Nathalie Anderson must have a very large shelf in her house for all of her awards. To name a few: the Pew Arts Award, the Washington Prize from The Word Works, the McGovern Prize from Ashland Poetry Press, the Academy of American Poets Awards … the list goes on. When she isn’t racking up awards for her poetry, she serves as Poet in Residence at the Rosenbach Museum and Library, and teaches at Swarthmore College , where she is a professor in the Department of English Literature and directs the Program in Creative Writing. In her spare time, she runs one of the area’s best poetry list servs in the area.
Philadelphia Stories spoke with Nathalie about writing poetry, spotting a good poem, and finding creative inspiration despite a hectic schedule.
When did you start writing poetry?
I started writing when I was in junior high school — under the complicated influence of my mother’s college poetry textbook — but for a long time my poems inclined either to the jingly or the stultifyingly sententious. Perhaps ironically, I think I began to find my own voice while I was studying Modern Poetry in grad school. Yeats and Eliot were among the first poets I’d encountered as a kid, and ranked high among the poets who most moved me in high school and in college. For me, returning to their intense music with a more mature understanding revealed how sound and image and emotion and intellect can fuse together.
Can you tell us about your writing process?
I tend to draw out the process of composition with free-writing exercises circling through a series of related topics on succeeding days, extensive word searches in dictionaries and thesauruses, strange researches (often in out-dated texts, where the language is likely to be more vivid), and "assignments" designed to get at the physicality of a situation — how ice feels as it melts in your palm, for example. I’ve found that things turn out simplistically if I write less circuitously, and for me the delight in the process comes from bringing to light something I didn’t realize I knew.
How do you know when a poem is finished?
Well, probably like most poets, I think being finished is a relative thing: years after bringing something to apparent completion, you can suddenly see ways of making it more effective. But what I work towards is a feeling of rightness, where every image and turn of phrase in a poem feels inevitable, inexorable. As I work, I repeatedly read my drafts aloud: where I stumble, something’s out of place; where I get distracted, something’s inexact.
What do you think makes a poem good?
I like a poem that compels me to see things differently.
What do you like to read?
Besides mystery novelists like Sue Grafton or Val McDermid? Or fantasy novelists like Lois McMaster Bujold or Gregory Frost or China Mieville? Or graphic novelists like Charles Burns or Neil Gaiman or Steve Niles or Bill Willingham? I crave the contemporary Irish poets — Eavan Boland, Eamon Grennan, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Medbh McGuckian, Paul Muldoon, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Adrian Rice, Eamonn Wall — and am perpetually exhilarated by edgy American poets like Quan Barry, Anne Carson, Kate Daniels, Mark Doty, Albert Goldbarth, Kimiko Hahn, Terrance Hayes, Li-Young Lee, Harryette Mullen. I like a lot of local poets: if I started listing the ones whose work I particularly enjoy, it would be hard to stop.
Has the Philadelphia area influenced your writing?
As a community, absolutely. I’m fascinated by the confluences of stylistic currents that meet and merge and sometimes storm against each other here, and I’ve found many compatriots in the area whose insights I value immeasurably. For subject matter, though, I’m more likely to turn towards the South where I grew up: it’s hard to fight that particular destiny!
What inspired you to start the poetry list serv?
I’ve always urged my students at Swarthmore to attend readings at other local colleges and universities, and elsewhere in the city: Philadelphia offers so many riches that it’s a shame not to take advantage of its many literary offerings. After a while, when I’d send an e-mail announcement or a semester’s literary calendar to my students, I began to copy the information to colleagues and to friends — why waste that labor, right? — and eventually the list grew into an institution. I love it, myself, because I get to hear about such a variety of events from list members — there are around 450 recipients right now, not counting my Swarthmore students. If any readers don’t yet receive these announcements of literary events in the Philadelphia area, and would like to sign up, my address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can you offer any advice to the many creative writers who are trying to juggle work and family, yet want to write fiction or poetry?
This is a hard question to answer. I’d like to urge people to write every day, even if only for a few minutes, but certainly in my own life this kind of disciplined immersion often just hasn’t been possible. When I realized how difficult it would be to write while teaching full-time, I tried to step back and analyze the components of my situation: could I *use* the ebb and flow of the academic year to organize my approach to writing? Now I keep a folder of fragments during the semester, and commit myself to exploring those fragments extensively during the summers. While the compromises I’ve made wouldn’t necessarily work for other people, I think each person can find ways of making the life they’ve chosen more amenable for writing — writing with the children while they keep journals, for example, or trading work with a friend as a way of making deadlines for oneself, or filling just one page in a notebook during a coffee-break. I know it isn’t easy, but I can say I’ve been much happier, myself, since I found ways of working with the rhythms of my wage-earning career.