My first experience with Julianna Baggott was on my first edition as editor of Writer’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books). I asked her to write a diary style piece on how she published her first and best-selling novel, Girl Talk (Washington Square Press). It was my first risk as an editor, and Julianna made me look like a genius, because she turned in a great story.
At the time, she mentioned she also wrote poetry and stories for “the younger set” under the pen name N.E. Bode. So Julianna was one of the first poets I thought to ask for an interview when I decided to do these poet interviews on the blog. Unfortunately, I’m a bit of a procrastinator at times, and put it off for awhile. After finally getting a hold of her, I then took forever sending her the questions. Fortunately, she’s always quick to get things turned around (and she never gives me a hard time about how long I’m taking on my end).
Baggott is the author of three collections of poetry: This Country of Mothers and Lizzie Borden in Love (both published by Southern Illinois University Press, 2001 and 2006 respectively), as well as Compulsions of Silk Worms & Bees (Pleiades Press, 2007). The words in her poems are often funny, at times confrontational, and always immediate. Working in several different writing genres seems to give Baggott an especially keen sense of what makes great poetry.
Here’s a favorite passage of mine from Compulsions of Silkworms & Bees from the poem “1. Poetry Addresses Her Sister, the Novel”:
You need to learn to whittle soap
to a narrow bone, to live in steam
so the wool shrinks to a toughened swatch,
not a sweater, not a mitten, something otherworldly.
Why do you want so much?
I say little, but my memory is stained so deeply
Of course, Baggott then offers a great response in the very next poem “2. The Novel Responds to Her Sister, Poetry”:
It isn’t as easy as you’d think
to take the reader’s hand, hang his hat
on the rack, to offer a seat.
Manners. I pass around tea and cakes.
Have you ever allowed these comforts?
You let them wander rooms, disoriented.
Hopefully, I’m not disorienting you by jumping straight into the interview.
What have you been up to recently? Do you have anything coming up soon that people should be looking out for?
The last two years have been heavy on poetry what with the publications of Lizzie Borden in Love and Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees. I’ve been writing sonettos — odd ones — but my books of poems take a few years and this new one isn’t fully fleshed. I have two novels coming out next year, though. One for adults called My Husband’s Sweethearts (under pen name Bridget Asher) and a novel for kids and Red Sox fans The Prince of Fenway Park.
Compulsions of Silkworms & Bees was selected for the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Series and Lizzie Borden in Love was selected by the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry. What do you think helps make a winning collection of poetry? Good solitary poems? Great connective tissue between poems? Something else entirely?
Readers you trust. I handed both books over to other poets I deeply trusted — namely Frank Giampietro, whose first book Begin Anywhere (Alice James Books) comes out this fall, and Jennifer McClanahan a wonderful young poet. They came back to me differently imagined and I needed someone else’s eyes.
In Compulsions of Silkworms & Bees, you assembled a collection of poems about poems, poetry and the craft of writing. Writing about the process of writing can be dangerous territory, but you seem to weave through it with a tense dance of serious humor. Do you try to hit certain benchmarks when writing your poetry? If so, what?
I’m not sure why it’s dangerous territory. I always miss the memos on stuff like this. Writing is my obsession, my passion. My relationship with it is one of the most complex and agonizing and richly vexing that I have in my life. I don’t know how not to write about it. And so I do, without any notions of benchmarks.
Are there things you absolutely try to avoid in your poetry? Explain.
Being a lazy fiction writer. I have an outlet for prose — I write it. So what I don’t want is to shove what should just be prose into the poetic form.
It seems you often put yourself in the skin of another to write your poems, whether you are Mary Cassatt or Poetry addressing her sister, the Novel. What do you feel are the benefits of writing from within another person or thing? Explain.
Now this is from my fiction roots, I suppose. I didn’t start writing so that I could more deeply know myself. I was bored of myself, my life, my childhood, my hometown. I started writing as a way to know others, to get away from myself. And so I still do that. Of course, I’ve found that it’s much easier to reveal yourself when you think you’re revealing someone else.
Have you been reading any specific poets recently? If so, who and what do you like (or, I guess, even dislike) about their work?
Yes, yes. New poets. I always love new poets. I oversee the Southeast Review’s Online Companion (www.southeastreview.org) and get to read tons of interviews and those names pack much of this list: Frank Giampietro, I mentioned above — Begin Anywhere. Martha Silano — Blue Positive. Charlotte Matthews’ second book — Still Enough to be Dreaming. Erin Murphy’s third book — Dislocation. Norman Minnick — To Taste the Water. And we recently ran an interview with Rick Campbell who’s a poet who deserves a much wider audience. His latest, Dixmont, is incredible.
When you’re not writing award-winning poetry, you’re writing bestselling fiction or writing novels for younger readers under the pseudonym N.E. Bode. I’ve also read that you’ve written screenplays based off your novels. How do you decide what goes where? That is, when do you know you’re working on a poem instead of a short story?
I don’t always know. I sometimes pick my poems up and put them into my fiction. I sometimes write a poem and then realize that it’s a story. I have a story in the anthology Surreal South that began as a poem and took on a different, unexpected life in fiction. I’m toughest on the poems, though. The white gathered around a poem on the page, like a held breath, demands it.
If you could only impart one nugget of wisdom to another poet, what would it be?
Drown yourself in it — all of it. Read like mad — at least ten books of poems a week. Don’t love everything. Hating certain types of poetry helps define your own aesthetic. Be daily. (Check out the Southeast Review’s Daily Writing Regimen for a shove — http://southeastreview.org/regimen.php.) Go forth boldly.
Check out Julianna Baggott’s Web site at www.juliannabaggott.com.
Here are some links to some of her poems (for further reading):