What’s an example of a question that puzzles you?
I’m writing a book right now about my relationship to the land. What is my relationship to the land? I have a million questions, but that’s probably most often the question I return to. My questions feel specific but also philosophical.
How much time do you spend writing a poem vs. revising it?
It varies from poem to poem. Most often I spend a lot more time revising. Some I’ve been writing for so long, I’m revising a lot as I’m drafting it. When I look at the versions, many versions of the poem, they get different, formally different, with new words.
As you revise, do you ever find the meaning or theme of the poem evolves? How and why?
You find the meaning, that’s where I find out what the poem’s about, most often. I find out what it’s really about. Because of the revising, you get the words that you don’t get in the first draft, that don’t just come out of my head. You find the images, the precision of the metaphors that don’t just hang around. I happily bang around my head to find them.
How do you find the right words?
Probably because I’m always reading, and I have all these models. People have beautiful language, and I like to be in their company. I hang out with their books and learn words from them.
How do you know when you have the words right?
I guess again it depends on the poem. Fiction or nonfiction, for it to be right, you have to think about the words. It makes it kind of tedious, a lovely tedium.
Sometimes I just know, and I have really good readers. I ask their opinion, they’re good and generous. Sometimes I have a writing group. I have a partner who’s a really good reader for me. And my friends.
Line breaks are such an interesting part of poetry because you don’t have those in other types of writing. How do you craft your line breaks?
It varies from poem to poem. It’s something about the body, I always think. A line is an indication of the breath. The way the poem breathes is some kind of articulation of a relationship to the body. The subject of the poem relates to the body, but that’s different poem to poem. It probably changes within poems.
I have several strategies depending on what you want to do with the breath and time and the revelation of information. I do like to think about lines as ways that I’m thinking about the body.
The first poem in Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude [his third book, the one nominated for the 2015 National Book Award], “To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian,” it starts tumbling through the city, blah, blah, blah. In my mind, the line breaks, they tumble. It’s kinda obvious. I was just at a school, and these kids were asked by their teacher, “What do you notice about the line breaks?” They said they kind of tumble. You kinda fall down them, they push you forward.
Poems are kind of narrow. I spent a good amount of time thinking about line breaks. Then I was moving studios and digging through my papers, and I found these skinny notepads I was writing the poems on. That’s what the shape of the thing I was writing on was. So that’s partly why several of my poems are skinny. It was a formal constraint, a formal determinant of writing on that paper. Sometimes, it’s just a notebook that makes you break the line.
What did writing your book of essays teach you? Did anything change for you after undertaking that discipline?
A handful of things changed for sure. I did realize that my labor was in studying life. I think the ground moved, so that I became more aware, more aware of loveliness without becoming unaware of unloveliness.
The other thing, among a million things I learned in the process, was how much I love sentences. I’ve always loved them. Sometimes I write a sentence I love so much. You feel like “ahh.” It’s so fun to write a sentence like that.
I realized in the course of writing that my study is a joy. I want to study joy. This book helped me articulate what I think joy is – to realize that’s what my work is curious about. Joy to me, adult joy, is constituted as much by our sorrow as it is by our happiness. Joy is not joy without knowing that we’re all going to die. Pain is present constantly in our lives.
How do you know when a poem is done?
Friends again. Sometimes I get it, but I really rely on readers, even when I’m writing. With the essays, if I could not figure them out, I’d get them to a friend and say, “What’s going on with this sentence?” I’d wonder about it, toy with it. Luckily, I have really good readers.
I also read the poems out loud before I’m finished to hear how other people hear them. It helps me a lot.
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Poetry has a reputation for being less accessible than prose. Do you agree with that, and how do you combat that perception?
Yeah, I agree. I did notice that when writing these essays, I tell you, it feels very different than the book about the land, which feels more like a poem, but these things, they feel way more narrative-based. Very often they’re a story. Sometimes they read like a poem but feel like something interesting that readers might feel like is poetry.
I feel like poetry is a way of thinking musically, thinking associatively a little more than I am with the essays, although also with the essays I’m thinking musically and associatively.
Poems feel a little more in conversation with the unknown. I feel like I often turn to writing a poem when I don’t have any idea how to approach a thing.
So do you think you’ll finish the poem about Dr. J?
I’d like to finish it. God, yeah, I hope. I haven’t finished a poem for a long time, so it would be cool to finish.
Toni Fitzgerald is a freelance writer and the copy editor for The Writer. She’s currently writing her first book – follow her ups and downs at writermag.com/blog.