Kristi Maxwell's books include That Our Eyes Be Rigged (Saturnalia Books) and PLAN/K (Horse Less). She is an Assistant Professor at the University of Louisville.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I remember getting the call from Janet Holmes in the summer of 2006 telling me Ahsahta Press wanted to publish Realm Sixty-four. After we said goodbye, I threw up in the bushes. So the story about how my first book changed my life begins with how the acceptance of my first book for publication meant I had a new home, one with press-mates who regularly wow me and a publisher who continues to support me beyond that first book and allows me to have a sense of belonging as a poet, who thus free me up to continue to follow language down the various paths it leads me.
My new work is moving away from sound as the guiding impulse (though sound will always be important to my poems). The associative energy, however, feels the same—or at least a continuation of my earlier poems.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
When I was pretty young, I had to take speech therapy, and my speech therapist had me repeat Gerard Manley Hopkins’ lines to her because his words are so mouth-dense/sound-rich and help a young tongue learn some flexibility and movement. In some very real ways, I consider Hopkins’ poems my first words. I have the first six lines of part 8 of “Wreck of the Deutschland” tattooed on my back, so his words continue to be bound up with my sense of embodiment, with my being-in-language. Poetry is the genre that feels most bound up in the foundational ways I see and say the world.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It depends on the day—month—year—decade—impulse—sense of fidelity. One of the writing projects I’m most excited to start writing felt for a while like a corrupted seed, but now there’s a hint of something finally emerging, and the poems will benefit from it—because I’m older, because I have had more encounters with loss and a better understanding of commitment, which are two of the project’s primary investments.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A poem usually begins for me with a word or a phrase. The repetition of three letters—“ach”—in “stomachache,” for example. As far as the second question goes, I’ve done it both ways: my two most recent books, Bright & Hurtless and My My, began as individual poems that I ultimately realized were den-mates and then a book of poems. It was a good shift for me: to be writing without expectation, to just be writing—I’m happy (and not too surprised) that a shared sensibility emerged among the poems I was working on in these various segments of time.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings feel more neutral than “part of or counter to [my] creative process.” I have begun to enjoy readings again, though I definitely went through a period when readings depressed me. A lot of the life of my writing is on the page—is visual—and this aspect of the poems is hard to translate into the reading of them.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I am interested in form as performance—form as something the text does rather than something content is contained within. I remain interested in the unconscious of the text: the “more” that it says, the moments when mishearing and misreading create and complicate meanings and energies. I guess my primary questions always are: what does a word do? What does a word hold? What happens when a word glances at another word? What happens when it stares?
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think one role of the writer is to provide sites for new habits of attention to emerge and/or to model different ways of seeing, noticing, making visible. In a fast-paced world, I think poetry—with its recursive bent—can be particularly useful in reminding us the value of slowing down, dwelling, circling, revisiting.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve had only positive experiences working with editors. I was lucky enough to have an amazing MFA cohort at the University of Arizona who prepared me for hearing other people’s feedback and choosing when and when not to integrate certain insights into a revision. I’ve been lucky to have editors who trust me and whom I trust.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don’t hold grudges.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
Initially, it was a struggle. When I entered the PhD program in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati, I went into one of my professor’s offices at the end of the first semester and told him the graduate committee must have admitted me by mistake because I was an academic fraud. Luckily, he gave me a well-meaning and well-timed eye roll, told me to go do a rhetorical analysis of x, y, and z journals, then to go write my paper. I did, and then I wrote another one and another one, and eventually I started feeling a little more agile in my critical prose. It was a proud moment for me to win UC’s critical essay prize my final year in the PhD program and another proud moment when my piece on footnotes and endnotes as form in Jenny Boully’s The Body and [onelove affair]* got picked up by Textual Practice. I find writing critical prose quite energizing. I have a monograph in mind and now that I have research support at the University of Louisville, I hope to complete it.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I’m a professor, so my writing schedule depends on my teaching schedule. After being on the job market for six years, I’m very lucky to now have a tenure-track job and a 2/2 load (compared to my previous contingent status and 5/5 load)—research and writing are part of my paid workload, which makes an incredible difference (in all the ways). When I’m on a MWF, I make sure to set aside the first several hours of the day on TR for my own writing. If I’m on a TR, then I set aside the first several hours of MWF for my own writing. Some afternoons, I write in the afternoon for 2-3 hours with one of my colleagues: it’s nice to have that kind of accountability, knowing someone else is expecting you to be writing. I don’t schedule writing for the weekends anymore, though I often find myself writing then. I think it’s important to find space to simply take in the world—in that way, the time I’m not writing is always already bound up to my writing time.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The letter, syllable, or a crossword puzzle. I love making a good word chain to get my mind moving and to start seeing and making connections that will trigger a line or series of lines.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
My husband Perry’s deodorant
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Oh, definitely. All the above. I am very open to encounter.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Gerard Manley Hopkins taught my mouth how to move. Also important to me: Susan Howe, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Gertrude Stein, Harryette Mullen, Jack Spicer, Anne Carson, Richard Jackson, C.D. Wright, Charles Dickens, Christine Hume. My writer friends, of course, are important to my writing and my life outside of my work—I wish I could visit Tucson more (Kristen Nelson, TC Tolbert, Annie Guthrie, Frankie Rollins, and Drew Krewer are still there) and time-travel to Tucson in 2003-2012; I wish I could teleport Merinda Simmons, Jillian Weise, and Megan Martin to my house for coffee every morning. I’m very lucky to have great creative writing colleagues, including Kiki Petrosino, Ian Stansel, PaulGriner, and Sarah Strickley, along with poetry scholar Alan Golding.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Go to Greece, which I finally get to do in August. Write a nonfiction book. Make eggplant bacon. Get my tires rotated and balanced. A whole range of consequential and inconsequential things.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I think I would have made a good surgeon.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I grew up in a library family—my mom convinced us that checking out and reading books was just about the most exciting thing you could do. Reading led me to writing.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I just finished Kate Greenstreet’s The End of Something, and I’m in the middle of Michael Rerick’s The Switch Yards and Scott McClanahan’s The Sarah Book. The last great film: without a doubt, I, Tonya.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently experimenting with the alexandrine for a manuscript I’m calling Undertaken.