Photo from WCU wesbite.
Daisy Fried is the West Chester University Poetry Center’s fall Poet-In-Residence. She is the author of three poetry books: “Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice” (2013); “My Brother is Getting Arrested Again” (2006), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and “She Didn’t Mean to Do It” (2000), winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Fried has received Guggenheim and Hodder awards, Pew fellowships, a Pushcart Prize, the Cohen Award from “Ploughshares” and a “Poetry” magazine Editors Prize. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and is a poetry editor for the literary journal “Scoundrel Time.” Fried is a part of the faculty of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers and lives in Philadelphia. Being the intern for the poetry center, I had the pleasure of interviewing her to learn a little bit more about her poetry and writing process.
What inspired you to start writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer, or was it something that developed at a specific time in your life?
I grew up with parents who were readers and writers — my father published poems in magazines in his 20s and later worked on novels and essays; my mother wrote fiction and stories and sometimes poems, quite good but mostly unpublished. There were books (literature, art, philosophy) all over the house; we (my siblings and I) got taken to the public library every week from the time we were little. So writing and books are in my genes! I always wrote a little as a kid, a poem here, a story there, lots of journaling, edited my high school newspaper, etc. In my 20s, in the 1990s, I worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Weekly and later the Philadelphia City Paper with a weekly deadline; the discipline of having a deadline made me more disciplined about writing poems. Eventually I mostly quit journalism (though I still write and publish prose about poetry) and discovered I was a poet. It wasn’t ever a goal. It just turned out to be what I was, and now I can’t stop.
At your introductory reading, you said to write “bad poetry” and to avoid trying to always write “good poetry.” Can you elaborate on this?
My advice to beginning poets is generally: 1) consider writing at a regular time every day, so it becomes part of your routine, [and] 2) set your goals low, so you don’t burn out. It depends on your temperament, but it’s better to write 10 minutes a day most days than to write very occasionally all day (though I know of a very famous poet who says he writes the latter way — so this might not be good advice for everyone). It’s like going to the gym: if I want to get fit, I can’t go the first day I join the gym and do an hour on the elliptical, then lift weights, then swim laps, then do yoga, and expect to be at all capable of doing anything at all the next day. Better to walk 20 minutes on the treadmill and do some stretches, and come back the next day and the next to do the same thing. If you say “today I’m going to write for ten minutes,” that’s not so daunting. You may write for more than ten minutes, and even if you only do ten, you’ve got something down on paper or on your computer, something you may decide to work with tomorrow. [Also,] 3) write badly. Of course I want to write great poems. But if I sit down intending to write great poems — and produce bad writing instead — and most of what we write most of the time is unremarkable at best — that’s going to be discouraging, and I might not get started at all. “Write badly” liberates me to do whatever, to write whatever, and then I have something to work with in the future, improve, revise.
What is the most difficult part about writing poetry?
All of it. What to write, why to write, how to get it done. The more I write and the better, or at least more experienced, I get, the harder it is. But that’s why I keep doing it. It’s boring to do what you can already do. The reason anyone makes anything, whether in poetry or visual art or cooking or gardening, is because solving the problem of how to make something and make it well is exciting and invigorating.
Why did you decide to start translating poetry? What do you focus on when you translate poetry? Do you try to convey the meaning of the poem? Do you directly translate it? Do you try to keep the same rhythm of the poem in English? A little bit of everything?
I was leafing through a book of John Ashbery’s translations from the French and happened on what I recall being the only translation in the book of Charles Baudelaire — CB’s poem “Paysage” (“Landscape”). Ashbery is a great poet, obviously! But I thought the translation was terrible! Very chimy-rhymey and tin-eared. I thought, “I can do better!” And I believe I did. Here’s my translation of that poem. That was so much fun that I decided to do more — and discovered that doing versions of his poems (as I kept going, they became “after Baudelaire” rather than strict translations), I could write about loneliness and violence and death and illness and sex and love and wine and cats in a way that I couldn’t do while writing in precisely my own voice, and in a way that felt relevant to myself and the moment we’re living in. So, for example, I was able to write love poems to my husband, who died on Sept. 30 after a long illness, in ways that didn’t feel cheesy to me by borrowing some elements of Baudelaire’s imagery and structure, but making the poems contemporary, switching genders, adding details, or write about the Black Lives Matter protests set in Philly using poems that Baudelaire set in Paris. My goal is to write good poems in English that honor but also reinvent Baudelaire in a modern idiom. Sometimes I honor his metrical or stanzaic arrangements; I never try to achieve his rhyme patterns — very, very few translators do anything admirable with trying to translate rhyme from one language to another — but I do look for opportunities for other kinds of sound patterns in order to pack some of the poems with alternate verbal textures.
How do you publish your books? Do you go through a publisher, or are your books self-published?
My three books so far have been published by University of Pittsburgh Press’ Pitt Poetry Series. Many first books are published through contests, where the prize is money and publication; Pitt’s first book contest is the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. They have liked my work well enough to publish my subsequent books as well. I have a fourth manuscript now, which I will tinker with a bit more before submitting.
How do you come up with titles for your books?
So far each of the titles of my books was also the title of a poem. In each case, I wanted a title that was charismatic and which touched on some tone or theme or focus of the book as a whole, and I also wanted something that was a little anti-poetic. My first two, “She Didn’t Mean to Do It” and “My Brother is Getting Arrested Again,” are both titles which are full sentences — which you don’t see a lot of in book titles, especially not poetry book titles. “Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice” is the oddest one; my editor didn’t like it because he said people would think it was a second-wave feminist poetry anthology rather than a book of original poems and a satirical poetry advice column called “Ask the Poetess.” I did a reading with Billy Collins a few years ago, and he asked me, “So have you edited any more anthologies?” so I guess my editor was right. Too bad because I’m pretty sure Collins would like the poems in that book! But I still felt there was something ironic and sincere and weird and apt in the title I chose. The title poem, “Women’s Poetry,” is about a pimped-out car. People ask me now, “so is there such a thing as women’s poetry?” and I say, “yes and no, women’s poetry is like a pimped-out car — lots of fancy detailing and undercarriage lights and add-ons, but underneath it’s still a car.”
What does the editing process of your poems look like?
It’s different for every poem. I don’t think my drafts are poems; I think they’re writing in search of a poem. Through revision I find the poem. It’s unusual for me not to do a dozen or 50 or even 100 drafts to find the poem. Some poems take years to get right. Not always, thank goodness. I have a few people I show my poems to along the way. One was my husband who was also a writer. I am going to miss his great eye and angle on my work. I also have a few other smart people and brilliant poets who are willing to read my work and give me frank feedback, which I find invaluable. They often have differing opinions on individual poems, which is also incredibly useful. Revision is not tidying — it is re-visioning, re-seeing. Getting other people’s eyes on my work helps me figure out why I made certain choices in any given poem and what alternate choices I might make. I’m not interested in making perfect poems, whatever that means. I’m interested in making poems that feel most myself, that feel accurate about the world, the emotions, about ethics, about everything, as I perceive it, and I perceive myself moving through the world.
Finally, do you have any advice for college students who write poetry?
Read widely, in contemporary and in older poetry (don’t neglect the older poetry!). Find people to give you feedback who both like your work and will be honest with you. Don’t write to please your teachers. Figure out which rules you are given — if you are given rules — that you want to break. When you break them, break them in a way that becomes an engine to your work. See the making of poems more as a series of linguistic choices more than as an expression of feeling. Of course many poems are expressions of feeling, but good poems that are expressions of feeling are filtered through many conscious and unconscious choices. There is no portal through which you travel where you suddenly say, “Oh, now I know how to write poetry; now I’m a poet.” If you’re writing poetry, you’re a poet, and you’ll be learning all your life if you keep on writing.
Daisy’s books can be found at the WCU campus bookstore for $17 each. So far, she has done an introductory reading of her poems and translations and a craft talk on coolness. If you did not have a chance to attend either of those events, she will be giving another craft talk called Singing in Dark Times on Nov. 4 at 4:30 p.m. and a celebratory final reading Nov. 19 from 7:30-8:30 p.m., both via Zoom. You can find the information regarding those events on the West Chester Poetry Center’s social media, @WCUPoetry on Twitter and Instagram and @wcupoetrycenter on Facebook.
Emma Piccinini is a fourth-year English major with a minor in Business and Technical Writing. EP885565@wcupa.edu