Interview with Kim Addonizio
“Kim Addonizio: Poetry . . . Made Me Feel Less Alone”
Born in 1954, Kim Addonizio lived for most of her adult life in California, but is currently based in New York City. Her poetry books include: The Philosopher’s Club (1994); Jimmy & Rita (1997), a novel-in-verse; Tell Me (2000); What Is This Thing Called Love (2004); Lucifer at the Starlite (2009); My Black Angel: Blues Poems and Portraits (2014), a collaboration with woodcut artist Charles D. Jones; and, last October, her first U.K. publication, Wild Nights: New & Selected Poems from Bloodaxe Books. She has also published fiction, notably the novels Little Beauties (2005) and My Dreams Out in the Street (2007), as well as a short story collection, The Palace of Illusions (2014). Addonizio’s honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and Pushcart Prizes for both poetry and the essay. Commenting on Tell Me, a National Book Award Finalist, former U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins remarked, “Kim Addonizio’s poems are stark mirrors of self-examination, and she looks into them without blinking.”
KS: When I assign your poems to young women in my classes, they practically thank me for making this important introduction. Some imply that reading you has changed their lives. Some even tell me to be sure to keep you on the syllabus next semester. What’s that all about?
KA: I don’t know, exactly, but my work really does seem to strike a chord for young women. I’m happy about that. It’s tough to be female in a patriarchal world, and I think we are all looking for someone who gets that and is living through it, struggling with it. Still. I’m more pissed off now about the situation of women than I have been for many years. I don’t mean to say that we are all stuck in some sort of negative “situation.” Just that we are trying to find ourselves, to empower ourselves, and it’s fucked up, and I’m glad if my writing that experience can help a girl or young woman find her own way.
KS: Do you think if poets like Sylvia Plath — or especially Anne Sexton — had been able to read a poet like you when they were growing up and finding their way as artists — and as women in this country — that they might not have committed suicide?
KA: That’s pretty funny. Plath was a poet I read who helped me find my way. No, I think suicide’s more complex and deeper. There are so many factors. But I do think that the less alone you feel, the less likely you are to be depressed or despairing, to feel like there’s no reason to live. Poetry did that for me — made me feel less alone. If my work does that for somebody else, I’m really glad if it did, or can. We need each other. We can connect.
KS: Not to get too personal, but are you — or were you once — a Catholic? There’s a Catholic sense of sin, I think, in poems like “Bad Girl,” “’Round Midnight,” “Ha,” and “Fuck,” just to cite some examples. Also, you sound like a guilty Catholic school girl
in “Garbage” (“don’t think now of all the food you’ve wasted . . . /
you meant to save everyone /the children /especially”). Also, in “What Do Women Want?” don’t we hear a bad Catholic girl (or just a bad girl) longing for that red dress?
KA: Yeah, I was raised Roman Catholic. I think of it more as a kind of scaffolding, a world-view that I can use when I need to. If I had any true Catholic guilt, I outgrew it a long time ago. But using it — I can use it all day long, to talk about guilt, to argue with God (and I don’t believe in any Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc. conception of God).
KS: To this reader, Catholic writers have a sense of death. There’s certainly a sense of death in your work. I love your poem “Noir” and the way you keep citing that line from the movie “Body and Soul”: “Everybody dies.” You say it outright in this poem, but you bring up death in others such as “Eating Together” about your
friend with cancer. You even appear to throw in a little Catholic theology about dead babies in Limbo in “The Burning.” Do you think about death a lot?
KA: All poets have a sense of death. All artists. And a great many other people. So I don’t see that as especially or essentially Catholic; it’s just the nature of life. We die. What do you make of that? Everybody has to confront it at some point. Writing is a great tool to do just that, and to explore, and freak out, and try to accept it.
KS: Were you ever a Schopenhauer reader? He thought desire was the itch you can never scratch enough to make it go away. Some of your poems seem to take up that idea. Is desire painful, even agonizing? People experience plenty of pleasure in Kim Addonizio poems, but it doesn’t always make them feel better. I’m picturing you sitting at the bar on the cover of Tell Me.
KA: I never read Schopenhauer except in a college philosophy survey course, most of which I’ve forgotten. I did write that poem, “It,” and afterward I came across some Schopenhauer that just nailed exactly what I was saying in that poem — the impersonal force that just takes you over, that has nothing to do with you. And he called it — guess what? — the It. So we were thinking the same things. I agree with him about desire. Think about Buddhism, too: desire as the cause of suffering. I hope if people take pleasure in my poems, it does make them feel better to know somebody else has had similar thoughts and feelings.
KS: Is there a spiritual side to your work? I’m thinking of your poem also titled “Body and Soul” in which you give us such striking images:
is the soul up late in the kitchen, sleepless
standing before the open refrigerator
And then this:
Sometimes the body
gets so quiet
It can hear the soul
scratching like something trapped
Inside the walls.
Is there a little Plato going on here?
KA: I hope the spiritual side is apparent in my work. I’ve pulled a few fragments from Plato in other poems, but I wasn’t aware of it here. As I said, I don’t believe in God, at least as constructed by organized religion. But I do feel something. That the universe is conscious. That we’re a part of it.
KS: In your poem “Ha,” you pose a question that sounds like something from Dostoevsky:
If God is good, how is it that the weed of evil
takes root everywhere, and what is there to keep us
from murdering each other in despair?
Have you come up with any answers to that question lately?
KA: Not really. Only I’d amend it to murdering each other out of pain and ignorance. It’s certainly one of my obsessions, trying to understand why we are so fucked up and why we hurt each other so much.
KS: That poem makes me think of your poem “Dead Girls,” which I’ve passed out to a few introductory literature classes.
Is there a connection, or have I just randomly free-associated the wrong way?
KA: I’m not really clear on what you’re asking. . . . It [the poem] came out of watching yet another movie that opens with the trope of some girl’s dead body being found.
KS: Is it true that, in your poems, that “weed of evil” more often and in more ways affects women? There’s nothing I can find in your poems that is anti-male, but the loss of youth in “31-Year- Old Lover” and the vulnerability to assault in “Dead Girls” seem to make the case that women are particularly exposed to suffering. (“Ex-Boyfriends” also mentions some problems).
KA: As for women being more affected, it’s pretty clear that one of the big problems in the world is male violence against women. And against other men, for that matter. So, male violence, period.
KS: Has Camille Paglia ever commented upon your poems? I’m recalling something she said once about Mediterranean religion and the visual intensity of it. Your poems seem particularly visual, which is possibly what I enjoy most about them. Is that a fair description?
KA: I’ve never heard of her commenting on or reviewing my work. I’m glad to hear you enjoy the visual imagery.
KS: In your poem “God Ode” you refer to the deity as:
. . . You demented, You disapproving
or possibly AWOL Higher Power.
That poem makes me think of Jim Holt’s book Why Does The World Exist? in which he posits the notion “that the universe was created by a being that is 100 percent malevolent but only 80 percent effective.” It seems that if one were to read enough Kim
Addonizio poems, one might arrive at a similar conclusion. But then some of your most despairing poems somehow manage to also sound like prayers.
KA: Maybe I should refer you to Frost’s “Design,” a poem I love, which ends:
What but design of darkness to appall? —
If design govern in a thing so small.
KS: I read recently about some women protesting a performance of The Vagina Monologues. Eve Ensler is faulted for excluding women who don’t have vaginas. Is that weird or just the new normal?
KA: It’s weird to me. But I don’t really understand the gender /
sex /identity thing very well. I’m all for more dialogue and less
hate around the whole issue, but Eve Ensler? First, it’s an important piece from a particular time period. Second, she has championed women’s rights around the world. If you’re going after a target, you could certainly choose a better one.
KS: At the end of my poetry class I have students read a favorite poem by one of the poets we have studied. Once a young woman stood and told us she was still a virgin due to her religious beliefs then proceeded to read “What Do Women Want?” We all loved it, but what connection was she making with your work?
KA: No clue. But you never know who is going to respond to your work, or how. That’s not my job, anyway; I’m just trying to make poems. What happens after that belongs to whoever reads them.
KS: I’ll be honest; I love your poems but haven’t read your fiction. What am I missing?
KA: Thanks, I appreciate that. Not sure what I can tell you about the fiction. Whatever there is, it’s in the work itself. My latest is a story collection, The Palace of Illusions. There is definitely a lot there a young woman could connect to (but I hope guys too) . . . And there are certainly some similar themes around sex and empowerment. Here’s an interesting thing: When I first started writing stories, a fiction writer who had read both the stories and the poetry said it seemed as though I was writing poetry with one hand and fiction with the other. He meant that I got to something in my poetry that my stories didn’t have. I think I figured out how to write them both with the same hand. Check out The Palace of Illusions, and then you tell me.