An Interview with Kim Addonizio

Kim Addonizio
Photo credit: Joe Allen.

Poet Kim Addonizio talks about "poem feeling" vs. "prose feeling," asking her characters to talk to her, and salvation.

When did you first start to identify yourself as a writer?

I remember my first unfinished work. I wanted to write a novel when I was around nine. I wrote ten pages. It was a mystery, I think. I don't remember why I stopped -- probably because it was too hard. I remember writing a short story at fifteen and being eager to show it to my dad, who was a sportswriter.

Do you remember what drew you to writing poetry?

I wrote down my feelings in lines in high school and after, but it was hardly poetry. I seriously started trying to write it in my late twenties. I think poetry drew me to it -- I think I was always meant to find it.

How has your creative process changed since then?

When I was younger, poorer, and raising a kid, I had a lot less time for consistent creative work. So I was less connected to my own process. I feel I'm able to tap in a lot more often now.

Fear of failure is the biggest thing that blocks creativity. It makes you give up too soon on a project, or on a writing life.

Bio

Kim Addonizio is the author of three books of poetry from BOA Editions: The Philosopher's Club, Jimmy & Rita, and Tell Me, which was a finalist for the 2000 National Book Award. Her latest poetry collection, What Is This Thing Called Love, was published by W. W. Norton in January 2004. A book of stories, In the Box Called Pleasure, was published by Fiction Collective 2. She's also coauthor with Dorianne Laux of The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (W.W. Norton). Her new novel, My Dreams Out in the Street, has recently been published by Simon & Schuster.

Addonizio's awards include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, a Commonwealth Club Poetry Medal, and the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award. She teaches private workshops in Oakland, CA.

On the Web: kimaddonizio.com, My Dreams Out in the Street, What Is This Thing Called Love

How does the way you approach poetry compare to the way you approach prose?

I don't really have an "approach" to different genres; it's more a feeling. I have a "poem feeling" and a "prose feeling." I like the "poem feeling" best, and when it's there I want to read and write poems. I think if I let it, it would overwhelm the prose -- ideally, I think I'd like to kick back and write poems exclusively. That's how I think of it. It's a great pleasure. But the prose (along with teaching) has enabled me to survive as a writer outside of the university. I think having to take a university job would kill the poetry in me forever.

In your creative process, do you have any techniques or habits that you've found help you tap your creative side?

Clearing the decks, in all ways. Shutting out the world, cleaning the room, not answering the phone. I used to write late at night. It's a good time because no one is expecting anything from you. I have writing days now; I load up on the errands and other responsibilities on different days, so I can get up in the morning on a writing day and feel it stretching out ahead of me. A feeling of spaciousness is crucial. Ideas come from reading, experiences, TV, looking at art, dreams, eavesdropping. Living in as many directions as possible.

What else inspires you?

Anything and everything. If "inspire" is the right word, a lot of poems lately have been inspired by the sorry state of the world and by ongoing romantic illusions and difficulties. Great writing always inspires me. Having a challenge inspires me -- could I do X in a poem? Could I write a novel entirely from one character's point of view, or write a historical novel? Could I write something for voice and blues harmonica that would work as a word/music piece? Trying to work out an idea, to take it from some place in my head and make it real in the world of forms.

Is there anything that helps you get to work and stay focused when you're feeling uninspired?

I either slog through, or I quit and come back later. Sometimes if you slog, you end up finding something interesting. Plus it makes you feel like you've gotten points somehow -- you stayed there when the work sucked or didn't go anywhere. And on the other hand, it's good to leave it alone sometimes and come back later. I know I'll come back. I know by now that the problem will shift. Right now I'm avoiding a novel that has some problems I don't feel I can solve, but I intend to go back and work on them; I have a lot more faith now than I used to, when I failed consistently. Fear of failure is the biggest thing that blocks creativity. It makes you give up too soon on a project, or on a writing life.

What have you worked the hardest to achieve in your writing?

Music, depth, skill, all of it. For a long time the language in my poems was pretty flat, and I struggled to make it less so. Trying to get beyond a certain self-conscious, mannered style, loosening up. In fiction, structure has been difficult, and so has texturing the language enough -- I always have to do what I call "the comb-over," go back through the sparse descriptions and add. Usually I have one sentence where I need four or five.

Is there a piece of work that stands out as the most challenging project you've tackled?

Jimmy & Rita, my verse novel, was very challenging because I started with one poem about these two people and got the idea to write a whole book of poems about their lives, and I had to figure out who they were and what happened to them. Some days I'd just type "Rita, talk to me" on the computer or "Jimmy, what are you doing now?" -- trying to channel them. And the other big challenge was writing a novel. So I guess long, sustained, narrative projects are the hardest for me.

What do you think has gotten you through those kinds of projects?

Sheer obsession and a dogged refusal to quit. Though I did quit writing fiction a number of times, because it was too hard. But I always ended up a year or two down the road going back to try again.

In your writing workshops, are there key lessons that you find yourself consistently emphasizing?

Oh, yeah. I'm always hammering on the same things. Sufficient clarity and context for a reader. Understanding your intent, on a holistic level, so you can reshape the poem accordingly -- that is, figuring out the core of the poem, making conscious to yourself the ideas and themes as far as possible. Keeping the writing fluid and trying out several strategies for revision, not just one.

What gets you excited about other people's writing?

Surprise, intensity, musicality. Syntax. And I'm a sucker for a sexy metaphor.

How would you describe your relationship with language?

Constant, ongoing, happy, fraught, erotic.

Has anything surprised you about your creative life?

That I've been able to have one. I mean, have one in a semi-public fashion, in addition to having one privately.

Is there any other advice you'd offer on the creative process?

What I've learned is simple: if you nurture it, it will expand, and it will nurture you in return. I have also learned that it is a kind of salvation. Sometimes it's more than enough and sometimes it's not enough -- by that I mean one's own creativity. If you can truly tap in to the creative process, you know it's there all the time, and then you probably don't need saving.

| 10 Comments

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  • The times i have spent with her and her work over the years have been like revisiting a pleasant dream. I have known her under several circumstances over several decades and in each one of them she has impressed me. Now she oozes her stuff with music too. As an artist, she could be spreading herself thin but she will have no part of such thinking. I would like to write something someday that might impress her just a little. I would be so very proud. She is also a dish.

  • Hi Kim, guess you may be tuning into this site every once in a while...read about your Mom being feted earlier this week at Cabin John with Billie Jean King in tow. Maybe you were there? All the best, George S. (Caracas, Venezuela)

  • "Sheer obsession and a dogged refusal to quit."-
    It takes a real writer to admit that and Ms.Addonizio is fantastic. Thanks to Poetry magazine, I discovered her writing. Here is wishing her the best of success.

  • I'm a first-time visitor, too. I find Kim A. very engaging and would like to read some of her work. I can go google it, but it would be most helpful to have the author recommend a few pieces that they feel are the best introductions to their work.

    Thanks---I look forard to more.

  • Thanks for the comment Vernon -- looking forward to more. I was curious if you're planning on using your retirement to tackle any creative projects your own self?
    -Cecil

  • This is my initial exposure to your site; I'm attracted to it and will read more. You have a commendable idea.

    As to KA, I am equally impressed, her approach to writing appears to me encouraging. After I get more exposure to your site, my comments should be better. I'm not a writer, I am a retired business man. Thank you, and KA.

  • "Fear of failure is the biggest thing that blocks creativity."

    People talk about writer's block and the blank page, but here Kim Addonizio nails it. Somehow the idea of acknowledging it as fear of failure makes it less scary (of course failure is an option; get over it already and see what you can do). Thanks for the interview.

  • Kim is my favorite living contemporary poet, hands down. She's freaking amazing. No one even comes close to her.

    Great job with the interview - I loved it.

    xo
    Rob

  • enjoyed the line about 'living in as many directions as possible.' her points on fear of failure obstacle and confidence factor are compelling. i like the realization about finding and tapping creative wells of energy.

  • I liked the part where Kim says she either slogs through, or quits and comes back later. And the part about the “comb over.” And about trying out several strategies for revision, not just one. I was glad to get to see some of what goes into the “constant, ongoing, happy, fraught, erotic” act of writing. Thanks for another insightful interview!

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