Below is the first in a series of interviews with contributors to 32 Poems. One of the missions of 32 Poems is to share the work of those we publish. With this interview series, we invite you to learn more about the poets you read in 32 Poems and to discover a new favorite poet.
Serena M. Agusto-Cox conducted this interview with Andrea Hollander Budy in January 2009.
1. Not only are you a contributor to 32 Poems, but you also are a teacher and attend quite a number of conferences. What “hat” would you consider the most challenging to wear and why?
Yes, not only do I write, but guide others both as the Writer-in-Residence at Lyon College and, during the summers, at a variety of writers’ conferences. I also work one-on-one as a long-distance writing tutor (via the mail and telephone). But at all times I wear the same “hat,” because even when I teach others, I do so as a colleague who has enough experience with the craft of creating poems that I can provide insight into the process and help my students or tutees grow stronger as writers and revisers of their own work. Creating one’s own poems is indeed a continual challenge. But whether I am teaching others about this challenge or facing my own blank page, the important point is to enable myself and others to do the best work through continual devotion to doing the work in the first place.
2. Do you have any obsessions that you would like to share?
It’s the writing itself that reveals my deeper obsessions to me. If I am obsessed with anything, it’s with the process of writing itself, with the joy of making discoveries through writing, and with the pleasures of learning through reading the work of others, as well.
3. I noticed that much of your poetry has been categorized as conversational in tone. Do you believe that to be an accurate depiction. Why or why not? Has this always been the style you’ve used?
I have always tried to write as clearly as possible in language that is free of decoration. A poem is already by its nature a dense enterprise — relatively few words attempt to engage readers and provide a compelling experience — and while I don’t wish to write simplistic poems, I do want readers to easily enter a poem and to discover there something valuable not only the first time they read or hear it, but for them to want to enter the poem again and again and to be ushered more deeply into it each time.
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 do not have a degree in creative writing. I learned and continue to learn the craft of writing by studying powerful poems by others. If each such poem is a trick performed by a master magician, I, an aspiring or apprentice magician, must try to figure out how the magic works, and — because no master magician gives away secrets — I must discern this completely on my own. I have nothing against books about writing. When I teach poetry writing, I always include Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town and a good anthology of contemporary poems on the list of course texts. I believe that any tool that offers insight and/or saves a writer time is worthwhile.
5. A great deal of writing advice suggests that amateur writers focus on what they know or read the genre you plan to write. Does this advice hold true for you? How so (i.e. what authors do you read)?
Yes, beginning and continuing writers should read often and well. At present I read mostly twentieth and twenty-first century writers, not only poets but prose writers, as well. But since you asked for names, I must tell you that I just edited an anthology of contemporary poetry by American women entitled When She Named Fire (Autumn House Press, 2009), which was a huge project that took nearly two years of devoted effort. In the early months of this project I read hundreds of poetry collections. Thus, some of these authors now come first to mind: Ellen Bryant Voigt, Linda Hull, Lynne Knight, Linda Pastan, Cathy Smith Bowers, Jane Hirshfield, Claudia Emerson, Camille Dungy, and many others. From every writer in the anthology, in fact, there is much to be learned about the craft.
But in terms of subject matter, writers should avoid focusing only on what they know. Writing away from the self helps one to discover his or her sources.
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 write without any aural accompaniment whatsoever. In fact, I need silence. I believe a poem must create its own music through the language itself — its sounds, its textures, the rhythms of its phrasings — and external music would be a hindrance, especially because I revise aloud: with every alteration, I read the entire in-progress poem out loud.
My daily writing routine is to begin early in the morning whenever possible and to stay with a draft (i.e. revising) as long as possible.
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?
My husband and I live on 52 acres of woods in the Arkansas Ozark Mountains twenty minutes from the nearest town, which has a population of only 2,400 citizens. The nearest city, Little Rock, is two hours away. I know no other publishing writers any closer than that, in fact. The writer friends I do have, and there are quite a few, are in my physical company rarely. But we’re writers! We communicate through letters.
8. How do you stay fit and healthy as a writer?
If you mean fit and healthy as a writer, I continually practice my craft! If you mean fit and healthy as a person whose writing habit keeps her seated much of the time, I exercise my body with workouts in my living room. And I walk. And garden.
9. Do you have any favorite food 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 eat a generally healthy, well-balanced, mostly vegetarian diet and neither drink nor smoke. My husband, Todd, says of me: “You eat good food in moderation and great poetry in excess.” That’s about right!
Like my artist son who sketches daily, I spend part of every day playing with language by giving myself writing assignments. I don’t expect any of these assignments to become poems, but sometimes they do. And this is certainly one way to avoid any possible void of inspiration.
10. Please describe your writing space and how it would differ from your ideal writing space.
When my husband designed and built our house, he made me a fabulous study. I sit on a couch surrounded by windows on three sides. Across the room is a three-sided desk with plenty of surface space and, on one wing of the desk, my computer. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves fill two walls. This room is indeed an ideal writing space.
11. Are you working on any new projects that you would like to share with readers?
I’ll answer it in a couple of sentences: I am at work on a fourth full-length poetry collection and a book of personal essays. After spending so much time on the editing of When She Named Fire: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry by American Women, time which I am grateful to have spent, I’m enjoying focusing once again on my own work.
Born in Berlin, Germany, of American parents, raised in Colorado, Texas, New York, and New Jersey, and educated at Boston University and the University of Colorado, Andrea Hollander Budy is the author of three full-length poetry collections: Woman in the Painting, The Other Life, and House Without a Dreamer, which won the Nicholas Roerich Poetry Prize. Other honors include the D. H. Lawrence Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize for prose memoir, the Runes Poetry Award, two poetry fellowships the National Endowment for the Arts, and two from the Arkansas Arts Council. Most recently Budy received the 2008 Subiaco Award for Literary Merit for Excellence in the Writing and Teaching of Poetry.