Behind the Words: Donna Vorreyer

Posted by on Aug 28, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

DV3Donna Vorreyer’s poem “Scientific,” uses prose language to talk about love from a more logical standpoint than Emily Densten was used to seeing in poetry, which immediately drew her into the short piece. Emily talked with Donna about the poem, genre, and her writing in general. We were so lucky to have both of these incredible writers on the staff for Spry’s fifth issue. Thank you, Donna for allowing us to interview you!



Your prose poem, “Scientific,” shows a girl exploring love in a way we don’t normally see in poems.  Instead of “comparing thee to a summer’s day,” she is solving equations and using logic.  Was this an intentional subversion of the flowery, sometimes melodramatic language that is so common in love poems?

It didn’t exactly start out that way. It may help to talk a little bit about how this poem began. There are two important factors that led to the choices I made regarding the use of more pragmatic language and images. The poem started during a residency I had last summer when I misread a tweet by Blink-182 singer/bassist Mark Hoppus. He was tweeting about being hungry and posted “calculating the half-life of this ham.” I read “ham” as “harm” and was enamored with the idea that one could scientifically calculate how long harm would last. That’s the first element that brought in scientific language.

I was also starting work on a series of pieces about “the girl,” a kind of every-girl figure that I was exploring using different adjectives as controlling ideas. I had already completed drafts called “Anachronistic” and “Duplicitous” – it seemed like the natural next step to try “scientific” as a conceit. Once I had that idea, I knew that it would not be a piece with sentimental language and that the most typical harm to imagine would be a broken heart.


Because of the structure of your poem, it could also work as a somewhat vague flash story.  Do you ever have trouble labeling the genre you are writing in?

I do. I often write in prose blocks when I am drafting as I draft by hand. It becomes apparent to me fairly quickly when something wants to be lineated, so when things remain in blocks, I sometimes wonder whether they are prose poems or flash. I often try to determine whether there is any narrative movement in the block or whether it is more imagistic or linguistically poetic. That doesn’t always work, however. There have been some pieces that I have submitted as flash pieces that were later accepted as prose poems and vice versa. This may mean that the label is less important than the way the reader responds to the piece.


Similarly, when you are reading, do you find yourself drawn towards one genre more than the others?  Are you drawn to poetic prose writers and straightforward poets?   

I am a voracious reader when I have time, but I read widely in many genres. I’m happy to read the latest bestseller (like Where’d You Go, Bernadette?) or well-crafted non-fiction (like Packing for Mars), but I’m just as happy reading classics (every summer I choose one from high school to re-read) or light-hearted autobiography (like Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me?). However, the majority of my reading is poetry, as it informs my life and my own writing work and fits easily into the busy time crunch of being a middle school teacher. I don’t have a specific preference in poet style – I like all different sensibilities and can learn from pieces that are radically different from the typical style of my own writing.


Regarding both form and content, do you know exactly what a piece is going to be when you sit down to write, or are you sometimes surprised by the end result?

Both. As mentioned above, I often draft in large blocks in my journal, using free-writing techniques or words/phrases from my reading as starting points. During these times, the surprising word or phrase is often where I can see the seed of a poem that I transplant to another page. But I also often write in series. When I am working on a series of pieces, I may have a general idea of where I want the poem to go, often doing research to prepare, but I wouldn’t ever say that I know EXACTLY what a piece is going to be when I begin drafting. As Frost says, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

For example, my chapbook The Imagined Life of the Pioneer Wife started as a single poem that seemed to come from nowhere. I then got obsessed with the idea of telling this imaginary woman’s story and did research about remedies, living conditions, making soap, and even skinning rabbits in order to do so. Each poem’s form and style is slightly different although they have the same speaker and follow a distinct narrative.


As a middle school teacher, what books are you teaching your students to try to instill a love of reading in them?  How do you approach students who aren’t as engaged as you’d like them to be, or seem to have completely written off reading and writing?

Well, I don’t have a lot of leeway to just choose any books I want – there is a district curriculum in place that I must follow. That being said, books that I have found to be incredibly successful with middle school students are ones that I love myself. Kids can tell when a teacher is not being genuine about a book, so teaching books that I can be excited about discussing and reading aloud is important.

My favorite book, and one that I have taught to seventh and eighth graders for twenty years, is To Kill A Mockingbird. Its themes and injustices have never failed to grab students by the head and the heart. In terms of more contemporary young adult literature, The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer portrays an exciting, sci-fi dystopia but also deals with themes of identity, belonging, and political and medical ethics. It has been extremely popular for the past few years.

Knowing your students’ interests helps with choosing options for those who are less engaged – there are more YA choices than ever across all genres, and the rise of the graphic novel has been particularly helpful. (American Born Chinese is especially popular this year.) I am very lucky in one respect. The community in which I work is suburban and upper/upper-middle class, and most students, even if not enthusiastic about reading and writing, realize its importance and are open to trying things. I can usually find something a student will like – it just may take time.


Are you working on anything now you’d like to talk about? 

I just sent my second full-length manuscript out into the world, and I am currently working on finishing two chapbook manuscripts. One includes “Scientific” in a series of poems about “the girl” and other aspects of being female. The other is kind of a secret pleasure right now – I am collaborating with an artist and can’t wait to see how it all turns out. I also am featuring the work of a poet I love that is not traditionally “well-known” each week on my blog. I am calling these the OPP posts – other people’s poems. Otherwise, I am still doing readings to promote my first book A House of Many Windows, waiting on word about a summer residency opportunity, and trying to draft, draft, draft new work whenever I can.



Emily Densten is a recent graduate of Rowan University with a BA in Writing Arts with a Creative Writing concentration and an English minor.  She blogs here about trying to act like an adult and her gradual inability to watch a movie without crying.

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