Here's another Halloween treat for you: 5 (or so) questions with Anna Carson DeWitt. Former 9L staffer, Dana Burchfield, spoke to Anna Carson DeWitt about her poems that appear in the current issue of Ninth Letter as well as the role of intuition in the creative process, sincerity, and how to deal with cliches. Without further delay, here is their conversation.
9L: In both "Triptych in Salt Water" and "Walk Down the Mine," there are provocative intersections between place (geography, environment) and the body. In terms of process, were these intersections a surprise to you?
Anna Carson DeWitt: I'm not much of a planner, so almost everything about my poems is a surprise to me at first. But in retrospect, those intersections make sense. At the time that I wrote those poems, I was -- for the first time in my life -- totally fascinated by the physical geography of a place. It was this collision of familiar and strange that really took me in. On the one hand, the topography of Honduras has some things in common with my native North Carolina: small grey mountains, orange soil, the ocean nearby. But the plant life was entirely new to me, and I never got over it. There are these red trees with skin-like bark unfurling down the trunk, and jacarandas and bougainvilleas in every shade of peach and purple, and these huge, waxy thistle-type flowers as big as a baby's head. There are these ferns that retract when you touch them, as though they have muscles. On the other side of things, I was working both in the US and in Honduras as a beginner doula (labor and birth assistant), and I was consumed with seeing the female human body, this very common thing (I have one myself!) perform feats that were both very commonplace and really astonishing. One body, then two bodies. Like a plant sending out shoots, but right before my eyes. So I guess it kind of makes sense that these two prominent sources of wonder collided in my poetry.
9L: It sounds like intuition plays a big part in inspiring your creative process. I wonder what else comprises your process/practice? Is there a certain place or time where/when you write? Do you have mountains of drafts? Etc. etc.
ACD: Whenever I have a fully formed idea, I rarely write a successful poem. It's when I get a word or a phrase stuck in my head, or an image, or when I visualize a moment that feels unforgettable -- then I write poetry that I think is good. I become a little obsessed by the snippet, and if I'm smart, I start writing immediately. I write quite intensively for maybe an hour, rarely longer, and then I leave the finished first draft alone. I let a few hours or a day pass, and then I copy it over by hand to see what I've got. Then I start toying with it. Sometimes I draft more. I do this until I can't stand it anymore. Then I send it off to a trusted reader.
9L: Both of these poems wrestle with similar subject matter: motherhood, birth, life, death. All are dangerous subjects, maybe, in terms of cliche. How do you avoid the overly familiar in your work?
ACD: I suppose I don't. I still feel young and immature as a writer, and I think a big part of that is how little control I seem to have over my own writing process, especially the particular things that I write about. If I feel I am writing reasonably well, but the themes or things that appear in the poem happen to be commonplace or overdone, I tend to shrug and keep writing, because I don't know when that spark of writing well will flare up again. I'm lucky though, because I know many, many words, and I like to use them in every way that I can. I love the feel of my native language, the textures and contrasts that it accommodates. There I can delve into the unknown. So, I suppose, at this time in my youth I don't really try to avoid the overly familiar. I'm too fickle a writer to afford it, at my age and stage. Instead, in what I see as my better poems, I use language as a sort of stopgap against "same-old, same-old" syndrome. I try to make old things new with new words.
9L: I'm really interested in the fact that you practice writing outside of academia. Especially now, it seems the university is the primary setting in which most American poets are working. Do you have plans to go back eventually? PhD programs? Teaching?
ACD: I am actually teaching right now (for the first time) at a college -- community college to be exact. I'm teaching composition, not creative writing, but it is such interesting work and very rewarding so far. It also seems pretty compatible with my own writing life. I find myself making time to edit or draft every few days. I was fully prepared not to write until December when I started this job, so I am relieved. It wouldn't have been the end of the world, though. I'm kind of a camel when it comes to writing. I'll write ten or so poems in a week, and then nothing for six weeks.
9L: I think I can safely speak on behalf of the poetry editorial staff when I say we were each moved or affected in some way by the poems you submitted to Ninth Letter -- not least of all because of the incredible sense of sincerity and genuine feeling we felt as readers in response to your writing. To what extent do you see this element of sincerity operating in your own work, and what role does or should it play in contemporary poetry?
ACD: That is tremendously flattering because I've been thinking a lot about sincerity lately, exactly that word. My own taste in poetry is very skewed towards poems and poets that feel sincere to me -- Paul Celan, David Keplinger, and Michael Dickman spring to mind. In my own work, I have been struggling in particular with the difference between sincerity and truth-fullness. I make up a lot in my poems, and sometimes I worry. When someone claims, as I do, to write poems "about people," how can their observations about people be trusted if the ways of the people that they write about -- or even the people themselves -- are fabricated? Still, I feel sure that I am doing the right thing when I make up people and actions -- even when I represent in a poem the very opposite of what I have seen played out before my eyes -- because I feel very sincere about the force that propels the poem as a whole. I feel that every poem is still true, even if its constituent parts are not.
What I hadn't thought about until now is the fact that sincerity can run the other way -- in terms of the sincerity and genuine response the Ninth Letter staff felt and had as readers. The idea that the reader's sincerity of response, as you suggested, can be at the forefront of the poem (as opposed to just the sincerity that the poem itself might hope to have) is really cool for me. It's going to comfort me the next time I call myself into question.
9L: I'm intrigued by what you say with regards to sincerity and "writing about people" in poetry -- which as a genre maybe does give more room for privileging the sincerity or truthfulness of perception or feeling over literal fact. In the current issue of Ninth Letter, genre is certainly something we're hoping to pry into a bit. So, is poetry the only genre you work in? Or do you not define your work in terms of genre?
ACD: You know, I took some nonfiction workshops in graduate school, and I think that the most useful outcome for me was realizing that some ideas and/or subject matter don't fit in poetry. Sometimes I'll have the impulse to write about something, and I'll give it a shot, and it won't be successful. If I'm smart, I'll eventually lay down the struggle and acknowledge that the subject matter is not for poetry! If I'm feeling daring, then I'll give it a shot in prose. But to be honest that doesn't happen too often. I wish it did.
Thanks very much to Anna Carson DeWitt and Dana Burchfield for such a fantastic discussion. To read Anna Carson DeWitt's poems and the rest of the awesome poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in vol. 7, no. 1, pick up a copy in our webstore. Also don't forget about our Halloween special (a 2-year subscription for the price of 1!) Subscriptions start with vol. 7, no. 1.