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The Slow Trains Ten
writers on the creative life

featuring Kim Addonizio

Kim Addonizio is the author of three books of poetry from BOA Editions: The Philosopher's Club, Jimmy & Rita, and Tell Me, which was a finalist for the 2000 National Book Award. Her latest collection, What Is This Thing Called Love, was published by W.W. Norton in January 2004. A book of stories, In the Box Called Pleasure, was published by Fiction Collective 2. She is also co-author, with Dorianne Laux, of The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (W.W. Norton). With Cheryl Dumesnil she co-edited Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos (Warner Books). Her first novel, Little Beauties, will be published by Simon & Schuster in September 2005.

Her awards include two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Pushcart Prize, a Commonwealth Club Poetry Medal, and the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award.

1. When did you start writing?

When I was ten I started a mystery novel, and quit after a handful of pages. At fifty, I just sold my first novel. So I guess I've been writing a long time, but not with much commitment until my late twenties, when I discovered poetry and seriously started trying to learn to write. Before then, I never really entertained much thought of becoming a writer. I kept journals, but they were just for myself, a way to figure out my experience. Mostly they said things like God, I'm so depressed or Should I call him? I have all my journals since the age of nineteen. I should probably burn them.

2. What is your writing routine like?

I don't always have one, but I'm happiest when I do. Usually it involves mornings, espresso, and whatever food I'm convinced helps me. Right now it's Luna Bars or Balance Bars. Can't write without 'em. I am also addicted to writing in bed, especially when it rains, because there is this lovely window that looks out at our deck, a lattice, and a lemon tree. Right now the lattice is broken because a couple of guys running from the cops took a route through our yard. This seems to happen about every six months, but otherwise it's a very peaceful view.

3. Who are some of your favorite writers, and which writers have had the strongest influence on you?

I love almost everyone I read. If I don't, I put the book down. I'm very porous and I just let in whatever comes. My early poems filtered the ancient Chinese poets in translation, and Frank Stanford and early C.D. Wright and Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg, Carolyn Forche, Sharon Olds. When I wrote my second book, Jimmy & Rita, two books I read and reread were Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah, as I struggled with how to put together a book-length narrative. By Tell Me, my third collection, I was processing C.K. Williams. I've mostly been influenced, in terms of craft and voice, by contemporary writers. The canon has been a different kind of influence. Whitman, for example -- he's behind everything I write, as a father-spirit. In fiction I've been drawn to writers like Hubert Selby, Jr., Kathy Acker, Denis Johnson, William Vollmann, Paul Bowles.

4. Besides writing, what are you most passionate about in your life?

My amazing lovely daughter, Aya, who is twenty-two and an actor. I try to tell her constantly how hard it was for me, how much self-doubt and negativity I had to get through in order to write at all, in order to feel good about myself and not let the voice in my head that tells me I'm stupid and have no talent, to take over. I guess I'm passionate about trying to help her see that she is the center, that she needs to claim her power rather than giving it away to other people. As a writer I'm passionate about the reader, whoever he or she is; I want to reach that person, to offer something of value. In my life, right now, I'm working on presence, surrender, non-attachment. Finding more joy and balance. Figuring out my relationship to the outer world and the incredible amount of darkness and suffering in it. Negotiating the territory between gratitude and self-satisfaction in terms of my ego.

5. What kind of music do you enjoy, and do you find that music has an influence on your writing?

I'm obsessed with blues harmonica and have been a student of it for about five years. Being a student of something helps remind me how my own students must feel, awkwardly struggling to find their voice. Years ago, I studied classical voice and then flute. These studies have helped me make my poems more song-like, to hear the music of language.

6. Where are your favorite places to travel?

My imagination is my favorite place to go. I am happiest in the worlds in my head. I've been drawn back to New Mexico a number of times and want to spend more time there -- I love the sky, the colors of the desert, the wild thunderstorms in late afternoon in summer. I like living in other places, not passing through for a weekend and trying to cram in the sights. Right now I have the fantasy of going to some quiet Mediterranean town and living in a little hotel with a balcony and an overhead fan and a view of fishing boats, with a couple of good cafes and restaurants nearby. Espresso in the morning, then writing all day, an afternoon swim, and good food and wine, and hopefully company, in the evenings.

7. Where do your best ideas come from, or, what creates your most inspired state?

It's all so mysterious. Reading triggers me a lot. I like to look at visual art to torque my mind in another direction, to feel something flow in that's wordless. Emotions can trigger things, and so can ideas. Paying attention to the stray thoughts that float through, noticing what my mind is snagging on for an instant. My novel, Little Beauties, came out of listening to a woman talk about her OCD -- she was a washer -- and getting fascinated by that disorder and wondering what a character who was an obsessive-compulsive would feel like, how she would get through her day. Mostly it's staying open to what shows up, and staying attuned to the creative energy which is always present in the world.

8. Do you have any interesting vices that you'd care to share, and have they helped or hindered your writing?

Envy, jealousy: Why didn't I get that prize, that recognition, that reading, why wasn't my work included in that anthology, blah blah blah. That's really unhelpful. Yesterday I was reading a poet's essay that involved a lot of literary theory and highly intellectual concepts about language, and I felt really bad, because I don't understand the poetry or the theories and don't have that kind of knowledge, and don't use it in my work. And that can be very destructive to your sense of your own territory -- thinking you should have the same territory as someone else. When I thought about it, I realized that I had no interest in what this writer was interested in, and that was okay. Finding your own corner of the world to tend -- that's so key, but we always look at what other people are doing and think we should be doing that, instead. It goes back to not giving over your power to others -- realizing there are a plurality of approaches, and you only need to be faithful to your own sources and concerns. Of course that doesn't mean that you should close yourself off, either.

9. Yeats said that the only things worth writing about are sex and death -- what would your list include?

Sex and death are right up there. Consciousness, which I guess is really the subject of all writing. Life on earth, in a body that's going to decay and die, while everything changes and changes again. Being caught in time. The world beyond the world, or within it.

10. What's next for your writing?

Besides the novel that's coming out, I've got a couple of others that may or may not find their way into the world; ditto a collection of stories. Right now I'm working on new poems for a fifth collection. I have no idea what's next, but I trust that something's going to show up and take hold of me.

©2005 by Kim Addonizio

For more information about Kim Addonizio, see her Web site.

Listen to clips from Kim's CD, Swearing, Smoking, Drinking, & Kissing.

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