Please read more interviews in our 32 Poems Magazine poet and poetry interview series.
1. Not only are you a contributor to 32 Poems, but you are also a composer and teacher. What “hat” do you find most difficult to wear and why?
And right now I’m a student too! I’ve gone back to school after six years away to pursue my PhD at Ohio University. I love it. Switching back and forth between learning and teaching isn’t as difficult as I had expected because I feel like I’m learning all the time. I feel my students really teach me. They constantly inspire me and surprise me. I learn from them, and I write for them, especially the high school students that I teach in the summer. I want to make them proud and write something they can believe in and relate to. As far as composing, at the moment, my music is very private. It’s still happening. I still write it. But it’s happening only for me. And that’s the hardest right now.
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 have been called a narrative poet, a lyric poet, and an academic poet, among other things. I don’t really know what I am. My readings are not spoken word, but they are performances. I was trained as an actor and singer, and I will entertain you. I will dress up and I will show up. I will make my voice musical. I will put on a show, and try my damnedest to make you feel something–hopefully, loved and alive. At the same time, I hope the words on the page make you feel that way too by themselves. A new friend texted me right after finishing my book last week. She said she was curled up in bed alone and the book was keeping her company. I hope my words make you feel less alone even when I’m not there, even–especially– when no one is there.
3. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?
I have so many! I am obsessed with the world. I can’t stop looking or noticing or wondering and feeling things. And they cycle through, like blinking your eyes very slowly. I have romantic ideas about the circus and show business I’ve nursed since a child. I’ve started to buy art–all right, just started; I have only two paintings! But they’re dark pastorals and I lose myself in them. I’m drawn to the deep mystery of the country. I’m fascinated with storytelling and ways of narrative, which presently has turned into an interest in fractured narrative, such as in the work of Jean Rhys. I’m reading her unfinished memoir now as well as a lot of magical realism. I’m a piano player who only listens to guitar: I mostly read prose. Living part time in the foothills of Appalachia as I do, right now I’m reading and thinking a lot about gardening. I have the land for it, and live in a community where that is important. I’m also hoping, after twenty years away, to start riding horses again. The last time I rode, I was thrown. It seems like time to walk on back over there and get on again.
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 did get an MFA in Writing, and I’m in a PhD program now, but the best writing workshops I had were unofficial or off record. Having informal, friendly conversations about the poems really shaped them and made them strong, grow tendrils and vines I never expected. I was fortunate to be a part of two workshops in the summer at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and during the school year in a “non-school” setting at Stanford University as a Wallace Stegner Fellow. Those experiences absolutely changed my writing life. Saved it even. And those workshop leaders were the best teachers I have ever had. But everyone you meet is a potential teacher. You never know who will touch you or your poems, will come back to you years later when you need their words. I’ve never been able to finish a self-help or writing book of any sort, although I have tried. I just had a tennis book recommended to me for what it says about concentration, that that can be applied to writing. Who knows? Maybe this one will stick!
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?
Absolutely! They’re just stories. Poems are just telling stories–often-shorter stories, often in a strange or unfamiliar form. I know many writers are shy–I am very shy–but I think we have to be there. We have to stand behind our words, and be there for readers, and yes, be a voice for writing and for poetry. We have to do readings, and why just readings? Why not talk shows? Why not put poetry books in bars and skate shops and record stores? That’s where the people I want to reach are, not behind a lectern–they’re in line for a midnight showing of a David Lynch movie. In the 1920’s, Edna St. Vincent Millay was as popular as a rock star. We are in such dire economic straits today. We’re slowing down. We’re taking time. I think people are ready to listen again.
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?
Actually, I don’t listen to music when I’m writing. I can’t; I start just copying the lyrics. I’ve had to move so many times, I have never been wedded to a writing habit or space. I’m pretty flexible. I do like things to be organized around me before I can concentrate. Cleaning is a great procrastinating tool! I like to have pictures of friends and family around. I’ve taped up pictures of land and hills and trees on my blank walls. I also seem to have picked up many stones over the years. It’s a habit, and I like to pick them up when I’m writing. Moving them back and forth between my hands, smoothing them seems to calm me.
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?
Some of my friends are writers, just because those are the people you run into at schools and readings, activities you do a lot. My husband is a writer. Some of my favorite friends are former writing students who have remained close over the years. But my oldest friends are just my friends–people I’ve known since junior high, people who have nothing to do with writing. And that’s really important to me. I don’t want to talk about writing all the time or even most of the time. I want to talk about what you’re doing. I want to know about your work and your family and your life. Love and history is what hold us together, not writing.
8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?
I’m a new fan of the Wii Fit! My college-age brother got one for Christmas, and my parents ending up buying each of my siblings one because they’re hilarious and imaginative. I also run a lot, run and walk but don’t listen to music. I think when I’m running. I think in the silence of running. I especially love to run into the deep country and in the deep dark ice of early morning winter, when there’s no one around but snow and birds. I’m definitely a winter runner.
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’m a bit of a foodie so I will certainly eat or at least try anything. French fries are a big, though unhealthy favorite, especially with mayo (my sister, who lives in London, is rolling her eyes right now). I drink a lot of water. I have a weakness for salted caramels. I don’t smoke or drink very much, and never when I’m writing. I feel like you need those brain cells! Why waste them? There have certainly been periods of my life when I didn’t write much, but I try always to remember what my mother said to me as a child. In our house, the kids were not allowed to be bored. She told us, “Is your imagination broken?” My mother is my hero.
10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.
My current writing space is wonderful. I write at an old Mission-style table with my piano beside me. There’s a fireplace in the corner. The only thing I would change is that the window is very high, too high for me to see the hills or the sunrise. In the movie version of the Michael Chabon book “Wonder Boys,” there’s a scene–the last scene–where Michael Douglas’s character is in his office working at his desk, and he looks down through the window overlooking the driveway. And it’s fall so there’s orange leaves everywhere, and there’s his wife and their baby getting out of the car, coming home. I would like it to be perpetually fall in my office because I love fall. I moved back from California in part because I missed fall. And I would like to be able to have a window where I can see my husband and his son coming home.
11. What current projects are you working on and would you like to share some details with the readers?
I am writing poetry constantly, but what some people may not know about me is that I am bi-genre, dirty as that sounds! I’m in school for Creative Nonfiction, and my current project, one I’m really excited about, is a novel aimed at high school readers. All I can tell you is what it shares with my poetry is attention to language, darkness, just plain strangeness—and a girl trying to get it down, trying to make sense of it all, trying to be believed.