The Habitual Poet: Tony Trigilio
Saturday, April 30, 2011 at 02:03PM
Lalanii R. Grant in The Habitual Poet


 Installment #60

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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: Woodland Pattern Book Center (Milwaukee).


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

A: Roughly 300.  I’ve probably read 90% of them.  I always keep a healthy stack of books to read nearby—i.e., I’ll always be under-read (a good thing, because it means I’m not complacent).


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

A: Usually my subway ride (45-50 minutes of uninterrupted reading time) and on the living room couch (at all times).  I read novels, nonfiction, and criticism start-to-finish/cover-to-cover.  I try to read volumes of poetry cover-to-cover, so that I can get a feel for each book’s organizing principles/conceptual framework.  But this doesn’t always work with poetry—sometimes I have to skip around in a book, like I would with a CD (or like hitting shuffle on my iPod).  I don’t read literary journals in a linear way—prefer to skip around until I’ve read the entire issue.


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

A: Dorothea Lasky’s Black Life, Ben Lerner’s Mean Free Path, Duriel Harris’s Amnesiac, Dan Boehl’s Kings of the F**king Sea.


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

A: Samuel Delaney’s Dhalgren (still reading it; this is a long-term project, like giving yourself up to Ulysses or Don Quixote).  It’s almost summer, and at the beginning of every summer I read a new Philip K. Dick novel (someday I’ll run out of these, I know; then I’ll re-read my favorites).


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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: I usually write at my desk at home, on the living room couch, or on the subway.  I begin longhand in a notebook, and I compose first drafts of poems in a phonetic alphabet that a friend and I created in junior high.  Working with phonetic characters helps me hear and feel the sonic movements in a poem more intimately.


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

A: Assuming everything else is going OK in my life, I probably complete 3-4 first drafts in a month.  How many of these poems become second, third, fourth, etc., drafts—or finished poems—is an entirely different story. 


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

A: Depends on the poem.  Some poems demand attention nearly every day, while others can spend weeks or months in my notebook (or, later, in the computer) before I do anything with them.


Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

A: A poem feels “done” when I know it could be taken seriously by an editor as a finished piece.


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

A:  I missed a friend’s wedding once because I didn’t want to interrupt my time at a residency.  The residency award came before the friend had set the wedding date.  This friend is a writer, too, and understood—especially when I explained, later, how much writing I actually got done the week of the wedding.


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Q: What is your system for sending out work?

A: I send work to the journals I like to read.



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

A: Most recent: an acceptance.  I try not to have expectations either way—though I don’t send out something that I think will be rejected.



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

A: A mix of the two.  Online or print doesn’t really matter to me, as long as I like the writing the journal publishes.



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 once got a poem back from an editor correcting my comma splices.  The editor said the poem came very close to being accepted—and if I would fix the comma splices (which the editor actually had already “fixed” with a red pen), then the journal would reconsider the poem.  As an editor myself, I’m always open to hearing about grammatical or proofreading issues that need attention.  But these comma splices were intentional in this particular poem—they were meant to mirror the choppy momentum of the line breaks and stanza breaks.  I didn’t send back the poem, and it was later accepted elsewhere (with comma splices intact).  Looking back, I guess life isn’t too gloomy if this is the worst experience I’ve had with a journal/magazine/press.  It was an annoying experience, all the same.



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

A: I’ve received both, and in each instance I felt happy that my work was being read.  “Someone likes me—I’m not invisible!”  “Someone hates me—I’m not invisible!”  “No one cares enough to write fan mail or hate mail—I don’t exist!”



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Practical considerations


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

A: I teach in the B.A. and M.F.A. programs at Columbia College Chicago.  My classes feed into my writing (though I try never to write about teaching) and my writing definitely feeds into my classes.  The students are incredible—when a particular class is over, I want to go home and write.  I feel lucky to teach at a school like this.


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

A: My partner teaches English at a nearby high school, so ours is a household where reading and writing matter a lot.  Our cats are named Simon and Schuster.


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

A: I’ve experienced these periods and, as they do for everyone, they feel demoralizing.  But I also compose and play music, and this gets me through rough spots when the writing feels stalled.




Q: Do you have a “poetry budget”?

A: I buy new books of poetry as often as I can—to support writers and support poetry, and to pay attention to new ways to experience the art form.  My poetry budget is really just a part of my larger book/music budget.  My family was broke all the time when I was growing up, but they always found a way to give me money for books.  I’ve retained this habit as an adult—I try to make sure my book/music budget is never zero.   

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’ve never wanted my writing to cause divisiveness in my relationships, but I’m sure that it has.  It’s probably inevitable that this is going to happen—the first Noble Truth of Buddhism is always there to remind me of inescapable dissatisfaction.  If you work incredibly hard in an art form —with single-pointed focus—you’re bound to clash with people who experience the world with less obsession.  (Hence, ugh, the first Noble Truth.)


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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: I’ve been speaking backwards since junior high school. 


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’d go with “d”: Do none of the above; instead you continue to work on it so that it’s an excellent poem.  You walk away thinking, “I’ve alienated my mother, but I wrote an excellent poem.  No wonder I feel so lonely most of the time.”


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 would write more music and fewer poems.



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

A: I’d be “y” because sometimes I wouldn’t have to be a vowel.


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:  Gratitude is rarely delusional.


Tony Trigilio's books include the poetry collections Historic Diary (BlazeVOX Books, 2011) and The Lama’s English Lessons (Three Candles Press, 2006), and the critical monographs Allen Ginsberg’s Buddhist Poetics (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007) and “Strange Prophecies Anew” (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000). With Tim Prchal, he co-edited the anthology Visions and Divisions: American Immigration Literature, 1870-1930 (Rutgers University Press, 2008). He is a member of the core poetry faculty at Columbia College Chicago, and is a co-founder and co-editor of Court Green.

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