Interview with Dorianne Laux
By Tanna Waters
Have you ever hugged a famous poet? I have. Well, two famous poets, but I don’t want to brag. Such are the perks of interning for Pacific University’s MFA in Writing program, one of the top five rated low residency programs in the nation (Atlantic Monthly). I mean, sometimes I took famous poets to New Seasons Market, and sometimes I took them to the airport where I had to say goodbye. And sometimes these poets taught this prose writer a thing or two she didn’t know before, like how to elicit emotion from the sound of a single word.
Later, when I became an editor, the education didn’t stop either. Although the stigma of the editor is to teach the writer not to make mistakes, writers also have something to teach editors. This is often unbeknownst to the editor—that’s why my advanced editing professor made us interview published writers on their experience with editors. At the time, I had wracked my brain as to who I could interview, but it came to me: who better than a poet whom I had once hugged? Dorianne Laux. Below is an excerpt from the interview I had with Laux, which is now available in Volume 6.1 (Spring 2011).
I met poet Dorianne Laux when she was a guest writer at Pacific University. During her visit, she directed a poetry workshop I attended. It quickly became apparent she is a no-nonsense tough critic with a poet’s heart. I followed up her visit with an interview.
Dorianne, a prolific writer, has published a chapbook, Superman: The Chapbook (2008), The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry (1997) as a co-author with Kim Addonizio, and four other books of poetry: Smoke (BOA Editions, 2000); What We Carry (1994), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Awake (1990), nominated for the San Francisco Bay Area Book Critics Award for Poetry. Her latest full book of poetry, Facts About the Moon (W. W. Norton 2005), won the Oregon Book Award.
I began the interview by asking questions about her process and her work in general. I see her poetry in the same vein as that of Billy Collins, characterized by elegant yet simple language. My opinion aside, I asked her to describe her poetry to someone who may not be familiar with it, and she said, “I guess you could say I’m a free verse narrative poet, but that is so dry and lifeless. I write about life, significant moments that rise up from all the ordinary moments, and begin to sing: Pay attention!”
And she does. My favorite poems include one about the ugliness of her husband’s face, “Face Poem,” and the burial of a hummingbird in the backyard, “Hummingbird,” both from Facts About the Moon. Dorianne gets her inspiration from daily life. She sees poetry in “washing the clothes, doing yard work, watching people, birds, eating a sandwich, talking to my husband, shopping with a friend. I really don’t discriminate.” She reads for inspiration too, “which ranges from poetry to fiction, non-fiction, the news, cereal boxes, signage. The various media that inundates our lives can sometimes inspire.”
Once she finishes her poems, Dorianne has friends, colleagues, and her poet husband, Joseph Millar, review her work before she shows it to the editors of a publishing house. “My husband,” she says, “reads each new poem and lets me know if it’s worth working on. If he says little, I know it’s missed the mark, if he starts right in making suggestions, I know I’ve got something. Once in a great while he says, ‘You nailed it!’ but those times are few and far between.”
Although much of her editing is done before it gets to the publisher, I asked her if once her work was in the publishing house an editor had ever made a change that she absolutely hated. I wanted dirt on some evil-editing practices, but Dorianne simply said, “I appreciate their suggestions and take them as often as I can. There are times I become married to a stanza, a line, an image, a word, and can’t seem to let go of it. I have had good luck with my book editors as I tend to agree with them when they make suggestions. I was especially happy with the late A. Poulin, Jr., editor for BOA Editions, Ltd., who was very good at seeing last lines I didn’t need and chopping them off.”
Editing poetry is less about editing for grammar and line, Dorianne confirmed, and more about concepts. “Al Poulin would call me up in the middle of the night, his time—he was on the east coast and I was on the west, so it worked—and ask me to read him a new poem. Then we’d just talk about the poem, what it was doing. He picked it apart word-by-word, and would ask, ‘Do you really need this [in the poem]?’”
She credits Poulin as one of the “two best hands-on editors of poetry that ever lived.” Editors now take a “fairly hands-off” approach, which Dorianne explains “is no reflection on the editors of today. Times have changed. There are just so many books out now, and editors don’t really have the time. I think editors choose books they know are going to be fairly polished when they come in.”
So, what do editors at publishing houses edit for to make poetry publishable? Dorianne was relaxed about a manuscript she was waiting to hear back on from the editors at Norton. “I send polished work. My friends and colleagues have looked the work over and I’ve taken it as far as I can. I’m waiting for the copy editor to get back to me about my latest book and expect there will be plenty of small questions I’ll have to consider, but nothing major.”
Since poets seem to have more freedom with their work than other writers, I wondered how much choice they have regarding the titles of their poetry collections. My understanding is that generally publishers pick a title they think is marketable, but since poetry has such a small market, Dorianne says that she typically gets to pick her own titles too, though she says “I have been over-ridden. I was going to call my first book Skipping Stones and my friend, the great poet Philip Levine, said ‘What about Awake?’ I loved it immediately. Al Poulin was concerned that it might be confused with the monthly illustrated magazine printed and published by Jehovah’s Witnesses. We convinced him that it wasn’t going to be a real problem.” Probably not. Her poetry doesn’t exactly have the same audience as the Jehovah’s Witnesses magazine, since she often questions a god rather than affirming him.
I also wondered about the turn-around time for a collection of poetry since collections aren’t edited as heavily as prose. She says that, for her, a book typically takes a year to come out, with some poems going through hundreds of rounds of revisions. The ordering of poems is also her choice. “And my husband’s,” she says. “He ordered my last two books. I helped, of course, but really, it was his idea and then we simply played around a bit here and there. Other friends put in their two cents as well. It takes a village! My first two books were in my own order and my editor liked it. He did ask me to take a few weaker poems out and replace with stronger, newer poems, but I inserted them where I felt they fit best.”
I was also interested in Dorianne’s role as an editor. She was modest, saying, “I’ve been a guest editor for publications like The Pushcart Prize, The Cortland Review, and a number of other small presses, but I’m simply choosing the best of what I’m sent.”
But really, Dorianne was an editor when she came to that workshop at Pacific University. I didn’t have any poems for her to look at, but another student, Amy, brought in a poem about a female Jesus. Amy asks in her poem if the masses would have listened when a female Jesus preached. Would her enemies rape her? Amy’s anger about the sexualization of women was clear in the poem, and came out in the lines “I wonder/how Jesus would fare/with tits and a warm pussy.”
Dorianne paused at the line, said, “That’s interesting. But this is Jesus, woman or not. Let’s be gentler here.”
The suggestion that Dorianne made for the last line was “in a body like mine,” connecting the image to Amy the poet. The line is more gentler and resonant than the original, yet still physical.
Had I more time for the interview, I would have asked Dorianne if she remembered that class, and if she would consider her responses to be editing or teaching, or if perhaps sometimes those things were the same. I would also like to know if she gets to edit her husband’s poetry since she spent so much time describing how he edited hers. I did have time to ask her what she had learned about herself from the editing process: “That I need it. Every writer needs a good pair of eyes and ears, not their own, to see the work fresh. I don’t always take a suggestion, but there have been many times when days, weeks, months or even years later I look again and say, you know, he or she was right, and make the change. Writing takes time. A poem needs time to settle.”