April is National Poetry Month, so I am closing out the month with an interview from amazing poet and lovely human being, Dawn Manning. Dawn is a writer, photographer, and rogue anthropologist living in the Greater Philadelphia area. In addition to receiving the Edith Garlow Poetry Prize, her work has won the San Miguel Writer’s Conference Writing Contest and placed second in the 81st Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition for non-rhyming poetry. Her poems have been published through American Poetry Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Fairy Tale Review, and other literary journals. In her spare time, she explores ruins and rescues animals.
When did you first start writing poetry?
I wrote some verse as a child, and of course some truly terrible emo poems as a teen. I repressed the urge to write poetry for a long time after that, partly because I had gotten the message that poetry was not a legitimate life choice, and also because I hadn’t written anything that I considered good yet.
It wasn’t until I went back to college later on and took creative writing that I started being honest with myself about the fact that I might be a poet. The first time I wrote a poem during class and knew I had accomplished something with words that could only be done through poetry, I felt this corset loosen—like I’d physically been unable to breathe deeply in years. I excused myself and stood in the hall just breathing these great big gulps of air. There was no turning back after that.
By the following semester I was enrolled in a poetry workshop where my professor, poet Jeffrey Ethan Lee, set up a one-on-one session with Natasha Trethewey, who was visiting our campus and had just received the Pulitzer Prize for Native Guard. She read a poem of mine and gave me some thoughtful feedback. I went from thinking “I might be a poet” to “I am a poet” in fifteen minutes. That night I began searching for MFA programs in poetry.
How has your poetry changed over the years?
My writing changes as I encounter new ideas and forms I want to try out, and I think overall has become less wordy. I’ve been interested in tanka poetry recently and that has definitely encouraged me to boil images and concepts down to their essence.
How do people respond when you tell them you are a poet?
When I tell people outside of the greater writing/academic community that I’m a poet, the majority of the responses tend towards the incredulous, characterized by nervous laughter, deer-in-headlights stares, or questions like “but that’s not a real thing, is it?” On a few occasions I’ve gotten blatant eye-rolling. Once, I was declared “hilarious,” as such a response could only be a joke. I knew from the moment I decided to pursue poetry that my alternative lifestyle would raise some eyebrows. I’ve tried to view these moments as evangelizing opportunities for the poetic arts.
On the flip side, there are people who seem to be bursting to have a conversation about poetry and will start talking about their favorite poem or poet, even if they haven’t read a poem since high school. There are also a lot of people who’ve been tricked into believing that contemporary poetry is above their heads, even though they enjoyed reading poetry when they were younger. These conversations are my favorite because they foster an open and honest discussion, and hopefully, a chance to rekindle an interest in poetry.
How do you think writing poetry is different from other types of writing?
In poetry, the emphasis on sound and rhythm is heightened, and the white spaces shaping the poem are just as important as the words on the page. Even as language is concentrated, the room to play with image and metaphor swells. For me, every word in a poem, even the snippets of articles and prepositions, carry weight and purpose. Prose feels more forgiving, whereas poetry demands precision.
I think poetry is best when read differently than prose as well. People are so used to rushing through vast quantities of text online that it can be hard to slow down and stop scanning. Poetry’s greatest rewards aren’t given to the fastest reader. They’re reserved for those who take their time with a poem, and read it more than once. There’s also no shame in not getting something, in having to look up a word or reference.
Who are some of your favorite poets? Why?
The answer to that is an ever-shifting and growing list. Tennyson, Dickinson, Frost, and Millay have had a strong influence on me since I was young. Some contemporary poets I read/reread include A.E. Stallings, Natasha Trethewey, Traci Brimhall, Diane Thiel, Kay Ryan, and I’ve been reading a lot of Jane Hirschfield lately. I went through a major Octavio Paz phase. I also read a lot of tanka poetry, and like to read Eastern poets, such as Gu Cheng, Basho, and Akiko Yosano. I’m working my way through Robert Penn Warren’s vast body of work. I’m amazed by poems in which the content and form (nonce or otherwise) seem like such natural extensions of each other that it creates a chicken-and-egg causality dilemma.
What poem of yours is your favorite and/or are you most proud of? Why does it hold such a special place in your heart?
I don’t know that I have a favorite, but there are definitely poems that mark personal milestones for me. “Juanita,” which won the San Miguel Writer’s Conference Writing Contest, was first written soon after my come-to-Jesus moment with poetry. The fact that people lived in such fear of the natural world that they sacrificed their children trying to appeasing some malevolent force has always broken my heart. I didn’t want Juanita or the other children who’d spent their last moments in such terror to be forgotten. It also seems to be a poem that people who don’t read a lot of poetry connect with and that has opened up some great conversations.
What are some common misconceptions about modern poetry and poets?
The most common barrier I encounter is the belief that contemporary poets are all writing esoteric, experimental verse or minimalistic poems in which nothing matters or happens. Of course this is simply not true, but this belief is so rooted in the collective consciousness that it’s akin to an urban legend. It can take some convincing for people to give us living poets a second chance.
Speaking of convincing, let’s consider a hypothetical person who never reads poetry because she says she doesn’t like it. Can you suggest a few poems that might make her change her mind?
I would probably send her a classic formal poem like “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop, a contemporary narrative poem such as Traci Brimhall’s “Noli Me Tangere” and something succinct like “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost.
About how many poems would you say you write in a month? How long does it take you to write a poem?
I have seasons where I write a lot and then seasons where I am focused more on revising and germinating ideas. If a poem takes my entire life to write, then it’s resigned to the Paul Valery “a poem is never finished, only abandoned” folder.
Why do you think people should read more poetry?
Reading poetry is like entering an echo chamber. A poem sounds out and the ones who read it attune themselves to what resonates. The more an individual reads poetry, the more vibrations he or she becomes practiced at picking up on.
Dawn Manning, a living poet