Thank you to the poet Caitlin Doyle for tagging me for “The Next Big Thing” interview series! You can read her self-interview here: http://caitlindoylepoetry.com/?page_id=302.
For “The Next Big Thing,” each participating poet or fiction writer engages the same set of questions pertaining to a recently published book, a soon-to-be-published book, or a book-in-progress. Here are my responses regarding the development of my debut poetry collection.
1. What is the working title of your book?
2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
Sometime three years ago the local news hummed from the television, and I chased around my keys and wallet while my mother sat on the couch commenting after and about each reel. Like many other times, the newscaster reported from her old neighborhood, the Louis. H. Pink Housing Project, in the East New York area of Brooklyn: another shooting, another youth found dead. The neighborhood is notorious for its brutality, but my memory associates the complex with green lawns and pastel colored Cadillacs, my father’s blue bellbottoms and my mother’s long hair. My mother’s best friends, the people I call aunt and uncle, my godparents, and brother’s godparents, and sister’s godparents, grew up together, some on different floors, some right across the hall from one another, in that project. They refer to each other, the group of them, as the Pinks. As I walked out of the door, my mother juxtaposed her past to the present life of the current tenants: “when we lived there we were poor, well, we were not poor because we didn’t know we were poor, but we were poor…” she said.
It was in that moment Pink Houses was born.
3. What genre does your book fall under?
4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
Much of Pink Houses surrounds the bereft, so I only hope the voices of the souls of those who I listened to and tried to pay homage to have been accurately, articulately and successfully reproduced on the page.
The characters who appear in Pink Houses also range from members of my family, strangers I’ve encountered on the street, victims from stories I’ve heard on the news, and most noticeably, powerful mythic women: mothers, daughters, and lovers. If there is one thing Pink Houses throbs with, it is passion.
Sometimes it takes a week to get a Persephone, Eurydice, or Apollo poem out. First there is an emotion, an unwavering connection to a sentiment, and then I listen for days until I hear something I can translate through line. These poems are cathartic, ecstatic experiences in which tone is crucial, and choosing an actor seems an impossibly difficult decision.
That being said…
The “protagonists” of sorts, the driving forces and organizing factors of the collection, to me, are Persephone, Hades, and Demeter. Johnny Depp, in all of his long-haired calm glory, would have to play Hades, the comical, understanding lover who doesn’t take that world above too seriously. I think Julianne Moore would make a fabulous Demeter with her straight hair the color of the setting sun, and those tight lips asserting she will take no nonsense. If I can’t play the role of Persephone (oh, to be Johnny Depp’s tortured lover…), I’d give the privilege to Natalie Portman.
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
What a difficult question — to summarize my own work in one sentence! This will most likely do the collection no justice but I will try:
Pink Houses yearns to preserve the various dimensions of contemporary consciousness through moments of chaotic displacement, relying particularly on the vernacular to reveal the importance of tradition, character, and the power of art.
6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Ideally, I strive to find a press confident in the strength of my first manuscript, a publisher who shares similar beliefs in my work and for the craft of poetry, with whom I can develop and sustain a steady relationship.
Perhaps the most spectacular moment of creating a manuscript is the feeling of being finished. I finally acknowledged I had done all I could with the voices and places and twists in Pink Houses just a few months ago and have been in the steady process of writing query letters, entering first book contests, and sending individual pieces out for consideration ever since.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
The first draft of Pink Houses must have begun while I wrote my thesis at Hofstra University, though the poems I was writing then focused more intensely on the self than the mythic alternatives I have since chosen to love. A handful of those poems still appear in the collection –poems I revisited two years later while writing my thesis at Boston University to recreate, and, in a way, resurrect.
During April of 2012, along with two friends and fellow poets, I wrote a poem a day (and sometimes more!) in honor of Poetry Month. The experience was both exhilarating and exhausting and helped me discover more intuitively what I seek to discover in writing. During that month, I felt as if I were a faucet that would not stop running; the poems poured out.
Three years is the short of it. It has taken me three years to write the first draft of Pink Houses, though it feels the voices have been inside me my whole life.
8. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
For me, this question may as well be “who or what inspires you to write poetry”, so my answer will reflect such sentiments:
As a young girl I wrote poetry as an outlet to express my emotions nonverbally. Poetry seemed to me the perfect venue to remain silent, to not cause a stir or worry, and yet control, manipulate, and raise my voice. I relied heavily on end-rhyme and the “I”.
When I began seriously studying the craft of writing, poetry transformed from a personal, private art into a complex, antiquated, intimate, and somehow mythic experience, one which held with it the power to multiply the virility of written word. Ambitiously, I wanted to twist syntax like Gerard Manley Hopkins, complicate lines like e. e. cummings; I wanted to elicit fear, wonder, and pity and somehow arouse the lyric. I wanted the power of the poet, and the only way I knew how to go about this was by mimicking those I read. By attempting to write like them, I began to live, in a way, like them, listening, for instance, to what I believed Seamus Heaney might hear in the middle of a crowded department store. I began to find ordinary happenstances wonderful sources of inspiration; I sought to expose the extraordinary appeal of the regular as Eugenio Montale illuminated the brilliance of a drying leaf. In another sense, with another part of my brain, I became determined to see the writing of a poem the way Joan Didion or Phillip Lopate saw the composition of a personal essay. It was in the company of these voices that I was able to find my own.
The workshops I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of inspire me to write poetry, the students I teach, the essays I read, conversations I overhear on the bus back and forth from work, the notes I scribbled during lectures with fascinating professors and reread, the scent of sunday sauce from the staircase, my conscience, my dreams, the slice of onion under the stove I cannot reach, the weather, the moon, everything in my sight inspires me to write poetry.
9. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I fancy my poem “If You See Something, Say Something” to be an anthem for New York City, and believe it should be on rotation on the Coney Island Q through the Arts for Transit program. (Shameless plug?)
For more on how poetry has shaped my life see: http://www.womenwritersoftheworld.com/?page_id=20
My poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in: Empirical Magazine, Perceptions Literary Magazine, and Every Day Poets.
I am also working on a collection of personal essays, tentatively titled “Lucky”. Essays from the collection can be found at: The Boiler Journal, dirtCakes, and Elsewhere.
Thank you so much for reading! For next week I’ve tagged Mimi Lipson.