Queen Mob’s Tea House

I first met Ann Tweedy at a US Poets in Mexico Conference in Tulum, Mexico. During the conference, I heard Ann read several of her poems and I was struck by the vulnerable beauty of her very personal poems. I have a high regard for her work—she does not fall into sentimentalism, but her poetry is strong and clear with courage.

Ann is also an attorney who has been both a practitioner of law (specifically Indian law) and a law professor. I was interested in learning more about how she works with language in both areas of creativity and logical thinking.

We have a friendship that I value and through her, I have come to better understand the personal voice in narrative poetry.

Mary: How would you describe your poetry? (Please feel free to be as playful or serious in your description as you want.)

Ann: I always find this to be a terribly hard question.  I generally write narrative poetry that explores parts of my life.  Sometimes I write about others’ stories as well—for example news stories or things that have happened to friends or relatives.  Some of my poetry makes arguments or uses philosophical questions in the context of stories—perhaps that’s where my law—and philosophy–backgrounds enter my poetry.

Mary: What motivated you to begin writing poetry?  What or who has influenced your poetry?

Ann: I wanted to be a writer from an early age—though I wanted to do other things as well.  I saw the world as a capacious place where one could be many things at once—only later did I realize how much energy it takes to have multiple vocations simultaneously.  I loved poetry as a child, and I saw that that was somewhat unique.  Perhaps that drew me to poetry rather than other genres, but I didn’t start really writing poetry until high school and then wasn’t consistent about it until right before starting law school.  Robert Frost was one of the first poets I loved and has been an influence from early on.  I would also name Mary Oliver and Sherman Alexie as influences.  Perhaps also Kim Addonizio, Albert Goldbarth, and Sharon Olds.  I think my mother’s appreciation for poetry and literature was a positive influence early on, and my grandmother on my dad’s side was a poet, but much more religious and inspirational in her poetry than I am.

Mary: Many of your poems are about very personal experiences. Do you find it difficult to write about those experiences?

Ann: It comes very naturally.  I tend to tell myself that no one will read my poems while I’m writing—maybe that is just a device to avoid worrying about others’ reactions at the time of writing.  Sometimes I find it hard to revise poems that explore emotions that make me uncomfortable.  I think that’s because revision requires a more deliberate and conscious kind of attention, whereas when a poem is being written, I’m sort of in the throes of it.

Mary: You are a poet and a practicing attorney.  How do you move from the more logical practice of writing law documents to writing your deeply personal and creative poems? Do you have a ritual that you perform before you begin writing poetry? Is it difficult to switch from the logical writing process to the creative writing process?

Ann: The dichotomy is there, but I don’t have difficulty switching back and forth unless I’m stressed or very tired.  I usually need a quiet space for poetry, which is much harder to come by now that I’m a parent.  In terms of a ritual, sometimes I take very short cat naps to clear my mind.  I also like to read others’ poetry in order to get inspired.

Mary: Many of your poems tell stories. What made did you decide to tell your stories in poetic form rather than in prose?

Ann: I just naturally gravitate towards poems, though lately I’ve written some personal essays as well.  I have the impulse to say the harder stories want to be poems.  I’m not sure if that’s true—it seems right though.  I think there’s something magical about writing poems in that the act of writing can carry you to an entirely new place and can teach you so much.  I haven’t experienced that as deeply with prose.

Mary: What poets do you admire? Is there a poet who has been especially important to you?

Ann: There is a tremendously long list of poets I admire.  In addition to the poets I mentioned as influences, I would include many others—e.e. cummings, Lucille Clifton, Alberto Rios, Frank X. Gaspar, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Frank O’Hara, Robert Hass, Claudia Rankine, Kevin Young, Gordon Henry, Janice Gould, Larry Levis, Brian Teare, Naomi Shihab Nye, W.S. Merwin, Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochead, Jane Hirshfield . . . .  There are many others as well.

One poet I’ve become really interested in recently is the Canadian poet Susan Musgrave.  I admire her grittiness and intensity—her fearlessness.

Mary: Where do you usually write your poetry? What is your writing process? Do you have a specific idea in mind when you begin writing? Do you develop your writing as projects (versus random ideas)?

Ann: I tend to write poems based on random ideas.  When I’m going through something difficult—like grief at the end of a relationship—the poems tend to cluster around that.  I think I have a somewhat romantic idea about inspiration—that one should give it room and should not try to direct it—which makes it hard to put together cohesive manuscripts.  I sort of resist the whole idea that poetry books need to tell a story.  I used to write almost always in a specific room in my house that has all my poetry books in it.  Now I’ve become a bit more flexible and perhaps less consistent.  I do sometimes start a poem with a specific image or metaphor in mind that I want to explore, but I try to let go of any ideas about where the exploration will lead.

Mary: You have a new book of poetry coming out titled The Body’s Alphabet. What was your writing process for this book? What can you tell us about your book from your perspective as the writer?

Ann: The poems were written over a broad timespan, probably roughly fifteen years, so I think of the finished book more as reflecting a compilation process than my writing process.  My natural tendency is to focus on writing and revising individual poems, so it’s challenging for me to create a cohesive manuscript out of all those individual strands.  I saw a theme in my work related to the body and all its relations—in other words, its relationship to the self, to others connected through personal and family relationships, to nature, and to strangers.  I gathered together all my poems that seemed to fit that theme and then tried to include only those that seemed to fit best together.

Mary: Do you have a new poetry project that you are working on? Can you tell us about it?

Ann: I started work on a hybrid book about my relationship with my mother.  I’ve been having health problems lately (breast cancer) and so I have put that aside for now.

Mary: If you were not writing poetry, what can you imagine yourself doing to satisfy your creative mind?

Ann: I love taking photographs and beading and would like to explore more in visual arts.  I recently took a one-day collage class, which was wonderful.  I would like to try printmaking again—I remember loving that in my high school art class.

Mary Kasimor has most recently been published in Big Bridge, Arsenic Lobster, Nerve Lantern, Moria, Posit, 3 AM, Touch the Donkey, Yew Journal and The Missing Slate. Her two latest books are The Landfill Dancers (BlazeVox Books 2014) and Saint Pink (Moria Books 2015). She has a poetry blog entitled Sprung Poems.

Interview: Ann Tweedy