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Erica Wright: Poet Interview

Categories: Poet Interviews, Robert Lee Brewer's Poetic Asides Blog, What's New.

Please welcome Erica Wright to the Poetic Asides blog. In addition to being a new resident of Atlanta, Erica is the author of Instructions for Killing the Jackal (Black Lawrence Press) and the chapbook Silt (Dancing Girl Press). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Blackbird, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, From the Fishouse, New Orleans Review, and elsewhere. Plus, she’s the Poetry Editor at Guernica Magazine.

Here’s a personal favorite poem of mine from Instructions for Killing the Jackal:

After the Crocodile Cemetery at Kahun, by Erica Wright

On the train, the spitters and knock-kneed
start fights as the woman sneaks

her keys out, just in case, she doesn’t say to me,
but we know each other in the teeth.

My tabby has taken up aggression
toward strangers, and who could blame her?

She was once a mummified crocodile.
I was once, too, can still feel the tightening

some dawns, still the paralysis. Big men
held our heads down with their knees, one by one.

 

What are you currently up to?

Have you heard of rattlesnake roundups? Hunters capture hundreds, sometimes thousands, of rattlesnakes for skinning, eating, and selling of parts. I moved to Atlanta in September, and one of my first conversations with a native Georgian was about these annual, fair-like events. For years, I’ve been haunted by the Richard Avedon photograph of a boy holding a gutted snake in Clearwater, Texas. I had no idea that roundups still happened, though. I don’t think I can handle the real one in Whigham, but the one in Claxton has recently been turned into a wildlife appreciation festival, complete with not-there-to-be-slaughtered rattlers. I’m planning a series of essays on Georgia festivals, starting with either that one or the Groundhog Day celebration with celebrity critter General Beauregard Lee.

Your collection Instructions for Killing the Jackal seems filled with troubled people. Would you agree that many poems can be found in our problems?

I would. Your question makes me think about how difficult it is to find effective occasional poetry, say, for a friend’s wedding or a graduation ceremony. Joy can certainly be complicated, but we don’t analyze it the way we do depression or anger. We don’t seek an explanation or balm for it. The most joyful poem I know is “I Feel Drunk All the Time” by Kenneth Patchen, which begins, “Jesus it’s beautiful! / Great mother of big apples it is a pretty / World!” But you can hear the panic in the exclamation points even before you get to “You’re a bastard Mr. Death.”

Many of the poems in the collection employ couplets and tercets. What are your feelings about using form in poetry?

The war between formalists and non-formalists has always baffled me. Why would you ignore any of the tools available to you as an artist? Engaging with your roots does not mean rejecting the present. For me, it’s the same as missing New York City while being excited about the New Year’s Eve Possum Drop (not a live possum) in Tallapoosa, Georgia.

When you’re in a poetry rut, what usually helps you break loose of it?

I can only slog through the muck. Sometimes I become obsessed with something—say, bridges or taxidermy—and I can’t seem to stop writing the same poem over and over again. Five, ten, twenty. I have to get them all out. In my mind, there’s a certain number. I don’t know what the number is, but I know that when I reach it, the subject will finally be out of my system. And maybe one of those poems will be the one I needed to write.

Your best poetry moment—what was it?

In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion talks about being on speaking terms with your younger selves. There are a few younger versions of myself that make me cringe, but the twenty-year-old one is okay, inexcusably lonely but easily awestruck. I remember going to hear Göran Sonnevi read with his translator Rika Lesser at Poet’s House. It was a bilingual reading—a format that wearies me today, if I’m being honest—but at the time, I was enthralled. I think they were reading from Mozart’s Third Brain, which was released by Yale University Press just this year. Can that be right? It took more than a decade for the translation to be released? Anyway, if an evening can be a moment, I choose that one.

You’re the poetry editor at Guernica Magazine, and I’m sure you’ve had to reject a fair share of poems in that position. Do you find common problems poets could avoid?

I love reading submissions, even the terrible ones. I received a poem in green font last week. Green font! What a hoot. Not printed, mind you, which I could sort of understand—we all run out of black ink—but e-mailed. New submitters should take the time to present their work professionally. Beyond that, editorial decisions are a matter of taste, which is why editors so often recommend reading back issues before submitting. There’s rarely an obvious connection between all of the poems, though, unless a journal only publishes sci-fi pantoums or some such niche. Basically, if you like what the editors choose, you should feel comfortable submitting. If you don’t like what the editors choose, why would you want to be included?

Finish this statement: I think poetry should ________________.

startle us, like rattlesnakes at a serpentarium.

Who (or what) are you currently reading?

I picked up Lily Ladewig’s delightful collection The Silhouettes at a recent Atlanta reading. And keeping with the Atlanta theme, I’m reading Charles McNair’s 1994 novel Land O’ Goshen, which contains the most surprising, rich prose I’ve encountered in awhile. Also on my desk is Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Lucky Fish, and the latest issue of The Dark Horse, a Scottish journal.

If you could share only one piece of advice with other poets, what would it be?

My friend Ricardo Maldonado has been sending out his manuscript for a few years now with no bites. When I read his manuscript, I think this is a collection people will be talking about for years when it’s finally published. And it will be. So while the advice “Don’t get discouraged” sounds prosaic, it’s personal. I don’t want my friend to get discouraged, and neither should anyone else who loves this art as much as you must in order to become a poet.

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Thank you so much for participating, Erica!

You can find more from Erica here:

 

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If you haven’t yet, be sure to check out the recent interview with Heather Bell.

Also, be sure to follow me on Twitter for regular updates on poetry, blogging, and more @robertleebrewer

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About Robert Lee Brewer

Senior Content Editor, Writer's Digest Community.

2 Responses to Erica Wright: Poet Interview

  1. “I think poetry should startle us, like rattlesnakes at a serpentarium” <—- I love this!

  2. Marie Elena says:

    The poem you chose to share is intriguing and unsettling, Robert. Great choice, as it MADE me read the interview.

    “…there’s a certain number. I don’t know what the number is, but I know that when I reach it, the subject will finally be out of my system. And maybe one of those poems will be the one I needed to write.”

    “Why would you ignore any of the tools available to you as an artist?”

    “Basically, if you like what the editors choose, you should feel comfortable submitting. If you don’t like what the editors choose, why would you want to be included?”

    Thank you for sharing yourself, Erica. The two quotes above especially ring true.

    Great interview — thank you both!

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