Interview with Erica Dawson, Featured Poet (Winter Solstice Issue)

December 13, 2015 0 Comments Interviews 5036 Views
Interview with Erica Dawson, Featured Poet (Winter Solstice Issue)

Below is an interview with our featured Winter solstice poet, Erica Dawson, where she discusses a range of methods, exigencies, and influences. We hope you’ll check out our review of her most recent collection, The Small Blades Hurt, and get yourself a copy of her wonderful book today! We will be reprinting two poems from the collection in our upcoming Winter Solstice issue, which will be released on December 22nd. Look for an announcement on the blog that Tuesday! Major thanks to Erica from all of us at KHQ for this excellent interview!

Madison Jones: How has place influenced your work?

Erica Dawson: I am extremely affected by what’s around me.  I’ll walk into a busy store like Target and have to sit down because I’m so overstimulated.  I sat on the floor in Home Depot once. There’s way too much stuff to pay attention to.  I’m kind of that way all the time.  A big old sponge. Sometimes, I’m consciously writing about a specific place, like in “A Poem That’s Not a Song or Set in the South,” “Gave Proof,” or “Florida Funeral.”  But sometimes it creeps up on me.  That’s what happened with “Back Matter.”  I was writing the first few stanzas, playing around with the language.  As I went on, Cincinnati, where I lived at the time, found its way in.  I lived right across the street from the hospital in that poem.  I could hear the damn sirens all the time.  When I was in the early stages of the poem, I actually didn’t want the poem to be tied down in any specific location. Cincinnati thought otherwise, I guess.

MJ: What is the first ecological experience you can remember?

ED: I remember being in Chincoteague, Maryland with my family.  There were horses on the beach. I’d only seen horses on a farm before.  Watching the wet sand swallow up their their hooves was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

MJ: Where do you tend to write/ where do you write best?

ED: I definitely write best at home, probably because of the overstimulation I just mentioned. I’m familiar with my surroundings here. I’m not going to get distracted by the sounds and smells and everything.  I also think there’s something to the familiarity of my own space.  It’s safe. This is my stuff.  This is where I sleep with my dog every night.  No one bothers us.  It’s just mine.

Sometimes people tell me that they don’t know how I can be so honest on paper.  Someone asked me, during a Q&A, once, “How do you write that stuff down?” I think that sense of safety and familiarity I feel at home, when I’m writing, makes saying difficult things or remembering really shitty times feel ok.  I’m in my house.  Everything’s ok. I can always get in the bed and hide if the poem feels too big, too scary.  There isn’t really an audience.  It’s just me.

MD: Why do you write? Why do you write poetry?

ED: In the past, I’ve always given a somewhat cheesy answer: because I have to in order to survive.  But, I’m not sure that’s really true.  I’ve gone through periods of time when I don’t write at all.  Right now, I’m pretty sporadic—my new job has changed my writing schedule completely. I’m agitated because I’m not writing that much, and I’m probably irritating everyone around me, but I’m not dying or anything.  I’m surviving.  Sometimes barely, but still surviving.

I write because I want to.  That’s the honest answer. I write because I think I have something to say that someone may want to hear.  Or not want to hear, which can be just as powerful. I think I was kind of scared to own that at one point. It was somehow easier to think that poetry was somehow happening to me, that it was a force I had to reckon with.  Something like the muse coming down and possessing me.

There’s no muse.  Poetry isn’t happening to me.  I’m happening to it, if that makes sense. There’s a bigger sense of responsibility in that, I think. If I’m not writing, it’s on me to sit down and get something done.

MJ: What do you believe it is that poetry does?

ED: I think it makes people react, often to things they don’t want to face.

MJ: When did you start writing poetry?

ED: When I was way too young.  It was bad.  So bad.  Too many cats.

MJ: What do your best poems have in common?

ED: This may be the toughest question ever.  Too tough for me.

MJ: How do you begin a poem?

ED: I usually have an idea in my head, which, then, becomes a first line. Form, in some ways, takes over from there.  If I think, “Hey, this is the first line of a sonnet,” then I know where the language has to go from there because of the rhyme scheme.  The form starts to generate the content to some extent.  That makes me ridiculously happy. So cool. It’s like I don’t know where the poem is going to go. There are few things worse, for me, then knowing how a poem is going to end.  Nothing but boring poems come from that.

MJ: How does form play into your process?

ED: It is my process.  I don’t have a process without it.  I love the boundaries it gives me.  I love butting up against the walls.  It makes me do things.  I make it do things.  We tussle. I’ll be like, “Chant Royal, you don’t want none of this!” It’s like, “Please.  You got nothing.”

I’ll keep at it until I feel like I’ve won.

MJ: How often do you write? Every day?

ED: I don’t think I’m ever going to be the “I write every day” kind of writer.  I’ve tried.  It doesn’t work. I just end up with a whole bunch of crap.  And it’s not crap that eventually turns into something salvageable. Just crap.

I’ve got to have some energy when I write.  For me, that doesn’t happen with that kind of routine: sitting down at the same time, for the same amount of time, every day. I can’t force it.

But, I will force it if I have to.  I won’t allow myself to be stagnant too long. But, even then, I don’t force myself into every day.

MJ: How does lived experience play a role in your writing? What experiences have shaped you as a writer?

ED: It doesn’t play a role: lived experience is my writing.  My experiences with mental illness have definitely shaped me as a writer. My experiences as a black woman, too.  I don’t know how to separate my life from my work.  It’s coming out of me; it has to be part of me, doesn’t it?  That said, I’m not afraid to deviate from my actual experiences. I’ll start there, but then I’ll make stuff up.  I’ll write about things that have never happened.  I’ll write from other perspectives but stay connected to something somewhat similar to a moment I’ve actually been through. I think it’s important to understand that the world is larger than me, but it’s still my world, if that makes sense.  I always tell my students to write small if they want to say something big.  If you want to write about death with a capital D, write about your own experiences with death. If you want to write about the shootings that have become our normal lives, write about the way you felt the breeze pick up after you saw what happened in San Bernadino, even though you saw the trees weren’t moving an inch.  There’s got to be intimacy.

MJ: What are you reading right now?

ED: I just finished Maggie Smith’s The Well Speaks of Its Own Poison. As my students say, “I can’t with her.”  The book is way too good. And I can’t even talk about Terrance Hayes’ new collection.  I’ll explode. It demolished me.

MJ: What poets do you continually go back to?

ED: I’ve got my old favorites.  I never go more than two weeks without reading some part of Paradise Lost or Dickinson or Donne or Merrill.

MJ: Is there any advice you would like to give emerging poets and writers?

ED: You’ve got to get all up in your own face.  You can always be better. Work until you get better.  And then get better some more. It’s so much fun. Really, too much fun to call it work. Totally worth it.


About the Author

Photo and bio from author’s page.

Erica Dawson is the author of two collections of poetry: The Small Blades Hurt (Measure Press, 2014) and Big-Eyed Afraid (Waywiser Press, 2007). Her poems have appeared inBarrow Street, Birmingham Poetry Review, Blackbird, Literary Imagination, Unsplendid, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals. Her poems have been featured in several anthologies, includingBest American Poetry 2008 and 2012, American Society: What Poets See, Living in Storms: Contemporary Poetry and the Moods of Manic-Depression, The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets. Her reviews have been featured inFlorida Review, and she currently writes a freelance column, “Dark and Sinful,” for Creative Loafing Tampa.

Poetry Editor for the Tampa Review, she is also one of the editors of Mead: The Magazine of Literature and Libations, and serves on the advisory board for 32 Poems.

Born and raised in Maryland, Erica holds a BA from Johns Hopkins University, an  MFA from Ohio State University, and a PhD from University of Cincinnati.  She’s taught workshops and seminars at the Florida Arts Coalition’s Other Words Conference, St. Leo University’s Sandhill Writers Retreat, and DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon.  She’ll teach there again this summer, as well as at  Poetry by the Sea: A Global Conference in Madison, CT.  An assistant professor at The University of Tampa, she teaches for the undergraduate English and Writing program and the Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing.

She lives in Tampa with her Shih-Tzu, Stella, whom she named after Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, not  Tennessee Williams’ Stella or Stella Artois, though Erica really likes Tennessee Williams and Stella Artois.

About the Book


BUY THE BOOK,,, Oxford Exchange, Inkwood Books

Praise for The Small Blades Hurt:

Reading Erica Dawson’s poems reminds me of the time a former race car driver took me on a crazy tour along the southern French coast’s narrowest roads. It felt dangerous and exhilarating. I kept peering over the edge of the cliffs at the ocean far below, and I kept thinking, “Well, this will be a beautiful place to die.” But that driver, much like Erica Dawson, was always in control. I love her poems for that control, and for their music and humor and eccentricity. She is one of my favorites. – Sherman Alexie, author ofBlasphemy: New and Collected Stories

We all agree: Erica Dawson possesses one of the finest sets of ears in contemporary poetry. She, too, sings America, and she sings it with a sound that is stridently authentic, uproarious, insightful, and full-heartedly human. If you’re not smitten by the last poem in this book, you should fly off to another planet. Earth is not for you. Her sound is in the soil. – Major Jackson, author of Holding Company

Erica Dawson is a poet of verve and nuance, of high learning and pop culture, of a classical music she seems to have invented herself.   As in her first book, Big-Eyed Afraid, she doesn’t stay afraid for long.  Here, in The Small Blades Hurt, are a brave tour de force tribute to Josephine Baker and a crown of sonnets that merges the imagery of love-gone-wrong and space travel.  Funny even when she’s sad, Dawson can wring your heart with a poem to a son not yet conceived, or with the simplest question: ‘Who’s dew to say that morning needed tears?” I simply love her work. – Mary Jo Salter, author ofNothing by Design

Like E. E. Cummings’s burlesque top banana (“viz. ‘Would you hit a woman with a child?—No, I’d hit her with a brick’ ”), Erica Dawson is “abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement.” Her words never subside into shopworn sounds, each poem displaying her rare and enviable genius for making verse sing, which is to say croon, caterwaul, belt, syncopate, wail. In the tradition of Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, she, too, sings America—and particularly the American South, from Texas and Oklahoma to Florida, Tennessee, and beyond. To Hughes’s twelve-bars, she adds Appalachian strings and Motown and to Whitman’s resplendent leaves the knowledge that sometimes it’s the smallest (newest, greenest) blades that sting us most. To steal a phrase, this book has mojo like a mofo! – David Yezzi, author of Birds of the Air

“Dawson draws an especially timely self-portrait.  She generates great energy by pulling at the impossible and sometimes pleasurable tangles of what is constant in us, and what is disposable in the world.” – Slate

“The Small Blades Hurt is a chronicle of a still-young life being lived to the fullest.” – The Hudson Review

“These poems show a poet who lives as vividly as she writes, dancing with cowboys, drinking 40s, singing and loving, all while holding her country up to the light, scrutinizing its incongruities, critiquing its injustices, reveling in its pleasures… For their music, for their recklessness, for their restlessness, her poems are insane and insanely her own. There is no one writing like Erica Dawson.” –  The Hopkins Review

Notable Links

The CPR Interview: Erica Dawson

Poet of the Month: Statement of Poetics 

Short Takes on Long Poems 

The University of Tampa, MFA Opening, Reading with Erica Dawson 


“Bees in the Attic”

“If My Baby Girl is White”


“Gave Proof”

“One Fish, Two Fish”

“Langston Hughes Grandma Mary Writes a Love Letter to Lewis Leary Years After He Dies Fighting at Harpers Ferry”

“Love Song”

“Speakers in the Devil’s-Walkingstick”

“Jesus Age”

About the Reviewer

Madison Jones is a Graduate School Fellow at the University of Florida, studying ecocomposition, rhetoric, new media, and nineteenth-century American literature, where he works with the journal Trace. Founder and editor-in-chief of Kudzu House Quarterly, he is a fifth-generation Alabamian and recently received a master’s in literature from Auburn University. He has published an article in Merwin Studies, and his reviews of ecocriticism and creative writing have appeared in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment,Southern Humanities Review, Journal of Ecocriticism, The Journal, storySouth, and elsewhere. His poetry, likewise focused on ecology, has appeared in Tampa Review, The Painted Bride Quarterly, The Saint Ann’s Review, Portland Review,Canary Magazine, The Greensboro Review, The Tusculum Review, and elsewhere. He has published a collection of poetry, Live at Lethe (Sweatshoppe 2013), and Reflections on the Dark Water, his second book, will be released by Solomon & George in spring 2016.

About author

Related articles


No Comments Yet!

You can be first to comment this post!

Leave a Reply