Dear Readers and Poets,
I'm glad to share with you this thorough and illuminating Q&A with UW-Milwaukee alumna Dawn Tefft. A poet and teacher, she now works as a higher ed union organizer in Chicago. Her most recent book, Fist, is a collection of poems that will challenge you to think about what it means to be political, what it means to be angry, what it means to have hands that can help and hurt the world around us. A dear friend of mine, Dawn is a poet concerned with people, politics and class, and everything else, too.
How do you feel about solitary vs. collaborative writing?
I mostly write on my own. I think I'm the type of person who needs lots of space. I'm hyper aware of everything around me, terribly anxious, and I endlessly analyze everything that occurs. So I get overwhelmed very easily.
I haven't had nearly enough opportunities to write collaboratively, but I've enjoyed it when I did. It spurs me to write differently, because I want the lines I compose to complement what the other author has written. I wind up making leaps of logic and trying out turns of phrase that can be really fun. It's also stressful, though, because I want the other person to value what I've written, to genuinely think of what I've given in that space as a contribution. I want to meet them in the moment, make them feel like I've connected with what they did in a way that both honors it and takes it in a new direction, because if you're not offering someone something new, why bother.
I love The Surreal Questionnaire as a collaborative writing exercise. Like so many other people, I've used it in the past with creative writing classes I taught, to get them to think less linearly and to move them away from using clichés. Each person receives a sheet on which is typed a series of twelve sentences with underlined blank spaces. They then pass the sheets around the room twelve times, and each time people write something “unexpected” in one of the spaces. When the students receive their sheets back, they compose poems using the material from their questionnaires. Although they're free to make changes to the material as needed, they're instructed to try to retain as much of the surprising spirit of the material as they can. The exercise really underscores the communal nature of language: no one person “owns” language.
What does the term “poetic process” mean to you?
Ha! I'm honestly not even sure. It means many different things to me. It means taking notes in a tiny notebook I keep in my purse. Reading often and widely: literature, news, science articles, pop culture posts, social media, theory, song lyrics. Sitting down and facing that harsh white page on my laptop. Tapping things out on the keys in a way that feels downright sensual. Taking long, fast walks and going over things in my head, or refusing to go over them and letting things form way down in my lizard brain. Revising quickly. Revising slowly. Revising only once. Revising multiple times over the course of many years. Deciding how I feel about the words to which I've sort of committed.
Do you feel it still is (or ever has) been important to memorize poems?
No. Yes. I don't know.
I have a terrible long-term memory, so memorizing poems simply isn't an option for me like it is for others. I don't even remember the titles of my favorite poems (a huge liability for a poet!) I have found temporarily memorizing my own poems useful for revising them while lying in bed—but, then again, I'm not sure those poems turned out so well. I think it can actually be useful to not have your own work burned into your gray matter. Otherwise, you lose the ability to see it in any form other than the one in which it already exists.
When I was a kid growing up in an extremely religious family, I used to lie in bed and recite Bible verses: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Maybe that was good for me, maybe I learned something about rhythm and metaphor and beauty. Or maybe I just learned how to occupy myself during the wee terrible hours.
If you could spend a day in the body of any poet (dead or alive) who would you choose?
Maybe Pablo Neruda or Lucille Clifton, because they both wrote so beautifully about bodies. I think I would enjoy the ways in which they physically moved through the world, their relationships with material reality in addition to their philosophical approaches to it.
Do you ever get sick of poetry?
Yes, all the time. I love poetry, but I dislike most of what exists. I have very particular and demanding tastes. My tastes change over the years. Sometimes, I remember it's all a bunch of embarrassing nonsense that takes more money than it brings in. And then I read lines like Celan's “One more word like this word, and the hammers / will swing over open ground.”
Do you have any advice to novices of poetry?
Ask someone to cross out half of what you've written to unearth the sparer, better poem within.
In your mind, are technology and poetry in bed together or still in an awkward flirting phase?
Since all poetry except for oral poetry requires technology, I'd say that poetry and technology are very intimate. Composing a poem in your head produces different results than writing on paper, which produces different results than writing on a computer, which produces different results than using the autofill function on your cell phone to write a poem. I don't think that any one medium is inherently better than another. And as someone who's studied the relationship between technology and composition when I was teaching English composition classes, I get upset when people think a particular form of technology is going to either save us or do us all in. Neither is going to happen. Every form contains unique possibilities as well as limitations.
I'm also not a language purist, and the conservatism of people who are makes me angry. Language is alive and reflects its historical moment. And that's beautiful. There are certain usages unique to social media that I find brilliantly creative and some that I find ugly or trite. In the end, it's all what you do with it.
Having said all that, I have my preferences. I love writing on computers. I don't feel I could ever go back to writing mainly on paper. Being able to quickly move things around and try things out before committing to them works really well for me. I need options, baby.
I'm a modern woman.
But only so modern.
Dawn Tefft's book "Fist"
Dawn Tefft's book "Walking Dead: A Lyric"
Field Trip to My Mother and Other Exotic Locations, an online chapbook
Some of Dawn Tefft's Poems on Black Mountain Institute
Some of Dawn Tefft's poems on Verse Wisconsin