experienced or
inexperienced writer, the published or unpublished? Was attending Johns Hopkins a valuable experience
for you, and how?

SK:  Writing programs connect you with other writers, allow you time to write, and are supposed to
introduce you to the literary market and how it works.  I know many people who have gone through
various writing program incarnations, and they have appreciated being part of a community with the
support that kind of membership brings.  In order to write, one has to spend a lot of time in front of a
computer—which can be the antithesis to community if one is not careful.

After Hopkins, I determined that I did not want creative writing to be my ‘bread and butter,’ and I
chose to focus on teaching developmental writing.  This decision was based more on my personal
politics than on my experience in a writing program.  I spent many years in Mexico, surrounded by
people with limited literacy.  I have always thought that helping marginalized people find their voice
in writing is a political act that reinforces democracy.  In my case, I see myself as helping students
acquire the skills they need so that they could go on and pursue their dreams of working in a field
they like and taking care of families that they love—and be active participants in their local
community and beyond.

QME:  How much material have you got stashed away waiting for you to shape and mold – do you keep
around half-written works for future tinkering sessions, or maybe notebooks and scribbled on scraps of
paper?  

SK:  I have tons of material in notebooks, on scraps of paper, in folders.  What I don’t have is time!  I
have always written regularly.  When I was younger, I was unable to write anything and put it away
for later.  I just obsessed over it.  Now, I write, tinker, put away, rediscover—all in one day!

QME:  You were generous to share with QME readers something about your experiences as a fighting
advocate for your autistic son
[Summer 2010].  Were you able to steal time for yourself, to write or to just
sit and think, while he was growing up? Or did you feel too drained from work and family
responsibilities to take time for yourself as often as you wanted?

SK:  I became obsessed with learning everything I could about autism—in particular the biological
underpinnings.  As you know, my son was in pretty rough shape until we chelated the heavy metals
out of him, mercury in particular.  Then he picked up speed and started to develop.  As a result of my
autism work, I did not write anything cohesive for a couple of years, which worried me.  I could not
focus enough to finish a piece.  I was drained, depressed, hopeless, and felt that I was lost in a
maelstrom.  I felt so sad worrying about my son and trying not to make what was happening to him
ruin my daughter’s childhood.  Then, when a friend of mine was clearly dying of cancer, I wrote a
poem in one sitting.  For the next two years this urge to write would come over me, and I would
scramble for a piece of paper, scribble something down.  Then when the kids were asleep, I’d go up
into the attic, to a place I had created for myself to write—I called it The Fort.  I might work on the
piece all night.  Instead of relaxing me, writing poetry again at first really agitated me.  I felt as if I
had each index finger plugged into a wall socket and that I was the modulator for energy that was
passing through me.  The more I did it, though, the better I got at balancing the energy of creativity
so that it doesn’t feel so overwhelmingly powerful.  I feel as if I am better at modulating energy flow—
which I see now as part of the discipline.  Now I no longer need The Fort—I’ve moved down into the
kitchen, and the writing itself is less painful.

QME:  I noticed that you left your longtime directorship of the Gender Studies department at Marietta
for a position teaching Developmental English.  Do you care to share what prompted you to make that
move?

When my son was diagnosed, I was the Director of Experiential Education in the McDonough
Leadership Center at Marietta College, and I also was the Director of Gender Studies.  When it
became clear to me that my son’s life would demand heroics, I resigned from my full time position
and did Gender Studies just as a part time gig, managing the program and teaching the core classes.
After my son went into the school system full time, it was time for me to get back to full time work as
well.  I was fortunate to get a position in English at West Virginia University Parkersburg.  Getting
back into my original discipline felt great after my stint in leadership studies and gender studies.  Best
of all, I can still introduce the gender issues and leadership theories and skills into my developmental
writing classes, main stream writing classes, and in whatever literature I happen to be teaching, so I’m
content with where I am professionally.

QME:  Turning Inside Out was a fabulous chapbook, may we look forward to reading more of your
poetry, collected or otherwise, in the near future?

SK:  This spring I plugged my name into Google and saw there was a bunch of my work out there
that I didn’t know about or control.  As a result, I learned how to make a blog and pulled it all
together.  The address is   http://sandrajkolankiewicz.blogspot.com/    There are links to stories,
poems, and reviews there, plus the first part of a non fiction piece I wrote this summer.  I have poems
forthcoming in Gargoyle, Red Ochre Lit, and The Analectic, and I’ll be putting links to anything that
appears on the Web.

QME:  I read somewhere that you sometimes like to work on manuscripts in the kitchen.  When you look
out your kitchen window, what do you see?

SK:  I see a lawn that needs mowing and gardens that need weeding.  Guess I’m spending too much
time in front of a computer screen!   I also see the trampoline, where my son loves to bounce, and my
daughter as she feeds the poor rabbit we have had in a cage for 10 years (seemed like a good idea at
the time when my husband picked it up at Easter!)  You can read a poem about the bunny here:

QME:  Thank you, Sandra!