A Conversation with Poet and Novelist Tasslyn Magnusson
Award winning Minnesota poet Tasslyn Magnusson recently took time out from her busy schedule to discuss writing, entering contests, and a very impressive 38% acceptance rate in 2018. If that weren’t enough, she was just nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Published since 1976, it is the most honored literary prize in America.
Kathryn Schleich: It sounds like you have always had the writing bug.
Tasslyn Magnusson: I’ve written stories and wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. When I was in 7th or 8th grade I won a city-wide contest run by KARE 11 TV. My parents made me go to the Children’s Theatre and people kept reading stories and poems by other kids. And then when I was sure my parents brought me for no possible reason, an actor walked onto the stage and read my story. It was weird and unsettling and exciting to hear my words coming out of someone else’s mouth.
I got off track for several years into other disciplines and jobs, but writing has always been my secret desire. I was lucky – and privileged – to have a spouse who is happy in their work and willing to hold the health insurance so I could give the writing life a more focused try.
I should note – lots of people work full-time and write. What I have is a real privilege – which is why I strongly support Medicare for All and universal basic income. I’ve experienced what it’s like to pursue my passion without the fear of going without healthcare and some income. Everybody should have that opportunity.
KS: You wrote a Facebook post in February 2019 on Acrostic Verse poetry, your current obsession. Describe what type of poetry that is.
TM: Acrostic poetry is a form of poetry where the left margin letters spell something out – a phrase or a name. And the rest of the poem continues normally line by line.
When kids first learn poetry, often they learn to write acrostics. Acrostics are a concrete example of the idea of verse for them to both hear and see, so you’ll see lots of name poems written by second and third graders.
KS: Interesting! What’s your favorite type of poetry? Do you have a favorite poem you’ve written?
TM: I like poetry that makes me sit up and take notice. Whether it’s unusual use of language, a manipulation of the white space on the page, a character, a story that makes me laugh – as long as I feel like I haven’t seen this before, I’m all in. As for a favorite poem I’ve written – not really. They all serve different needs. I’m grateful I get to put stuff on paper and that it feels good.
KS: You’ve won some major contests, with a 38% acceptance rate in 2018 alone. How long have you been entering and winning contests? What makes you so successful?
TM: I’ve been entering contests and submitting poems for publication for the past three years. My mentor, Ron Koertge, told me that’s what poets do: send their stuff into the world. I get plenty of “no’s” – but they don’t really bother me. I read for a literary journal – The Tishman Review – so I see the huge amount of submissions any one journal gets. It’s really about what speaks to the readers and editors and what catches their eye.
KS: Do you have a specific writing process that works for you?
TM: I do not. I know there are people who say, “write every day.” I don’t, and I don’t think it’s necessary. You write when you can. But I do get anxious if I haven’t written in a while – the words get backed up.
If I start the day in poetry, I try to stay there. It’s hard to switch back and forth from prose to poetry. However, if I’m feeling stuck, I often will choose a form to work in. Haiku is great. I find when I’m focusing on syllables or another structure, my mind begins to get unstuck.
I also move between working on the computer, working on printed pages, and writing by hand. If one isn’t working, I keep changing it up.
I discovered that for me, I’m a writer. And that means I write. I do it when and where and how I can because it makes me more me.
KS: Under the Current Project section of your website are two middle grade novels, Else and Joey, and Sophie and the Magic Journal. These cover some serious issues, especially Else and Joey with its story of a parent’s mental illness. How did you decide to write on these topics?
TM: The Else and Joey story comes out of my own personal experience. I suffer from anxiety and depression. At the time I started the story, I was coming off a very difficult period with both of those things. I wanted to write a story about kids dealing with their mother in the middle of a breakdown. Kids deal with hard stuff all the time. They don’t have the power to change their situation, but they often have very imaginative ways of dealing with the tension, trauma, and surviving.
Sophie and the Magic Journal came as a result of a nudge from a friend. She was tired of all the sad stories and wanted to see if I could write a magic story. I was kind of tired of the sad stories too. I thought I’d give it a shot. It’s a draft and needs a lot of work. It’s kind of stuck in the place a lot of kid stories get trapped. The protagonist isn’t solving their own problem. It’s being solved by someone or something else. Right now, Sophie’s problems are solved by her teacher. I need to dig and figure out what’s happening that she can solve it and put that on the page. One of my favorite things about kid lit is it shows how kids grapple with their worlds. How they have agency. How they make change.
KS: Are these novels to be published soon? If not, are you seeking agency representation or taking another publishing route?
TM: I would LOVE to have these novels published eventually. Right now, they are not in a shape to be sent out to seek representation. I have friends who have had a lot of success with self-publishing. I think that’s terrific. It really requires self-promotion and a skill at marketing that I don’t think I have right now. I’m enjoying revising my novels and sending out poetry.
KS: What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
TM: Don’t write for the market. Don’t write for a person. Write for yourself. Tell yourself stories. Imagine worlds that you want to inhabit.
Read. Read a lot. Read books by authors who aren’t like you, books that feature people not like you. Read your favorite book again. Reading makes you a better writer.
Do other things. Walk. Do collages. Paint. Draw. Do theater. We are beings who want to be creative in the world. These things will help. Sometimes the best writing is done when you’re not writing.
KS: What advice would you give to aspiring authors and poets?
TM: Trust your gut. Let your creativity guide you. Don’t be afraid.
KS: Thank you, Tasslyn, for sharing your story! And, congratulations on your Pushcart Prize nomination. Winners will be announced in May 2019. Best of luck!
To learn more about Tasslyn and her writing, visit www.tasslynmagnusson.com.