Amy Nawrocki teaches English and Creative Writing at the University of Bridgeport. She is the author of five poetry collections, including Four Blue Eggs, which was the finalist for the 2013 Homebound Publications Poetry Award. Her collection Reconnaissance was released in April 2015. In addition to poetry, she is the co-author of A History of Connecticut Wine, A History of Connecticut Food and Literary Connecticut. She lives in Hamden, Connecticut. Visit her at amynawrocki.org.
Amy was kind enough to speak with Fox Adoption about her poetry and her writing. She has previously published four poems with Fox Adoption Magazine.
Fox Adoption: What sparked your interest in writing and poetry, and how did that then shift your interest to teaching?
Amy: My interest in writing definitely comes from reading. I began to really love literature in high school, and as I read more and more, I fell in love with the idea of being a writer. Most of the works I connected with were novels and short stories–primarily works by Kurt Vonnegut but also Hemingway, Melville, Charlotte Bronte, Richard Wright. I liked the analytical side of reading–puzzling things out, connecting to characters. So before I began pursuing creative writing, I saw fiction writing as my dream. But that was really just because I was moved fiction writers; I’m actually terrible at prose storytelling. Later on, as a first year undergraduate, luckily, I was placed in my second choice class–poetry writing, and I began reading and writing poetry and discovered that I was much better suited putting ideas into lines rather than paragraphs.
When I was looking into graduate programs, I chose the University of Arkansas because they offered a graduate assistantship which meant I could teach and be in charge of my own classes (and earn tuition). So I was able to gain really valuable teaching experience while studying and writing poetry. Afterwards, teaching wasn’t just an obvious choice as a means to make a living, but I really wanted to do it. Now I teach composition, poetry writing, as well as a number of different literature courses. I think that have learned more from teaching than from studying or even practicing writing. For me there’s an important connection between understanding an idea myself and having to translate it so students can understand it too. Even though it is hard to strike a comfortable balance between my own writing and planning classes, grading papers, committee work and all the other entanglements that university teaching requires, I’m constantly interacting with ideas and always working to improve. My teaching informs my writing, for sure.
FA: Your poems tend to focus on small moments that help the reader understand larger concepts, such as the neck of a beer bottle or goat cheese curds. Why write about, what some may say, are insignificant items?
Amy: I guess I would say that I don’t see them as insignificant. I think that the best path to reach readers on a universal level level is through particulars. I think sense imagery is necessary to get the reader to experience the poem’s idea with me. That’s the hope, anyway. Even when two people have very different experiences, backgrounds, or beliefs, if they both experience a beach ball, for example, or a piece of tape on a nicely wrapped gift, the details provide the opportunity for the writer to present her version of the beach ball or the sticky tape. Then the reader can share that version, possibly learn something new, or depart the image entirely and go to their own beach or open their own gift. Even if it’s for a small moment, we’re together. If the image connects me to an emotion, or an idea–freedom of summer, playfulness, time moving on, charity, gratitude–then we’re connecting even more. For me as a writer, I find it a rewarding challenge to search for the best detail and to make it crisp and original. I often rely on observation for material, so I’m on the lookout for those details that are interesting to me and which also help me make connections to something bigger.
FA: Since we’re a magazine that focuses on new writers, we’re hoping you could share some advice with them. Have you ever experience writer’s block, and how do you overcome it?
Amy: Yeah, I sometime think that’s all I experience. The block and I are well acquainted! Part of the time, it happens because I’m distracted by other things that need to get done–whether it’s vacuuming or television, or grading papers or relaxing. I put this kind of thing in the category of “writer’s block” because something is blocking the ideas, time, the process or the words from coming out. Activities like these also make for good excuses not to write, and too much of that becomes cyclical and eventually will turn into procrastination. On the other hand, I think some kind of writer’s block happens everytime I sit down to write. For me there’s always a little hesitation. Sometimes it’s a momentary hesitation before the pen makes its first loop or the fingers figure out where the letters are. Usually it’s longer than that because I really don’t know what I want to write about or I haven’t yet figured out the plan for the poem. I have an idea, maybe, but who knows what’s next?
There have been more than a few times when these blocks have been long and defeating. What I’ve learned is that when they come, it’s important for me to not beat myself up too much about it. That’s the first piece of advice I would give. Give yourself a break–both from writing–you don’t have to be “on” all the time. And from the self-defeating pouting about it. The other thing that has really helped me in the past when I had periods of little writing productivity is to work on the habit rather than the product. A number of years ago when I was in that kind of rut,I gave myself the incentive to write one haiku a day, just three lines. For me it wasn’t just the line count, but the syllable count (5-7-5) because that helped me to choose words with more deliberation. The limits were actually helpful. And after a little while, I found that three lines were too few, so I started writing tanka which gave me two more lines to play with (also with a syllable count of 5-7-5,7,7). I found other short forms (cinquain and tetracyts for example). Practicing the form made me feel like a poet again. It helped jump start my activity. I don’t write too many of those short poems anymore, but they are my go-to when I’m stuck.
FA: In the same vein, could you tell us a bit about your writing and editing process?
Amy: I wish I could say I had a routine or that I set aside writing time each day or week. I keep trying to have that kind of discipline. Like I said, the haiku-a-day practice was really helpful but that’s atypical for me now. I rely on big chunks of time–school breaks, weekends, summer–and that’s not always the best way to go about it, because other things always come up. I keep a travel journal, which is also a coffee shop, back porch, lazing around journal, so I sometimes start there. My journals vary between diary-like entries, observations, and philosophical renderings. If I have an idea I will sometimes free-write about it in my journal, then use the computer for processing and editing. That’s usually when I’m on the go–the journal goes with me, and when I have or make free time I write that way. But I do most of my composing on the computer. On a good day, I’ll write a draft start to finish in one shot. However, I have files and files of half started pieces.
When it comes to revising and editing, on the computer I do so simultaneously when working on a draft. Drafts aren’t finished though, until I get feedback from my husband. He’s my best reader and critic. I rely on him for helping me finish pieces. I think it’s really important to get feedback, which is not always possible outside of writing classes. In the meantime, I try to think about audience when revising. At some point, the ideas seem to go in their own direction, and without some reader in mind, without considering the readers’ needs, the ideas can get carried away and the poem will probably fail.
FA: Are there any writing exercises you enjoy or recommend?
Amy: Though I wouldn’t call myself a formalist, I think the best exercises (for me) are the ones that ask me to work toward structure or play with form. I mentioned the haiku and tanka already. I like the villanelle form, too, the sestina. Sometimes the first few lines of a draft will come out as one continuous stanza, so I’ll rewrite it with different stanza or line breaks, just to see it differently. This is a great technique for reviving old poems that just weren’t working. As for getting started in the first place, I often turn to other people’s words. I read a lot, novels of course, but science and nature writing, memoir, history. Sometimes I just start with an line or even a phrase or write in reaction to something I’ve read.I think eavesdropping is also fun, a great way to justify the coffee shop journal, fill it with conversations, then imagine their conclusion. Ekphrasitc poetry also intrigues me–poems about art. Many of these kinds of poems are in my collection Reconnaissance. This is a great way to get over the dreaded writer’s block–get to a museum, choose a painting, start by describing, then see where the poem takes you. Subscribe to a monthly magazine, write a poem for each issue–someday I’m going to do this. I have three years of National Geographic just waiting . . .
FA: Which writers do you draw inspiration from?
Amy: This is one of the reasons I love teaching so much. I’m constantly discovering and rediscovering writers. Of course, there are favorites: e.e. cummings, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman. I’m always amazed by Mark Doty, Julia Alvarez, Vivian Shipley. I’ve been recently reading W.S.Merwin, though I probably should have been doing so all along. I’ve been discovering a lot about how he controls his poems with phrasing and line breaks. I don’t think he ever uses punctuation. I just discovered Jim Harrison, sadly (for me) just after he passed away. His work reminds me a lot of Jack Gilbert (also gone, unfortunately), but someone I go to again and again. I love Philip Levine (he too died a few years ago). I’m reading Sappho and Propertius little by little (usually when I’m petting my cats). I do a number of readings with fellow poets, and that inspires me too. I’m becoming part of a small but vibrant group of writers in Connecticut, both through readings and publishing. I’m kind of an introvert at heart, but I’m re-learning how much being connected to other artists matters in terms of my own habits and sensibilities.
FA: What’s next for Amy Nawrocki? Are you working on any more books?
Amy: I recently put together a chapbook which has already been rejected by a few contests, but I’m still fiddling with the collection as a whole. The manuscript might end up longer, and I’ll shop it around that way, but I do like the way chapbooks allow for a little more streamlining of themes. I have a prose essay coming out in an anthology of nature writing featuring Homebound Publications authors (Homebound published both my full length works). I was able to get a poem in there too! I’m very interested in the idea of how writers (poets, specifically) create a voice and choose point of view. I’d like to flesh that idea out as an essay or series of essays that might become a book. I also want to write something about punctuation, in a way that celebrates the beauty of these little marks that become our silent writing partners. While I’m fiddling with those ideas, I like working on individual pieces, without necessarily thinking about longer works. Like I said, I have files of half-finished poems.