1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’ve never made much money and the cost of submitting to book contests was breaking me financially. Most book contests cost $20-30 to enter; and, in my experience, to win one, you have to enter many. I remember there was a first book contest I wanted to enter, but didn’t, because you couldn’t pay online with a credit card. I would have had to mail them a check and not know exactly when they would cash it, and I wasn’t sure I could carry the $20 balance in my account.
Eventually, I felt joy that my book had won a contest and was going to be published, but the first thing I felt was just a huge wave of relief that I would no longer have to spend hundreds of dollars a year submitting to contests.
In my first book, Earnest, Earnest? (Pitt Poetry Series, 2020), the speaker, Eleanor, writes postcards to her on-again-off-again lover, Earnest. While Earnest can be read literally as Eleanor’s lover, but he is best understood as another side of the poet’s self.
I invented Earnest because when I wrote poems that were not addressed to a man, readers complained that there was no “objective correlative” for the speaker’s feelings. A common reader response to my pre-Earnest poems was, Is this a break up poem? Some of these poems were break up poems, but most were not. In my experience, the end of a romance can break your heart, but this is not the most frequent cause of heartbreak in the world. I loved being a child, but I grew. I loved horseback riding, but I could not afford to continue. I loved living in Memphis, but I left. I believed I was helping make the world a better place when I was an environmental organizer and also when I was a radio reporter—and I loved those jobs—but I quit both to pursue my poetic ambition.
I knew the heartbreak I was writing about was more varied than just the end of a love affair, nonetheless I capitulated somewhat to that early reader feedback—I assigned parts of myself to Earnest and other parts to Eleanor, I entwined the two in an unhappy romantic relationship, then I watched the couple break up over and over. This method produced interactions between Earnest and Eleanor that are emotionally true: they feel like what it feels like to be inside my head. But it is not true that these feelings are usually caused by romantic turmoil. Moreover, it disappoints the feminist inside of me that I created a man (albeit a fictional one) to improve my poems.
I simply cannot continue with Earnest.
In Earnest, Earnest?, I made up half the manuscript—I did not invent images, all the images are things I have seen, but I did invent narratives to fit the images. So, for a little while, I’ve decided I will not make anything up—images, narrative, dialogue—it will all be literally true (to the best of my recollection), thus Earnest can never appear, because Earnest is not a real person, but a personification of parts of myself.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I don’t think I ever had a choice. Whatever I think I want to write, whatever I try to write, it always somehow turns into a poem. Or, more precisely, if my efforts turn into anything, they turn into poems.
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?
I worked on the “Earnest Postcards” that structure my manuscript on-and-off for 15 years. These poems started as “Dear Diary” poems, so instead of writing Dear Earnest, as she does now, the speaker wrote, Dear Diary. There was only one problem: No one believed she was talking to herself. If I feel something is a poem, then I will not give up on it. I will keep returning to it again and again trying to make it work. I’m very loyal that way.
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?
In my mind, I work on discrete pieces. But when I first began writing, early readers told me it was hard to tell where one poem ended and the next began. And, indeed, revised versions of many of those early poems, as well as poems I wrote more than ten years later, wound up in Earnest, Earnest?. So it seems that there was something cohesive there from the beginning, but early on that cohesive project wasn’t conscious, it was all instinct.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I very much write the way I speak—my poems are heightened speech, but speech nonetheless. And I used to be a radio reporter. Writing the way you talk is very much valued in that discipline as well. So, I like reading my work. I think reading a loud is the purest way I have of communicating my vision for each poem.
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?
The term “sentimental” is a landmine left on the poetic field during WWI (along with the accompanying Modernist movement), and it is the job of the contemporary poet to diffuse it. In The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell (1975) argues that WWI was an ironic war; and that this huge, incongruous, and cynical conflict shaped the work of the WWI solider-poets and T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Contemporary poets, however, “have adopted the anti-sentimentalist stance of our Modernist predecessors without completely apprehending their reason for it” (Prufer 2012, 80). Today, most poets writing in English live in far more comfortable circumstances than trench warfare and read far less sentimental poetry than did poets at the turn of the twentieth century, yet we are still hostile to sentimentality. Poets, critics, and scholars have suggested that the terms of this conflict need to change, but to uncritically embrace sentimentality risks reverting to a Victorian-era aesthetic. My response to this contemporary predicament is Earnest, Earnest?, a poetry collection that aims to be both sentimental and ironic not by turns, but simultaneously.
In Earnest, Earnest?, the speaker, Eleanor, writes postcards to her on-again-off-again lover, Earnest. The fact that her lover’s name is Earnest and that their relationship is fraught, raises questions of sincerity and irony, and whether both can be present at the same time; and this indeterminacy in poetic sentiment mirrors Eleanor’s ambivalent feelings for Earnest. As Eleanor writes in the book’s first “Earnest Postcard,”
I wanted to have you and be rid of you,
Dear Earnest. Like a postcard
inside an envelope, I wanted it both ways, but I wasn’t messing around.
While Earnest can be read literally as Eleanor’s lover, he is best understood as another side of the poet’s self. This is from the book’s ars poetica, “If Tony Hoagland Was Right,” a poem that is also part-elegy for Hoagland:
. . . Now my teacher
is dead. Cancer. Horrible suffering
and I invented Eleanor and Earnest
for some forgotten reason. They’re both
so lurid and despicable. All I know . . .
To read Earnest as both a literal figure and a personification of the poet’s love, pain, and terror adds difficulty to Earnest, Earnest? As Sarah Vap (2013) writes in End of the Sentimental Journey, the “opposite” of sentimental is difficult (19); and she continues to point out that “the question of ‘difficulty’ or ‘sentimentality’ in poetry is really . . . a gendered discussion. And perhaps it is also a discussion about monitoring what poets of certain identities can and can’t say” (25). In short, when a man writes about his heart or his children, he is brave and honest. When a woman writes about the same subjects, she is sentimental and cliché. But as Virginia Woolf famously observed, the mind is neither male nor female, it is androgynous. In Earnest, Earnest?, the same is true of the heart.
Fussell, Paul. 1975. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Prufer, Kevin. 2012. “Sentimentality, the Enemy?” Pleiades 32 (1): 77-80.
Vap, Sarah. 2013. End of the Sentimental Journey: a Mystery Poem. Las Cruces, New Mexico: Noemi Press.
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?
Experience may be complex, but life itself is a binary: you are either alive or dead, there is not much in between. And before the invention of writing, there was no way for the living to communicate with the dead (or for the dead to communicate with the living), thus Friedrich Kittler (1996) begins his march through “The History of Communication Media” at a grave:
The first manifestations of script are of course inscriptions. . . . Stone inscriptions named the deceased occupants of tombs. As signals in the absence of the source information, in other words through the decoupling of communication and interaction, inscriptions opened up . . . the possibility in principle of literature.
Another way of putting this is that the same technology (writing) that enables us to communicate with people who are not physically proximate (i.e. in the same physical location at the same time) also enables discourse with the dead. A gravestone is a way for the living to “talk” to the dead; or, at the very least, to ascertain their name, the location of their body, and their location in history (birth date and death date).
As well as people who are far way and people who are dead, writing also enables us to communicate with people who have not yet been born. The desire for this is very ancient. And I don’t believe it is ever going away.
Kittler, Freidrich. 1996. “The History of Communication Media.” Ctheory.net. July 30, 1996. https://journals.uvic.ca/index.php/ctheory/article/view/14325/5101.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Outside eyes and input are essential, but it is imperative that I only show early drafts to the right editors. I need to have pressure put on my work and to have questions asked of it, but to be useful, this interrogation must come from a place of respect for and excitement about what I’m doing. I show my early drafts to Tanya Grae, Dorsey Craft, and Alexa Doran, and their input has been invaluable.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
1) Every book of poetry needs to have an ars poetica that tells readers how to read the book.
2) If you can’t say in a few sentences what a book of poetry is about and what holds it together, then it’s not a book.
I didn’t believe either was true when I first heard them. I thought poetry was a wild thing and didn’t need an instruction manual or an elevator pitch. But very, very shortly after I wrote the ars poetica for Earnest, Earnest? and a five-sentence description, the book won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. Now I think this advice was right on the money.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
When I’m writing, I do it first thing in the morning when I’m fresh. Then I find that, as I’m going through my day, my mind returns over and over to the writing, so really I’m working on it all day. But if I don’t start in the morning, I won’t be able to work on it later on.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Kindergarten through eighth grade, I went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Open Elementary School (King Open for short) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The city has knocked the building down and rebuilt a new one in its place since, but when I went there, the school was this concrete building with tiny slits for windows. Looking back, I think the architectural style that best describes it is Brutalist. Once two girls were kidnapped from the school by their father. (He was in some sort of custody dispute with their mother.) The police found him, arrested him, and returned the girls; and the story made the nightly news. I remember watching it. The reporter was talking about how an arrest had been made and there was a tight shot of a building. I assumed this building was the jail the man was being held in, but as the camera panned slowly outward, I realized it wasn’t—it was my school.
Still, I loved the King Open school, wholeheartedly and unequivocally. There were trees outside and a wooden fence. In the spring, the trees bloomed and I could smell their flowers as I went in and out of the school. To me, that’s what hope—and home—smells like.
13 - 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?
The shapes of songs have often given me ideas for poems—Lauren Hill and Dessa have given me a lot of inspiration. I also get ideas just from being outside walking, running, and playing tennis. There’s something about physical exertion that helps my creative process.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’ve also spent a good amount of time thinking about the sonnet form. Owen and Gunn both use the form in ways I find compelling and original. Likewise, I really love Camille T. Dungy’s sonnets from What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. I don’t think I realized how versatile the sonnet was, or how much the form could hold, until I read Dungy’s book.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a murder mystery.
16 - 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 think I would have been a horseback riding instructor. For a long time, riding was all I cared about.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
For me, writing is compulsive. I don’t think it’s a choice. I don’t think I ever had a choice.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently finished Finna by Nate Marshall and thought it was terrific. I also recently finished and loved When You Learn the Alphabet by Kendra Allen—it’s this really beautiful and compelling blend of nonfiction and poetry.
I don’t have particularly highbrow taste in films, however. I thought Die Hard was a good movie. I’m also a big fan of James Bond movies. I recently watched Sputnik, a Russian horror film, and I enjoyed it.
19 - What are you currently working on?
As I said earlier, I resent Earnest. And it disappoints the feminist inside me that I created a man (albeit a fictional one) to improve my poems.
I simply cannot continue with Earnest.
So, I asked myself, What would be the opposite of Earnest, Earnest?, and the answer is Ass Poetica. For a little while, I’ve decided that I will not make anything up—images, narrative, dialogue—it will all be literally true (to the best of my recollection), thus Earnest can never appear, because Earnest is not a real person, but a personification of parts of myself.
The narrative of Ass Poetica is simple—the speaker, an undergraduate at Harvard, is attempting to become a poet, and she is simultaneously working as a stripper at a Boston club; and these two enterprises are not as dissimilar as she would like them to be. This happens to be my experience of my freshman year at Harvard, but if the poems work, I want them to work because they are poetry, not because they are nonfiction.