from Five Points, Volume 14, Number 1
In 1996, I took my first poetry workshop with Kim Addonizio. Eight poets met in a living room in San Francisco on Monday nights, learning the craft and watching Kim's overweight cat lie on her back to get her belly rubbed. I still take Kim's classes, and we have become good friends, sharing not only the love of the word but the tennis court and wine. We began this interview through an email exchange and then moved to the more intimate locale of my kitchen and dinner table, talking like crazy as we always do, with plenty of Sancerre on hand.
Browne: When did you write your first poem? What inspired you and what was the poem about?
Addonizio: My first poem was assigned in about the fourth grade. I remember desperately trying, and failing, to think up similes for the sun. When I was twelve, I wrote a poem in rhymed couplets that began, "Through drifts of white and crusty snow / sped a solitary doe." I must have been reading Frost's "Stopping by Woods ... " and unconsciously picked up the meter. The doe gets caught in some barbed wire and dies horribly while her little fawn waits for her return. I guess I knew, back then, that death had to be involved.
Browne: What is your process of writing?
Addonizio: It's absorption, and then letting some part of the brain do its thing at some level I can't really access.
Browne: Say a little more about absorption?
Addonizio: It's all pretty mysterious to me. If I read, I want to write. I never plan on what to write; I just start fooling around with a few words, or a rhythm, and whatever has gone on in my physical, mental, emotional life ends up coming out. It really starts with language, and I follow the language to see where it takes me, assimilating little pieces of things I've seen or read or thought about, things that have happened, stories I've encountered. Often, lately, I'll have a bunch of fragments, like sketches, and then some of those pieces will start to cohere around an idea.
Browne: When do you know that something you've lived is material for a poem? Do you ever have this feeling that while you're living, you'll write about it?
Addonizio: I don't experience life in order to get material—though everything is material! Sometimes it lands in your lap. My answering machine once recorded a conversation on someone's cell phone—about me—that I was never meant to hear. It was priceless. I used it practically verbatim in an essay.
Browne: What do you do when you think your poems suck?
Addonizio: I might go to the movies. Or the gym. Anything to get away from my own head, my own words. When I come back, I can see them more clearly.
Browne: What is one of your favorite poems, one that you wrote, and why?
Addonizio: I'm usually excited about the latest thing I've written, and then, when the romance is over—after I put it away for a few weeks or months—I pull it out and see if it's worth anything. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about past work because I'm more interested in where to go next.
Browne: But you did write a novel, My Dreams Out in the Street, based on the past work of your second book of poetry, Jimmy & Rita. Tell us about the process of moving from those characters in the poems to writing a novel about them.
Addonizio: Yeah, I was still thinking about those characters after I finished that book. I wrote the novel for the same reason I wrote the novel-in-verse that was Jimmy & Rita. That earlier book sprang from a single poem about them, and I wanted to find out who they were. After that book, I still needed to know more—specifically, what happened after the events of Jimmy & Rita ended. It was a story I needed to know, so I wrote it. It took ten years, on and off. I was struggling to figure out how to write a novel. I'm not sure I know yet, but I did write that one, and before finishing it, I wrote and published another one.
Browne: That first novel, Little Beauties, received a lot of positive reviews and has been optioned by Fox Searchlight for a movie. Can you talk about the shift from writing poetry to becoming a novelist?
Addonizio: A sustained narrative is a very daunting undertaking. I'm not sure I ever want to try it again. You have to have a very high level of obsession with the story, a level that will keep you coming back to the story day after day. I've written all my prose books by focusing on two pages a day. If I thought about any more than that, I'd be paralyzed from fear. The thing is that eventually it adds up, so if you can just keep at it, you can get somewhere. But the anxiety, for me, is tremendous. The movie, if it gets made, will be called Rule #1. Each draft of the screenplay is moving it further from what I wrote, but maybe it will lead some people to check out the novel. The nice thing about publishing poems is that there's no pressure on you to sell, to be "commercial" in some way. Of course I want to sell my work, because I want people to read it, but the whole marketing mentality around novels, memoirs, etc. is really awful. I'm talking mostly about the New York publishing houses. Everything needs a hook or a "platform." And fewer and fewer people are reading. And things are changing so fast, technologically, and most of these publishers are still trying to figure out what will work.
Browne: You've also published two books on writing poetry, The Poet's Companion (with Dorianne Laux), and the more recent Ordinary Genius. Why did you decide to write a second book about the craft? How do the books differ?
Addonizio: It had been ten years since The Poet's Companion, a book that proved popular in creative writing classes. I see Ordinary Genius as a similar book—suited to beginning writers and community college and intro classes, but with writing ideas that poets at any level can use. It's meant as an introduction, a way to get into the water and see that it's not going to drown you. The idea is to get people excited about reading and writing, so they will go on from there. In Ordinary Genius I used poems from the canon as well as contemporary work, and filled it with writing ideas and projects for writers (to make a movie of a poem, for example—not likely to get made by Fox, though). It treats poetry more as an art and less as an academic subject, and it aims to address writers as artist, even if nascent ones. That might make it Poetry Lite for some, but you have to start somewhere, and hopefully you can stimulate the impulse to go deeper into the craft and into reading as well as writing.
Browne: Who was your best writing teacher? Someone who inspired you, gave you helpful feedback?
Addonizio: Stan Rice. I studied with him at San Francisco State, in the eighties, when I didn't know anything and was terrible, and he took my poems seriously. He was hugely generous.
Browne: What do you think is the most important thing(s) you can teach about writing?
Addonizio: That a teacher can help you, but in the end, you have to teach yourself. There's no magic bullet. I try to expose my students to poetry, and to what I know about it, which sometimes feels like not very much. And to keep them going, since it takes a long time. The rest, really, is up to them.
Browne: Yes, it takes a long time ... I suppose that is the beauty and the torture of being a writer.
Addonizio: Beauty and torture! It sounds like a pornographic S & M fairy tale.
Browne: Speaking of pornography, do you ever censor yourself, because you feel it might offend someone or it's too personal? What do you say to students about that issue?
Addonizio: I always write it, and tell them to write it, too. Then you sometimes have to make tricky decisions about who sees it, or how to change or disguise things a bit. I don't think much about it, with my poetry. When I write, I'm making a poem, period. I don't care what people think about how I portray them or myself (or rather "myself"), because it's a construction. It's a fiction, to me, as much as a novel or short story, and operates in exactly the same way; the underlying concerns are mine, but the drama of how they are enacted on the page may or may not directly correlate.
Let me try and put it another way, because this bugs me, the whole "confessional" brush with which I'm tarred. In a poem, I might take a fleeting feeling and amplify it for the sake of making it more dramatic. I'm not suicidal, for example. But if I have a moment when I can inhabit the consciousness of what it would be like to want to kill myself, I might write a poem with a suicidal speaker. I might even write the poem in order to inhabit that consciousness. Or, at the other extreme, I might ramp something up for the sake of the comedy. I'll change details, etc. I don't give a shit about "what really happened," because it's confining to stick to it; I'd much rather make things up. And if there is an "I" in the poem it might or might not be me. "Forms of Love," in Lucifer at the Starlite, is a poem I wrote thinking, "Now no one will think the "I" is me, because this person is saying contradictory things"—it's a poem I imagine as several different people talking in the first-person. Later I read it and thought that a reader might think it was one person talking about a lot of different people, rather than various ''I''s. So maybe it wasn't quite a successful poem on that level. Memoir, though, feels trickier. It's you, but it's a character, but it's you. And certain things happened, and you're trying to be true to that, as much as you can, given that memory is slippery and you're trying to create some kind of narrative.
Browne: Yes, poetry is fiction. That fact is sometimes forgotten. When I read your poem, "Forms of Love," I thought of a speaker saying these things about love, not necessarily Kim Addonizio. I thought it was a wonderful poem about our fickle, desperate, questing, comic relationship with love. Let me ask you about another poem, "Quantum," from Tell Me. I'm fascinated by that poem. I wondered what lay behind it, the story, the inspiration for it.
Addonizio: I was walking up Powell Street in San Francisco, on my way to interview Mark Doty for Poetry Flash, and feeling overwhelmed by the world around me, as though I'd left my skin at home. It came out of that feeling, and a lot of images were at hand.
Browne: And again, from Tell Me, would you say something about the marvelous poem, "Flood," that ends the book. In that brief poem, there is living, loving, dying. In such a small space, the whole sensual world.
Addonizio: I used to feel I needed to take notes in order to be a writer, in order not to miss anything. But I discovered that when I sat down to write, some part of me that had been recording things without my awareness showed up. "How images enter you, the shutter of the body / clicking when you're not even looking." And by the end, I got to the idea of being able to take all that into death—the memories, the world of the self that we think of as disappearing at death.
Browne: Have you ever wanted to stop writing? Do you think you ever will?
Addonizio: I've quit writing fiction a number of times. The one thing I know I won't quit is poetry. I'm really a poet; I'm lucky to have been able to publish fiction and non-fiction, but poetry is where I live, the thing that really matters.
Browne: How is poetry where you live? I'd like to know more about that address.
Addonizio: I guess it's a nomadic address; I think of poetry as my path. It's what I'm meant to do, my role in what Joseph Campbell called the "horrific opera" of life. Both writing and reading poetry give me something that sustains me. I don't think I could do without them.
Browne: In a previous interview, you said that you did not grow up wanting to be a writer. When you were seven, you wanted to be a nun. In your first book, The Philosopher's Club, there is a poem titled "The Concept of God," and in your most recent book, Lucifer at the Starlight, there is "God Ode." Can you comment on both poems and how your concept of God has changed, or if it has?
Addonizio: This character called God haunts a lot of my books. Being raised Roman Catholic gave me a template I could use. Religion offers great rituals. On good days I believe in, and can feel, some immanence in the world. On bad ones, I think of the end of Frost's "Design": "What but design of darkness to appall? / If design govern in a thing so small."
Browne: There is a great deal of humor in your poetry. You are very funny and serious at the same time. Does that come naturally, from your family background?
Addonizio: It's true, my family is funny. My mother had this great deadpan wit. I love dark humor, the darker the better. I love the comedian Bill Hicks, who I discovered on Youtube. He's dead now. He was fantastic, no-holds-barred, fuck what anyone thought. He also said, "All matter is really energy condensed to a slow vibration. We are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There is no such thing as death. Life is only a dream and we are the imagination of ourselves."
Browne: How much influence from family—your parents—is part of the path to your writing life?
Addonizio: Mostly, it was beating a retreat from my sports-loving, violently dysfunctional family while I was still stuck in the middle of it that led me to reading, and later, writing.
Browne: Is there another time period in your life in which you'd prefer to live?
Addonizio: I'm horribly nostalgic so I always want to go back and relive things. There's a lot I miss in my past, that I would love to visit if it were possible. Dreams and poetry can be visits. The struggle is to live in the present. Funny that it should be so difficult.
Browne: Do you read what your critics have to say about your work?
Addonizio: When I do, it usually depresses me. They either slam or admire me for the wrong things. IMHO.
Browne: Has success ever been a burden to you? Has it ever gotten in the way of your writing?
Addonizio: The only thing that gets in the way of my writing is me. So I try to stay out of it. For every success I've had, there have been multiple failures. I have worked very, very hard. I can't believe sometimes how much time and work it all takes.
Browne: Whose poetry right now do you envy the most?
Addonizio: Dean Young's work has been a huge influence lately, but I wouldn't say I envy it. I admire it, and I've learned some cool tricks from reading him. I like Frederick Seidel, too—not all of him, but there are great moments and some really rewarding poems. It's like the words are written by a (perverse, wealthy) child who's both autistic and precocious, and they've been gathered and arranged by someone literary, with both banal and brilliant results. Honestly, I read a lot of contemporary poetry that leaves me cold. I find myself getting fed up and going back to Larkin or Hopkins or Dickinson just to read something that has blood in its veins instead of Sprite Zero. I'm not as in touch as I should be, though, with contemporary work. I'm sure there are some great writers out there I haven't read. I used to keep up a lot more with first books—I'm trying to get back to that, to see what's being freshly written.
Browne: If you had to choose three poets who influenced your work over the years, who would they be?
Addonizio: The Carolyn Forché of The Country Between Us; Sharon Olds's early books; and C.K. Williams. Image and narrative from Forché. Freedom of subject matter from Olds. Line, syntax, and elaboration of consciousness from Williams. But that would leave out a lot. Kenneth Rexroth's translations of early Chinese poets were also a big influence. Keats was immediately ravishing. So was Dylan Thomas. Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Philip Larkin. Other people would come to mind if you asked me tomorrow. Most of those writers wouldn't be models now, but I needed to learn what I learned from them.
Browne: You have written mostly free verse poems, but also formal poems, particularly the sonnet. And you even made up your own form, the sonnenizio. What about traditional form in poetry—can it be too restrictive?
Addonizio: Only in the wrong hands. Just as free verse can be too freeing.
Browne: Your poems, in the past, often have been narrative. Do you feel your work is changing now? What about that thorny issue, narrative/non-narrative? Some contemporary poems are all leap and no heart, so difficult to follow and resistant to meaning that I feel they lose any connection to anything other than language play.
Addonizio: I do believe in poems making a kind of sense—the sense of each part being necessary to the whole. But when a poet seems to be setting out to say something, and yet that "something" remains obscure even with a lot of investigation on the reader's part, I end up as frustrated as you.
Browne: Lucifer at the Starlite certainly seems to indicate a change from the seemingly straightforward work of your earlier books.
Addonizio: It's kind of a transitional book, maybe. There are narrative pieces in there, but also, some pieces that were written in a different way, trying to capture some aspect of consciousness, or at least the way consciousness moves. More radiating than linear.
Browne: Yes, your poems "Sui," "Half-Blind Elegy" and "You Were" are charting that movement, reaching into a place of consciousness and suffering difficult to describe. But your images do describe it. As a poet, I appreciate the work and mystery of imagination it takes to find those images. Which brings me to wonder if poets are only writing for other poets. Do you think there is a big audience for poetry, other than those who write it?
Addonizio: My perception is that there's a relatively small, but dedicated, audience. It could be larger, but then, so could the audience for opera, or clogging, or knitting. I said earlier that poetry is my path, and by that I meant my path to awareness. There are plenty of people that get along fine in the world without responding to language in the way that poetry employs it. For those who respond to that mode, it's a great path, but it's not the only one—it's only for certain people. Musicians have a different path, for example. Why should we bemoan the fact that it isn't poetry?
Browne: Music has also been your path. How long have you been playing the harmonica, and in what ways does music affect your writing?
Addonizio: Just as poetry found me—struck me—in my late twenties, the harmonica hit me in my mid-forties. Plath, and then Sonny Boy Williamson: Bam, and bam. Music has always informed my writing; listening to the rhythms and silences of language, in time, is very much part of my compositional process. I studied classical flute in my twenties and gave it up for poetry. When I started harmonica, I did it purely by ear, copying CDs. Then I had to go back and apply some of the theory I'd learned all those years ago. I've started playing a little flute again, so it's come full circle. I like adding some harp to my readings; poetry audiences tend to appreciate the blues.
Browne: You have a chapter in The Poet's Companion titled "The Music of the Line."
Addonizio: It's a lot about the rhythms, for me. Sometimes I'll fool with line lengths a lot, just listening, trying to hear the music. Of course, if the music isn't there in the language, you can only do so much with the line. You can't really talk about line without talking about sound, syntax, and all the rest.
Browne: Have you ever read one of the poems in your books, and thought, "I wrote that?" I don't mean in a negative way, but surprised by the voice, tone, or subject matter/theme.
Addonizio: I feel that way about most of what I've written.
Browne: Why do you feel that way? A particular poem or lines that come to mind?
Addonizio: I mean, half the time I don't know where the language comes from. I'll be going along writing shit, just awful, boring dreck, you know, and then, suddenly, a different part of my brain takes over. It's like channeling. Maybe it is channeling. Maybe another me, in a parallel universe, is dictating the words.
Browne: What poem of yours surprised you the most, either in rereading or writing it?
Addonizio: I just created a poem out of a revision exercise I gave my students. It's from The Practice of Poetry. You cut up an old, failed poem and save just the good parts—little bits of intriguing language—and it usually turns out there aren't very many good parts. My poem was originally titled "By Way of Apology." I had a few phrases, one of which was "a pair of big, invisible hands." Just for the hell of it, I made that the title, and got led into a very weird and fun piece. Another surprising one was generated by a writing exercise I found on the Internet that poet Josh Bell had given a group of students. It had all kinds of random requirements to follow. I love how, using chance, you still pull in the things you need to address. Some level of your brain puts it all together. And it's more interesting to me, right now, than sitting down to tell a "this happened, and then that happened" kind of story. I love narrative, but the way I know how to write a narrative bores me, and I want to do something different. I want the drama to be lyric, and not narrative, if that makes any sense.
Browne: I want to hear more about that.
Addonizio: Take a poem like "November 11," from Lucifer at the Starlite. As Orwell said, "The war is not meant to be won; it is meant to be continuous." That poem has narrative moments: a character drives to the gym and thinks about various deaths—first some closer to home, then it moves out into the war deaths, and slings back to a neighbor's niece. So all that happens in the poem is that she runs on the treadmill. But of course it's not about the gym. That's the framework.
Browne: It's interesting how you weave little bits of the narrative all the way through. If you didn't have the narrative, I don't think I'd be there. . . What about emotion, which seems so suspect in much contemporary poetry? I'm thinking of another poet—call him Poet X. His poems have interesting language play. Maybe, at the very end, they have a glimmer of heart. Then I say, OK, and go on to the next poem and a bunch of language pyrotechnics that are nicely done. Even though I have a pretty good vocabulary, I look up these words and learn some new ones, and the poem is over, and I feel nothing. So is it me? Maybe it's me. And I don't care how much Poet Y has been broiled over the non-narrative fire and turned into a brisket because of that—but I can't wait for her next book to come out because I think I'm going to hear, as William Carlos Williams said, some human news.
Addonizio: But you know, I'm a little bored by Poet Y. I couldn't get through the last book; the poems seem to make the same moves over and over, so I know where Poet Y is going already, and I lose interest.
Browne: Me, too, but would you rather read Poet Y or, oh God, Poet Z?
Addonizio: Anyone but Poet Z. Who is doing very well without my readership.
Browne: We've both been writing memoirs, and we've both been reading Joyce Maynard's At Home in the World, about her affair with J.D. Salinger when she was eighteen and he was fifty-three. And he tells her, "The minute you publish a book, you'd better understand, it's out of your hands. In come the reviewers aiming to make a name for themselves by destroying your own, and they will." So the salient line is that the poor boob who lets himself in for it (publishing) might as well walk down Madison Avenue with his pants down.
Addonizio: So he—or she—had better be wearing nice underwear.
About the Author
Susan Browne's first book of poetry, Buddha Dogs, won the Four Way Books Intro Prize. Her second collection, Zephyr, won the Editor's Prize at Steel Toe Books. She is a professor at Diablo Valley College and also teaches online at: www.susanmariebrowne.com.
Georgia State University
Editors: David Bottoms & Megan Sexton
Poetry Consultant: Edward Hirsch
Fiction Consultant: Richard Bausch
Associate Editors: Beth Gylys, John Holman, Sheri Joseph, Josh Russell