Our own Angela Apte sat down recently with fb poet alum, Nancy Reddy, to talk about a few things, including her recently published first collection of poems, Double Jinx (Milkweed Editions).
1) One of the most striking things about your poems is how the speakers often inhabit a world of want. There is a hunger in the poems – often a literal hunger - but also a need on the part of the speaker for something. With that said, there is nothing feeble or weak about the female figures in your poems.
I think you’re really right that these are women shaped by hunger – and for me, that hunger or want is also really wrapped up in the desire to speak, coupled with the difficulty of speech. I think poetry has long been, for me, a way of testing out the limits of speech. I grew up in a family that was very concerned – especially for its women – about being appropriate and polite, which often times meant not saying anything too directly or saying anything that might upset anyone. As a result, I think a lot of these speakers push against that silencing.
A slight aside: I read “Come Fetch” at a reading in Madison that a bunch of our friends came to – people who aren’t themselves poets. And after I read that first line – “I was the worst of all possible wives” – I saw a bunch of slightly nervous glances at me, then at my husband, who was also in the audience, as if I might be about to confess some grievous misdeed. (I wasn’t.) So later I made a joke about it – my husband is definitely not some kind of Bluebeard burying previous wives in the basement. But I think that freedom to create speakers who are very definitely not-me has been really important as well. These women are often saying things I want to say – but their particular stories are not actually mine.
2) Your poems evoke a palpable and harsh rural landscape. How much were you influenced by your dissertation research into the Wisconsin Rural Writer’s Association? If that research has little to do with the collection, could you speak of the influences informed the collection?
These poems are really shaped by the landscape of the upper Midwest, particularly its harsh winters. I moved to Wisconsin from Texas, and though I’d grown up in Pennsylvania, with snow and winter weather, I found that the Wisconsin winter is an entirely different thing – it totally transforms the landscape. The lakes freeze over and the snow stays on the ground for months. I learned that the sunniest days are also the coldest, because it’s literally too cold for clouds to form. There’s an austere beauty in Wisconsin winters. (It’s perhaps easier to say that, now that I’ve graduated and moved to southern New Jersey, where I live literally two blocks from the beach.)
My dissertation, which is in Composition and Rhetoric, examines the work of the Wisconsin Rural Writers’ Association, an organization founded at the University of Wisconsin in 1948 to encourage creative writing in rural communities around the state. I didn’t really get started on that research until Double Jinx had already started to take shape, so I don’t think there are a lot of direct connections between that research and these specific poems. But my dissertation has helped me to think about writing broadly – why people do it, what it means to them, how they persist when other commitments intrude – and that’s an especially interesting question for the writers I study, many of whom were farm wives – people who’d been set up to believe that their most important identifier was always going to be wife and mother, who were surrounded by implicit messaging that people like them couldn’t really be writers. And in my research, I read about what having a writing group meant to them; one woman says that it has “given me an emotional outlet to supplement the monotonous routine of housework and has thus made me a more interesting and certainly more contented person.” I find that tremendously moving.
My next project is more directly influenced by these women and particularly the post-war cultural climate – tensions between domesticity and industry, modernization and nostalgia.
3) What’s the story of your book?
My book took a while to really take shape. It started in my MFA, but a good half of the poems were written after I’d graduated. Several of the other members of my MFA cohort came in with these specific visions of the book they wanted to write (and they’ve turned out really beautifully – Brittany Cavallaro’s Girl-King and Josh Kalscheur’s Tidal are two) and that really amazed me. I just knew I wanted to write poems, and I was thrilled to have the time and community to do it. It took a while for me to kind of find my footing in terms of the scope of the book. Quan Barry had us write two poems a week in our first semester of the MFA, and that was helpful in setting a sort of poetic metabolism – just writing a lot and seeing what happened. And Jesse Lee Kercheval gave great advice on the first day of her workshop, in the second semester: she said she wanted us to “write more and be less careful.” And since I can be really overly precise and obsessive about revision, that was really important in giving me freedom to keep playing and not take my work too seriously. I wrote the Miss Z poems (these two - All Good Girls Deserve and Birds Keep Nothing in Their Bones — were originally published in The Journal) that first winter in Wisconsin, and then I wrote the first Nancy Drew poem (The Case of the Double Jinx) that spring. Those poems helped me to figure out what interested me, and what questions to follow in writing the rest of the book.
I finished my MFA with a thesis titled Her Body’s Versions – which got at a lot of the central ideas of the book, versions of the self, the invention and reinvention of the female body – but it took another couple years of writing new poems and mercilessly tossing old ones to arrive at the book’s more or less final form. And I should thank my dear friend Rebecca Hazelton for some really crucial and no-nonsense advice – she told me to chuck a couple poems I’m been hanging on to, even though they probably weren’t as strong as they needed to be, and she also suggested some reordering. Ex Machina came to the front of the book at her suggestion, and she also suggested the title Double Jinx.
4) So many people (including me) struggle to fit their creative work into their family and work lives. How did work on the book fit in with work on your Ph.D? Were you still writing and editing the collection when your first son was born? If so, was he a good sleeper?
I haven’t counted, but I’d guess about half of the poems made it from my MFA thesis into the book. I believe the book was more or less done by the time my older son, Penn, was born – a very small number of the poems, I think, are from a poem a day challenge I did when he was tiny. He was decidedly not a good nighttime sleeper for the first six months or so – but he would take incredibly long naps, and I would drag myself into my office and try to write. I was so hungry for that time, because motherhood was such a big change, and writing was so hard, but it also made me feel connected to that other, non-mother version of my self. And so, in a way, the book feels like the last artifact of the person I was before I became a mother.
In terms of sustaining my poetry writing while completing the PhD, I think two things have been really crucial. The first is being part of a writing group. As I’ve developed a scholarly identity, it’s been really important to also have a place where I’m seen as a poet and where I know I’m going to be asked what poems I’m writing. It’s affirming, and it also helps keep me accountable to my writing. The second is that I’ve periodically done poem a day challenges via email. Every person on the email chain writes one poem each day and sends it out – and you’re not allowed to comment on anyone else’s work, and you’re actually discouraged from even really reading what other people send. So you have the accountability of sending new drafts out without the anxiety of “ack, is this crazy thing I wrote this morning actually ready for anyone to read yet?” And that’s been incredibly freeing for me. (I actually think 2 or 3 of the 4 poems Fail Better published were written that way.) And because it’s for a limited period of time – 10 days or sometimes a month – I was able to fit that kind of writing in with the other work of graduate school. It’s helped also that my scholarly work is on writers, so I’m always thinking about how people write and why, and that’s helped me feel connected to my own writing self in a way that other research might not. Though of course there’s a certain irony in writing a dissertation about how ordinary people maintain a writing practice – when, to be honest, that dissertation writing at times crowded out my poem writing.