We’ve had the good fortune of having Serena Agusto-Cox conduct these interviews with our contributors. We now have a whole bunch of poet interviews available for your reading pleasure.
1. Not only are you a contributor to 32 Poems, you teach at National University’s MFA program, have published several poetry books, and volunteer on the editorial staff at Crab Creek Review. What “hat” do you find most difficult to wear and why?
I found out that despite years of resisting it, I actually adore teaching, especially teaching poetry, so I feel really lucky to be doing a little bit of graduate student teaching at National University. For me, writing and reading poetry can consume all my time, so it’s important to balance out the poetry work with paying freelance gigs and volunteering – I’ve been a volunteer in some capacity for local literary magazines for about ten years, first with Raven Chronicles, then The Seattle Review, then Silk Road (out of Pacific University) and now Crab Creek Review, which is run by some excellent editors that are also good friends. I really want to help them succeed. My hardest hat to wear is usually whatever I’m doing for money – it’s easy to get distracted by all that unpaid poetry work! I’ve been trying to do more freelance work that involves poetry – essays, interviews, articles, etc. – to kind of stave off that poetry-addict problem.
2. Could you explain your shift from an interest in biology as an undergrad to your current proclivity to literature and poetry today as an MFA graduate?
Well, I wanted to be a holistic doctor – a bit of a weird goal for someone back in 1991 — but I ended up getting sick so often while volunteering for various hospitals around campus that my doctor advised me that medicine might not be an ideal career for me. So my health problems led to me become a technical writer after getting my degree in biology, combining my love of writing and science/technology, then to life as a professional writer, editor, and manager for some big companies during the tech boom, and finally to getting back to one of my early dreams – writing poetry. As a kid my mother encouraged me to read and memorize poetry, and my fifth-grade teacher had me bring in new poems every day, to get me in the habit of writing and revising poetry. So I think I reverted to my early training in my late twenties, and ended up going back to school – first, for an MA at University of Cincinnati, then, some years later, for my low-res MFA at Pacific University. I was fascinated by the critical work at UC, where I found out about things like “feminism” and “intertextuality” but I have to say my experience at Pacific was much more liberating and, well, it was a lot of fun to focus on my own writing for two years.
I’m still very interested in environmental science, and things like the science of virology or medical botany. I still read a lot of academic science journals just for kicks. Science creeps into my poetry every once in a while.
3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?
Well, they vary over time. When I was writing Becoming the Villainess, I was reading all the comic books and feminist critiques of comic books I could get hold of, along with Andrew Lang’s “Fairy” books, Kelly Link and Ovid. When writing my second manuscript, currently called “She Returns to the Floating World,” I was obsessed with this writer, Hayao Kawai, who is a Jungian scholar and expert on Japanese religions, and I was reading a lot of manga and everything by the novelists Haruki Murakami and Osamu Dazai. Haruki Murakami’s book, After Dark, and Osamu Dazai’s Blue Bamboo, also got me interested again in re-examining of the Snow White and Rapunzel stories, so I ended up with a manuscript about them as well.
Also because of those two novelists, I started reading more Japanese history, and then I started reading more American history about the origins of the bombs dropped during World War II, which brought me back around to the history of my childhood home, Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Which is the subject of the current manuscript I’m working on. So, as you can see, one obsession really leads to another.
4. Most writers will read inspirational/how-to manuals, take workshops, or belong to writing groups. Did you subscribe to any of these aids and if so which did you find most helpful? Please feel free to name any “writing” books you enjoyed most (i.e. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott)
I really liked Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux’s The Poet’s Companion, and I’m sort of a poetics – and essays on writing in general – junkie – I have books of essays from writers like Margaret Atwood, A.S. Byatt, Alicia Ostriker…and I think I might own the entire University of Michigan series of essays by poets on poetry, but I’d have to call Open Books in Seattle to find out for sure.
I was in an excellent writing group for about eight years, and I really miss that now that I’m here in San Diego. The writers in the group were all really accomplished writers, they wrote nothing like each other, and provided excellent feedback.
I was also part of another group of writers that encouraged each other to send out work and did things like bring different journals for each other to read and talk about. I’m glad that group existed, because neither of my graduate school experiences shed much light on the business of actually publishing. Maybe some graduate school professors think of that kind of talk as degrading to the art, but for people just starting out, I think it’s definitely worthwhile having someone to talk to about “how to write a cover letter” and “what to do when I have sixty thematically-linked poems hanging around.”
I was in creative writing workshops at both University of Cincinnati and Pacific University, and I although I like providing feedback on other people’s work in a supportive setting (which, despite all the rumors, workshops can be, depending on who’s running them), I may not be a “workshop” person. I like working with other writers one-on-one – it seems more personal, more specific – both when I’m getting advice and when I’m the one giving it. One of the best benefits of the low-res program at Pacific was having one-on-one time with the writers you’re working with – and I got to work with great writers – Dorianne Laux, Pattiann Rogers, Marvin Bell, and Joseph Millar – and that was incredibly valuable and helpful to me. I might not ever have had those opportunities at an in-residency MFA program – you’re almost always working in a group dynamic there.
5. Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?
I think that people who consider poetry elitist or difficult just haven’t been exposed to enough poetry. People often encounter poetry once, in high school – and form their opinion for life – probably from a sample of high modernism or poetry written hundreds of years ago; no wonder they consider it difficult! In today’s poetry world, there are so many diverse forms and types of poetry, that there really is something for everyone. In my chapbook and first book, I worked consciously to write poetry that would be appealing and accessible to a contemporary high-school or college student – I thought poetry about superheroes and video game characters might be interesting to them. Of course, there are references to Greek and Roman mythology and 16th-century fairy tales in the book too, so I guess I couldn’t make it all too easy. I think I was using my little brother as my “ideal” reader – someone who is intelligent, who grew up playing on the computer, who was well-versed in popular culture, who was a reader, but might not pick up a book of poetry unless he liked the subject matter.
And, I should also say that when my little brother was 17 and a bit of a…hoodlum, I dragged him and some of his friends to a Louise Gluck reading – this was back when she was promoting Meadowlands. There we were in the back of the room, this bunch of teenage boys dressed in black and me. But they loved it. My brother still has her book. So you can never assume that you know what a reader might understand or enjoy. I believe we should trust readers more, not less.
I wouldn’t prescribe that all writers should try and be “accessible;” I actually like poetry that makes me work a little bit, hunting down references or making imaginative cognitive jumps. Every writer has to stay true to their own style.
6. When writing poetry, prose, essays, and other works do you listen to music, do you have a particular playlist for each genre you work in or does the playlist stay the same? What are the top 5 songs on that playlist? If you don’t listen to music while writing, do you have any other routines or habits?
Yes, I do listen to music when I write, depending on my mood and the mood of what I’m writing. I was writing about Japanese anime and folk tale figures for a while, and then I liked listening to Joe Hisaishi’s scores for Hayao Miyazaki’s films, or the J-pop group The Pillows. I like Aimee Mann, Nick Drake, old Liz Phair, and the occasional “angry rock music” like Tool’s “Aenima,” Veruca Salt or The Flobot’s “Handlebars.”
My top five right now are The Dandy Warhols’ “Bohemian Like You,” Martha Wainwright’s “Bloody Mother F***ing’ A**hole” (a very funny and endearing song if you haven’t heard it,) Spoon’s “The Way We Get By,” “The World at Large” by Modest Mouse, and “I’ve Had It” by Aimee Mann.
7. In terms of friendships, have your friendships changed since you began focusing on writing? Are there more writers among your friends or have your relationships remained the same?
Yes, I would say that since I left the corporate world to focus on writing and teaching, that I have made more friends who are writers. I think most people want to be around friends who share their interests. Otherwise, who will encourage you and understand what you’re talking about when you’re down about a rejection or the way a manuscript is coming together (or not?) I lucked into a great writing group when I lived near Seattle, and I still keep in touch with them now that I’m down in San Diego. And I like hanging out with fiction writers as well as other poets; fiction writers have different writing dilemmas and have so much more to gain and lose in publishing than poets – it’s like a different universe. I also like hanging out with visual artists; they tend to be weird in a good way, creatively stimulating. The artist who illustrated the cover of Becoming the Villainess – I didn’t know her at the time – Michaela Eaves, became a good friend, and because of her, I’ve discovered a whole world of pop-subversive art, galleries and magazines. I’ve also moved around a lot, as have most of my childhood friends; one lives in New York City, another is an ER doctor in Alaska…Moving forces you to make new friends all the time.
8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?
I sort of lost the genetic lottery – I was born with one kidney, a rare bleeding disorder and I have asthma, among other interesting problems, so I have to work a lot harder at staying healthy than most of my friends. That means more rest, being careful to take vitamins when flying, no fight clubs, that sort of thing. I try to eat a lot of organic fruit and vegetables, using more safe household and personal care products (few cleaning products are great for asthmatics) and I just try to stay on top of all my various problems as vigilantly as possible. I’m currently in physical therapy recovering from a broken foot and sprained hand, so that’s the extent of my fitness program right now!
9. Do you have any favorite foods or foods that you find keep you inspired? What are the ways in which you pump yourself up to keep writing and overcome writer’s block?
I don’t really run into writer’s block that often. It’s too many poems for me, not too few! I often don’t have the patience to go back and revise work I’ve done, I just abandon it and move on to the next thing.
I’m a big tea drinker – I probably moved a box of forty teas from Seattle to San Diego. Pretty shameful addiction, I know. Currently I’m in love with a flavor called “Orange Dulce” by Mighty Leaf – I like to have a cup of tea next to me at the computer at all times. If I have to finish a difficult freelance project or a book review I’m having trouble with, I often just park myself in front of the laptop and don’t move until I’m finished. If I’m hungry, I like to crunch on these freeze-dried fruits called “Just Apricots.”
10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.
I’d love a big beautiful old-fashioned wood desk (the kind that’s really hard to move) up against a wall filled with built-in bookshelves. No view though – views just distract me, I’ve found. The reality is, right now, I have a tiny little IKEA corner desk that barely holds my laptop and some papers. We live in a pretty small apartment, California real estate prices and everything, but someday I’d like to have my own room for an office again – I got spoiled by having my own room/office in nearly every other place we’ve lived. I sort of have to tack everything I need up around me on the wall – stamps, envelopes, reminders, correspondence – it’s not the most organized way to live. And I’m not that organized to begin with.
11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?
I’m working on finding a good home for two manuscripts, one on Japanese folk tales and anime characters, another called “Unexplained Fevers” about fairy tales trapped in sleep states – Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Rapunzel. And I’m working on yet another manuscript that focuses on the history of Oak Ridge, Tennessee and my own personal history growing up there: my father, a robotics scientist and professor, consulted for Oak Ridge National Labs while we lived there. It’s probably the most personal work I’ve written.
I’d also like to get more involved in the local poetry community here in San Diego. It’s not quite as diverse or lively as the poetry community in Seattle, but I want to be an active part of it in some way. Someday, when I have enough money and time, I’d like to start my own press.