As part of Structure and Style’s third birthday celebration (we like to make our parties last), we asked a few of our favorite poets if they would be willing to talk to us about poetry. We were tickled pink when Kim Addonizio agreed to answer S’s questions via email.
Structure and Style: The first thing that struck me about your poetry, and it is one of the things that has made me such a fan, is how deeply observant your poems are. What role does observation play in a poet’s life? Does there need to be a balance between observation and experience, and how does one balance the two? Do you have any suggestions as to ways poets can aspire to become more observant in their own lives?
Kim Addonizio: In my book Ordinary Genius, I have a writing exercise about observation: Just notice three things in your environment. I’m actually very unobservant in general. I tend to tune out my surroundings, so it’s helpful for me to do this exercise myself. Notice, notice, notice: That’s my mantra, and I have to continually remind myself of it. It’s useful for every kind of writing.
S&S: One thing both of us at Structure and Style admire about you and your poetry is your commitment to feminism and a strong female voice. We perceive a lot of your poems as being very empowering. What does feminism mean to you? How has it shaped your poems and your experiences? How has the poetry community evolved in terms of female equality in the last 20 years? In what ways does the community and publishing world still need to improve?
KA: I grew up during the “Second Wave” of feminism, and from about the age of thirteen started to realize what it meant to be a female in a male-dominated world. My early poetry was informed by the groundbreaking anthology No More Masks—that’s where I discovered a lot of women writers. As for female equality, obviously it’s not yet a reality, even in the more developed countries. VIDA is doing good work, it seems, to keep track of certain inequalities, but that’s a small piece of the whole. You can’t talk about sexism without looking at race and class, as well. I appreciate the people who are having that conversation and trying to raise some awareness around it all.
S&S: One of the things that resonates with my Structure and Style co-creator in your poems is how powerful a word or phrase—“fuck,” “I,” or “I I I,” “good girl”—can be in shaping our self-identities. Do you consciously set out to explore specific words and phrases as related to identity, or does it happen somewhere in the writing and revising of a poem?
KA: Well, with the poem “Fuck” I did set out to explore peoples’ responses to that word. But it’s not like it wasn’t already part of my lexicon. I had a student recently who used “motherfucker” in a poem and found it liberating. That was kind of shocking to me; I can’t imagine that word being a breakthrough for anyone, but that’s the case for some people. People inhabit so many different worlds—cultural, linguistic, political—that are totally separate from each other. I can’t say I ever set out to explore identity per se, though. I’m just trying to say something interesting and true, which is enough of a challenge.
S&S: A lot of your poems are very adult—complex feelings, paradoxes, heaviness, sex, love, breakups, starting over, etc.—with no easy endings or solutions. How do you resist the urge to solve a problem or close it off?
KA: I’d love to solve the problems of being an adult and living a mortal life on earth. Unfortunately, it’s just as you’ve described: complex, difficult, and not really solvable.
S&S: One thing that is often hard to overcome is the notion of self-censorship. It’s hard for a writer not to be concerned with the way their work will be perceived and the kinds of conclusions people will make based on something he or she has written. A lot of your poems are very confessional, personal, and honest. Have you received criticism for being such an open writer? If so, how have you dealt with those criticisms? Do you have any advice or comments about ways to overcome self-censorship? How can we overcome the fear of repercussions from being true to ourselves or even true to our voices, characters, and observations?
KA: If a writer is too concerned with how her work will be perceived, she’s not going to be much of a writer. The point is to tell the truth as you see it. I don’t much care how people perceive me, frankly. I care more about making good work and connecting to a reader. Maybe that’s a paradox. I don’t know. As for self-censorship, my advice is to do your best to get over it. Do you want to have everybody like you, or do you want to see what you have to say? My own fears around writing have to do with whether I can do it well enough. Right now I’m afraid of a play I wrote a draft of about a year ago. I’m afraid I can’t fix its problems and make it work. That’s common to a lot of writers, too. In either case, you just need to do it. Who was it who said, “The only way out is through?”
S&S: Leslie Jamison recently wrote in The Guardian that confessional writing “incites” others to share their stories after reading hers, and she listed examples of people who’d stopped her to relate personal stories after reading The Empathy Exams. Has this happened to you after readings? (My co-creator confesses that she might not be able to resist sharing the impact of “Good Girl” on her life, should you ever meet at AWP or elsewhere and have drinks.) How far removed do you feel from confessional writing after it has been written down, or even published?
KA: I get the question and sympathize (or maybe empathize). There are certain writers I’ve felt compelled to email and tell them what their work meant to me. As it happens, I’m reading The Empathy Exams right now and liking it very much. But for me as a reader, it’s mostly about the writing. And the worldview. Do I have a big desire to be best friends with the person who wrote the book, or share my own story? Not really. And when I write something I pretty much put it out there and don’t think about it after that. I’m on to the next thing. That said, I’d certainly be happy to have a drink with your co-creator. I love hearing that my work has mattered to someone.
And I’m not so sure about the term “confessional.” Is the work of photographers Cindy Sherman or Francesca Woodman “confessional”? Is Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther? How about Marguerite Duras’s The Lover? I’ve just been rereading Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight. How closely does the narrator resemble the actual Jean Rhys who lived, apparently, poor and depressed and alcoholic for many years? And does it matter whether or not the actual circumstances of her life corresponded to what she wrote? I’m interested in what gets made and the sensibility that makes it, but not in whether it happened on a physical, literal level.
S&S: When I discuss poetry with other people and with my students, I often run into the idea that poetry has to incorporate end rhyme and that it’s usually vague or “deep.” I work very hard to teach my students about all of the techniques poetry can incorporate (variations in sound, image, the function of the link, rhythm) as a way to broaden their understanding of poetry, but a lot of times I find a poem beautiful without being able to explain exactly why right away. I sometimes wonder if I’ve been reading, writing, and studying poetry so long that some skills have become “automatic” or “natural” in a sense. What is the best way to begin to understand a poem? Where should a poet or aspiring poet begin in terms of studying specific poetic techniques?
KA: I guess my general idea is that you just try to be open, to listen. If something seems interesting or mysterious or appealing, you try to get at why that is. If you hate something or feel angry at it, you try to explore that feeling. Then, maybe, you start to approach something important about the poem. I think of it like getting to know a person: A lot of times, you don’t know right away why you’re attracted (or repelled). You just are. Well, usually it’s a lot clearer why you don’t like someone. But if you are drawn to a person, or a poem, there’s a mystery there. You don’t know what it is, but you want to know more. So you hang out with the person, or the poem, and you begin to understand a few things. of course, if you’ve been hanging out with poetry a long time, you know a lot more about it. The point is to have some curiosity and excitement about something that might be at first foreign. When you go to a country where you don’t speak the language or know the customs, there’s a certain amount of anxiety, sure, but there’s also the pleasure in getting shaken loose from what you’re used to. Maybe it’s helpful for students to approach poetry like backpacking through Europe or Central America.
S&S: You also write and publish fiction. Does writing fiction influence the way you write or approach poetry and vice versa? Are there any fiction works or authors you would recommend to poets or people who love poetry?
KA: I’ve just published a book of stories, The Palace of Illusions. It’s been great to be back in the world of narrative fiction, but I can’t say it has a lot to do with the way I write poetry. Poetry often feels more satisfying because I can jump in, get a draft in a day, and feel I’ve gotten to something compelling.
There are a lot of fiction writers I love because they are, like poets, concerned with all of the possibilities and nuances of language. Laura Kasischke is a poet and novelist, and you can tell. Denis Johnson writes brilliant sentences (and is, or was, also a poet). Lorrie Moore is a metaphorical wizard. Many of Lydia Davis’s shorter stories seem like prose poems. The best prose has a lot of poetry in it.
S&S: Which poets should we be on the lookout for?
KA: Well, first I’d say to read some of the poets who have earned a place in the canon for good reason: Herbert, Donne, Blake, Keats, Hopkins, Whitman, Dickinson. Bishop and Larkin. Those are some who come immediately to mind. As for contemporary poets: A student of mine, Tracey Knapp, is coming out with a first book called Mouth that’s very good. Deviants by Peter Kline, another first book, is both formally accomplished and emotionally complex. Tyehimba Jess’s Leadbelly, which came out a handful of years ago, is a beautiful book. Anthologies are really helpful if someone’s looking to see whose voice speaks to them. Or new poets can do what I did: Go to the bookstore (assuming you can find one), browse the shelves, and pick books whose covers interest you. That’s how I started, and I found some terrific poets that way, before Google came along. Just dive in. The water’s fine.
We want to thank Kim Addonizio for being so good and taking the time to answer our questions.