Shira Dentz [photo credit: Ellen Maddick] is the author of three full-length books, black seeds on a white dish (Shearsman), door of thin skins (CavanKerry), and how do i net thee (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming, 2018), and two chapbooks, Leaf Weather (Shearsman), and FLOUNDERS (Essay Press). Her books have been reviewed in many venues including American Book Review, Rain Taxi, and Boston Review, and interviews with her have appeared in journals including Ploughshares, The Rumpus, and OmniVerse.
Her writing has appeared widely in journals including Poetry, The American Poetry Review, The Iowa Review, New American Writing, Entropy, Brooklyn Rail, and Western Humanities Review, and featured at The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, NPR, Poetry Daily, and Verse Daily. She is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets’ Prize, the Poetry Society of America’s Lyric Poem and Cecil Hemley Memorial Awards, Electronic Poetry Review’s Discovery Award, and Painted Bride Quarterly’s Poetry Prize.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers‘ Workshop, she has a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Utah. Shira was Drunken Boat‘s Reviews Editor from 2011-2016, and is now Special Features Editor at Tarpaulin Sky, and teaches creative writing at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. More about her writing can be found at shiradentz.com.
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?
I don’t know that the publication of my first book changed my life, except that I certainly was no longer eligible to submit to first book poetry contests. As Francis Picabia wrote, “our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.”
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I’m not sure that I came to poetry first, or even that it came to me first. When I was seven, I made a pact to try to be a writer, and when I became a teenager, I decided it was time to start work on this (even in my imagination there was a felt time for initiation?). My first piece happened to be a poem in response to a poem that I felt angry at in Seventeen magazine. This being said, most of my life I referred to myself as a writer, not a poet, as I didn’t really differentiate // there’s poetry in all genres. In fact, I practiced as a visual artist too and “artist” is a term that I still go back and forth with. Now that I write a lot of hybrid stuff, I say that I’m “mostly a poet”—go figure.
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?
No set time: small, medium, long, infinite. It can come quickly and done in one-go (not so-often). It can come piecemeal and extend over many years and still not reach closely enough to what I’m reaching after; these open-ended attempts have become a genre of poem in my mind. Nascent poems that arrive like imaginary friends when their triggers reappear.
Sometimes what I’m writing leads me to do some research which I love because I get to learn a lot of interesting things outside of what I’d otherwise encounter.
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?
A poem for me usually sprouts from a strong sensation or feeling, an image, a sudden connection that I find enigmatic that I’d like to probe further, or from free-writing. I always tell my students that writing happens when you’re writing even though it’s hard for me to practice what I preach (I tell them that too).
I think there are writers/artists who generally work from the “outside in” and ones who generally work “inside out,” and that I’m one who most often works from the inside out. Each approach comes with its own challenges, and I am an expert now at talking at about the challenges of having the “inside out” orientation. (The period is like a belly-button too, signifying the independence of phrase. Implicitly within a context.)
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Giving public readings, for me, are part of being a writer—it’s a way of giving voice to the lyrical component of one’s writing, one’s voice being a medium—and another way for others to access one’s art. I love to be invited to read HINT HINT, and especially love readings accompanied with an honorarium.
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?
Channeling Francis Picabia again, “our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.”
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?
To connect (fill the blank) __________________________
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Insightful articulate editors rock. Among my most instructive experiences with an editor was with Maria Anderson at Essay Press.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
From Jean Valentine—you have to be there (at your “writing desk”) in order to be there when it comes.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Easy, except from poetry to fiction and perhaps back again. (Wow, food for thought, maybe I have trouble moving to fiction because I’m afraid that if I do, I won’t be able to access writing poetry again. Thank you for this question!!) Why do some painters draw and sculpt, too? My art medium is language and I like to explore what I can do with it as much as I conceive possible.
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?
Depends on where I am and the nature of my employment. I do feel that having a writing routine is important to keep me flexed as a writer. My typical day begins with me wishing I hadn’t woken up so early and relishing not having to get out of bed yet.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Peer writing groups, readings, art exhibits (“art” is defined here as anything artistic: concerts, visual art, dance, etc.), nature, art residencies, setting a time to write and sticking with it even if what I write feels totally (for lack of a better word) uninspired. Try to remember what I tell my students, writing happens when you’re writing. Once I’m “in it,” the process takes over—
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
the smell in the air midway between summer and fall; essential oils like eucalyptus, lavender, and sage clary; chocolate gelato with chocolate chips; peace.
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, all of the above.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
So many I can’t list them otherwise an avalanche will bury us. Different ones at different periods and for different reasons.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Travel to a lot of places including Alaska and Vietnam. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
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?
Astronomer. Visual artist. Musician. Multi-media designer of the opening credits of films. Someone who’s very critical (in a smart way) once said that if I were a lawyer, they’d hire me. I think I would’ve been a very good lawyer if I hadn’t needed to be an artist, and I’d be rich, though I’d probably be a social advocate lawyer so not-so rich.
Also something to do with eyes. Eyes are suns.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
my brother’s death, childhood, the word “never”
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Dorothy Publishing Project, 2017). My Cousin Rachel, a 2017 film based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel.
Other recently experienced standouts: Planetary Noise: Selected Poetry of Erin Moure (Wesleyan, 2017), Certain Magical Acts; Alice Notley (Penguin, 2016); Monsters, Karen Brennan (Four Way Books, 2016); Dear Data, a collaboration between Giorgia Lup and Stefani Posavec (Princeton Architectural Press, 2016), In the Language of My Captor, Shane McCrae (Wesleyan, 2017). I Love Dick (Amazon Video, 2016). And Stephen Colbert’s opening monologues, like poetry, on The Late Show almost every night during the agonizing current and ongoing political nightmare in the U.S.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Writing whatever in order to find what I’m writing, peer writing group prompts, and a Dream Box centered around constructing a nontraditional sense of “home.”