The Habitual Poet: Wendy Vardaman
Saturday, December 4, 2010 at 01:44PM
Lalanii R. Grant in The Habitual Poet

Installment #40

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The Habitual Poet is an ongoing series of contributor interviews. If you are a Poemeleon contributor and would like to participate copy & paste the Q's from below and e-mail your answers to: 

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Q: Where do you prefer to get your books?

A: The library.


Q: How many poetry books do you think you own, and what percentage of these have you actually read?

A: A few hundred—close to 100%. A lot of what I read I get from the public library, however.


Q: When, where and how do you usually read? (i.e. at bedtime under the covers, cover to cover, etc.)

A: Well, as both a writer & an editor, I’m reading constantly. On my laptop, at coffee shops, morning, noon, & night. On busses. At my dining room table where my husband and I sit across from each other for hours with laptops & book stacks …Walking down the street. In bed—sometimes with my laptop, but preferably with a book there. Last week I went to an orientation event for one of my kids and read all through that…I also read when the family is watching a movie together—I keep half of one eye on the movie, enough to get the plots completely messed up. Some things I read cover to cover—most poetry books are like that—other things I skim, like poetry journals in print and online, newspaper articles, also in print and online, book & movie reviews, etc. I also have a strong preference for reading things backward—from last to first page. I avoid that with novels, but then again, I don’t read many novels.


Q: What books of poetry have you read this month?

A: Well it’s early in the month, so how about in August? Phil Dacey’s Mosquito Operas, Emily Dickinson’s Collected (not the whole thing), Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems, Robert Bridges’ Testament to Beauty, Ned Balbo, The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems, Bart Galle, Everything Is True at Once,  Adam Halbur, Poor Manners, Katerina Stoykova, The Air Around the Butterfly, Katrin Talbot, St. Cecelia's Daze, Gail White, Easy Marks, Antler, Last Words, John Koethe, Sally’s Hair, Julie Moore, Slipping Out of Bloom. I was working on an article about 10 authors all summer long and kept rereading those as well—Karl Elder’s Gilgamesh at the Bellagio and The Houdini Monologues, Ron Wallace, Everything Must Go, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Cinema Muto, Koethe’s Ninety-fifth Street as well as Sally’s Hair, Amaud Jamaul Johnson’s Red Summer, Anne Shaw, Undertow, Susan Firer, Milwaukee Does Strange Things to People, Max Garland, Hunger Wide as Heaven, Thomas R. Smith, Foot of the Rainbow, and R. Virgil Ellis, The Tenting Cantos.  And I often read some of Shakespeare’s sonnets at night.



Q: What other books/magazines/backs of cereal boxes have you read recently?

A: The fading smile :poets in Boston, 1955-1960 from Robert Frost to Robert Lowell to Sylvia Plath, American Poetry Review,  a slew of websites from innovative (Ander Monson) to interesting & informative to pragmatic, the lyrics to Evita, the lyrics to The Frogs, by Stephen Sondheim, playbills from productions I went to this summer—The Syringa Tree, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, Macbeth, HMS Pinafore, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Various blogs. Various Poem-A-Day lists…And let’s see, restaurant menus, HTML Third Edition, submissions for Verse Wisconsin,  Facebook status updates, the annual materials—brochures, calendar, schedules, Parent Guide—that I update for the theater I work at, calls for submissions, emails from listservs…I’m definitely a compulsive reader.


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Q: When, where, how do you write, and why?(i.e. at dusk on a dock, longhand in a notebook, because...)

A: When I’m not reading or working out, I’m usually writing. Something. Not always poetry—but reviews, interviews, materials for the theater, publicity announcements, website content. I have different approaches to different kinds of writing. I usually work on composing first drafts of poetry 3 times a week, in the mornings, for a few hours, in long hand in a notebook. I type drafts in after a few weeks of writing that way, and then begin revising—usually by printing out the typed poems, and working again in long hand.

I also tend to write essays in long hand for the first draft, and then move on to the computer. Interviews I tend to compose on the computer, and most practical/functional kinds of writing, too. I tried writing a book review on the computer this year, and felt like the thinking in it was a lot more superficial than my normal writing, so I won’t do that again.

And I write lists. Lots of them—usually on post-it notes that are covering my writing notebook.


Q: How many first drafts do you think you complete in a week? A month?

A: About 3 per week, 9-10 per month. Occasionally more or less, but my average has been very steady for many years.


Q: How long do you wait before revising a poem?

A: Usually a couple of months before revising the first time, but then I come back to things after months and some times years.


Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

A: Well, I often think they’re done now, but then come back to them to find they are not. Generally, though, I find that I need to change before a poem can really change, and that’s a slow process.


Q: Have you ever given up an invitation so you could stay home and write?

A:  Absolutely. But I tend to write at coffee shops, not at home. The only worry is to not be seen by the person I’ve said no to at the coffee shop where I’ve gone to write.


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Q: What is your system for sending out work?

A: I collect calls for submissions in a file on my computer, label their deadlines, and then try to send out work every few months in a batch. Since becoming an editor, however, I find I don’t have as much time to do submissions for myself.



Q: What have you more recently received: a rejection notice or an acceptance? Was it what you expected?

A: I guess my most recent reply was an acceptance or two this summer, but I had some rejections over the same period.


Q: Where do you generally publish: online, in print, or a mix, and do you have a preference?

A: A mix of online and print. I don’t have a strong preference for one over the other, but I do strongly prefer online submissions, and I want to publish in venues that look nice, whether they are online or print, and ones, ideally, that foster a sense of community among the writers who publish there. (I think Poemeleon strives to do that, by the way.) I don’t have a lot of patience any more for publications that feel like department store windows for the latest poetry fashions, and I’m losing patience with poets who don’t want to invest time & effort in the venues that publish them.



Q: What is the worst (or weirdest, or best) experience you’ve had with a journal/magazine/press & its editor(s)? (No names, please!)

A: I guess my best experiences with editors center around those who took the time to go back and forth with me for a while revising a poem, whether or not it was eventually published. I haven’t had what I’d call a bad experience with an editor, though I did get a letter from a famous editor very early on, telling me that he had almost accepted some of my poems but that in the end, he just couldn’t “assent” to them entirely…that was disappointing. I never have been published in that venue.


Q: Have you ever received any fan (or hate) mail? If so, what was that like?

A:  A little fan mail as a poet, which was completely surprising and unexpected, some as an editor, and some hate mail as an editor, which is very weird—I always wonder if people think editing is a job for me (it’s not, just a volunteer service).



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Practical considerations


Q: What is your day job, and how does it affect your writing?

A: I’m an Arts Administrator/Volunteer Coordinator, part-time, at The Young Shakespeare Players, a classic theater co. focused on kids, 7-18. It’s hectic, especially in the summer, but it’s flexible. It takes some of my writing time, but I’ve also gotten a lot out of watching hundreds of Shakespeare performances (full-length) by kids who really do understand what they’re saying and are passionate about it. I’ve also taken all of the text-based classes that are offered there on the relationship of performance and poetry, in many ways a better education for being a poet than anything I learned in grad school. I used to teach at a university but found that really interfered with writing for me, whereas organizational tasks don’t tend to. Or I can put limits on them more easily.


Q: How does your significant other’s occupation affect your writing life?

A: My husband is a Folklorist/Professor of Scandinavian Studies, Religion, & Medieval Studies. We talk a lot about various academic subjects, and I find I get good ideas from him and what he’s working on. He also does a lot of traveling. We haven’t been able to afford to do that as a family much over the years, but we did spend a few different years/semesters in other places, like Finland, Boston, Italy and that was great for writing, especially as I get older and appreciate it more & more. We moved to Wisconsin ten years ago because of his job, and I’ve found a tremendously supportive and warm writing community here that really helped me to grow as a poet—plus I’m now co-editor of Verse Wisconsin, which I certainly wouldn’t be otherwise!


Q: Have there been periods in your life when you couldn't write?

A: Yes. In grad school when I was working toward the Ph.D. Also afterward when I had a job teaching composition. Not so much after I quit teaching, but a month or two here & there for various reasons, I guess.


Q: Do you have a “poetry budget”?

A: Not really. I try to spend as little as possible, since I don’t have paid poetry employment—that’s just my own guilt speaking. As an unpaid poetry editor, I’m finding it harder and harder to spend nothing, however, and I’m also finding that I would like to go to the occasional conference, though I don’t think it’s in the budget.


Q: Have you ever suffered (or made someone else suffer) in the name of your art? (i.e. picked up your kids late from school so you could finish a poem, forgone lunch to buy a book, left a relationship because the other person just didn't understand, etc.)

A: I’m notorious at home for not listening to people when they talk to me. And I think I’ve annoyed all of my children with poems that included them too much, though they’ve been pretty understanding about it. I’ve found that having a “real” job and writing poetry aren’t really compatible for me—I feel lucky to have had the option not to work full time, but I often worried that I wasn’t really using my education fully or helping to provide for my family as much as I might have otherwise.


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Random nonsense


Q: Do you have any superhuman abilities? (i.e. can you tie a cherry stem in a knot with your tongue, or write a double sestina with both hands tied behind your back?)

A: Back when I taught, I could master a classroom of student’s names before the end of the first class—I don’t know if that’s superhuman but none of my professors ever did it.


Q: You write a scathing poem about your mother and she learns about it. You:

a.) Move to South America and leave no forwarding address

b.) Delete the poem and insist it never existed

c.) Show it to her (she’s already written you out of the will anyway)

d.) Do none of the above; instead you: I try to keep my scathing poems to myself—I know she’s going to read what I publish…


Q: If the best medical specialists in the world told you that if you didn’t give up your poetry habit today you would die in six months, would you get your affairs in order or would you leave that up to your family?

A: I’d want a 2nd opinion, and I’d go research it myself—doctors so often get these things wrong!



Q: If you could be a vowel, which one would you be and why?

A: I like European vowels—é for example & ö & ø, among others. I like to travel and I’d like to do more of it.


Q: Finally, what piece of advice would you most like to share with our readers? (This can be on writing, the writing life, or anything else...)

A: Write, exercise & floss your teeth whether you feel like it or not. Stop watching television. And figure out a way to volunteer and give something back to others through your writing—whether it’s book reviewing, editing, teaching poetry to older people or to the homeless or to prisoners.




Wendy Vardaman, Madison, WI, is the author of Obstructed View (Fireweed Press, 2009) and the co-editor of Verse Wisconsin ( She has a Ph.D. in English from University of Pennsylvania and a B.S. in Engineering from Cornell University. Her poems, reviews, and interviews with other poets have appeared in a variety of print and online anthologies and journals, including Poetry Daily, Breathe: 101 Contemporary Odes, Riffing on Strings: Creative Writing Inspired by String Theory, Poet Lore, qarrtsiluni, Nerve Cowboy, Women’s Review of Books, Rain Taxi Review, Rattle and Portland Review. She works for a children’s theater, The Young Shakespeare Players, has three children with husband Thomas A. DuBois, and does not own a car. Her website can be found at WendyVardman.


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