Authors / Features / Fiction / Interviews / Poetry

Q&A With Kim Addonizio

Bloom: Your work is often described as “provocative and edgy”—do you agree with these descriptors? What do they mean specifically to you, your writing process, and your work? 

Kim Addonizio: I suppose I want to provoke a response, and I’m always interested in pushing the envelope, whether that’s with style or subject matter. But what I’m most trying to do is get at my truths about life. I seem to need to challenge myself. Every time I get comfortable—say, writing a certain kind of poem or story—I need to break out of that and do something I can’t yet do. I’m surprised when the occasional reader or critic is offended in some way, or thinks I’m doing something daring. I feel like, What planet are you from? Just how sheltered are you? It seems to me a sad comment on the state of literary culture if what I’m doing is considered “edgy.” But, hey, if it draws some readers to my work, I’ll take it.

Bloom: You have a great quote on your Web site from Willie Dixon—“The blues are the true facts of life.” How does your experience with music, and specifically the blues, enhance or guide your writing process?

Big Mama Thornton copyKA: Again, it’s about truth. The blues is about struggle and survival. Feeling fucked up, feeling low, beaten down by a system, by a lover, by an addiction. I love the subversive quality of the tradition and its insistence on what García Lorca called duende. I identify with my poems as blues songs. In fact I’m just publishing a book of blues poems, My Black Angel, Blues Poems and Portraits, with portraits by woodcut artist Charles D. Jones. Blues has influenced my poetry in many ways—writing in blues forms, writing about the music and the people who made it. In general, it helps keep me honest in any form I write in. It’s my bullshit detector.

Bloom: When did you decide to incorporate playing the blues harmonica during your readings? Do you hear the music or feel a musical rhythm as you are writing, or does it come later as a part of the performance?

KA: I took up the harmonica in my mid-40s. I had a ready-made audience at poetry readings. And I was terrified of playing in public. So, you, know, that was my signal to go for it. I’m afraid my first few times out were pretty painful for my audience.

Now I have enough chops that it sounds ok. The writing usually comes first, and then I try to figure out what might work musically. I love collaborating with musicians and creating a setting for a piece of writing that highlights the language and makes something new happen.

Bloom: You describe how your approach to different writing styles is more like a tapping into a “poem feeling” vs. a “prose feeling.”  Can you talk more about those feelings and the distinction between them?

KA: Yeah, the “poem feeling” happens more often. It’s a space of freedom. That is, I want to get to that space, and poetry takes me there. Prose feels a little more willed. Often, I have a subject in mind, especially with essays. I’ve written a number of essays because someone approached me and said, “We’re doing an anthology on X, would you like to contribute a piece?” At first I always think, Yes, I’d like to, but I probably can’t. Then I sit down, and often something shows up.

Bloom: Who first inspired you creatively? Who inspires you now?

KA: My real creative education came at the hands of a couple a few years older than me. I was about 17, still in high school. They turned me on to all kinds of books and music. I remember reading Anaïs Nin’s journals, which they gave me, and thinking it would be pretty cool to be an artist of some kind, to live deeply and have affairs and passionate conversations. They opened up the world of culture for me. Before that, I read a lot of good novels, but I didn’t know anything about visual art, or jazz. I didn’t know there were people to whom those things really mattered, who made life choices based on art. This was a huge revelation to me, and showed me a path I wanted to follow.

Now creative inspiration comes from everywhere. I’m writing this response on a plane and just finished watching “No Good Reason,” a documentary about Ralph Steadman. His work is amazing, filled with id and anger. It doesn’t hold back. That’s totally inspiring.

Bloom: Your latest work, The Palace of Illusions, is a collection of short stories. What inspired this genre rather than another novel or book of poems?

KA: I had a half-assed collection about 10 years ago that I abandoned. Then I got a six-week fellowship to Italy. I was supposed to be writing poems, but I started reading Lydia Davis, and boom: stories started coming. Then I went back and revised some in the earlier manuscript. At that point I started reading nothing but stories, until the book was finished. When I’m working in one genre, I have to stay away from the others, or they’ll abduct me and hold me hostage.

Bloom: The book is described as “a variety of settings, all connected through the suggestion that things in the known world are not what they seem.” How do you think language lends itself to illuminating the nature of illusion?

KA: That’s a great question. I don’t know if this makes sense, but what I love about language is that it’s multivalent. It goes in all directions at once. And I think of those directions as arrows trying to get to a target—which, again, is some truth about what it’s like to be alive. Unlike an image, language happens in time—like music. So it can keep unfolding in the reader or listener’s head. I guess you could stare at a great piece of art and get the same effect. A lot of the stories in The Palace of Illusions play with boundaries: taking the seven dwarfs out of the fairy tale, for example, and making them a sort of urban cult. There’s a little girl who kills animals. Another story happens on Halloween, a night of illusion and transformation. Then there’s an old woman who’s simultaneously herself and a young princess. And in the more “realistic” stories, other kinds of boundaries get crossed. I’m fascinated by the in-between, the doorway. I often wonder if I’m actually living, or just being dreamed by some greater consciousness. I mean, how would I know, really? When I dream, I don’t know I’m dreaming; that world seems just as real when I’m in it.

Bloom: You also teach writing workshops and have published books on writing poetry. How does working with students change your perspective on your own writing?

KA: The good thing about working with poetry students is that they are always discovering writers and ways to write; their enthusiasm keeps me more engaged, keeps me reading and listening and learning.

Bloom: How do you think the craft of writing has changed with the ubiquity of tools like the Internet, blogs, and social media?

KA: It’s easier to encounter sloppy writing now, thanks to the Internet. Anyone can toss up a blog or whip something out without any crafting in a Facebook post. On the other hand, I’ve found Google to be an indispensable partner in some of my own writing. There’s more information on craft that’s readily available, and people have access to online workshops and writing communities. I worry, though, about the contemplative mind. About solitude, and privacy. Those things are necessary, and they’re disappearing.

Bloom: You said something very interesting in an interview with Susan Browne for Five Points about how poetry is often thought of as “confessional” rather than another form of fictional expression. Why do you think readers assume the poet is always confessing about her own life and baring her own emotional state, while the novelist has the freedom to inhabit many characters and behaviors and perceptions?

KA: Hah! I wish I knew the answer to that. I’m always trying to counter the notion of my own work as “confessional.” I wish more people would understand poems as fictions. As someone once said of fiction, it’s a secret wrapped in a lie. That’s what poetry is, to me. For me, the “I” of the poem is always a character.

Bloom: What advice would you give to writers who are juggling family and work and trying to tap into a consistent, creative process?

KA: Every artist has to wrestle—and I mean wrestle, struggle, get slammed to the mat and get up again—creative time from his or her life. You have to be very passionate and obsessive. You have to be willing to give things up and claim your writing time.

Schedule, no schedule, up early or late, writing on the train, in a closet, whatever—there aren’t any tips or tricks. If you are burning to do it, you’ll find a way because you have to. If this thing is in you, nothing will be able stop you.

Bloom Post End

Click here to read “Another Breakup Song” from The Palace of Illusions.

My Black Angel illustration: Woodcut by Charles D. Jones
Author photo credit: Lin Tan

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