Our poetry co-editor, Erin Post, recently spoke with Diandra Holmes, Issue #5 featured poet. Here’s what she had to say about her process, her poetry, and writing from life experience.
Can you describe your writing process for us? Do you have a specific routine you follow, or place where you write?
I don’t have a specific place I write, but I do have specific notebooks and pens. When I’m out, I jot down poem ideas on scraps of paper or on the memo app in my phone, but I copy them all down in one notebook. I write all of the first drafts of my poems by hand on a yellow legal pad. I think the habit started in undergrad. I could make it look like I was taking notes when I was really writing poetry.
Why do you write poetry? What is it that draws you to this genre?
Why do you breathe? I suppose that’s possibly a little cliché or maybe a copout, but I have to go very far back to try to remember when poetry wasn’t a part of me. I should probably play it safe and quote a part of my thesis. “I think we all carry a lullaby inside of us, an atomic hum that grounds us even when our emotions seem out of control. It escapes sometimes—a tapping foot, a whimper, an unexpected scream, those nonsense sounds we make when we need to stop crying. I think poetry, especially lyric poetry, is an attempt to get that song out on paper, to record the emotional sound of our experience.” These sounds draw me in.
Your poems published in Mud Season Review are so rich in imagery, with careful attention paid to the sound and rhythm of the lines. In terms of craft, how do you revise your work? How do you know when a piece is finished?
Some revisions are instinctual and I’m not entirely sure why I make them beyond that it feels right. I think it’s probably the same with most poets. But when I’m fine-tuning a poem, I pay attention to line breaks and sound the most. I read the poem out loud to make sure the line breaks and word choice work together to form the correct sound and rhythm and that the sound and rhythm work with the imagery and emotional tone of the poem. As for when a piece is finished, I’m never completely sure. Sometimes I think a poem is done and I set it aside only to come back later and think ‘Oh, not yet.’ Mostly, I declare a poem done when it gets to the point that if I feel like fiddling with it anymore might ruin it somehow.
Several of your poems examine the complicated relationships within a family over time. There’s an historical element to them. (On the Family Mantle, Supper Cycle, Jenkins Farm Est. 1894, Black and White Portrait of my Father are some examples.) What draws you to this subject area?
Several things, I suppose. I grew up in a rural area with many different skeletons (leaning barns, rusted carriages, the dog that wouldn’t stop chasing the chickens) and I was always imagining what they used to be and what happened to the families they used to belong to. It’s kind of amazing to look at some old broken thing and realize that it was once loved (or hated). Once, it had meaning. And who doesn’t look at very old photos of their family and think, “I wonder what they were thinking. I wonder what I can’t see here.”
What is the beginning of a poem for you? Is it an idea? A feeling? Something else?
All of the above. It depends on the poem. Sometimes it’s an object, like a red lighter I saw in the middle of a pile of leaves. Sometimes it’s a feeling, like the desperate fear after a nearby gunshot. Others, it is a snippet of conversation or a documentary on whales. A beginning of a poem can be found just about anywhere. Such as outside in the parking lot in the frosty morning after the fire alarm went off and you remembered your shoes and your wallet and your book of poetry, but you forgot your coat and you feel guilty because you didn’t have enough time to grab your cats.
You recently graduated from the MFA program at Butler University. How has this experience shaped your work and your approach to writing poetry?
Immensely. It’s made me more conscious of intricate details of poetry. Before, I had a vague notion of what was good and what wasn’t and I had a fairly good natural instinct for writing it, but it was mostly just instinct. Now, along with that instinct I have knowledge of poetry as a craft and the tools that come with it. The MFA program also opened me up to forms of poetry I’d never considered writing before, like the prose poem. I’m more comfortable and confident with experimenting with form now.
What do you hope readers take away from your work?
A feeling. Any kind, really. For a single moment, I’d like to take their breath away, make them feel something deeply. They don’t even have to know what they’ve felt, just that they felt it strongly, that some part of them recognized something in the poem, identified with it or was moved by it. Maybe they think “Oh. Finally. Someone else has been where I have been. Someone else has felt what I have felt. I’m not alone anymore.” Or maybe it’s more like, “Oh no she did not just do that.” Either is acceptable.
What was your most memorable workshop experience? What’s the importance of feedback for you? How do you incorporate it (or not) into your work?
Once someone looked at one of my poems and told me half of it belonged somewhere else. I was very frustrated. (They were right.) Another time, I was told what I presented wasn’t a poem at all quite yet, just bunch of ideas trying to be one. (Right again.) But then there are the other times when someone tells you that you almost made them cry or asks why you would do this to them or tells you that you always have the best endings that balance it out.
Feedback is both a wonderful and horrible thing. Wonderful, because it’s nice to know if your poem sounds the way you want it to, that what’s on the paper means at least remotely what you want it to when read by someone who doesn’t know what it is supposed to mean, who is divorced from your thinking and creative processes. It can be terrible if you don’t know your own voice. You have to learn when to disregard feedback and when to use it. Personally, I like feedback. It’s especially helpful when there are comments on parts of my poems I think need tweaking. I’m more ready to accept the suggestions. It’s when I think a part is fine that I’m more likely to brush the comments off. I can be pretty stubborn at times. Usually if it’s a good suggestion and it makes sense for the poem, makes the poem better, and the poem still feels right to me, I’ll concede to make the change. However, there are times when I just can’t make the change because I’m attached to the particular line or image or memory.
What are you working on now?
Sending out a manuscript. Contemplating sleep positions, prose poems, and relationships, and how they all work together.
We are also curious to know more about your career or line of work outside of writing. It’s been interesting to learn more about how writers balance the various aspects of their lives. Would you be willing to talk some about that?
Sure. I don’t really have a job at the moment. I haven’t found one that fits. So mostly I just keep the house clean, cook dinner, and feed the cats. Theoretically, it leaves a lot of time for writing. But it can be very easy to be distracted by the little things at times. Usually, I spend at least an hour a day writing something. When I used to work in a department store in the backroom stocking shoes, I would always carry a pen and a scrap of paper or a piece of that thin cardboard you take out of the shoebox and can never get back in, and write poems on that in between unpacking boxes and rearranging aisles. If you love poetry, you can always find time for it.
How much of your poetry is autobiographical, or in some way based on your life and your family? How much is invented? Or maybe it’s a combination of the two?
It’s definitely a combination of the two. There’s always a speck of truth, whether it’s an emotion or an object or part of the story. Poems often deal with truths, but not always facts. That being said, people who know me can probably easily pick out the parts that are autobiographical.
Many writers who in some way draw on their life experiences have to face this question: What has the response been from family members and other people in your life to the poetry you write? Is it a concern? How do you handle their reactions and/or feedback?
It makes them very emotional, but they tell me they’re proud of me. Or they tease me about always writing such dark poems. Am I concerned? I’m always a little nervous about how they’ll take a poem, not because I think I’m going to hurt them, but because it’s something I’ve crafted and I’m exposing a little sliver of myself. No child likes being told their fingerpainting is ugly when they present it to their family. I’ve been lucky. They’ve been nothing but supportive.