On Reading More Slowly, Child’s Play, and Understanding Languages: An Interview with Susan Stewart (2015)

Susan Stewart –  American poet, Princeton professor, Genius Award recipient – visited UConn as our 2015 Wallace Stevens poet on April 1st. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions on her work and influences. Through her answers, I came to a greater understanding not only of her work, but of poetry at large.

1) One strand in your book Red Rover is concerned with play and the language of childhood games. Since you mentioned at your reading that you started writing poetry as a child, I wonder if those games played a part in your early poetry as well? Are there forms, subjects, or styles from your first writings that you still return to?

This is an interesting question; I don’t believe I wrote poems based on children’s games consciously until I wrote Red Rover, but I’m sure the structure of games [with rules, fixed beginnings and outcomes that could be described] influenced my sense of literary form. And as well the structure of play [open-ended, fantasy-laden, solitary, or built with other children] helped me, as it helps everyone, enter imaginary worlds. The repeating circles of games and ongoing linear forms of play seem to run beneath many of our ways of understanding and shaping our worlds. The first poems I wrote and remember came as I learned to read and were, I’m sure, responses to reading. I was especially taken by Beatrix Potter and Robert Louis Stevenson–for, although I certainly didn’t have words then to describe it, their syntax, diction, and sense of rhythm enchanted, and still enchant, me. And, re Stevenson, I always have loved travel literature: an early book about Eskimo fishermen and Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels were great favorites. In adolescence, like many young people, I wrote poems as a way of understanding my feelings, but I also had teachers who helped me try to make those pieces into works of interest to others.

2) You’re a noted translator of Italian poetry. How does your understanding of Italian influence your writing in English? Do you speak any other languages?

I don’t believe that I am a noted translator: I’m much more of a translator by happenstance. And in fact I try to keep my own poetry away from my translation projects, for to translate involves coming very close to the intention of the original poet and letting go of one’s own preoccupations and tendencies. I don’t mind translating when I’m not in the thick of my own poems, but working in French and Italian [and I also worked with a Hellenist to translate some Euripides years ago] involves coming into a whole different sense of sound and rhythm and meter and syntax–one that really isn’t of much formal use to an English language poet. The Italian poets I’ve worked on most intensely–Alda Merini and Milo De Angelis–have very strong poetic personalities and sensibilities that are entirely their own. So influence is problematic.
I have studied French and Spanish from my high school years and can read French fairly well and Spanish a bit. My French accent is quite poor–I suspect because my beloved high school French teacher may have spent little more than a semester in France and I have never lived in France more than a few months at a time. I learned the Italian I have [which is far from fluent] as an adult. A branch of our family lived in Firenze for many years and I have Italian nieces and nephews; I also attended the Urbino Semiotics Seminars a number of times as a young scholar and I taught in a summer graduate program in Rome for ten years. In that period I developed many Italian friendships, especially in Rome. I like to translate with poet and writer friends who are native speakers of Italian and, in a kind of circle, to help them as well translate English into Italian. Working this way gives us a chance to talk about our understandings of our languages and to make a stronger work than any of us could make alone.
3) What are some of the energies or emerging trends you find most noteworthy in contemporary poetry in English?

 I can’t describe energies or emerging trends without thinking of the work of individual poets. I do think that we no longer have such bifurcated poetry worlds as, to be simplistic, we once had both in the U.S. [the academics vs. the Beats; the new Formalists vs. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E] and in England [Cambridge vs. just about everyone else]. The poetry scenes are vibrant and intellectually diverse. I edit the Princeton University Press series, with an open submission period in May of each year, and I’m always struck by the originality and intensity of the best manuscripts I receive. Many contemporary poets are interested in using traditional forms and inventing new forms, writing about experiences that previously were invisible, exploring diction and modes of address, and constructing books that are coherent on the level of the book as a work of art. These are promising developments.

4) In an interview with the University of Pennsylvania, you said that your goal as a poet is to “get people to read more slowly and to reread, and read a whole book and go back to the beginning to see connections.” How do you try to achieve this goal?

This is difficult to summarize, but I try to let my poems have an effect on first reading that is changed by further reading–the predominant narrative might be undermined, or an allusion might open up to include multiple allusions, or a later poem in a book could provide a shadow of, or gloss upon, an earlier poem in a book. I always am exploring how I might do this, writing poems in pairs and sequences, building relations between works, and I learn a great deal from the techniques of novelists and other artists. The fundamental structures of lyric– recursive and circling; argument-laden; musical; self-citational–often are a great help to the construction of poetry books.

Nikki Barnhart is Interviews editor.

“I don’t want to miss out on living because I’m too busy writing” – Hanging Out with Kate Monica (2015)

The most surprising thing I learned about Kate Monica, UConn’s 2015 representative of the Connecticut Poetry Circuit, was that poetry was not a life-long pursuit for her. Rather, she used to hate it. Her work is so fluid and natural, informal but still balanced and graceful that I assumed she had been writing it her whole life.

She grew up loving prose and novels but it wasn’t until freshman year and English professor Bruce Cohen’s class that she became interested in poetry. In his class, Monica was exposed to “different, good writers” such as Sharon Olds and Philip Larkin. “It opened my eyes,” she says. The experience led her to try out for UConn’s slam team, becoming a teammate in her sophomore year.

Kate Monica is a 21 year old junior, and so far, her work has been published by the Long River Review, the Newer York, Electric Cereal, Orchid Children, Holey Scripture and Control Literary Magazine. In 2014, she won Collins Literary Prize for poetry.

Her work is decisively modern and strikingly poignant, even when focused on the commonplace. She explores “discomfort in different ways,” and features “characters that don’t quite belong. They desperately want to communicate but keep missing each other. I’m interested in those little moments of desperation that we all feel but we don’t know how to help each other.”

One such poem, titled “1 Nov 22:00,” published on Electric Cereal, is in the form of a Facebook chat between “a decorated general of Vietnam War” with anthropophobia so crippling he hasn’t left his house in 15 years, and a high school girl. In the chat, the girl gently tries to help him overcome his phobias (“you should try texting your grandkids”) but she will not do the connecting for him (“If you see my granddaughter at school, will you tell her I said hello?” “that would be kind of weird i think. i don’t really talk to her. and she’d wonder why i knew you at all. it would just be rly weird.”)

I ask her if she thinks she belongs to a particular school of poetry. I suggest “confessional” and she agrees. “Even when I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking about myself. Even if I don’t mean to, it’s confessional anyway,” she says.

Some of her inspirations include musician Laura Stevenson (“genius”) and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (“effortless”), a subject of one of her poems. Frank O’Hara is another “genius” in her eyes – “his work is effortless, like he just thought of it.” William Faulkner “has great characters, which I think is essential, so people can connect.” She also cites comedian Maria Bamford as an inspiration. “She has really well-written jokes. She’s simultaneously really dark and whimsical and hilarious at the same time. She balances depressing and funny so she doesn’t lose readers.”

As a writer, Kate Monica describes her style as “a sense of urgency.” As a performer, she says, “frantic and nervous – at least that’s what I’ve been told. That’s less intentional, and more just me being actually nervous.”

The Connecticut Poetry Circuit, an annual competition that selects 5 poets from all Connecticut universities public and private to perform a series of 15 readings, is the first time Monica’s been paid to do a reading, so “it feels more professional than doing it for free. It’s interesting to meet more people and see their different styles of reading,” she says.

I ask if she’s more comfortable writing or performing and she tells me that, “I’m more comfortable just writing. There’s much more to worry about when performing. When you write, you can just let the words do the talking, when you perform, you have to make it sound how you want. In performing, you lose opportunities to be ambiguous because the reader can’t go back. It’s harder because you do it in one take.”

I ask her what she thinks a poet should be, and she thinks for a moment. “There’s this one quote…,” she says, and pauses. “Let me look it up,” and she does on her iPhone. “Here it is. ‘Poets comfort the disturb and disturb the comfortable.’”

“Who said that?” I ask.

“It says Banksy,” she furrows her brow at the screen. “That can’t be right.”

Regardless of who actually spoke the words, they hold especially true, I think, in Monica’s own work.

“Someone who is a poet should be uncomfortable in the world,” she says. “Like they can’t handle how beautiful and awful the world is so they have to synthesize it in order to exist comfortably.”

I ask her my bombshell question – “who are you and what do you want?” – and she thinks for a minute. “I can answer the ‘what do you want,’” she offers. “I don’t want to miss out,” she says.

I reference that Oscar Wilde quote – “inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. They live the poetry they cannot write” – and we debate it. We both don’t quite agree. We think there has to be a balance.

“I want to prioritize living over thinking about living,” she says. “I don’t want to miss out on living because I’m too busy writing.”

Kate Monica’s poems have such a vivid heartbeat; they are very much alive, very much evidence of someone who has felt and lived and experienced. It seems to be a pretty symbiotic relationship. I think she’s safe from her fears.

Nikki Barnhart

“I am first a creature of the imagination” – an interview with Benjamin Grossberg (2015)

I had the opportunity to ask this year’s guest of the Writers Who Edit, Editors Who Write Series, Benjamin Grossberg. Supplement your experience of his reading with his answers, and read them alone – Ben is personable and passionate, and a truly unique voice in modern poetry.

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A Polish filmmaker once made a film focused entirely upon one question: who are you and what do you want? I love this question and all of its deceptive simplicity and will be framing all of my interviews around it. So, who are you, and what do you want?

Is it a good thing to be able to answer this question, to know and be able to articulate the answer? Maybe it’s better if there’s a little more churning, or if the answer is too complicated to formulate.

I’m not sure who I am beyond a half-dozen social roles that you could find out from a cursory internet search, and I guess I want . . . what? . . . to know and be known, to surprise and engage myself writing poems, to be good to as many people as I can, to stay healthy. That’s not very exciting, is it?

Right now I’m sitting at my desk with a cat on my lap, and every few minutes she lifts a paw up to my keyboard, wanting to scoot herself onto it. What I want is for spring to come, or at least to stay home tonight. It’s going to get down to negative ten.

Editing Questions:

1) How has being a writer helped you as an editor? Do you find yourself more empathetic towards submissions, less so or neither?

Being a writer may well have made me more empathetic to submitters. But that kind of empathy doesn’t have much bearing on the work of winnowing poems for The Antioch Review. Reading for a journal is an intimate but merciless process. The poem either evokes, or it doesn’t; the language forks some energy, or not. That said, I am never, even in my head, even in the privacy of my own couch, flip about submissions. I do not mock or superciliously dismiss. And often I do feel touched by the gesture of reaching out on paper — paper! — with poems, the hopefulness of it, the sweetness. Every month, The Antioch Review gets work from people who clearly never read poetry and have no formal training, who approach and practice the art almost wholly on received notions. Yet there’s deep feeling there: they, too, “get the news from poems” in a way, as the process connects them to something inside themselves which is, I think, often important and beautiful. And I do feel moved by that, and probably some of this empathy comes from my experience as a writer, knowing what it feels like – to be opened up by the act of composition.

Of course, I also know that such opening doesn’t necessarily translate to the reader, or mean much to anyone else in the world.

If my work as a writer has helped my work as an editor, it is in this way: stumbling through three-and-a-half books now, I have long exhausted my original notions of what a poem is and does. As a matter of fact, I’ve exhausted my second and third notions, too – so I know first hand, in late-night work, that poems are various and variously glorious. Being a writer – and being a teacher — has made me aware of discovery in a host of modes. As an editor, I seek to find great poems, your proverbial needle-in-hay-stack search. So the wider my ability to understand what a poem can be, the more full and flexible my understanding of what that needle might be, the more likely I am to find it.

2) I’m sure you get a massive amount of submissions. How does your reading process work? How long do you think about each piece before making a decision?

I have a set process. I get a box of submissions every other month; the box contains between 100 and 150 envelops, most of three to five poems. There’s a second associate editor who gets a box on the months I don’t. My job is to mail Judith Hall, who makes the final decisions, ten percent of the envelops I see. From these, over a course of two or three months, Judith selects the ten or so poems that appear in the magazine.

I read ten envelops a night. Usually that takes between one and two hours. More than half the envelops can be disqualified quickly. The poems either aren’t well executed – as if the act of composition wasn’t hot enough to fire the clay – or the stakes aren’t high enough. Stakes should be understood widely here: sound, form, subject matter, voice. Some kind of artistic heft was missing.

And sometimes there is one envelop of the ten which distinguishes itself right away. When a submission is good, really good, the light in the room changes. The submission itself seem to change the context. I feel myself shift from editor to reader. I fall under the poems’ authority.

And then I’m left with the three or four envelops in between. Here is where the bulk of my time goes. These submissions I read again and again, and always out loud. Sometimes I put a few of the envelops aside, come back to them the next day. I’m looking for something, some quality that’s really remarkable—a very particular, beautifully executed aspect of the writer’s aesthetic. It makes sense, I think, for writers to send well-unified submissions: a group of poems that take up a single aesthetic project or theme, rather than trying to “show range.” At this stage, I’m trying to understand a project, to discern an aesthetic. I want to understand a new poetic, and then think about whether it might be a good fit with the magazine. The envelops that make it through this process go in their own pile.

So – ten envelops a night – I slowly move through the box.

I finish this process at the end of the month with three piles. The first, by far the largest, is submission we cannot use. The smallest pile — usually less than ten envelops — are those I will definitely send on to Judith Hall. And then I have a pile of about fifteen envelops which I must whittle down by half. This second round of whittling is similar to what I described above, except more clearly comparative. It is now a zero-sum game.

The process is labor-intensive. But it’s exciting to read poems – often by very accomplished poets – in manuscript form, before they acquire the gloss of publication. And it’s even more exciting to discover poems you love by writers whose names you hadn’t heard before. The reverse is true, too: even very good poets sometimes send work that is less dazzling. That’s a useful reminder. No one, it seems, is a “poem machine.”

But the real reason I do the work is because I take so much from this art — as I submit regularly to journals and contests, and as I look for readers. It seems only fair that I give something back, too. It’s for this reason I also review books, usually six a year. The poetry world can only function, I think, if we take on an ethos of service. Otherwise — with so many writers and so few readers — the whole enterprise can begin to seem a little solipsistic.

3) What grabs you in a piece? Do you find yourself gravitating towards similar styles as your own, even subconsciously? Or totally different?

I don’t think I’d be much good as an editor if my own style tightly defined what I could appreciate — but surely there must be some connection there.

I strive to find the best — work that is fresh, sharp, and involving — whatever the aesthetic. I do like poetry that integrates substantial thinking, and I do have a bias toward understanding what I read. I suppose in this I’m with Marianne Moore: “we do not admire what we cannot understand.”

But that said, I’ll forward on to Judith Hall even work I don’t particular love, or understand, if I think it is very good, or innovative, or uses language in a remarkable way. At Antioch Review, we are especially interested in innovative use of language — so for our particular venue, that can help tip the scales.

4) What was your experience with literary journals before working on one? Has it changed your overall feelings?

I worked on my first literary journal as an undergraduate, and I submitted my first poems then, too. I didn’t work on Gulf Coast at the University of Houston. I was intimidated by the editors, who were older and seemed glamorous. In retrospect, I wish I’d been more assertive about that. But, off and on since I was nineteen, I’ve both worked on and submitted to journals.

Being inside the process has shown me both how objective it is and how subjective. I say objective because in my experience submissions are an even playing field. At Antioch Review, envelops from new poets and those from well-published poets sit side by side; the quality of work is what matters. (Though if poets are of a certain stature — say, Pulitzer Prize winners — I will automatically send the work to Judith Hall, so that she can correspond with the writer in question.) But the process is also subjective because very few people – two, finally are involved in the decision. As an editor, I try to be careful, but I am sure I get things wrong sometimes. My feeling, then, is that no particular journal is the final arbiter of worthy work. I do think the process is fair, but I don’t think it’s definitive.

My bottom line? Send your work to lots of venues—and while you are waiting to hear back, send other work to other venues. Be confident that your work is being read, but take the weight off any particular submission by having many envelops out at once. Perhaps, as a final arbiter of value, the collective process of submitting is more useful than any particular journal.

What else have I learned? Oh, maybe to be gentle when things don’t go right, when submissions get lost or it takes a very long time – over a year – and all you get back is a photocopied rejection slip. (This has certainly happened to me on numerous occasions.) The work of reviewing submissions is slow and generally uncompensated, and most of those doing it are struggling to find time for their own writing, too.

Writing questions:

5) I heard once that “poets are forever trying to recreate the first poem they really loved.” What was the first poem that you remember really moving you?

The first poem I remember really moving me was Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.” The “moving” felt physical. “Lazarus” took me to an internal, visionary place. I fell out of the classroom in which a professor was reading the poem aloud, and I found myself in a black box theater with Plath’s images flashing before me. Pick the worms off me like sticky pearls . . . A cake of soap,/ A wedding ring,/ A gold filling. It must have been a combination of the music – literally hypnotic – and the power of those images. The final one I can still see clearly: Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ And I eat men like air. I won’t describe what I saw; the words diminish it too much. But the image took me wholly, and when the professor stopped reading and there was suddenly silence, I sat stunned. I didn’t know where I was. It took me a minute to adjust to the light, to the fact of other students around me—that I was there, but had been somewhere else.

It hadn’t occurred to me before you asked this question, but maybe that experience is one of my goals for a poem. I am first a creature of the imagination, of wanting to see and be shown cool things. I think that’s why my first book is full of dramatic monologues from the age of discovery (Henry Hudson, Amerigo Vespucci) and classical mythology, and why my third book looks to outer space. Imagination is what engages me, still, in the way children are engaged: with wholeness and joy. But of course, there are ideas and emotions to contend with, too. I’m not sure I’ve ever quite figured out what to do with those.

6) I’ve read that your book, “Sweet Core Orchard” was inspired by an orchard you worked at in Ohio. What are some other important muses that drive your work? Any other strong places, people, feelings, moments?

Maybe it works the other way around: poets have concerns, and we’re always looking for vehicles to express them. (Is that the other way around?) So the apple orchard didn’t so much inspire me, as it allowed me to explore two of the concerns that open me up most fully to utterance. The first is mythology, stories that stir the imagination. (In this case, Old Testament apple tree mythology.) And the second, a feeling of being displaced, of homelessness. That farmhouse and orchard were home to me; when I planted those trees, I thought I’d stay there forever. Sweet Core has an ecstatic ending: the discovery of home, or, in mythical terms, the planting of a new “paradise.” Though it turned out I was forced to move just five years later.

Space Traveler channels my life-long love of science fiction. That book, started as I left my orchard and moved, alone, cross country, reflects the experience of rootlessness. But I’m not quite sure it’s accurate to say that science fiction inspired the book, so much as I groped for it, for science fiction, as the vehicle to express what I needed to think about—leaving the home I loved—and as a way to fire my imagination.

7) I’m always interested in the varying perspectives on the matter: what was your MFA experience like? Do you still draw on things you learned from it today? And how did it compare with your Ph.D experience?

I pursued my MFA and PhD at the same school, The University of Houston, so there was a lot of continuity in the experiences—though PhD study is by its nature more solitary, more about the grind of research and the impending reality of being a professor. (And the impending stress of the job market—the possibility that you won’t be a professor.)

When I think back to those days now, they are much as they were then: a blur. During that time, I hoped that in the years after I’d be able to sort out what I was learning, to be able to say with some precision, this I learned, and that. I’m still not sure I can.

But I can point to one thing. At The University of Houston, there was a definite respect for tradition, and for the scholarly poet. Graduate School is largely a socializing process, and in my case, the values of Houston – valorizing erudition, carefulness, and form – found fertile ground. I believe that scholarly work feeds poetry, and that poetry requires ardor, as well as a willingness to take on the arduous. My teachers there, including Richard Howard and Edward Hirsch, modeled the marriage of intellect and passion. How to be wildly learned and carefully enflamed. This combination stays with me – in my life as a reader and a teacher, and, I hope, as a writer.

Of course, there were other things, too. The workshops were terrific; my classmates were terrific. They examined poems carefully and with high standards. I internalized those standards. After a while, you want to have something lauded in workshop, so you strive toward its standards. And, of course, the friends I made there are irreplaceable.

Teaching Questions:

8) And on top of all of that, you wear a third hat- teacher! How do all of these professions inform one another?

In a very mechanical way, my work at The Antioch Review and my work as a teacher are deeply connected. I discover poets and poems as a book reviewer and editor, so I am continually updating the material I bring to the classroom. The new material keeps me engaged, and it ensures that my students are actually reading contemporary poetry. I also teach a class on literary journals, so it is imperative that I know how these journals work—and know what the trends are, what going on in the culture of literary publishing. Additionally, I run a reading series at the University of Hartford, and my work with Antioch Review helps me choose who to invite — whose work I admire, who would be a good model for my students. My work with Antioch Review is like an extended course in contemporary poetry that I’ve been taking for the last decade, and the learning of that course constantly feeds my classroom.

The connection to my work as a poet is less direct, but no less important. I am constantly reading and thinking about poems, about the way poems work; I am never far from the logic of poetry. As a result, even when I am not actively composing my own poems, I am still immersed in the art — exploring what poems do, the new ways they can use the language.

In my experience, being a poet means that you need to reinvent the art for yourself with each new book. Perhaps that sounds extreme: “reinvent the art for yourself.” But in my practice, the fire of discovery must be part of the composition process for me to turn out my best work. So I can’t simply write the same poem again and again. Once I understand an approach or strategy too well, a dullness sets in. That doesn’t always happen quickly. I probably wrote over a hundred “Space Traveler” poems before I felt a little bored by the trope, before the poems began to feel formulaic to me. But it does happen eventually. So it’s imperative that I read constantly, imperative that I discuss poems constantly — especially with undergraduate writers, who force me to see things afresh, as they do. The day I stop exploring new ways to be a poet is probably the day I stop being any kind of poet at all.

As I formulate the art, complacency has no place in it. “Complacent poet”: an oxymoron.

General Questions:

9) What is your favorite line of poetry, ever?

Just one!?

When King Lear enters carrying the dead Cordelia, he says: “Thou’lt come no more,/ Never, never, never, never, never!” The finality and tumbling music of those five trochees breaks my heart. I know of no statement that better nails down the finality of death.

Or Prospero’s response to Miranda’s exclamation of joy at the end of The Tempest. She suddenly meets an array of different people, where before she’d known only Caliban, her father, and (briefly) Ferdinand. She says, “O brave new world,/ That has such people in’t!” Prospero’s reply is four monosyllables. It couldn’t be simpler in diction or articulation — or more devastating in content: “’Tis new to thee.” Ouch. I can’t say the line without hearing an aching thud of silence after it.

Whitman needs to be mentioned here, too: “Edging near, as privately for me, rustling at my feet,/ Creeping thence steadily up to my ears, and laving me softly all over,/ Death, Death, Death, Death, Death.”

And Tennyson, “The woods decay, the woods decay and fall.” What an amazing way to establish point of view in a dramatic monologue: immortal Tithonus, who wants to die.

And Keats, “To cease upon the midnight with no pain….”

And Milton, “They also serve who only stand and wait.” God do I want to believe that.

There are contemporary poets I might name here, too. CK Williams and Mark Doty, especially. I think of Doty’s definition of joy: “heaviness / 

which is no burden to itself.” Or the end of CK Williams’ “The Cup.”

This is an impossible question, isn’t it? One favorite!? If you’re going to pin me down, I’ll stay with the Lear.

10) What is something you would recommend to anyone? Book, song, activity, advice, anything.

Chocolate . . . human touch, as often as possible . . . more sleep (again, as often as possible) . . . a dog or a cat, but only one (you don’t want them controlling your life) . . . rereading your favorite book (I’ve read Siddhartha, Pride and Prejudice, and King Lear no less than twenty times each) . . . acquiring those things that you love viscerally and immediately, and passing on all other stuff (again, whenever possible) . . . telling people how much you like them . . . giving up on family members who consistently hurt you. . . .

By “chocolate,” I mean dark chocolate—85% cocoa or better.

I have to say just one thing, right? Again, just one? Well, I recently saw the film Mr. Nobody – an ambitious, playful, beautiful mess. And Jared Leto has dreamy eyes. So, yeah, I’m going to recommend that.

Interview with Camille Dungy by Nikki Barnhart (2015)

I’m the interviews editor for the Long River Review. Professor Pelizzon contacted you on my behalf about an interview to include in our latest issue. Your work is so beautiful and powerful and we’re all honored and excited to have you in LRR. I’ve prepared a few questions for you….

First of all, thank you for your kind words, and for including me in LRR. I think so much of being a writer is about being part of a long and broad conversation. I’m happy to take part in a portion of that conversation with you.

The Polish director Krzysztof Kieślowski said he made a movie once called, “Talking Heads” in which he simply asked people, “who are you, and what do you want?” I love the deceptive simplicity of these questions and I want to frame all of my interviews this semester around them. So my first question is:

1) Who are you, and what do you want?

That doesn’t seem simple at all. I mean, I guess I could simply say I’m Camille T. Dungy. I was always a person who liked my name. There aren’t many women in this country named Camille, so I’ve always felt somewhat unique because of my name. And there are other things that mark me as unique. I grew up in a proudly black family in a predominately white neighborhood, so that’s a way I have been different. I have wanted to be a writer for a long time, even as my peers went into fields like medicine or tech. I have this laugh that makes me stand out to such a degree that people I haven’t seen for years have been able to identify my solely based on my laugh. I’ve gone on for quite a long time about all of this. I guess my answer for you and Krzysztof Kieślowski might be something like I am Camille T. Dungy, and I want to be different. But I don’t want to be a freak or anything. I just want to be myself.

2) I’m really interested in the beginnings of your work – was there a concrete moment when you knew you wanted to be a poet?

I mentioned above that I decided to be a poet when my friends were going into medicine and tech and such. I did my undergrad work at Stanford. I chose that university partly so that I could major in English while also taking the pre-med core. Stanford was open to a diversified student in a way I didn’t see at some of the other schools I considered. During my sophomore year, though, when I was taking O-Chem, Molecular Biology, and Reading and Writing Poetry, all I wanted to concentrate on was the poetry. I dropped the science courses and focused on my English major. That was one instance of what I call doubling down on poetry. Making that decision was a great relief.

In my senior year I had three plans for my future. 1) an MFA program; 2) a Masters of Philosophy on poetry of the African diaspora I would pursue in England; 3) a year-long Greyhound tour of the US. When all the letters of acceptance came in, an MFA at UNC Greensboro seemed the best option, and my course was set yet again. Once I was in the MFA program, I remember a day when I walked across a certain bridge over a certain creek and saw a certain sunset and a certain shorebird and I realized my job, now, was to learn how to describe what I saw and why it moved me. That was another doubling down.

Those are three moments of turning deeper toward poetry that I can recall, but I know that my whole life I’ve understood my world through language. I was raised in a house that respected literature, and I was taken to hear poetry readings from a young age. My mother and grandmother encouraged me to memorize poems. I was never laughed at in school for identifying as a writer. I even spent the last three years of high school in Iowa City, home of the famed Iowa Writers Workshop, where real people all over town are real writers. I knew that living human beings could be poets, and I thought that was a reasonable outcome for my life. So I guess I’ve always been becoming a writer. Of course, every day we sit down to a blank page we are becoming writers all over again. That process doesn’t stop until we stop writing.

3) What was your childhood definition of a poet and how does that stack up to what you really do today? Similarly, do you remember what your first poem was about? 

I just heard this Freakonomics Podcast that explored why we so frequently say, “That’s an interesting question.” It has made me self conscious about saying, “That’s an interesting question.” But, in truth, this is an interesting question. I think I spoke a above about how my childhood showed me that poetry was something real people did and read and loved. I think the first poem I might have ever memorized is the Langston Hughes poem that starts, “Hold fast to dreams/ For if dreams die/ life is a broken- winged bird/That cannot fly.” Who knows when I memorized that, but I can bet I was younger than 8. I met Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni for the first times when I was about 10 or 12. And in high school one of my mentors at church was the director of the Iowa International Writers Workshop, another, the poet William Ford, was also an active poet; and I spent a good deal of time in the famed Prairie Lights Bookstore’s poetry section. What all this means, I think, is that I understood that poets write poems. It’s not just something that famous dead people did, and poems don’t appear from nowhere. Also, and importantly, I understood that poets go grocery shopping, too, and if they attend a church they are likely to participate in relatively mundane meetings about traffic flow in the parking lot. Mostly, though, what I understood was that poets work. Gwendolyn Brooks gave me a  pamphlet called Young Poet’s Primer that insisted on the importance of reading and revising (rinse and repeat), and I understood that was as much a part of a being a poet as the flashy stuff we see in movies. My dad’s a doctor, and I knew that his life resembled very little of the flashy stuff we saw on screen about a doctor’s life. I guess I intuited that the same was true for what it was to be a writer. All that said, and even though my parents were both academics, I don’t think I had any real idea of just how many mundane meetings about the equivalent of traffic patterns I’d have to be involved in when I became a creative writing professor.

I’m such a big talker, Nikki. I hope you have space for all this going on and on. I am convinced that part of the reason poetry chose me is so that I would have one space in my world of words where I was forced to be more concise. You ask if I remember my first poem. I don’t think I can answer that. I always wrote, really from before I could actually write. So I don’t remember the first poem in the way you’re asking. I do remember the general ideas around some poems I wrote in junior high school and high school. And I remember (with a bit of embarrassment) the thrust of a few of the poems in my grad school applications. I remember that “Ark”— which is collected in my book of rogue sonnets,What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison— was the first time I wrote a sonnet that I considered my own style of sonnet, not something derivative of someone else’s style of sonnet. All of these poems were persona poems in some way or another. I think my own life wasn’t terribly interesting to me, or certainly not interesting enough to write poem after poem about my own experience. I think one of the luckiest things about my development as a poet was my early awareness of the power of persona and the breadth of material I would have at my disposal if I learned to empathetically portray other people’s experiences rather than solely my own.
4) What are some of your favorite influences? Literary, yes, but also non-literary – what inspires you? Music, art, people, places, sounds, feelings?

I’ll always answer Lucille Clifton and Robert Hass in terms of poetic influences, and as I mentioned earlier, Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni. Giovanni was in her  20s when she wrote her first ground-breaking collections. This was important to me for some reason. Proof, perhaps, that I could be young and also have something important to say. I’ll also mention Tonya Godfrey here. She was my piano teacher when I was growing up. She catered to my ear, and kept me moving through musical styles in improvisational ways. Also, she made me practice all the time, but she made practice fun.  So I learned a kind of discipline and commitment, I trained my musical ear, and I learned how to be adventurous and take chances in art. These were all crucial foundations for me when I left piano and turned more deeply into poetry. Then, of course, I’ve always traveled. When I was 5 years old my family lived for a period of time in northern Nigeria. That was a world unlike any I’d known before.  On the way home from west Africa, we stopped in London. That, too, was really different from Orange County, California. I spent summers in Chicago with my grandparents. Granddad was an American Baptist preacher, so the nuances of the Black church are part of my lexicon, but also regular exposure to basic human rites like weddings and sitting in hospital waiting rooms and attending funerals. All these experiences, I know, have influenced who I am as a person and a writer.

5) How do you write? What is your process like? I’ve always felt poetry must be done at an angle – you have to think of things differently than you normally would.

I sit down and I write. Though sometimes I stand up and write. When I drove a lot, I’d dictate ideas into a recording device. The key, I’ve found, is that I write. If I don’t write, I don’t write. That sounds silly and circular, but it’s really the most basic truth I know.

Do you have a deeper question behind that question? I might have a harder time answering because every poem and every book calls for a different process. Just when I think I know how to write I have to learn all over again. Then it comes back to the one basic truth. I have to write if I want to write.

6) You’ve lived in a variety of places – North Carolina, California, Colorado, etc, – how has each place shaped you and your writing, if it all?

Again, I think I might have begun to answer this question elsewhere. Place certainly infuses itself into my writing. What I see around me is all part of what I end up writing. When I lived in Boston I saw people all the time and I wrote about people all the time. When I first moved to Virginia, I was terrified because all I saw when I looked out my window were a bunch of trees. Then I wrote one of my favorite poems, the title poem of my first book, all about those trees. So in these ways place is a huge influence.

I do think, though, that place isn’t everything. I write about places even when I’m not in the, Certain places haunt me and live with  me even when I’m not living with them. Reading plays a huge role in what I understand about the world around me and the possibilities for poetry. And also family and interiors and all sort of other things. I think of landscapes in very broad terms: cultural, historical, personal as well as topographical. All these things and my responses to them change somewhat when I move from place to place, but in other ways they don’t change at all.

7) How would you communicate what you try to express in your poetry in a different art form?

Well, that’s an interesting question. Once a composer set my crown of sonnets “What to eat, and what to drink, and what to leave for poison” to music. Three sopranos and a piano and organ. I adored it. He interpreted the poems in such fascinating ways. And I’ve worked with the poet/publisher Curtis Bauer and also with Liz Bradfield on broadside projects in which art has accompanied some of my poems. Actually, I’ve had several such broadsides made by different artists. The interpretations are always different, and I love that about them. I don’t know that I’d have the chutzpah to take on another art form myself. I am doing a lot of creative house painting right now, and it is fun but also proof that my skills may be better focused elsewhere. I do love to cook, that’s the one “art” I’ve maintained in addition to poetry. But aside from the fact that food can sustain, indulge, and at times overwhelm, I don’t know that I would consider it the same as poetry. I will say that when I am cooking badly I am also usually writing badly. Though the reverse isn’t necessarily true. I can be writing really well and ignoring the kitchen completely.

8) What do you believe the importance of literary journals are – have they personally aided you in your publishing experiences?

All hail literary journals! They have aided me in so many ways. All of us. We wouldn’t have writing without them. And forget all the people who say the Internet is going to render journals obsolete. That’s hogwash. We need the curatorial eye that editors bring to their tasks. We need to see new poets up against established poets. We need, as writers, to try our work out in the world. I remember my first few notable publications with great appreciation. When The Missouri Review ran several poems from what would become my first book, that was a turning point for me. It helped me believe in the project, but it helped others believe in it too. (It was from those poems that I had my first Poetry Dailypoem selected. Literary journals are an avenue for writers to feel like writers, but they are also the way that readers learn who we can read, who we might look forward to reading. Oh heavens, I could go on and on in praise of lit journals. I think that aspiring writers should ask for subscriptions to literary journals for their birthdays and holidays. That way their friends and family will be supporting their favorite writers’ futures, and the writers get some good work to read and work alongside.

9) To take a question from the Paris Review’s interview with Allen Ginsberg, do you feel in command when you are writing?

Oh heavens no. I feel exhilarated and cocky and excited, but not in command. That would be so boring. I want to be stretched beyond my limits, unsure of what will happen next. I need to trust that I won’t crash (thus the cocky part), but I only just barely trust that I won’t crash .

10) In your essay, “Tell It Slant,” you talk about the importance of utilizing expectations and rewards in poetry- how do you do this in your own work?

Hmm.  That’s an…there we go again. I think the reason “That’s an interesting question” is such a problematic phrase is it is too often used as a place filler. It is too often not an interesting phrase. It’s a way of waiting to say something interesting without suffering an awkward silence. Poetry demands silences. We just don’t want them to be awkward. One of the ways I think about playing expectation against reward is I try not to say what it is you think I’m going to say, even if it seems like it would be the most reasonable thing to say. I don’t want to do something just because I’m afraid to let the poem be quiet for awhile. I don’t know if I’m answering your question. I had to write a whole essay to think through the question, and I referred to several of my favorite poems and poets (Clifton, Hass, Atwood, Darwish). They all do it differently, which is the thing about good poetry. There’s no formula for it. Just a number of possibilities and a mad hope that you come up with the right combination this one time.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t answer your question. Let me know if you want me to try a different approach.

11) What is something you know to be true?

This is a funny question for me at this particular moment in my life. I was teaching my MFA students last week and I said something about something that I believe to be true most of the time and certainly in the case I was addressing. I noticed one of the students giving me a look I remember giving my own teachers when they made proclamations I didn’t believe. I had to work really hard not to laugh out loud right there at the head of the table. The funny thing to me was that the student really really really really had a firm conviction, and the student was incredulous that my conviction was not the same. I, however, have come to understand that my convictions are pretty malleable. It’s quite possible that if the student had spoken rather than just looking at me I would have accommodated the new point of view. (In fact, I did when I prompted the student to speak). Our universe is actually probably part of a multiverse. That’s an amazing fact. There are infinite truths out there. I can’t possibly espouse all of them. When I was younger this would have struck me as a ridiculous thought. I was learning to be an expert. Later it would have struck me as terrifying. Now I think the fact that I cannot know everything is about the coolest truth there is to know.

12) What is something you would recommend to anyone – whether it be writing advice, a recipe, a book, or an afternoon activity.

You probably mean besides my typical advice that a writer must read.

Besides the advice that homemade pizza crusts are really easy to make and truly the only way to go. (This is a truth I learned from your own Penelope Pelizzon in about 2003 and which I have never since forgotten or ignored.)

Besides the advice that Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is a gorgeously rendered work of terrifying and edifying prophecy that every human American should read?

Besides the fact that if there are people in your life you love you should tell them you love them even when you don’t really like them because life is short and shortest when you least expect?

I’d probably advise people that plant seeds from big box stores are  suspected as being part of the problem with the bees and that you should get your hand on heirloom seeds and plant them and avoid box stores and shop locally whenever and however you can. If you live your life with your hands near the earth and with a connection to the community around you, you’ll have plenty of things to write about, and also, and most importantly, you’ll have a richer more robust life.

Nikki Barnhart is a senior Journalism major. In addition to being interview editor for the Long River Review, she works at The Daily Campus and the Connecticut Writing Project. She enjoys re-watching “The Office” over and over again.