1. Can you talk about the inspiration for "Body Sewn Together With Twine and a Dull Needle"? What was on your mind while you were writing this poem?
Before I answer these questions, I’d just like to say thank you for your support of my work and for the attention you’ve paid to this one poem in particular.
Several of the key lines for this poem were written in June 2009; however, the finished poem didn’t come together until November. There wasn’t one specific inspiration for the poem. From 2007 – 2009, I’d been writing a lot of elegies and poems about the dead, giving them a bodily afterlife (not in heaven per se) and imagining what they might be thinking about the living going on without them. Along the way, I also started writing a few body poems. They focus on a speaker either at odds with her body or discovering its secrets and strengths. So, I suppose I was wrestling with mortality and the fact that we are all, ultimately, flawed biologically, no matter how healthy we try to be.
I should also say that I don’t often write from a project-based stance. In other words, when I sit down to write, I’m not writing toward anything in particular. Words and lines rise up in me, most often inspired by reading other poets, but also inspired by art/nature/an overheard conversation/etc. I do not mean to say that I sit and wait for the muse. No, I have several hours three to four mornings each week that I devote to writing. I read, I gaze out the window, I let my mind run around a bit, and now that I’ve been keeping this schedule, as likely as not, lines appear of their own volition. I have tried, desperately, to think of my work in terms of a project, a book circling around one moment or experience; it just doesn’t pan out for me.
From my journals, I can tell you that I was reading Ada Limón’s Lucky Wreck and Lisa Russ Spaar’s Blue Venus on the day I jotted down the first few lines of this poem.
2. This poem seems to negotiate the line between dream and nightmare. The language has a contrasting style between heavier, darker images and the softer ones. For instance, the poem begins with doctors scooping the speaker’s marrow at night, but it seems to be softened by the phrase “little spoons.” This idea seems punctuated with the lines “The womb is a dark/and holy place,” having that contrast to strengthen the phrase. Was this a decision you made on how to present such a dream-like image in this poem? If so, how do you think it illuminates the image in the poem you have built?
Great observations. I wish I could take credit for crafting that contrast you point out. The contrast seems to have arrived intact within the lines as they first came to me. I have been wracking my brain trying to remember if the image of scooping the marrow came from one of my own nightmares. It feels like it did. I can see the actual “little spoons” in my mind, but alas, I didn’t put that information in my journal…just the lines.
But back to your question, I can tell you that the image about the bone marrow being scooped out and the image about the womb were initially written on two separate pages of my journal, intended to be two separate poems. Both contained the contrast of hard and soft images from the very beginning, but neither grew into a full-fledged poem. I had typed out both beginnings, little poem nubs, and set them aside. Several months later, I was revising some other poems and shuffling papers around. These two nubs wound up next to each other and sparked.
Again, I’d like to reinforce that after the spark, after the initial inspiration for each poem, a lot of craft work was necessary, which your next question alludes to. I don’t want to make it seem that the strength of the poem was something received in a moment of divine creativity. I do believe that after ten years of work, of being willing to take constructive criticism and improve my poems, I have a stronger instinct for what works and what doesn’t. All of those years of work contribute to the generation of new lines and images that are the stronger for it.
3. On your blog, you mentioned the acceptance of this poem by The Collagist. In that post, I was most fascinated by the fact that this used to be a left-aligned, single stanza poem, as compared to its current form of multiple stanzas, indentation, and italics. In that blog post, you said this gives it “more white space now because the subject matter called for it.” In what ways does this poem seem to need more white space? How did you decide to satisfy those needs?
My drafting instinct is almost always to stay safe and left align everything. As each poem evolves, I get a better sense of how formal elements such as lineation, indentation, and white space may or may not add to the poem. Way back in my undergrad days I had an instructor who talked about white space as a place for the reader to rest, for things to go a bit quiet and gather force.
With this poem, the images are quite dramatic and also have that dream/nightmare quality that you point out above. Reading that beginning block of left-aligned, single stanza words was too much. The subject matter called for me to open it up and let in some breathing room so that the reader could pause and get a little shiver of the speaker’s nightmare/dream situation. I could have simply revised the left-aligned poem into several stanzas; however, in the end, I opted for the additional indentation as a way to make the poem more jagged. As I read it aloud, my breath seems to catch on those indentions and it fits the emotion behind the piece for me.
Interestingly, it was italicizing “mother,” calling attention to the speaker voicing that word, that led me to the last two lines of the poem. As I worked through the revisions, I realized that I wanted the poem to end on an echo of that naming.
4. Along with your blog, I discovered that you were a Goodreads author, a site I frequent. A large number of current writers seem to have an online presence through blogging, library sites, and even social media sites. What kind of effect has this presence had on your writing/career? What is the benefit, in your mind, to an author having such an online presence?
Creating and maintaining an online presence for myself has been one of the best things I’ve done in the last two years.
When Blood Almanac, my first book, came out in the summer of 2006, I knew I needed a web presence, but I couldn’t afford to pay someone to design a website. I had friends who blogged and I knew it was free, but I tend to be a “Jenny-come-lately” to most technologies. In fact, I didn’t start my blog until the late fall of 2007, and I didn’t really become a consistent blogger until last fall. It took me two years to figure out how I wanted to use the technology. I use the blog as a way to record what’s happening in my writing life, for sure, but this past fall, I became aware of the benefit of an audience.
In some ways, the blog keeps me honest. It’s a place to record success and failure. I know that ultimately, that audience isn’t going to care if I draft a poem each week or not, but having a place to write about whether I’ve drafted a poem or not helps me remember that my writing time is valuable and necessary.
As for the blog’s benefit, I can sum it up in one word: community. I loved my four years at the University of Arkansas when I was getting my MFA, mostly because of the sense of community. When my life brought me to Little Rock and teaching outside the MFA realm, I felt a bit lost. Blogging and reading tons of other writers’ blogs has been a way for me to build a new community of writers.
Last year I also became a regular at Facebook as well. Between the blog and Facebook, I’ve met some fantastic people. In fact, I first read about The Collagist on another writer’s blog. So, one benefit would definitely be how my knowledge of lit mags and poetry publishers has grown just from reading where other folks are publishing or where they work. Another benefit is that I can direct interested readers to poems of mine that are available online. This has led to several pieces being solicited for journals ~ a real honor, and one that might not have occurred as quickly without my being easy to find online.
Since you mentioned Goodreads, I should admit that I want to spend a bit more time there. I joined a group within the site this year, a group of people who proposed to read and review 20 books of poetry during the year. I started off strong, but then teaching duties took over; I hope to catch up this summer. This brings up the one downside to the online presence: time. There are so many opportunities to network and sync with different communities that the danger becomes spending all of one’s time networking and none of it writing!
5. What other writing projects are you currently working on?
I’m circulating my new poetry manuscript, In a World Made of Such Weather as This. This summer I hope to begin drafting poems that will become a third book. I’m ready to move on and change pace again, that weird shift between manuscripts, and I’m excited about not knowing where the new poems will take me.
6. What great books have you read recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
I’m terrible about upcoming releases. I’m either living in the moment or trying to catch up on what I missed during the academic year. I brought home twenty-some books from AWP, so I’ve got a big stack to tackle. Great books I’ve read recently: Brent Goodman’s the brother swimming beneath me, Allison Joseph’s My Father’s Kites, Cynthia Cruz’ Ruin, and Mary Biddinger’s Prairie Fever. Books I’m diving into headfirst now that the school year is over: Allison Benis White’s Self-Portrait with Crayon, Michele Battiste’s Ink for an Odd Cartography, Simone Muench’s Orange Crush, Oliver de la Paz’s Requiem for the Orchard, Rachel Contreni Flynn’s Tongue, Susan Rich’s The Alchemist’s Kitchen, and Allison Titus’ sum of every lost ship.