Erica Dawson walks into her living room in cut-off sweatpants and a tee shirt advertising a triathlon, her hair a mess, and no shoes or socks, though it’s a good 26°F outside and not much over 65°F in her apartment. We make our introductions, she pours cups of half-caff coffee (she doesn’t “need” the caffeine), and we start to talk.
I see you got dressed for the interview?
Today is definitely one of those days where I’ll be lucky to leave the house to go to Walgreens on a useless trip for another bottle of nail polish.
Going through a productive phase, are you?
When the time changes in the Fall, all bets are off. The dark days are like my bat cave, except there’s no signal calling me out to save the world. My friends have to drag me by my heels sometimes for a trip to the movie theater five minutes away.
These things typically start with literary questions about influences, education…let’s do something different and stay with movies: what’s your favorite one?
All time? Probably Jaws.
Robert Shaw’s a genius in it. I’d like to think I’d be that cool if a bloodthirsty shark were after me: beating up the radio, drinking to “bowlegged women.”
Favorite TV show?
I’m a little embarrassed to admit I still watch Grey’s Anatomy, which isn’t so great right now, but my TV heart really belongs to a show on FX called Sons of Anarchy. My brother Frank got me hooked on it.
What do you like about it?
The violence. The motorcycles. The fact that it’s a world I know nothing about.
Does it, or other TV or media, influence you as a writer?
Absolutely: TV, music—anything from Lil Wayne to Beethoven, whose opening measures of Moonlight Sonata are tattooed on my hip—and movies—comedy, drama, whatever. Duke Energy likes me because there’s always TV going or music playing. I’m a watcher, and a listener. And I don’t mean that to sound as creepy as it does. I mean, watching TV and films, and listening to all sorts of music influence me as a person, and I can’t separate that person from the writer; so, yes. With TV, I think I like doctor shows for the same reason I like Sons. It’s like taking a trip to somewhere I haven’t been.
For someone so interested in taking a trip, your poems often seem to be autobiographical, or at least partly so.
Dealing with my own head is taking a trip. My brain moves so fast, even with prescription help, I never know where it’s going. I won’t even get into the kinds of dreams I have when I actually sleep. My Post-it note writing system is proof enough. Someday, when I’m gone, someone’s going to find all of these random Post-its around my desk with random things written on them, things like lyrics from a Carole Alston song or a sentence reading, “The light on Vine Street stayed yellow for a ridiculous amount of time today” and they’ll know something was wrong with me.
What exactly are the Post-it notes for?
I use them instead of a traditional notebook, and I don’t journal. Post-its are easy to carry, and there’s none of that I-haven’t-written-in-my-journal-forever pressure. Whenever something interests me for whatever reason, I write it on a Post-it. Then, when I’m working on a poem, I look at the Post-its and see what I’ve got. A lot of Post-it material has made its way into poems.
In Big-Eyed Afraid, the poem “Brown Recluse from the basement” started from a Post-it with “stucco ceilings look like sea anemones I saw at aquarium.”
Still have the note?
I don’t throw much away.
This is turning into a Post-it note commercial. Let’s get more literary. Who are some of the poets who’ve inspired you?
That’s always a tough question because there are so many answers. I tell people I go to the church of William Shakespeare. Hamlet? Henry and Hotspur? Poor, sad Juliet? The wonderful filthiness of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? My god. Perfection. Back when I was starting out in college, James Merrill had a huge impact, too. I couldn’t understand how someone could make the line, “I did things on a mat to make me flexible,” so poignant. I wanted to be able to do that like he did, like Bishop too. I think that’s why, to this day, so much of my regular everyday life gets into my poems. I think the everyday is poignant, especially when you’ve considered getting out of it, permanently, at different times in your life. And because so many of my poems act as accounts of me in crisis (which poets like Sexton gave me the courage to do), and I make no secret of my OCD and depression, it’s important for me to balance that energy with the quiet, the normal, or at least as quiet and normal as it gets in here.
You look pretty normal in those sweatpants!
Ha! Thanks. I’m sorry I didn’t dress up for you. I do have real clothes back there.
You’re just keepin’ it real, right?
Yes and no. I like honesty in poetry, or honesty in the sense that there’s something human to relate to in a poem. It’s a kind of realness. Does it have to be the god’s honest truth? Or what actually happened to the writer? No.
“…was a good friend of mine.”
Now that you’ve published a book with, as you say, accounts of you in crisis, do you feel pressure to continue to write about the same kinds of things?
No. Not from me. But there are always outside pressures, just like in any profession. People, including me, feel comfortable with categories, labels. Some people feel comfortable saying, “Erica keeps it real.” Sometimes they want to put me, and others, in a box based on our gender or race. I was talking to a girlfriend the other day who said, “Some people want all women poets to fit into three categories: HD, Emily Dickinson, or Sylvia Plath. Those are our choices.” I think she’s right; it happens sometimes. My second manuscript just got rejected because it was too “difficult” and “street-talky.” I really don’t know what that means, but I have no problem with rejection. You can’t in this business. I will say I have a feeling it means I didn’t fit so nicely anymore into the box those particular readers wanted me to fit into.
So you have a don’t-fence-me-in mentality?
I’m not Madonna or anything; I’m not a rebel. I was a very well-behaved teenager. And now, you’ll never see me pop up with some new image, or a completely different sound. I don’t have access to Auto-tune or studio equipment or stylists when I work. I have words. That’s all we poets have. The dictionary people add new words every now and then, but we’re dealing with a fairly finite set of sounds to work with. Our toolbox is small. Our hands and minds have to be busy. My poems, probably, always will have some common “Erica thread” running throughout them. I’m not going to up and become a new person, have a different past, or personality, or sense of humor. I’m still going to be me. Robert Frost will never appear facing me in my mirror, though his poems have real estate on my shelves. That said, it’s super important to me to grow as a poet and person. I want to experiment with writing in the voice of another person or a birch tree. I want to try new things, new subjects, no forms, anything I fancy right then.
Like using the word “fancy?”
I didn’t pull that off?
Does it mean trying triathlons, too?
Nope. Frank’s to blame, again. He worked as a doctor at the race, so he didn’t do it either, just for the record. The last time I ran was probably to get the phone.
Reading’s your exercise?
And writing, for now at least, while I’m deep in the dissertation dungeon.
Is it a happy bat-cave?
It’s not a bad one. Working makes me happy, and it busies my mind, which is good for the people who have to deal with me on a frequent basis. And I get to tackle a creative and critical project, which has a nice balance: a collection of poems and an essay on Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella which I’ve read countless times. I mean, if I don’t work, I end up just sitting here talking to myself, you know?
I think I do.