What are your passions—for whom/what do you write? I write from a female perspective for the underrepresented voices who should not have been silenced or missing from the cultural lexicon and literary canons. I grew up in an exhausted industrial city, lost within a large, working class family where poetry was a luxury for the rich and elite so I hid what I wrote. I write for all those who turn to writing for identity, self-preservation, expression, and survival.
What advice would you give to a poet trying to find a voice?
Be true to yourself but know that this isn’t an easy path, trying to make a career of it. As an English teacher, I realized that everyone can learn to write (to some degree of efficiency) but few will ever “become” writers. In the 14 years I spent in a classroom teaching literature and creative writing, I happened upon maybe two students who had what it takes to make it as a professional writer—and I had many bright, talented students. But neither “bright” nor “talented” are enough. No, a writer has to have this whole, magic package in order to make a dent in one of the toughest fields: professional creative writing. And somewhere tucked deep within that enigmatic, magical package that a writer must have is the most unique ingredient that we call a “voice.”
Skills can be learned that improve storytelling, and suggestions or techniques may amplify the impact a poem or an exploded moment has on the reader, but “talent” either is or it isn’t. And “voice” is that mandatory element that is both hard to define but impossible to miss when you’ve heard it. I think of it as the “soul” of the writing, the heart, mind, and innerworkings that beat underneath the words. For example, a writer whose work has “style” can learn the mechanics of good writing and how to edit, but a wooden writer will almost never develop that something that makes writing feel alive, no matter how good their organizational tools are.
There are no shortcuts, no recipes for “making it big”—and, if there were, I wouldn’t trust them. Having said that, however, I think the best “hack” to learn to identify “voice” is to read. Read everything and read all the time. From classics to contemporary literary fiction. You may not be able to imitate the “masters of the craft” but the only way to improve your “game” is to run hard with writers who are better than you and whose work has been used to establish the foundation of what you’re up against. The standards are set so learn them—if only to get good enough one day to break all the rules and to do it well.
What advice would you give to a poet trying to gain exposure?
Yes, “exposure”. . . Well, I’m not going to pretend to tell this upcoming youth culture about “exposure.” They were born with computers in their laps and smart phones in their hands. This is the age that brought us “selfies” and a preponderance of social media options, channels which are clogged with YouTube videos of everything from stupid pet tricks, to you doing your cover of a Beyoncé or a Florence and the Machine song, while sitting on your unmade bed with the disaster of your room on camera all around you.
All I can say is, The internet is forever, and “Don’t put the cart before the horse.” Everyone is in a rush to promote, promote, promote. I’m more a fan of, Get good, first. Find a writing group and help each other. Listen to feedback and let your work simmer. Let the ideas ripen and mature. I wrote, privately, in journals for years. [I still journal!] And now I know that not everything is ready for primetime. Not everything we write is “gold,” but you’ll always know when you’ve written something amazing, that’s a cut above your previous work.
When I started grad school for poetry, I was turned down by many programs and I was the weakest writer in my MFA, at first. So I went to the library (because I couldn’t afford to buy the books I wanted) and I read and I read and I read. Then I wrote and I threw poems away, every day for two years. –I remember my first, breakthrough poem, “Dandelion,” and when I finally shared it with the writers in workshop, it was nominated for an Intro Award. I went on to become Poetry Editor of the university’s literary publication, Ellipsis, the last year of my MFA.
What are your preferred writing conditions?
I believe writing is a muscle and talent requires discipline. So, I write every day. Every. Day. If I’m not feeling “inspired” (and woe be the author who waits on that fickle entity alone!), then I will read. Reading has what I call the “popcorn effect”: reading someone else’s work stimulates my senses and my mind starts responding or talking back to the poem, etc. Often, my own ideas will launch from reading good writing. [This is not an excuse to plagiarize or to steal or riff off of someone else’s idea. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m talking more about using reading to preheat your own mental oven.] And, you should be interested in a wide range of topics. I am naturally curious and I’ve found metaphors from biology, psychology, and economics.
Finally, you have to approach writing like you want to qualify for the Olympics. Those athletes are out there putting in unbelievable hours to prepare themselves. Greatness is never an accident and a lazy talent is a waste of talent. And on days when I just don’t feel “creative,” I do editorial work like configuring a Table of Contents or assembling the Acknowledgements page. I also submit then, since I’m feeling “unartistic.” That way I’m working at my craft whether or not I feel “ready.” I write best when I’m alone with no distractions (so no phone)—unless I’m doing the mindless paperwork of submittals, in which case I work with the music on up high! I also like to stand up to write sometimes because I get tired of sitting.
Name one poet who inspired you.
Can’t do one but let’s see. Ai taught me the dramatic monologue. Jorie Graham and Jon Ashbery, the exotic weirdness of what happens in the air between words. Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, and Sharon Olds, the pain and beauty that it is to be a woman born at a certain place and time. Sappho just for being Sappho. And Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” destroyed me for weeks after I read it. But Wislawa Szymborska is my all-around favorite! Others include Pablo Neruda, Robert Hass, C.K. Williams, and Audrey Lorde.
What do you think makes a poem memorable?
It can be an elegant expression but normally it’s heart. Voice. Style. Someone is moved by a passionate moment and they express it so well that I am also moved. But not with adjectives or adverbs—or even the shock value that some words have. Put away the thesaurus and paint for me with words how it feels to be you. Natalie Diaz’s, When My Brother Was an Aztec does this beautifully.