Becoming Poet: Kim Addonizio
We’re honored to have had the chance to chat with the amazing Kim Addonizio, author of seven books of poetry, and recipient of fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim, two Pushcart Prizes, and a finalist for the National Book Award—here’s what she has to say about her journey of becoming poet.
What’s your relationship to rejection?
Kim Addonizio: Rejection and I have a long and unhealthy relationship. You have to just ‘butch it up” when you encounter obstacles, as a friend once advised me to do, and it was good advice. Recognize that rejection slips are a part of every writer’s collection of memorabilia. Have some coping strategies. A shot of vodka. Send poems out again right away. Put pins in your Editor Voodoo Doll. Cry to a friend on the phone (the one who will say “oh poor baby, don’t worry, you’ll get there” and not the one who will tell you to butch it up). I’ve tried all those at various times. The best rejections have been those that had anything personal at all to say, even a single scrawled word, like “Sorry.” Anything that gives you hope is good to hang on to.
When did you start calling yourself a poet and why?
KA: I was lucky to discover and simultaneously fall in love with poetry in my late twenties, while living in the now-lost city of San Francisco. This was before it was overrun by tech and money. It was a place where people called themselves poets, and that was amazing to me. It took me a long time to claim that, but San Francisco gave me the opportunity. Open mics all over town, still some Beat poets floating around (Ferlinghetti is with us still, and there were also Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Jack Micheline), along with anarchist poets and Second Wave feminist poets and queer poets and sex worker poets…it seemed poetry was everywhere. I didn’t really have any direction in life, except for trying to learn a musical instrument well enough to go back to school and finish a degree. I was working for minimum wage at various jobs, and I never really thought about trying to have a career in anything. And poetry certainly wasn’t about having a career; it was something that hauled off and hit me in the heart, and I just had to do it.
What was the journey of getting your first book published?
KA: I told this story in my book Ordinary Genius; it was years of sending out to competitions and revising as I went, so by the time I found a publisher, it was a much stronger manuscript that it would have been otherwise. I published my first book at forty—eight years after I got my graduate degree. Patience, with a first book, is very important. You want to be good, not just published. I’m trying to remember who said that you have to be ready for opportunities…Probably a lot of people have said that! It doesn’t help to meet an editor of a dream press if you haven’t done the work of getting together a really good book. Find smart readers who will critique your individual poems, and then your manuscript as a whole. Publish individual poems. If all your individual work is getting rejected, you probably aren’t ready for a full-length collection. I was lucky to have a group of fellow poets I met with every two weeks for upwards of five years. Their critiques and support kept me sane and helped me grow enormously.
How do you climb out of a dry spell of writing?
KA: Oh God, the dry spells. I whine to all my writer friends when I feel far from my work, and they always look at me and say, “Kim, remember the last time you felt like this, and then you wrote ____ and ____ and also ____?” It is, as they say, a process. Even poets who write every day get stuck. Or hate what they write for days or weeks in a row. It’s hard to keep writing when you hate what you write and feel like it’s only typing. But you have to keep showing up. Although sometimes you have to just let it go, also. It’s hard to know what to do, when. But if you’ve been hitting a wall for a while, it’s good to take a break. Just don’t let that break go on for too long, because it can be even harder to find your way back. During my last dry spell, I stopped trying. Then I started back slowly—just one day a week to try, and sure enough, I hated everything I wrote. But finally a little decent work broke through, and I thought, okay, I’ll give myself one more day. So now it’s two days a week. To boil all this down: Trust the process. It’s okay not to write for a while, but don’t let that plant die for lack of water. If you want to be a writer, you have to keep that baby alive at all costs.
What was the darkest moment for you as a poet?
KA: I don’t think I’ve had any particularly dark career moments as a poet, but I have had several as a fiction writer. I received a negative critique of my first novel-in-progress from a former professor, and put it away for years. Later, after signing a two-book deal with a major publisher, the second of those books was rejected and I had to pay back the advance. That took several years and I was never able to revise or publish that novel. So you could say that ended my novel career. Maybe that was for the best; it led me back into writing short stories and essays. Afterwards I published the story collection The Palace of Illusions, and then my memoir, Bukowski in A Sundress: Confessions from a Writing Life. The moral of that story, of course, is to keep writing, to keep finding ways to say what you came to say. And remember that everything can be material, even—especially—the difficult stuff.