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Winner of the Marica and Jan Vilcek Prize for Poetry, 2010
Selected by Tony Hoagland
What is your biggest challenge as a writer?
I feel that one of my biggest challenges is growth. It is easy when you reach a point where you know what “works” in your writing and what doesn’t, but I think that it’s also important to continue to push yourself—stylistically, thematically—explore new boundaries and voices. My other biggest challenge is, I think like so many other writers, time. I began teaching two years and a half years ago and haven’t had much of a breather since. I plan out my writing time now with a calendar as geeky as that sounds. It’s really the only way I can force myself into some semblance of a writing life.
Do you structure your writing before you write, or do you begin by writing freely?
I’m incredibly type-A, much more so than I’d like to admit, so structure is very important to me. I have files of research that I’ve done, poem titles, notes, possible epigraphs I’d like to use, so I always go to those first. That being said, when I sit down on the days that I write, I don’t always, and actually almost rarely know what I’m going to write about. I usually scan through those files, old articles I’ve saved over the years, photographs, etc. and see if something resonates. I’m a strong believer in the psychology behind writing and I think that whenever I come across something (in the files) and my mind latches on to it, it’s for a reason, unconsciously or not. In a way, I suppose, I’m a structured-unstructured writer.
What writers have inspired you? What are you currently reading?
So many writers seem to inspire me, but if I have to narrow it down I would say that I always return to the work of Nick Flynn, Katie Ford, Lucie Brock-Broido, Carole Maso, and Sophie Cabot Black. I’m always reading many books at once and right now is no different: Claudia Rankine’s Nothing in Nature is Private, Breach by Nicole Cooley, Beyond Katrina by Natasha Trethewey, Tongue by Rachel Contreni-Flynn, and Kazuo Ishiguro's amazing, creepy novel, Never Let Me Go.
What inspired you to write “The Thundering”?
“The Thundering” was something that sat inside me for about a year and a half before I wrote it. It’s about the suicide of Liam Rector, who directed the Writing Seminars at Bennington College. He died a year after I began the program and I was just stunned and in a daze about it, as I think we all were. I’ve read so many terrible “suicide” poems that all seem to be along the lines of “Oh, I miss you” or “Why did you do this?” and I didn’t want to do that. In fact, I never thought I would write this poem at all, but it happened during one of those rare moments where I was going about mundane tasks when the poem began writing in my head and soon after, there it was.
How did you decide on the format of the poem?
I’ve very much invested in the architecture of a poem—I think it’s an essential element of a poem’s final arrival. So many times I see poems that are tercets or quatrains after tercets and quatrains, and I think that can be fine, yes, but maybe a bit expected (the same with the couplet, although I must admit I love my couplet). I wanted this poem to mirror in some way the physical/psychic body pulling away from the moment of the dramatic situation. I wanted these strange breaks and white space to give room for breath and thought.
Your poems in the BLR dealt with illness and death, subjects that can tip into the melodramatic or overly sentimental. How do you avoid melodrama in your writing?
I try to do two things when I write about such subjects: focus on the “music” of the poem and stick to the facts. Jericho Brown, a former poetry instructor of mine when I was an undergrad at the University of Houston, gave me the best advice: “just say what you want to say.” I think that if a poet strips down the narrative to only what is essential and doesn’t crowd the dramatic situation with an over-abundance of “flourish,” then the melodrama can be avoided. Poems that deal in some way with tragedy will carry themselves by the sheer power of what is being told. The poet doesn’t—shouldn’t—try to force the reader to feel emotion by being over-the-top or sentimental. If the writing is clear, if the narrative (however fractured) is approached in a unique way, the rest will fall into place.
Are these poems part of a larger work?
They are both (“The Thundering” and “The Bottom Drawer”) included in my forthcoming book, The Glass Crib, which was chosen by Rigoberto González as the winner of the 2010 Zone 3 Press First Book Award for Poetry. The book will be out sometime next year.