AJ Odasso's poetry, essays, and short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies since 2005. Their first full poetry collection, Things Being What They Are, an earlier version of The Sting of It, was shortlisted for the 2017 Sexton Prize. The Sting of It was published by Tolsun Books and won Best LGBT in the 2019 New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards. AJ holds an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) from Boston University. Currently a PhD candidate in Rhetoric & Writing at the University of New Mexico, they teach at University of New Mexico, Central New Mexico Community College, and San Juan College. They have served as one of the Senior Editors in the Poetry Department at Strange Horizons magazine since 2012.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The Sting of It, my first full-length poetry collection with Tolsun Books, felt like a more significant achievement than my previous two chapbooks with Flipped Eye Publishing. I expanded my Boston University MFA in Poetry thesis manuscript into what is now The Sting of It. Unlike my earlier shorter works, these poems went through an extensive workshopping process with colleagues over the course of a year - which is something I can't say about those earlier manuscripts! They were emotionally and intellectually labor-intensive because they had a responsive, reactive audience right from the start. The Sting of It is also the first work of mine to win a major honor (Best LGBT Book in the 2019 New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards). While the shorter chapbooks (Lost Books, 2010; The Dishonesty of Dreams, 2014) got my name in circulation, The Sting of It put me on the poetry map in a more substantial way. That's a long-winded way of saying the entire process that created this book was life-changing. I owe a great deal to my Boston University MFA mentors and cohort, because they were not only this book's first audience, but helped to shape the direction it took. I was determined to use it as a coming-out on the last few aspects of my queer identity that weren't fully public (intersex, nonbinary). They were supportive and insightful every step of the way, but also constructively critical when it truly mattered!
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I had a fantastic teacher in my elementary school gifted program, Mrs. Briggs, who introduced us to full Shakespeare plays as early as 4th grade. We did one production each year in 5th and 6th; in my case, that was The Tempest and Macbeth. The poetry inherent in those lines of dialogue were fascinating to me, and Mrs. Briggs urged me to read Shakespeare's sonnets as a result. Fast forward to my 10th-grade self, newly devastated by Hamlet and my maternal grandfather's death. Among my grandfather's possessions in the basement, my mother found a crumbling 1920s leatherbound edition of Shakespeare's complete works. The sonnets were at the back, after all the plays. I read all of the plays, but it was the sonnets I got stuck on. I started playing with various poetic forms as a result, and I found that I had a knack for it. Coming to prose through the lens of poetry has made me a stronger, more ruthless writer. As a poet, I grew accustomed to counting every syllable and questioning every word-choice. I'm less afraid of aggressively editing my prose as a result; that has been poetry's gift to me.
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?
If I feel strongly about a project concept, I don't have much trouble starting it. Autistic hyperfocus has been a useful tool for me as a writer; as a result, I can work efficiently and linearly. Sometimes I draft a loose outline before I start, but not always. When I outline, it doesn't look like a traditional formal outline with lettered and numbered organizational tiers. It looks more like bracketed paragraphs with sketched-out scenes - what needs to happen in them, snippets of dialogue I know that I want to include. I think in scenes rather than chapters quite a lot of the time, although it's easy for me to conceive of how many scenes need to go in a given chapter, if the project is a chaptered work. Most of my prose out there, up until this point, has been short stories and nonfiction essays. Because I'm a ruthless self-editor, I tend to do that work as I go. The result is that my drafts, when complete, go through relatively little editing at the publisher level. I pride myself on the ability to produce clean (or at least near-clean) drafts. I find that I don't talk about this often, because a lot of writers have quite the opposite experience!
4 - Where does a poem or work of fiction 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?
Poems begin as compelling first lines or stanzas that I need to follow until they stop (and I often have no idea where they're going, which is the fun of it). In contrast, stories begin as conceptual maps with a discernible starting point and ending. Most of the discovery in those cases comes when I fill in the finer details of plot and characterization within the conceptual framework. Some short stories become long enough to classify as novellas, which is where The Pursued and the Pursuing started its life; it was under half the length it is now. I've written novel-length prose in the past, predominantly in transformative works/fandom contexts. That's the reason I haven't previously sought out publication for my longer prose works. Most of them exist within a sphere where writing is done for the love of it, as well as for the enthusiastic, often immediate exchange of ideas that arises from a highly interactive readership. It's not unusual for prose writers to get their start in online communities where feedback often drives and shapes production. It's not unlike the workshop environment I was talking about earlier! I've made some of my most lasting friendships and mentorships in fandom writing communities, and I wouldn't change that for anything.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I've done a lot of public readings, and I enjoy them a great deal! I teach college students, so being in front of an audience isn't difficult. Moving from Boston to Albuquerque 5 years ago drastically cut down on the number of reading opportunities, although I've taken each and every one I've been offered. Local literary scenes that offer open mic opportunities are a favorite of mine, too, because they're how I got my start with reading poetry publicly in the early 2000s (my first poems were published in 2005, just as I was graduating from college). Having drama background from college, grad school, and community theater also helps.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work?
While my academic research and teaching in Composition and Rhetoric have been concerned with theory, I wouldn't say that my writing is heavily theoretical, or even overly concerned with it. The closest I come is queering existing media and texts in my writing, as well as my poetry being concerned with making less talked-about queer lived experience visible. I feel like the most persistent question behind my work is almost always some permutation of What if? This isn't an uncommon question with writers, but from a queer perspective, it's one that still regularly needs asking (and answering).
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer is whatever we most need it to be in a given context. Individual readers seek out literature to fulfil their needs, wishes, and desires; literature has always been there to console, entertain, inspire, provoke, and every motivation in between. For example, now more than ever, writers serve a vital purpose in activism and social justice movements. I rarely think about about the writer as a monolithic figure, if only because diverse writers have always existed and are more visible than ever. We effect change by any and all means possible - or by whatever means are available to us.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I enjoy working with editors, primarily because I enjoy the process of editing my own work and others' work. I've been one of the Poetry Editors at Strange Horizons (www.strangehorizons.com) magazine since 2012, and I've worked as an editor on digital writing textbook projects for several years now. My editorial experience and my experience giving students feedback on their writing have inextricably informed each other. Even though I'm a ruthless self-editor, I hope that teaching has made me a more compassionate editor of others' work. Editing should be a collaborative process, not one in which there's a power imbalance. I've been extremely fortunate in the editors I've worked with for my published poetry and prose works.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A novelist friend of my family once told me, when I was a teenager who'd begun to show promise as a writer, "Start where the plot looks hardest." This may be why I'm such a linear writer. The beginning always looks hardest, but once I get the ball rolling, the forward momentum tends to be self-sustaining.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I sort of spoke to this in my answer to an earlier question. My background as a poet has permitted me to develop a poetic prose style, and it has made me a better self-editor and more judicious in my stylistic choices. Once I started writing prose, I didn't find it difficult to switch back and forth between that and poetry. The appeal is knowing I'm versatile, I guess!
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 to grab time on evenings and weekends due to my teaching load, so I wouldn't say there's any set routine at the moment. In addition to teaching full time between three institutions, I'm starting my second year of a doctoral program in Rhetoric and Writing at the University of New Mexico (which is also one of the places I teach). A typical day for me starts with responding to emails, grading, teaching one of my class sections, or attending departmental meetings - depending on what day of the week it is, and also depending on how my schedule shifts from semester to semester!
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I tend to rewatch favorite films and TV shows, for some reason - ones emotionally and narratively immersive in ways that I'd like my work to be. Guillermo del Toro's works are frequently in this rotation, as well as films that might strike the casual observer as bewilderingly random (Benny & Joon, The Last Unicorn, Watership Down, Hot Fuzz, Gladiator, In the Flesh, Gravity Falls, Kubo and the Two Strings, V for Vendetta, Prince of Egypt, the 1980 BBC production of Hamlet, Baz Luhrmann's 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby, Groundhog Day, Kevin Smith's Askewniverse films, etc.). It's another list that gets long and eclectic!
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The combination of moss, bluets, and chipped gravel after rain. That's my childhood in rural Western Pennsylvania. Prior to New Mexico, where I'm still a relatively new resident, much of my adult life was spent between Boston, MA and the United Kingdom. New England and England are both defined by old city brickwork and milky black tea as only train station kiosks and pubs can serve it (the tea you can get in other establishments is objectively much better, but it's not as nostalgic).
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?
Drama, music, and visual art - the latter of which I collect from artist friends and hang all over my house. There's so much poetry inherent in those art forms, and I enjoy harvesting it. I listen to music sometimes while I'm writing to enhance both the experience and the emotional pitch of my words.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Almost every writer whose work I've loved, or whose work has had an impact on my life in some way, has influenced my own writing. If I were to start listing names, I'd take up far more space on this blog than you bargained for! Aside from Shakespeare, who I feel looms as large here as Fitzgerald (given The Pursued and the Pursuing is a partial retelling and sequel to The Great Gatsby now that it's in the public domain), Connie Willis has had a profound influence on my approach to storytelling (and probably even on my prose style). When it comes to poetry, some significant modern influences have been T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Louise Glück, Rita Dove, Mark Doty, Tracy K. Smith, Marge Piercy, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ursula K. Le Guin (who has also influenced my prose), and Patience Agbabi.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a play. I've adapted a text for stage (Chaucer's Franklin's Tale) and directed it during the course of my grad school misadventures, but I have yet to write a play from scratch. Acting and stage work are fun, but writing is even more fun - so doing the writing that permits those other things to happen would be exciting!
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 might have gone into counseling, because the pastoral aspects of teaching are some of the aspects I enjoy most about it. I might also have worked in radio or other forms of audio performance; I've always had enthusiasm for it as a medium for both information dissemination and entertainment.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Well, writing is hardly the only thing I do - but I definitely write because I'm miserable if I don't! It connects me to others in a way that I find almost effortless, whereas other forms of social interaction and exchange are often stressful for me. Writing and teaching are the two pursuits I love most in the world.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I recently reread Christopher Barzak's One for Sorrow, and it was just as brilliant as the first time I read it. I absolutely loved The Green Knight, as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is my favorite vernacular English work from the Middle Ages. It did a spectacular job of capturing the spirit of the source text, and was also surprisingly faithful to it! When adaptations and transformative works hit their narrative mark, it's the most satisfying thing I can think of as a media consumer.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I've been on hiatus for most of this year due to the confluence of heavier than usual teaching loads and work surrounding The Pursued and the Pursuing coming out on September 28th . I put in a lot of work completing and preparing the manuscript, and the DartFrog Blue team has put in a lot of work to get it out there. Otherwise, the project I need to get back to is my next poetry collection with Tolsun Books. It's tentatively hung on the concept of cataloguing what I'd grab, and why, from various museums around the world depending on what city I'm stuck in when the (theoretical) zombie apocalypse arrives! It's likely going to be called Loot List.