As a child, I remember flipping through my father’s old college textbook of poetry – this is my first memory of being drawn to poetry. I liked the way it appeared on the page, the compactness, and the fact that each poem contained itself – at the same time, I loved reading song lyrics. I also did a project in eighth grade about Amy Lowell’s poetry – I was completely captivated by them and still remember them distinctly.
When I first started writing poetry, I thought of it as a way of capturing moments I was afraid I or others would forget, a way of preserving those moments so they didn’t disappear. Now, I realize that in writing about those moments, I am changing them, creating a story about them, or revealing the story I want to tell about them; I have changed my memories by writing about them. In some ways this makes me a little sad, but I am still impelled to do it. So lately I’ve been thinking of poetry more in terms of storytelling.
Most of all, I love words, I love listing favorite words, and I love listening to and telling stories. I gravitated toward poetry as the best way to write about those moments, people, stories – as a kind of distillation.
Tell us about your process. Do you have certain methods or routines that work for you?
I find it works best if I can establish a routine of getting up early, before anyone else in my house, and just sitting down at the desk. If I can do this, it’s a good day.
In the past, I’ve always written by hand first in my notebook, but I find myself composing drafts on the computer more and more. I always play a piece of music (usually without words) over and over as long as I am working on a particular poem – music has always been important to my composing process. I’m not sure I could really write, or enjoy writing, without music – oftentimes the tenor of the music evokes the poem. Caffeine is pretty important too.
Two books have been especially important in my writing process: If I’m stuck, I often turn to Patterns of Poetry: An Encyclopedia of Forms and try my hand at a new form. Or, I simply start flipping through the rhyming dictionary I bought for my first poetry class and I just write down lists of words that appeal to me. The words that ‘shine’ out to me from the dictionary I copy down in my notebook, where I hope they start to gain some kind of energy, some beginning. I also find it helps to read a few poems by other poets before I begin writing every morning.
You are a graduate of the MFA program at Purdue University. How did this experience shape you as a writer?
I had such wonderful teachers at Purdue (Mary Leader, Don Platt, Marianne Boruch, Quan Barry), that it’s hard to imagine who I would be as a writer had I not met them. Purdue’s MFA program is 3 years, with the third year devoted solely to working on your thesis manuscript with one poet. That third year was really important for me – I worked one-on-one with Mary Leader and she really transformed my idea of what I could do with poetry. She had a big influence on One Island – she helped me see how my poems might work together as a book. Over Christmas break, she assigned me to find a cover for the book – before it was finished, before it even had a title. So I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and I saw what is now the cover – a photograph of a fragment of a Tiffany stained glass window recovered from a fire. Having that image really helped me see some of the recurring themes in the manuscript.
In addition, Purdue brought so many amazing writers to campus for readings, and several of them have had a big influence of me (Cathy Day, A.S. Byatt come immediately to mind). And of course my fellow MFAers helped shape my writing, and I so enjoyed reading their work.
How long did it take you to create One Island - from the first draft to the final edit? What did this entail?
One Island is basically my MFA thesis. The poems were mainly written during my second and third year in the MFA program, although the subjects of many of the poems (Block Island, my father) I had been trying to write about since I started writing poetry. Once I finished the MFA program, I began sending One Island out to publishers – I did this for about a year and a half, until it won the Anhinga Prize. The editors at Anhinga were truly ideal – they were wonderful at suggesting edits, but they were clear that they wanted the book to look and read just as I imagined it would. So, there were small changes made in the final edit, but I would say the manuscript didn’t change all that much from when I first put the poems in order for my thesis.
You won the Anhinga-Robert Dana Prize for Poetry in 2009 for One Island. What impact did this have on your career?
I think the most important outcome of winning the Anhinga Prize was that I could truly put the One Island manuscript behind me, and start again on something new. Having the book in my hands provided a clean break – I could no longer work on those poems, and I felt released in a way from the subjects in the book - I didn’t have to write about them anymore. In addition, I had the opportunity to do readings at bookstores and colleges, where I met other writers whose work I really enjoyed.
Who are you reading these days?
This summer, I’ve actually just been reading fiction – Child of God and The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, The Whiskey Baron by Jon Sealy – a friend from Purdue’s first novel, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s Scary Fairy Tales. I’m loving Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a second book, although with one and four year old daughters, and a full time teaching job, I don’t have the luxury of time I had while working on One Island. But I’m slowly getting an idea of the shape the book will take. I’ve also been reading flash fiction recently, and might try my hand at it for fun.