Terri Witek: An Interview With Serena M. Agusto-Cox

April 11, 2011

Poet Terri Witek

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 prefer not to say anything “about” myself in such instances, especially if people really are hanging there (which is very kind of them). I’m deeply suspicious of the desire to ingratiate myself. I feel instantly tempted. Yet no one’s desires will be assuaged by any autobiographical material, no matter how sweet or how shocking it is. Oh good—I didn’t tell you/sell you/sellout. My resistance kicked in! Fortunately, the time between the two responses is shortening.

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 love ephemeral creations, and as I have been working with Brazilian new media artist Cyriaco Lopes since 2005, have become more and more enamored of doing things that disappear—words and images (he uses photographs and video), sound pieces. We did some ipod voice pieces for an installation and I loved that…watching people lean into the rooms to catch fragments, etc. Of course I still love words on the page. But I really like staging “events” with him where we switch out—it feels unexpected, even when I know what’s going to happen, as I do now with the day you left, a 50-minute piece we’ve done several times. Actually, I find collaboration deeply mysterious and satisfying. I make no larger claims for it except that it puts you right into someone else’s technical stuff in a way that seems pretty magic. Is this equalizing? More that to play together in the same space feels temporary and precious. Maybe world peace would feel just like this.

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

Well, I’m completely enthralled by museums, galleries, and contemporary art sites. I now go to Miami Art Basel every year. I have had some of my very best moments in the presence of great art—-sometimes even not great art that just catches me in a certain way. Fill in your own amazing experiences with such things here.

But mostly something just sorts of presents itself and then I follow it without trying to think too much. For example, last summer in Brazil I slept in a pouso in Ouro Preto where it turns out Elizabeth Bishop had stayed. I felt such a hit from that room I’m going back alone this year to try to write in the room. We’ll see what this is about—I have a few mini-stirrings, but am ignoring them, as it’s early days. But I have the plane ticket, and a folder that says “Ouro Preto.”

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 love writer’s workshops. Of course I teach them, which is a great joy—both at writers’ conferences (this summer at West Chester) and at Stetson, where I run the creative writing program. But I take them whenever I can—In the last two years I’ve been in workshops led by Terese Svoboda, Brenda Hillman, and Jericho Brown. I live 40 minutes from the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Always incredibly interesting. I about died in Terese’s—didn’t realize it was a fiction workshop. I’m the one who left the drunk on the sofa in the group story. But why stop being a student?

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 we have an obligation not to treat people like they are stupid. As a first year student once said to me after a Mark Strand reading: “okay, I don’t understand it but I get it”. Everybody “gets it.”

Can we dispel anxiety? Only by not-dumbing down. Reading only non-fiction prose (the bulk of our educational materials) may inspire a certain lack of confidence in newcomers, and I’ve taught a few undergrad classes which seemed to be poetry re-hab for smart students who’d been treated poorly elsewhere. But act like we all “get it” because at some level we do. No explanation. No apology. Last night in “Reading the Lyric” A firefighter had gotten her fire station friends (who likewise claimed to hate poetry) to find a sonnet for her online. It was about penguin/human parenting…she had us read this as a class to her 5-month old baby. Don’t tell me I couldn’t ask this class to read the Waste Land out loud without notes. Baby Samantha gets the Thunder lines.

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 listen to music in the car and in the cardio room—usually only playlist rule is that it has to be in Portuguese. But my husband Rusty made a playlist of R&B hits from the year of the Civil Rights Act (1964) that Cyriaco and I used in an installation, and that’s now completely internalized.

But not when I work—I get the rhythms mixed up. My husband works with music, so I hear it in the distance during the day and evening. But I write early—before 9am—so it’s bird cacaphonics for the most part. School busses. Trash pick-up. The girl who crosses the lawn to the bus stop talking to friends on her phone.

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?

Well, I really am grateful for my friends who are writers and artists —as Lynn Chandhok said of AWP 2011: some days it’s “one loving face after another.” I like that we are so spread out but close via facebook, etc—have been reading Lowell’s and Bishop’s correspondence, and it sounds so familiar….and yet what a job it was for them to get letters to each other! I love the casual way we can pick up again—and rejoice at each other’s successes or feel envy. I love when someone get us to really re-think, as in Claudia Rankine’s recent call. Clan recognition. A happy thing.

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

Well, I have become a strength-training addict and go to classes 4 times a week. I have walked on the beach with a friend several times a week since 1994. The early morning or late afternoon beaches are never far from my poetry—all the blue and gold musing.

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?

You sound like a gym rat yourself—and maybe a CSA member! Rusty is a great cook and as one or another of our kids is usually a vegetarian he’s very resourceful and skilled. Loves doing it, thanks goodness, as I’m impatient and inattentive (bad kitchen combo). Ost of our local friends are foodies so I just let them do it. My contribution is putting fruit in different colored Pyrex bowls

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

I have the best—big chair, light coming in over a shoulder from a wall of window, and Florida outside.

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

Alison Granucci and I are working on a collaboration from my new book, EXIT ISLAND, due out in 2012—she dances, I read. Pretty interesting so far. Cyriaco is designing an artist’s book version of this book, and I’m thrilled—he has amazing ideas. Plus we have a piece due this summer and maybe something else in the fall.

But poetically I’m in a start-up stage again. I’ve been writing a little under the heading “social art” too early to say what these are yet. Maybe the Bishop/Ouro stuff is connected—and the hits of 1964.

Thanks to Terri for answering my questions. Please check out a sample of her work from her 2012 publication, Exit Island:


q. Where am I?
a. Ale’m (Beyond)
q. What am I tripping over when I try to wake up?
a. Rock underwater
a. Rock awash at any stage of the tide

Given that one eye, the forgetting one, plays it close to the vest, stays small. Given that from here no mar with its fault line horizon, no broken tide of the mouth.

No greeting but green. Fanned (given) but no veil, no dingy velvet curtain yanked to burlesque in a banana hat, Tem Banana na Banda. The ship depends on frapping line, flares, buoys, subjected people. Today’s left eye, opening first, depends on palmetto, the understory, what can be eaten without collapsing into some telenovela loop of how the bus left Arlington without her. How the man said my puppy’s in the car. A palmetto, one or more handed, fibers by the brown millions curled at the base. Green motionless wavings. The lid palpitating a little–not in memory’s exhaustive enumerations (palmetto), not in surprised-in-sand lanterns (palmetto), but in green (verde, verdade) the truth.

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