Andrew Kozma: An Interview With Serena M. Agusto-Cox

March 24, 2011

Poet Andrew Kozma

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?

Where is this crowd and how do I convince them to follow me around from reading to reading?

I’m a poet because that’s what I went to graduate school for and that what I have the most publications in, but I think of myself generally as a writer. I started writing seriously (i.e. regularly) in high school while in an English magnet school program. They had us write poems, stories, plays, essays, reviews, everything really that could be thrown under the term “writing” except for novels.

And that’s continued. In addition to poems, I have had stories, essays, plays, and reviews published. Plays of mine have been performed by small companies. Most recently I’ve been trying to get an agent for a Young Adult novel.

2. Do you see spoken word, performance, or written poetry as more powerful or powerful in different ways and why?

I seem them as powerful in different ways. Spoken word and performance poetry have more to do with the skill of the writer as a performer than they do with the power of the poetry itself. A brilliant performer can bring you to tears with your tax return. Because of this, it’s hard to tell from a performance whether the poetry stands on its own as poetry because the voice of the performer gets in the way. In addition, spoken word is crowd-oriented, meaning that your reaction is somewhat determined by the reactions of those around you. It’s a communal experience.

Written poetry, on the other hand, is intensely private. Even if you like the same poets and love the same books as another person, chances are that you are receiving different things from the poems, and that those things are different than what the writer intended. Text is like e-mail in this: the skill of the writer narrows the field of what the reader interprets, but it is still an interpretation.

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

General obsessions or writerly ones?

Generally, I’m obsessed with bad films (and generally interested in bad art of all kinds). I co-founded a bad movie club at my undergraduate school and have roped people into watching horrible films with me wherever I’ve moved. It’s sad, I suppose, that I’m always more interested in watching a bad movie than a good one (or, at least, one that is seen as “good” by the general populace). But people always want to watch what’s good. Where’s the love for the bad?

In writing, I find myself obsessed with extreme situations. An early poem of mine was inspired by nuns who “cut off their noses and lips to avoid violation.” More recently I’ve written about the Japanese Giant Hornet: a swarm of thirty can kill thirty thousand bees in a matter of hours.

More generally, I’m obsessed with form regardless of what genre I’m writing in. I try to treat everything I write as an experiment, pushing myself in a direction that I have yet to fully explore. In poetry, this means often writing in traditional forms, but also, more truthfully, that every poem I write inhabits a form even if it’s not immediately recognizable.

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 belong to a writing group now for working on novels, but this is relatively new to me. My default learning vehicle for writing has been the academic workshop from freshman year of high school to my last years of my Ph.D. It’s true that, now, I would have to say that I find my writing group more helpful than workshops, but the reason for that is because all the people involved are experienced writers, have workshop experience, and like each other’s work. The writing group is really only an evolution of the workshop for me. The first thing I learned about workshops is that you quickly have to determine whose comments are useful to you and to filter out the rest, essentially creating your own private writing group within the larger workshop context.

The writing books that I enjoyed most are Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter and Stephen King’s On Writing. I don’t really like reading straight how-to books on writing. Both of those books are more a symptom of the way I do like to approach learning about writing book-wise: criticism. King’s Danse Macabre. Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. James Blish’s Issues at Hand, and a Collections of essays by William Logan and Randall Jarrell.

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?

This idea always strikes me as a little odd, because as much as people may consider poetry elitist or inaccessible, poetry is also the one form of writing most people have written on their own and that most people believe they can write. It is probably the most democratic of genres. Journals are filled with poems of rage and pathos. Love poems are treasured not because of their art but because of their emotion. Poems written for elegies or for weddings have their verbal power reinforced by their context.

The reason, I think, that poetry continues to be seen as inaccessible is that the particular language and structure of poetry is purposefully acquired rather than naturally learned. What I mean is that once we learn to read, we are constantly bombarded with prose. Stories and novels make sense because they are, in general, little different than what we are reading every day. The language of poetry is generally at odds with normal speech, is unnatural in the way it plays with syntax and sound, and is much more accepting of language that stretches the limits of sense. The only real way to dispel the myth of poetry being inaccessible would be to include more exposure to poetry in schools and in popular culture.

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’m often inspired by music, but I don’t often listen to it while I’m writing. Or, to be more exact, I don’t listen to specific music. Most of the time I’m writing in a public space (see below) and so the music I’m listening to is determined by those who own the space. When I’m looking to get inspired, bands that’ll move me to write are The Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie, and Blue Öyster Cult.

When I was in high school I wrote a play in a weekend only listening to a single song of Enya’s on repeat. What was that song? Why Enya? How was I actually able to keep focused for that long? All these questions and more will fail to be answered.

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?

Sure, my friendships have changed because since I’ve been focusing on my writing I’ve been surrounded by writers. The very nature of graduate school means that most of the friends I’ve gained over the past ten years have been, in some way, related to writing.

But if the question you so slyly phrased actually means what I will now interpret it to mean, i.e. How have my friendships changed since I graduated from graduate school and tried to work on writing as full-time as possible? then here is my answer.

I think they have gotten worse. Or at least that’s my fear. So much of my social life – whether I go out and have said social life – is dependent on whether I feel like I get enough writing done during the day. In fact, part of the reason that most of my friends are and continue to be writing related is that friends can often only find me at a coffee shop, working, and those friends are often writers who stay there and work with me. Conversation is there, but it’s sidelined by the camaraderie of writing together.

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

By riding my bike to my preferred writing space, and making sure that writing space is outside of my house (see below).

I used to play soccer pretty regularly – and would love to again – but writing and thinking about writing has eaten up all my time. Well, that and my job is weekend-oriented, the same days I’d be playing soccer if I wasn’t earning a living instead.

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?

Coffee. And I don’t mean coffee in the sense that I need the caffeine to kickstart my heart or to keep me going – I drown my coffee in cream and sugar – it’s more that I like to have something hot at hand while writing. Drinking it (slowly) gives me something to do, and the heat from what I’m drinking makes me feel active. I think it has something to do with the fact that a hot beverage is a sort of clock. It only stays hot for so long.

Similar to the countdown inherent in a cooling cup of coffee, I use time to overcome writer’s block. When working, I’ll say that I have to write for a certain amount of time – when working on my novel it was two hours a day – and for that time I actually have to be writing. Yes, in theory, I could be staring at a blank screen for those two hours. In practice, if you set me in front of a computer and I have no other way to distract myself, I’ll begin stringing words together. Of course, whether those words will be coherent is anybody’s guess.

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

My current writing space is Inversion Coffee. It’s a coffee shop (as you might’ve already guessed) but it has a pretty high turnover of patrons and draws a lunch crowd during the week with food trucks in the parking lot.

I suppose you might wonder why those are desirable to me in a writing space. If you are so wondering, the answer is that I need to be distracted. If I’m not mildly distracted by other people, by things to see and noise to filter out, then I end up endlessly distracting myself. Although I’ve been able to do work at home in the past, it’s far more difficult for me then getting writing done while in a busy, noisy environment.

Ideally, I’d be working at a café rather than a coffee shop. There are two reasons for this. One is that a place that focuses on food is likely to be busier than a coffee shop, and therefore’ll give me more distractions for the eye and ear. The second reason is that restaurants are less likely to have wireless internet, thereby nipping another major distraction in the bud.

Lastly, my ideal writing space would have free coffee and food. Which means I’ll probably have to own the place.

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

Currently, I’m doing the Write 1 Sub 1 challenge where those involved write a story a week and submit a story a week (luckily, it doesn’t have to be the same story). Inspired by that, I started a similar thing with some poet friends, just writing a poem a week.

Outside of that I’m working on revising a novel I wrote a few years ago. It’s hard going since I find it nearly impossible to read what I’ve written if I think there are issues with it, and working my way back through this novel is like walking hip deep in snow. The good thing is that I find I like what I’ve written pretty well after I’ve reread it. Strangely, that hasn’t kept me from dreading what I still have yet to read and revise.

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

A Firm Belief in Unfettered Joy

Here is what I was going to tell you:
The Dalstroi orchestra played for them
as they approached over the ice
that had caught fast the ship
transporting the prisoners
through winter
to Magadan.

Here is what it was going to mean:
Even so, even here, even without knowledge.
There is joy in an attempt at joy by the Dalstroi
orchestra forced by the camp supervisors
to welcome with music those survivors
who saw the sun shining beneath the ice.

Here is the space between:
A siren carries itself across the city.
Against the pale grey sky, the dark branch.
The litter of dead petals on the church floor.
After the explosion, the absolute silence.
Snow becomes the icing on the earth.
Where the footprints stop, beauty lies untouched.

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