When did you start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry in high school as a way to deal with my depression. I realized much later (at the age of 30) that I was a lesbian, but back in high school all I knew was that I felt different and was unhappy. Most of what I wrote wasn’t very good—it was just a way for me to process my feelings. I continued to write poetry in college and I still have notebooks full of poems I wrote over thirty years ago. Interestingly, some of my poems from this period of my life are about same-sex attraction. In my own hand writing! And yet my mind was not ready to accept (and celebrate) who I was.
Did you think of yourself as a poet during these years?
Not really. Growing up, I wasn’t encouraged to think much about a career or a “calling” for myself. Writing was just something I did to help process my feelings. It wasn’t something I thought I could—or should—take seriously. I grew up in a very math- and science-oriented family. Those were serious pursuits. Writing poetry was not considered a serious pursuit. I did experience a bit of a “high” with respect to my writing when I won a Gwendolyn Brooks contest during my senior year of high school. I’ll never forget the night she called. My oldest brother answered the phone and then handed it over to me. I thought it was going to be my friend Lorene asking about a homework assignment. Instead it was Gwendolyn Brooks. She had the most beautiful voice. So deep and rich and kind. I spent the next couple of weeks walking around thinking of myself as a poet. I think I even wore a black turtleneck to school the day after she called! But that experience of feeling like a poet was short-lived—I suppose because it came from something outside of myself rather than from inside.
What was the prize?
The prize was $50. I cashed the check and spent it on food at the 57th Street Art Fair (in Hyde Park, Chicago). Egg rolls, mostly. Not all for me though. I shared with friends. And I still have a photocopy of the check from Gwendolyn Brooks.
So, when did you start to feel like a poet?
I didn’t write much poetry in my 20s and 30s. Then, in my late 30s, I went to divinity school (at Vanderbilt University) to get a Master of Divinity degree. Towards the end of that program I started to feel something waking up inside me. It was during this time that I started (again) to write poetry. I had learned a lot about textual silences while in school and I began to write poetry as a way to re-imagine and give voice to various female characters from the biblical narratives.
That was the beginning of my journey to becoming a poet. After I finished divinity school, I started auditing semester-long writing workshops at Vanderbilt (in their MFA program) and then entered the MFA program there in 2009 at the age of 45. Even after I finished the program, though, I still wasn’t comfortable calling myself a poet. I knew I had written some good poems and I knew I could write good poems. But those experiences of writing felt separate somehow from my larger identity. I have told this story in other interviews but it’s worth mentioning here too. Several years ago, I was particularly stressed out about my life as a poet. I was filled with self-doubt and was beginning to think I should scrap my poetry goals altogether and focus entirely on my teaching (I’ve been a lecturer at Vanderbilt since 2011). Then one day, I walked into my study and I felt one of my arms reaching out towards my bookcase where I keep my poetry and non-fiction books. It felt like a poet’s version of an altar call experience. As if my body knew what I should be doing—even if my mind had doubts. This was a turning point for me. Since then, I’ve grown a lot in terms of my understanding of what it means to be a poet. To be a poet, for me, means following a certain path. A path of reading, a path of doing research, a path of writing. A path that I occasionally need to remind myself to stay on but that I no longer doubt the existence of. It’s always there.
Your talk about following a path (in your life as a poet) the same way someone might talk about following a spiritual path. Do you see a connection between poetry and spirituality?
Yes, I see a connection between poetry and spirituality. The theologian Simone Weil said that absolute attention is prayer. To read and write poetry is, for me, a way of paying absolute attention and, therefore, a form of prayer. When I read and write poetry I feel connected to something much bigger than myself and I know that I am not alone—that my life is bound up in the lives of those who have come before me and who will come after me.
You mentioned research earlier. What is the role of research in your creative process?
Being a poet means that I get to follow my curiosities wherever they take me. I have books on my shelf about birds, witches, black holes, octopuses, trees. I go back and forth between non-fiction and fiction/poetry. This is one of the practices that most makes me feel like a poet. The research and reading part. Following my curiosities is one of my jobs as a poet—and it is also the one thing with respect to the creative process that I can control. I can’t control how my poetry will be received by the world but I can control how I receive the world—by which I mean I can set an intention to follow my curiosities. Writing poetry is my way of expressing what I know and feel about the world; my way of expressing what it means to be alive. And the first step to being a poet, for me, is loving and experiencing the world. This doesn’t necessarily mean being outside interacting with other people (though it can mean that). Rather, it means learning as much as possible about anything I’m curious about. This is the most rewarding part of being a poet.
How does reading a book about octopuses or black holes or anything else figure into your poetry?
There’s not a direct connection between my research and my poetry. It’s subtler than that. My goal in reading a book about octopuses is not to write a poem about octopuses. I read books on particular topics because I’m genuinely interested in the topics. It’s my way of loving and learning about the world. I read and take copious notes and then at some point I may see a connection between something I’m writing and an image or idea from my research. One of the things I learned from reading about octopuses is that they can squeeze through tiny spaces. You can see a reference to this in the following lines from my poem “Welcome”:
We had learned to slip out of ourselves.
To squeeze our consciousness through a hole
the size of a dime. We were small inside
our bodies. My body is sin, she told me once.
This poem addresses the intersection between public margins—with a reference to our current political climate—and private margins that seek to contain and place limits on women through cultural “norming,” often to the point where they become strangers even to themselves. The poem is not about octopuses at all but I never could have written that line if I hadn’t read about octopuses.
Have you always had this love of research, or is this something you realized about yourself later in life?
I grew up in a very academic family. We lived a block away from the University of Chicago. There was a big emphasis in our family on knowing rather than feeling. Logic and empiricism were considered superior to feelings and personal experience. I spent most of high school and college thinking I wasn’t smart. My oldest brother was the smart one—he could do math and science and he could recite facts about a myriad of subjects. I was never good at any of those things. Facts are important (especially in this day and age…) but when I read a book about something it’s not so that I can recite facts about what I’ve learned. It’s for some other, more organic, ineffable, and feeling-based reason. My way of being in the world is much different from my brother’s way. When I was growing up I just assumed his way was the only way. I even spent one summer during college reading our entire set of World Book encyclopedias hoping that somehow this would make me smart. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was already smart—just in a different way. In some ways, I was on the right track when I sat down to read those encyclopedias. Knowing about things and reading about the world does feed my spirit and is a necessary part of my life. It’s just that I do something very different with what I learn than what someone else might do. I didn’t realize any of this until I was in my 40s. That’s a long time to not feel smart. But, at least, I’ve finally figured it out.
Your first full-length book of poetry—Mosaic of the Dark—has just been released from Black Lawrence Press. Tell us a little about the book and the process by which it came into being.
Mosaic of the Dark portrays my early experiences as a closeted lesbian trying to fit my life into the prescribed script of heterosexuality and addresses the psychological harm that can arise from restrictive societal expectations for women. Some of the things I grapple with in the collection are my mother’s possibly non-heterosexual orientation, her alcoholism, and her eventual death (related, at least partly, to the alcoholism). The book also details my experience of finally shedding familial and cultural expectations in favor of my true self as well as my experiences of moving beyond the confines of a male-centered Christianity to a more expansive, mystical way of experiencing the divine.
As I mentioned earlier, I started writing poetry towards the end of divinity school. During the program, I had been taught to ask questions—when reading biblical texts, for example—about who has power, who doesn’t, who have a voice, who doesn’t, etc. After divinity school, I started asking these same questions—and writing poems—about my own life. These poems became the foundation of my book. Some of the poems in the book are from as early as 2006. Other poems are more recent and deal in a broader sense with these same issues.
What are your obsessions? What do you find yourself writing about again and again?
Well, my mother is one of my biggest obsessions! Just when I think I’m done writing about her, I write another poem. I even have a poem called “Last Poem about My Mother.” And, of course, it’s not really the last poem about her. I used to fight it, thinking: who wants to read another poem about my mother? But it’s not about what other people might or might not want to read. It’s about what I need to write. She keeps coming back to me, so I keep writing about her.
I’m also obsessed with gender issues. With patriarchy and violence against women. And with linguistic violence. Referring to the divine in strictly male terms is, for me, a kind of violence. Mary Daly—a feminist theologian—once said that If God is male, then male is God. I think about this a lot. The psychological and emotional damage that language can do.
Have you ever been scared by your own poems?
Years ago, I wrote a poem that seemed to suggest I had been physically or sexually abused as a child. It scared me to death. I didn’t know what to do with it. After a lot of processing, I realized that what the poem was telling me was not that I had been physically abused but that I needed to take the emotional abuse I experienced seriously. The poem was a way of telling me that even though what I experienced didn’t leave physical evidence, it was still real and it matters that it happened.
Who was the first poet you fell in love with?
Jane Kenyon. I started reading her in 2006 at the suggestion of one of my mentors, Kate Daniels. I had never read poetry that was so accessible and so profound at the same time. Jane Kenyon’s work gave me permission to write about everyday experiences—“mundane” experiences that are at the same time very important. After this, I discovered Marie Howe, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, Ellen Bass. All of these poets have been hugely important to my development as a poet.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received about writing? And what advice do you generally give about the writing life?
The best advice I’ve ever received is to guard my inner life. The inner life is as real as anything physical or visible in the world—and is desperately in need of guarding. The world is constantly trying to break in and disrupt our inner lives. I once heard the Irish poet John O’Donohue say that we live in a time in which we are experiencing an “evacuation of interiority.” I think about this a lot. Our inner lives are so important.
The advice I often give is about the importance of loving the process of writing. Getting published is never going to make me as happy as the act of writing is. Internal concerns are way more life-giving than external concerns. This is not to say that getting published isn’t important—I love it when my poems get published. But the writing itself is what feeds and sustains me; it’s what makes me feel fully alive and full of joy.
What do you do to protect your inner life?
I carve out—and deliberately schedule—time for reading and writing. I have designated reading and writing days during the school year. Also, I recently requested a reduction in my teaching load so that I can have a little more time to write during the school year.
During the summer, I have more time for reading and writing. But, even then, it’s a challenge. Yoga and meditation help me stay focused. I have also learned to say no without feeling guilty. I recently resigned from a neighborhood Board I’d been on for three years. It was starting to feel like a part-time job. And it was taking up too much head-space.
The key thing for me to remember is that writing is a job for me—it’s not just something to squeeze in here and there. I have to make time for it, to create space for it.
If you could change one thing about the poetry world, what would it be?
One aspect of the poetry world that I dislike is the fact that it is so contest-driven (for book-length manuscript submissions in particular). I love the model of the open submission period because it allows several manuscripts to be chosen. I have no problem paying a fee to submit to a press—I realize presses need to do this to cover their costs. But for a press to choose only one manuscript out of fifty or even a hundred strong manuscripts, to me, gives a false sense of objectivity to the process. There is no such thing as one best manuscript. I know there has to be a weeding out process. And even after a press has winnowed the submissions down to fifty or sixty strong manuscripts, that doesn’t mean all of them can be chosen. But by choosing four or five to publish instead of just one, presses could send an important message about multiplicity and diversity that could go a long way to dismantling the hyper-competitiveness of the current model.