Born and raised in Northeast Ohio, Athena Dixon is a poet, essayist, and editor. She is the author of The Incredible Shrinking Woman (Split/Lip Press 2020) and No God In This Room (Argus House Press 2018). Learn more about the author at www.athenadixon.com.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book kind of made me feel like a real writer. I suffer from sometimes crippling impostor syndrome. Despite my publication history, the workshops and conferences I’ve attended or presented at, or other accomplishments, I always felt as if I was getting lapped in some ways. It’s very much an internal thing, but I think it is important to acknowledge those feelings. When my manuscript was selected for publication, I was very excited, but also very overwhelmed and afraid. While I was happy to have my work out into the world, there was fear that now I was sharing parts of myself that really never had an audience. And of course, there was fear no one would read it at all.
However, the biggest change I saw to my life was learning just how supportive and wide-reaching my network could be. I was absolutely humbled by my friends and family who not only bought the book, but threw a book release party and shouted my name and promoted me. It was the first time I felt like I had a community of people who supported my writing loudly and proudly in both actions and words. The extension of that is learning how my voice matters and that through my writing I can move people. I can give them a voice as well. I always downplayed the importance, or necessity, of what I had to say and that first book let me know that there are people who care and need those words.
My forthcoming book, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, is a bit scarier because it’s an essay collection. It’s much more of me on the page and in much plainer language. Some of the essays cover topics I’ve never shared before. I’m writing about depression, sexual assault, infidelity, and suicide, but there’s also joy and triumph. The fear is changing the view of the people who know me because of these revelations. This second book, however, feels more comfortable in some ways. I’m not really hiding. There is a relief in not having to hold up the masks I used to write behind.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I kind of came to poetry second. When I was a child, I wrote quite a bit of what I now know is fan fiction. I was very interested in building worlds and characters, but when I started the seventh or eighth grade, I made a switch to poetry. During one nine-week grading period, I had a student teacher who introduced our class to poetry. I started writing pieces and getting very encouraging feedback. It was the first time I felt like my words had power and people could engage with them. After that grading period, I kind of put my fiction to the side and started writing poetry exclusively. I wrote poetry between junior high and graduate school and eventually earned an MFA in Creative Writing.
I came back to prose by necessity. I was going through a very bad breakup and divorce and poetry wasn’t giving me the space to say what I needed to get off my chest. I started writing personal essays as a coping mechanism and just like the student teacher someone took a chance on publishing a few of them. My creative focus then changed. I think writing prose has forced me to be more honest in my work. I’m not sure why, but at times I felt as if my poetry was a performance and I was writing what was expected of me. With prose, I feel as if I am engaging in a way that let’s me free myself, but also allows me to connect with readers with similar experiences.
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?
My writing process can greatly vary. I’ve written and submitted an essay in one shot on a plane and it was published less than three months later. I’ve also spent over two years working on an essay that has yet to see the light of day. It really is dependent on how engaged I am with the subject. There are things I truly want to write and those tend to flow pretty well. Then there are those subjects I feel I should be writing. Those tend to take the most time because I am not sure of my footing within them.
As for drafts, I edit as I write, which can make my writing process a bit slow. I audio edit quite a bit, meaning I read aloud as I finish lines, paragraphs, scenes, and whole pieces. I do this to make sure the words I’m choosing flow in the manner I am trying to craft. It also helps me see if I have proper entry and exit in a piece as well as see my connecting threads. I rarely use notes to keep track of my writing. I may have words or phrases that serve as a core of the work, but I don’t necessarily keep notes or outlines.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose 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’m very much a writer who concentrates on the smaller pieces before any book concept. My first book was a combination of pieces from my graduate thesis and individual works I wrote over the following decade. The same can be said of my forthcoming book. The essays were individual pieces that fit together after they were done. I didn’t write anything specifically for the book. It just so happened that I was telling a story that fit together when the pieces were combined. My goal is always to have my work stand alone, but I’ve found I generally leave breadcrumbs in other pieces.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
My first real exposure to other writers in my adult life was through open mics. I performed at those events for a few years before I ever started seriously submitting work for publication. I’ve always found the energy of public readings to be a rush and I think they are very important in bringing your work to life for your readers. You can express how the words sound in your head and that can bring readers to you more closely not only by the actual text, but also with personal stories and engagement. I get very nervous for readings, but I do really enjoy them.
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 biggest concern in my writing is giving voice to people who may feel invisible or on the fringes. I don’t necessarily write towards any larger social, political, or religious topics, however. I think it is my goal as a writer to connect with others who are building themselves or learning to be open. I’ve likened myself to background music before, always around but not the focal point. I write to make sure experiences such as those are given their just due. However, I am moving towards writing that is about preserving family history, specifically rural, black, Midwestern life.
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 think writers have a responsibility to look outside of our creative circles and communities to engage with readers in ways that are more than surface level. I think that sometimes we get caught up in the idea of brand and audience and marketing so much so that we lose the humanness. I think we have a duty of being in conversation with more than just other artists. The role of a writer, for me at least, is to find a way to use your voice to connect. It’s also to preserve stories and cultures for yourself and those who may not have the voice or means to do so.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I don’t find it necessarily difficult, but it is not something I do often. Most of my work has been individual pieces and I rarely pitch. Those times I’ve work with an editor have been pretty good. They’ve helped me see issues in the work that need improvement, but they’ve also bolstered my confidence as well. Dependent on the project, an editor is an essential tool. I wouldn’t hesitate to work with one again.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best piece of advice I’ve received in the last few years was to make sure I am inputting as well as outputting. I found myself being burned out and not having the inspiration or desire to write. A friend told me that as a creative you can’t create from nothing. There has to be something that replenishes you. Since I’ve taken that advice, I’ve seen a marked change. I understand that not writing doesn’t mean I’m not creating. It simply means that it’s changed form. Those things I’m inputting are stirring something within me and when I do return to the page, I have sustenance to put into the work.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?
The transition from poetry to essays wasn’t that hard for me. I think that’s because I started writing them as a coping mechanism and wasn’t writing them for publication at all. I eventually started to submit them, but at the onset that was not on my radar. I think because I wasn’t writing for anyone else, I was able to experiment and get comfortable in ways that would not have been possible had I approached essays as I did my poetry. Poetry, in a lot of ways, was a different coping mechanism. A college friend of mine encouraged me to perform in open mics as a way to get over my fears. So, sharing my poetry became a performance versus something more internal like my essays.
However, I haven’t really written poetry in a few years and I feel like it will be difficult for me to transition back into that genre.
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 have a full-time day job so most mornings I am up by six and at my office by seven. Because of that, all of my writing happens after work or on the weekends. I try to write during the day by opening a Word document and e-mailing myself before I leave the office, but on most days that only yields at best a few paragraphs and on a good day a page or two.
My writing day really starts in the afternoon. After I come home, I eat and decompress for a bit. Then I hop on my laptop and write, edit, or answer e-mails until it is time for bed. I will be honest and say I do not write daily. Sometimes, I am exhausted from work or there’s nothing I want or need to write. Those are the days I input instead of output.
Weekends are the times I have my most rigid schedules. I have interviews set for the podcast, I work on a particular project, or I have an editorial client. I heavily rely on my project notebook to keep my various projects in order. Even if I am not actively writing, I make notes for things I need to write.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I turn to music before all else. It’s place of centering and inspiration. When I feel stuck, it’s natural for me to slip into a playlist to regroup. Sometimes listing to a playlist I’ve curated or letting my Spotify app find new artists for me is the spark that can get me going once more.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I’ve never thought about this, but I’d say it’s a mixture of a few things. Maxwell House Instant Coffee, Lipton tea, and skillet toast. Those were things that happened daily in my home. My father is a coffee drinker and that brand has never changed. The same is true for my mom. Those smells make me think of them coming home from their jobs and decompressing from working in a steel foundry and a factory. My mom usually had her tea with toast she’d make in a skillet instead of a toaster. I can smell the butter browning the bread while she made her tea.
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?
My biggest influence is music. I grew up the daughter of a steelworker who DJ’d as a side job and hobby. My entire childhood has a soundtrack and music very much informs how I write today. I curate playlists for individual projects, characters, moods, or worlds. I almost always listen to a song or two before I start to write and I use them to both disconnect from the world at large and tap into what I need to put onto the page. Music is also very much tied to my writing in that I write and edit aloud. I do this because I need to hear the way the words fit together. I think I write in a very musical manner. I search and revise and edit in a way that gives my lines a mouth feel that conveys the mood I want to set.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
There is a handful of current writers who I truly love. Their work inspires me and I use them as guides and studies. They are crafting prose in ways I strive for. Each of them is amazingly adept at their crafts. Cija Jefferson, Tyrese Coleman, Kiese Laymon, Hanif Abdurraqib, and Jesmyn Ward are a few of them. I also love Zora Neale Hurston. Their Eyes Were Watching God is my favorite book. I so admire how she was able to remain true to the dialect, customs, and landscape of her story just as much as she was able to create a character that was a flawed human navigating life.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I really want to take extended time to travel and write. The accomplishments I’ve had in my career thus far have been generated in the hours between my day job and when I sleep. I worked full-time throughout my grad program as well as worked multiple jobs during my two undergrad degrees. I would love to have dedicated time to sit with my work and to experience uninterrupted time to hone my craft and to immerse into those stories I truly want to tell. There are so many people I’d love to document through my work, starting with my family. I want to honor them in ways I simply don’t have the time for as it stands.
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 would be a museum curator. I find museums and the stories they tell to be fascinating. The ability to move patrons without words is amazing. There have been many days I’ve gone to museums across the country to not only take in the art, but to also people watch. I would find great joy in curating exhibits that move people, but I would be equally interested in helping develop and maintain permanent histories of underserved, underrepresented, and misunderstood communities.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing, in so many forms, has been a foundation for me. Even though I maintain a full-time day job, I identify first as a writer. I’ve tried my hand at other art forms such as painting, photography, and music, but I always come back to the page. There is a passion in me for how words fit together. I love to hear how they bounce against each other and how you can guide and excite readers. I can’t get enough of finding ways to pull my thoughts from my imagination into the world in new ways. I am genuinely a fan of writing in all its iterations. I think writing has given me a voice in ways that were absent in my daily life and when I began to share my work with the world, it became a source of confidence, community, and drive. It’s also a means to capture not only my life, but also to honor those to who I am personally connected and those who are seeking a kindred spirit.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I’d have to say How to Sit by Tyrese Coleman. I devoured it in one sitting. I bought it at a conference, found a corner in the convention hall, and read it before I did anything else. It’s stuck with me over the last year. It was such a good balance of heart and technical skill. She has an amazing ability to set scene, but doesn’t allow readers to get lost. It’s like walking into a place you know, but still finding new corners and stories.
I don’t watch many movies, so I tend to watch the same ones over and over again. I recently re-watched my favorite movie, Lost In Translation, and realized why I kinda fell in love with it. Just like with How to Sit, the scene setting is stunning. It becomes a character in itself and it’s beautiful to look at. I also love the ending because depending on my viewing mood, I can insert a completely different world of possibilities.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on my third book. I’ve spent the better part of the last two years using fan fiction as an escape and as a bolster to my “serious” writing. The project has its foundation in Black Panther (the movie) fan fiction set in an alternative universe. I enjoyed writing one of the characters so much that I decided to try my hand at a full-length work of fiction. The novel follows Julia and Eric, in 1969 Oakland, as they navigate through the ripple effects of gentrification, political corruption, and a little bit of romance.