Erica Dawson is the author of two collection of poems: Big-Eyed Afraid, winner of the 2006 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize, and The Small Blades Hurt, winner of the 2013 Florida Book Awards Bronze medal in poetry. Gulf Stream staff member, Stephanie Selander’s interview with her is below:
SS: First, I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to Gulf Stream. Your first collection of poetry, Big-Eyed Afraid (Waywiser Press), won the Anthony Hecht Award and was selected by the Contemporary Poetry Review as the best debut of 2007. Now your second book, The Small Blades Hurt (Measure Press), has been awarded the 2014 Florida Book Award’s Bronze Medal for Poetry. Congratulations are definitely in order! What was the submission process like for getting your second book of poetry published?
ED: Thanks so much for the congratulations! The submission process was very different the second time around. With Big-Eyed Afraid, I was extremely lucky to receive the prize from one of the first contests I entered. With Blades, it took years. Honestly, I think I was in a rush to get another book out there; and, as a result, I sent out countless bad drafts of bad manuscripts. I should apologize to a lot of screeners and editors. Some of those manuscripts contained poems that ended up in Blades. But really, my second book didn’t quite take its final shape until I moved to FL in 2010. Simply put, it was a long, long process. About seven years. Much longer than the first time around.
SS: You’ve said in other interviews that your first collection, Big-Eyed Afraid, was often concerned with identity. Did you have any particular focus in mind for The Small Blades Hurt?
ED: I feel like this book is more about place and the ways particular moments in our lives are in conversation with different moments in our history. Big-Eyed Afraid had these big sweeping poems, poems stretching from birth to death. I wanted Blades to be more specific, or at least specific in a different kind in a way.
SS: Throughout The Small Blades Hurt, you travel from the South, to the Midwest, and to your home state of Maryland. In what way do you feel place informs your poetry?
ED: In some ways, place is poetry, in my mind at least. Just like it’s hard to divorce myself (as a woman, black woman, 35 year old black woman, etc) from a poem I’m writing, even when it’s a persona poem, it’s hard for place not to affect both the process and the piece, you know?
SS: You make several nods to Langston Hughes in The Small Blades Hurt, clearly in “I, too, sing America” but especially in one of my favorite poems in this collection, “Langston Hughes’ Grandma Mary Writes a Love Letter to Lewis Leary Years after He Dies Fighting at Harper’s Ferry.” What led you to write from Mary’s point of view?
ED: While doing research on Lincoln, that lead to research on Hughes, which lead to me learning about his grandmother. I was thinking a lot about loss during that time in my life, when I wrote the poem, and I just couldn’t imagine what it must have been like for this woman. I couldn’t imagine that kind of tragedy. I wanted to give her some sense of a voice. In retrospect, that seems kind of disrespectful. But, at the time, it felt necessary to me for some reason.
SS: You have this incredible talent for taking traditional forms and transforming them with modern voice, and The Small Blades Hurt showcases that beautifully. Your crown of sonnets, “New NASA Missions Rendezvous with the Moon,” is both so ambitious and yet reads so effortlessly. What do you feel a poem gains from using these traditional forms?
ED: Thanks! In my life, I need intense structure despite the extremely spontaneous side of my personality. I think my poems reflect that. I like the rigor of traditional forms. I like the music of the rhyme and the way meter can create not only rhythm, but also tone. Traditional forms give me momentum; they push me further and further. They’re generative for me. They help me push the boundaries of what I initially wanted to say.
SS: There’s this great energy in your poetry, and a thrilling sense that a poem can shift at any moment from talking about Byron, to cowboy Yankees, to Shakespeare, to Al Green singing out of a bush outside The Limited. Reading your work, it seems like you’re inspired by everything. What’s been inspiring your poetry lately?
ED: Lately, honestly, sex and religion. Super fun. I was taught so many, frankly, absurd things in church as a child. Like, fingernail polish was somehow sinful. I’ve been thinking about the ways that rules, any kind of rules or restrictions, shape us as adults, the way we’re all rebels of a kind.
SS: There’s been a lot of discussion about “poet voice” in the literary community, and how many writers struggle to convey the intensity of their words in their readings. You’re the rare writer who’s as comfortable on the page as you are in front of an audience. What advice would you give for a good reading, and whose readings have you most enjoyed?
ED: For me, it’s all about just being yourself. I’m Erica, whether in the classroom, at a microphone, at the piano, at a board meeting, in my mom’s kitchen… For better or for worse, I don’t have much of a censor or filter. I think people respond well when the person they’re interacting with is ok with who they are. For me, when I feel like people are putting on an act onstage, I get distracted. I’m all about authenticity. To use some cliches, I’m like “Be real.” “You do you.” I feel like Jamaal May does that. He’s almost intoxicating at a microphone.
SS: Your articles for the ‘Dark & Sinful’ column at Creative Loafing touch on a variety of topics, stretching from relationships to pop culture. How has the process of writing non-fiction differed from how you approach your poetry, and vice versa?
ED: It’s totally different. In some ways, the subject matter is often the same; but, at this point, writing non-fiction feels like there’s less at risk, somehow. It’s purely fun. I stress and stress and stress about my poems. I haven’t reached that point with the column. Yet.
SS: Not only are you a columnist, but you’re the director of the University of Tampa’s MFA program now, as well as a poetess with two collections out. What’s next for Erica Dawson?
ED: Hopefully, between the semester’s end and the start of our June residency, sleep. Really, though, I’ve been working on this long poem for some time now. I hope to make some progress real soon.
SS: Thank you so much for your time. Final question: how do you know when a poem is done?
ED: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me! It’s done when I’m moderately satisfied. And for me, that means that I, at that moment, feel like I’ve exhausted all the options for making the poem as good as it can possibly be.