Interview with Indie Lit Winner, Laurie Soriano
By: The 2011 Poetry Board
Is your collection autobiographical or have you separated yourself and your life from your poetry? And if so, how?
Some of my poems are fairly directly autobiographical. Some of the stories and themes are based on my life but then have been adapted so that I was able to create what I hoped was effective poetry. As an example, the poem “Betty’s Dive” is not based on a woman I know named Betty who dove off a cliff into a river. There was a woman that I knew who was named Betty, and she was strong and vibrant, but she died of cancer in her early 20’s, and the poem was written using a metaphor that felt expressive to me. Overall, this book loosely traces the same arc that my life has traced, but with lots of embellishments based on what the book or an individual poem needed.
Are you conscious of any debt to Sharon Olds, who also writes about the birth and bloody injuries of herself as a child and her own children?
I have read some of Sharon Olds’ work over the years, and I have great respect and appreciation for her, but I wouldn’t say that I owe her a debt. Some of her poems and some of my poems explore the emotionally rich themes of a challenging childhood and motherhood, both of which are pretty fundamental and universal. I would hope that I have provided perspectives on these themes that are unique and are resonant for some of my readers.
A woman I know, who is a mother and high school English teacher, bought my book. After she’d read it, she told me that I’d replaced Sharon Olds as her favorite poet. She said that was no small feat, considering that Sharon Olds had been her favorite for something like 30 years. I was of course very flattered by this, but I can’t imagine she’d feel that way if she felt that I’d imitated or rehashed Sharon Olds’ work. Perhaps the way one could express it is that I’m carrying the torch passed along by her, from one generation to the next.
As this is your first collection, could you explain the process of selecting the poems for it and how it felt to be nominated and then to win the 2011 Indie Lit Award?
I have been writing poems since childhood, and more seriously starting in college and pretty consistently since then. Several years ago, really for the first time, I had a sense that some of my poems were calling to me to be assembled into a book. As I mulled on what the book wanted to be, a story of the journey from coast to coast and then the impulse to keep going into the unknown, I laid out the poems that were asking to be included, and then I identified the poems that needed to be written to fill in various needed elements and wrote those as I could. So, some of the poems in the book were written when I was a young college student, and some of them were written more recently up through last year, and all of them have been edited endlessly. One of my favorite aspects of assembling the book was creating interplay among the poems so that they would speak back and forth to one another from among the various sections, both in the themes they addressed, the metaphors that were used, and word choices. I love the three-dimensionality of this—you obviously would like for each poem to have its own integrity and identity, but then you try to ensure that the book as a whole has its own dynamics and richness.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the fact that this Indie Lit organization has been created and that it is taking a truly independent look at various genres of American writing and identifying work that is worth reading. That is so refreshing to me. I have spent time studying within the academic world of poetry and then in various workshops with immensely talented poets, and I have been published by various journals, but I have felt that once I opted not to pursue a graduate degree in English or an MFA in creative writing, I was on the outside of a bit of a closed poetic community, and that I would need to jump through a lot of strange hoops in order to achieve traction with my poetry, when all that I strive to do is create effective art and to reach people whenever possible. I love that the online world has allowed all kinds of art to achieve traction without all of the stuffiness and tradition that have limited artists in the past.
I was very grateful when Lummox Press offered to publish my book and that the book got some good reviews. I was so appreciative that my book garnered enough nominations to make the short list of Indie Lit nominees. I took a look at the panel of judges in poetry and was impressed by the diverse backgrounds of these people and their obvious shared passion for identifying great work and spreading the news about it out to the wider community. When I found out that I’d won the award, I was thrilled and quite gratified that this panel of judges had found my work worthy.
Poetry is often considered elitist or inaccessible by mainstream readers. Do poets have an obligation to dispel that myth and how do you think it could be accomplished?
I resist declarative sentences that link “artist” and “obligation,” except that I think that each artist should follow her muse and, to the extent allowed by practical realities, keep pushing into new territories. With that being said, I am really sad about the fact that poetry is, as the question indicates, considered elitist and inaccessible. A lot of the poetry that is out there, including some of the poetry that is getting a fair amount of attention, is repellent to mainstream readers in that it defies any kind of literal understanding. I think that, as a result of this and also as a result of the overwhelming quantity of other content in our world, poetry as an art form has become much more marginal. The world is better off if poetry is strong, and so I think it’s important that we try to bring it back.
I confess that I work to create poetry that is actually accessible. I don’t think my work is 100% “literal,” but there is usually enough of a thread in each poem that a reader takes away a pretty distinct sense of what the poem is going for. I somehow have held on to enough confidence to write poetry that can be comprehended by at least some readers and to feel OK if my work looks a little obvious compared to the more abstruse work of others that are writing these days. I love nothing more than when a person who claims not to like poetry or to know anything about poetry reads or hears one of my poems and is moved by it.
I think that the tide can be turned if poets keep in mind that the public likes Billy Collins most of all, and that there is a reason for that. Billy Collins is an effective and credible artist, but he also throws the doors of his work wide open to let the average person come on in. There is a bravery and a vulnerability in providing that kind of access, because it makes a poet more susceptible to attack if the meaning or thrust of the poem is sitting right there. If more of us can join him in that, and not worry about being uncool or too simple or too exposed, the public and the art form will be better off.
I am an attorney representing musical artists and songwriters, and I love the way that so many artists in the music space have been able to stay in touch with their fans and find new fans by virtue of all of the portals available in the digital world, regardless of whether the artists are signed to a traditional record deal, embraced by the big shot critics, etc. I see the same kinds of things happening in the literary world, and I think those digital portals can provide a big assist to the salvation of poetry. Groups like the Indie Lit organization are playing their part by spreading the word about effective writers without regard to whether they are part of the literary establishment.
Poetry is often solitary, more so than other art forms on occasion, because it is deeply personal, but there are efforts like the Split This Rock Poetry Festival and others that attempt to bring poetry to the masses and to bring about a social connection and call attention to a particular cause. Do you feel the need to do the same in your work? If so, why or why not? What do you think of these poetic movements?
I love these efforts to bring poetry to the general community of folks, and I would like to participate any way that I can in those efforts. I am much happier if one of my poems is published in a local newspaper or is just picked up by a lot of people on the internet rather than having it published in some kind of literary journal that is only read by other writers. I am a fan of events like the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books that takes place every April here in LA, where they have a full-time stage going with poetry being read; that is a good way to expose the wider world of people to poetry.
With that being said, my work and my poetic sensibility are what they are. I’m not sure that my work and my sensibility would really fit in in the context of a poetry slam, and I fear that I am too much of an introvert to be ideal for that kind of thing. As I’ve tried to express above, my own way of trying to bring poetry to as many people as possible is to make my work as accessible as I can. I also am not worried about exploring themes that maybe have been explored before if I feel that my treatment of those themes might enhance a reader’s life in some fashion.
I am not a “social cause” poet per se. I enjoy and admire artists that address social causes frontally in their work, but what I typically do is weave social messages into my work more indirectly. For example, I write a lot about women’s role in society, especially in the poems that I’ve been writing recently, but I do it more through story-telling than through direct commentary on the topic.
What events, books, or teachers turned you on to writing and/or inspired your writing? What are your influences?
Oddly enough, I would have to say that Virginia Woolf, who herself was a prose writer, first influenced and inspired me as a writer of poetry. I fell in love with her while I was in college, and I read and re-read all of her work, including diaries, letters, everything. I loved the strength and delicacy and clarity of vision she brought to her work. I also was fascinated by the fact that for her entire life, Virginia Woolf flirted along the boundary between mental illness and a more “sane” artistic sensibility. While I consider myself safely on the sane side of that boundary, I am aware of the need to kind of stick one’s toe over that boundary from time to time into the great unknown of the subconscious, and she taught me that.
When I was a senior undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, I was finally able to get in to the highly popular poetry workshop run by Daniel Hoffman, who is a wonderful man and a wonderful poet. Professor Hoffman made something of a pet of me and helped me a great deal in refining my craft and in having confidence in my own choices in my work. He then invited me to participate in an MFA-level workshop at Penn, and when I realized that I could hold my own with a group of graduate students who were dedicating themselves to poetry, my confidence solidified further. I owe so much to Professor Hoffman for this.
Another influence was Wallace Stevens, whose work I have always loved. Somehow, even though I always felt that I have an identity as an artist, I wanted to become a lawyer, and I was fortunate to have a chance to practice as a lawyer in representing musical artists and other talent in the music industry. I feel that my own artistic side has made me more effective in understanding and relating to my clients. But Wallace Stevens, who himself was a practicing lawyer, was a great example to me of someone who could be a lawyer, and in his case a lawyer in the rather non-artistic area of insurance law, and simultaneously a poet of utmost merit.
What are you reading now in poetry that you believe should be considered for the Indie Lit Awards in 2012? Or what poetry would you recommend others read?
Since it is only March, it is a little difficult to know which work should be considered for the Awards at the end of the year, but I will keep an eye out for books that I feel ought to be nominated. Of living U.S. poets, I would tell you that I love the work of Amy Gerstler, Mark Doty, Cecilia Woloch, W.S. Merwin, Louise Gluck, Wanda Coleman, and of course Billy Collins, just to name a few.
Thank you to Laurie Soriano for answering our questions.
2011 Shortlist for Poetry
- Beyond Scent of Sorrow by Sweta Vikram (Modern History Press)
- Catalina by Laurie Soriano (Lummox Press)
- What Looks Like an Elephant by Edward Nudelman (Lummox Press)
- Three Women: A Poetic Triptych and Selected Poems by Ramos, Emma Eden (Heavy Hands Ink)
- Sonics in Warholia by Megan Volpert (Sibling Rivalry Press)