Laressa Dickey is a poet, dancer and bodyworker. In 2005, she received an MFA in creative writing, and during those studies she also began training in improvisation and working more particularly with the connection between poetry, the body, and movement. She is the author of several chapbooks including A Piece of Information About His Invisibility (MIEL Books) and a book of poems entitled Bottomland (Shearsman, UK).
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Bottomland is work from about 5 years ago, and some of it was written when I was first experimenting with things that have become more integrated into my practice and work now, so looking back on them is strange. On one hand, they feel like strangers to me, and on the other, if I squint, I can start to see the resemblance.
Did it change my life to publish my first book? I’m still in shock I think, to be honest. After developing and sending manuscripts around for 8 years, to suddenly see a book with my name on it—part of me doesn’t believe it. But the years gave me the discipline to just get on with it, writing and seeing and imagining, whether or not I have the validation of a book of my own. Nose to the grindstone or as a good friend says, “Treasure in heaven, bitches.”
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I read lots of stories as a child and grew up around really good storytellers. At a certain point, I was saving my allowance to go to the only bookstore near our community (about 40 minutes away by car) and would only buy books from the “classics” section. I never wrote stories though, never felt compelled to create from what I was reading. But when I was 10, my mother gave me a beautiful copy of a selection of Emily Dickinson’s poems. The cover was sky blue velvety-material and I loved to touch it. I remember reading her poems and connecting deeply to some of the images and sensitivities: I’m nobody (of course), I heard a fly buzz (flies all over the cow shit in the field), A narrow fellow in the grass (copperheads, rattlers, black racers, etc) and then felt the compulsion to mimic the poems, so I wrote short lined quatrains about family or animals or God or death mostly.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially 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?
What I’ve noticed is that perhaps it is form that affects the speed of a project for me. If I write prose poems, they can come fairly quickly because there is something about that form that feels familiar to me and is like a water hose full of observation/dialogue/texture. Other projects take longer because they are hybrid forms and I feel more insecure about them—I have about 3 manuscripts at various stages of development. I’ve accepted that one of them will be a slow accumulation over time. How do I know that? No idea. Because they don’t spill out, and I have a hunch that the focus is something I have to learn slowly. Some things come out as they will be and others sit as notes for a long time until I can bear to assemble them. It’s a dance for me, relating to form but also material that I feel ready to deal with.
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?
Well, with short pieces that connect to each other and then get connected to a longer, larger project. I don’t produce many individual poems with titles; I started dropping titles a few years ago and that gave me some opening to allow the poem to continue after a brief pause (new page or space). I like the effect of this and the sense of accumulation it offered. I have trouble trusting endings and wondered how I could keep the momentum going. It’s this practice that has me feeling the “book-liness” of something, not from the beginning, but early on. Or at least the “long poem-ness” of a project.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Public readings haven’t been so much a part of the process for me, but lately I have been doing more to support Bottomland. I find readings difficult anyway—I have a hard time being still for so long listening. My ideal reading to attend would be one in which I could pace or improvise in the back of the room—and it wouldn’t offend anyone.
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?
something about space. memory. moving energy. resonance and tuning. something about time.
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 know; I might be naive. Pulse? Soul? Sayer of what/who is unnoticed? Unheard? Face-slapper? Lover of the world and its tiny details? I feel so much sadness about the invisibility of poets in some cultures, certainly in the US, but also buoyed by what I learn about places like Nicaragua or Iran where poetry has an implicit and essential place in the culture and its history, and it IS JUST SO. In Nicaragua, the saying goes, everyone is a poet until proven otherwise. Every Iranian I have ever met has passages of Hafez memorized and can often quote these together, if inspired at family gatherings or social events. In some places, the poet’s role is the bringer of the mystery and magic of life—but it’s sometimes hard to see what’s mysterious or magical about life under the oppression of capitalism. It takes a different kind of seeing and hearing. Listening under the tone, under the pulse. That’s my feeling.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
In grad school I was given advice by a mentor, which I allowed to wound me—I took it to heart and thought I was a bad poet. He said, well, you start strong [in your poems], but then you fizzle. I was crushed. I stopped giving this mentor work. A few years later, with a different poet/mentor, I told them about this—that the mentor said I started strong but then I fizzled, and this person looked at me and said, I think that sounds like a beautiful movement! It changed everything for me—this reframing—that I could take an impulse I was already making and see something beautiful in it. It made me really start to question endings. Mine, everyone’s. Why did they need to be strong? What/who does that reflect? It led me to the series and long poems. Like, well alright then, I’ll just fizzle and see how long it lasts.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose to dance)? What do you see as the appeal?
I don’t write critically at the moment; maybe that’s a mortal failure. But I’m engaged in dance improvisation and training and have been intensively for quite a few years. It’s been happening alongside my poetic practice and informs much of what/how I write and think, how I feel in the world. I used to worry a lot more about jumping between genres—like come on, are you a poet or a dancer, in a very loud and berating voice. But after becoming exhausted by that, I realized that they actually feed each other, and it has become easier to flow between them and to recognize in myself when I have the assembling mind for poetry or the assembling mind for improvisation.
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?
Meditation on waking, short set of yoga, taking notes on my dreams (if any), tea, breakfast. If I can sit still, I like to write in the morning, but I can only do this lately if I’ve done some physical activity first. I have cycles of routines. Maybe they are tied to seasons. I prefer to keep my mornings loose and open if I can for thinking/writing/reading. I do more editing and freelance work in the afternoons/evening. In the winter, I can sit and write and think for longer periods. In the spring/summer, I go for more walks or sit in a café now and again to take notes or edit projects.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Walking. Cooking. Re-potting plants. Cleaning the floors. Improvising. Because inspiration for me is also about clarity in the self and about being able to listen deeply—sometimes this is by reading (something like Virginia Woolf’s diaries or novels) but sometimes it helps for me to just clean something.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cut grass, cow dung, the smell right before rain.
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?
Yes, dance improvisation (watching and moving). I learn so much about space, time, mind and choice (among other things) from this practice. Also, nature. Most of Bottomland was written during two writing residencies in nature: two weeks writing and staring at Lake Superior and another chunk of time writing and staring at a frozen lake in Northern Minnesota.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Paul Celan, Fanny Howe, Lyn Hejinian, Wang Ping, Etel Adnan, Virginia Woolf, HD, Wendell Berry, Laynie Browne. Also the writing (any form) of Eireann Lorsung, Rachel Moritz, and Stephanie N. Johnson—their practices/processes/friendship as well as their books have meant a lot to me.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
A few things: buy land, grow a garden and plant trees; travel to Iran; write a novel; make a dance film; make collaborations with some of the amazing people I have met.
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 wanted to be a doctor but freaked out and quit those studies after failing microbiology. I was drawn to helping others and to studying the body, but I learned that I couldn’t conceptualize well something I couldn’t see/touch/hear, so I threw the baby out with the bathwater. I do think I would’ve made a good observer/researcher.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country. Also Seventeen Syllables by Hisaye Yamamoto. Also Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.
I loved The Scent of Green Papaya, from Tran Anh Hung.
20 - What are you currently working on?
A 3-volume trilogy called Twang.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;