Happy Thursday, everybody! We’re here with the latest installment of Writers Talk, which is an interview with Robert Frost’s Banjo’s newest contributor, Nancy Krygowski. I’m excited about this one!
Poet Nancy Krygowski is an adult literacy instructor and was co-founder & poet booker for the Gist Street Reading Series. Her poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, River Styx, Southern Poetry Review, 5 A.M., and other magazines. She is the recipient of a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Individual Artist Grant and awards from the Academy of American Poets and the Association of Writers & Writing Programs.
In addition, Nancy’s book Velocity won the 2006 Starrett Prize & was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. The University’s press release stated, “Poet Nancy Krygowski is a fresh, surprising voice that speaks for the intelligent heart in each of us,” while poet Gerald Stern, who selected Velocity for the Starrett Prize, described Nancy in this way, ““This is a wide-eyed, assertive, wild, well-read, street-smart, edgy, loving, suffering, heaven-crazed poet. It’s a joy to find her.”
If you’re a regular Robert Frost's Banjo reader, you know that Nancy Krygowski has stepped in as the blog’s “Visiting Poet” while L.E. (AKA Dani) Leone is off on a series of jaunts. Based on Nancy’s first poem, “Moving Van,” (which you can read at this link) & this interview, I have to agree with Stern’s assertion that “it’s a joy to find her.” I’m very happy to have Nancy participating in the blog even on a temporary basis. Don’t forget: next poem by Nancy will appear next Tuesday, August 9th, & her poems will appear every other Tuesday alternating with regular contributor Barbie Dockstader Angell, for the next while!
& now—the interview!
When did you first realize your identity as a writer?
I grew up in a big, practical, Polish family, and though lots of reading happened in our house, I never thought that actual people wrote what we read. In college, I started to hang around people who identified themselves as writers, real live writers. This was a huge deal for me. I had written poems for myself since I was young but never even thought to show them to anyone. When I found these poets and fiction writers (Robert Frost’s Banjo’s Dani Leone was one), my world started to shift.
At first, hanging out with writers affirmed my identity as a reader—I thought of myself as an appreciator of their work. Then I got up the nerve to show my poems to my writer pals, and things started to change. They liked what they read, and I liked that. I was in graduate school in New Hampshire at that time, not for creative writing, and I brazenly showed some poems to Charles Simic to see if he would let me into a workshop. He did. That’s when I started to feel like a poet.
I struggle with my identity as a writer. Yes, I’m a poet, I know this, but writing poems is still, at least initially, something I do for myself. I get personal satisfaction from writing a poem that I like. I feel way more at ease identifying as a teacher because teaching is something I do for others. (I teach English as a second language, mainly to refugees, and specialize in teaching reading skills.) I get a larger, social satisfaction from that.
Describe the creative process involved in any one piece you’ve written—this could be book, a story, a poem, an essay, etc.
The most fascinating writing process for me was putting together the final draft of Velocity. I had gathered up poems and sent them out to book competitions and even got good responses, but I knew they weren’t working as a book. The poems weren’t bouncing off each other, speaking to each other enough. I showed the collection to a smart poet friend, and he asked the simplest question I hadn’t seriously considered: What is the book about?
I don’t usually think of poems in terms of about, like you do with novels or books of non-fiction. So I got on my living room floor and started making various stacks of poems. I stacked poems by content, by emotion, by length, by whether or not they contained swear words, anything to try to see the poems in new ways. I kept asking myself, What is it about? After many stacks, I made a conscious decision to use my sister’s death as the book’s backdrop, which meant cutting poems I liked, digging up and breathing life into some older poems, and writing new ones. I made the more intuitive decision to order the poems to recreate the feeling you have a few years after someone you love dies—you go on with life, but the death is always on your mind, sometimes staring directly at you, sometimes hovering as a feeling of loss that permeates how you see the world, that sense that something is always missing.
When I finished, I didn’t show the manuscript to anyone; I sent it off to competitions. I felt like the book would either be taken or I was going to give up (I had been at the process of sending out the manuscript for about 4 years), and at that point, I thought either end would be okay. I’m really, really happy things turned out as they did.
Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process? (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)
Damn. I know this sounds unprofessional, but honestly, I feel pretty disconnected from the publishing process. I’m awful at sending out poems to journals. It feels too impersonal, too distant, like I’m depositing little drips of thought into a very large and hard to find bucket. Publishing a book was much better—I felt a huge sense of accomplishment—but it made me confront the fact that part of publishing is self-promotion, which I suck at. I’m essentially an introvert. (See below.) Nevertheless, my favorite kind of ‘publishing’ is doing readings. I have a strong belief that poems should be heard, and though I write with an emphasis on sound and hope that readers can hear my poems on the page, I really like the immediacy of reading to listeners, of having the poems in my voice filling a room.
How has being a writer affected your relationships?
Writing has brought a lot of great people who are writers into my life: Dani Leone, Aaron Smith, Sherrie Flick, Neno Perrotta, Terrance Hayes. But writing makes me a pretty serious introvert. (Or being an introvert made me a writer and trying to get the work of writing done makes me more of an introvert?) In either case, because I am a slow, often unfocused writer, I need lots of time alone to create anything. I need silence. I need to read and stare and listen to people on buses. I need to take walks by myself. I go interior and I don’t want to talk. I have months of not seeing my dear friends. Writing hasn’t helped my social life.
I’m married to an engineer—a very eclectic, wonderful, engineer—and writing plays a very small role in our relationship. Tom seems to like the idea that I’m a writer (I can’t say for sure if he’s ever read my book) maybe only because that gives him time alone to read whatever geeky stuff he reads. The truth is, I like having the perspective that writing is simultaneously hugely important and not important at all. My marriage helps me remember that. My husband’s at work making decisions that will affect whether or not people get clean water, and I’m spending some mornings wondering if I can use the word giggle in a poem. I never want to take myself too seriously as a writer; this helps.
How would you describe the community of writers you belong to—if any? This may be a “real” or “virtual” (in more than one sense) community.
Right now, my main community is my dear, old friend Dani Leone (see her sweet response to this question) and my wonderful poetry students at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Dani and I write for each other each week (though she’s behind). I love her wild, sturdy, beautiful writing and am committed to our pact of making sure it comes into the world.
My poetry students inspire me with their joy, their willingness to be pushed and to share, and with all they have to say in their poems and to each other. They make me happy about poetry. (In fact, I’m using my RFB posts to showcase what I create from the prompts I give them.) Also, I’m lucky to have great poet friends like Aaron Smith and Lois Williams to turn to when I need smart poetic eyes and serious edits, plus other writing and visual artist friends who I can talk to about creating in general.
What are your future goals in terms of writing?
I’m working on another manuscript, and my goal is to have a draft done in the next few months. I’m just about at the point where I want to start making stacks on my floor, and that excites me.
Bonus Question: If your writing were a musical instrument, what would it be?
The metal slide you put on your finger and wiggle around to make those soulful, eerie steel guitar sounds.