Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Natalie Giarratano

Natalie Giarratano’s first collection of poems, Leaving Clean, won the 2013 Liam Rector First Book Prize (Briery Creek Press, 2013). Recent poems appear or are forthcoming in Tupelo Quarterly, Isthmus Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and TYPO, among others. She co-edits Pilot Light and teaches writing at American University.

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Laura Davis: Describe the process of making a recent poem or story. Lightning? Slow-dripping faucet? How long did you work on it?

Natalie Giarratano: When it comes to writing, I’m a hunter/gatherer. I will hang onto random bits of conversation, quotes from literature, films or TV shows, random thoughts/images that pop into my brain, news stories, songs, research on topics in which I’m interested, which range from Leadbelly to serial killers, and so on. I will hang on until I have to let them go on the page. Usually that is in the summer when I have more time to focus on my writing, as I’m not teaching then. All this is to say that I write sporadically on the page, but I’m always thinking and collecting towards a poem or poems with these scraps. And sometimes the scraps end up being unnecessary, a means to an end, or are altered so much as to become unrecognizable. This I love. My most recently published poem, “Big Thicket Blues,” took about a year to write, from scraps of ideas to a long poem that felt complete in its eight sections.

LD: What is your favorite exercise that gets the words flowing?

NG: To get the words flowing, I find that taking on a persona or trying to address a specific person helps. I tend to write a lot of social/political poetry, so I might address Saddam Hussein or Dick Cheney or Gilgamesh or my great grandmothers. I don’t always stick with that perspective/address, but it narrows the field so I can focus more—which has been important in writing a poem a day when fresh, fruitful ideas might be more difficult to come by. But before I get to any of that, here’s what I have to complete: breakfast, coffee, feed play with, and walk the dog, catch up on news, clean the house if it needs it, read poetry or fiction or essays or news stories. Then I can get to the writing process. Then I can settle my mind enough with the outside world (or rile it up enough, depending on the occasion) to move inward.

LD: How long have you been writing? What’s the first thing you remember feeling good about having written?

I specifically asked for a journal in which to write poems when I was eleven. Not even sure what prompted that. I didn’t read much, if any, poetry; though I was a voracious reader of fiction; I loved me some Beverly Cleary. However, it was Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is so full of detailed description—some, I know, would argue that it’s tedious or overwrought—that made me think, wow. This is what I want to do. I want to create worlds for others to be lost in. I don’t know if I’ve accomplished that with my poetry, but it wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I felt confident in the poems I was writing. The poem that I think was the turning point for me is titled “Forms of Forgetfulness”—I had been trying to write about my falling away from Catholicism and violence always humming under the surface in my immediate family for a long time; in this poem, subject and form work in subtle ways and mood is captured well without seeming like a rant—those I’m really good at!

LD: How do you motivate yourself to write? Chocolates? Self-flagellation? Coffee on an IV drip? 

NG: I motivate myself to write by having other people hold me accountable. I guess that’s not really “self-motivation.” I am able to have that when I call upon it, but I’m a person who works well under a deadline. For the past couple of summers I’ve participated in a poem-a-day throughout the month of June with poet friends; we exchange poems and self-deprecation every day. I think this process makes me realize I could write routinely if I truly wanted; I could find the time while hunting/gathering. Also, after I’ve written my poem for the day, I have been known to reward myself with episodes of my favorite TV show (currently Game of Thrones).

LD: How do you decide that you are finished working on a story, essay, or poem? 

NG: This is probably corny to say, but the poem tells me when it’s finished. I don’t really decide anything but to listen to it (or ignore it, which only works for a while). Music in a poem is really important to me, so I do work a long time on getting the words and lines to sound “right” (more listening). But form is fickle. For example, I recently worked for months on a series of poems about the life and music of Leadbelly. I was obsessed with him, with researching and writing about him (even though others have already done so and much better than I, especially Tyehimba Jess in leadbelly: poems, which I highly recommend). I ended up with seven fairly biographical poems written mostly in fragments—something I had done previously with “Big Thicket Blues.” However, I somehow got the idea that the sonnet form would better complement the subject matter; so then I spent a few more months turning these seven fragmented poems into a crown of sonnets (loose sonnets—I’m not a big fan of end rhyme). Just when I thought I was finished with them, I realized that the poems did not want to be about Leadbelly, at least not only about Leadbelly. I broke them back up into fragments. This time, though, I created 25 plus fragments that I arranged in brackets throughout my second manuscript, not just seven fragmented poems. Phew. But I had to write the sonnets to get back to the fragments again, which were much richer and more about the artist than Leadbelly alone. Though I do feel guilty for abandoning him.
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