The Laundress Catcher Her Breath is such an amazing read. I rarely pick up a poetry book that I cannot put down, but this one had me at hello. From the first poem to the last. Maybe we should start by just posting the first poem.
She washes colors but prefers whites,
bleaching streaks of yellow and mottled gray
grease on her apron from a shift at the fryer, stains
that can’t hide in dyes of mulberry or hunter green.
She takes them on
face to face like school girls she fought
and snapped in two.
She walks away with a loose tooth that she yanks out,
tarred from cigarette smoke. She couldn’t
get it white no matter how hard
Would you say little bit about the evolution of this book? How did you come up with the idea of writing about a laundress?
I was looking through old family photos and struck by how many yard shots had a laundry line in the background. My grandmother and mother used to hang their clothes out on the line and my cousin follows suit in our Pittsburgh river town. As one who has lived in a fourth floor apartment in Brooklyn for many years with no pulley line out my window (my coop probably would have banned it anyway as an eyesore), I was fascinated by her ritual, almost envious when she took a pole and propped the line up. I wrote a poem about her and had no idea that her voice would take such a hold on me through a full-length collection.
I’d love to hear about your life as a poet, ie. how long you have been writing, how you find the time to write, what your creative life/days looks like?
I started writing poetry after I had my first child 12 years ago. Up until then, I was writing fiction, but found I barely had time to take a shower as a new mother let alone pen a 300-page manuscript. Rather than give up writing, I switched to a shorter form and jotted down poems in the snippets of time I steal from the day. When I eventually returned to teaching, my commute on the subway became my mobile writing workshop. I wasn’t at home with a fussy baby or facing a classroom of college students. I had 45 minutes of literary bliss complete with Poetry In Motion posters to read in the subway cars.
You write fiction as well, and you have another book of poetry coming out soon, right? Do you work on several books at once? And in different genres?
I had been writing one book from start to finish, but once I became a mother of one and then two, I didn’t have enough time to keep up with my ideas. I gravitated to a shorter form, even in my fiction. My latest work in progress crosses genres. It’s part novel in various forms and lengths of prose, but also in poems and drama. It’s as fractured as I am splitting myself as mother, teacher, writer. My most recent published work is a poetry book called Once I Was Told the Air Was Not for Breathing, featuring male steel workers in Pittsburgh and female garment workers in New York City.
Your dedication is “per la mia cugina.” For your Italian cousin? Can you talk a little about your Italian heritage? Especially how it might or might not influence your writing?
Three things inform my writing–ethnicity, class, place, and class. As a Pittsburgh working-class Italian American, I find it’s hard to separate these influences. I’m three-in-one. My Southern Italian immigrant family settled in the Pittsburgh area and found work in the steel mill and glass plant, in produce. Even when I was living in New York City for 20 years, I wrote about Pittsburgh and their working lives. Now that I just moved back to Pittsburgh, I’ve got this hunch that I’ll be writing about Brooklyn…in relation to Pittsburgh.
As for my Italian heritage, I grew up hearing stories when my big extended Italian family gathered around my great grandmother’s kitchen table with a pot of coffee perking on the stove every Saturday night. I heard all about the family fruit store, how it started when a great great uncle walked up the road, carrying some bananas on a stick. And on from there. When I got a little older, I spent Saturdays at the fruit store with my mother and big sister helping my grandmother and aunt. It was live theater. My first piece of creative writing was set in the fruit store.
What writers and poets do you admire? Who has been an influence on your artistic life?
I gravitate toward magical realists (The story collection Strange Pilgrims by Marquez is one of my favorites). I adore Aimee Bender, Matthea Harvey, Lydia Davis, Sara Manguso, Denise Duhamel.
You grew up in Pittsburgh? Do you think growing up in the city, especially a rust belt city, influenced your writing?
No doubt about it. I fell into magical realism because I grew up in a depressed river town that I wanted very much to escape from. It was dying, dying, dead. And this escape seemed nothing short of miraculous. What made for a contrast was hearing about how it was such a bustling place that on a Saturday night it took 15 minutes to get out of your parking space. There was an opera house, a theater, a roller rink, a moviehouse and dance halls. Now the biggest game in town is a pharmacy, doctor’s offices and medical supplies for an aging population. My first published book, a poetry collection called Death by Renaissance, is set in my family’s river town.
Could you talk a little bit about the character, Tweny Horns, who appears in the poems?
He’s based on a relative of mine who is as loud as he sounds.
I really admire the voice in these poems. The opening stanza of the poem, “Cigarettes and Coffee,” for example.
Cigarettes and Coffee
Wish the hell he’d take a vacation, so I wouldn’t have to wash his work clothes
on my day off. I got my own uniforms to clean—waffle batter, soup mix, grease
from the fryers. Good thing is Twenty Horn’s clothes are so smoky I can have
my cigarette while doing his load. I can spill my coffee on ‘em and it don’t matter. They’re so sooty I don’t waste my bleach—the gray they get is lighter than black,
and come the next day, black is always darker than gray.
I can’t wait to hear you at a reading. The book feels like a play to me. It begs to be read aloud. Do you hear voices when you are writing? Do you ever think of writing plays? ?
I stepped into creative writing from journalism. My husband moved to Pittsburgh to attend Carnegie Mellon University for his MFA in drama, and that’s when I took the leap. Plays seemed as good of a form as any since I had my grandmother’s voice planted in my ear. I frequently ate lunch with her because she lived down the street from the newspaper where I worked. She had such a distinctive voice and character. Writing her dialogue came easy. And I had vivid memories of the fruit store.
I love the structure of this book with section titles: Inhale, Hold for Ten Seconds, And Exhale. I love the way you start every poem in the second section with the last line of the poem before. Did you think of the structure before you wrote the book?
No. I came to discover it in the writing process. I knew that I wanted the laundress to go on a journey and that three is a good number to create a beginning, middle, and end. When her smoking became a constant in the poems, I realized how I could break the collection into these three sections.
I’d love to close the interview with the poem, “Air Patterns.”
She pins panties on the line between buxom clouds round with water weight.
Her bra is beside two padded patches lifted by the breeze. A slip next to
a thin layer of overcast.
Once it begins to rain,
the wind picks up
in circles and feathers.
The clothesline rises and falls, rises and falls with thunder. Pins hold on,
clouds float up, undergarments fall. She runs with her basket to gather them
from the grass and sees
a butterfly land on the eyes
of a child who wishes
to be awakened from sleep.