Interview with Adrian Potter

By Alexa Larson, Editor-in-Chief

Interview Transcription

Alexa Larson: Hello, everyone! My name is Alexa, and today I am speaking with the very talented writer and one our very own Portage Press authors, Adrian Potter. Adrian, thank you so much for being here with me today. How are you doing?

Adrian Potter: I’m doing great. Thanks for having me.

AL: Wonderful, we will just dive right in. My first question for you is: can you tell us a little about yourself and your writing background, kind of how you got started?

AP: Sure. So, I’ve taken definitely the road less traveled for being a writer. I’ve always written all my life. I’ve grown up in the Midwest most of my life, in Iowa as well as Minnesota. My roots are definitely Midwestern, and that’s reflected in a lot of my writing. But I’ve worked in engineering, civil engineering, as well as graduate schooling in business. The thing that was always a passion of mine was writing, and I promised myself if I still had that itch after I got done with my MBA, I was going to write. And so, from then on, [I was] sort of self-taught, went to some workshops, reading writers, seeing what worked for me, what I really liked of what they did. And [I] started dropping poems here and there to journals, as well as short fiction. In the end, it’s just been kind of a long grind of what some people would call a hobby but is definitely a passion of mine. Just kind of passing those things along. I would’ve written anyway, so it was kind of that relentless pursuit to write things that would be publishable and valid for everybody else that could read it. I just took that a step further, and rather than make it a hobby, I look at it as a peer to my day job, if you will.

AL: Yeah, absolutely. That’s great. Once you have that passion, it definitely shows through your writing.

AP: Thank you.

AL: So then, you don’t write full-time?

AP: No, my side job is an engineer, which some people think is so weird that a technical person—I’m 50% left brain, 50% right brain. And it really works. I think a lot of my writing has this way that I’m looking at things that are documented, studied, and compared. It keeps me grounded, and I’m not satisfied with superficial explanations. That motivates a lot of my writing. It’s weird that that’s what makes me work well in engineering as a consultant and also makes me work well as a writer. I think those two feed on each other. It’s an anomaly but I think there’s more people out there than you would think that have a technical background but yet still have that creative side. I roll with that, that really works for me. It’s a yin and a yang scenario.

AL: Yeah, that’s awesome. Like you said, very “left brain, right brain.” That’s cool. So, our Features page this year is really all about, you know, local voices, Midwestern voices. Your poems from this year deal closely with this feeling of being stuck or kind of trapped in a small town. Depending on where we are in the Midwest, I think most of us can relate a little bit. Can you tell us a little bit about this feeling, where it stems from? Just talk a little about the poems you sent us.

AP: Yeah, those poems that I sent, they’re a start of—and I’ve been kind of writing out of the prose poem form for a long time. It’s just the way my writing has developed. A lot of times, I’m writing fiction and maybe have some fiction projects at the same time as I do my poetry. I never really know where that’s going to lead—whether it going to lead to a really long, beautiful free verse poem, or it’s going to end up with some story. I just kind of write in blocks and not think about the formatting. It’s something that basically came out of—you know, ten years ago I became a father, and time is a commodity that you really appreciate. You don’t have as much time just to sit down and write. So, I don’t worry about format as much, or what it’s going to end up being. A lot of times, things I think are going to be a wonderful narrative end up being a short poem, and [some]thing that I think is just a line that’s going to fit perfectly in a poem becomes a long story. One of the projects I started working on probably toward the start of the pandemic was just a bunch of poems dealing with the Midwest, and it’s a subject I’ve touched well, as you’ve mentioned, in my book with Portage Press. A lot of the poems were Midwestern-based. This one was kind of focusing on…maybe more of a desperation, or the feeling that you were saying—the melancholy, the blues of being in the Midwest. I think the Midwest is a beautiful place. It’s kind of paradoxical. We [who are] living here, we see beauty in what people think is just flat or boring. Looking out on the plains is a beautiful landscape to us, but it’s kind of “bluh” to somebody who lives on the West Coast or East Coast. And in that realm, I kind of delve into that. There’s a beauty to it, but there’s also a feeling of being trapped. So, I started working on what I was hoping to be a whole book of poems like this, but I really could get to maybe eighteen to twenty. Hopefully, it’s a section of a book I write at some point in time or pull together. A lot of poems just fit in there. I guess out of that process, that’s where these poems were born.

AL: I like how you say—it’s definitely an interesting landscape that we have, that a lot of people wouldn’t find beautiful, but we do. We’ve got this kind of dichotomy. We’ve got so many fields and cornfields and whatnot, but we’ve also got the more metropolis kind of areas. We’ve got Milwaukee and Madison just in Wisconsin, and we also encapsulate Chicago. So yeah, definitely [an] interesting dichotomy there, which is what we’re trying to promote here at Portage. Can you talk a little bit more about the book that we published called Everything Wrong Feels Right? It looks like that was in 2019.

AP: Yes, thank you for mentioning it. It was a blessing that Portage Press selected it. I’ve been thankful. At that point in time, I had been a writer—like, serious about writing, not just the bleeding-heart poems of my teenage years—for almost twenty years. And I had been sending stuff to journals for eighteen or so years. I even had a couple book deals that fell through, whether it was a bad contract or just things didn’t fall right. I had been getting poems of all different kinds published, but I was struggling because I just could not get a book. I wasn’t using that to be my measure of success by any way, shape, or form. Since I’m not a full-time writer, it wasn’t the thing that was going to put bread on the table. You know, unless you’re super successful. I was more of a—I felt like I wouldn’t be validated as a writer. I had that imposter syndrome, if you will, because I didn’t have a book. I had these four or five manuscripts written—I still do—that had been turned down, or “was always a bridesmaid in a contest but never the bride.” [I] would come close to winning, runner-up, etcetera. And I had this view of these certain poems that were in each [manuscript] that fit, obviously, in those manuscripts but I thought would fit better together by themselves. It was just a certain vibe to all those poems, in my head. Definitely a darker tone. I’m not a “rainbow and butterflies” writer by any way, shape, or form. And I went through those manuscripts, and between that and other things I was working on, [I] identified a chunk of poems that really fit together with that kind of vibe, the way that they were paced, the mosaic of images, if you will, that were brought together and that outlined the desperation that I was going at. There’s poems that talk about grief. There are poems that touch tough subjects, but not in that straightforward manner that I write a lot in—I don’t just straight up talk about domestic violence in those poems, but there is an undertone in a few poems about that. I really tried to pace them together, and then knowing that this was its own manuscript by itself, seeing that there was a vision there, that maybe these poems—yeah, I’m [unclear] them from other complete books that I think could get published—I wrote between them to fill in the gaps and finish up some other work. When it came done, I really feel like this is what actually the book process was. I think a lot of times, I was kind of making a mixtape of poems that I liked, that I thought sounded cool together. This would have probably been the most organic it ever felt to write a manuscript, and obviously I guess people at Portage Press felt that vision worked. I believe you guys were the first people I sent that manuscript to, so there must have been a vision to it that really clicked. I think it’s really changed me as a writer since then, and that’s the feeling that I look for, not “oh my gosh, this poem was a big hit from this journal,” or “a lot of people told me this poem was good; I need to get that in this.” I’m now looking for that organic feeling of how they mesh together, thinking of bigger projects as opposed to just one or two poems.

AL: Gotcha. Yeah, definitely fate, right?

AP: Exactly.

AL: Great, so I think you touched a little about this, or maybe were kind of hinting at it, but we were thinking about how just looking at all of our submissions, we can definitely see how COVID has really shaped people’s writing and what we write about. We’ve gotten a lot of darker themed poems especially this year and a couple of prose ones as well. I’m just wondering, how has COVID or the last year in general—has it shaped your writing process at all? Have you thought that it’s really affected you as a writer?

AP: Well, like most people, I’ve spent a lot more time at home than I ever did before. Prior to this, I would be a work-out guy. I’d probably work out almost five days of the week. You know, there was always something to do, whether it was playing sports with friends, or I used to have a tap room club—which is very Midwestern, hitting every tap room, just go and taste your beer once a month. Those kind of things. I was maybe not a full social butterfly but definitely active, and what happened was, there’s a lot more time at home. I’d say the first month or so, you would think with all that time, you’d be more productive a writer, but I was too busy having apocalyptic dreams, thinking that this was going to be like a zombie movie at the end of it! Just overall kind of freaking out at the uncertainty of the future. Like, “Do I have enough toilet paper or disinfectant wipes?” I probably spent more time just trying to figure out the technology behind what’s going to make me be able to work at home and function. After about a month or so though, I kind of licked my wounds and felt like, “Wow, I’ve got to take advantage of this time.” And even if it’s just the loss of a commute, which wasn’t a huge thing in my life, but it gave me back fifteen to thirty minutes of a day. Maybe I can just get in the rhythm of writing. The writing helped me for a while. The creativity helped me get my mind off of everything that was weird in the world. Then I hit brakes again when—again, I’m African American, [I] live in Minnesota. A big event happened last year, and that—the social issues and the things that were going on there put a block again. It made it tough, and then I gravitated toward writing about it. It was my way of, I don’t know—I’m a believer of writing as a vehicle for catharsis, confession, change, and that’s what I started writing on for a while. But it is tiring to write about social issues. Tiring to write about racism. Eventually I moseyed back, and so I think the ebb and flow of how things went was much like any other time when you’re writing. It just was more focused because [you] felt the perception of more time at home. You almost felt the need that you should be productive and maybe even put that pressure on [yourself]. I resisted the temptation to write about the pandemic itself until mid-summer, and then it came out in a gush. I wrote, I don’t know, fifteen or so prose poems, a couple other poems—a few of them are getting published in what’s called Pine Hills Review. It’s online. [They’re] coming up soon; it’s just a series of prose poems that I melded into maybe a lyric essay that got into the stages of grief, if you will, from being here. I didn’t catch it, but knowing people who caught it, looking at the social issues within the lens of, “Should I go out and help people who are underprivileged who’ve been damaged by the riots? Should I got out and talk to other people? Why am I jumpy at my mailbox when my neighbor pops up behind me, walking their dog?” You know, whether you freaked out about the pandemic or not, I think there were some points [where] you were unnerved even by just the presence of evil. So, I delved into that a little bit. I think in the end, it’s been a lot similar to the ebbs and flow of probably most people’s writing, but I had the best of intentions, and I do feel like I should get, I don’t know, at least a hundred words on the page every day. I think I’ve held pretty tight to that, overall.

AL: That makes sense. Definitely, there was that period where we all, I think, set something aside. You know, we’ve got to think about what is actually—are we going to make it through this? There was that kind of crazy period. So then, once [you were] getting past that, you just sat down like, “Alright. I can use this.” That makes a lot of sense. Another question I have: what advice would you give to any aspiring writers? We are an undergraduate—well, we’re run by undergraduate students here at Carroll University, so I know we’ve got a lot of aspiring writers that are reading and hoping to get their work published someday. [How] would you advise anyone who’s looking to go into that?

AP: I’m a firm believer that we’re all rough drafts in need of a revision, so I feel weird giving anybody any advice on writing. I really do think that: just keep writing. Don’t get so wrapped up about quality or perfection. I think that when you look at life in general—it’s almost like sports. You have to do reps. You’re not going to become a great shooter unless you lock yourself in the gym and shoot a lot of free throws, for example. In the same way, I’ve written some really horrible poems to get to the ones that are worthwhile and publishable. I’ve written some very bad fiction with horrible endings just to get to one story that was—maybe it was only meaningful to me and a handful of people but was meaningful. So, I think keeping yourself together, making a practice of continuing to write, even if it’s, like I mentioned, a hundred words on a page. Just getting that down. Keep writing; a great idea is a wasted thought until you do something with it. I think also you need to look at possibly trying to find your best way, trying to find your biggest truth that you can. Get it down on paper, and then really look at it and really tell yourself, “Are you telling the truth or not?” and cut out the lies. I think people resonate with the truth, and a lot of times as writers, [we’re] always trying to play the angle [of], “How do I write this so I look good?” Or sometimes we leave things on the table: “Am I afraid to write this in the voice of somebody who isn’t me because I think somebody might look at me funny?” I recently fought that with—I wrote a poem about mansplaining and chauvinism, and I’m not a chauvinist by any way, shape, or form. But I had to be unafraid to take that voice, to really take that poem to where it needed to be, and I think that a lot of times we’ll leave things on the table. In fact, a lot of the poems that I read that inspire me to sit down and [write], I’ll read them and say, “Wow. They told a lot of the truth, but they left a little on the table that they really could’ve stuffed in here. I think really, that’s the key: write your truth at the moment. Maybe set it down and then come back to it; figure out, “Did I lie a little bit? Did I distort this to make this look better?” And then really get to that truth. It takes a bit of courage to write that way, to approach writing in that manner, but I think the results are there. You’ll feel better about pushing that as “you,” when you want to submit to journals or workshop with somebody. It comes off more genuine, and you’re not trying to pretend to be somebody else. I think a lot of us as writers—I’m guilty of it. You know, you would pick somebody like Terrence Hayes or plenty of [other] writers that have an amazing way of things, and you do your best imitation of them for a while. You’re trying to find your own voice; you’re thinking, “I really like how they say that.” And [early in] the process, those are great people. Am I going to go wrong by imitating Langston Hughes or Maya Angelou or any of these people? No, you’re probably not, but you’re still also not finding your voice. In the end, you can take bits and pieces of those people, by all means. Figure out what works, what doesn’t. But that second that you find your voice—which is sort of what I was describing when I was compiling the book Everything Wrong Feels Right—it’s finding your voice that’s really yours, even if it is depressing to some. Even if it is a little too overbearing. Find that [which] comes off authentic, and I think people really will gravitate to your writing as opposed to when you’re trying to be something that maybe you’re a little of but really isn’t you.

AL: That definitely makes sense. I like how you said that we’re all kind of rough drafts in process. I think that’s a really great way to look at not only writing, but our lives in general. We’re always learning; we’re always growing, right?

AP: Definitely.

AL: Alright. So, I only have one more question for you, and I want to end with asking [about] what projects you have in the works and talking about what the future holds for you as a writer.

AP: Yeah, thank you. I have a variety of poems and essays that are going to be coming out on online journals as well as written journals, printed journals. In particular, the project I was talking about that these poems come from [is] hopefully going to be a section of a book that I—I think I’m nearly to a point that maybe, obviously editing is a forever process. You come back to something, and you do just what I said, you think, “Hey, I left something on the table!” or “I was trying to use too cute of a metaphor when I needed to cut to the chase.” or “I need to polish that up a little bit.” But I think I’m pretty close to having a new manuscript that’s kind of maybe a mix of poetry, prose, lyric essays, stories—it’s definitely an odd duck. I also do have a manuscript of poems that is hopefully going to get—I’m not trying to jinx myself—it’s possibly going to get published next year. I’m working with somebody on [it], and again, it’s a little bit of a different—it’s probably more of my first style, if anything. More musical, if you will, and almost spoken word on paper. It’s definitely gravitated to that. I’ve just been trying to dabble and experiment. I think I’ve lived a lot of times, like I said, imitating a lot of writers. And who knows? I’ll probably still do that from here to there. When you’re amazed by writing, when you’re amazed by literature, it always does cause a spark. I think the real best writers—if you’re a creator yourself—spark you to creativity. It’s easy to say, “Oh my gosh, I want to write like this person,” and I sometimes sit down and do that. But then where does that take me? “Oh, okay, I can use these words together in this manner. For me it was five to ten years ago, just starting to use the prose poem as opposed to always using free verse or always using a sonnet or whatever you have. I really gravitated toward that. I’m really just trying to stop having as many limits because as much as I say I sit down and do things, you do have this preconceived notion that, “This is going to be a story,” “This is going to be a free verse poem” and just trying to explore things, trying to do things that are different. I’m hopefully going to keep—if the other manuscripts that I’m talking about have some success, I’m trying to grow in that. I’m also, here and there have been writing some self-help articles. Again, it sounds like a compete departure, but I think you can hear from my voice I’m a pretty driven person.

AL: Yeah.

AP: In the end, you can catch those things—a lot of the people that I manage at my work, they jokingly say I’m “Cheerleader Adrian” and no, I’m not running around with pompoms. But I almost say motivational things just as I’m talking. People say, “Why don’t you package that up? Why don’t you do that?” So, I’ll take a few of those, and I’ll write on that, so I’ve had a few self-help articles published. In the end, it’s about me finding ways to get those hundred to hundred-fifty words down every day. If it’s me writing on a great inspirational quote, and I write that paragraph, and I’ve kept that writing practice going, that’s all I’m trying to do is create streaks of me doing that writing. If I have a great project or idea, like I’m writing Midwestern poems or I’m writing poems about social justice, then by all means let that feed me. Obviously, if I have—you always have dreams of writing the great American novel, but it’s just never—I don’t think I got the attention span at this point. But if I ever did, you know, a project would always drive me, but if not, it’s just about getting those words on paper, seeing where it takes me, and hopefully it takes me somewhere that people reading it wasn’t to go, or are interested in going. Or maybe [they] didn’t think they wanted to go but get something out of it. It’s for me, but it’s for the world, too. That’s how I look at things.

AL: Absolutely. That’s awesome that you’re dabbling in so many different things. I certainly respect that. So, yeah. That is really all I have for you today. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me.

AP: Thank you.

AL: Our readers will love it, so I really appreciate it.

AP: Okay, thank you.

AL: Thank you so much.

Adrian S. Potter writes poetry and prose in Minnesota. He is the author of the poetry collection Everything Wrong Feels Right and the prose chapbook The Alter Ego Handbook. Some publication credits include North American Review, Obsidian, Jet Fuel Review, and Kansas City Voices. Visit him online at www.adrianspotter.com.

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