SELF A: What happens when you work on a book that long? Do you officially, clinically, lose your mind?

SELF B: I think the book’s evolution tracks the finding of a mind, not the losing. I had sunk all the way to Country Western on the car radio, a fact I hid with lightning-quick station changes when I pulled into parking lots where people might know me. Poetry is the opposite of wallowing, so it was my rescue vehicle and soon I was headed in a good opposite direction.

SELF A: What was different, this new direction?

SELF B: My style changed, became less narrative, and being more interested in other people’s stories than in my own also changed my voice. I got to morph into/through other points of view and come out the other side.

SELF A: Like cheese through a grater.

SELF B: Ouch, no. The divorce that sparked this book was certainly that painful, but writing poetry was the opposite of that kind of dumb animal pain, even when the poems were about my or someone else’s sorrow.

SELF A: You seem to have a thing for opposites. Why? Is this another one of your avoidance moves?

SELF B: Contrast is such a great definer. You of all people should know that. That’s why secretly we kind of like it when someone throws a bucket of ice water at us. Dark and light, comfort and shock, the contrast sharpens our focus. Because I like to avoid and to modify, defining something by virtue of what it isn’t works well for me.

SELF A: So what’s this book, detour, about anyway?  Without all the define-by-what-it-isn’t stuff.

SELF B: Fine. You think I can’t do that? It’s about what happens when the whole meaning-imbued scaffolding that gives your life substance, or so you think, falls apart. There’s nothing you can do to stop it; it’s out of control. An unnatural disaster. Then what? Can you survive? How? And then since you can’t be the same person, exactly, who are you?

SELF A: That’s too many questions to be a definition.

SELF B: Not if the book answers them.

SELF A: Does it?

SELF B: Read it and see. I’m not just being a tease here. In the end, who am I to say? I only wrote it.

SELF A: Took you long enough.

SELF B: You seem to have a problem with that?

SELF A: I’m just saying … I had really given up on you, and then, pow, suddenly there it is.

SELF B: Evolution doesn’t happen in a mere century.

SELF A: So what “evolved”?

SELF B: The voice, for one thing.

SELF A: I meant to ask about that. Don’t you think using the second person point of view was … maybe … a cop-out? Kind of cheesy?

SELF B: Don’t let my publisher hear you say that. Even saints have been known to tear up contracts.

SELF A: But the “you” got to me. Who did you think you were, dragging every reader who picks this up through a grisly existential midlife crisis? An older reader has already survived it and doesn’t want to go back, and a younger reader might go slit her wrists rather than consider that it could all come back to zero like that.

SELF B: You’re a little melodramatic, no? All I can say is that it was liberating to try the book in that voice, to change all the confessional and the third-person narratives and the hovering lyrics into the same shared second person point of view. Suddenly the voice was this old, old woman, sort of a transhistorical Greek chorus speaking to everyone who’s been through those weird middle years, not just me. I like to think the shift in the voice was me, getting over myself.

SELF A: But it’s still about you.

SELF B: Yes, and no. I found myself deleting tons of completely irrelevant personal details— lines, stanzas, whole poems. I added new stories, some from no one in particular and yet true of every woman I know, because hey, it wasn’t me any more, it was you.

SELF A: Leave me out of this! It was you.

SELF B: You think a mid-life crisis won’t happen to you? You think you’re immune? I think even really well-adjusted joyful people have days in their 30s or 40s when they have to pull the car over to the side of the road and panic, thinking, Oh my god, I took the wrong turn way back and now it’s too late to fix it!

SELF A: Is this why you called the book detour ?

SELF B: Sure. I had this image of the Greek letter omega as the book came together, an omega made of water, in motion, a wave-oxbow thing where you eventually land right next to where you started out—but the detour, the arc away and back, is the defining element. You can’t come back to where you were, but you had this whole trippy trip and if you’re lucky you realize the detour was the story, not the interruption, and you wouldn’t have wanted to miss it.

SELF A: Okay, I admit it; I know what you mean. Just promise me the next book isn’t in the second person.

SELF B: Deal. Next book: third person, more or less.

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NANCY WHITE's work has appeared in journals such as Ploughshares, Rattle, Nimrod, Seneca Review, Field, and many others. Her first book, Sun, Moon, Salt, won the Washington Prize for Poetry. She has an MFA in Poetry from Sarah Lawrence and has enjoyed residencies at MacDowell and The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Serving as Associate Editor at The Sow’s Ear Poetry Review, where she also writes a review column, and as editor and president of The Word Works in DC keeps her honest.

Of her second book, Detour (Tamarack Editions, 2010), Denise DuHamel says: “Nancy White’s Detour is fierce, feminist, fantastic. Her wit, her precision, the threads of her narratives make beautiful and whole what is torn. Her deft syntactic disruptions mirror the domestic theater of these poems. A poet of grace and wonder, Nancy White writes poems that are substantial, intelligent, stylistically marvelous.”

You can check out her blog at

One response to “Nancy White: The TNB Self Interview”

  1. Therese L.Broderick says:

    I loved this! Definitely made me want to read the book. As a writer and a 51-year old, I can relate to much of what you say. You have courage!

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