Anna Vitale is a poet, a writer, and host of the freeform radio program The Tenderness Junction on WGXC 90.7 FM (formerly on WFMU). She is the author of Detroit Detroit (Roof Books), the pamphlet Our Rimbaud Mask (Ugly Duckling Presse), and other works including Different Worlds (Troll Thread) and Unknown Pleasures (Perfect Lovers). She earned a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an M.F.A. in Writing from the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. She lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband.
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 wasn’t sure I would ever be able to make a book. Everything felt small or in pieces. I liked having chapbooks and those were easy-ish to write. I could conceive of something that size. It took me almost 10 years—of having dreams about Detroit, recording them, and transcribing them—to realize I could make a book “about Detroit.” And saying this—that the book is about Detroit—always feels like it’s an insufficient description, which is why I like the title.
Some of my recent work is very much of the present. Several poems from the last couple years are journal poems where I create a sense of order through the repetition of dates and times, and there’s a wildness or looseness to the free-flowing associations and line breaks. I am trying to keep track of something new or, if it’s not new, at least it appears new as a result of the form. Other poems—poems I typed from my journal today (3/7/20)—remain, like the writing in Detroit Detroit, indebted to music, listening to words and their song, and I am dropping the dates so the poems can float, unhinged from the date I composed them.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Through poems my mother read to me, songs my mother sang to me, dancing and the phrasing of dance (tap dancing especially), and rap music. My father also plays the piano. So really the short answer is my deep love for music and dance and my parents’ love for these things—they led me to poetry.
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 want to say “all of the above” to this question, and I think that’s because it all feels true. For example, I’ve had in mind for a long time that I want to write a book about my mother. I have probably written half of it, or a little less than half, and I still feel like I haven’t started it at all, which is simply not true. I wrote the first 40-some-odd pages very quickly, and I don’t think I’ll edit them much, but it feels like it’s taking forever and that there’s so much more work to do. I also keep journals, always, and I forget that I write anything of value in them. It’s possible that I have finally realized I can turn what I write when I’m not thinking into poems relatively easily. I wonder if I hold onto an idea that being a writer is really, really hard when, now that I’ve done it for so long, it’s quite easy. Maybe the part that is hard is sharing the work and finding a place for it beyond my journals and files.
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?
With the book about my mom it is clear: I have to write this book. With the poems I’m writing now, I had no idea that anything was coming together, but today—because I was feeling desperate and on the border, once again, of being certain I’m no longer a poet—I found a couple poems that I wrote that I like in my journal. I typed them up and now I see that I could be writing another book, a book of poems, about love, humiliation, wounds, and the desire to forgive.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. The poems are most alive for me in performance, in relation to a live audience.
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’m curious about what we need to have a good enough life. This phrase “good enough” often comes along with the idea of “the good enough mother” from the psychoanalyst D.W.Winnicott. I’ve read a tiny bit of Winnicott, but I’ve been in a hell of a lot of psychoanalysis in order to figure out how to have a good enough life, and I think poetry helps with that, too.
In my essay “The Tenderness Junction,” published at Full Stop, I write about listening in the context of being a freeform radio DJ and being in psychoanalysis. I’m certain that listening and living a good enough life have something to do with each other and so, again, poetry has something to do with those things, but I don’t think I can say what.
One more thing I can say: how do we enjoy each other’s company without trying to make each other into people we are sure we will like more? Maybe that seems like a crazy question, but if it does, then it is, and that’s what I’ve got: crazy questions.
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 probably have lots of different ideas about this at different times, but since this is the time of writing—now—then my answer is writers have a ton of different roles they can play and as long as we don’t think our job is to hurt people—even though we surely will because there’s no way around that 100%—we can do a lot: educate, play, preach, mirror, expand, contract, hide. I think writers should try to appear as often as they can—whatever that means—and I think that’s really, really hard. Or maybe I just mean “show up.” It’s a writer’s role to show up.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I think conversations about my work are essential for me to becoming a more interesting writer and thinker and person. I also know I need a very generous and thoughtful editor.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
It’s worth it. (Leslie Scalapino wrote that to me in a letter. She was writing about being a writer.)
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to performance)? What do you see as the appeal?
At first, it was easy because I never felt a distinction between poetry and performance. I was on the youth poetry slam team in Ann Arbor when I was a senior in high school. (I didn’t live in Ann Arbor; Jeff Kass—who’s a well-known teacher in A2—was extraordinary and adventurous. He was our coach. We had so much fun.) Later, it was hard because I felt like no one expected me to think about performance and I was confused. I realized—but have had to keep remembering it—that you have to educate people about your work if they don’t know how to read it or hear it.
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 commute to NYC from the Hudson Valley two days a week to adjunct and my husband Bill Dixon makes me breakfast on Monday morning so I don’t feel like garbage before the long commute. I write in the thin Muji notebooks because they don’t make my pack weigh a lot. I write when I can right now. Suddenly, I’m trying to do so much more personally than I ever was before: be a good partner, buy a house, have a family, start a new career (to get out of adjuncting)—writing is both on my mind a lot but I’d like my mind to be more of writing than on writing.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I let the blank page do the talking: what do I see? what do I feel? what’s there? I can start anywhere. (It doesn’t always work, but I go back to that always.) This is, perhaps not surprisingly, very psychoanalytic! And, happily, it often leads to surprises—not like jack-in-the-box surprise, but mild, subtle, informative, and pleasant enough surprises.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Today? Pork chops.
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?
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst and writer: he’s very interested in what interests him and he makes a point of conveying how important it is to let ourselves be carried away by what delights us, not what we think should delight us or even the ways in which we can delight ourselves with the lies we tell about what delights us, but what do we actually get pleasure from? Also, I have some very good friends that are writers whom I love who talk to me on the phone and when we talk I think it feels like we are writing our lives together. I am thinking of Lewis (Freedman) and Rob (Halpern) in particular. I love the way they think and write and their courage often renews my own.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Finish my book about my mom and write a book with these newer poems. Then, I’d like to write a children’s book. I’d also like to write something with Bill about bridges. Very early in our hanging out, we had an exciting conversation about Marilyn Monroe, Heidegger, and bridges.
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’d like to be a modern dance choreographer.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
My mom got angry and took me out of my dance school.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I really enjoyed reading Anne Truitt’s Daybook. She made me want to be with process, made me feel envious, in a good way, of artists with daily practices. She’s always looking at what interests her.
Last night, Bill and I watched The Shape of Water, finally! It’s so good. I want more movies about surprising kinds of love.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Trying to learn how to relax. Oh, you mean in terms of writing? Trying to find ways to surprise myself and everyone else.