Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Writers on the Writing Process: An Interview with Poet Jessica Piazza

taken by photographer: Rich Prugh
Jessica Piazza is the author of two full-length poetry collections with Red Hen Press: Interrobang (winner of the AROHO 2011 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize and the 2013 Balcones Poetry Prize) and Obliterations (with Heather Aimee O'Neill, forthcoming) as well as a chapbook This is not a sky (Black Lawrence Press.) She holds a Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. She co-founded Bat City Review and Gold Line Press and is a contributing editor for The Offending Adam and a screener for the National Poetry Series. She teaches for the Writing Program at USC and the online MFA program at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

Laura Davis: Where do you write? Paint us a word picture. Put us there. And that other place you like. 

Jessica Piazza: I think I can write anywhere, but I've probably done my best work out in the world; in coffee shops and that sort of thing. I like the white noise. I like remembering I’m not alone in the world, and that these words will eventually belong to people who aren’t me. I like the expectation that I am somewhere for the sole purpose of doing work and I will not go home until I’ve done some.

Of course, like for so many of us, the Internet kicks my ass and distracts me. But there’s a coffee shop called Conservatory for Coffee, Tea & Cocoa in Culver City where there’s no WIFI during busy hours, and that’s really helpful as a buffer against procrastination. (Though I wasn’t able to write my dissertation chapters there! The Internet is key for research in my world.) But anyway, it’s a tiny place with these burlap sacks and barrels with amazing coffee beans and such, and it smells good in there. Also, the chairs and café tables and cramped space are actually a little uncomfortable and – is it just me? – I feel like being slightly uncomfortable in a work space actually helps me be productive. I don’t get too placated or drowsy because of the environment, which makes me remember why I’m there and what I’m supposed to be doing.

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

JP: There was a fun one I did a while back that went pretty quickly, despite a multi-layered creation process. It was a piece for The Book of Scented Things, an anthology project from The Literary House Press. Contributors were sent a tiny vial of a perfume and asked to use it as an inspiration for a poem. The perfume they sent me was called Ophelia, which couldn’t be more perfect for several reasons. The obvious one is, well, Shakespeare! But the other is that I was working on a chapbook at the time, a series of ekphrastic poems based on famous visual artworks, and I love Millias’ painting “Ophelia”. I thought it would be an interesting crossover to write a poem that would work for both the anthology and the chapbook, so I researched the perfume online to discover what the notes were, and tries to incorporate some of that information into the poem about the painting. It was especially fun to try to find a place for the scent notes I loved in the perfume like orange, musk and lily. (And I ended up wearing that perfume at my wedding a few months later, which is pretty cool.) It was fun to use so many bits of inspiration (the art, the perfume, Hamlet) and synthesize them into one piece, especially by turning the different sensory images on their heads, as when I used the orange scent from the perfume to describe the light in the painting. Anyway the painting is resplendent with flora and so getting some of that scent/image synesthesia going was pretty easy.

The anthology will be out really soon, and the chapbook – This is not a sky – is now available for pre-order from Black Lawrence Press.

LD: What writing implement do you wield and why? 

The implement I try to wield the most often is bravery. I’m not kidding. Sure, it’s not physical, but it’s the single tool that most helps me write. 

If you want to get literal, though, I can only write on a computer. I know that sounds super uncreative and not artsy at all. In fact, I have fantastic daydreams of scribbling in a beautiful journal in fantastic and serene settings. But the truth is I have the worst handwriting on earth, and when I try to write stuff by hand I can’t even read it back most of the time. Also, because I so often write in form, moving stuff around is kind of key to my process. I am not a huge reviser of my poetry after the fact; my process is a very intricate and time-consuming process of revision as I write. Once I have a fully crafted piece it generally doesn’t undergo too much change, especially not when it’s a metrical or formal poem, but that’s because by then I will have spent a lot of creative energy getting it right in the first place. And without the computer this process is a mess. On paper I basically end up with pages of scribbles and arrows and a hot mess I can’t make anything of. 

So, I guess you can say that much like the rules of formal poetry itself, the organization that the computer offers me allows my craziness to find a proper shape. 

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

JP: I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I won a poetry contest in fourth grade. It was a holocaust poetry contest, in fact, and my poem went like this (from what I can recall): 

The bad ones come bringing destruction and death 
and freely the black spiders roam 

For love is gone in this dreary place 
concentration camp is now your home. 

Jewish people, anyone different, 
Why are you killed needlessly? 

Because of one man, one’s man’s evil, 
You are never the same, you shall see. 

But there is one small glimmer of hope 
that can’t be seen easily. 

If all prejudiced people would learn to love 
then everyone would be free

Deep, right? Who knew that a fourth grader had all the answers to solving the tragedy of genocide? HA! But I remember being really proud of the black spiders image for the swastika, which I though looked like a spider. I think that was seriously my first time being excited about imagery. 

LD: Beverage of choice? In life or writing? 

JP: Okay, well, obviously coffee. Can’t duck the cliché. And wine, to keep it going. A tart and crisp white or a not-sweet red. And lately also a cocktail of St. Germaine with cucumber, mint and club soda; it’s lovely. But ultimately, water. If I’m not hydrated I can’t do anything. My husband makes fun of me for this; he thinks I believe water cures all things…kind of like the father in “my Big Fat Greek Wedding” who sprays Windex on everything. On a side note, the actor who plays that father is the actual father of my fellow Red Hen Press poet Brendan Constantine. And so the word comes full circle.
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