Tell us about the poetry scene in Washington, DC. Do you feel there is a strong writing community? And is community even a necessary complement to the solitary act of writing?
I’ve lived in city proper for over a decade, and I lived adjacent to DC throughout my childhood. As much as I love my family, and the free museums, and duckpin bowling, I would not stay in this area if I didn’t have a strong writing community in addition to all that. I’m a social creature. I root a lot of my identity into getting together with other writers to talk shop, hosting readings, or organizing other community initiatives.
The Washington cultural scene is very vibrant, and very fragmented. People sometimes come to town, make a big splash, and are gone two years later. Other famous writers live here for decades but rarely raise their periscope above the water line. That can make the scene frustratingly hard to discern, if you're a newcomer, but the upside is that no one clique has all the power. Though we are home to universities and colleges, academia does not rule; we have a number of independent readings series, a half-dozen bookstores, and the resources of the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and The Writer’s Center. The DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities has a strong vision, and they have successfully defended their ability to offer financial support to local writers and artists. I live just a few blocks away from DCCAH’s headquarters—and a few blocks away from the Nationals stadium—and a few blocks away from the Maine Avenue fish market—and a few blocks away from a walk around the Tidal Basin. I feel lucky to be a DC poet.
Tell us about your writing process. Do you have certain methods or routines that work for you?
For a long time, throughout my twenties, I drafted in bars and coffeeshops. Then for a few years, I had an open-air office at the bottom of a stairwell; I could look up from my desk and see the skylight a floor above. Then for a few years, I drafted during long car drives, dribbling the end words for sestinas in the margins of Mapquest directions. My habits are flexible and inconstant. I can go for weeks without writing a poem, then come up with five poems in five days. Sometimes I draft by hand first, on a lined white-paper legal pad, other times I go straight to my laptop. But there are two constants to my process. The first is a voracious appetite for the work of others—in order to write, I have to be reading. The second is the affection I feel for writing between 2 and 4 AM in the morning, the world around me still quiet and unrushed, before dawn has begun to streak the sky. That isn’t always when I get to write, but it is always when I most want to be writing.
How long did it take you to complete your most recent book, Count the Waves, from first draft to final edit? How did this compare to your other collections?
Theories of Falling, my first book, was accepted for publication a few years after completing my MFA degree at American University. Though the collection overlaps with my graduate thesis very little, I assembled it using the rhythm of a typical school-driven workshop year—drafting every week, submitting to journals, periodically re-envisioning the order to substitute newer and stronger poems for weaker ones. I experienced many, many rounds of rejection and then “runner up” status before finding a home with New Issues. The weekend that the editor tried to notify me that I had won, I was in Switzerland, a crazy last-minute trip made in effort to save a relationship. They couldn’t figure out why I was ignoring all phone messages and emails. Thank goodness they didn’t give up on trying to reach me.
Then I Was the Jukebox came together fast, through several coordinated months of drafting a poem-a-day—essentially, the days in which I was waiting for Theories of Falling to come into the world. Norton was maybe the second place I sent. A few months later I went to a writer’s conference with a sheaf of poems from the manuscript, and a notable poet told me that they didn’t work for her. But I had faith in the voice. When I got the acceptance notice for the Barnard Prize it was an email with no subject line. I actually deleted it at first, thinking it was spam, then fished the email out of the trash folder.
What these two books had in common is that they were written through a continuous period of attention. In contrast, the poems in Count the Waves span a decade’s worth of living. That’s beneficial because the projects within, such as the six sestinas and the two dozen Traveler’s Vade Mecum poems, needed plenty of breaks between each draft. Otherwise they’d all start to sound similar.
When it came to assembling a book, I had to be mindful of those different series, and their respective gravitational weights. I tinkered. I braided, unbraided, and re-braided the order. For the first time I was submitting a manuscript to a waiting editor, versus through a contest model. Having the clear communication channel was great but the risk of rejection was profound. When I got the note from the editor saying she’d be happy to take it on, I dashed down to Dupont Circle to catch my husband on his lunchbreak. We had a celebratory Mythos beer at Zorba’s Cafe, a divey Greek diner. Then we both went back to work.
The most frightening thing about that type of project is that after you’ve sent it out into the world, you’re truly starting over. There is no bank of older poems to be incorporated or built on. But that’s also the most exciting thing.
Let's talk sestinas. We know why we love your sestinas - they feel modern, surprising, and employ a certain jocularity that, rather than distract, cuts to the heart of the matter. Your sestina "Let Me Count the Waves" contains one of our favorite lines ever - "Make way. In the modern: Make way, Buttface." But(t) what draws you to the sestina as a form? Is there a future for formal verse?
Ah, the sestina! Dearest to my heart. The cool thing about the envoi—that final stanza of three lines, versus six—is that the compression forces the end words to engage one another. So I realized early on, while drafting that poem, that if two of my endwords were “face” and “but,” addressing someone as “buttface" was an entirely justifiable culmination of the form.
I was a faithful subscriber to GAMES magazine as a kid. I delight in strategy, and I find the machinations of the sestina pleasurable rather than binding.
This may sound curmudgeonly, but I resist the term “formal verse,” because it sets up a contrast to the rest of poetry, which is…what? Informal? I would argue that all poems, at least the ones that interest me, have elements of formal awareness. That can be received form, or contemporary form, or nonce form, or simply conscious decisions toward line breaks and rhythm and sound. But so often people deride “formal verse,” meaning dusty sonnets and stiff villanelles, and then turn around and champion experimental poets whose work is, to my eye, equally formal. Readers don’t think of Morgan Parker as a “formal” poet, yet she has a sestina called “Real Housewife Defends Herself in Front of a Live Studio Audience.” The term, “formal," has become associated with a false dichotomy.
You teach in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Tampa, as well as numerous other workshops. How does teaching affect your own writing?
On a bad day, teaching crowds out my writing. On a good day, teaching fuels exploration, and that inspires me to write.
At the University of Tampa residences we offer “genre workshops,” for which I team up with my colleagues Erica Dawson and Alan Michael Parker. We present three chronologically sequenced sessions of close reading and exercises in poetry, united by a common theme but covering many centuries of literary history. Erica has a deft ear for Shakespearian and Cavalier-era poets; Alan Michael has an expansive knowledge of the avant-garde and world poetry. So I usually end up handling the bridge session, which means presenting much of the early and mid-20th century. One of my favorite recent lectures focused on the underlying attention to received form in the work of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. Picking out those poems—always improvisational, always in dialogue with the aesthetics and expertise of my peers—reminds me that we are only a heartbeat away from such immense talent and vision. I love that poetry is an art form that embraces ambition and even now, as a mid-career poet, I am ambitious. I want to go big or go home.
Who are you reading these days?
Right now I’m preoccupied with memoirs, essay collections, and nonfiction anthologies. I’m looking for a variety of structural models. Recent titles in hand include Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts; Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth; Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts; Bring the Noise: The Best Pop Culture Essays from Barrelhouse; Crush, edited by Cathy Alter and Dave Singleton; Elena Passarello’s Let Me Clear My Throat; and Best American Essays 2013, selected by Cheryl Strayed. And for variety’s sake—Celeste Ng’s elegiac novel, Everything I Never Told You.
I've also spent time with Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude and Aracelis Girmay’s The Black Maria. Both are generous collections filled with what I like to call the bright particulars of poetry—my favorite kind of image—and anchored by a big central poem. We are in a cultural moment where much of the strongest poetry I see is mourning loss, or what Girmay calls “estrangements,” yet refusing to be victimized. We’ve experienced aesthetic movements that have emphasized the highly constructed, fictitious persona; we’ve experienced aesthetic movements that caught to remove or suppress a human speaker entirely. Right now, I think there is less interest right now on complicating the speaker, and more interest in complicating what the speaker witnesses.
What are you working on now?
Back in 2011, I published a memoir. Last year I realized how much I missed the musculature of prose. So I’m writing a series of—essays? chapters?—whatever they are, they are 5,000 words at a time.
I’m also very, very quietly working on my fourth collection. They are mostly prose-poems, so I’m asking what separates that genre from flash nonfiction. They engage the experience of living in Virginia and DC all of my life.
Earlier this summer I spent a week at the Hermitage Artist Residency in Manasota Key, Florida. Every day I ate a salad for lunch; we swam in the ocean at dusk; I read a few hundred pages; I tinkered with a poem draft or outlined an essay; I spoke to two, maybe three people at most. I know its pretty banal, but few things make me happier than such quiet and focused rhythms. I’ll be back there for five weeks in early 2017.
Got a favorite cocktail for Issue 10's Liquor List? How about a song for our Companion Playlist?
Usually I’m a scotch girl, but not in a cocktail. I’ll cross the street to my warm weather liquor, gin, a bottle of which should be kept in the icebox at all times. I like a London dry gin such as Broker’s or Sipsmith, nothing too floral. If I’m in a promising Italian restaurant, I’ll order a negroni straight up. A negroni is a bright, balanced cocktail of equal parts gin, sweet vermouth, and campari, garnished with a slice of orange. Perfect hair of the dog, or perfect aperitif. The variation worth trying is the “Cin-Cyn”: switch the Campari for Cynar, another classic amaro, which has a bitterness that the makers attribute to artichokes. Maybe add a few rocks, because Cynar’s flavor is intense.
Chet Baker is good company for a gin cocktail’s worth of conversation. I could name a dozen songs—I danced to Chet Baker’s music at my wedding—but what comes to mind at the moment is “I Fall in Love Too Easily." Sammy Cahn cowrote the song with Jule Styne, just sixteen bars long, and the lyrics are simple; the title says it all. The magic of that tune is in the vocal delivery and the idiosyncrasy of Baker's phrasing. Isn’t that true of love, too? A simple sixteen bars, but the magic is in the phrasing.