Andrea Defoe lives with her husband, three children and several pets on the Red Cliff Indian Reservation in Wisconsin. Her poems have appeared in various literary journals, most recently Margie, New American Writing, Now Culture and 32 Poems. In addition to writing, she enjoys drawing and painting, but is quite bad at both.
Serena Agusto-Cox conducted this interview with Andrea Defoe, who is a past contributor to 32 Poems. We hope, by offering these interviews, that you get to know the poet beyond the poem. Please read our past interviews.
1. You are a contributor to 32 Poems, but what else can you tell us about yourself and your writing life? What do you find difficult about your writing practices?
I’m a stay-at-home parent and presently work from a high traffic area of the house, sharing computer time with my husband and three kids. The most difficult aspect for me is finding time to write when there are few distractions (I choose the word “few,” as there are always some). Functioning as a writer with ADHD is challenging for me, as well — particularly when it comes to reading. I have a lot of books that I’ve begun to read, but relatively few that I’ve been able to finish. A great appeal of poetry is that I can pick up a volume of it, open to any page and read a while without that Ugh! Yet another thing I couldn’t finish…feeling.
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?
My greatest preference is to go somewhere quiet and be alone with a collection. I fixate heavily on individual lines and phrasings — often walking away, returning, and rereading several times before I finally feel ready to appreciate a poem as a whole package. When the poem is simply read to me in a straight stretch, I feel deprived of that — and at times it feels like an imposition, being told how to hear a poem. I’m of the mindset that a poem belongs to its reader. Having said that, some people give fabulous readings that truly do lend a strong voice to their work, so I can’t say this is how it is all of the time.
“Writing” is such an encompassing word. Even if it’s narrowed to mean simply “poetry” I do think the potential for impact is still huge. Elizabeth Alexander’s recent reading at President Obama’s inauguration springs most readily to my mind. The reading itself sapped the luster out of a good poem, but the discussion it inspired, the attention turned to poetry, were positive things.
3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?
I do have an incredible gray cat I call Sir Otter Von Klaus, but I prefer to keep him to myself.
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 live a fairly isolated life as a writer, so I’ve found the most help workshopping and joining discussions at a few of the online writing communities. I’ve been put off by the idea of reading any individual poet’s how-to manual. Although I’m interested in how others achieve the final result of a poem, I’m more receptive to the information when I hear it as “this is how I do it” rather than “this is how you should do it.”
The format of Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” will likely remain a favorite of mine, as it’s more of an accidental manual.
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 don’t know if I’d characterize it as an obligation, but I do feel that interest in poetry is at high risk for withering if there aren’t enough poets willing to reach out beyond their peer groups and draw others in — both as interested readers and potential poets. The worst thing poets could do, however, would be to alter their work to please a larger audience.
I have heard some criticism of collections like “Poetry 180” — edited by Billy Collins — that the accessible nature of these poems is pandering to an audience too lazy to delve into more difficult writing. I’m personally fond of the idea: a collection of modern poetry that introduces many of the major voices in a way that invites readers to enter without feeling overwhelmed as they might if they were to pick up a whole volume of, say, Louise Gluck, and try to connect. I think it’s important to recognize poetry as an acquired taste.
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 have music on most of the time . . . except when I’m writing. I honestly love music of all types — rap, metal, folk, and country — really almost anything. I draw much of my inspiration from song lyrics. A few that seem to get me excited every time I hear them:
Late John Garfield Blues, by John Prine
Time, by Tom Waits
9 Crimes, by Damien Rice
Margaret vs. Pauline, by Neko Case
Suzanne, by Leonard Cohen
But honestly, my biggest writing “habit” is trying to find something for my kids to do so I can concentrate. (They’re next door with my in-laws as I type this.)
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?
Writing is something I’ve always wanted to do, but I believe my friendships changed before I actually began to pursue it. The most important change for me was marrying someone who has very different goals from my own (he’s a nurse) but is very proud and supportive of what I want to do. Beyond the online communities — where I thrive most comfortably — it’s generally my husband who meets, and insists upon introducing me to, more of the local art community.
8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?
This is a question I’ve pondered for a couple of days, because it picks at the root of one of my problems. I simply don’t stay fit and healthy (i.e. regularly active) as a writer. This is something I have to work on.
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?
When things are going well, coffee and tea are wondrous. When they’re not going so well, nothing gets the uninhibited words flowing like an excess of brandy, vodka, wine . . . sometimes something good comes of it.
10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.
My ideal writing space would be a comfy room of my own with a desk, a huge couch, walls painted how I have my bedroom now (dark blue watery swirls with lots of glitter), good soundproofing, much access to music, plenty of room to pace, a toilet and a fridge. Maybe a microwave too. I think maybe I just described an efficiency-style apartment. Hmmm. Yes, that would be nice.
Right now I write in a very small dining room/computer room/library/kids’ playroom/cat feeding station/coat closet with a good view of the front yard. When the bears are too sleepy to raid our feeders, we put out seed and suet for the birds. The birds are as distracting as they are lovely. Stephen King recommends working without scenery; I think he may be right.
11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?
I’m trying to gather what I think is my strongest poetry into a collection. Details: aaaaaaaaargh!
Really, this has been such a pain. I’ve reshuffled, removed, replaced, renamed. I read a lot of collections where certain poems seem to be there just as filler. I try so hard to avoid this, but then find myself in the spot of including work that I don’t care for and others have praised . . . or work that I still believe in, in spite of multiple rejections. I have little doubt that this is how the “filler” phenomenon comes to be, but still suffer delusions of assembling something that actually pleases me.