By Celeste Schantz
…really, my writing is inseparable from my life; I move through the world as a writer. So there are pieces that are about everything from navigating “Po Biz” to online dating to my mother’s decline from Parkinson’s…also drinking, sex, depression…all Of it, from large to small.
Kim Addonizio is the author of seven poetry collections, two novels, two story collections, and two books on writing poetry, The Poet’s Companion (with Dorianne Laux) and Ordinary Genius. She has received fellowships from the NEA and Guggenheim Foundation, two Pushcart Prizes, and was a National Book Award Finalist for her collection Tell Me.
Her latest books are Now We’re Getting Somewhere, which was published by W.W. Norton (March 2021). Mortal Trash: Poems (W.W. Norton) and a memoir-in-essays, Bukowski in a Sundress (Penguin). She also collaborated on a chapbook, The Night Could Go in Either Direction (Slapering Hol Press) with poet Brittany Perham.
Addonizio also has two word/music CDs: Swearing, Smoking, Drinking, & Kissing (with Susan Browne) and My Black Angel, a companion to My Black Angel: Blues Poems & Portraits, featuring woodcuts by Charles D. Jones. She teaches and performs internationally.
MSR: Let’s go back in time a bit to your book, Bukowski in a Sundress: Confessions from a Writing Life (Penguin, 2016). It’s a book of short essays, correct?
KA: Some of the essays in the book were written at the request of editors of anthologies; the opening one, “Plan D,” for a book titled Bad Girls; another, “Necrophilia,” for Dirty Words: An Encyclopedia of Sex. Another, about my relationship with my daughter, was for an anthology on motherhood. I’d written another memoir, that didn’t work out, and ended up looking at those essays again and thinking, Why not retool this and see what I can do? So I reworked some of the memoir, abandoning a lot of it in the process, and refocused on the writing life. That was when things really came together, because really, my writing is inseparable from my life; I move through the world as a writer. So there are pieces that are about everything from navigating “Po Biz” to online dating to my mother’s decline from Parkinson’s…Also drinking, sex, depression…All of it, from large to small. One essay is about finding a mouse in a glue trap under the stove in a rented apartment in New York. A lot of them are funny, because I find life pretty funny. Maybe more often in retrospect, but still. I think the original book failed mostly because I didn’t have the voice. If you have that, you can write about anything. Nothing is too small or too large, if you can find the right way to explore it.
Your job, if you love the art, is to serve whatever talent you’ve been given, to the best of your ability. To figure out what’s yours, and to develop that.
MSR: In your book Ordinary Genius, you share numerous rejection slips that you yourself received as a poet. That’s quite brave and audacious…to share your failures. Can you speak a bit about why you did that?
KA: There’s still a certain mystique around well-published writers—as if we sit down and metaphorically shit roses every time we put down a few words. People imagine that writers have been given a gift and can command it at will. Ordinary Genius talks about that concept of “genius,” not as this divine bestowal, but as something you apprentice yourself to—and work very, very hard to achieve. Genius as tutelary spirit. I might excuse a few people, like Mozart, from that definition. But it does a disservice to the art to presume that you’ve got it or you haven’t. Yeah, there’s talent, always the elephant in the room: Should I pursue this if I may not have the talent for it? But a huge part of it is the work itself, and you can’t know the answer to the question of talent unless and until you do a lot of the work. Then you might find out that you have certain limits—or horizons—you didn’t expect. Your job, if you love the art, is to serve whatever talent you’ve been given, to the best of your ability. To figure out what’s yours, and to develop that. As for failure…I’m not sure rejection is failure. It’s information. Maybe it’s telling you you’re not ready in some way and you need to work harder. Maybe it’s telling you that you have to believe in yourself enough to overcome certain obstacles. Or that, hey, this is what it’s going to look like for quite a while, and can you handle it? I once spoke at a panel about rejection at a writers conference, and said that it never ends; even if you have a book published by a major press, some critic can reject your work and say the book’s no good, or not worth reading. So how do you handle it, at any level? You recognize that failure is a part of all life, not just the writing life, and it’s up to you to learn from it. Otherwise, you might as well quit.
MSR: You offer excellent poetry workshops both in person and online (Kim Addonizio Poetry Workshops). What do you enjoy most about these experiences and how do they differ? What can an aspiring poet hope to get from one of your workshops?
KA: Thanks, I appreciate that, coming from a former student! I really enjoy the online workshops, because I get to meet and teach people I couldn’t, otherwise. I do prefer the face-to-face groups, though, where we can discuss, argue, and change our minds in a way that writing out critiques doesn’t allow for. Plus, we can eat and drink. So it’s more relaxed, and allows for more back-and-forth. I try to offer my students respect as writers. That is, I try not to sugarcoat what’s holding them back in their work. But I also believe that kindness and tact and encouragement serve most people better than the sort of brutal “This sucks, here’s one good line, now start over.” There’s a place for that, but it’s usually much farther down the line, when someone is ready to hear that, and has the skills to use it in some way. I’ve met so many people who have been devastated by an unkind critique, and it’s just not necessary. I remember when I was a twenty-year-old college student, pursuing a major in music; one semester I took piano, and had a teacher who made me feel like shit every time I sat at the keyboard. Needless to say, I didn’t continue my piano studies. Maybe, if I was really meant to be a pianist, I would have overcome that. So much of it is individual. You might need someone who’s very tough—or very gentle. As a teacher, I try to balance the two. Someone once said, “You serve the people you’re meant to serve,” and I believe that. I’m not the right teacher for everyone. But I have enough students coming back to workshops, sometimes for years, that I feel I am serving those particular people. I do think it’s important to find different mentors at different times, too. You can get too comfortable with the same group, or teacher, and you need to keep challenging yourself. That keeps it interesting, and it’s how you learn.∎
To learn more about Kim Addonizio and her work, please visit her website at http://www.kimaddonizio.com/.
Three Questions for Kim Addonizio first appeared in The Thornfield Review, which was a journal produced by the current editors of Mason Street Review.