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“Yes, I used to drive with my eyes closed”: Ernest Hilbert Interviews Erica Dawson
Posted By Ernest Hilbert On July 1, 2007 @ 9:00 am In Interviews | No Comments
Interviewer’s note: X.J. Kennedy has written that Erica Dawson “is the most exciting younger poet I’ve seen in years. What drive and verve! Even in lines under tight control, she can sound reckless. Her dazzling wit informs poem after poem, making each seem like a stiff drink with a dash of bitters. Big-Eyed Afraid is a sensational debut. I can’t recall finding this much energy between two covers since [Sylvia Plath’s] Ariel.” To this energetic endorsement we may add that of Alan Shapiro, who writes of Dawson’s first collection, Big-Eyed Afraid (Waywiser Press), that it is “brilliantly alert to multiple influences yet irreducibly tied to this particular poet at this particular moment in our collective history . . . one of the most compelling and entertaining books of poetry I’ve read in I don’t know how long.”
Born in Columbia, Maryland in 1979, Erica Dawson studied at Johns Hopkins University and Ohio State University before beginning work on a doctorate in English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cincinnati. Her poems have appeared in both Best American Poetry (Scribner) and the Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (Ohio University Press) as well as the magazines Barrow Street, Blackbird, and Virginia Quarterly Review. She generously agreed to a correspondence with me over the course of several months last year. Below is the fruit of my exchange with this most exciting younger poet.
Ernest Hilbert: Your debut collection, Big-Eyed Afraid, won the Anthony Hecht Award and was selected by the Contemporary Poetry Review as best debut of 2007. How long did you work on the poems in the collection?
Erica Dawson: I first started to feel like I was writing a book when I began writing the “nickname” poems that make up the book’s first section. The book sort of took off from there, though I’d written a few poems (“Placebo” and “OCD”) a few years earlier. But “Exam Room Three” is the “oldest” poem in the book.
EH: Can you say a few words about the “nickname” poems that start out the collection? For instance, “Doll Baby”?
ED: I was sitting at my desk one day trying to write a poem, and I had absolutely no ideas whatsoever. For some reason, I began thinking about how I’m always creating nicknames for my family, friends, even pets. I started thinking about nicknames I’ve been given, like Doll Baby or Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, looking at them like mini-identities, following them from their inception (or my own) to an imagined death. “Nappyhead” was the first poem of the series, and it just took off from there until I figured I’d been born enough, for now at least.
EH: These identity poems seem to be largely set in enjambed ABBA tetrameter stanzas. Why did you choose this form?
ED: I chose the form for a couple of reasons. One, it’s a variation on Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” stanzas, and I’ve always loved the movement of that poem, the way the envelope quatrains pull you down the page as you wait for the A rhyme to return. Second, the quatrains, with their 3 not-always-iambic feet in lines 1 and 4, also work like a variation of the ballad stanza, which I’ve loved since I was a child singing “Amazing Grace” in church. That connection to childhood is important in those poems, and the ballad stanza is perfect for storytelling because of its pleasing familiarity. But I was also interested in taking that familiar pulse and setting it against subject matter and phrasing you probably wouldn’t expect to find in a hymn.
EH: Where did you grow up?
ED: I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, which is about halfway between both Baltimore and Washington, DC. I had the same address, a blue siding house, from the day I came home from the hospital until the day I moved out. I did switch bedrooms after my brother left for college, though. Columbia was actually the first of those “planned” communities, and it was a good place to grow up: green lawns, matching houses, swing sets, community centers, etc. Though it wasn’t a small town in size of population really, it had a bit of that vibe. You knew your neighbors, called them Uncle this or Aunt that; you could stay outside in the summer as a kid and catch fireflies after dark. But when I visit home now, it’s not Columbia anymore. Both of my parents have moved to other places in Maryland.
EH: It sounds remarkably similar to my own childhood in south Jersey, right down to the blue house, and catching fireflies in the summer. I too lived in the same house until I moved out. Does any of that come out in your poetry, the settings, the landscapes, climate?
ED: Absolutely. So many of these poems involve my childhood, my hometown makes quite a few appearances: everything from the house, to my bedroom, the grape hyacinths in the yard, the Maryland summer humidity, the honeysuckle at Lake Elkhorn down the street, the church where my grandfather’s funeral was held. I could go on and on. That setting is so much of who I am, and there’s so much of me in these poems. Maryland kept finding its way into the book.
EH: Which poems from the collection stand out in this regard?
ED: “Bees in the Attic” and “OCD” stand out, in these terms, though looking at them now they don’t stand out as much as some of my newer poems that are explicitly about Maryland. The lilacs in “Bees” and the honeysuckle at the lake in “OCD” always make me think of home.
EH: “OCD” is a very intense poem. Of course “OCD” is the acronym for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder:
The noon sun bores too hot; sweat droplets harden
And case my cheeks as new weeds bottleneck
The ants in sidewalk cracks. That spring, I cried
And checked and checked in mania. I died
My hardest but it never took. No doubt
I didn’t have the guts to try. But I’d scout
Locations (tool shed? shower? tub?), and Dad
And Mom, in separate rooms, would sleep right through
My tiptoed wandering about our blue,
Big siding house.
Is this poem grounded in personal experience? Did you adopt any particular poetic influences when dealing with such flammable subject matter?
ED: “OCD” and “Bees in the Attic” are definitely related to personal experience. I have OCD, and when I was working on the book, it was very much on my mind. I’ve been a huge fan of Robert Lowell’s Life Studies for a long time. He always seems to exercise not only restraint when exploring similar topic—in poems that most people agree are autobiographical, or have autobiographical elements—but also a kind of raw honesty. My book is very honest about several things, but I wanted to make sure I handled anything about OCD or depression in a tasteful but true-to-life way.
EH: When did you begin reading poetry? What are the earliest poems that you remember knowing?
ED: I began listening to poetry pretty early on. I have to give my mom credit for both my love of poetry and my love of classical music. She had a book of Longfellow poems that she often read aloud to us. She knew a good part of “Paul Revere’s Ride” by heart, and I can remember her reciting bits of it when I was really young. A bit later on, I started reading the book for myself as well as a book of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poems we had around the house. I was pretty obsessed with “The Raven” for awhile.
EH: When did you begin writing poems yourself?
ED: I wrote some pretty bad poems—which my parents often insist on bringing out—in elementary school. I wrote stories as a kid, but didn’t really write poems until college. I “accidentally” found myself in a creative writing class my freshman year at Johns Hopkins and fell in love with fiction writing all over again. I was bad at it. The fiction bug went away (good thing for everyone) by junior year as I gradually started turning more to poetry.
EH: What poets were important to you when you first started writing poetry?
ED: Well, I should probably say Greg Williamson, first and foremost. He taught most of the poetry classes I took while at Hopkins, so he was the one introducing me to the poets I fell in love with. In the early days, I was completely captivated by James Merrill and Anthony Hecht. I read The Venetian Vespers over and over again, reading it aloud most of the time. And I loved everything about A Scattering of Salts. Actually, the first poem I was really proud of came out of an assignment Greg gave us where we had to try to imitate something we found in Merrill. That poem eventually turned into “Exam Room Three.”
EH: I will quote two stanzas from your poem:
A week was packed in every day,
Or so it seemed, waiting. I can’t think back
To how it felt. I think of how it was, the way the light
Bulb died, the useless stack
Of magazines I bought to fill the time, the night
He called, the word “benign.” I play
A game and test
Myself, again. I picture me,
A gurney in a sterile room the day
I finally die: the masks, the I-V drugs, cold, slow inside
My veins, the chills, the way
The disinfectant lingers there. And fear? I hide
From that. I give myself a C.
Average. At best.
Do you recall what particular poem of Merrill’s you were imitating in that poem?
ED: I’d say I wasn’t imitating a specific poem, but something I liked about a specific poem, namely “Morning Exercise.” At the time, I found myself writing this poem about something I wasn’t sure I wanted to discuss in workshop. I remember being interested in the way Merrill’s language was so straightforward in “Morning Exercise.” The line, “I did things on a mat to make me flexible,” is still one of my favorites. So when I was working on my poem, I thought it could be a good idea (to ease my own anxiety about the subject matter, mainly) to be just as plain-spoken as that line: this is where I am, this is what I’m doing, this is the thought behind it. There was, and still is, something oddly poignant about Merrill’s line and I guess I was thinking something similar could help my poem.
EH: What did you take away from your close readings of Anthony Hecht?
ED: His poems have always had a kind of haunting quality to me. I’d read from Flight Among the Tombs, for example, and find myself right back in the book a few hours later, reading the same poems again. When I first started reading poetry seriously, I was drawn to his work because of its polished quality, the voice with real authority (and this was long before I heard him read). But there was a kind of immediate visceral aspect as well, whether the poems made me shiver, laugh, or just stare at the page. It was like I always had a tangible physical reaction to the words on the page, and reading something with that kind of power was amazing.
EH: When and where did you see him read?
ED: I was lucky enough to see him twice. The first time was in the spring of 2001 at Johns Hopkins, and the second was summer 2004 at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.
EH: What sort of impression did he make on you? Was he the sort of man you expected from the poems you had read?
ED: Honestly, when I saw him, I was completely intimidated. He was what I expected from the poems I’d read. He looked like photos I’d seen; and, I’d heard from friends that his readings and voice were amazing, but seeing him in person was very overwhelming. I was surprised, mostly, by my reaction. At that point, I hadn’t seen too many of my favorite authors in person. Seeing the man who had written the poems I adored was, for me, what seeing a favorite musician or movie star might be for someone else. Both times I saw him I wanted to go up to him, meet him, ask him to sign my books, but both times I couldn’t muster up enough courage to get anywhere near close. Needless to say, I completely regret that.
EH: What other living authors do you admire or take influence from?
ED: That’s a long list: Richard Wilbur, Mark Strand, X.J. Kennedy, W.D. Snodgrass, Alan Shapiro, Mary Jo Salter, Greg Williamson. I could go on and on. I will add one last small list because I think sometimes we all look to those more experienced or significantly older than us for role models, but I really admire several poets who are right around my age: Juliana Gray, Leigh Anne Couch, Eric McHenry, and classmates of mine at University of Cincinnati. Seriously, the list is too long. I’ll stop now.
EH: From the living, let us turn to the great and the good of the past, so to speak. Are there particular authors from the past who have meant a great deal to you since you started writing poetry?
ED: Absolutely. Since high school, I’ve had an interest in Renaissance poetry. Shakespeare and Donne have been favorites for a long time. Some kids had posters of bands on their walls. I had words from Romeo and Juliet. I’ve come across people who regard poetry that old as stale or frumpy or “dead white male”; to me, those poets are just as exciting as anything I’d see in a journal at Barnes & Noble. Some of the stuff (or, often, a lot of it) they wrote was pretty risqué in their day. They had courage and inventiveness in their writing and an infinite amount of skill with words. I’ve always admired that and tried to incorporate that kind of knowledge of our language in my work.
EH: What literary magazines do you regularly read?
ED: I usually look at Poetry, Measure, Blackbird, and Unsplendid; I think VQR [Virginia Quarterly Review] is great but I don’t often get my hands on a copy. There are a lot of great magazines out there. I’m sure I don’t read as many as I should, and I know I don’t look at as many as I want to read. Graduate student life, I’m afraid, has left me without subscriptions to any kind of magazine.
EH: Outside of poetry, what sort of books do you enjoy reading?
ED: Graduate school rears its ugly head again. I love to read, always have. I’m not ashamed to admit that, as a child, the nearby children’s book store would call me when the new Babysitter’s Club book arrived on the shelf. As I got older, and still had that free-reading time, I enjoyed true crime books, like In Cold Blood or Helter Skelter. I have an odd fascination with crime and serial killers and things like that. I also enjoyed things I was introduced to in high school or college, like The Great Gatsby, Dubliners, Chekhov’s stories—I’d read them again and again just because I liked them. I think, when school finally ends, it’ll be time to pick up that Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter business as I’ve been out of touch with what’s popular for awhile now. Though, I’ll also admit, a silly magazine sometimes finds its way from the racks by Kroger’s self-checkout into my cart.
EH: Music appears in your book. It is a central theme of such poems as “Pianist ‘CLair de Lune’ 43” and “Pianist Pretending Chopin.” I quote from the latter:
I amaze myself, or at least I’ve caught my eye
Or hands, and the cuticles’ half moons. And then,
In mirrored Steinway black, they multiply,
Ten out, ten in, two hitting A, again,
Again, dampered in one-two-three. The denlike
room, the lasting chords, are fit for the danse,
The valse, and aristocracy.
Are you a pianist yourself?
ED: Yes, I am. My dad bought my mom a piano when I was three, I think, and I immediately took to it. I was classically trained. I took lessons from age 5 to 12, and then took a break to pursue my not-successful basketball career. I started taking lessons again at 14 and continued until college. For awhile I considered taking the steps to go to music school or a conservatory instead of college, but the piano meant, and means, so much to me that I didn’t want to make it my work, my job. I have a console piano that’s all mine in my apartment now, and I play it as much as I can.
EH: I always ask poets this question. It elicits all sorts of responses. Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what sort of music, and do you think it affects your writing?
ED: I can’t listen to music while I’m actually putting pen to paper or hand to key. I need silence. I do tend to listen to a certain type of music, usually one CD in particular, around the times I’m writing. For example, during a lot of the work for the book, I’d take breaks or do something else and listen to Nina Simone. It was all Nina Simone for about four months—in the car, grading papers, everything. I don’t know what it was about the music that appealed to me at the time, but I think it affected some of my writing. People often comment on the jazz-like rhythms of some of the poems, and I think that may have come from listening to that particular CD. Right now, while working on my second manuscript, I seem to be very interested in Mozart’s Requiem and Ravel’s Bolero. Death and drums—an interesting combo.
EH: How often do you write? Do you set aside specific times or just wait for inspiration to strike, as they say?
ED: Right now I’m not writing as much as I’d like. Despite my overwhelming craving for structure and routine, making a “writing schedule” has never really worked for me. I’ve tried to say “OK, I’m going to write everyday at such and such a time,” but the schedule never lasts. I won’t wait for inspiration, though. If it’s been awhile, I’ll sit down, look at random notes or observations I’ve jotted down over time, and see if I can make anything out of them. Once I get something going, I will work everyday (not at the same time, but usually at night) until I feel somewhat satisfied with it. Then I’ll get all excited, thinking “woo-hoo!” which usually spurs other new poems and revisions of old ones. But, eventually the drought comes back. But eventually the process starts all over again.
EH: How do you decide what form to place a poem into? This may be a chicken or egg question. Do some subjects seem to call out for particular treatments? Think of the particular poems in Big-Eyed Afraid.
ED: It is a hard question to answer. My answer, admittedly, is pretty middle-of-the-road. Or all over the road, rather. Sometimes it just happens. I started “Nappyhead” with the first line in mind, but the form just sort of happened along the way. Once I got a few stanzas into the poem, it seemed right. On the other hand, sometimes I do know what form I want to use for a poem when I only have a tiny idea. “Episode,” “OCD,” “Coda,” and “Parallax” happened that way. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of interesting that all of those poems have a refrain. I think that’s somewhat of a reflection of the way the poems started in my head: an idea coming back over and over, but slightly different each time. At least that’s what a doctor would probably say. Sometimes, though, I put a form in front of me like a challenge. Before “Bees in the Attic,” I’d never written a crown of sonnets, for example. I remember looking at a Post-It note with a list of ideas I had. From there I started (and stopped) different poems. “Bees” is the one that seemed to work, though it went through many revisions.
EH: I’m going to offer some statements made by writers, and I would like you to give me your reactions to them. George Orwell wrote that “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
ED: That’s an interesting one. And I think it’s true. It seems to me, at least, that good poems have a kind of truth to them—not necessarily a historical fact or accuracy kind of truth, but an honesty about what you were thinking in a particular moment, what you were feeling, what you were seeing, in person or in your memory. I know that when I try to write something that I don’t want to write about, something that I have to work at keeping in the front of my mind, the poem usually ends up being something I hide in the desk drawer.
EH: Andrew Motion said in the Sunday [London] Times in 2003 that “because poetry depends on familiar life, it belongs in familiar life.” Similarly, Kevin Young has remarked that “I’m not sure I believe in something poetic ‘in itself.’ Hasn’t most of modern poetry found the poetic in the everyday?” How do you respond to these assertions?
ED: Definitely, yes. I might add in the “everyday” of poets, though, as sometimes our “everyday” thoughts may be a little different from those of others. I mean, thinking about poems I’ve discussed with my students this year, we’ve seen a waiting room with Elizabeth Bishop and a college campus with L.E. Sissman, but also Howard Nemerov thinking about the line between poetry and prose. I’d say all of those poems are poetic in the everyday sense.
EH: The architect Frank Lloyd Wright once wrote that “the truth is more important than the facts.” What does this statement mean to you?
ED: Because I readily admit that much of my book is autobiographical, my family likes to quibble about the details of some of the poems. Every time my parents are present for a reading of “Bees in the Attic,” for example, a discussion of the way “it really happened” always follows. Was the hive really right above my bed? Who discovered the noise first? I remind them of the idea of poetic license and we move on. Similarly, when my mom read “DrugFace” the first time, she was concerned, asking about what (again) “really happened.” I gave a similarly evasive answer, something like, “Yes, I used to drive with my eyes closed, but nobody’s ever asked me what’s my sign.” For me, much of the energy of a poem is in the details, but those details aren’t necessarily facts, though they are true to the situation of the poem and true to the feelings it invokes. In that way, all of “DrugFace” is as true, or as factual, to me as the actual night when I drove around Columbus, Ohio inebriated.
EH: Lavinia Greenlaw once said “When asked what I do, I try just to say I’m a writer, because telling people you’re a poet compels them to go into nervous detail about why they neither read nor understand it.”
ED: I almost always tell people I’m a writer or teacher. When I say writer, sometimes they ask what I write, and then I say poetry. I’m not sure why I hesitate to offer that up, though. It’s strange to think that you can’t just say you’re a poet; you have to admit or confess it. In my experience, people either seem impressed or confused by the word, as if they didn’t know you could be a poet for a living, or that poets still actually exist. Sometimes those reactions make me want to have a Sidney-moment where I launch into a defense of what I do. But, for right now, we live in a world where I’m usually the only person perusing the poetry section at Barnes & Noble. It’s sad, and it’s a little annoying. I have a few students in my introductory poetry workshop who have never written a poem before, never read more than “The Raven” in a high school English class, and they’re excited to write poems and read O’Hara and Sissman and others.
EH: Niall MacMonagle said in a radio interview that “poetry is the opposite of reality TV.” What do you make of that?
ED: I have the occasional MTV guilty pleasure, but I can’t seem to wrap a single thought around “The Hills” and poetry, even as opposites. Maybe that’s MacMonagle’s point.
EH: Annie Finch said that “Often a poet’s strength seems to result from, or at any rate to accompany, the reconciliation of two opposing qualities.”
ED: That makes me think of many things, from Nietzsche and the Apollonian and Dionysian in The Birth of Tragedy to A.R. Ammons’s likening of a poem to a walk where an internal seeking becomes externalization outside the body. It seems like we’re often talking about, and resolving, opposites. In my nickname poems I deal with themes of birth and death and the forms themselves satisfy both my need for control and my need to beat against the walls I’ve placed around myself.
EH: Were you thinking of Ammons’s “Corsons Inlet”?
ED: Yes, I was thinking of “Corsons Inlet” along with his essay, “A Poem is a Walk.”
EH: Can you cite some instances of this reconciliation of opposing qualities in your nickname poems?
ED: I’m thinking of “Doll Baby” and “High Heel.” “Doll Baby” presents me as harboring both male and female qualities, while “High Heel” goes back and forth between a kind of “ideal-I” (not to get too Lacanian) and the actual, flawed, insufficient “I” who depends on those heels to recreate the seeming perfection of infancy. But neither of those poems really moves to reconcile the opposing qualities. The poem, to me, that attempts the reconciliation is “La Temptressa,” where I am both subject, writing the narrative and tempting “you,” but, in that narrative, almost always the object seen through the “you”: “You leaned on the vanity / And, gawking, watched me in the bath” or “You’d watch / Me tease with a dangling leg and the tub’s white side.” The poem doesn’t find a true reconciliation of the “I” as both subject and object, but, in the end, I reconcile myself with my roles as subject (creator) and the object (creation) for my own viewing as no one else is there. I think that theme—the self as creation, identities formed not only to negotiate social situations but also to situate many disparate parts in a single, somewhat coherent self—runs through the entire book.
EH: Rodin said “I choose a block of marble and chop off whatever I don’t need.” This sounds simple and rather obvious on first blush, but I’ve always felt it contained a profound insight. Is your method of composition subtractive, as a sculpture in marble, or does it build up from a surface, like a sculpture in clay.
ED: As much as I tried [to sculpt] with clay as a kid, I’d say I’m subtractive with writing. When I have an idea or think of an interesting phrase or line, I jot it down quickly on a Post-It and leave it alone. But when I come back to it, I’ll sit and sit, usually for too long, writing down everything. I have a pretty ferocious self-editor that cuts and questions along the way, but I force myself to get as much down as possible, good or bad, in the afternoon or middle of the night. It doesn’t matter. I like having a chunk to work with and cut it down from there.
EH: You tend to write with attention to rhyme and rhythm, usually over set meter. Do you write in free verse at all?
ED: No, I don’t. For me, working with the demands of a rhyme scheme and meter is more comfortable and more generative of new ideas. Free verse scares me, actually. The times I’ve tried, either for a class or just because, I’ve found myself feeling like I have no idea where to go once I write the first line on the page. And the poems fail miserably.
EH: Don Paterson remarked “Sometimes you read your old work and you find you really don’t like the person that wrote it.” I don’t know if you’ve been writing long enough to have experienced this sensation. Have you?
ED: There are definitely times when I look at older poems and they seem very young or a little embarrassing. But I try to remind myself that they were the best they could be, or they seemed right, when I was at that stage, or at least I hope they were.
EH: What are you working on at the moment?
ED: I’m about halfway through my new manuscript and right now working on a poem that started when I saw, on the internet, that a man bought Che Guevara’s hair for thousands at an auction. You just can’t pass up stuff like that. Writing parts of Big-Eyed Afraid was somewhat painful. This manuscript is a lot more fun. So far I have everything from a poem about the Cincinnati blackout to a sonnet addressed to Astrophil.
EH: So this book will be more public, less personal?
ED: It does seem more public in a way. Obviously, that public is still seen through my eyes, but I’ve made a conscious attempt to move past the personal nature of Big-Eyed Afraid. I’ve done that. When I started that project, I wanted to write the most honest portrayal of those specific moments in my life, even as I turned myself into a somewhat composite or even mythical character. The personal nature and honesty of the book was, and is, very important to me. But I’ve always hoped people could find universality in those poems. Now, though, I’m less of a character in the new manuscript. Cincinnati plays a big role, as does Maryland—the landscapes, people, everything. It’s much less about my struggles to identify myself than it is about my struggles to identify myself as an artist and just another person among many.
EH: What are your impressions of poetry in America today?
ED: It makes me sad that poetry isn’t taught very much in high school (at least according to the college students I encounter) and that often whole chunks of the canon are ignored for more contemporary poetry. I’ll try to fix the latter part of that once school is finally over and I (hopefully) get a job. But despite this exclusion of poetry, and even though poetry books may not be flying off the shelves at bookstores, I think we have an amazing number of gifted poets in America: not only the stars from the pre/post-WWII generation—Wilbur, Strand, Kennedy, etc—but younger poets, too. With them, I think the future looks pretty bright.
EH: You mentioned a few earlier. What other younger poets do you have in mind?
ED: Juliana Gray, Leigh Anne Couch, and Morri Creech have fantastic books out. I also like Kevin Young, Cate Marvin, and Greg Williamson.
EH: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to learn more about poetry? Someone who wants to read poetry?
ED: If school isn’t an option or part of your plan, I think picking up an anthology is a great idea for people just starting out because they offer so many different styles, schools, subjects, etc. The Norton is great, of course, but can be a little overwhelming to people afraid of things like Shakespeare or Jonson. I really like the anthology of Contemporary American Poetry that McClatchy edits. That’s a nice introduction to the last century or so. And they can read the Contemporary Poetry Review, of course!
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