Examining the Erratic with Poet Barbara Orton: An Interview by Serena Agusto-Cox

February 24, 2009

Barbara Orton

1. What do you find most challenging about your writing practices and why? Would you have any advice to amateur poets?

Even though I’ve written for publication for 18 years, my writing practice is still erratic. I admire those writers who get up and write for an hour or two every morning, but I’ve never been one of them. In a productive year, I might finish ten or fifteen publishable poems; in a dry year, maybe one or two.

Right now, my biggest challenge is balancing my writing with my academic schedule. A year ago, I moved away from Washington, DC, where I worked as a freelance editor, to enroll in the PhD program in English at Tufts. I love being a graduate student, but it sucks away my time and energy in a way that editing never did.

My advice to a beginning poet would be to find or create an ongoing writing group, and to take classes whenever you can. The criticism, friendship, and support can be invaluable, and so can the regular deadlines.

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 don’t feel qualified to comment on spoken word or performance poetry, because my exposure to it has been limited, and, honestly, what I’ve encountered hasn’t been very much to my taste. I don’t mean to dismiss its value or interest to other people; I just don’t think I can make a judgment on its importance. I do enjoy reading my own poems out loud, though, and listening to other poets read their work.

I’d like to believe that writing can help people become more tolerant, and possibly more collaborative, but I don’t necessarily aspire to that in my own work. I just try to write good poems–emotionally powerful, formally successful, surprising. I love lyric poetry, but I don’t think it’s the genre I’d choose if I were trying to make the world a better place.

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

As I mentioned, I’m in graduate school right now, so I’m mainly obsessive about that. I’ve recently switched fields, from Victorian fiction to English Renaissance drama, so I have a lot of catching up to do. I’m also teaching freshman writing for the first time this year, which is both exciting and scary.

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 always write more and better when I’m in a workshop. Over the past few years, I’ve taken classes at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and I’m still in touch with the ongoing poetry group that developed out of one of those classes five years ago. I’ve also taken summer workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

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 try to write poetry that’s accessible and engaging, but I accept that written poetry is a minority taste–it’s not going to compete successfully with fiction, much less with film or television, as a form of popular entertainment. Although I’m sometimes baffled and irritated by poems that seem needlessly obscure, I would never suggest that poets have an obligation to make their work accessible to a mainstream public. Writers have every right to make their work as transparent or as opaque as they like–with the understanding that readers have an equal right to put the book down and read something else.

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 can’t listen to music while I’m writing–I’m too easily distracted! I don’t have many regular writing routines or habits, but I do find that daily or near-daily walks help me generate ideas and images for poems.

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’ve definitely made friends in my writing classes and workshops. One of the other students from my MFA program, whose writing career has been much more successful than mine, has been very kind in terms of promoting my work. I’ve also formed lasting friendships with members of my long-term writing group, which still meets in Bethesda, and with instructors and peers from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.

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

[Laugh] I don’t. I weigh 200 pounds! But I do walk a lot. Also, I do yoga two or three times a week, stock up on whole grains and vegetables, and write down everything I eat. But to be fit and healthy, I’d have to work a lot harder than that.

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?

If I can’t think what to write, I go for a walk and look for things to write about, or I do a formal exercise (e.g., a word list, a villanelle, an alphabet poem). Travel can work to jolt me out of a writer’s block, too, though it’s an expensive way to do it. Food doesn’t inspire me, but it can comfort me–oatmeal is a favorite.

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

I work in a very messy study, upstairs in a Victorian house on a hill. There’s a big old radiator, and two windows that rattle when the wind blows. Now and then my housemates come down the hall and say hello, or my cat pokes her nose in and meows to be fed. It would be a near-ideal space if it had an air conditioner, and if it were tidy enough that I could find things when I need them.

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

I’ve finished my first two book manuscripts, Stealing the Silver and What I Did Instead of Love, and I’m shopping them out to publishers. I haven’t written enough new poems to be sure what my next book’s themes will be. Over the past few years I’ve been writing more formal verse, and I expect that to continue, although I’m not a strict formalist–I like doodling around with traditional forms and stretching them out of shape. My last book, What I Did Instead of Love, was full of poems whose narrators are crazier, angrier, harder-drinking versions of myself. I enjoyed working with that kind of raw, edgy voice, but I imagine that my next collection may be a little gentler in tone.

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