The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: You have written several collections of poetry, essays, and novels. How would you say that your experiences writing within other genres has influenced your poetry?
Andrea Witzke Slot: When a new piece is coming—when I hear a new line circling and feel that urgent need to get to my desk/journal/computer—I just kind of jump in and see what emerges. Only once I get started do I see what rhythmic space(s) might be required for that emerging piece. The rhythmic possibilities of other genres have given me a range of choices and instruments to use when it comes to poetry. Put it this way, when a piece decides it is going to be a “poem,” it is because poetic space and rhythm—shorter lines and sharper, more truncated movement—are required; and yet, as you know, I often create pieces that hover between poetry and prose, which means borrowing a little something from other genres’ rhythmic, tonal, and spatial possibilities. The more I write in each of the genres, though, the more I realize the subtle differences in each genre’s demands and possibilities, but also that the genres like to talk to each other. They all speak the same language, it seems, just in different formats and resonances and from different rooms of the house.
RR: You have served on various journal staffs in editor positions. How have the roles you have played as editor influenced your writing?
AWS: I’m more discerning with my work because of those roles. Not only have I learned an incredible amount from my talented colleagues and their powerfully individual tastes, but I’ve also learned how rare it is to find a poem that truly appeals to all people (and editors). There are many “good” poems now being written—technically proficient and provocative even—but it is as true as ever that there are very few great ones. And it is an exciting moment when a table of editors sees that poem. Of course, I wish I could say that the experience has helped me better define what “great” actually means, but the truth is much more humbling than that. What I really learned is that “great” can mean very different things to different people (and editors) but also that there is a certain indefinable something to a truly great poem that is impossible to pin down in words—and yet is recognizable by all. I often read my own poems to an imaginary audience of editors I admire; it makes me think carefully about what might keep the poem from remaining on the table. And yet I likewise know that when an editor sends a rejection that says “not a good fit,” it sometimes genuinely means just that: the poem doesn’t fit that period/place/group/issue. It means take heart. It means keep sending.
RR: Your piece, “Palm of Proprioception,” contains lots of repetition. Is this a recurring style in your work?
AWS: No matter what the genre, the rhythmic movement of a piece is of utmost importance to me. This is as true for an academic essay or a passage of dialogue as it is for a poem. Repetition is a necessary and active part of all writing just as it is of music, even if the repetition is subtle. After all, no matter the style or time period, all music is made up of rhythmic and melodic repetitions that tie the entire piece together. So it is with a piece of writing, whether it is 400 pages or 4 lines long. Leitmotifs in a way. I want the song to be memorable, I want it to pick up speed where it should, reach a crescendo when it should, fade when it should, use a retardando when it should. Tiny loops, repeated trills, fermatas, lacunas, created by words, sounds, images, help create that music. Playing the piano reminds me daily of the limitless possibilities for creating rhythm in words.
RR: “Last Day to Save on Sarah Jaeger’s ‘Alternative and Throwing Video’” is an interesting concept for a poem. What connections or contradictions exist between writing advertising copy and writing literature?
AWS: I loved the link to pottery in the title—which is a line borrowed in whole from an email advertisement—but loved more the idea that one could buy a lesson in “throwing” and alternatives to “throwing,” which struck me as a fascinating (and ludicrous) idea. The “last day” part creates a sense of urgency, too, one that might make a person panic about missing the opportunity to buy such insight. When I read this advertisement, I thought to myself: “If only a video could teach us how to throw (and thus ‘shape’) the things we need in life, in love, in our own souls.” And, well, we all know such knowledge can’t be bought, even if the American psyche is fed message after message that implies otherwise. But, also—what an interesting line of poetry found in everyday life, right?
RR: Which writers have been most formative for you?
AWS: The writers who have influenced me most create work that has an emotional pull to it, strong voice(s), something urgent concerning human relationships, time passing, and definite rhythm. They are the writers that produce work that affects the heart and do not write just for show. The subject matter of a piece has never been as important to me as its voice, human connection, and pacing. Fiction writers include mostly literary giants: Chekhov, Hurston, Hemingway, Wright, Faulkner, Chopin, Camus, DH Lawrence, Toni Morrison. Poets include Keats, Rilke, Wheatley, Hopkins, Neruda, Dickinson, Hughes, Bishop, Marianne Moore, Adrienne Rich. I’ve also learned a great deal from the quieter, more condensed styles of contemporary poets such as Linda Pastan and Lia Purpura, the narrative pull of such poets as Anne Carson, Alice Oswald and Derek Walcott, and the amazing attention to meter in Harryette Mullen and A.E. Stalling’s work—and who couldn’t admire and learn from the difficult history of humanity found in Claudia Rankine and Natasha Tretheway’s work? I’m not into fads when it comes to poets. I give them all a chance. And because I write in so many different styles, I’m always on the lookout for those who are creating work that stands out from the majority of poems I see and read today. The ones I end up admiring most, though, and thus who influence me most, have produced an oeuvre of work that maps different musical scores of what it means to be human over a period of time. There are some exciting newcomers to watch, too, such as Ocean Vuong and the British poet Sarah Howe, who both have a strong and confident sense of rhythm and musical phrasing in their work. I remember reading a recent poem by Ocean Vuong in which there is a car crash and what he does with rhythm at the end—providing a rallentardo midstream—just made me shake my head with amazement. I also read a recent poem of Sarah Howe’s in Poetry Magazine and had instant poem-envy, which is the same as admiration, of course, and which meant examining closely her rhythm, pacing, word choices, and then ordering her book. All of these writers, young and not, alive and not, weave a huge amount of literary knowledge and social commentary into their work, alongside an intuitive and high-level understanding of linguistic rhythm and its possibilities. They are the writers that produce the kind of work I admire most and which influences my own work in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
“Last Day to Save on Sarah Jaeger’s “Throwing and Alternative Video” and “The Palm of Proprioception” appear in Rappahannock Review Issue 3.3
Winner of Fiction International and Able Muse’s 2015 Prizes in Fiction, Andrea Witzke Slot is author of the poetry collection To find a new beauty (Gold Wake Press, 2012) and a recently-finished novel titled The Cartography of Flesh: in the Silence of Ella Mendelssohn. Recent work can be found in such places as The American Literary Review, Meridian, Crab Orchard Review, Fiction Southeast, Bellevue Literary Review Nimrod, and Mid-American Review, while her academic essays on poetry and social change can be found in anthologies published by SUNY Press and Palgrave Macmillan. She lives in London and Chicago. Her website is located here.