Interview with Kim Addonizio

Kim Addonizio is the author of seven poetry collections, two novels, two story collections, and two books on writing poetry: The Poet’s Companion (with Dorianne Laux) and Ordinary Genius. Her poetry collection Tell Me was a finalist for the National Book Award. She also has two word/music CDS: Swearing, Smoking, Drinking, & Kissing (with Susan Browne) and My Black Angel, the companion to My Black Angel: Blues Poems and Portraits, a collaboration with woodcut artist Charles D. Jones. Her poetry has been translated into several languages including Spanish, Arabic, Italian, and Hungarian. Collections have been published in China, Spain, Mexico, Lebanon, and the UK. Addonizio’s awards include two fellowships from the NEA, a Guggenheim, two Pushcart Prizes, and other honors. Books include Mortal Trash (W.W. Norton), published in 2017, which won the Paterson Poetry Prize. A memoir, Bukowski in a Sundress: Confessions from a Writing Life (Penguin) was published in 2016. Now We’re Getting Somewhere was published by W.W. Norton (March 2021). A new book of poems, Exit Opera, is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.

Ann van Buren has been conducting interviews for KPS since 2017. Her poetry and other interviews and book reviews are published in The Rumpus, Library Journal, The Westchester Review, The Columbia Review, and Plume.

Ann van Buren: Your poetic voice is colloquial, iconoclastic, witty, and sharp.   I’m particularly interested in your long poem, “Confessional Poetry” where you say:

Writing is like firing a nail gun into the center of a vanity mirror

or slowly shaking a souvenir snow-globe of asbestos &shame
to quiet an imaginary baby

Some poets, like Dickinson, may escape into the metaphysical with feeling of loneliness, rejection, struggle. Others might use metaphor and pieces of obscure information to couch existential threats. (I’m thinking of Marianne Moore.) Tell us about the forge where your armor is made. What specifications do you require?

Kim Addonizio: In general, I have protected myself from the slings and arrows by my own sense of what I need to say and who I need to say it to. That is who my audience is. It’s not necessarily the people who are attacking me or being stern and judgmental or who have criticized certain aspects of my work, for talking about passion and sex and the self. I think it’s our role as writers to speak our truth and talk about what matters to us, whatever that is, whether it’s a highly personal or highly public event. I think writers are in the world to say something from their point of view, out of their imagination and reality.

Ann van Buren: Your most recent book, Now We’re Getting Somewhere, was written during the pandemic and under a particularly dominating political regime.  The poem “Small talk” begins with the line “Let’s skip it and get straight to the rabid dog at hand” and ends:

Everything you say is tiresome.
I’m going to walk away slowly and not look back.
Now we’re getting somewhere.

What are your thoughts on what comes after catharsis? What do we do with the PTSD that comes with escape?

Kim Addonizio: As the title poem, it’s meant to be both true and ironic. The character who is walking away is not necessarily thinking about the larger aspects of the world as much as what it’s like to meet a tiresome person. It’s an imagined event, though I’ve met lots of tiresome people before! Actually, a lot of this book was written before the pandemic, although it was certainly affected by it. It didn’t come out until spring of 2021, and it was largely finished by 2020. The revisions were going on during the pandemic, so that inflected some of the revisions, as well as choices in terms of order.

As for catharsis, I’m not sure what to say about that. Everybody’s catharsis is different. Did you say “the PTSD that comes with the escape?” Yeah. There’s a traumatic event and then there’s the aftermath. Writing, in a way, can be a kind of catharsis. I think the idea that writing is not self-expression is wrong. If writers aren’t writing to express themselves, then what hell are we doing? Of course we’re expressing ourselves. But it’s not only that. If that were the case, then we would all be in therapy, or therapists. So, definitely—art in general has an aspect that is cathartic. I don’t know whether that would be considered its main purpose or not. I like what some people have said, that a work of art is meant simply to bring us into presence. When we are looking at a painting or sculpture or watching a dancer or listening to music or reading a poem, we are held in that moment, out of time and suspended. Maybe it doesn’t have to do anything more than that, bring us into some kind of awareness or experience the moment.

Ann van Buren: You are talking about the present in your work. It’s kind of a dismal time, but we’re talking on one of the hottest days on record…

Kim Addonizio: Well, in some ways, it’s also a very absurd time. I believe in that as well. I think humor is a great way to light the dismal.

Ann van Buren: Yes!

Kim Addonizio: And there’s a lot of that if you can laugh and find the humor or the absurdity. That’s a kind of armor, something that will help you to get through. I have a hard time with humorless people. It’s one thing that makes them tiresome. Please drag me over to the bar when that person comes up to me.

Ann van Buren: You are often identified as an Italian-American poet. How does that identity influence you and your writing? Do you speak Italian?

Kim Addonizio: I have learned a little Italian because I have the good fortune to teach every couple of years at a painting school called La Romita. I get to go over in the summer and lead a poetry retreat. Through this, I started to forge a connection with Italy. I didn’t get that in my childhood. My father changed his name from Addonizio to Addie before I was born. I took the name back in my twenties because I thought it was beautiful. But I always had frustrating gaps in my knowledge of the Italian side of my family. My grandfather emigrated from Italy at the turn of the 20th century, and my father was the first generation born in America. La Romita gave me a chance to go to Italy and learn some Italian. I’ll be back in the summer of 2024. I love going back to a place I know some of my people are from. La Romita is a serene former monastery and the retreat is always inspiring; we write and have workshops, go to hill towns and ruins and Rome, and get treated to great food and wine.

Ann van Buren: I just recently stumbled across a Pete Seeger show that was on UHF tv in the 60’s, called Rainbow Quest. It features Italian musicians he filmed with his super 8 camera, and he also interviewed some musicians who were living in in the Bronx. He kept saying how he hoped that Italian Americans would carry on their musical tradition and remember these songs. But I’m not sure if that’s happened. Traditional Italian music is hard to find. I don’t know if you’ve found that to be true.

Kim Addonizio: It sounds like it very well may be true. I grew up as an “American.” I didn’t even know that my family came from Italy until was seventeen. I didn’t get any of that in my childhood. No nonna in the kitchen or anything like that. I was really interested in going back and finding a little bit about my roots, which I finally did on a genealogy tour, when I visited the village where my grandfather was born. I’m working on essay about that now.

Ann van Buren: What part of Italy is your family from?

Kim Addonizio: A little town called Pietradefusi, which is northeast of Naples. I got to explore some of that region. I wish I had spent more time as a kid asking my father questions before he died. Now I’m really wanting to know more and not able to find enough.

Ann van Buren: My mother’s family is from Italy, too! If it’s anything like my experience going back, I’m sure that the people in the village will embrace you. That is if there are people left who remember.

Kim Addonizio: That’s the thing. It was so long ago. What’s left of the original town is very small. A lot of my essay is about how the past has been deep sixed and covered over from what it was in those days, but there are photographs and records to see what it was like and what the people were like at the time.

Ann van Buren: The opening poem of Now We’re Getting Somewhere is set in an Umbrian castle and in your acknowledgments, you thank Civitella Ranieri Foundation, the Camargo Foundation, and La Romita School of Art. You’ve talked a bit about La Romita. Can you tell us your relationship to the other places?

Kim Addonizio: Civitella Ranieri and the Camargo Foundation are fellowship programs for writers, artists and thinkers working on their own projects. At La Romita, I’m there primarily as a teacher, and it’s wonderful, but I’m focusing on the work of others. When I’m on a fellowship, I’m doing my own creative work. Which, in turn, makes me appreciate why people come to La Romita–to carve out some space and time for themselves. It’s so rare and valuable.

Ann van Buren: For some, God is a placeholder for mystery, a concept that represents equally the forces of hope and despair. “The Miraculous,” a poem about a brother who is quite ill, represents a disillusionment with the kind of God who answers prayers. The poem “Death & Memory” also dispels romanticized notions of the afterlife. In your mind, what is the function of God? And why do some hang onto God for hope while others hang on to the bottle? Would you agree that both are a kind of escape?

Kim Addonizio: I would agree with that. I was raised Roman Catholic as perhaps you were too, being Italian-American.

Ann van Buren: I was half Roman Catholic and half agnostic Ukrainian, so I know both sides of what you’re talking about.

Kim Addonizio: Many of us like to say we’re “recovering Catholics.” I do not believe in the Christian God, although I believe there is some kind of immanence in the world. When I was a little kid, the Mass was still in Latin. I got a great sense of mystery and ritual from the Catholic Church. Certain tropes were given to me as potential ways to view life. I use them as metaphors to ask some of my existential questions. It’s a useful frame to hang things on— to talk about that God. It’s a way to approach some of those questions and mysteries about the afterlife and about being here in a mortal body, to ask, What’s it all for? What’s it all mean? Mostly, I think organized religion has done great harm in the world. Then again, people take their religion in different ways. I’ve met lovely devout Christians and they’re wonderful people whose Christianity gives them a way to do good work in the world. It helps them to make sense of life. I don’t want to slam anybody for their beliefs. This is still America, capital A–land of the free and all that–though I’m not sure how long that can really be said of this country in which our rights are being co-opted and destroyed, particularly the rights of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Republicans, and the religious right in this country, seem to be completely out of touch with what human beings need to be creative and free and to make this a better world. Some of them truly don’t know. And some of them know, and don’t give a shit.

Ann van Buren: Thank you. Can you talk a little bit more about that dichotomy I mentioned, though? How the bottle can almost become a religion. I probably would drink endlessly if I didn’t get sick from doing it and I wanted to understand more about that since it’s so present in your work.

Kim Addonizio: Who said religion is the opiate of the masses? There are escapes of various kinds and some are healthier than others. I’m not sure what else to say. I think that any kind of excess potentially comes out of trauma. There’s a time in many of our lives when we’re younger and experimenting, and it seems typical of young people to push the boundaries of what is acceptable and what your body can handle and what it can’t. And of course, self-destructiveness is often a response to trauma.

Ann van Buren: I think that religion is also sometimes a response to trauma. When there’s nowhere to turn it can create a magical idea of where one might be.

Kim Addonizio: It’s a magical idea with a lot of history behind it and a lot of adherence to its principles so it’s easy to find that kind of support and escape. But both are methods of finding support and escape.

Ann van Buren: Despite that, I’m noticing a lot of despair these days.

Kim Addonizio: I think there’s hope, too. It is a very scary time for sure and it looks like we are lurching towards Bethlehem—although what Bethlehem means and what kind of creature is coming out, I don’t know— but it seems like we are on a path that is not really going to be course corrected very easily.

Ann van Buren: No, it won’t be easy, but I guess humans have gone through bad times on a massive scale before. That reminds me, your website says that you are a “Writer, Music Maker, Maquisard.” I’d never heard of a Maquisard before. Can you tell us about that?

Kim Addonizio: A Maquisard was a member of the French resistance during World War II.

I put that up there when the former president was elected and when everyone was thinking a lot about resistance. During the second world war, BBC radio broadcast shows that contained codes that would let the resistance fighters in France know what the Allies were planning. My understanding is that some coded messages came through poetry, like Verlaine’s “Autumn Song.” I love that idea of poetry being an active form of resistance. I also thought it was fun to put that up and maybe send people to the dictionary to discover who those people were.

Ann van Buren: I wonder what that secret language would look like today. I’d been thinking homing pigeons, but poetry is better!

Kim Addonizio: There’s more and more need for that kind of secrecy, more and more. How do you escape the long arm of the government, especially when it’s now keeping tabs on women’s pregnancies and trying to take over private medical records for the purpose of oppressing women? We are under surveillance 24/7. We’re living in a surveillance country. So where do we go? Are we all just going to scurry under the radar to try to live our lives? Something’s going to have to change about the system.

Ann van Buren: I don’t know how to make the change.

Anyway, you’re going to be offering a workshop for KPS that will be great. A friend of mine wants to know if you’ll be talking a little bit about making a chapbook.

Kim Addonizio: I occasionally do a class called “Make a Book,” about ordering and putting together a collection. I may be doing that again at some point. My talk is called “The Poem’s Progress.” It’s about the individual progress of poems and their beginning, middle and end, and how poems get there. I’d be happy to chat with your friend, though, if she’s coming to reading.

Ann van Buren: That’s great. Will you be reading from Now We’re Getting Somewhere?

Kim Addonizio: I’ve also got a new collection coming out, Exit Opera, that Norton just accepted. I haven’t got my contract yet and I’m not sure when it will be out, probably in the next year or year and a half.

Ann van Buren: Well congratulations!

Kim Addonizio: I’ll probably be reading some old and some new work. My partner, Danny Caron, will be with me. He’s a professional guitarist so we’re planning on doing some more music as well.

Ann van Buren: Oh nice! I’m looking forward to that.

Kim Addonizio: It will be great to meet in person.

Ann van Buren: Yes, though I’ve loved the accessibility on Zoom. You’re still teaching many workshops on Zoom, aren’t you?

Kim Addonizio: I teach all my private classes on Zoom. I’ve got stuff on my website for all that. I try to keep it updated.

Ann van Buren: It’s a good website and you’ve got a lot happening! Thanks again for taking the time to be with us at the Katonah Library on September 17th, and for this interview.

Kim Addonizio: My pleasure.