By Rajesh Subramanian
Erin Rodoni is the author of two full length poetry collections: Body, in Good Light (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2017) and A Landscape for Loss (NFSPS Press, 2017), winner of the 2016 Stevens Award sponsored by the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. Her poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Blackbird, Verse Daily, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Rise Up Review, Matter, and The Adroit Journal. In 2017, she won the Ninth Letter Literary Award for poetry and The Montreal International Poetry Prize.
In this exclusive interview to Modern Literature, she answers a wide array of questions about her poetry and literary career.
What motivates you to write?
At the most basic level, language motivates me to write. Lines and rhythms come into my head while I’m driving, or taking a shower, or running, and they bother me, begging to be written down, and, in that way, captured long enough to explore, to build from. If I examine the impulse to write more deeply, I think I am motivated by a desire to find a way to express certain emotions that enter my body and aren’t easily classified as sad, happy, angry, etc. There is so much light and shadow and ache in the experience of feeling the world, in so many different ratios and combinations, and the daily language we use to communicate so rarely does it justice. I was never very good at just saying what I think/feel in a given moment, I need time to find the language. Writing, and poetry in particular for me, with its ability to access the intuitive and the associative, is a way to take my time, to gather the words in the form that will best conjure up the feeling behind the words, and hopefully create a piece of writing that resonates with some kind of truth in my readers.
When did you start writing poems? Could you briefly explain about your poetic journey so far?
As a kid, I remember always getting really into any school assignment that involved writing a poem or a song, and I had a good ear for rhymes, but I didn’t start writing poems on my own time until high school. I went to a small, rural high school and we didn’t have a lot of resources, but we were lucky enough to have an English teacher who offered a creative writing class as an elective. I took the class my junior year and began writing poems regularly, often combining them with watercolor images. Around the same time, I discovered an old Norton anthology of poetry at my Grandma’s house and took it home to read. I was so inspired by some of the poems, I began imitating them, not realizing that was a genuine technique for developing poetic craft. I still have imitations of Plath’s “Daddy” and Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” in an old journal. I didn’t major in English in college, opting for Communications instead, but I continued to write poems while studying at UC Berkeley, though I rarely showed them to anyone. But, somewhere toward the end of my time at Berkeley, I became a little maxed out on language, and I began to crave a different way of processing the world. I spent the next eight years or so falling in love, travelling the world with my boyfriend (who became my husband), and studying massage therapy and natural healing. I hardly wrote at all, but language was still there flowing in and out of my mind. Eventually the desire to capture it returned, with a vengeance, and I realized I wanted to devote my energies to poetry once again. I applied to MFA programs and was accepted into San Diego State. There, I wrote the manuscript that became my first book, with the guidance of Ilya Kaminsky, Sandra Alcosser, and Marilyn Chin, and the wonderful community of poets I studied with.
What, in your opinion, are the characteristics of a good poem?
I think there are so many ways for a poem to be “good” that it is difficult to pin down characteristics. For me, I think what it comes down to is for the poem to get inside me in some way, whether through sound, or sense, or image, or idea. If I read a poem and it starts singing inside me, if it makes me feel, if it makes my heart beat a little faster, or leaves me breathless in anticipation, in fear, in delight, in wonder, in longing, in recognition, then I’d call it a good poem.
Does poetic language need to be complex, compared to the language of other literary forms like short stories or novels?
No, I don’t think poetic language needs to be more complex than prose, but I do think it needs to be more precise. In a poem, each word carries a lot of weight, so it really needs to be the right word, it needs to do some kind of work toward building the atmosphere and meanings of the poem as a whole. Personally, I like to use unusual verbs and syntax in my poems, and construct more complex images or metaphors, but I have read many poems that masterfully use very plain-spoken, everyday language, and they are just as magical to me, sometimes even more magical.
Your poem ‘Caesura’ which won The Montreal International Poetry Prize-2017 had a unique physical structure ( in terms of spacing between words/lines etc). Why and how did you choose that particular structure?
Usually, when I begin a poem I don’t think about it’s final form, I just write in a block of not-quite prose, because I do break the lines kind of intuitively while I’m writing, but I don’t make any stanzas or indentations. So “Caesura” started out as a thick column on the page. Then, as I started making my edits, I began to see where I wanted the line breaks and it became a very long thin column, with short lines, but that didn’t seem to fit the mood. I wanted the longer lines, but I also wanted more pauses, more breaks. I knew I didn’t want stanzas, I wanted the all the moments to run into each other, so I wasn’t sure what to do. Then I remembered some WS Merwin poems I had written a paper on while at SDSU that used an white space as an internal caesura. Of course, that kind of pause in the middle of a line dates much farther back than Merwin, common in Old English verse like Beowulf, but it was the Merwin poems I remembered at the time. I liked the idea of putting a pause, and a white space, within each line because the poem was so much about an absence that is also a presence, an absent baby, an absent God (or a certain way of believing in God), but I had never used that kind of pause before, so I just had to experiment until it felt right. In the final form, the white space in “Caesura” is a little messy, like a gash running through the text, and that seems to enhance the themes and images in the poem, the dirt and blood, the strange grief of miscarriage, the coming to terms with death without the neatness of heaven.
( Link to the prize winning poem: http://montrealprize.com/2017-winner/ )
How important is the physical structure of a poem ( the way it appears on paper, in terms of sentence lengths, spacings etc) to its poetic impact?
The structure of a poem is a big part of how it communicates with a reader. That doesn’t mean the structure needs to be elaborate. Sometimes a block of prose is the perfect structure for a poem. It just has to do with how the poet wants to lead the reader through the poem, the pace at which the information and images are delivered, and how many units of meaning the poet wants to create within a sentence. Each line break or pause is an opportunity for the reader to linger on one unit of meaning before moving on to the next. A prose poem or a column poem can create a sense of claustrophobia or breathlessness. Couplets can lead the reader more slowly, jumping from stone to stone. Indenting lines more randomly can create a sense of motion, while incorporating lots of spaces between word units can create a sense of fragmentation or chaos. But really, these same forms can evoke completely different feelings depending on the content of the language. I think the relationship between form and language in poetry is endlessly malleable.
When you write poems, is it a controlled, conscious activity or do you let the words fill up the paper as an uncontrolled flow? In the latter case, how do you do the editing?
I definitely just let the words fill up the page, mostly because I have a limited amount of time to write, usually when my baby is napping, or after the kids go to bed, so if I spend too much time fiddling over every word, I might not actually get anything down. I usually have a couple stream of consciousness drafts going at once, and I keep going back to them whenever I have time, until I get to a place that feels like an ending or like I’ve dug into this thought process as much as I can without editing. Then I start a new document where I copy and paste the parts that seem the most special or necessary and begin arranging and rearranging the order, filling in the holes in the logic as needed. I put most drafts into couplets at some point, because I find that helps me to see where I can leave some of the narrative out, where I can allow the reader to take an imaginative or associative leap with me. Sometimes the poem remains in couplets, sometimes I keep manipulating the words on the page into other structures. Then I go through each line, asking myself if I’m using the best word, metaphor, or image.
Is creative writing, including poetry, “an inner thing” or a curated craft ? How essential is language proficiency and practice for writing good poetry?
I do believe some people have an innate predisposition toward using language as an art form, and that poetic inspiration comes more readily to some minds than others. But I absolutely believe that writers need to work at their craft in order to translate their ideas into the best art possible. This doesn’t mean they must get a degree in creative writing, or be mentored by a master. There are many ways for a writer to hone their craft. One of the best, and most necessary, methods is just reading as much as possible, observing the way others use language, noticing the way certain words, phrases, images affect you. It takes practice to listen to the language inside you, and to capture it on the page in a way that will mean something to another person.
Your poetic language is unique and special. Do you craft it deliberately to sound different or is it a natural phenomenon?
Thank you! Sometimes an unusual way of putting something is the happy accident of a first draft. Other times, it is the result of revision, of going through the poem with a very critical eye for lines that fall flat, seem trite, or just bore me. Then I push myself to rework those lines in a way that will reinforce the themes or soundscape of the poem. Sometimes it becomes apparent those lines aren’t even necessary, and once I cut them out the poem blossoms into a stranger flower.
Do you have plans to foray into fiction writing? If not, why?
No plans, but I do have dreams/intentions of writing fiction one day. Right now, while my children are young, they demand a lot of my attention and energy, and I don’t have the focus to imagine a narrative that takes up the space of a novel. A poem is compact enough that I can hold one in my mind and work on it while I’m doing other activities, so I can be writing a poem without even sitting down at a desk. I think if I ever do start writing fiction, I would begin with short stories because they often have a very poetic arc to them.
How do you decide a particular event /news/theme/image is “poetic material”, before you proceed on writing a poem about it?
I don’t really believe there is any subject that isn’t poetic material. For every gross, or ugly, or mundane, or seemingly superficial subject I can think of, I can think of a good poem about it. Though I think there are subjects that aren’t necessarily good poetic material for me personally, because of a lack of experience or knowledge or connection. If I’m going to write a poem about something, I need to be able to find a way into it that feels exciting, that feels like it might lead to a discovery. Whether or not I can come up with an angle, or metaphor, or frame, that allows me to enter a topic is really all that determines whether or not I attempt to write about it. To be honest, my habitual poetic obsessions fall well within the traditionally poetic. Probably the most unusual topic I have written a successful (as in willing to publish and have other people see) poem about is pumping my breast milk when travelling without my baby. I felt a poem there, in that oddly lonesome, private space, for a long time before I knew how to write it. It was the moment I connected that space with a Doris Lessing story I remembered reading long ago that I was able to articulate the poem. All this to say, if something moves you to write about it, I see no reason not to at least try. Not every poem needs to be published, but between a poet and the privacy of the blank page, no topic is unworthy.
What are your future literary plans?
I published two books last year, one that I worked on for many years and one that I wrote very quickly, so right now I am just writing new poems. I am trying to keep focused on one poem at a time, or one obsession at a time, before I start getting ahead of myself with planning a next book. Once I’ve built up a lot more work, I will be able to see how the poems might be in conversation with each other, what arc they might have, if they could come together as a manuscript.
Among your poems, which is your most favorite? (Could you please give that poem in full).
Choosing a favorite poem feels a bit like choosing a favorite child. But I think the poem I am most proud of is “Little Brother,” from my first collection Body, in Good Light (originally published in Drunken Boat, now called Anomaly). The form was very much an experiment for me, with the first and third sections overlapping in the second section, and the phrases alternating and repeating. The way I put that overlapping section together was very intuitive, a lot of letting the phrases guide me as they whispered and echoed. The poem is also special to me because of the moment that inspired it, my sister-in-law’s brave act, and my brother’s loving response.
Shadow, pest, first friend, you
would have followed me anywhere.
Up the pale limbs
of walnuts that thin into umber
leaves at dusk. Into the vacant
lot next door, we tunneled
waist-high foxtails, unearthed
cat skulls. In the wood
shed, I lifted every log.
With the same bravado,
I swept your room
for nightmares. Shadow,
pest, first friend, you shadow
would have followed me anywhere. Pest, first
friend, you lift the sun up the pale limbs
of walnuts that thin into umber streaked tresses
to your nose, your lips
as she leaves at dusk I would follow.
Into the vacant anywhere
lot next door, we tunneled as she explains
waist-high foxtails, unearthed cat skulls.
Better by my own hand, Babe. In the wood
shed, I lifted by my own hand every log
with the same bravado as before bed Babe
I swept your room for nightmares. Better to
give it away. I recognize the way
as she explains you pad your chest
with breath better to give it away
to appear stronger than your frame as she
explains and you tell her whoever gets her hair
your nose, your lips is the luckiest girl.
First friend, I never knew better
what we’d do with a monster than to watch it
or a black widow spider watch it slowly. Shadow
pest, first friend, you lift the sun-
streaked tresses to your nose,
your lips, as she explains—
Better by my own hand, Babe.
Better to give it away
than watch it slowly
clog the drain. I recognize
the way you pad your chest
with breath to appear stronger
than your frame
and you tell her whoever gets her hair
is the luckiest girl.
Pest, I never knew
what we’d do with a monster
or a black widow spider, only
if such things existed it had to be better
to see them first. Friend, I’m right
behind you. Let my fear
make you brave.