Danielle Sellers: An Interview With Serena M. Agusto-Cox

February 3, 2011

Poet Danielle Sellers; Copyright Chris Hayes

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 mother loves to tell the story of me, age 4 or 5, called up with the other children by the preacher at Old Stone Methodist church in Key West. When I arrived at the front of the church, all the other children were already seated, the preacher had begun his sermon, and I interrupted with a big wave and an overly-enthusiastic, “Hi, Kids!” So once that would happen, what people would most likely find out about me is that I’m a single mom to a very silly girl, much like the one about whom I just told you. I’m a foodie, and a lover of animals. I do rescue work when I can. I am spiritual, but not religious.

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 have never been moved by spoken or performance poetry, but perhaps I’m not attending the right events. I’m open to persuasion.

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

I’ve watched The Young and the Restless faithfully since I was a child. One of the many obsessions taught to me by my late maternal grandmother. That, and baking, and growing daylilies. Unfortunately, her obsession with cleaning and ironing never took.

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 been faithful to the workshop scene since college, but I find the readership of one or two close friends to be the best kind of intimate discussion. But it’s hard to find friends whose work you admire who aren’t insanely busy. I do have several good readers I’d like to keep in a brass bottle, to call on them whenever I wished. But then they’d be servants, not friends, and that would defeat the purpose.

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?

My poetry has been called accessible, but I don’t think it was meant as a compliment. I don’t think poets are obligated to dispel the myth of poetry. I do, however, think it’s a poet’s obligation to write their truths. This doesn’t mean a poet should be honest at all times, but he or she should write honestly.

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?

I only listen to music if I’m writing about music. Otherwise, I need silence, which is why writing with a toddler and a house full of animals is almost impossible. Even if the tot is asleep, a good train of thought can be easily broken by the shrill yip of a cocker spaniel. Writing in cafes or libraries doesn’t work for me either. I’m too easily distracted by goings-on.

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’m sad to say my friendships have changed. I still keep in touch with pals from high school and college, but my fellowship with other writers is more immediate. It’s important to feel as though someone “gets” you. When I was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins, we had a very small, intimate class, and most of us were about the same age. We are still very close. I also made good friends with my classmates in the MFA program at Ole Miss, and count them as some of the most important friendships of my life. Friendships have also been made at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which I’ve attended twice, once as a participant, and once as a scholar. Even for those who choose not to attend MFA programs, conferences like these are key to a writer’s development and socialization.

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

I quit exercising altogether. It frees up time for writing.

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?

First, I don’t believe in writer’s block. I think it’s a crutch. You’re either writing, or you’re not. And it’s ok if you’re not. If you’re a real writer, you will come back to it, eventually. I think it’s very important for a writer to spend time living life, soaking it in, and then to make sense of it in a poem later.

For me, food isn’t directly related to writing, though I have a lot of food in my poems. I always write on an empty stomach, just coffee and cream, first thing in the morning. When I get hungry, which is usually in the afternoon, I stop writing for the day.

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

My writing space is definitely not ideal. I don’t even have a desk at the moment, just the dining room table.

I visited my mother in Key West, my hometown, last summer. She was renting a charming little house with a large screened porch. I took a little desk out there and made a writing space. For several days I wrote, it was very hot, and sweat, even under a fan, but I wrote for eight hours straight every day, even when it rained. Astonished at what poured out of me.

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

I’m working on a second manuscript of poems, love poems, mostly, and anti-love poems. Poems about motherhood and domesticity. Like with my first book, the idea of place plays a strong role, though almost none of the poems take place in Key West, but rather at various locations in the south. The material is emotionally very difficult, which makes me a slow writer, but I’ll get there.

Thanks to Danielle for answering my questions. Please do check out a sample of her work below:

STRANGE-COUNTRIED MEN

My daughter, alive only twenty months,

climbs up to the World Market

polished oak table, to rearrange

my fall tribute of gourds and maize.

She takes a withered husk

in her mouth, new teeth gnaw

the dry texture. Her fingers

grip the technicolor kernels.

I think of our Cherokee ancestors,

Georgia and Mexico, who married

young and hungry, forced

from the lush Smokies to the bluffs

of Cooter, MO. On the other side,

Stonewall Jackson’s a distant cousin.

She has his blue eyes, stubborn

streak, and the aptitude to shoot.

Senator-talk moves through the house:

immigration cases on the rise, the need

for an electrified perimeter, protection

from the outside. Now, my daughter

flaps her arms like a turkey, feathered

boa slung across her human neck.

Her father volunteered to kill

Sunni and Shiite men in war.

I married him for his blue-collar

arms, nimble hands

and thick cock. He liked me tan,

soft-bellied, full with child.

In the desert, he wrote letters

home, the squat script promising

me daughters. He delivered one,

but does not love her well.

–previously published by Old Red Kimono

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