Moira Egan: An Interview With Serena Agusto-Cox

February 3, 2010

Poet Moira Egan, published in 32 Poems

Poet Moira Egan, published in 32 Poems

1. How would you introduce yourself to a crowded room eager to hang on your every word? Are you just a poet, what else should people know about you?

My father was a poet, so I guess I can say I was infused with the Muse through nature and nurture both. That didn’t make it any easier, and there have been years-long stretches when I didn’t even consider myself a poet, didn’t want to be a poet. But here I am.

And here means Rome, where I live with my husband, Damiano Abeni, who, when he is not being an epidemiologist, is (if I may say so) a very well respected translator of American poetry into Italian. He’s done books of poems by Mark Strand, Elizabeth Bishop, Charles Simic, C.K Williams, and many others, and now I am happy to say that he translates my work as well. In fact, now he and I also work as a team on translations, going in both directions, but mostly from English into Italian. Together we worked on Un mondo che non può essere migliore: Poesie scelte 1956-2007, a substantial selection of poems by John Ashbery, which just won a Special Prize from the Premio Napoli. We have several translation projects on the front and back burners, and next summer we will spend a month at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, translating the “Italian” poems of Charles Wright.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why? Also, do you believe that writing can be an equalizer to help humanity become more tolerant or collaborative? Why or why not?

I think it’s sad that poetry is so divided up into camps. That said, I’m kind of old-school myself: most of the poetry that I really love would be considered “written” poetry, since most of the people who wrote it are dead and not here to perform it anymore. But I also think that the sonic qualities of a poem are very important. One of the great pleasures for me is hearing a poet whose work I like who also happens to be a good reader of his/her poetry. Even some good poets are not-so-great readers, as we know, and the flip side of that coin is someone who gets up there and rocks and rolls around the stage and “sounds” good, but then when you look at the poem on the page, it’s not so interesting. Old-school talking again here, I like reading poems on the page, but I do pay attention to the sound, and sometimes I read them out loud to the cat just for fun.

Part B of this question is huge. I’ve spent many years as a teacher. One of the best jobs I’ve had (though it had some rough days) was teaching creative writing at a high school just outside of Baltimore. The student population was very heterogeneous. In creative writing class, all the socioeconomic, ethnic, etc etc groups were represented, and of course, in a writing workshop, you often write about and then have to “share” things that are personal, and quite important to you. In the class, the kids were able to hear stories from students whose backgrounds were completely different from their own, and each student was expected to (and did) treat everyone else with respect. It was a great thing to see people from very different “walks of life” appreciating and understanding what was going on with others not like them. This, to me, embodies a great deal of hope as to what writing can do.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?

They’re there in the poems.

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 have found books by Julia Cameron to be very helpful, especially The Artist’s Way. I’ve gone in and out of that “practice,” depending on what I’m doing (and how I’m doing), for – oh my gosh – 13 years now.

Like many writers, I do have a couple of Masters degrees that involved workshops, and I confess that I took workshops now and then when I lived in NYC. These days I don’t belong to any writing groups (I don’t even know of any in Rome, at least not any in English). There’s a funny little phrase out there in pedagogy land: to self-edit. I think that the ultimate goal of workshops and groups is for them not to be needed anymore, to be able to look at a line you’ve written and say, “Oh, that is not very good at all,” and then figure out how to fix it. “To self-edit.” Now, it’s great if you happen to have a good first reader (my husband is mine, for example, and one dear girlfriend to whom I send stuff) but if you don’t, you can become your own good first reader.

And I don’t mean to sound grinchy about workshops and groups: they can of course be very helpful, especially when you’re starting out. My grinchiness is probably a side-effect of having taught them for so many years. Basta! for me.

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 poets have an obligation to write the poems that they need to write. If a reader needs to go to the dictionary to look up a word, or to some other reference to figure out an allusion, then so be it. There’s nothing wrong with learning from literature.

If poetry is considered “inaccessible” by people who otherwise enjoy reading, that’s a different story, and it’s one that I fear goes back to a long history of teachers who were taught by teachers who were intimidated by poetry. I won’t name names (but if they’re reading this, I guess they know who they are) but some former colleagues of mine in an English department used to say things like “I hate poetry! I just don’t get it!” and “I hate drama! I hate teaching plays!” and they would say these things within earshot of students. OK, then, tell me again, why did you decide to teach English?

I’ve done a lot of work with teachers and teaching poetry. You don’t have to be a poet to be an effective teacher of poetry, not at all. You need to be able to break it down into meaningful elements in an affectionate way. After all, poetry is made up of the same parts as any other genre of writing: words (duh), sentences, figurative language, description, setting, character, plot, argument—things everyone is familiar with. Poems often include those “poetic” elements as well—rhyme, meter, repetition, traditional form—which make the language musical. Sometimes it is “right-brained” or elliptical—but it still bears meaning and makes sense, like any other set of sentences strung together (OK, I am not necessarily speaking about experimental or LANGUAGE poetry here). What’s so scary about sentences that come in blocks called stanzas and that sometimes have a regular sound pattern or a back-beat you can recognize?

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?

Speaking of back-beat, I absolutely cannot listen to music that has lyrics when I write. No way. Sometimes I listen to Bach, but mostly I am looking for silence, because I’m trying to make the music happen in my head.

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?

I just did a quick statistical survey of my ten closest friends (see what happens when you are married to an epidemiologist) and 7 out of 10 are writers. And the three who are not writers are among my oldest friends (I mean, my most long-term friends): high school- and college-era friends. So we can infer that the newer friends have tended to be writers, yes. But isn’t this what happens in any (to use the term loosely) “career path,” you end up meeting people in your field, who categorically share common interests, whom you meet up with and have fun with at common events and activities (in our case, readings and conferences, etc.)?

8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?

Living in the land of pasta, that’s a constant, uphill battle. I try to take a good long walk every day, and it’s true enough that crossing the street in Rome is an Extreme Sport: very aerobic, even if you didn’t mean it to be. I also enjoy yoga.

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?

Again, in Italy, food exists on a higher plane, so to list inspiring or favorite foods would take up many large chapters in a book I haven’t written yet. But I don’t think that there’s a direct correlation for me between a particular food and inspiration (though I do have poems that use grapefruit, chocolate, wine and coffee, respectively, as muses).

I also don’t think I get “writer’s block.” I’m either writing, or I’m not writing. During the writing times, which are exhilarating and kind of weird, I am distracted and everything seems to work itself into an image or a phrase or iambic pentameter. When I’m not writing, I think I act more like a “normal” person; I read a lot and listen to music and look at art, churches, buildings, nature. Then I start to “feel a poem coming on,” and I go back to distractamode.

10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.

My writing space is the western half of a room that I share with my husband, who gets the eastern half. I have the books I use the most on shelves to my right, including the 1959 vintage Roget’s Thesaurus that was my father’s. I have my Mac laptop on a DAVE stand from Ikea, and just to the left of that, I have an antique, school-child’s desk with the lid that opens to a compartment underneath. On the wall in front of me, I have a somewhat tongue-in-cheek display of photos that I call “My Husband and Certain American Poets,” and there are pictures of Damiano with Mark Strand, with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and with me (all poets whose work he has translated), and there’s a small print of a portrait painted by Minas Konsolas of my dear poet friend (he’s one of the ten included in the statistic above) Gary Blankenburg. I have a wooden statue of Saint Brigid that was carved by my grandfather, a Mama Brigitte voodoo doll that I bought in New Orleans, and a Lenox figurine of a black cat that was a gift from my mother and that was featured on top of our wedding cake, because Iris (our little black cat muse) couldn’t come over for the wedding. On the floor there is a kilim that I bought in Turkey, and on the back of the sofa is my grandmother’s old heathery-colored woolen throw from Ireland. Behind me on the wall are a Brigid’s cross from Ireland, a couple of those alter/niche things from Mexico that certainly look like the Day of the Dead, and various photos of Damiano and friends and me.

This is a very lovely space and I am grateful for it, but this past summer, I had the good fortune to be a fellow at the Civitella Ranieri Center in Umbria, Italy, and the wonderful people there put me up in the tower room. Yes, I was for six weeks a poet princess in a tower room. I looked out the windows onto the Umbrian hills and the town of Umbertide. The ceiling must have been 30 feet up. It’s an interesting feng shui sort of thing to work in a round room, and I wrote every day while I was there. In fact, my joke with myself (that is only funny because most of my writing was backed up) is that I wrote so much while I was there that I crashed my hard drive. But I’d be glad to go back to the tower room and crash another hard drive, any time.

11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?

I am a very superstitious poet, so I am not going to say what I am working on right now, but I can happily say that my chapbook, Bar Napkin Sonnets, has just been published by The Ledge (where it won the 2008 Chapbook Competition) and that SPIN, another full-length collection will be coming out from Entasis Press in spring 2010.

Here’s a poem from Moira Egan that appeared in 32 Poems:

Bar Napkin Sonnet #17

We pause in conversation and the air
around us stills. It feels as if a globe
of yellow light’s enveloped us, alone,
and everyone around has disappeared.
His callused hand is gentle in my hair.
He’s only twenty-five, yet somehow knows
to kiss me now: “It feels like we’re alone.”
(I halfway fall in love with him right there.)
He’s never been to Europe, so we drink
sangria made of white wine, brandy, pears
and apples. “It’s the sugar in the fruit
that gets you gone,” I tell him, as I think
tonight he’s going to travel. Then we share
an eau-de-vie, ephemeral as youth.

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