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.
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.
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.
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.