Dan Albergotti Interview

March 31, 2009

Dan Albergotti is the author of The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008), selected by Edward Hirsch as the winner of the 2007 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Shenandoah, The Southern Review, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals. In 2008, his poem “What They’re Doing” was selected for Pushcart Prize XXXIII: Best of the Small Presses. A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro and former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review, Albergotti currently teaches creative writing and literature courses and edits the online journal Waccamaw at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.

1. Do you think poets have an easier time getting published with higher credentials? Why or Why not? Also of your “hats,” which do you find most difficult to wear and why?

Over the years, I’ve occasionally heard this suspicion that having a good cover letter can get you “in” at magazines and presses. I just don’t buy it. Only the work matters to editors. And if a lot of people being published have degrees in creative writing, isn’t there a rival hypothesis to the idea that the degree “got them in”? Doesn’t it make sense that someone who committed two-to-four years of his of her life to study writing at a post-graduate level might just have developed abilities to the point that he or she is writing poems worthy of being published?

I do wear a lot of hats, and it’s difficult in the sense that it stretches my economy of time very thin. But I’m lucky in that every hat I wear—as writer, teacher, editor—is wonderful, so it’s hard to apply the word “difficult” to any of it. I’m blessed, really.

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 think it’s a real apples-and-oranges situation. Spoken-word and performance poetry can be really amazing, but it’s something in an entirely different realm of art. If you were to put it in the academy, you’d house it in the Department of Theatre and Performing Arts, not the Humanities and Fine Arts. I hope that doesn’t sound elitist—I mean no denigration of the former.

The words of the performance poet so often just cannot survive on the page (as most song lyrics can’t, separated from the music), and really, not even in the mouth of another person. It’s an act that’s reliant on the delivery of the performer, like stand-up comedy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but why would anyone want to compare it, especially on the grounds of relative merit, to the work of Philip Larkin, or Elizabeth Bishop, or Yusef Komunyakaa, or Brigit Pegeen Kelly? Completely different ballgame.

3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?
This will be my “J” response: Joy Division, Jack Gilbert, John Keats, Joss Whedon, Jeff Mangum (of Neutral Milk Hotel). I might be obsessed with the tenth letter of the alphabet.

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).

And here’s my “H” response: Jane Hirshfield (Nine Gates), Edward Hirsch (The Demon and the Angel), Robert Henri (The Art Spirit). These are all great books on the mysterious elements of art. I value these over any nuts-and-bolts guides. And of course, having completed the MFA and attending workshops at writers’ conferences, I do endorse the workshop experience. Writers should look for ways that they might join the larger conversation, be in contact with other people committed to the art. Establishing a community with like-minded souls is always good.

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?

In my previous answer, I endorsed developing a community with other poets. But there’s a danger there, as well, if you forget that other poets need not be the only audience for your poems. Poetry has become so “professionalized” that it’s tempting to see it as an isolated community. I would encourage poets to think of a more general reader, not just the one who will get the very subtle allusion to Berryman in line six. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include the Berryman allusion—just that the poem’s effect shouldn’t hinge entirely on the reader getting it. I hope I’m making my point here. In short, I think the development of a refined poetic community could tempt us to write poems that are essentially illustrations of our poetic knowledge and cleverness, and I think we should be very careful to resist that temptation. Poetry’s more important than that. It’s not a game, a contest, or a stage.

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 don’t really have any routines or playlists, but I love your question, and since you opened the door with your invitation of a “top five,” I will seize the opportunity to list my five favorite albums of all time, if for no other reason than to promote them to other people:

The Clash, London Calling
Radiohead, OK Computer
R.E.M., Murmur
Joy Division, Closer
Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane over the Sea

While these aren’t necessarily playing when I’m writing, they are all albums that I find inspiring. I remember that great moment at the 2008 Oscars when Glen Hansard, at the end of his acceptance speech for best original song, exhorted the millions watching to “Make art, make art, make art!” When I listen to these five albums, I want to make art in any way I can. And that’s always a good feeling.

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 have made many great and deep friendships with other writers over the last decade, and certainly my writer friends greatly outnumber those friends who do not write. But I don’t want that to imply that I’ve lost friends because of writing or that I seek out friendships only with other writers. I’ve just been blessed to meet many wonderful people who care as much about poetry as I do.

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

Well, your question implies that I’m fit and healthy, and I’m not sure I’d measure up to that judgment! But joking aside, I’m in reasonably good health, and I don’t think being a writer poses any greater challenge to my fitness than any other life would. I try to eat well and get regular exercise. How’s that for an answer? Maybe I should apply for poet laureate of the surgeon general’s office.

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?

There’s a great episode of The Simpsons where Dr. Hibbert refuses to put himself in danger because, he says, “I have too much to live for—I just discovered Thai food.” At times, I think I too could live for Phad Thai and Chicken Green Curry.

As far as combating “writer’s block” (just another name for self-doubt), I try to remind myself that the feeling of failure and insufficiency is a natural part of the process felt by everyone who does this. Alan Shapiro has a great essay called “Why Write?” in which he says that the gap between the writer you are and the writer you wish to be only widens as you improve, that as you get better at writing you also get better at imagining getting better yet. So frustration is natural, and greater frustration is probably the sign of progress! How’s that for “reverse psychology”?

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

There’s no one place I could name. I’ve written at desks, outdoors, on a computer, by hand, when I’ve carved out time specifically for writing, when I’ve bolted awake at 2:00 a.m. For me, there’s no set routine or location that I can count on. I’ll quote Hamlet here: “The readiness is all.” And I do try to be ready—always prepared with pen & paper wherever I may be, and always willing to stop everything else if something must be written. The ideal space is the space where the writing happens.

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

Lately I’ve been writing in form a good bit, which is something I haven’t done in a while (all the poems in The Boatloads are free verse). But I’ve been writing new free verse poems as well. I have a very general idea of the shape that my second full-length manuscript will take based on the kinds of poems I’ve been writing. I don’t have a systematic project to fill a collection, and I tend to avoid such thoughts of larger structures when writing poems. So I’m afraid I have little more detail to provide than “I’m writing poems.”

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