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Derek Sheffield Interviewed by
Write on the River


WOTR: What is your motivation/inspiration for your type of writing/the ‘how to’ of what you do?

Sheffield: I write because one can only watch so much reality television. I write because no other activity engages me as completely as writing. I enjoy the act of creation. It’s thrilling. It’s catching fish in the deepest waters we know. Inspiration comes from my life, from events, ideas, images that happen to touch me intellectually and emotionally. I write because I love language; I love the physicality of words. Say, aloud, “salubrious.” Now say, “quark.” That’s what I’m jawing about. I write because who would let this one amazing life go by unexamined?

WOTR: What kind of feedback do you receive from your audience/readers?

Sheffield: I belong to two writing groups. These writer friends, combined with others I correspond with, are my earliest and most consistent readers. Beyond them, there is the occasional enthusiasm of an editor who accepts my work and nominates it for some award or something. Rarely do I receive feedback from an audience outside of friends and editors. That’s poetry, when you’re a small fry at least. I think it may be different for prose writers.

WOTR: What has been your path toward publishing?

Sheffield: I first started sending out work in high school. I had a poetry teacher who changed my life. He taught poetry the way a coach teaches baseball. He got us sending out our work to little magazines and particularly the Washington Poets Association annual contest, which is still going on.

Since then I’ve published over a hundred poems in journals and magazines, one book of poetry, and one book of nonfiction. I’m finishing a second book of poetry now and circulating it among publishers. Only a couple nibbles so far.

It would be a pretty shallow reason to write, solely to publish, and I don’t know anyone who fits that bill. Publishing is a nice confirmation. It is a way to reach readers. Even if you never hear from those readers, your poem may have reached them somehow, given them pleasure, changed them. Stranger things have happened.

WOTR: Do you have any other statements to make regarding the writing experience, knowing your audience is other writers?

Sheffield: The tail end of your question is exactly it. No matter how accessible a poet you are (and I’m one such), ninety-nine percent of your readers are going to be other writers. That’s an important fact to be aware of, especially if you’re going to seek publication. All the more reason to steer clear of cliché, and to steer toward surprise.