Natalie Shapero: An Interview With Serena M. Agusto-Cox

March 27, 2011

Poet Natalie Shapero

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?

I used to be more of a full-time poetry person than I am now – I wandered away somewhat to go to law school and spend summers at some great organizations that work on civil rights and poverty issues. I also make music occasionally, insofar as jumping and yelling may be, by some, considered singing.

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 tend to think every single poem is a heavy hitter in its own way (btw, I am trying to use more sports metaphors these days). That said, in moments of witnessing harshness, I can feel completely pessimistic about anyone being able to understand the interior life of anyone else. Other times I am like, NO WAY MAN EMPATHY IS REAL. I guess I’m still on the fence (is that a sports metaphor? I’m not sure).

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

When I lived in Columbus, Ohio, I was really taken with Open Line with Fred Andrle, this amazing call-in show on the local NPR affiliate, but Fred is retired now. This has allowed for the head-rearing of various other fascinations, including Wallace Shawn, trends in Wikipedia vandalism, and pocket Constitutions. I am also pretty interested in fashion – much to be obsessed with there, from eastern European street style as documented by college students in Krakow to the alarmist tabloid coverage of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt’s tomboy aesthetic.

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’m a workshop enthusiast, yeah. I would be a disaster if I hadn’t had the benefit of terrific workshops in college and my MFA program. I think the more minds working on something, the better. Just now I have been reading a lot of the HTMLGIANT blog, which I like as something that’s both for-real in love with writing and writers and also kind of over it.

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 am always unsure about the idea of poetry as elitist because it seems to be something a ton of people do in their at-home lives. In contrast to many other endeavors, it’s so easy to read a poem, or to start making one – you don’t need trendy technology or advanced degrees or movie star good looks. I always liked the Auden quote, “Writing poetry in the twentieth century A.D. is pretty much the same as it was in the twentieth century B.C.” I think everyone can be a poet, and so many people frequently are, albeit quietly.

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?

Music, yes! Usually it is sad music I know well enough that I’m not distracted by the lyrics, because they’re already sufficiently ingrained in me to sound more like low noise than words. Here are five good dorky songs:

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 don’t think art is possible without art-making and art-loving pals. I was lucky this year to go to AWP and can attest that the ones in my life are amazing – sunny (but not too sunny!) and stormy (but not too stormy!) and generous and generative and all of it.

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

If you believe the scientific studies that say lots of coffee is good for your health, then my answer to this question is “lots of coffee.” If you believe the studies that say lots of coffee is bad for you, then my answer to this question is, “look over there – a bird!” and then I jump out the window.

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 basically always eat bread and a half avocado for breakfast. I live above a little corner store and go downstairs to buy to the avocado every other morning (I eat the leftover half on the morning in between). It’s a good ritual. As for writer’s block, I think that, since going to law school, I have not really had it, but maybe instead the opposite – lots I want to write, but not the time.

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

Writing space is sweet but spare. My partner and I share a small apartment that can’t really accommodate the tide pools of books and papers that tend to surround a desk in its natural state. He has found smart ways of late to keep our place organized, but he’s also substantially taller than I am, and his strategy is to stack everything on high shelves. It makes the writing space more livable, but I also can’t really reach the shelves to pull down a particular book if I want it. I guess what I wish were different about my writing space is that I wish I were taller.

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

I have all these post-it notes up on the wall to remind me of poem ideas. I write a lot of them in the middle of the night, though, and then when I wake up the next day, I don’t know what they mean anymore. If anyone reading this has an inkling about what I was planning when I wrote, for example, “buying olives behind the counter / I thought YOUR SHORTNESS was an honorific; he said I HARDLY NOTICED YOUR SHORTNESS and I said I’M RIGHT HERE / + that part about living forever in a company town,” please contact me.

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

Implausible Travel Plans

He said, the water down there, it’s so clear

you can’t see jellyfish. That indicates

nothing, I said, and he said, I don’t care

is the hardest line to deliver in all of acting,

as though he knew of an acting laboratory

where researchers developed hardness scales

and spattered across them devastating fragments.

show me the steep and thorny way to heaven.

I liked to rehearse my Ophelia during blackouts,

the traditional time to make the worst mistakes

and, later, soften the story. Nothing working

but the gas stove. God, I felt so bad

that time we used the crock instead of the kettle

and watched it smoke and shatter. I was the one.

I was the one who wanted stupid tea.

–First appeared in FIELD.

Previous post:

Next post: