A Conversation with Kim Addonizio
By Mag Gabbert
Your poem "First Line is the Deepest" says, "For I am a poet. And it is my job, my duty / to know wherein lies the beauty / of this degraded body." I wondered if this holds true to your feelings about everything you write. Can you describe what draws you to degradation both in humanity and nature?
I tried to write a poem once about the fact that everything in life degrades—that is, in the material sense. Things fall apart. Including us. There’s also the opposite, though; the next line reads, ”or maybe /it’s the degradation in the beautiful body.” It’s that paradox: both creation and destruction, beauty and horror, are happening at the same time. So it’s about trying to look clearly at the whole thing.
You co-edited the collection "Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on writers, Writers on Tattoos," and we discussed your recent participation in a "tattooed poets" reading. I'd love to hear more about your relationship with tattoos and how you think writers and tattoos relate to each other in general. Does this go back to your interest in degradation?
Tattoos are permanent (barring laser removal…). They’re a commitment to who you are at a certain time. All kinds of people get tattoos, but when writers get tattoos, those images are maybe significant in a different way. At least, we writers like to think so. And they are a part of making—and marking—your identity. They say, This is who I am, this is what is important to me. Writers do that. We step forward and show ourselves. Whether we’re writing fiction or memoir or poetry, what we write shows who we are.
People who read poetry – especially those who are new to it – often assume the "I" of the poem is the poet. Since you've also written fiction and non-fiction, I wondered how you feel about that assumption?
I never assume the “I” of the poem is myself. She’s somebody else I’m channeling. Maybe that contradicts what I just said about showing ourselves, but, oh well. Writing reveals us whether we want it to or not, whether we fictionalize or not. As far as I’m concerned, poetry is fiction. Poetry is an act of imagination, not an act of confession.
Along a similar vein, how do you feel about the characterization of lyrics as poetry? Are they two separate entities? What is your poetry's relationship to music?
There are some lyrics that make it as poetry, but not many. Which is not to put down lyrics—songwriting is a different art. I do aim to make my poems musical, though. I listen to and work with the lines, the rhythms, the way words flow or logjam. And it’s been really fun to be able to combine music with some of my poems.
You've been called a "literary performer." Describe what that term means to you. To what extent is your writing a performance and what, if anything, can be gained from hearing you or any other poet read their own work?
Sometimes you don’t really “get” a poet until you hear the work read aloud. That can be a way in to someone’s work that might at first seem difficult or inaccessible. And if you’re up in front of an audience, you’re performing whether you pay attention to that factor or not; you’re standing there, you’re saying something they are (hopefully) listening to. So I try to make it a good performance, by which I mean, I try to connect with an audience, to create an interesting and sometimes entertaining experience for both of us. A lot of readings are about as interesting as cleaning the lint screen in the dryer. I don’t go to many anymore. When I read, I feel lucky to have an audience; I’m grateful. And I want to give something back to the people that could be doing a million other things than listening to me. I want them to be stimulated to think and feel.
How do you feel about online workshops versus in-person workshops? Do they meet the same creative potential? Or, perhaps, how do you feel about workshops in general?
I prefer in-person workshops, because it’s easier to ask questions, to clarify, and to argue. You can get great feedback online, too, where people aren’t just speaking out but really thinking through their written responses. Workshops are only as good as the participants, though. Surround yourself with smart critics, and a workshop can be really useful. Most beginning workshops should probably be run like benevolent dictatorships. I think everyone should say nice things about how the poems make them feel, so the writer gets a little love and encouragement, and then shut up and listen to the instructor.
Everyone's relationship with poetry is different, of course. Would you mind describing how you came to read and write poetry? Also, once you started writing, what was your early publishing journey like?
I started in my late twenties as I was finishing college at SF State, and then went for a Master’s. I started publishing in the school’s creative writing magazine. I always encourage people to start small and local. Though probably one New Yorker submission way before you have a snowball’s chance in hell is de rigueur. I always liked that image: a snowball in hell.
You've written books in quite a few genres...how do you manage to be so prolific without running out of steam? Do you ever tackle the same issues/events in different genres or several times within the same genre, and if so how do you make that material new?
When I read something that knocks me out, my brain immediately wants to copy it, or make my version of it. If I’m writing stories, stuff that happens or that I think about will come out in stories. There are experiences I would have put into poems, but I was working on prose at the time, so they ended up there. Or rather, a version of them did. And it gets harder and harder not to repeat yourself. Mostly you repeat yourself.
Who are the poets you enjoy reading most? Which books of poetry do you often assign for your students to read? In general, what draws you to a certain poem or poet?
Dean Young, Philip Larkin, Gerard Manley Hopkins--those are my go-to poets right now. I don’t generally assign readings since I don’t generally teach in a university. I’m writer in residence at San Jose State this spring, though, and I’ve got them reading Structure & Surprise, which is about various ways poems can turn, and I have a list of books for them to look at for their structure. Some of the writers on that list are John Ashbery, Martin Espada, Terrance Hayes, Jean Valentine, Tracy K. Smith, Tyehimbe Jess, and Mark Doty.
What new projects are you working on?
I’ve just finished a play. I set out to write a one-woman show for my daughter, who’s an actor, and it turned into a four-character, two-person play. I’m looking forward to workshopping that and learning a lot more about playwriting and theater. And I’m writing poems. Also I just started learning the banjo.