Interview with Rebecca Dunham

imageRebecca Dunham grew up on the coast of southern Maine and earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia, an M.A. from Hollins University, an M.F.A. in Poetry from George Mason University, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Missouri. She has published three books of poetry: Glass Armonica (Milkweed Editions, 2013,) The Miniature Room (Truman State University Press, 2006), and The Flight Cage (Tupelo Press, 2010). Her fourth collection of poems, Cold Pastoral, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions. Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, Prairie Schooner, AGNI, The Journal, FIELD, The Antioch Review, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Third Coast, Crazyhorse, and Colorado Review.


How did you get started writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer?

When I was in junior high, I tried to write my own Nancy Drew mystery, mainly because I loved the female detective character and wanted to create my own mystery for her. That only lasted a few pages, at which point I realized that writing was a lot harder than I’d thought it would be! I haven’t always wanted to be a writer, but I have always been a voracious reader, and that love of reading led over time to my interest in writing.

How long did you have to submit before you were first published? If you could do it all again, would you do anything differently?

My first poem was published in Sycamore Review, not long after I graduated from college. I didn’t try to publish my writing while I was an undergraduate, which I think was a good thing, since it kept me focused on learning to write and not worrying about polishing something up enough so that it could be published.

Do you have any advice for young authors trying to get published?

For those writing poetry, I think it is important not to rush. Take your time. Hone your craft. It isn’t a race and whether or not a poem is ultimately published is not the final statement on its worth as a piece of writing. When you are ready to send your work out there, remember that publishing is the business side of writing and try to partition the business practice from your creative one. You need to submit regularly and widely, but you need to find ways to not let rejection in the publishing world leak into your creative life. Easier said than done, I know.

Do you have any writing rituals? Could you explain your writing process?

I don’t have any writing rituals, other than the requirement that coffee be readily available. I do try to start writing at roughly the same time each day—in the morning—and work for about three hours. This is the time of day that I feel most alert and mentally nimble, and at this point when I sit down with a cup of coffee at 8 or 9 a.m., my brain clicks right into writing mode.

In terms of process, I write a lot of terrible first drafts, but I write them pretty quickly. Most of my time is spent revising. Knowing it’s okay if the drafts are bad helps counter any sort of writer’s block.

Who are your literary heroes? What do you love about their writing?

I am drawn to women writers, in particular, in part because of the subjects that their work tackles. I love Margaret Atwood, for her range and gorgeous prose, Emily Dickinson, for her radical attention to language, and Muriel Rukeyser, for her commitment to writing that engages with the world around us. Compelling imagery, music, and a sophisticated use of form and diction always attract my attention, and some contemporary writers I turn to for inspiration in these areas are Eric Pankey, Sean Hill, Joanie Mackowski, and Lisa Russ Spaar.

Have you read anything recently that got you excited?

Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine, lives up to all the hype and everyone should read it. Likewise, Anne Carson’s Nox and Lucie Brock-Broido’s Stay, Illusion are amazing. I’m looking forward to reading Beth Bachmann’s new book, since Temper is an amazing collection that yields more and more on each reading.

Who or what influences your writing the most?

Where to begin? My teaching and my students have a huge impact on my writing. The ideas and texts we cover generally find their way into the poems I am writing at the time, and I am both inspired by the risks and energy that student writers bring to their work. My experiences as a woman often provide the catalyst for new work, driving me to connect my life to that of others, contemporary, imagined, or historical.

We heard your fourth book of poetry is in the works—congratulations! It stands apart from your previous work because of its ecological theme; what event(s) influenced you to write about that particular topic? Was Cold Pastoral a sole venture into green writing, or do you see this leading you into a new genre?

Yes, my fourth book, Cold Pastoral, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions in early 2017. And it is, in many ways, a departure from my earlier writing. After writing Glass Armonica, a book with a very interior focus, I needed to turn my attention outward. Despite the fact that much of the poetry being written today is for an audience of literary readers, I believe deeply in the social impact that poetry can—and should—have on society as a whole. It’s this that draws me to the work of writers like Claudia Rankine, Muriel Rukeyser, Carolyn Forche, and Anna Akhmatova, to name a few.

When the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred, I found myself incredibly disturbed and researched the incident and its impact both in person and via secondary research. I wrote many of the poems for Cold Pastoral around the time of the 2011 Wisconsin protests (my home state), Occupy Wall Street, and the series of protests during what’s become known as the Arab Spring. These protest movements left their mark on the writing I felt was necessary during this time period.

While I am not sure if I will return to ecological writing, my interest in the documentary poem continues. I continue to explore this form in my current book-in-progress.

A lot of your work in the past has focused on feminism and women’s issues. How and when did you become so passionate about this subject?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t passionate about the issue. My commitment to reflecting on the challenges women face, both historically and today, is an integral part of how I experience the world.

You’ve covered a lot of ground in the time that you’ve been writing. How do you think that your writing has evolved over time?

In each book, I push myself to tackle new challenges, not just content-wise but in terms of developing my craft. This always leaves me with a difficult gap of time between books, a period in which I am writing—I am always writing something—a lot of poems that never find their way into a book. Eventually, I tend to find my way out of that morass, but it is never a comfortable process.


About the author of this post: Crystal Ice is a sophomore at North Central College where she studies English and Writing, and is currently considering a program in Writing, Editing, & Publishing. A budding author, she enjoys writing in her spare time, and maintains two blogs while working on one of her many novels and poems.

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