El Cerrito, CA
Place of Birth:
Berkeley High '95
NYU journalism '03
BU MFA '06
Why did you choose to come to Amherst?
My grandfather went to Amherst, and used to sing the son of the son of a DKE song. As a kid from California, I found humid smell and greenery of a cute New England town exotic. And in the middle of a rainstorm the sun came out on my college tour. I also found the way professors in the English department talked about writing was deeply inspiring.
Favorite (most memorable or most influential) class at Amherst:
Actually, a class by Chick Chickering and Michele Barale called The Grammar of English changed the way I read--and write.
Favorite (most memorable or most influential) professor:
Andy Parker, and also Lawrence Douglas
Poetry, poetics, writing race, writing the environment, the overlap between journalistic and poetic modes of writing.
Awards and Prizes:
Pushcart, 2013, for an essay "The Waste Land App" in The Threepenny Review.
Amy Clampitt Resident, Lenox, MA, 2010-2011
Mac Dowell Colony Fellow, Peterborough, NH, 2009
Bread Loaf Writer's Workshop, Scholar, Middlebury College, VT, 2007
Artist in Residence, Headlands Center for the Arts, Sausalito, CA, 2007 + Affiliate Artist, 2012
William Randolph Hearst Fellow, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, MA, 2006
First Union Fellow, Robert H. Smith Center for Jefferson Studies, Charlottesville, VA, 2006
Copeland Fellow, Amherst College, Amherst, MA, 2005
Morton Marr Poetry Prize, Southwest Review, 2004
I. F. Stone Award, Overseas Press Club, granted for international reporting, 2004
New York Chapbook Fellow, Poetry Society of America, NY, NY, 2003
There are so many. I am always happy rereading To The Lighthouse. Or Elizabeth Bishop's Collected Poems. Or Eudora Welty's Delta Wedding.
That's like asking me my favorite friend, or favorite parent, or favorite child. I am in thrall of lots of people. Bishop, Lowell, Woolf, Dalloway, James Agee, Tolstoy, Derek Walcott, Seamus Heaney, Zymborska, Milosz, Rushdie, Eula Biss...The list goes on!
Tips for aspiring writers:
Read lots. Write lots. Memorize a lot of poems. Study the things you most admire. Ask what's absent from the conversation and how you could contribute.
Tell us a bit about your path to becoming an author:
I've always been a voracious reader, and even as early as high school I knew I wanted to write. I just didn't really have a sense of what, or how. It occurred to me early on that I wasn't interested in fiction-- not in writing it, at least. I didn't want to keep whole characters in my head or figure out what they would do each day or eat for breakfast. Cereal, maybe? Oddly, I did like the way that writing about what I observed in the world somehow made it possible to interpret, the way that taking time to observe something, even small, sometimes provoked new revelation. I liked the frame of "Stopping by the Woods on A Snowy Evening" where nothing or almost nothing happens very beautifully and somehow manages to mean a great deal.
I also liked a sense of music in language, a sense of percussion. I had also been trained as a singer, and I thought I was going to go to conservatory, but had chosen not to at the last minute. I haven't really gone on in music seriously (though I sing some harmonies in a bluegrass band now), but the sense of being part of a lot of music, and memorizing songs, has stayed with me.
And so, when I was at Amherst, sophomore year, I wandered into an audition for Glyn Maxwell's play. Something about a Valentine-- I can't remember now: A happy valentine? A lost valentine? It doesn't matter. It was in meter, and Glyn was the new visiting poet. He cast me and I had a blast, and I decided to take his class.
And it was a little like uncorking something, a sort of series of revelations. I felt very much as if I had found a resonant zone. That class showed me some things about the space of the poem and what it could achieve, about rhyme and meter, about using white space, about the crossovers between poem and song. We memorized a lot. I became engrossed. And suddenly I felt quite serious about poetry.
Graduating with no particular way to support that seriousness was another matter. I graduated in the years just before the dot com bust; Somehow I found work rather quickly waitressing in a former funeral parlor turned Italian restaurant at the edge of a gentrifying section of Brooklyn. I opened a lot of bottles of wine and then supplemented this by writing little squibs for websites; then eventually for magazines, until I built up a kind of freelance lifestyle. I worked a short stint in the wrong corner of a publishing house (accounting, which I found rather dull); then wrote more; then eventually went to journalism school. But I kept working on the poems that had been my senior thesis and thinking about them in as much unbroken time as I had. Since I was very poor, I had perhaps more unbroken time than I otherwise might have as a young person in New York-- rather than go out to dinner, I wrote, and so on.
In 2003 I sent out my first collection poems to a new contest being sponsored by the Poetry Society of America; I was so lucky that the Irish poet Eavan Boland took a collection called THE MISREMEMBERED WORLD and it was published as a really elegant little chapbook. That changed my life; though not immediately. It took a long time after that to get the funding and time to write more poems, though I was lucky and would get grants. I kept writing jourrnalism and started teaching to pay the bills. During stretches I would have so many kinds of job to keep afloat that things would slow down.
I suppose the main thing for someone wanting to set out on this path is just to keep on it; to keep reading and writing, sending out work when you think it's ready, applying for things when you think you have something to say, look for momentum and luck where it comes. And to think about what you feel needs saying, and then to try to say it.