Behind the Words: Erica Dawson

Posted by on Apr 11, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

 In honor of National Poetry month, we would love to share this interview we did with Erica Dawson which was originally published in issue #2. We are huge fans of Erica, and hope you enjoy this as much as we do.


Erica DawsonErica Dawson‘s early love of nursery rhymes, negro spirituals, hymns, and The Babysitters’ Club all lead to her first collection of poems, Big-Eyed Afraid, winner of the 2006 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, judged by Mary Jo Salter. Contemporary Poetry Review named the book the “Best Debut” of 2007. Her poems have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Harvard Review, Blackbird, Barrow Street, and other journals. Her poems are anthologized in Best American Poetry 2008 and 2012, The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets, and other anthologies. The 2010 Key West Literary Seminar featured her, opposite Richard Wilbur, in its celebration of the last 60 years of American poetry, along with Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, Mark Strand, Rachel Hadas, and other poets. She has given readings at Politics & Prose in Washington, DC, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, Emory University, Flagler College, Mt. Holyoke College, and other colleges, universities, and community events. Originally a Marylander, transformed into an Ohioan, and now a Floridian, Erica was born and bred in Columbia, MD and received her BA from Johns Hopkins University; she did her graduate work at Ohio State University and University of Cincinnati; now, she lives with her very energetic puppy, Stella, in Tampa, FL where she is Assistant Professor of English and Writing at The University of Tampa, and Poetry Editor of the Tampa Review. Her second collection, The Small Blades Hurt, is forthcoming from Measure Press in January 2014. Erica spoke with us about writing, her creative processes, her influences, and so much more — including a sneak peek at two of the sonnets from a new series she’s been working on, entitled “Othello and Desdemonda,” and “Dan and Alex.” Check out what she had to say, and be sure to read her outstanding sonnets in our Featured Poetry section!


We’re enamored with so much about “Big Eyed, Afraid.” One of the things that draws us to this collection was the way you so organically merge vivid, down-to-earth language with form. Could you talk a bit more about about your intentions with this collection?

Thanks so much!  Back in the day, it didn’t take me long to fall in love with traditional forms as a student.  I soon realized my love for the intricacies of those forms didn’t have to change my voice. In some ways, when working on that manuscript, I wanted to show people my love of tradition by bringing my twenty-something year old voice out in that tradition. I ran into someone who told me “Form is dead.” I wanted people like him to know that you didn’t have to be a dead white man to use the dead white man forms. Seriously, that’s not even a real option…


You’ve mentioned elsewhere that many of your poems in “Big Eyed, Afraid,” are based on autobiographical elements– such as nicknames that have been given to you or childhood or hometown. Can you mention more about how you feel the intersection of creative nonfiction and poetry plays in your writing process?

When I got to the stage where I realized I was writing a book, not just a bunch of poems, I wanted to create something that felt honest, raw even, exposed.  I wanted to open myself up to readers in the way that Sexton or Lowell opened up to me. And I don’t think I know how to separate the nonfiction from the poetry.  For me, there’s truth in everything.  Even in a much more recent poem, where I clearly take the voice of another person, there’s some truth about me in her story, if that makes sense.  I hope I don’t ever get to a place where my life and experiences aren’t integral to my poems.


Are there any writing practices, processes, or habits that you absolutely have to maintain? (For example, do you have a specific writing process? Some people write daily, others set aside specific times. How does the writing process work best for you?)

I totally don’t write every day. I wish I could lie.  I have spurts where I write every day four times a day, but those are spurts.  I actually think I’m always writing.  I’m toying around with some line or image in my head—especially in inappropriate times, like in meetings, or while having a conversation.  And, I keep a running tally of Post-it Notes.  I have hundreds of them.  Hearts. Stars. Love it when they make a new shape.  I stick them to the wall, my desk, inside a book, wherever.  Then, when I’m on one of those spurts, I go looking for something interesting on one of those notes. The one thing I have to maintain?  Writing when I feel the need to write.  Sometimes it may not be instant gratification, but if I spend all day thinking about writing, then I’m going to stay up all night so I can write.


How does your position as a professor at the University of Tampa effect your writing? How does teaching effect your poetry, etc?

I thought people were lying when they said that teaching and writing were some kind of circuitous process when one feeds the other which feeds the other.  It’s kind of true.  My students’ poems often inspire me to think about a certain topic, or reimagine what I wrote about when I was that age.  In workshop, we have tons of moments where I’m like, “Wow.  That’s good.  I’m totally going to steal that.”  And reading and commenting on their work reminds me I need to use that same critical eye when looking at my own poems.


I’m wildly curious about your creative process. Since most of your poems are written in form, and you pay great detail to both rhyme and rhythm, I’m wondering if your early drafts begin with form, or if writing in free verse plays any role in your early drafts. 

I need some kind of intensely-structured form in the same way that my feet have to be tucked in when I sleep.  I can’t function any other way. Sometimes finding the form is random: I’ll grab a Post-it, chew on the thought for a while, and decide to write abba quatrains, for some unknown reason.  Sometimes I’m working on a particular series of poems, like a series of sonnets I’m working on now, and I know that I’ll write a sonnet before I start writing.  Sometimes it happens in a more fluid way—I’ll start with a few lines of blank verse and feel the cyclical nature of the phrasing or images, and then work it into a pantoum or ballade or something employing that kind of obsessive mode.  The hardest thing is letting the early draft’s form go if it doesn’t work.  Sometimes that pantoum really just wants to be blank verse.  Revising a poem is tough, no matter what you do.  Rearranging things in a specific form, for revision, can be ridiculously hard.  For me, though, the toughest part is admitting that the form doesn’t service the poem at all, and starting over.


Do you feel that your gender, culture or age have influenced your career as a writer? In what way(s)?

If it’s influenced my career in any way, it’s just because it’s a part of me.  I don’t want to be the black female in her thirties-poet, you know?  I don’t want to be a spokesperson for any group.  Right now, I’m just me. And that’s me on the page.  I address issues of gender and race and culture in my poems, but not with any kind of agenda.  It’s just because these things interest me in the same way that reading Freud while watching basketball interests me.


As a young poet yourself, do you have any suggestions to other young poets or writers our readers should be reading?

Just read.  Then read more. Have a snack.  Read again. Going back to those dead white men, I’m always picking up some Shakespeare or Donne or Herbert.  Then, five minutes later, I’ll pick up an issue of Birmingham Poetry Review.  I think the key is to just keep reading.  Stay current but don’t ignore all the people who affected what you write now, you know?


Are you reading any good fiction or non-fiction right now?

I’ll admit it’s been more than awhile since I’ve sat down with a novel, collection of stories, memoir, etc.  I need to get my ass in gear. Sometimes the outside of class professor duties get in the way.  Right now, I’m basically reading student essays.


Since poetry is your main genre, do you ever write in fiction or nonfiction?

When I was an undergrad, a professor told me to stop writing fiction.  He was right. I used to toy with nonfiction, knowing I wouldn’t show it to anyone.  But, I recently started writing a column for Tampa’s edition of Creative Loafing.  It’s scary because it’s new, but it’s nice to stretch your legs in a different direction.


Are you writing anything new, or do you have any news that you’d like to share with our readers?

My second book, The Small Blades Hurt, is coming out from Measure Press in January 2014.  And I’m already obsessed with my third “manuscript” which involves that sonnet series I mentioned earlier.

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