The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: The Abecedarian form is difficult and not often used in the modern day. What about this form drew you to it, and why did you decide to use it in your own poetry?
Devon Miller-Duggan: A bag of childrens’ plastic sand mold letters. And, probably, whatever was kicked loose by working through the questions in Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Turning 60. A grey day at the beach.
RR: Could you enlighten readers on your larger goal to create an entire series of these abecedarian poems?
DMD: Tolstoy called the novel “a baggy monster” because the writer can pretty much download all the tidbits of a life into a novel. I think the abecedarians have turned into my own sort of “baggy monster” in that all the things I have tended to write about (except, now that I think of it, family) for the past 45 years–politics, art, religion, seasons, myths–have found their ways into these poems. Sometimes, as I pulled the letters out of the bags, I would see how long I could keep rhymes or other sound-plays going, once I used as many months as had more than one meaning (August, May, March…) and a few that didn’t, and other times I’d be consciously letting in some words that had a kind of theme running through them (though still with random, weird choices allowed in).
RR: Grace and the church are large a focus in “Proper Abecedarian 6: January,” and the abecedarian has a rich history of being used in religious poetry. What role do religious concepts play in your writing and choice of form?
DMD: So some of the poems started out to be theological (hard to write a poem with the word “kenosis” in it without it leaning toward the theological), and some just drifted in that direction. My husband’s a Jesuit-trained church historian, my grandfather was a Methodist minister before he became a family court judge, I have a chunk of family who are Bob Jones Evangelicals, and my closest writing buddy is a Lutheran priest, so I’m sort of ecclesio-obsessive.
RR: When you start an abecedarian, do you have certain words that you know you will base your concept and form around?
DMD: I fell into the abecedarians by accident. One of my oldest friends (also a poet) and I were celebrating our 60th birthdays in Cape May. She’d brought two sets of children’s alphabet sand molds so we could practice for a land art/poetry residency she had coming up. One blustery, grey afternoon, I was sitting next to the pool while she was napping, with the pad of paper and one of the sets of letters. We’d been working through the questions in the Twyla Tharp book, which may have something to do with it. In any event, I started randomly pulling letters out of the bag and writing the first word that I thought of that began with it down the margin of my paper. Then I wrote a poem where each line started with those words, in that order. It made for weird line breaks and some real stretching, but it was fun. So I did another the next day. By the third poem, I’d begun to make rules: no repeating words, except that all the poems would use “love” as the “L” word for no stronger reason than that I don’t let my Intro Poetry Writing students use the word at all. And I just kept writing them. Then decided that I’d stop at 26. But they were wonderful to write–wild and free and constrained together in ways I hadn’t written in ages, and they were spilling out of me–26 between June and September. Then I was bereft and discombobulated, so I decided to write a “mirror” set with the exact same first words, but in alpha-order, except that the “L” words would change each time with this set. I owe a great deal to a wonderful site of obscure words: http://phrontistery.info/ Without it, I’d never have managed K, X, Y, or Z. The first set are the “Disorderly Abecedarians,” the second set are “Proper” I also made a rule that they’d all have 1-word titles, aside from the abecedarian super-title and their numbers. Eventually, I had to make a spreadsheet to make sure I was using all 26 letters in every poem and not repeating any words. I am NOT a spreadsheet sort of human, so I did it by hand during the afternoons at the Glen Workshops, which was almost relaxing.
RR: If you could give one tip to burgeoning writers who are undertaking a large-scale poetry project, what would it be?
DMD: It certainly needs to be a function of intense, long-term experience or obsession on some level. In this case, something about making my own rules on top of the straightforward rules of the abecedarian created a great deal of energy. So I’d recommend a combination of self-generated restrictions along with clearly-delineated freedoms. Also, for a single-themed long project, a ton of research is terribly important. Both Fleda Brown (The Women Who Loved Elvis All Their Lives) and W. D. Snodgrass (The Fuehrer Bunker) did massive research, especially Snodgrass, who had an entire library of books on the war and Hitler, and who even managed to interview Albert Speer in prison. I’m not that focused, so I just let the form play with me as much as I played with it, which I’m hoping makes enough structure for the book.
“Proper Abecedarian 1: Turns” and “Proper Abecedarian 6: January” appear in Rappahannock Review Issue 2.2.
Devon Miller-Duggan has published poems in Rattle, Shenandoah, Margie, Christianity and Literature, The Indiana Review, Harpur Palate, The Hollins Critic. She’s won an Academy of American Poets Prize, a grant and a fellowship from the Delaware Division of the Arts, an editor’s prize in Margie, honorable mention in Rattle. She teaches for the Department of English at the University of Delaware. Her first book, Pinning the Bird to the Wall appeared from Tres Chicas Books in November 2008. Her chapbook of off-kilter poems about angels, Neither Prayer, Nor Bird was published by Finishing Line Press in 2013.