Derrick Austin interviews Erica Dawson
Derrick Austin: Congratulations on your second collection, The Small Blades Hurt (Measure Press), getting picked up! Was the submission process any easier with your second manuscript rather than your first?
Erica Dawson:Thanks so much! The submission process was definitely not easier. I was pretty new to submitting to contests and presses when I won the Hecht Prize. This time? I’m positive I sent at least two really bad earlier versions (there were many) of the manuscript to every press in America. I owe a lot of people apologies. I’m so excited about the new book, and working with Rob Griffith and Paul Bone, and a press dedicated to new, fresh, original formal poetry.
DA: What was the transition like moving from the first book to the second? Were there differences in your process of writing poems, constructing the book? Did you make conscious choices to avoid certain subjects, to work against the first book?
ED: Big-Eyed Afraid was a new version of my MFA thesis, so I did most of the writing during my three years at Ohio State. So many of the poems were workshopped in the class one-on-one over a drink, with my thesis committee. It was a communal effort, in a way. The manuscript kind of happened. This time it was much more solitary. I wrote most of the poems after completing course work at Cincinnati, or here in Tampa. And I was more aware of needing to make something happen. I was obsessed with avoiding Big-Eyed Afraid 2.0. So I mapped out what Book Number 2 would be. Worst idea ever, to even think I could do that. I didn’t leave any room for spontaneity. I was writing poems for a preconceived notion of a book that didn’t exist. And they were awful.
I did relax about it, but I still made conscious decisions to make sure I went in new directions. The first book was so much about identity. In a lot of the poems, I riffed on a particular identity, following it from birth to death in one big sweep. I wanted to get closer this time around: a particular moment, a particular place. I wanted to get closer to the details and let those details do the sweeping, if that makes any sense. I’m not sure if I did or didn’t, but I hope so.
DA: Your dexterity with rhyme is truly marvelous. They're always surprising, inventive, and they often send me scurrying to Google to look up definitions. But it makes me think of a question that comes up in workshop and in discussion among the poetry community: How much work should a poet demand of his/her readers? Could you comment on the reader's responsibility when encountering a poem, particularly one that may come off as difficult or strange?
ED: Thank you. Ain’t nothing wrong with Google. And ain’t nothing wrong with difficult or strange. As a reader, if the title or first line hooks my attention, I’m willing to do pretty much anything to work my way through the poem. It’s my job. I love it when poems teach me stuff I don’t know. That’s part of the point, right? I love the directness of a clear image. And I also love going to an old Greek mythology textbook from college to remind myself which god was which. Having to look something up is a chance to look at another book. Score.
DA: Could you talk about the cento featured at KIN ["Hip Hop Found Poem"] inspired by Trayvon Martin? Occasional poems for of-the-moment events seem rare. I'm curious to know about the composition process for the poem. Had you been working on the poem for a while or was it one of those rare gift poems?
ED: It must have been one of those gifts because I wasn’t thinking about writing anything. I was doing a pretty good job avoiding the entire case. I didn’t want to think about something that was so close. But when the verdict came out, I got really anxious. At some point, I sat down to write just to try to make myself sit down. I think it’s kind of interesting that I felt compelled to do it, but not quite with my own words. I’m not sure what that says about me or my reaction to the case; but, I was thrilled that KIN wanted to publish it.
DA: What are your tips for giving a good reading? I've been to so many dull readings even if the poems are fabulous. There's nothing worse than the "poetry drone." You're one of the most engaging poets to hear and when the reading is an important way of getting one's name and work out in the world it's important for writers starting their professional careers to know how to work the stage.
ED: Thanks! I just saw something from Jamaal May on this exact question. I’m sure his answers are better. I’ll say this: When I read to an audience, my number one goal is to engage the people in the audience. It is my job to entertain them, to make them listen, to keep them occupied for however much time I have. I’ve got to keep them involved. I’ve got to look at them, ask them questions, make them laugh, give them a chance to stretch while I digress about football for a second. I have to be prepared but flexible enough to switch the poems around or pull one out and stick in a different one if they don’t seem to be engaged. And, as cliché as it may sound, I just have to be me. There’s no stage Erica and offstage Erica. When you don’t have to assume your “poet identity,” whether that’s the drone or the every-line-break-is-a-question voice, it’s a lot less pressure. A comfortable reader leads to a good reading, in my experience.
DA: What poets and poetry collections are really blowing your mind now? Any prose?
ED: Too many thoughts at once. I’ll stick with what’s happened in the last month. I’ll mention Jamaal May again. He’s incredible. Traci Brimhall’s Our Lady of the Ruins is fantastic. I just finished two new books: Dan O’Brien’s War Reporter and Emilia Phillips’ Signaletics. Both awesome. I’m in the middle of Christine Schutt’s novel Florida right now, and angry that I have to stop reading to teach class and walk the dog.
DA: One of my recent delights has been reading your articles at Creative Loafing. I often think between prose genres, non-fiction has more in common with poetry, particularly the essay (or in this case the article). They're not contingent upon plot and character, necessarily, so much as perception and argument-making. Has your gig as a columnist impacted your poetry?
ED: Thank you. I still freak out when the column deadline comes around. But it’s so much fun and I’m so incredibly happy that Creative Loafing gave me the opportunity to do this, especially since I’m, pretty much, learning as I go. Writing prose has reminded me that not everything wants to be a poem. Several poems I’ve struggled with have turned into columns. Some things seem better suited for fluidity of a sentence stretching across a page. And it’s also reminded me that looking around doesn’t have to be composition. Not everything has to become a poem, or nonfiction, or anything but just casual observation.
DA: Shakespeare, Milton, and Tennyson are nurturing presences in your poems. What would you say to a young poet who didn't think there was anything to learn from pre-20th century poets? Is there something lost by ignoring poets of the past?
ED: If I could, I’d offer a smack in the face, first. Then I’d say, “You know that ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke? Yeah. It’s all Marvin Gaye.” We are so lucky to get to learn from these poets of the past. Ignoring poets of the past is ignoring what you’re doing as a poet. They made the bed. We’re lying in it. Then I’d throw in a bunch more cliché metaphors. And, in the end, I’d force the person to sit and listen to me read something delicious and sexy by someone like Thomas Wyatt. If that didn’t work, I’d probably give up. For about an hour.
DA: Speaking of our poetry elders, can we take a moment of praise and worship in the name of James Merrill? You both do things with verse that routinely make me want to throw in the towel and try my hand at being a secretary. What has Merrill meant to you and your poems?
ED: That was one of the best things anybody has ever said to me. Thank you, Derrick. James Merrill changed my idea of poetry when I was in college. As much as I loved my Shakespeare and Marvell and others, I hadn’t had that come-to-Jesus moment where a poem said, “Yes. You can write poetry. And you can say things like this.” Merrill’s poem “Morning Exercise” ("I did things on a mat to make me flexible") was that moment. I can’t quite put my finger on why. The sentence was honest, direct, and oddly poignant. It wasn’t fancy or lofty or knowledgeable. Just honest. It sounded like a living, breathing person. I thought to myself, pretty naively, I can do this.
DA: One reason your work feels so deliciously alive is because it often incorporates elements of contemporary life, particularly pop culture, in a way that doesn't feel gimmicky. So I must ask: What are you watching on TV? Seen any good movies? Listen to any good albums?
ED: I’m in a constant state of saying, “I’m two seasons behind on Breaking Bad. Don’t say anything!” I’m in a Food Network, Cooking Channel, HGTV phase right now. Probably trying to make up for my lack of domesticity. And I have a serious Movies on Demand problem. I order movies in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. But not good movies. And I’ve pretty much resigned myself from listening to the radio. I listen to stuff I already own. A lot of Mos Def, for some reason. His voice is ridiculously smooth. So, apparently I’m living in a box right now. And now I’m depressed.
DA: I read in a recent interview that you're working on your third manuscript—busiest gal in poetry world! Can you speak to the direction this collection might move toward?
ED: I shouldn’t have called it a third manuscript. That was jumping the gun a bit. I’ve been working on a few different series of poems moving through the ideal version of something and the actual version of it. Some of the poems I’ve written recently about movie couples are in that bunch. And I’m trying two forms that used to scare the shit out of me: haiku and ghazals. Hopefully, I’ll move towards good haiku and ghazals.
DA: Finally, the desert island question: Take three books with you and your favorite cocktail.
Vodka on ice. Lolita. Paradise Lost. Life Studies. Boom.
Erica Dawson is the author of two books of poetry: The Small Blades Hurt (Measure Press, 2014) and Big-Eyed Afraid (Waywiser, 2007). Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Barrow Street, Harvard Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals and anthologies. She lives in FL, where she's an Assistant Professor of English and Writing at The University of Tampa, and teaches in both the undergraduate and low-residency MFA programs.