You are the author of the book Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series, and the chapbook Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press, 2018) available here, which explores myth and ritual. Talk about your interest in myth. What drew you to write about the aftermath of hurricane in Louisiana?
The most straightforward answer is that I’d lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina (and then lived in Houston for another two hurricanes) and I tried for a long time to figure out how to write about that. Katrina entirely transformed the city of New Orleans, and that impact is ongoing – but New Orleans wasn’t really my city, and Katrina didn’t feel like my story to tell. (And Nicole Cooley’s Breach does such amazing work in describing the hurricane that it didn’t seem I could add to that!)
So these poems became a way of thinking about disaster – but also about the landscape of south Louisiana, its swamps and bayous and bridges and lakes and rivers, which always seemed to me to be a kind of liminal space between this world and the next. I took Latin all through middle school and high school, and when I read The Aeneid, I was really struck by Aeneas’s journey into the underworld. It’s a common trope in mythology, of course – the idea that a true hero can pass into the next life and return with knowledge or guidance. That journey into the underworld has also often seemed to me to be about grief or mourning – that you could spend a season underground and come back from that. Even before the hurricane, South Louisiana seemed like a place where that kind of transformation might be possible, might already be happening.
You mentioned Nicole Cooley’s Breach as an important reflection on Hurricane Katrina. What other texts on disaster, on hurricanes or otherwise, have been significant to your thinking? What is something new you’re reading right now?
Oh, I love this question – in part because it’s making me realize that so many of the books that I love are about disaster in some way, and often, the transformation that follows disaster. A few books in that vein that I’ve loved recently: Rachel McKibben’s BLUD, Cassie Pruyn’s LENA, Essy Stone’s WHAT THEY DONE TO US. I’d also add Chelsea Dingman’s THAW and the new poems she’s publishing that are part of a new manuscript. (I don’t know how all those poets would feel about being grouped together under this rubric of disaster. I hope they don’t mind.)
I find that I’m especially drawn to poems that feel like they’ve ripped the world open somehow, or have pulled back the skin on something that was hidden or unsaid. I left the Copper Canyon reading this past AWP with Rachel McKibben, Javier Zamora, Traci Brimhall, and Victoria Chang and felt like I couldn’t breathe for a little while. And that’s part of what I want poems to do.
I’m also, especially as I’m finishing a second full-length, obsessed with the structure of the book – the idea that the book itself is a coherent object, rather than just a pile of poems. I loved, for example, this recent interview with Jenny Mollberg, in which she talked about the gutsy choice to put her longest poem right up front in her book Marvels of the Invisible.
Talk about structure as you approached your book Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015) and your second collection. How did you approach the structure of your chapbook Acadiana? What advice and teaching guidance would you offer to young poets as they begin putting together their first collection?
Double Jinx was really hard to structure. The book has some poems that are linked thematically, some poems that are in a sort of loose sequence (they’re epistolary poems speaking in the same voice), and three long poems. What I knew I didn’t want to do was create subsections in the book so that it was like “here’s x, here’s y, here’s z”; I didn’t want to chop those themes and voices into different parts. Instead, I approached the structure from the beginning – which poems were going to best invite the reader into the book – and the end – which poems could provide a strong closing. (And, to be honest, my friend Rebecca Hazelton was really invaluable; when I was at a point when I just didn’t know what to do with anymore I sent her a draft of the manuscript, and she sent back a list of poems she thought were strongest, a list of poems she thought were weakest (she was right; I cut most of them), and she pulled Ex Machina from somewhere back in the manuscript up to the very front. And she found the title (a shortened version of one of the book’s long poems, which is – sort of – about Nancy Drew). I’m immensely grateful to her for that editorial eye.) I have those two long poems kind of tucked away in the book, which is something I might reconsider now, especially having read Jenny’s thoughts in the interview I mention above. I was very cognizant of not wanting to overwhelm a reader right away, which is a kind impulse – but I also think that women are socialized into apologizing for taking up space, and I’m working on pushing back against that, in my writing and in my life.
Acadiana has a sort of chronological structure to it, because it’s shaped around the approach and aftermath of a hurricane, so that narrative placed many of the poems for me. Because it’s also a collection of voices – the sibyls, oracular voices who speak from the swamp; a handful of somewhat sinister saints; girls who live in town – I thought about introducing and distributing those voices. I wanted to give everyone a turn to speak.
The manuscript I’m working on now has a kind of core narrative structure to it: it starts with the first ultrasound of a pregnancy, moves through postpartum struggles and early motherhood, and ends with a four year old’s birthday party. So having that skeleton of a narrative in mind has helped me to see where the narrative gaps and repetitions are, and also where I want to fold in other poems that are related but not directly linked to the central story.
A few tangible bits of advice for structuring a poetry collection: 1) It’s perhaps obvious to say that the first poem has to be super strong – if you’re submitting through contests, that’s what will convince a screener to keep going, or to toss your work to the side; and if you’re thinking about a reader of the book, the same is perhaps true – but I think it’s equally important to think about the space between a first and second poem. Those two poems together should show range – prove to your reader that your book is going to be exciting and varied. 2) Once you’ve come up with an order, look at your table of contents and think about what it conveys to your reader. If someone just flips through the table of contents, what will they think your poem is about? Will they be able to see how ideas are grouped, how the collection develops? I got this advice from Laura McCullough when I was at the wonderful Murphy Writers Winter Getaway a few years ago, and it’s helping me now to retitle a number of poems as I finish this collection.
In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King writes, “Stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it….” Talk about writing when its hard and when it’s not so hard. In what ways do you approach the writing process to keep the energy going?
This is so often my struggle – that I want writing to be this joyous, transportive process. And I do have moments like that – when poems come together quickly, and I feel good about the work I’m doing – but much of writing, for me, anyway, is work. What I’ve realized is that I earn those moments of joyous writing through a lot of writing that oftentimes feels less great. I also like to run, and I’ve thought a lot recently about how the practice of running is like the practice of writing, in that good runs are the product of just getting out there and moving lots of days in a row. (This article, from Runner’s World, helped me to think about that.) Sometimes what you learn from a bad run is that you can force yourself to get through 6 miles or 8 miles or whatever, even if you’re not enjoying it, but you’ve worked through to the goal you set. And I try to remember that as I’m writing, especially when I’ve been away from a project and getting back in feels overwhelming and hard.
And, of course, reading is really important. Other people’s poems can act on my own writing in two ways: there’s the kind of ache of jealousy, where someone else has done something so good, and it makes me want to turn back to my own writing; and there are also poems that seem to invite readers into writing. I’ve been re-reading Rachel Zucker’s The Bad Wife Handbook, and it’s so full of leaps and sharp observations, and it’s showing me some ways back into poems I’ve been working on but haven’t been able to finish. I also think poetry readings and poetry podcasts can be really helpful when writing is hard. There’s something about the actual voiced poem that’s really reinvigorating. I have a long commute, so it’s nice to spend that time in my car listening to poetry and feeling like I’m accompanied by other poets as I drive on the Expressway and into the Pine Barrens.
How do you define chapbook? a shorter collection of poems, probably unified with a theme or landscape
What makes a good chapbook? I like chapbooks that have a clear, comprehensible focus – a particular place or set of concerns or characters. I’m also most fond of chapbooks that are their own weird thing, rather than chapbooks that are a prelude to a full-length, or a kind of anticipated best of for the full-length.
What’s next for you? I’m finishing my second full-length collection of poems this summer and getting started working on an edited collection about writing and motherhood.
Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Book money always turns into more books!
Residence: Collingswood, NJ
Job: I’m assistant professor of Writing and First Year Studies at Stockton University in southern New Jersey. That long title means that I teach a wide variety of writing classes, and I work primarily with students who’ve been identified as needing additional support as they begin college.
Chapbook Bio: Nancy Reddy is the author of Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions, 2015), a 2014 winner of the National Poetry Series, and Acadiana (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Pleiades, Blackbird, The Iowa Review, Smartish Pace, and elsewhere. The recipient of a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and grants from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation, she teaches writing at Stockton University in southern New Jersey. You can find her online at nancyreddy.com.