I first met Nancy Reddy when we were fresh-faced twenty-two-year-olds, teaching in side-by-side high school classrooms in a low-income New Orleans public school. I taught Algebra I, and Ms. Reddy taught freshman English. I remember we laughed (but really we wanted to cry) when Johns Hopkins sent Nancy a box of children’s picture books based on her students’ reading scores. (In particular, I remember one called Cats, Cats, Cats! that the students did seem to enjoy.) What we didn’t realize back then was that Nancy and I would both go on to get our MFAs in creative writing and start running into each other at AWP conferences instead of faculty meetings.
These days, Nancy is Assistant Professor of Writing and First Year Studies at Stockton University in southern New Jersey. She earned her MFA from the University of Wisconsin and has a PhD in composition and rhetoric. Her poems have been published in 32 Poems, Tupelo Quarterly, Best New Poets 2011, and elsewhere, and her first collection, Double Jinx, will be released from Milkweed Press at the end of the month. Pretty impressive, no? Here’s what Ms. Reddy has to say for herself.
If you were at a cocktail party of non-writers and someone asked you what Double Jinx is about, what would you tell him/her?
Yikes! This question always makes me want to shove a copy of the book into someone’s hands and run away. It’s been hard to move from writing the poems to writing and talking about the poems. I think that’s especially true because the culture of the workshop is so much about letting poems stand on their own – the poet doesn’t talk when her work is being discussed – and so it’s been hard for me to learn how to talk about my work. For so many young writers, it’s a struggle to be quiet and not explain, and then [later] you have a book and your press sends you a marketing survey and all of a sudden you’re expected to explain yourself.
So I think I’d say the short answer is: Nancy Drew, girlhood, transformations. And I’d point readers to the Nancy Drew poems (The Case of the Double Jinx is available online), as well as Bad Magic, Ex Machina, and Horses Dream of Horses as examples of poems that are representative of what the book is trying to do and are also hopefully accessible for non-readers of poetry.
Tell me a little bit about how Double Jinx came to be. Did you write the poems during your MFA program?
When I started my MFA, I really just wanted to write. I knew a book was the ultimate goal, but I didn’t start the MFA with a clear sense of what that would be. I’d been teaching high school English for five years, which (as you know) is amazing and rewarding, but doesn’t allow much brain space for things beyond who’s chewing gum or texting under the table, whose parents you need to call with an update about grades, and which students need additional help refining a thesis. Several of the poets in my cohort at Wisconsin started with really clear projects, which have since become amazing books – Brittany Cavallaro’s Girl-King, which uses a whole assemblage of personae to explore girlhood and power and sexuality, and Josh Kalscheur’s Tidal, which takes place in Chuuk, an island that’s part of Micronesia – but I was just so grateful to have time to write. I’d ride the bus along Lake Mendota to campus and watch people walking their dogs or biking or playing ultimate Frisbee, and I felt like my eyes were growing back, like I could see again in a way that would allow me to write.
I was really lucky to have Quan Barry’s workshop first semester in my MFA. She had us read a book a week and write two poems a week, usually one in a received form and one free. I wrote a lot that semester, and while relatively few of those poems made it into the book, it did set a certain metabolism for my writing practice that I think made it possible for me to write the later poems.
Double Jinx is book-ended by pieces about Nancy Drew. Did you read Nancy Drew books growing up? Why was she an inspiration for this collection?
I definitely read the Nancy Drew books. She had my name! And she was the only red-headed heroine I knew of until The Little Mermaid came out, so I basically felt like all her adventures were mine.
I didn’t write about Nancy Drew until my late 20s, though, when I was in my MFA and starting this manuscript. When I wrote that first poem – “The Case of the Double Jinx” – a lot of the themes and obsessions of this book started to come together for me: rivalry and competition, word play and nonce forms, dark humor. After I wrote that poem, I felt like I could see a lot of the other poems the book needed, even though they weren’t exactly in a series. I wrote several other poems quite quickly after that, and it helped me to see the shape of the book.
Your book was selected for the National Poetry Series. What does that mean exactly?
Mostly, it means I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have the support of both the National Poetry Series and Milkweed Editions, my press. NPS is an annual, national contest with five judges each year; each of those judges is paired with a press, and the manuscript picked by each judge is published by their press. Alex Lemon selected my book for Milkweed.
Part One of your collection plays heavily with myth and fairy tale (“Cinderella Story,” “Little, Red”). Why do you think we writers love to revisit these well-known stories and tropes?
For a lot of us, I think those stories are the first ones we read, so they really shape how we think of narrative and characters and writing broadly. For me in particular, so many of those stories are really about these magical transformations, whether they’re pleasant and hoped-for (Cinderella becomes a princess) or kind of terrifying (the wolf disguising himself as the grandmother) and so those stories became another way of thinking about identity and metamorphosis.
You’re Professor Reddy now! So what classes are you teaching this year? What are your favorite classes to teach?
This semester, I’m teaching College Writing, which is basically freshman English. And in the spring I’ll be teaching Argument and Persuasion in the Social Sciences, along with a Creative Nonfiction course. While I think some writers treat teaching composition as a burden or an obligation to be dispensed with before moving on to teaching “real” (i.e. creative) writing, I really love teaching composition and creative writing, and I see a lot of connections between the two. My own writing practice has really informed my approach to teaching composition, and my training in composition pedagogy has made me a better teacher of creative writing. (In particular, I think it’s helped me be more thoughtful about how and how much I comment! It’s so tempting to want to address every single thing that could be better in a student paper or a poem – and research shows that writers can really only take in 2-3 pieces of advice or feedback at a time. One of my colleagues at Wisconsin wrote a great blog post about feedback on student writing, and I think about it all the time, whether I’m responding to student essays, commenting on a friend’s poem or manuscript, or giving a family member feedback on a draft resume.)
You and I go way back to our Teach For America days, when you were teaching 9th grade English to low-income students who read on a fourth grade level. Is there anything you learned about teaching in those early years that you still use or think about now that you are teaching at the college level?
Oh my goodness, so much. We had a student, Derek, who I bet you remember. He’d had a really tough time – he was 16 and a first-time ninth grader, because he’d spent five years in middle school. He’d seen his father shot to death on the street in front of him. But he was such a charming, charismatic young man, and a really talented slam poet. And he read at a fourth grade level. Some days he was spot-on in class, talking and engaged, and some days he just couldn’t be bothered.
One day in particular, we were reading Romeo and Juliet and talking about Juliet’s soliloquy – “dove-feathered raven” and all that, after Romeo’s killed her cousin Tybalt – and I asked about the oxymorons and why Juliet would use them there. Now, Derek had had his head down on the desk all day and I didn’t even know he was listening – but he just sat up and said, “it’s because he killed her cousin and she loves him but she’s full of all these conflicting emotions” and then put his head down on the desk, just like that. That had been the point of my whole lesson, and he leapt right over it, while the rest of the class was still copying the definition of oxymoron I’d written on the board.
So that – and so many other experiences with similarly brilliant kids – taught me that intelligence and insight and intellectual capacity are entirely different things from tested performance. And that being a “good student” is not necessarily the same as being smart. We taught really, really sharp kids who’d been systematically disadvantaged starting before they were even born. They weren’t any less smart than the middle-class white kids I went to school with, but they’d had so many fewer opportunities to learn how to be students.
I’m thinking about this especially now, since I’ve just started teaching in the First Year Studies program at Stockton University. It’s a really remarkable program, and it supports students who are coming into the university with low SAT/ACT scores or other indicators that they might struggle with the transition to college classes. The program does a fantastic job of retaining those students, whose graduation rates are on par with the general population of the university. I feel really fortunate to have a job that brings together my intellectual and ethical commitments.
You earned your MFA and PhD from the University of Wisconsin. Dang. What’s all that book-learnin been like?
My scholarship in Composition and Rhetoric is very much connected to my creative work. I’m interested in how ordinary people establish and maintain a writing practice, and in my dissertation I examined the archives of an organization called the Wisconsin Rural Writers’ Association, which was founded at the University of Wisconsin in 1948 to support rural people across the state in doing creative writing about rural communities, history, and folklore. It’s a pretty remarkable organization. The archives are full of members’ accounts of what that encouragement meant to them; one woman in particular writes that having the opportunity to share her writing and received feedback has “erased the inferiority I felt, arising from my limited education, and paved the way to continued knowledge.” And isn’t that what so many of us want to believe writing can do?
So my dissertation asked what makes that writing possible. I used the theoretical frame of new materialism, which considers the agency of the nonhuman. In other words, I looked at how objects like books, desks, and typewriters, as well as blizzards, rural roads, the postal service, rural landscapes, and other things all matter for writers. That might sound a bit esoteric, but I actually think it’s an approach that’s quite well-suited to the writer’s brain. Most of us spend a lot of time thinking about things – the importance of a favorite pen, notebook, mug, or seat in a coffeeshop to a good writing session; a particular landscape that we try to conjure accurately in words – and my research argues that we should take those things seriously as part of how writing gets done.
My advisor, Morris Young, often asked me how my poetry connected to the research I was doing. I feel really lucky to have worked with scholars who saw me as both a researcher and a poet, and I’m not sure that I would have thought to connect those two identities without that prompting. The poetry collection I’m working on now, which examines domesticity, postwar gender ideology and suburbanization, and theories of scientific mothering, definitely steals from the archival research I’ve done.
One last question about Double Jinx. As referenced by the title, the poems in the collection play with the idea of doubles and doppelgangers: the understudy in a play, twin sisters, school girls writing in “synchronized script.” I wonder if you see any of the characters in this collection — Nancy Drew or Little Red Riding Hood, perhaps — as your own doppelgangers.
Oh, I think they all are. I think that’s what’s freeing about writing – the space to imagine all these alternate selves and to set them out on adventures.
And finally, Nancy, what is your favorite piece of writing advice?
“Write more, be less careful.” Jesse Lee Kercheval said that during the first workshop of my second semester of my MFA. I’m not always able to follow it – I’m an obsessive reviser – but I try.
Thanks to Nancy Reddy for taking the time to do this interview. You can buy her book, Double Jinx, here.