Bryan R. Monte
Now We’re Getting Somewhere
An Interview with Kim Addonizio
Kim Addonizio is the author of eight poetry books, her most recent being Now We’re Getting Somewhere (2021), four fiction books, two books on prosody and writing, and one memoir. Her poetry book Tell Me (2000) was nominated for a National Book Award. Mortal Trash (2016) won the 2017 Paterson Poetry Prize. Addonizio’s other distinctions include Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a Pushcart Prize, and the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award. She is also a flautist and harmonica player, who occasionally performs her poetry accompanied by her own music. Her poetry is known for its street sensibility, sexuality, and her love of the blues. Addonizio graciously accepted Amsterdam Quarterly’s request for an interview about her most recent book, Now We’re Getting Somewhere.
Bryan R. Monte: Kim, I’d like to begin with some questions about the first pages of your new book, Now We’re Getting Somewhere. First, I’d like to enquire about your selection of the book’s title, its dedication, and its two epigraphs. How did you choose its title, which you’ve taken from the terminal line of a poem entitled ‘Small Talk’ in the book’s second section? What does this title refer to?
KA: It started out as an ironic title; now, maybe, as we emerge from 2020, it’s slightly more hopeful. Or maybe not. This past year has been one, in general, where no one has gotten anywhere. I had a different title for a long time, but as 2020 progressed, I changed it.
BRM: Who are ‘The Makers’ to whom you’ve dedicated this book? Are they past and/or present writers or artists? Or is the reference more obscure like T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland dedication to Ezra Pound as il miglior fabbro (the better craftsman) from Canto 26 of Dante’s Purgatorio?
KA: As many poets know, poiesis comes from ancient Greek and means ‘to make’. The makers are poets, and by extension, more generally, those who create rather than those who seek to destroy.
BRM: Lastly, why did you choose the two epigraphs, the first from Leonard Cohen’s ‘Everybody Knows’ about an a lying leader and a world populated by liars and cheats, and the second by Elizabeth Taylor about alcohol, beauty, and keeping it together?
KA: The Cohen song, ‘Everybody Knows’, famously describes an unjust world. The lying leader is self-evident. And yeah, ‘keeping it together’ is pretty much the advice. Those represent what I think of as the two poles of the book, the social/political and the self.
BRM: Now let’s talk about the book itself. It’s divided into four sections entitled ‘Night in the Castle’, ‘Songs for Sad Girls’, ‘Confessional Poetry’, and ‘Archive of Recent Uncomfortable Emotions’. It contains poems about writing, sex, alcohol, ageing, hookups in bars, ex-lovers, politics, climate change, legacy, among others. These are quite varied themes. How did you manage to blend them together into one book and how long did that take?
KA: The subjects just reflect what it’s like to live in the world; I don’t see them as disparate. Human life is multi-layered and I think the poems reflect that. There are drafts of a couple of poems starting around 2015; the latest were finished in 2020.
BRM: This book really starts off with a bang with ‘Night in the Castle’ about a poet on a writing grant in an Umbrian castle, with a scorpion twitching on the wall and ending with the speaker’s fantasy sweeping the centuries of what she would do if she were a duchess. Why did you decide to begin your book with this poem?
KA:—Castles and empire, privilege and entitlement, violence and power—seemed like a good place to open a collection. Not sure what you mean by “sweeping the centuries.” The poem actually ends with these lines:
Meanwhile the scorpion is still there twitching blackly
reciting something about violence & the prison of ego
& I can hear the clashing armies on the wide lawn outside
sinking down into history & then standing up again
—which is my (probably somewhat oblique) reference to the last stanza of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’. I found it in a novel as a teenager, and it has always affected me; later, in high school, I memorized the whole poem. It was, I think, my first encounter with real poetry, outside of some charming nursery rhymes and Robert Louis Stevenson verses.
BRM: In addition, I noticed that in this book, your poems, in the last section especially, have longer lines, which sometimes spill over to the line below. Is it because your thoughts were so big that you couldn’t fit them into one line? Did you consciously embrace this new style or did it just happen spontaneously?
KA: Long lines, alas, hardly guarantee big thoughts. But, yes, I did find that I liked the long, unspooling lines as a way of thinking things through. I first used long lines over twenty years ago, in Tell Me. I’m drawn to them, but I’m equally drawn to the kind of compression shorter lines and poems ask for.
BRM: Furthermore, there don’t seem to be as many formalist poems—sonnets, such as ‘High Desert’, New Mexico’ (Section 1), and ‘The Truth’, and ‘The Miraculous’ (Section 4), or villanelle, palindromes, etc. in this book as in some of your previous books. Are you moving away somewhat from formalist poetry?
KA: I’d love to be writing more sonnets, or at least sonnet-like fourteen-liners. But it has just seemed that lately the energy of the voice has manifested itself in those longer lines.
BRM: Your love affair with John Keats, however, lives on in your poems ‘Still Time’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You John Keats’, the latter in which you imagine yourself ‘falling through a wormhole….with medicines sewn in my pantaloons’. Why, of all your loves, do you think this one seems the most enduring?
KA: I wouldn’t say the most enduring, but I do love Keats. I think almost every poet is in love with Keats. I can’t say why. A Romantic poet who died young and had a startling ability to capture sensual experience—all that is part of it, I guess. Early brilliance, a life cut short. And when you can actually go visit the room he lay dying in, and look out the window by the Spanish Steps in Rome and see what he must have seen, and look at the same ceiling he looked at—it’s a powerful experience.
BRM: One of the most popular poems in this collection is ‘To the Woman Crying Uncontrollably in the Next Stall’. Was this an actual event you witnessed and reported, was it taken from various experiences, or was it created almost entirely from your imagination?
KA: I don’t know a woman who hasn’t been in this situation, listening to someone sob one stall over. I think it struck whatever chord it did on social media because every woman has been there, and because it’s a poem of solace and hope, which are sorely needed.
BRM: How did you begin to write this poem? Did it come in pieces, a few lines here or there, or in one big block? How long did it take to write?
KA: Honestly, I don’t remember the writing process for that particular piece.
BRM: One the most striking aspects of this book is the ‘Confessional Poetry’ which I think is its most experimental section. Some of these poems are no more than one line. How did you start to write this section? Was there a specific event that triggered it, or did you just collect many confessional, short poems or thoughts?
KA: It’s one poem, spread over about twelve pages with very few lines per page. I can’t imagine these being read separately, though I guess some lines could stand alone. There’s an argument being examined, a line of thinking to follow from the first lines to the last: ‘It’s this. No, it’s this’. The decision to break it out from a page or so to spreading lines over several pages was a late decision, one of those flashes you get: Hey, what would this be like? I wanted to give each thought a little space, to slow down the pace, so each could be considered before you moved on. By the way, I don’t think the poem is ‘confessional’. I think it’s an essay about what we mean by ‘confessional’, and it’s an interrogation of what that label means. It’s performative, a role to inhabit. I expect it to be widely misunderstood.
BRM: My favourite line in the ‘Confessional Poetry’ section is ‘Not wearing waterproof mascara while you’re being tasered’. What is your favourite?
KA: That’s probably my favourite, too. Like: Here you are destroying me and asking me to conform to some standard of beauty; why don’t you fuck off?
BRM: Why do you think there are so many poems about desire, decay, disease and death in this book, especially in the last section entitled ‘Archive of Recent Uncomfortable Emotions’?
KA: As the Buddha pointed out, the terms of life are the inevitability of suffering, illness/old age, and death. The next question is, how does one respond to that, knowing this is what constitutes mortal life? You can give up; or you can make, create, find love, be kind, and especially have a sense of the absurd and some good laughs along the way.
BRM: Many of the poems in this book are related to the speaker’s legacy as a writer. For example in the second section in ‘Ghosted’ the speaker laments “Nothing is being named after me’. In ‘Confessional Poetry’, a ‘male critic is indexing my sins’ and ‘Supergluing my clitoris to the pillar of historical irrelevance’ or in ‘Art of Poetry’ in the final section, the speaker imagines her work discovered ‘sometime before the death of the sun’. Do you feel ‘Time’s winged chariot hurrying near’?
KA: Oh, sure. Who doesn’t? ‘Let us sport us while we may’, as Marvell’s seducer says.
BRM: What do you think your writer’s legacy will be?
KA: I don’t really think about my legacy. I’m just trying to write good poems, to make them as well as I can, and hope they find the people who need them.
BRM: Two lines which especially caught my attention in this book are ‘I really like feeling something when I stagger into a poem / & having a place to lie down & cry’ (from ‘Confessional Poems’) and ‘Eventually you have to go out and walk around in the world like you belong / there’ (from ‘The Art of Poetry’). Do you feel that poetry is your home?
KA: Yeah, I do feel it’s my home. I’ve published novels and books of stories, but poetry is where my heart is.
BRM: Have you got any future projects or books in the works which you would like to share with AQ’s readers at this time?
KA: I’m slowly working on a handful of essays and some new poems. I’m pretty tapped out right now, though, so it’s going to be a while before anything coalesces into another book. In the meantime, some friends just gave me a banjo and I’m having a great time learning to play it. I’m figuring out this beautiful old Stephen Foster tune, ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’, written in 1854. Mavis Staples does a soulful rendition. I’m also looking forward to doing a bunch of virtual readings for the new book, and, someday being able to get back out into the larger world.
BRM: Kim Addonizio, thank you very much for your time and your responses.
KA: My pleasure. AQ