Friday, August 14, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Rae Armantrout

Rae Armantrout’s [photo credit: Nancy Richards Wolfing] most recent book of poetry, Versed, was published in Jan., 2009. Next Life (Wesleyan, 2007), was chosen as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by The New York Times. Other recent books include Collected Prose (Singing Horse, 2007), Up to Speed (Wesleyan, 2004), The Pretext (Green Integer, 2001), and Veil: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2001). Her poems have been included in anthologies such as American Hybrid (Norton, 2009), Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology (1993), American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Language Meets the Lyric Tradition (Wesleyan, 2002), The Oxford Book of American Poetry (Oxford, 2006) and The Best American Poetry of 1988, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2008. Armantrout received an award in poetry from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in 2007 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. She is Professor of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, San Diego. Writing in Poetry magazine, Ange Milinko has said, "I would trade the bulk of contemporary anecdotal free verse for more incisive, chilling poetry like Armantrout’s."

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Your first book gives you a good way to introduce yourself to others. I see a pretty clear continuity between my early work and my current work. I think that along the way I became more aware of or more interested in the multiplicity of voices (tones?) that inhabit a poem and my poems became a bit more complex.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

My mother read both poetry and fiction to me when I was young. I think the rhythms of poetry got into my mind and body. I’m the kind of person who can’t help but move to music.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

That really varies. I often go through a lot of drafts and even versions I have to choose among. Then, on the other had, some poems fall out fully formed. That’s fun.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I work on individual poems always. But I’ve lately become more attuned to how they will form books. I think that’s because I have a regular publisher who wants a book by a certain date – so the book is a real thing in my mind. I will focus on a few poems among the ones I’ve written and decide that they set the tone for what will come. I can’t force that to really occur – but I can hold it in mind.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I usually enjoy doing readings. When I’m working on a poem, I read it aloud to myself. I’m always aware of the poem as sound and intonation.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I do almost always start with a sense of puzzlement. In that way (and only that way) I’m a bit like a scientist. I start with why is this happening or what does it mean that things are like so. Why do we (humans) do/think/feel this or that. The specific questions vary.

7 - What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I don’t like to be prescriptive. I think we read for the same reason we write – because our minds are restless and unsatisfied.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I’ve never had an editor who gave me advice. My editor is my publisher. She doesn’t try to
edit my work really.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Well, realize that people will never understand precisely what you mean. In fact, even you may not understand precisely what you mean – and it’s ok. Also, read widely.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

I’ve written some critical prose but I don’t much enjoy it. Only poetry gives me joy.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I carry a notebook with me and write down observations and ideas. In the morning, over coffee, I sit down with my notebook and see what’s there. If there’s something there, I work on it.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I like to read in different genres, physics, biology, economics, etc. I pick up strange interesting
language and ideas that way.

13 - Betty or Veronica or Archie or Reggie? Drive or fly (or sail)? Laptop or desktop?

Clearly Veronica! And I like road trips so I’ll say drive. Sadly, it’s still desktops for me.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I’ve already sort of answered this. Science is one inspiration for me. Also popular culture.
And, yes, nature, of course.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There are so many it’s hard to answer. I’ll just name a few. Emily Dickinson. William
Carlos Williams
, Robert Creeley, George Oppen, Lorine Niedecker, Ron Silliman, Lyn Hejinian, Fanny Howe, Rachel Loden, Bob Perelman. I could go on, but I won’t. There are some younger (than me) writers I admire too: Peter Gizzi, Ben Lerner, Catherine Wagner, Graham Foust, Katie Degentesh, Joe Massey, Kevin Davies – just to name a few.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Mainly, I want to keep writing! I guess I’d like to write longer poems. That has always been hard for me.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’m romantic about mathematicians. If I had the chops, I might have liked to have done that. Writing algorithms must be like writing poetry. But I don’t think I had the gift. I would have also loved to have been a musician.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I don’t know. I started very early – when I was in kindergarten. I guess it was a love of words and, as I said before, a sense of puzzlement.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last books of poems that blew me away were Kevin Davies’ The Golden Age of Paraphenalia and Rachel Loden’s Dick of the Dead. As for novels, the last great novel I read was Roberto Bolano’s 2666. And films? Nothing really recent. I like David Lynch, esp. Mulholland Drive and Guy Maddin – say My Winnipeg.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a book of poems called Money Shot. I have 58 pages done. I figure it will take me another year to finish – knock wood.

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