Rappahannock Review Poetry Editor: In “Mornings are Mostly Made of Habits,” we’re intrigued by the volume of individual details and lists given. What was your writing process like in terms of choosing each of the ‘thoughts’ that come in to the poem?
Anthony DiPietro: I recently took a look at the first draft of this poem, which was originally titled “Overdose,” and the list of details remains very much intact. From the first draft to this, what gave me the most trouble was the ending.
I like starting a poem with a “fact” couched as “science,” with information that is actually neither fact nor science. When I tried to learn how many thoughts we have per day, quick research suggested the number 70,000 has been posited but not proven. The problem with measuring this is that we’d first need a definition of what a single thought is. So I started by asking myself that question, not as a scientist, but as a reasonably educated person and a curious writer, and the first part of the poem came out as a long list of negatives, of brain functions that I imagine and define as not-thoughts. Ever since reading The Power of Habit by Charlies Duhigg a few years ago, I have been fascinated with how much of our lives is handled by the ancient part of our brains. We define ourselves as rational, thinking beings, but it turns out a huge proportion of our behavior is driven and better explained by habit, reflex, intuition, and emotion.
RR: We love how the stream-of-consciousness sends us tumbling down the page with the speaker’s thoughts in a way that’s mimetic to the subject at hand. How did this poem start for you—with the voice or with something else?
AD: This poem started as a challenge that came out of a conversation with a fellow queer poet. I was just starting to become aware of a couple aspects of my aesthetic. One is list making. I was a list-maker starting in my early teens, when I would type on my mother’s typewriter just to hear the sound of typing and then appreciate the visual arrangement of language on paper. I would type lists of songs I liked, every movie title I could think of, addresses I had memorized, potential character names, whatever. And now I believe there’s some evidence of list making or remnants of list structures in every poem I write.
The other aspect of my aesthetic I was coming to understand was an interest in excess, or what I like to call “over-the-topness.” For me, this connects to queer aesthetics, and I wanted to explore how the two are connected. Excess in poetry is a sort of challenge to the status quo, because we’re taught that poems are artifacts of concision and precision, with no room for redundancies or overlap. Well what if the precise way to express something is to say it three times, or three ways? And if that works, then why can’t I sometimes underline what I’m expressing by saying it six ways? Or sixty?
So following this conversation, my fellow poet and I challenged ourselves to write poems that would encapsulate this idea of excess. My intention was simply to write the longest sentence I could. The poem isn’t really one sentence, but I felt that I satisfied the spirit of the challenge and was happy that I married my formal concerns to the right subject matter.
RR: It sounds like you’re active in the arts, with community organizations and with your position with the Rose Art Museum. How does that kind of work interconnect with your writing?
AD: I think that a life as an arts administrator is wonderfully harmonious with being a writer. I’ve always taken inspiration for my poetry from music and visual art. In my 20s, I discovered Marc Chagall’s paintings, which are so colorful and seem to suggest full-on narratives. I began writing ekphrastic poems about his work and purposely tried not to learn anything about Chagall’s life, so that his paintings could speak to my imagination in a purely visual way. Later I learned that Chagall has been called “a poet’s painter.”
The fact that I work at a museum now is really something of an accident, as perhaps most people’s careers are. Out of college, I worked in small nonprofit organizations, originally intending to be a communications professional. I learned that I had skills that were in demand for organizations of a certain size, and I mostly worked in social justice and social service organizations, ones that served people in great need and trauma. While I have great respect for this kind of work and the amazing people who dedicate their lives and careers to it, I found it wasn’t sustainable for me.
That’s when I pursued my long-time dream of enrolling full-time in an MFA program, which is where I first worked in the arts. It was a very happy and positive work environment. In the arts, we are giving something to the community that purely contributes to quality of life. We’re here to provide an experience that can move you, can make you think, and can help you explore your own creativity, which I think is totally critical to our lives and development, as important as say, learning to do math or how to read a map. I’m very lucky, happy, and proud to be working in this field.
RR: On your website, you mention organizing “submit-a-thons” to help your peers become more comfortable with sending their work for publication. Do you have any advice for students who are apprehensive about submitting their work?
AD: I always like to give credit to UMass Boston’s MFA program, which is where I learned about “submit-a-thons.” I was touring the program and didn’t ultimately enroll there, and I stole their great idea and introduced it at my MFA program at Stony Brook University.
For newer writers or students, I’d say that I think that the sooner a writer starts submitting their work, the better. Many people would give the advice to focus on craft instead, because there’s always time to learn the business of writing later. Also the submission cycle is 90% or 95% rejection, and we need time to build ourselves up as writers. That’s a valid way of looking at it, but here’s another perspective. Rejection can be painful, but it’s something we need to learn to cope with it. In my community of writers, we celebrate rejections. To me, rejection means that piece is one step closer to eventually being accepted. And rejection so often isn’t about you or your work. It’s about the editor’s vision for the publication they are putting together.
I’m also a practical person and think that the sooner we learn to query, submit, apply for residencies and fellowships and awards, the better prepared we are to handle our career as writers. Don’t you want to be ready when the world starts knocking on your door and asking for the next brilliant thing you’ve written? Why not prepare for that now?
A few years ago, a mentor told me that submission was just a numbers game and challenged me to submit to 100 places in a year. I did and saw results. A respectable small percentage of those submissions resulted in publications. My fellow MFA students started asking me how I did that, so I put together a PowerPoint presentation to break down the process for people who were new to it. That PowerPoint still lives on my web site, so that writers anywhere can benefit from it. It’s right under my bio at AnthonyWriter.com.
RR: We see (or hear) that you do readings and recordings of your work. To you, how does reading aloud affect the experience of poetry?
AD: For a poet, reading aloud should be essential. That’s basic advice for all writers. We absolutely must read drafts aloud to ourselves to hear whether there’s music and rhythm there. We’ll always improve the draft after reading aloud.
And this is particularly important for poetry. Because contemporary poetry often doesn’t rhyme, poets starting out may imagine that our verses just need to be beautiful in terms of imagery, tone, and people will gravitate toward high diction. But a poem is much more than that. It’s writing with both a visual and a musical component. There should be beautiful sounds in the language and lines.
Since you’re really asking about public readings, I’ll add this. I love giving readings, and here’s why. As we’re writing, the poem sounds a certain way to us, and we use punctuation and other tools to try to get that auditory experience into the reader’s head, even though they’ll never read most of our poems aloud. So a reading with an audience is a fully realized experience of the poem. Poems are oration, acts of speech. And the poet’s reading will be the best performance of their own poem. It will probably still fall a little short of what we hear in our heads when we write, but it’s the closest that can exist.
Anthony DiPietro’s work appears in Issue 7.1: