Lisa Jones interviews Kim Addonizio
Kim Addonizio is a National Book Award finalist and Pushcart prize-winning poet who brings an edgy, gutsy voice to her polished narrative meditations. Her work includes a mix of the dark, the sensual, and the spiritual, sometimes employing traditional forms to describe modern human struggles. Many have been introduced to her as the co-editor of an inviting and insightful teaching book on the making of poetry, The Poet's Companion, written with Dorianne Laux.
Addonizio has two new books coming out. The first one, Ordinary Genius, is also a teaching book. Like Poet's Companion, it is a series of chapters inspired by her free-lance teaching, which she conducts on-line and in workshops in Oakland California, where she lives (information available on her website: kimaddonizio.com).
According to her publisher, Norton, the book includes "new insights into the creative process, craft, and the lessons Addonizio has learned through her own creative subjects--love, loss, identity, community. There are Chapters on gender, race, and class, encouraging readers to explore their creative vision more deeply." She "shares her breakthroughs and frustrations frankly, including samples of rejection slips . . . and a wealth of knowledge about form and structure, metaphor and rhythm, revision, and . . . publishing."
Norton will release Ordinary Genius in February of 2009 and Lucifer at the Starlite in October. Her previous poetry collections include: Tell Me, Jimmy and Rita (a verse novel), The Philosopher's Club, and What is this Thing Called Love. She's also written two novels and has a word/music CD Swearing, Smoking, Drinking, & Kissing, a book of stories, In the Box Called Pleasure (FC2); and the anthology Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos, co-edited with Cheryl Dumesnil. She's been awarded two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship among others.
Last year I had the privilege of becoming one of her students and have since enjoyed attending a poetry salon she held at her house so students could read their poems and enjoy the featured reading of Nancy Pearson, one of her students who recently published a book, Two Minutes of Light (winner of the Perugia Press Prize). I asked Addonizio to respond to some e-mail questions about her own work.
How is this book different from Poet's Companion?
When I wrote the Poet's Companion with Dorianne Laux, the Internet was really new. Ordinary Genius recognizes the back-and-forth between books and cyberspace, and makes use of that. Ordinary Genius is also a bit more expansive, I think—it brings in collaboration, performance, ways of making and experiencing poetry in a broader sense.
Can you give me an example of a suggestion you offer in the book for how to use the internet as a poet?
There are lots of suggestions for poems to Google, work you can read online to help you think about how to approach a writing exercise in the book. In one chapter, the reader is directed to web sites that show graphically disturbing images of suffering: Nagasaki, Darfur, etc. There's not even a writing exercise attached to that one. The exercise is simply to look at those things, to confront them.
How is your poetry changing? What can you tell me about the book Lucifer at the Starlite?
I was pretty severe with the poems in the book—I tried to cut anything that didn't have a certain kind of intensity. It's a dark book, but I think there's hope there. Stylistically, maybe it begins to move somewhere else from where I've been. That's usually my goal, to try and take the writing someplace new.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about women poets who have written about the body and sexuality. Jan Beatty has a poem where she thanks poets like Sharon Olds and Sylvia Plath and others for paving the way for modern women poets to be able to write about what it means to live in a woman's body and she says we still have a long way to go. Are you still writing about sexuality and the body? Are you moving into other subjects?
As Whitman says, "I too received identity by my body." What if we reconceived the question as being about identity? That strikes me as potentially more interesting. As for moving into other subjects, the other subjects have been there in my work all along. I'm obsessed by the same subjects that have always tugged at me: mortality; the suffering in the world; the connections between people; the spiritual realities we dimly apprehend and how to enact them, how to live authentically, within awareness, and with kindness. I'm not sure I'm interested in being "a woman poet writing about the body." Aren't we all writing about the body? Aren't we all in a body, experiencing life? It seems weird to separate that out, as though if we're writing about being in a body we aren't also writing about the mind and imagination and spirit.
I love this quote from you: "Poetry is not a means to an end, but a continuing engagement with being alive." Do you want to say anything more about that? How do you stay in touch with that even though, in the professional realm you are in, one can get very caught up in the business/ambition side of poetry?
Since I found poetry—or it found me—in my late twenties, I've pretty much devoted my life to it. It's not hard to stay in touch with poetry. Poetry is like food; I need it to live. I need to see and know that there is more than the mundane, more than the everyday reality of work and money and entertainment. I need a sense of the gravitas of life, a connection with the duende; poetry and art and music take me there. Without them I would kill myself out of boredom and meaninglessness. I find meaning in the natural world, too, but I mostly find it in culture, in the products of my fellow humans who are thinking and wondering and imagining and grieving and loving as I am. I can get caught up in ambition like anyone, but it doesn't have anything to do with what motivates me to write. I write because I have to. I have a brother who's an athlete, and I'm sure he does that because he has to, because without it, he wouldn't feel connected to himself or to the world.
If you were about to take your subject matter in a new direction, where would you be going?
How can I know? The subject matter changes as your life changes. You don't control your subject matter—it chooses you. I'm hoping for more light, less darkness and loneliness. And then, too, I think of that great Galway Kinnell poem:
Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
Lisa Jones is a staff interviewer for Poetry Now. A member of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, she is currently editing their Annual Review. Her work has been published in Qarrtsiluni's Journaling the Apocalypse and in Poetry Now. She recently won first place for the Constance Topping Memorial Prize for poetry and received an honorable mention in the Sacramento Poetry Center contest. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.