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June 21, 2016

Q&A with Kim Addonizio, author of BUKOWSKI IN A SUNDRESS

As you are, as you say, a writer occasionally tarred with the brush of being a “confessional poet,” readers often think that the details in your poems are entirely true. But here, you admit that you’re guilty of lying your head off in poems and that you “just plain make shit up.” With nonfiction—especially memoir—there’s an expectation from the reader that it has to be God’s honest truth. Is essay writing more difficult for you, given that you can’t get to the truth by “lying” the way you can in poetry and fiction?

Essays are definitely trickier. In a poem or a piece of fiction, I can change things to shape a story or an idea, or just make the whole thing up.  In an essay, I have to find the story in what actually happened.  The heart of the piece has to emerge out of memory and lived experience. The fidelity in a poem or story is to emotional truth.  That’s true in memoir, too, but I’m trying as much as possible to say what happened and how it felt. Though often it was less funny at the time.  It seems to me you can tell all the facts but still lie in terms of the emotion, and there’s a fine line when you’re using humor. The thing is, I do find much of my experience funny in retrospect. Thank God.

Were there any parts of your life that you felt were off limits for this memoir? How did you go about shaping the book?

Hey, even “confessional” writers have their secrets! That said, I was focused on how to structure the book around both writing and life, and giving weight to each of those things—which for me are so intertwined they often feel inseparable. I had a very different manuscript originally, one that revealed a lot about the ending of a long-term relationship.  It wasn’t until I hit on that writing/life dynamic that I was able to finish the book.  And now I’m glad all that other stuff didn’t end up being in it—partly because I didn’t want to be unkind to that person. Revenge memoirs probably aren’t a good idea.  You need to step back at a certain point.

Many of the essays in Bukowski in a Sundress explore the tender albeit fickle nature of familial relationships. You write about an estranged brother, the difficulties in caring for an aging mother, and striving to protect your own daughter from the world’s impurities (especially the erotica you once wrote for Penthouse). How has your family directly or indirectly informed your writing? 

Both my parents, as it happened, wrote books—my mother a tennis guide and her autobiography,  and my father a memoir called Sportswriter.  Writing was something I saw my Dad do, growing up.  He’d sit at the kitchen table typing his column for the Washington Post.  Yet literature wasn’t valued in our house.  It was my family’s focus on sports that led me to reading, where I found a world I could inhabit. Mostly I found my own way as a writer, without parental support or understanding of what I was aiming for (my father died as I was just starting down that road). Now that they’re both gone, the only person I worry about is my daughter, Aya. I guess she already knows most of my faults, but still. And then there’s the sex stuff, which no kid wants to read when it features a parent.

In addition to being a prolific writer, you’ve played harmonica in various bands. The relationship between music and writing—especially poetry—has long been a continuous one. Does focusing your creative energy on other arts like music affect your writing process, or is it more of an escape? 

Music, especially the blues, has definitely influenced my poetry and my performance of it. I don’t think that’s true of my prose. And music is also, definitely, an escape sometimes, a room to go into when the writing isn’t happening. Studying music also reminds me of how much work goes into any creative endeavor, and reminds me that if I keep working, I’ll get closer to solving the problems of a particular piece of writing.

You were once characterized as “Charles Bukowski in a sundress.” Given the level of regard Bukowski is afforded in prestigious literary circles, it’s hard to believe the comparison was meant as a compliment. In the collection, you express your preferences for other characterizations, like “Gerald Manley Hopkins in a bomber jacket,” “Walt Whitman in a sparkly tutu,” or “Emily Dickinson with a strap-on.” Are you still adverse to the Bukowski comparison? How do you confront the unfair, petty, or sometimes belittling criticisms that writers often face, especially women writers?

Of course I’m being facetious about those comparisons. I guess it’s human nature to put people into categories—which is useful, but can be limiting or reductive. I’m always open to honest criticism. As for unfair, petty, and belittling critics, I say, Fuck you. Because that’s what they’re saying to me. And yes, women writers—don’t get me started! Right now I’m rereading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me. She talks about silencing and “the necessity of making women credible and audible.” That’s what it’s about, on the personal, the cultural, the societal level. We could bring race and class and sexuality into this, too. Why was #BlackLivesMatter necessary? Because everyone knows that those lives, in so many ways that play out every day, don’t matter as they should.

You write candidly about your romantic relationships. What was it like to commune with the ghosts of relationships past? Did you gain any new insights into these men or yourself in the process?

Maybe this circles back, in some way, to the first question about “God’s honest truth.” There’s so much left out of all of those stories, and while they’re true, it’s impossible to tell, or understand, the whole story of those relationships and what they meant. I’m an awfully slow learner in terms of romantic love. I don’t seem to know how to make it work. It would help, for starters, if I knew how to get a date with someone who was actually in the ballpark.  The men I’ve encountered in the past few years aren’t even in the parking lot having a tailgate party. That probably, actually, says a lot about the work I’ve got to do on myself.  But I’m lazy that way. I’d rather write.

Buy Bukowski in a Sundress at Amazon

About the Author:
Kim Addonizio is an award-winning author of fiction, essays, and poetry. She has received numerous honors for her work, including the John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her poetry collection Tell Me was a finalist for the National Book Award, and she has won Pushcart Prizes for both poetry and prose. She is also the author of two hugely successful guides for beginning poets, The Poet's Companion and Ordinary Genius, and has taught writing workshops in New York City, the Bay Area, and at conferences across the country.
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