Addonizio, Kim 1954-
Addonizio, Kim 1954-
Born July 31, 1954, in Washington, DC; daughter of Bob and Pauline Betz Addie; twice married and divorced; children: Aya Rachel Cash. Education: San Francisco State University, B.A. (summa cum laude), 1982; M.A., 1986. Politics: "Liberal." Religion: "Ex-Catholic." Hobbies and other interests: Blues harmonica, tennis, yoga.
Writer and poet, 1986—. Former jobs include waitress, tennis instructor, office worker, bookkeeper, fry cook, and attendant for the disabled. Teaches writing privately in Oakland, CA.
Associated Writing Programs, Poetry Society of America.
Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation grant, 1989; Bread Loaf scholar, 1990; NEA creative writing fellowships, 1990, 1995; Bread Loaf fellow, 1994; Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award, 1994; Commonwealth Club Poetry Medal, 1994; Pushcart Prize, 1998; Chelsea Poetry Award, 1998; National Book Award finalist, 2000, for Tell Me; James Dickey Prize for Poetry, 2001; John Ciardi Lifetime Achievement Award, 2003; Guggenheim fellowship, 2005-06.
(With Laurie Duesing and Dorianne Laux) Three West Coast Women, Five Fingers Poetry, 1987.
The Philosopher's Club, foreword by Gerald Stern, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 1994.
Jimmy & Rita (verse novel), BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 1997.
Tell Me, BOA Editions (Rochester, NY), 2000.
What Is This Thing Called Love, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
Lucifer at the Starlight, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2009.
Crimes of Passion, e.g. Press, 1984.
In the Box Called Pleasure, Fiction Collective 2 (Normal, IL), 1999.
Little Beauties, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2005.
My Dreams out in the Street, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2007.
(With Dorianne Laux) The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1997.
(Editor, with Cheryl Dumesnil) Dorothy Parker's Elbow: Tattoos on Writers, Writers on Tattoos, Warner Books, 2002.
Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2009.
Creator, with Susan Browne, of word/music CD Swearing, Smoking, Drinking, and Kissing. Contributor of chapbook Dark Veil to Sextet One, Pennywhistle Press (Santa Fe, NM), 1996. Contributor to periodicals, including Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, Chelsea, Frighten the Horses, Gettysburg Review, Paris Review, Ploughshares, and Threepenny Review. Contributor to anthologies, including Chick-Lit, Microfiction, The Maverick Poets, Night Out, and A New Geography of Poets. Former publisher and coeditor of Five Fingers Review.
Jimmy & Rita was adapted for performance in New York, NY, and poems have been set as songs by composer Daron Hagen.
Kim Addonizio gained significant recognition in 1994 with The Philosopher's Club, a collection of her unflinching poems on subjects ranging from mortality to various aspects of love. She earned a National Book Award nomination six years later with the verse collection Tell Me, in which she expresses what Leslie Ullman described in Poetry as her characteristic cynicism and "street-smart bravado." With her 2005 novel Little Beauties Addonizio has also expanded into prose fiction. In addition to her writing, Addonizio has worked for many years as a teacher, and also provided her insights into the art of verse-writing in her book The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, written with Dorianne Laux.
Among the more notable poems in The Philosopher's Club is "The Last Poem about the Dead." Daniela Gioseffi, writing in the American Book Review, affirmed that Addonizio "is wise and crafty in her observations and her portrayal of sensual love, filial feeling, death or loss." Gioseffi contended that the poet "is most profound when she's philosophizing about the transient quality of life and its central realization of mortality."
In 1997 Addonizio published Jimmy & Rita, a verse novel about the relationship between a young couple coping with life on the streets of San Francisco as well as with alcohol and heroin abuse. Resorting to crimes, including prostitution, to support themselves, Jimmy and Rita each achieve little security from their life together. Eventually the pair separate, though their prospects scarcely improve as a result. Jimmy & Rita ends in a shelter for the homeless. Dana Gioia, in a review of Jimmy & Rita for the Washington Post Book World, noted that Addonizio "achieves a novelistic detachment rare for poets," and acknowledged her "natural gift for pacing." Gioia went on to hail Jimmy & Rita as "a well-paced, readable book."
In 1997 Addonizio collaborated with Dorianne Laux on The Poet's Companion, a volume that focuses on the craft and process of writing poetry. The book includes writing exercises, suggestions of various themes, and examples of poems by such writers as Jane Kenyon and Jack Gilbert. Evaluating the book for the Antioch Review, Molly Bendall remarked, "The passion toward poetry that these two writers/editors feel is certainly evident." Bendall found the exercises "useful and intriguing," and rated the book overall as "helpful and earnest." A Library Journal reviewer found The Poet's Companion to be "head and shoulders above" most other textbooks about writing.
Addonizio's collection Tell Me depicts people in doomed relationships, while What Is This Thing Called Love focuses on "womanhood under duress," according to Booklist contributor Donna Seaman. Acclaimed by critics, Tell Me was described by a Publishers Weekly reviewer as featuring "situations [that] are often compelling, and … performance-like language [that] lends them an air of melodrama that may be intentional." Library Journal contributor Barbara Hoffert commented on the effectiveness of the "cracked, smoky voice" that emanates from Tell Me, while Ullman remarked that readers can experience "sheer pleasure" in Addonizio's "language, both in [her] turns of phrase and in swathes of extended metaphor." Comparing Addonizio's work to the poetry of Ann Sexton, Diane Scharper observed in her Library Jour-nal review of What Is This Thing Called Love that "both poets … share a tone that is simultaneously angry, sad, and brittle." "Addonizio's poems are like swallows of cold, grassy white wine," wrote Seaman of the same collection, and her "finely crafted" verses "are timeless in their inquiries into love and mortality, rife with mystery …, and achingly eloquent" as they explore the tension-fraught "union of body and soul."
In an interview with Jessica Belle Smith for San Francisco Arts online, Addonizio remarked that while writing Tell Me, she was very aware of speaking to her readers. She further commented: "I like poems that address the reader…. Poetry isn't necessarily about communication, but that element is important to me. I go back to someone like [nineteenth-century American poet Walt] Whitman who knew I would be here even though he didn't know me. He thought about the people who would be coming after him—and he acknowledged them and spoke to them. And I feel that he is speaking to me, he knew I'd be here someday. I love the concept of speaking to people who aren't even born yet."
Described by Seaman as a "provocative inquiry into verve and creative license," Addonizio's novel Little Beauties focuses on Diana McBride, a woman who lives and works in southern California. Raised in a disfunctional home by an alcoholic mother, Diana suffers from obsessive/compulsive disorder, which manifests itself as a need for impeccable cleanliness. As her behavior threatens to destroy her marriage and her life, Diana finds herself rescuing a depressed teenaged unwed mother, a situation that forces her to confront her negative behaviors. Meanwhile, the unborn infant, Stella, has her own narrative, commenting on the actions of the women whose problematic lives will help shape her own world. Noting Addonizio's creative approach to the complexities of the mother-daughter relationships she explores, Seaman called the novel "funny, insightful, and diverting." The award-winning poet "makes an impressive transition to prose," exclaimed Library Journal reviewer Joy Humphrey, the critic going on to note that in Little Beauties Addonizio recounts her tale with a "touching reality and an edgy sense of humor."
Addonizio's second novel, My Dreams out in the Street, confronts readers with a challenge, according to Library Journal critic Leigh Anne Vrabel: this "luminous work dares readers to believe in the redemptive power of love." In the novel, twenty-four-year-old San Francisco resident Rita finds herself homeless, abandoned by her husband months before. Searching for Jimmy while tending to her daily needs of food and shelter, Rita must also search through her own drug-addled past, and the influences and choices that led her to her current situation. With a lyrical prose style, Addonizio incorporates "complex images" into a story that draws readers into a gritty existence in which little is beautiful, noted Vrabel, while in Booklist Seaman praised the book's "mesmerizing characters" and its "lip-biting yet strangely lyrical tale of survival." "The beauty of Addonizio's language binds the reader" to the characters in My Dreams out in the Street, asserted a Publishers Weekly contributor, and their "desperate lives are rendered with striking delicacy."
Addonizio once told CA: "Writing is an ongoing fascination and challenge, as well as being the only form of spirituality I can consistently practice. I started as a poet and will always return to poetry—both reading and writing it—for that sense of deep discovery and communion I find there. There are only two useful rules I can think of for aspiring writers: learn your craft, and persist. The rest, as Henry James said, is the madness of art."
Kim Addonizio contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
I. PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A TORTURED ADOLESCENT
When I was fifteen, I tried to kill myself with an overdose of Bayer aspirin. It was spring vacation, I had been caught shoplifting at Sak's Fifth Avenue in downtown Bethesda, Maryland—a pair of yellow short-shorts that were known as "hot pants"—and was awaiting trial in juvenile court. Probably there were other things I was depressed about, too, but all I remember is a sense of hopelessness and shame, and the urge to crawl into bed and sleep forever. I remember that I spent a long time making up my mind to actually go through with it; maybe I realized that aspirin was not exactly Seconal, but the decision, at the time, seemed a real one. I gathered up the diaries I had kept since the age of twelve, put them all in the trash so no one would read them after my demise, then in the late afternoon emptied a large bottle into my nervous system, went into my darkened bedroom, and waited for the end.
I still don't know if it's actually possible to kill yourself with aspirin; probably not. I was sick for three days and nursed by my brother Jon—who is now, in fact, a professional nurse—who found me in the bathroom throwing up, and to whom I confided my secret. By the time I was up and around, the garbage had been taken away, along with my diaries. I appeared before a judge a day or so later, and he assigned me to write an essay about why I had shoplifted. I responded with a piece about the evils of consumerism and the power of desire, and the judge wrote me a personal letter of praise in response.
Those are the events I thought of first, in considering my beginnings as a writer. That I wasn't yet a writer at fifteen is obvious to me: I threw my work away. I wanted to erase any traces of my thoughts and experiences, rather than give them the opportunity to outlive me. Then again, the grief I felt over the loss of my diaries was profound. I had after all managed to kill some part of myself, to destroy it with no possibility of recovery. I desperately wanted those diaries back. I still want them. I want to know who I was at those ages, especially since my own daughter is now a teenager. I forget so much. I write partly to remember, to try to hold out a few things from the flux. And I write because I'm obsessed with the past as much as the present, and with myself and those closest to me, and with strangers I'll never meet, and with the endless possibilities of what might come into being, in words, through the lens of my imagination. And through what I would call something like Universal Mind, or God, or Spirit. There is something that wants to make its way, through me, from the unsaid to the said, from nonbeing into form, into some thing beautiful and made. I had that sense most powerfully when I was giving birth to my daughter Aya—that my body was the instrument of some powerful, elemental force, a surge of energy that I was part of, but that didn't come from my puny individual self. I think of Dylan Thomas's line—"The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / drives my green age," and think, he got it exactly right.
I didn't grow up wanting to be a writer. At seven, I wanted to be a nun; I was raised Roman Catholic, and at that age I was devout. Otherwise, I don't remember
any particular ambitions until high school, when I wanted to be a musician. I had taken voice lessons when I was twelve and thirteen, and at fourteen I began learning the guitar. In high school, and a few years afterwards, I played folk songs, and etudes by Fernando Sor, and a lot of James Taylor. I sang "House of the Rising Sun" by the Animals, "Working Class Hero" by John Lennon, and Jackson Browne's "These Days." I learned "Classical Gas," and a Bach bourrée, and Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag," arranged for guitar. I think I wanted to be Joni Mitchell. This was the sixties and early seventies in suburban Bethesda, Maryland: the Vietnam War was on TV, the hippies were in Life magazine, and my brothers and I sat in the rec room with our friends, smoking pot and listening to music. I went to antiwar rallies and concerts in DC, drank Boone's Farm and Ripple and did mescaline. I attended Walt Whitman High School and I don't think I knew who the hell Whitman was. I read, but never poetry; I read Hesse and Mailer and Roth and Sartre and Camus, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Pearl Buck and Taylor Caldwell and my mother's Cosmopolitan and the dirty parts of The Godfather (I can vividly recall the sensation of lying on my parents' bed one afternoon, the air conditioner humming, as Sonny Corleone made it with one of the bridesmaids at a wedding and Mario Puzo described his "turgid pole," which words thrilled and excited me). I got straight A's in school and felt superior and alienated. I had long hair parted in the middle, and I wore black sweaters and bell-bottom jeans, and played my guitar and sang. In other words, I was pretty typical of a certain kind of teenager of my generation. I thought I was sensitive, and special, and would soon be famous.
I didn't begin keeping journals again until I was nineteen. I have that first journal, a small, green, spiralbound theme book. I have every journal after that, too, most of them the hard-back blue 8 1/2-by-11 books with pale green pages that I discovered about fifteen years ago and have used ever since. I'm now forty-three; almost a quarter-century of my life, at least of whatever compelled me from moment to moment in those years, is in a couple of heavy cardboard boxes in a closet in the garage, under an old electric blanket and a porcelain Nativity set.
By nineteen, a few things had happened. After high school I was accepted to Georgetown University, which I attended for three weeks. I had been pleased to get into Georgetown, especially since it was the only college I'd applied to. As a senior in high school, I'd had two boyfriends who went there, and I had my first—shall we say, completely satisfying—sexual experience in the men's dorm, immediately after which I got on the pay phone in the hall and called my best friend Diane to give her the news, as promised. But as a freshman there I felt terrified. I didn't like my classes, I hadn't made it into Honors English, and I kept getting lost on campus. I was forced to take theology, where a professor drew an onion on the board: and talked about the meaning of life: What if you peeled the layers away, one by one, and there was nothing at the core? I dropped out and moved in with Martin, a divorcing twenty-five-year-old I met in Montrose Park in DC while he was wandering around, high on methadone, and my parents stopped speaking to me for six months.
Martin and I moved into a house in Springfield, Virginia, with Danny and Helen, who were Martin's age, and Helen's four kids. Helen was on welfare.
Danny had been in Vietnam, and had a wooden leg replacing the one blown off at the thigh by a land mine, and a black belt in karate he'd achieved after he came home. It was a loving, hectic household. I remember two things in particular about that time. One is an image of Danny and Helen sitting in bed together one morning, surrounded by the Sunday paper and Helen's kids and their dog; it was a picture, for me, of family happiness, of closeness of a kind I hadn't grown up with and would yearn for for years afterward. The second thing I remember is coming across an ad for a correspondence course in creative writing, sponsored, I think—could it have been?—by Bennett Cerf. I wrote some heartrending (I was sure) story about a little boy and his mother living in a run-down house in winter with frozen pipes, sent it off, and received the reply that I had been accepted into the program. I had demonstrated evidence of my talent, and the school was ready to enroll me for some sum of money I didn't have, and never raised.
A few months later things had begun to fall apart between Danny and Helen. Martin and I moved to an apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. One day Martin brought home a beautiful girl named Alison, who had no place to stay, and she began living with us. Then we met Jimmie, a harmonica-playing ex-junkie whom I immediately fell in love with, and the four of us moved to a farmhouse in Frederick, Maryland, which was owned by a business partner of my mother's, and began an intense and doomed experiment in communal living.
We did a lot of drugs, had a lot of visitors from the city, and played the stereo, loud. The sound carried over the hills—the farmhouse was on the Appalachian trail—and further antagonized our neighbors, who had already had to come with their tractor several times to rescue mud-stuck cars on our steep driveway. The Black Angus cattle in the pasture across the road seemed to like Led Zeppelin in particular. Whenever we played it, they would line up at the barbed-wire fence and, I swear, stand there listening. Jimmie sold pot to musicians in the Navy Band, which kept the household going economically, and later worked for a while hacking off tree limbs with a chainsaw. By now Jimmie and I were a couple, and Martin and Alison had a bedroom together, and the air seethed with sexual resentment. Things came to a head after we had all been doing acid for about ten days—we had a hundred tabs of Mr. Natural in the freezer—and Martin
took a loaded gun we for some reason possessed, went out into the woods with it, and returned naked, his body smeared with blueberries. Or maybe they came to a head when Jimmie crashed my '65 Ford and tried to pass off my brother Gary's driver's license as his own, and went to jail. In any case, finally my mother's partner kicked us out.
Jimmie and I moved in with some friends of his in Virginia. I got a job working at Lum's, a pizza joint, and quit after ten days. We decided to head for California. Another friend of Jimmie's had an old VW van, which we acquired by trading Jimmie's stereo and my motorcycle—I had a small trail bike I used to ride through the cornfields by the farmhouse—and he and I and my brother Gary and our dog Karma, who had picked up a bad case of mange, set off cross-country. We made it as far a Fort Smith, Arkansas, where the van died. We spent the week between Christmas and New Year's in a motel there; I wrote songs, Jimmie and Gary lurked outside the nearby Pizza Hut hoping to score some pot, which we'd run out of, and Karma licked and licked at his raw forepaws. Gary bought a Greyhound ticket to L.A., and Jimmie and I and the dog got a ride with a Christian family to Albuquerque, where we had to put the dog to sleep, and then hitched the rest of the way. In L.A. we stayed with an ex-boyfriend of mine in his one-room apartment off the Sunset Strip. My single daily meal was a can of apricot nectar and a large chocolate-chip cookie. At night, for entertainment, we put our ears to the wall and listened to the couple next door, who were in primal therapy and screamed a lot. I gave myself until age twenty-five to make it as a singer.
Jimmie left for San Jose to see an ex-girlfriend, and I got a job as a candy girl at a movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard, and after a few weeks of burning the popcorn I hitched up to San Jose with Gary and we all lived with Jimmie's ex. When she kicked us out, we hitched down to Santa Barbara and got an apartment. Jimmie and I sparechanged every day for money to buy groceries, and became friends with a few bums and winos. I played my guitar and sang at an open mike. "Working Class Hero" went over well, and then I sang a couple of my own songs, which went over terribly. I slunk off the stage, humiliated. Nobody could find a job. It felt like time to go home. I enrolled as a music major at American University, got a shepherd-collie puppy and moved into a garage in DC, which I rented from the owner of the house for sixty dollars a month, and began keeping a journal again.
Moving day. Funky little garage at Foxhall and MacArthur, a place to burrow in and play music and be totally, finally, freely alone. There's a wine and cheese shop across the street to investigate. One whole wall of my room—the garage door—opens! I plan to be purely happy.
Reading [Anaïs] has made me high and frustrated, high because I see the possibilities for another world, way of life, genre of people. Frustrated because, as always, external reality does not conform to what I am living inside, feeling, dreaming, desiring.
She makes me conscious of writing, the lure, the taste of it. I want to start trying to capture the flavors and moods of everything that happens to me, the people, places, foods, wines, lovers, telephone conversations, songs, bars, depressions, elations, the rare moments of peace and harmony. There are many things that I experience intensely and with a certain awareness, that if only I could write it would be fulfilling, and even the awareness deepened by the writing of it.
I want to start structuring my writing as well as keep the flow here—do as Nin does, use the diary for raw material and then condense, distill the essence. It requires discipline and discernment and an amount of objectivity. And faith, that what I see and am aware of is true, and the way that I write it good enough to convey that truth. It is all the same, the search for clarity is one with the search for purity. That is why the "proof" is important, the creation of a work—of art, music, poetry—out of the chaos of mind and soul.
Sometimes I think the music is wrong, all wrong—I must write, but I will never conquer the incoherency.
Interesting line in [Nin's] Diary: "Real sensuality has no need of stimulants." I masturbate and sweat and can't come, and I cry. The dog is restless and panting. I am naked except for underwear. Patches of sunlight on my belly, on an arm, glowing on the hairs on my legs that look like golden grasslands.
I hate the world in which I live. Only here, alone, can I be free. Though it seems often a sterile freedom. Here I feel the depths of my worth and my unworthiness. I feel contradictions but they do not matter, I am as much one person as another. I idealize my self as I debase it. I am tired of the effort to communicate. Unwilling, closed off, resentful. No one wishes to open the door to my treasures. The vault so well hidden by my sadnesses and distances.
I don't know why I write, and often I hardly know what is put onto these pages. I only know that I write and it is needed, as I need no other drug, or person (but would this change if I met one to deliver me into life? Is this mere sublimation, an excuse, a substitution because what I live is so frustrating? Or does it come from a deeper need? What?)—or even music. Music is work, and I am lazy. I cannot move in the world of harmonies, rhythms, as I can in the realm of words, thoughts, ideas.
But still my preoccupation, obsession, is of the inadequacy. The fragments rather than the whole. (What whole? Where?) I cling to my faith. It is all I have. Everything, and nothing.
I feel drawn to Anaïs Nin's world—attracted, tempted, tantalized—and barred from it. Paralyzed in my inarticulation—I bring no gifts to the party, of wit or sophistication or true creation. I am only a child, standing wide-eyed at the door, asking to be allowed into the adult world. Sent away to bed by the parents, with love, and tenderness—but I do not belong. Someday. Some day. I will be quick and light and slip in quietly, fluidly, and by the time they discover that it is me I will be one of them and have learned their secrets.
As though I must clothe myself in their secrets, because I have none of my own? Not true, not true! But that is how I feel. At those times I am thankful that I am a woman—they will be kinder to me. I will not be judged so harshly because I am not expected to be the creator, the one who acts, as a man is; but only beautiful, warm, a haven when he seeks rest and sustenance in the womb, and peace from that chaotic world.
What I have just written is true, but there is this, too: I shall not allow them to judge me as lesser because a woman. The schism between man as existing in an outer world—the world of the doer—and the woman in the inner—is false. The creator, the artist, lives by that which is within, which is the spirit, which is the true womb—the woman is not the womb but comes from it as the man does. The womb is the Tao, is beyond Yin and Yang, is the source of male and female. Creation. I must go deeper. There is the answer, the fulfillment—not in the people. Always I seek the outward signs, knowing that the way is inward. And outward signs are only useful as long as they lead to understanding of the inner ones. That is the value of literature, music, dance, drama, in one sense—as doors to perception. As acid can be.
I want to be taken care of but not indulged. Loved but made to stand up. A strong man? But we are all weak and I want a human being. But I feel the need to be guided, I cannot understand the things around me or in me, I don't know what is right or wrong to do. I wish I had no ambition, no desire to feel as though I have done something, created something, fulfilled something. I do not want to feel a failure. But how to judge success? Not by society's standards, or my mother's, or anyone else's. My own. But I cannot separate me from the chaos of people that affect me. How many of my beliefs and dreams are not mine, but my mother's, society's, etc.—only internalized? Have I been totally formed by them, is there no small seed or core that is untouched by them? Yes, but I am far from my island, adrift in their seas. And lost.
There's a lot of this kind of thing in that green notebook—intense self-doubt and self-analysis, mixed with reflections on daily events and on the people in my life at that time. I wrote a lot about Jimmie—we were still seeing each other off and on, though by this time he had moved in with a gay lawyer named Bob (Jimmie was bisexual). I was writing songs, and some bad poetry, and I was depressed most of the time—at least, most of the entries attest to feelings of sadness, isolation, confusion over the lovers in my life and what I was going to make of myself. What's interesting to me is how seriously I took myself, or tried to take myself, as a creative artist. I have always told people that I didn't really begin to write until my late twenties, and always remembered it that way, until I read through this journal. I had forgotten how important to me Nin's diaries were—probably they inspired me to start keeping my own. I'd forgotten how much I was occupied with spiritual concerns, and how absolutely essential it was to get words down on paper, to try and articulate a consciousness.
Reading those words, the words of a nineteen-year-old, I'm impatient with that young woman. I want her to stop drinking so much, to become less morose and self-involved. I want to tell her to stand up to the men in her life, who are treating her badly. Don't worry, I'd tell her. You are going to be allowed in to the party after all, and you are not going to arrive empty-handed. There will still be music in your life. There will be other loves, some unimaginably better and some abominably worse, and you'll survive them. Some days you'll feel exactly as you do now, but those will only be the bad days, and they'll be outnumbered by days of what Anne Lamott calls "happy work, as gratifying as sex or hard laughter or good drugs," a quote you'll tape to the wall of your studio. Don't worry, I'd tell her as she hunches over, scribbling, her dog sleeping beside her, a stick of frangipani incense smoking on the dresser while rain beats on the garage roof and begins gathering on the floor, seeping up under the rug. Don't worry about any of it. You are going to become a writer.
II. I INTERVIEW MYSELF AND ASK SOME DIFFICULT QUESTIONS
Q: Were there any experiences before the age of fifteen that bear on your writing? Tell us a bit about your early life.
A: When I was about ten, I remember that I tried to write a mystery novel, inspired by Nancy Drew and the Dana Girls series. I think I wrote ten pages. I read constantly; you could only check out three books at a time at the library, and I'd borrow my brothers' cards and check out nine, every week. Also, my mother was always reading books with titles like Improve Your Vocabulary. She loved words, and would tell us the Greek and Latin origins.
Aside from that, though, the arts weren't a presence in our household. My mother, Pauline Betz, was a tennis pro; she was four-time national singles champion, was on the Wightman Cup team, won Wimbledon in 1946. My father, Bob Addie—I changed my name back to the original Italian in my twenties—was a sports writer for the Washington Post. Sports was pretty much their world. There were an alarming number of televisions. (I'm still addicted to TV; sometimes it's the only thing that calms me down.) We lived in a big house—mother, father, my four brothers and me, our grandmother except in summers, and until I was twelve there was also a woman we called Nanny, who periodically quit and was lured back to care for us again. I remember my childhood as basically unsupervised; I saw my mother on the tennis court, and my father was usually around only on weekends, and he also traveled quite a bit. I don't think I knew it at the time, but there was something I must have been looking for, that wasn't anywhere in my environment, and I found it in books.
Q: You've said that music was important; you wanted to be a singer. When did the focus shift to writing?
A: I spent two and a half years at American University studying classical voice. I'd hardly ever heard classical music until I went to college, and I'd never been exposed to opera. I was in this program, and I was supposed to be becoming an opera singer, and I couldn't do it. I had a big mezzo-soprano voice, actually, but it was completely untrained and I performed terribly at the recitals we had to do. I just couldn't cut it; it was competitive and scary. I dropped out and went to San
Francisco. I went back east for a summer, was miserably depressed, and then moved to San Francisco for good.
In San Francisco, I took private voice lessons for a while, but eventually I gave up the idea of being a singer. I started playing the flute and practicing three and four hours a day, and planned, when I got good enough, to return to school and finish a music degree. For about three years, my life was working every day—I worked in a portrait photographer's office during the week, doing clerical stuff, and waitressed on weekends—and practicing every night. Then I returned to school anyway, to San Francisco State, majoring in liberal studies—sort of a pre-education degree—thinking maybe I could teach kids music. I started writing poems after I broke up with a live-in boyfriend, who was a composer. In my senior year at State I took an introductory creative-writing class, and a year after I graduated—I got my B.A. when I was twenty-eight—I was in the M.A. program in creative writing. I was still seriously studying flute, but gradually the writing became more important, and I couldn't do both. I had to work, by that time I had a baby, and I was going to school. Also—this is terrible, I know, but it's true—I found that I could write with a hangover, whereas playing the flute was physical, it was harder.
Q: You've written a number of poems about drinking, and you seem to have done a lot of drugs.
A: What's your point?
Q: Do you think you have a problem with substance abuse?
A: Not any more. I took a lot of drugs at a time when everyone I knew was taking drugs. Drinking has been a problem at times. I feel pretty comfortable with my
drinking habits now, but there were times in the past I drank way too much. Slept with the wrong people, had blackouts, nasty arguments. You know. After my second marriage ended, especially, I fell apart. By day I led a normal life, but every night for about a year I cried uncontrollably and drank gin and wandered around in a white nightgown like something out of Tennessee Williams.
Q: So you were married twice?
A: Yes. First to a Jewish musician, who became a Buddhist psychotherapist—that's Aya's father, Eugene. Then to a photographer. Both were short marriages. The first gave me a beautiful child, the second an obsession.
Q: Meaning …
A: Well, I guess that's where art comes from, partly, doesn't it? I mean that I still haven't gotten over the second one. I wrote a chapter book, Dark Veil, about the breakup of that relationship. I kept writing poems about it after that. Finally I wrote one called, "No More Poems about the Marriage." It's short, I'll read it to you:
Rain seeps in through the kitchen door,
soaking the towel I laid down earlier,
and the wind makes that high, hollow sound
that in some stories announces a ghost.
Here's where I should write your name,
but instead set down a few words
about the evening, the storm
going on outside as I finish
a novel, make supper, fill a glass
with good wine. Going on
while I think of you constantly
and do not grow sad.
There's a private pun in that poem; his last name was Specter, so when I write the word ghost I actually have written his name. It's kind of fitting, considering how he's haunted me. Anyway, that wasn't the last one; something still occasionally pops out. I always tell my students, "Don't try to get it all into one poem!" There are so many aspects to deep experience, you can't do them justice in one piece of writing. So, next I wrote a novel, Blue Movies. My agent doesn't think it works, though a couple of writers have liked it, so I don't know what to do with it. But the point is that I had to write it, that it was a working out of part of the obsession with this person, who I was deeply, terribly in love with. I still am, but the life of that love has moved underground. I dream about him, mostly. And I try to use that energy to fuel creative work, because otherwise it would just absorb me.
I think, for me, writing—not all my writing, but certainly a good chunk of it—is my way of processing and responding to loss, of transforming it. I'd venture to guess that's the case for many writers. Think of how many had some sort of traumatic event to deal with in childhood, and how it continued to inform their work. Stanley Kunitz's and John Berryman's fathers committed suicide; Plath lost her father early; Elizabeth Bishop was exiled from her family and her birthplace—her father died when she was a baby, and her mother was mentally ill, and she was sent to live in Nova Scotia. I mean, there are countless examples. Writers who were abused as children—there's another case of creativity being a way of coping, of not allowing the world to push you around once you have the tools to push back. I'm sure there are many writers for whom that's not true, as well, but I don't think I know any personally.
Q: Let's talk a little more about the relationship of particular works to your own life. The interconnections between a writer's life and what gets down on the page are obviously complex. Do you consider your work autobiographical?
A: I consider my work truthful. At least, I hope it is. That doesn't mean, of course, that there's a one-to-one correspondence. Like any writer, I make things up, lie about particulars, create characters and situations from bits and pieces of my experience and from my imagination. But I think that any writer's work is a map of their psyche. You can't always divine the literal circumstances, but you can see what interests them, what engages their imagination, what they choose or are compelled to explore. Georges Bataille has an interesting essay at the beginning of Histoire de l'Oeil that talks about where some of the images in that book come from. De Sade wrote about sex that involved pain and humiliation because that was where his own desires lay. While we're on French writers—look at Proust. Look at Colette and all those novels about relationships. Baudelaire and drinking and that sense of being outside ordinary society. The territory of Genet. Pick any writer, really. Of course, what's interesting is how they take that raw impress of the world, of their culture and family and historical situation, and shape it. How to do that successfully—to make a fit container for it—is the challenge, even the imperative.
Q: Can you talk a little about how you put together your first collection, The Philosopher's Club?
A: Well, I was just writing, you know, working on poems, for years. I got my master's in 1986, going part-time for four years; The Philosopher's Club came out in 1994. Earlier, I had self-published some poems in a book called Three West Coast Women with two other writers, Laurie Duesing and Dorianne Laux. We would get together and critique each other's work, and it was really helpful. Later Dorianne, Laurie, myself, and two other writers—Christina Hauck and Ron Salisbury—met every two weeks for several years to workshop our poems. We called ourselves the Heart's Desire Poetry Gang. Once we did a reading together at Cody's Books in Berkeley and, besides reading our work, we did parodies about writing based on the songs from West Side Story—like a song called "Rejection" to the tune of "Maria." Anyway, Three West Coast Women was the beginning of looking at my work in a different way—not just as discrete poems, but having to ask, What are my themes? What's the shape of this thing, this grouping of poems? So by the time I was ready to attempt a full-length manuscript, I was trying to see the shape of the whole, the book. Only one or two poems from the chapbook made it into The Philosopher's Club. I kept writing new work, and discarding the old, because I was getting better; at least, I thought I was. When I had what I believed was a book manuscript, I began sending it out to competitions. You know, five hundred to a thousand or so hopefuls, and one winner. I did that for three years, virtually every competition. It was expensive—entry fee, copy costs, postage—and demoralizing. The manuscript kept evolving during that time; I kept changing it, trying to improve it.
The third year of sending it around, it was a finalist a few times. So I knew something was starting to click.
It was one of three finalists for the Barnard New Women Poets Prize, and that was exciting. Each of the three finalists was flown to New York, separately, to give a reading. I read to about six hundred people, with Audre Lorde. My mother flew up from Maryland, and it was the first time, I think, that she gave any sort of credence to what I was trying to do with my life. There was a fancy reception, and then that huge audience. "You had them in the palm of your hand," she told me afterwards. "Doesn't that feel great?" My mother was used to public speaking, to celebrity. As a champion tennis player, she had been on the cover of Time magazine, dated Spencer Tracy, knew Ed Sullivan. Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth's heiress, had been a good friend of hers. I still have a mink stole my mother gave me that belonged to Barbara Hutton—an item my mother seemed to believe I would actually wear. She thought I was smart, and talented, and should become a lawyer instead of writing poetry, which she likened to her bridge-playing—that is, a hobby that might give me great pleasure, but nothing to build a life on.
Q: Could you tell us a little more about the book?
A: Okay. The Barnard was the first time the book was a finalist, and of course I prayed it would win. It didn't. When I got the news I went running in Golden Gate Park and then walked around weeping, convinced I would never publish a book, that I was no good, my poetry was terrible, etc., etc. The thing is, I'm really grateful now that it wasn't published at that time. I eventually took out about twenty-five poems that were in that manuscript and just threw them away as I added new ones. What was finally published is a much better first book than the other one would have been. It took five more years to see it in print, but it's a book I think I'll be able to look back on and be fairly proud of, rather than wanting to bury it.
Q: How did BOA Editions come to publish it?
A: My friend Dorianne Laux had her book taken by BOA; she and another writer I knew were lobbying Al Poulin, Jr., the editor, to take a look at mine. By now it had been a finalist for the Walt Whitman award and a few others. Al was coming out to San Francisco for a business meeting, and Dorianne wanted to show him around the city a little and take him to lunch, and of course I wanted to meet him; Dorianne had just gone ahead and sent him the manuscript. I wanted to make a strong impression. So I turned my car into a limousine, and I became a chauffeur. I filled the car with fresh flowers, put a cooler in the backseat with sodas and champagne and strawberries and truffles, and put on a black mini skirt and jacket and spiked heels and white gloves and a chauffeur's cap I found at a thrift store. When Al was wheeled out of his hotel—he was in a wheelchair for many years—I was standing by the car waiting, the door open to the backseat, Thelonius Monk on the tape deck. He and Dorianne rode in the back, and I drove them around all day. At lunch, he said he'd been reading my manuscript, but didn't elaborate. A day or so later he called me at home and said, "been reading your book." "Well, what do you think of it?" I asked. "Do you have any more poems?" he said. So I said I'd give him more poems. Then we all had dinner before he left town, and the subject of my manuscript came up, and Al said, "Let's do it," like it was a movie deal or something. Then, I didn't get a contract for a long time, and got completely paranoid. I finally called and asked if he was still planning to publish my book. This was near Christmas, and shortly afterwards I got a Christmas card with a cartoon picture of a lion, its arms around a little lamb who was holding a book. Inside, Al had written, "Kim and her book, safe in the arms of BOA."
Q. That's a great story! How important are connections? Do you think if you were in New York, instead of San Francisco, your literary career would be different?
A: I've often asked myself that question. First, I should say that I'm pretty much at the beginning of whatever could be called a "literary career." I see writing as a vocation, and not a career; but it's true that if you want to make your way in the literary world, you can't just sit in your room and write. You need to send out your work, meet other writers, try for the grants and awards. Those things are important to me, first, because I want readers; and second, because I want enough money to live on, which translates ultimately as having time to write. The more known I become, the more I can attract students to my classes, which is what pays my rent and supports my kid. If I get a grant, it buys me time off from teaching, so I can write more. I've believed for years that I had to just write my way out of my present circumstances, into better ones. When I got my first NEA grant, in 1990, I was teaching composition at San Francisco State, feeling trapped. Here I'd gone to school because I didn't want to be
trapped my whole life in the kind of jobs I was doing—restaurant work, office work—and now I was a college lecturer and felt the same way. The pay was bad, the workload was incredible, and I was trying to teach students who basically didn't want what I had to offer. When I got the grant, I used it to change my life; I started teaching private poetry workshops, and swore I would only teach creative writing, and not composition anymore. I've discovered that's very difficult to do, especially since right now I don't want a full-time job in the academy. But I'm doing it anyway.
I remember that when I got the NEA, Dorianne Laux, who happens to be my best friend, received one also. And everyone asked us, "Well, who did you know on the panel?" I don't know if they just assumed things were rigged, or what. I think people who are trying to get published sometimes believe there's some sort of network, that if they could just suck up to the right people they'd see their work coming out in all the journals. And it simply isn't true. I'm sure that kind of thing happens; but my own experience is that there's an organic networking that develops between writers who feel an affinity for each other and for each other's work. If I like someone's writing, I do whatever I can to help them. That usually isn't much. Maybe I can write a letter of recommendation, or let them know about an anthology that's looking for work, or put them on the Web—I'm a contributing editor of ZIPZAP, an e-zine. And people have helped me in similar ways. I think art is a gift economy, in the way that Lewis Hyde describes it in his book The Gift. Of course, gifts sometimes carry obligations, and that's where things can get muddy. There start to be other considerations besides the writing.
Q: What, up to this point, have been your best and worst moments as a writer?
A: The best moment was probably getting that first NEA. I didn't have a book yet. It was so much money—twenty thousand dollars—and so much af- firmation. I didn't expect to get it at all; it happened to be easy to apply for, and I made myself apply for things, just as I made myself send out work figuring it would probably be rejected, as a matter of discipline. Of course I nurtured the wild hope that I might get a grant, but I honestly didn't think I was ready, good enough, whatever. It was a sign from the world saying that I wasn't foolish or crazy, that I could actually do this thing of becoming a writer. Or, I could say that the best moment is the moment I'm involved with a piece of writing, inside it, knowing I've hit the stream. That's the way I experience it: like I'm dowsing for water. I can write a lot of crap, and then suddenly I'm in the stream of language and I know how to write again. And that moment, which might last a few hours, is always the best.
My worst moment: the most recent thing that comes to mind is driving two hours to give a reading to four or five people. The depressing realization, once again, that few people read or care about poetry. Here I was on this community college campus, with hundreds of people outside the room—what was horrible was that it was an auditorium—and I was standing onstage feeling like an idiot. I try not to have expectations anymore about audience size for readings. And after doing a few reading tours, I don't expect the organizer of the event to have done things right—like, do enough advertising, let me know if I need to bring books, tell me where to park if parking is a problem. The whole business of being a poet is some times demoralizing. That's one reason I've been writing more fiction. The other worst time is the corollary to the best time: some days I sit and stare at my notebook or the computer screen and have absolutely no idea how to write, and I'm sure it's gone forever.
Q: So, now you're writing more fiction than poetry?
A: I've written fiction for years, almost as long as I've written poetry, but it's only recently I've started to figure out a few things about how to make a story. Writing fiction satisfies a different impulse from writing poetry. It's a chance to expand in a different way, to create a fuller alternative world, and I like that. But it's so difficult. I've given it up several times, just lost heart completely, but then I always come back eventually to trying again. Now I've published a few stories, and I have a collection, In the Box Called Pleasure, that I hope to publish soon. I think it's finally ready. My dream is to publish a novel one day. But I think I'll always define myself, first and foremost, as a poet.
Q: Two failed marriages. Single motherhood. Problems with drugs and alcohol. Chronic poverty. The humiliation of standard rejections. Any regrets? Who's the real Kim Addonizio?
A: The real Kim Addonizio is a sensitive, socially concerned, aware individual. She's strong yet insecure, bold and yet shy, confessional yet private. She's a feminist, but in a late-twentieth-century kind of way. She's a mother, a lover, a teacher, a good friend. Simple, yet complicated. Happy, yet depressed. Egomaniacal, yet ….
Q: Thank you for being with us. We're out of time.
A: … modest. Obsessed with the past, yet part of the here and now ….
Q: It's been a pleasure.
A: … impulsive, yet given to measured deliberation ….
III. THE IMAGES THAT FIRST GAINED ACCESS TO MY HEART
Albert Camus once said that his writing was no more than "a long journey to recover through the detours of art the two or three simple and great images that first gained access to my heart." I'm a great believer in images, sensory impressions, the body's memory. Having begun this autobiography with considerable trepidation—how can I write that many words? How can I keep it from being one long litany of Me, Me, Me?—I find that, once started, I want to tell everything, and I've left out nearly everything. How my mother has given me so much, and especially been an example of independence and abiding energy for life; how I miss my father, who died when I was twenty-seven; how my oldest brother's violence made much of my childhood a hard lesson in fear and powerlessness. I've barely mentioned Dorianne, who has been my friend and collaborator and lost sister and mirror for nearly fifteen years; and Aya, without whom my life would have been far more erratic and meaningless and spiritually impoverished; and Joe, the man I live with now. I've left out whatever is in all those journals in the garage. And all that isn't written down yet, anywhere. And the present moment: the sound of
laundry in the dryer (my studio is in the basement), the three tiny finches balancing on the clothesline outside, the fog just lifting from the ocean.
Is it true that everything that happens to us is held by the body, becomes a part of it? On my left knee is the scar I got at six, jumping over open sewers in a construction site. On my left forefinger, the scar from the night before my second wedding, when I tried to cut some irises with a knife and sliced through to the tendon. There's the appendectomy scar, and the one from when I had a tube and ovary removed because of an infection. There are my tattoos—the lightning bolt on my hip, a copy of the one my second husband, Robert, had on his chest; the chameleon on my shoulder signifying that life is change; the black armband underneath with the Leo symbol in the center. Those are visible signs, like frown lines, but somewhere in my cells are recorded the experiences that leave no outward trace. I think it was Wordsworth who said something like, we are happy when for everything inside ss there is something corresponding outside us.
I see now that it's a hopeless task, that it's infinite, this trying to bring forth what's inside. All that's possible, really, are fragments.
I'm seven years old, lying on my back under a tree looking up at the clouds. Then I see God's face up there. It's not a cloud that looks like a face, but a real face. He just gazes down at me, and I look up at Him, and part of my mind argues with another part that this can't be happening. I go home, knowing I've had a vision, but I don't tell anyone.
My oldest brother and my father have been fighting. The kitchen door has been wrenched off a hinge. Outside, in the circular driveway in front of the house, my brother is on his knees, in the dark and the rain, having stomach convulsions.
Outside Mount Zion Medical Center I stand holding Aya, two days old. I'm waiting for Eugene to bring
the car around. I'm terrified of dropping her. I'm holding her life in my hands, and I know I don't know what the hell I'm doing.
My mother, aunt, and grandmother are staying at a hotel in Palo Alto for a bridge tournament. Aya is seven weeks old, small enough to be bathed in the sink. My grandmother falls asleep on the bed, and I lay Aya next to her. Neither of them has any teeth.
After the divorce, Eugene and I are having an argument about money. It escalates to screaming and throwing things. Aya hides in the closet, crying, saying "no no no no no" over and over.
Dorianne, Joe, and I are in a hotel room in Vancouver.
I lie beside Robert, who is sleeping. I know it's the last time. I'm awake all night, watching him.
I visit my father in the hospital after his first stroke. His right side is paralyzed, and his speech is garbled. I have just published my first poem, in the college literary magazine. I read it aloud to him, but I'm not sure he understands what's happening. We sit together for a while, and when I stand to leave, he suddenly lurches forward off the pillows, points his left hand at me, and says one word. "Write," he says.
IV. THE CONCEPT OF GOD
The following essay, "The Concept of God," appeared in the journal Italian Americana. The poem "The Concept of God" was first published in The Philosopher's Club, BOA Editions, 1994. © by Kim Addonizio. Reproduced by permission.
As a child growing up Roman Catholic, what fascinated me about God was not the idea that He was eternal and would exist forever, but the idea that He had always existed. It was easy to imagine it if I mentally turned around and looked back into the eons of the past, the way I could imagine looking forward; I could see Him going on and on, infinite. But then I would think, How did it all get started? and it seemed inconceivable that there should be no starting point. Things had to begin some how, didn't they? Even God?
Those were my thoughts at about the age of nine or ten. Soon afterwards, I would begin to question what the nuns taught in school, question having to attend Mass each Sunday at Saint Bartholomew's in Bethesda, Maryland—what seemed a long, tedious service, in those days still mostly in Latin—but at that age I was still religious. I grappled with the problem of God's infinite existence not out of doubt, but out of an attempt to understand intellectually what I knew, viscerally and emotionally: that there was a God who had always been, always would be, in spite of my failure to understand His mysteries.
I remember how it felt to have faith. I no longer believe in the God I tried to conceive of then—not in that supernatural father I prayed to and loved and argued with. And so of course when my real father died, years later—my devout father who had never stopped the weekly ritual of Mass, though his five children fought to attend public school and began to spend Sunday mornings sneaking out of the service, then finally not going at all—when my father died, I did not have the consolation of belief. My brothers and I stood around at the funeral home, looking helplessly at each other and at his body, and then we went to get drunk. A couple of days later, at the funeral service, I found myself back in Saint Bartholomew's, where I had not been in a very long time, and in a way it seemed no time at all had passed. I think that moment was when the poem "The Concept of God" began inside me, at some level I wasn't yet aware of.
Afterwards, people came back to the house. I met, for the first time, some of my father's brothers and sisters who had come down from New York. My father was not close to his family, arid like many things about his life, the reason for it remained hidden in his privateness, his reluctance to speak about his past. He had Americanized his name to Addie, and this was the name I grew up with until changing it back to the original Italian in my twenties. My father's father, Antonio Addonizio, had come from southern Italy with his wife, Theresa, in the early 1900s, and worked as a butcher in New York City. Later there was a run-in with the Mafia, when some men wanting protection money came by the shop, and he threw them out; the story went that his partner was then murdered, that the family moved, that he later opened a bar in Greenwich Village. Theresa died when my father was seven; she wrote poetry, and may have published a book. This is virtually all I know. My aunt gave me photographs of my grandparents, and I was grateful to see what they had looked like.
Over the next couple of years, I exchanged Christmas cards with some of my father's siblings. I kept wondering what had happened in that family, why I grew up with a name I did not even know had been shortened until my maternal grandmother told me; I was seventeen when I learned it. It was too late to ask my father about his life, his parents, his sense of who he was as an Italian American, raising an assimilated family of brown-eyed, brown-haired children who knew nothing about the people who had traveled from another country years before. We had become true Americans; the past had been so thoroughly erased it almost might never have existed.
I wrote a long letter to the aunt who had given me the photographs. The letter was full of questions. I asked for any stories about my grandparents, about my father, anything that might tell me more about the frustrating gap in my family history, but I never received a reply. I occasionally write such a letter to my mother, too, hoping she remembers a few things my father might have told her; but my mother is not much interested in the past, and I think it may be painful for her, so I don't push it.
Sometimes my father visits me in dreams. He's just there, suddenly, and I recognize him, and put my arms around him. When I wake the next morning, I don't think, I dreamed about my father; I feel, instead, that he was actually present. Sometimes I think that maybe the dead wander off for years, unconscious of time, and then come back not knowing how long we've waited to see them. I'm always grateful to have had the chance, again, to be with him. The past remains a locked door, the key tossed away. But sometimes, for a short space of time, maybe we can be on both sides of the door at once. That's the belief I'm left with, and what my poetry sometimes tries to make happen.
THE CONCEPT OF GOD
Years later, nothing inside the church
has changed. Not the dusty light,
not the white feet of the statues
or the boys in their pale smocks
kneeling before the candles.
Not the cool basement, the paper plates of
set out by the coffee urns.
Not the bathroom with its stall doors open
on a row of immaculate toilets,
blue water in the bowls,
a small wrapped soap on each sink.
Forever the two girls leaning against the wall
in the deep quiet, sharing a lipsticked Salem
and watching themselves in the mirror,
forever the priest nodding in the confessional,
closing and opening and closing his small
Always my father moving down the rows
of bored, sonorous voices, passing the long-handled
my mother with his handkerchief pinned over
Always, too, his coffin before the altar, my
stammering a eulogy, the long line of parked
spattered with snow. Always this brief moment
when the candles shudder, then resume,
and the girl holding the cigarette peers more
into the mirror, startled for an instant
at how old, how much like a woman
it makes her look.
Addonizio contributed the following update to CA in 2008:
I. "THE BLUES ARE THE TRUE FACTS OF LIFE."
When I wrote my original essay in 1997, I had published two poetry collections, as well as a book on writing that I wrote with my close friend, poet Dorianne Laux. My daughter Aya was fifteen, a sophomore at School of the Arts. With my boyfriend, Joe, I rented a large house in the Sunset District of San Francisco, where I taught poetry workshops in our living room and spent long hours at a desk from which I could glimpse the Pacific. The ocean changed every day, every hour, and it was always an amazement to look up from working and see what transformations had taken place.
In another sense the view was constant, the sea changing but always there, a counter-world to the worlds in my head. In my head I was in a windowless basement, the setting of Blue Movies, the novel I was working on. Or I was sitting on a sidewalk asking for spare change or riding a San Francisco Muni bus with Rita, the homeless character who was the main protagonist of my second novel, My Dreams out in the Street. I was down somewhere deeper in poems, in worlds that sometimes consisted of amorphous states of feeling that were trying to coalesce into language. Sometimes I drifted back to awareness of that sliver of ocean outside the window, and sometimes it was a long pull to get there.
In considering how to write about the last ten years of my life, or how one writes any life, I have been thinking of something Jung wrote in his autobiography, Memory, Dreams, Reflections. The essence of the passage, as I remember it, was that so much happens in one's interior life that may never be revealed on the surface of it. I think this is true for everyone, and that this sense of the vast realms of consciousness is one thing that impels artists to reveal more of what's underneath—to unwrap, peel back, dredge up, what would otherwise go unexpressed and unrecorded. What happened in my imagination was like whatever was happening beneath the surface of the Pacific. Most of what has happened in my life probably can't be rendered through a narrative of outward events. This is what I responded to in Jung, and it's why my, or any writer's, life may possibly be best understood from reading the work. The work is a map of the interior, that is to say, of the real life. And at that, only a map.
We had a lot of parties in that house in the Sunset. In my memory the days are quiet, filled with reading and writing, and the nights are filled with friends and food, with barbeques and poker games and Joe concocting some new, delicious dish. I felt I had finally found
much of what had eluded me up to that point: a solid relationship, a sense of family I had desperately wanted to provide for Aya and for myself, some success at writing that allowed me to teach what I loved and to work at it most days. I was committed to writing for the long haul, knew it would be my life's work, knew I would keep trying to serve whatever talent I had. I had made a good life, I often thought then, despite the odds against it.
And then, of course, it changed. I had never come to terms with the end of my second marriage. Suffice it to say—here is one instance where an external account fails to illuminate much—that Joe and I broke up and that there was a painful transition period. After living with a couple of terrible roommates (the first a young, out-of-control hairdresser, and the second a mentally unbalanced psychology grad student), after Aya graduated and went off to the University of Minnesota to pursue a B.F.A. in theater, after a year-long relationship with someone else, I moved from San Francisco to Oakland with Robert, my ex-second husband. We had reunited and I was hopeful for a new start. We bought a small house and moved in together in April of 2001. By then a number of events had occurred in my literary life. In 1999 I had published a collection of stories, In the Box Called Pleasure, with Fiction Collective 2 (for which I received the whopping advance of a hundred dollars). In 2000, BOA Editions brought out my third poetry collection, Tell Me, which became a finalist for the National Book Award and for the PEN USA West Award. I coedited a book of writing about tattoos, Dorothy Parker's Elbow, published by Warner Books in 2002. (In 2004, on my fiftieth birthday, I got my fifth tattoo—a pink lotus on my right shoulder—to signify the possibility of continued spiritual flowering. In Tantrism, the lotus represents the feminine principle or a woman's sex; and the lotus is the Buddhist symbol for awakening, for moving from the muck of materiality at the bottom and rising to divine flowering above the surface of the water.)
During the time I lived with Joe in San Francisco, I finally abandoned four years' worth of work on Blue Movies. I put it away, despairing of ever being able to write a publishable novel. But then I began another one, based on the characters from Jimmy & Rita, the verse novel (how else to describe a narrative made of poems and prose poems?) BOA Editions had published in 1997. I was haunted by those characters still, and wanted to know what happened to them after Jimmy went to jail and Rita to a homeless shelter. I wrote the novel to find out, and to try and get them to a better place in their lives. That one, too, I put away. I showed a draft of it to one of my former professors at San Francisco State, and he pronounced the main character, and the novel, full of hopelessness. After a year I took out the manuscript and showed it to Los Angeles novelist Larry Fondation, who was also writing about homeless people. Larry said to me, "Sometimes survival itself is a form of hope," and encouraged me to work on it again. In Oakland I continued to write
that book, as well as new poems, many of which would find their way into What Is This Thing Called Love, which W.W. Norton published in 2004.
At the same time a new passion had entered my life and was beginning to take up a lot of my time: blues harmonica. I had wanted to be a musician before I ever thought of becoming a writer. Guitar in high school, voice in college, the flute in my twenties—I was always pursuing some instrument. But since giving up the flute for writing, I hadn't played much music. In my mid-forties I developed an overwhelming urge to really learn to play this little instrument I'd carried around since I was nineteen, without ever getting beyond a beginner's level. I began lessons with a teacher in Berkeley who would often forget he had scheduled me. He'd open his door and a wave of pot smoke would waft out, and he'd hurry to pull himself together, and then he would listen patiently to the awful sounds of my attempts to bend a reed and make something approximating music.
At that time I would walk into music stores and stand in the blues section, vibrating with excitement. The harmonica players I would discover, whose styles I would begin to absorb, whose recordings I would play over and over, were there. Sonny Boy Williamson—the original harp player who recorded in the thirties and forties, and Aleck "Rice" Miller, who began recording in the forties and also called himself Sonny Boy Williamson (and became better known). Little Walter, James Cotton, Junior Wells, and so many others. Early country blues players like DeFord Bailey and Palmer Macabee, who I would discover a few years later. Right now I am working on train songs, and on early spirituals. I've begun integrating harmonica with my readings, because poetry and the blues have so much to say to each other. They are both tradi- tions rooted in the oral, in a community of makers and listeners, that traffic in the "true facts of life"—love and sorrow and deep joy. The images of blues songs are witty, sly, mournful, rooted in the body and lived experience. Someone been diggin' my potatoes. There's another mule kicking in my stall. Sun gonna shine in my back door.
As well as moving into my poetry performances, the blues upwelled in my writing; a few poems using a loose form of blues made it into What Is This Thing Called Love. The character of Jimmy, Rita's ex in My Dreams out in the Street, plays blues harmonica. Right up until the final edits of that book, I was adding to Jimmy's knowledge the things I was learning musically. His character was also partly based on the Jimmie I had been in love with at nineteen, who played harmonica. So the blues affected a young man from New Jersey, whom I loved over thirty years ago, before I knew I would have a life as a writer, before I knew that I would play that music. And I began a novel about a woman's yearning for her ex-husband while I made my life with another man, not knowing how the novel would end, not knowing or ever imagining that my own story would have—for a while, at least—that happy ending of lovers reunited. Lightning twice.
Falling in love with the blues involved me more deeply in the energy of creative process, and helped me keep connected more to the work and pleasure of writing than to totaling career successes. Anyway, achievement has a way of deflating itself as soon as it's arrived at. It's in the nature of human desire, else desire wouldn't be what it is. The next thing is always what we want.
I once believed that publishing a book of poems would transform me. I wanted to be transformed. From unpublished to published, from student to teacher, from insecure, confused, depressed young woman to accomplished writer impervious to life's, or the psyche's own, slings and arrows. Once I had books of poetry, I thought that publishing a novel would do it. That accomplished (Little Beauties, which I wrote during another hiatus from Jimmy and Rita's story, came out in 2005), maybe a Guggenheim would grant me less depression, greater confidence? Yes, some. Of course. But in many ways, no. Now I get it. The work I have to do is both artistic—I have so much to learn still and so much further I hope to go—and interior. Keats, one of the writers I think of as mine (I am willing to share him, but he is still mine, the one whose poems speak intimately to me) characterized life as "a vale of soul-making." And that making is bound up with the continued making of myself as a writer, and as a fledgling musician.
Robert and I split up in 2005. I moved into an apartment in Oakland, a Victorian one-bedroom with bay windows, in a neighborhood alive with cafés and restaurants and a weekly farmer's market, all of which I drifted through alone. The title of a 1965 book by Beat poet Bob Kaufman, Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness, seems the best description of my life at this time. I continued to teach private workshops and to write poems, and I began work on another book about writing and creative process called Ordinary Genius. My sense of poetry had expanded since writing The Poet's Companion. In Ordinary Genius, I wanted to include canonical works as well as contemporary ones, and not separate them—to make the poetry of the past and present more of a piece, the way I experienced it. I wove in some personal stories about my life, and drew parallels between learning music (and trapeze, another challenge I took up for a while) and the study of the writer's craft. I brought in art, and the topic of gender identity, and tried to tackle ideas about race and class. More and more I felt poetry as part of a nexus of connections, to the other arts and to life.
In that apartment, I also worked on final revisions of My Dreams out in the Street, which Simon & Schuster was bringing out ten years after I began it. They were not, at first, enthusiastic about the book, and turned it down. (As is commonly the case, the contract for my first novel gave them a right of first refusal for the next one). They were expecting, I think, a sequel to the lighter, more comedic Little Beauties, a novel about mothers, daughters, and obsessive compulsive disorder which featured as one of its characters a prescient unborn child. My agent, Rob McQuilkin, thought it was a strong novel and had faith that it would find a publisher, and at the point we regretfully told Simon & Schuster that we would need to shop it elsewhere and would be severing our connection, they came back and—surprise—offered a two-book deal for My Dreams and a following novel. I was happy to stay with Simon & Schuster, especially because my editor, Marysue Rucci, was an astute critic, and I wanted her input and guidance on how to develop the final arc of My Dreams out in the Street.
The writing at this stage was not necessarily easy, but it was a relief from a life that had begun to feel flat,
isolated, and overwhelming. I was experiencing the aftermath of a romantic relationship that had gone on, both above and below the surface of my life, for fifteen years. Aya was living in New York, making her way as a young actress. She got raves in both the New Yorker and the New York Times for an off-Broadway show, playing a Russian girl; she derived her inspiration partly from one of those terrible roommates we had after Joe moved out of the house. And she was going on many auditions she didn't get, often supporting herself as a waitress, living the life of an artist. The little apple had not fallen far in some ways, but she was across the country, and I missed her terribly. I had a decisive break with Dorianne, who had been my dearest friend. That rift was a source of puzzlement and pain, and occurred at the time Robert and I split. My mother, who had Parkinson's, had grown steadily worse and was in an assisted-living facility; I often struggled with the feeling I should return home to Maryland to be closer to her, but I felt so destabilized by the changes in my life that I couldn't consider moving again. Some days I couldn't consider moving off the couch. I started taking antidepressants, which helped for a while, and then became ineffective. I drank wine sitting up late at night, listening for the sound of trains passing through Emeryville—a sound I had loved hearing in the house I had lived in with Robert. During the day nothing could be heard above the white noise of freeway traffic. I wrote a lot. I crawled into my harp, and played a lot of blues.
II. ON THE NIAGARA
I recently bought Kay Ryan's latest book of poems, The Niagara River. Yeah, I thought, looking at its cover image of Niagara Falls, that's exactly where we are. And no amount of rowing is going to keep us from going over. I've always had a sense of the enormous falls up ahead, but that sense has grown more acute, especially in the last two years. It's not only the personal awareness of my own mortality but the realization that it is global, that the prospects for human life on earth look bleak, indeed. The list of ills is too long and too familiar to detail. The coming world is one I am in many ways glad I won't be here to see; it saddens me that it's the world my daughter and so many others are inheriting.
And yet, in the meantime, there is, as Auden wrote, "the Time Being to redeem from insignificance." A year ago I pooled resources with a friend and we bought a duplex. My portion is the downstairs of the house, which is set on a hillside, with a large deck and two enormous redwoods among the many trees. If I look straight out from my living room or bedroom, I feel I am deep in the woods. A little to the left, and I can see through the trees the transformers of the PG & E substation just around the corner. When I step out onto the deck, the eighteen or so windows of an apartment building for seniors gaze down at me. Sometimes it's quiet, though often I can hear the hacking cough of one unfortunate next door, or the Chinese classical music of another. Upstairs, my co-owner's little dog, a Maltese, yaps constantly and forlornly whenever his mistress is out. The other night, for the first time, I heard an owl calling high in the trees. It's not a bad place to write, but I don't feel at home here. I moved in a year ago and there are still CDs and books in piles all over the place, awaiting shelves I can't seem to buy, and a few as-yet-unpacked boxes. I think I'd like to leave and move to the desert, maybe to New Mexico. Thirty years in the Bay Area seems like enough; many
of the lives and identities I created here have disappeared. But I'm waiting. I don't know for what. For something underneath the surface to realign, to carry me into a geographical shift.
This is where I've been finishing Ordinary Genius, which W.W. Norton will be bringing out in 2009. I'm working on the poems that will comprise my next collection, Lucifer at the Starlite. It's also where I'm completing rewrites of the new novel, Under Heaven, whose first draft I wrote in seven weeks in 2005 (this is at least draft number eight), in a different house, a different life. Having these projects coming to fruition all at once means that, when they are wrapped up in a few months, there will be a great—in the sense of vast—space for something to enter. Being alone for two years has also created a great space.
Dante's Divine Comedy opens, in the "Inferno," with these words: "In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to a dark wood." I'm past the middle, surely, unless I live into my hundreds, a prospect too depressing to contemplate, given my athlete mother's precipitous decline after eighty. The woods today aren't dark, at least the ones immediately beyond my deck; the light of early November is still suffusing the tops of the trees. I got up this morning and worked on my writing—on this writing, in fact. I went to a yoga class. Yoga has become a regular practice. Tonight I'll teach a poetry workshop; in a few days I'm going down to Esalen in Big Sur, to teach with my friend, poet Susan Browne. Before my students come tonight I'll have time to call my mother and run through the usual loop of nonconversation and painful pauses as she struggles to find a word, stranded in the middle of a sentence. I'll call or at least e-mail Aya, whose performance in Anne Frank I'll be flying to Denver to see in a couple of weeks.
And I'll sit down and figure out a few more of the grooves and rhythmic intricacies of "Work Wid Me," from a CD of recordings someone made of Sonny Boy Williamson II. A harp player, Rick Estrin of Little Charlie and the Nightcats, sent them to me a few months ago. Apparently they were made later in Sonny Boy's life; you can tell by his voice that he's older. In the background, as he sings what he calls "the blues of the blues," are the muffled sounds of people talking and laughing together, of forks scraping plates, so these cuts don't seem to have been engineered. They're just a record of what someone once listened to, maybe music that hasn't even been publicly released. Also, there's no band. It's just him, singing with his G harmonica.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Book Review, December-January, 1995-96, p. 28.
Antioch Review, spring, 1998, Molly Bendall, review of The Poet's Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry, p. 246.
Booklist, December 15, 2003, Donna Seaman, review of What Is This Thing Called Love, p. 720; July, 2005, Donna Seaman, review of Little Beauties, p. 1896; May 15, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of Dreams out in the Street, p. 21.
Iowa Review, winter, 2002, Ryan G. Van Cleave, interview with Addonizio, pp. 122-128.
Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 2005, review of Little Beauties, p. 649; May 1, 2007, review of My Dreams out in the Street.
Library Journal, March 15, 1997, Daniel Guillory, review of Jimmy & Rita, p. 66; October 15, 1997, David Kirby, review of The Poet's Companion, p. 70; April 15, 2001, Barbara Hoffert, review of Tell Me, p. 102; January, 2004, Diane Scharper, review of What Is This Thing Called Love, p. 118; June 15, 2005, Joy Humphrey, review of Little Beauties, p. 56; May 15, 2007, Leigh Anne Vrabel, review of My Dreams out in the Street, p. 77.
Ploughshares, spring, 1997, Diann Blakely Shoaf, review of Jimmy & Rita, p. 212.
Poetry, January, 2002, Leslie Ullman, review of Tell Me, p. 234.
Publishers Weekly, December 30, 1996, review of Jimmy & Rita, p. 61; September 25, 2000, review of Tell Me, p. 108; December 22, 2003, review of What Is This Thing Called Love, p. 54; July 11, 2005, review of Little Beauties, p. 62; April 23, 2007, review of My Dreams out in the Street, p. 28.
Washington Post Book World, January 26, 1997, p. 8.
Kim Addonizio Home Page,http://www.kimaddonizio.com (January 10, 2008).
PopMatters.com,http://popmatters.com/ (September 27, 2002), Patrick Schabe, review of In the Box Called Pleasure.
San Francisco Arts Online,http://sanfranciscoartsmagazine.com/ (September 27, 2002), Jessica Belle Smith, "The Gritty Genius of Kim Addonizio."