Women in Form: Erica Dawson


Dawson 5 12-13_uncredited by request

TJ: Do you actually sit down to write a sonnet, ghazal, or villanelle? Or is it a more organic
process related to the content?


ED: Sometimes I have an idea for a poem and I know a certain form will be a good way to explore and express that idea. Sometimes I sit down with just a form in mind and it’s like a challenge: “Write a chant royal. And…go.” But it can definitely be more organic then that. I’ll often just have a first line or image in mind and have no idea what will happen next.


TJ: Is there ever a thought, even a fleeting one, about where a poem you write ‘fits’ within the history of the forms you choose?


ED: No. For me, the big picture, at its biggest, is how the poem fits in the scope of a collection I’m working on, or just the space of the poem itself. Thinking about anything more than that would shut my brain down. It’d be overwhelming.


TJ: Do you find the structures of form liberating or constricting when you employ it for a poem?


ED: All kinds of liberating. The form will show me things I wouldn’t think of on my own. Its
restrictions force me to think of words and phrases that aren’t anywhere near the forefront of my mind. It’s more like the forms back me up rather than box me in, if that makes sense.


TJ: How often do you look outside English language poetic forms? Do you feel it to be a sort of vacation when you visit them, either when writing them or just reading them?


ED: Not often enough, probably because it doesn’t feel like a vacation when I read them. I know
have so much to learn when it comes to other kinds of forms, it feels like work. I need to get over that and read more, and try writing them, too.


TJ: Which writers are your touchstones when you find yourself in a rut?


ED: Recently, it’s been Donne, Sidney, Clifton, Bishop, and Dickinson on my desk and nightstand.


TJ: Which contemporary poets do you envy? Exactly what do you envy?


ED: There are so many amazing poets working right now. I’m currently obsessed with Jamaal May’s Hum. The images are so sharp and they’re coming at you so fast, but every one of them resonates. I don’t know how he does that.


TJ: Did you have a mentor when you began your writing career? What characteristic would you most like to emulate as you move forward?


ED: Mary Jo Salter has been an amazing mentor and friend. She’s so dedicated to poetry. She gives so much time to her teaching and somehow sustains this awesome career where every new book kicks more ass than the last one. I absolutely adored her latest, Nothing by Design. I hope to emulate that dedication.


TJ: What do you feel about the current state of the writing community?


ED: I know I’m incredibly lucky to be part of such an amazingly talented and supportive community. I think we’re thriving. I think we’re generous.


TJ: I put writers into two categories: writers who make me want to write and writers who make me want to throw up my hands and give up because they are just that amazing. Can you pick one writer for each category and can you explain the choice?


ED: That’s a ridiculously hard question. I’ll try: Gwendolyn Brooks makes me want to write. Her energy is contagious. I can’t sit still. Robert Hayden makes me want to give up. He gets all up in my skin and nests there. He festers. I can’t shake it off. How can you affect somebody that much? I don’t think I’ll ever know how, or be able, to do that.


TJ: If you could go back in time and talk to your wide-eyed 10 year old self, what would you tell her about your choice of writing as a vocation?


ED: I’d tell her it’s badass, that it helps even when it hurts.



Read Erica Dawson’s poems “Lady Jesus” and “Slow-Wave Sleep with a Fairy Tale


Read more of TJ’s interviews in Women in Form



Erica Dawson’s second collection of poetry, The Small Blades Hurt, was published by Measure Press in January. Slate says, “She generates great energy by pulling at the impossible and sometimes pleasurable tangles of what is constant in us, and what is disposable in the world.” Her first collection, Big-Eyed Afraid, won the 2006 Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize and was published by Waywiser Press in 2007. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Poetry: A Pocket Anthology, Harvard Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals and anthologies. She is an assistant professor of English and Writing at University of Tampa.