Our poetry co-editor Erin Post had this exchange with Diana Whitney, our Issue #11 featured poet. Here’s what she had to say about her writing process, her writing advice, and what she is working on now.
What inspired you to write these poems?
All these poems arose from an experience in the natural world. Words, images, ideas often come to my mind when I’m out running or walking. First snow in December. First dandelions in May. Or January’s full moon glaring through the bedroom window at 3 am. I jot down notes in my journal and they percolate for a few days or weeks or even longer. Eventually a tension builds up and is released through the concentrated act of composition. Writing a poem offers a beautiful compression of emotion and experience, an intensity rarely found in other aspects of my life.
What do you hope readers take away from them?
Is it too much to hope that readers will be transported, briefly, into another realm? That the language will be evocative and pleasurable for them, and the lines will resonate somehow with their own inner experience.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been experimenting with shorter poems, mainly sonnets, which I’ve never tried before. I’m also writing two longer personal essays, one about bisexuality and another about the ambiguity of desire and campus date rape. I also have an upcoming book review of four new poetry books—I’m excited and nervous about that one… And I’m continuing to send out my Spilt Milk manuscript, a memoir-in-essays about life in The Baby Cave.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
“You never know when you’re working,” said Vermont Poet Laureate Syd Lea a few years ago at a writing residency. Hearing this from him was a kind of permission. I get very severe with myself about “work,” but that Puritanical taskmaster can squelch the childlike poet within and beat the joy out of writing. I love the idea that the beginnings of a poem can arrive when you least expect them, when you’re home with a sick child or running an errand, not just when you’re seated at your desk.
Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?
In light of the taskmaster problem (above), I try to balance a wholesome discipline with playfulness about the writing process. Sometimes I have to trick myself into writing, by lazing about with a notebook and snacks and my favorite books of poems on the couch on our front porch. I don’t have a steady 5 am writing habit and have to forgive myself for that. I tend to be a binge writer—I get an enormous amount of work done during a yearly week or two at a writing residency. I love to write new drafts (long-hand) on Tuesday nights at my friend Suzanne Kingsbury’s wonderful writing salon. I’ll let new work sit in my journal for awhile, then transfer them to the computer and begin revising. I try to stay open during the revision process and listen to where the poem wants to go, which may mean giving up my initial impulses (hard for me). When I get stuck, I send poems to a dear friend who is a marvelous editor.
What is the first poem you remember writing?
A nostalgic ode to the Beatles, entitled “For My Four.” I was in 7th grade, at our summer cabin in the north woods of Maine. While I cringe to think of the first line—“I was born into the magic 20 years too late”—I still remember the thrill of composition, the release of emotion, how I wove all the Beatles songs I could think of into the poem. When I was done I showed it to my mom, who mercifully did not laugh. She told me she loved it, and I felt I’d captured something important, expressed my inner world and this vague ambient longing that I lived with (and still do).
What poets or writers have been important to your development as a writer?
Cleopatra Mathis, Louise Glück, Laura Kasischke, Marie Howe, Kim Addonizio, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop… Also W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Jack Gilbert… the list goes on!
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
I had some wonderful workshops in college, particularly my very first college seminar, a class on memoir with Cleopatra Mathis called “Inventing the Truth.” She offered us a sense of community and support for our work that grew into a powerful intimacy. We were all first-year students, young and open and idealistic, and we wrote short, intense memoirs about childhood or divorce or coming-of-age. I still remember some of those stories, how inspired I felt by my peers’ writing, how excited I was to share my own. That’s what the best workshops provide—camaraderie, support, inspiration, as well as intelligent insights into craft. I want a workshop experience to be compassionate, to focus on what the piece under discussion is doing well, where it wants to go, not just present an opportunity for someone to show off their smart critique. You should always walk out of a workshop eager to go home and write.