I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.
1. What inspired you to write poetry?
I loved reading as a child and wanted to create that magic myself, but I wasn’t really drawn to poetry. When my mother, sister, and me came to the United States to join my father who was already living here, he shared the poems he was writing with me. I was 13, and I tried my hand at some poems too, which my father promptly shot down. I believe he told me to quit trying, that I wasn’t a real poet, or words to that effect. I believed him. Much later, when I began to read poetry seriously in 11th and 12th grade, I was struck by the forcefulness of the art form and how quickly and poignantly it could get to the heart of an emotion or a moment. So I think what inspired me to write poetry was reading great poetry. I then wanted to try and duplicate the power and elegance of the poems I was discovering.
2. Who introduced you to poetry?
I grew up reading poetry (in Spanish) in Cuba, formally I think starting in 5th grade, but the first class that opened up poetry for me was my 11th grade English class in the U.S. There, I encountered T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I had never seen a poem do things like that before. I remember also being in awe of Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” and of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “Hamlet” when we covered them in 12th grade. In college, I began to take creative writing classes, so the people who introduced me to writing poetry were Marilyn DeSimone and Kevin Bezner at Florida Community College in Jacksonville.
3. How aware were you of the dominating presence of older poets?
Once I started to write poetry in college, I was awestruck by the work of Adrianne Rich, Carolyn Forche, and Sharon Olds, particularly Rich; I remember wishing I could write anywhere near as well as she did. I was lucky to meet and have my poems workshopped by Stanley Plumly, Philip Levine, and Donald Justice while in community college. I then went on to work with Debora Greger, Michael Hofmann, Donald Justice, William Logan, and Joan New as an undergraduate at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. I was keenly aware of the quality of their work and of how far I had to go to write at their level, and that there was no guarantee I ever would. They were unfailingly generous in their support and encouragement, but I knew I was in the shadow of giants. I was also aware of the work being done by, among others, Amy Clampitt, Louise Gluck, Mark Strand and Seamus Heaney, so … talk about dominating presences.
4. What is your daily writing routine?
I am always on the lookout for interesting images and phrases, which I jot down in my journal, writing notebook, or iPhone. I try to sit down and write at least once per day, though I revise existing poems several times during the day, whenever I get a chance. Most of my starting drafts don’t go anywhere, but now and then the exercise takes on a life of its own (it seems), and I end up with a reasonable first draft. Generally speaking, it takes me about two or three days to get a few lines down that seem to work together, and then about a week to get a more-or-less complete first draft. Then I revise for months (literally), just chipping away at words, smoothing the lines out, trying to use every opportunity to make the images interesting for me and for future readers.
5. What motivates you to write?
The sheer joy of creating something new in the world that challenged me to the utmost to get it done. Writing poetry is the most difficult thing I do on a regular basis, and the satisfaction of trying to do it right is huge. Very seldomly, I do end up with a poem I really like, and those moments are incredible. Sometimes I recite those poems to myself as I go about the day and just revel in the experience.
6. What is your work ethic?
If I don’t become a better writer, it will not be for lack of trying. I’d like my tombstone to read “He Never Gave Up.”
7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?
I think it was Elizabeth Bishop who said you learn more from the classics than from your contemporaries. However, poetry is evolving in so many exciting ways that the people changing poetry today are a greater influence on me than the canonized poets. It’s as if poets today are imagining new ways to do poetry with each poem they write, and it is fascinating to watch and learn from them.
8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?
There are so many! In more or less chronological order of my becoming aware of them, I continue to love Louise Gluck and Sharon Olds. I love the work being done by Ross Gay, Eduardo Corral, Ada Limon, D.A. Powell, Natlie Diaz, Rebecca Hazelton, Sandra Simonds, Maggie Smith, Jenny Xie, Terrence Hayes, and Ilya Kaminsky. I am also loving and keeping an eye on some emerging poets who are already doing interesting things and have great promise: Leila Chatti, Eloisa Amezcua, Roy Guzman, Paige Lewis … I could go on and on. What I love about these poets is how they make the art form theirs, how imaginative they are not just in writing poems but in expanding what a poem can be and what poetry can do.
9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?
Writing is something I do reasonably well, and I feel I have the potential to get better at it if I keep trying. I need to do creative things to feel satisfied, and writing poetry seems to be the creative thing I’m best at. Writing poetry challenges me while not remaining frustratingly impossible. Almost impossible, yes, but sometimes I strike a little gold.
10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”
You become a writer by writing and by keeping on writing even when nothing you produce seems to have much merit. I would say, don’t worry about not being as “good” as some writer you admire, but rather work on being the best writer you can be right now. If you keep writing, you will get better. You become a writer the moment you commit to writing. The goal is to become the best writer you can be, and this is a slow, gradual process.
11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.
I am working on my second chapbook, which I hope to merge with my first published chapbook and turn into a full-length book. I am also working on collecting all my finished poems since 1991, titled “Uncollected,” which I hope to publish eventually.