Christopher Bakken discusses craft, writing, publication

By Arielle Lipset II Campus Life Editor

     Christopher Bakken is a writer unafraid to explore different parts of the world in addition to different genres. His book, Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures at the Greek Table recounts his travels to Greece and the traditions embedded in Greek culinary experience. Bakken visited F&M this past Thursday for a packed day including Common Hour, a craft talk in the Philadelphia Alumni Writer’s House, and a reading in the
evening.

     His craft talk in the Writer’s House involved students from higher-level creative writing classes taking on genres of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. While Bakken admittedly “doesn’t do fiction,” he had plenty to say from the perspective of a poet and a creative non-fiction writer.

     Bakken self-identifies as a poet. He detailed his first encounter with poetry at a bookstore, in which his teacher led him to the poetry shelf. He picked up William Carlos Williams’s Selected Poems and was enamored with its beauty and simplicity: “I was amazed how a poem could be just about the movements a cat makes as it climbs from a cupboard,” he explained.

     However, he noted that a work’s content alone may not sufficiently convey its meaning. “A poem deals with negative space,” Bakken said, “unlike other kinds of writing, it’s the blank space that means as much as the writing that speaks from the page.”

     At a young age, Bakken started to “arrange his words in these little patterns.” He didn’t even know that he was writing poetry until a teacher informed him. Prose, on the other hand, didn’t come as easily. He defines prose or non-poetry as “the art of addition.”

     For ages, Bakken said, he was “forced to write prose. This was the kind of writing [he] had to do.” His creative non-fiction journey began with his desire to travel. Bakken sought out a trip to Greece and proposed to a food-cooperative magazine that he would write an article on food in Greece. In turn, the magazine rejected his proposition, writing “you’re a poet…[we doubt] you can write a sentence.”

     Bakken wrote far more than a sentence. He crafted and published his culinary memoir detailing the eight factors of Greek cuisine: olives, bread, wine, fish, cheese, beans, meat, and honey. Alongside these elements, he drew on his experience and the people he encountered along the way.

     As a poet, Bakken’s prose is naturally lyrical. He has published two books of poetry, Goat Funeral and After GreeceAfter Greece is a poetic encounter covering all that he couldn’t or didn’t say with prose through his memoir. He returned back to Greece on multiple occasions and conducts a workshop there during the summers to teach a travel and food writing class.

     On publication, he said that many envisioned his manuscript as something else entirely. He encountered a publishing company that suggested he shift his writing style to embody an “Eat Pray Love for men.” He stuck with his gut and searched to find a publisher that would take his writing for what it was—anything but “Eat Pray Love.”

     Like any other successful author, Bakken explained that he needed an “elevator pitch” to push the publication of his memoir. He suggested that students consider how to best present their writing for means of sales. 

     For creative non-fiction, he said, “you must remain true to the topic. Of course, dialogue isn’t something easily remembered—unless you are journaling through all aspects of life.” He suggested that filling in the blanks is a process of scene and character develop that with practice, one must master.

     “Finding your truth,” he said, “is everything for what the writing will become.” He had the whole room laughing when he began talking about the struggle to write. He said he usually composes “roughly 40-50 drafts of any single poem.”

     “We all know how difficult writing can be,” Bakken said. The students shook their heads with understanding. Bakken said that becoming multi-genre was something that seemed to happen instantaneously.

    Bakken encouraged students to experiment with writing styles, as he has done. While he apologized for lack of further explanation, he insisted that finding the right place and time will provide opportunity for imaginative
beginnings.

Senior Arielle Lipset is Campus Life Editor. Her email is alipset@fandm.edu.

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