“GW was the place where I first dreamed myself as a writer.”
GW English and Dramatic Literature Alum and poet Andrew Kozma recently had one of his poems selected for inclusion this year in The Best American Poetry. Professor Margaret Soltan caught up with Andrew to talk about poetry and pedagogy, and about his time at GW. The poem of Andrew’s that Professor Soltan mentions is reproduced at the bottom of the interview.
First, congratulations on having one of your poems selected, by Sherman Alexie and David Lehman, for this year’s edition of The Best American Poetry. I look forward to reading it.
Meanwhile, I love your poem, “Ode to the Love Bug,” which concludes O Tiny Fuckers, teach us to let the world consume us. I find your ‘ode to bugs’ series of poems wonderful, the work of a postmodern John Donne. Tell me something about your approach to poetry, your influences, etc.
First, thank you so much for the comparison to Donne. Though he’s not a direct influence of my poetry in the past, he was definitely an inspiration for the insect odes. Part of what I wanted to do was combine the highest diction with the lowest possible subject, which is in Donne’s line of conflating the spiritual with the sexual.
My approach to poetry is very language-oriented, the sound of a phrase calling forth another series of words. Ideally, in successful poems, the meaning of the whole poem is constructing itself as I write.
One aspect of my writing which helps my free-wheeling composing style is that I’m somewhat addicted to form. While I think this attachment to symmetry has always been in me, William Logan at the University of Florida really brought it out completely. The benefit to being fluent in the sonnet and relatively comfortable with various poetic meters is that I can let my mind focus on the form, which then frees up my unconscious to reveal the metaphors and poetic ideas I didn’t even know I wanted to talk about.
I’m not sure I have poets who influence me in the way that I feel like I’m emulating them, but there are a number of poets whose work I admire. Anne Carson. John Berryman. Anthony Hecht. In some ways, it’s easier to point out younger poets who I feel I’m writing like, who seem like kin. Lisa Olstein and her book Radio Crackling, Radio Gone
, for example.
You’ve written in a number of prose as well as poetry modes. Talk a little about the other kinds of writing you do.
I like writing every genre except that of academic essays: non-fiction, plays, novels, stories, flash fiction, and poetry. In every case, the mode of writing does something different for me, allows me to tell a specific kind of story or create a specific effect. For example, the difference between fiction and drama: in fiction I’m often trying to make the unreal seem real, while in drama I’m twisting the real so it seems unreal.
I’m also interested in storytelling through unconventional means. I did a Kickstarter a few years ago (The Postcard Story) which told a single story through four postcards, each postcard being a picture (taken by a photographer friend of mine) meant to comment on the story obliquely, almost like images in a poem.
Do you enjoy teaching writing?
Currently, I’m teaching technical writing, essentially the bare bones of professionally-oriented writing. Strangely, being skilled in poetry is useful for this task since both technical writing and poetry deal in compact forms, saying the most in the smallest amount of space possible. Granted, poetry focuses on allusiveness while technical writing (business letters and the like) concerns itself with facts and the manipulation of the facts—the more I talk about both, the more similar they seem.
What did your experience at GW mean to you? Were there particular professors who made an impression on you?
GW was the place where I first dreamed myself as a writer. I ended up taking a creative writing course every semester and majored in Dramatic Literature partly because the required courses allowed me to focus on what I wanted (writing) while avoiding what I didn’t want (everything else). My interests have always been varied, so in the first few years I dabbled in Physics (which would’ve stolen me except for the math involved) and Philosophy (which spit me out) before simply settling on English mostly because in studying literature I could study everything else as well.
The professors who made the most impact on me were Patricia Griffith and Faye Moskowitz. Patricia was so supportive with my playwriting and encouraged me to do whatever I wanted within the form—as a fan of the absurdists and Eugene Ionesco in particular, this encouragement was very welcome. Faye, on the other hand, was encouraging more simply by who she was and is. She gave me the sense that I could do anything, and that if obstacles showed up in my path, I should simply push against them until they gave way.
Where did you study after GW? What sort of degrees did you pursue?
After GW, I took a few years off and then went to the University of Florida for an MFA in Poetry, directly followed by heading to the University of Houston for a Ph.D. in English Literature and Creative Writing.
For our current students who may be thinking about doing similar things, could you talk about the decision to pursue higher study in literature, in creative writing? Was it difficult to make the choice to do this? Why or why not?
1. I’ve always enjoyed school, and never been in a hurry to leave it.
2. After my experiences at GW, I was pretty sure that writing was what I wanted to do. As far as I could tell, the best way to do more writing—while learning about writing and studying literature—was an MFA program. After I completed my MFA, I was still hungry, and so looked at Ph.D. programs.
3. The choice wasn’t difficult to make, but I had a lot of things going for me. I had no debt (due to lucky scholarships and generous parents) and no other obligations. Also, I only applied to schools which provided funding so that I didn’t have to pay for any of my post-graduate studies.
4. Finally, there was no job I was itching to get out into the world to do. I wanted to write, and if you can go to a graduate program that pays you for being there, then it is sort of like having a fellowship specifically to write. I didn’t go into higher education expecting a job to be there waiting at the end of it, and you shouldn’t either if you are studying writing. Writing itself is the end point, and whatever you can do to make that happen is what you should do, whether that’s taking a job that allows you freedom outside of the job to focus on writing or going on to get your MFA.
What, if anything, do you miss about GW, Foggy Bottom, the east coast? Does where you’re located make any difference to the sort of writing you do?
I miss the city a lot. I miss being able to walk across the breadth of D.C. in a day through sidewalks crowded with people. I miss the way the city empties out at night to become its own ghost.
Where I write definitely influences the sort of writing I do—or, more specifically, what I end up writing about. The writing itself has a lag time, though, in that even after having lived in Houston for thirteen years now, I feel that it’s only just becoming a major force in my writing. It’s a city that’s constantly changing, reinventing itself, re-constructing, not its ideals, but its body, the roads, the buildings, the parks, all of it ever in flux.
What are some of your future writing projects?
I have been working on young adult novels recently, mostly science-fiction and fantasy. Though I never think of myself as a horror writer—though my poems might disagree—each novel is strewn with horrific elements. To return to an earlier question, one of the benefits of writing in multiple genres is that you learn things about your own writing you might not otherwise, in the same way you learn more about your native language by studying other languages.
On the poetry front, I have a new manuscript consisting of the bug poems plus songs—more persona-esque poems sparked by states of being or, more concretely, how someone might be identified. A couple of the latter, to give an example, are the “Song of the Starving” and the “Song of the Psychopath.”
Sometime this year I’ll be doing another postcard-based Kickstarter called Mailpocalypse that, if funded, will tell the story of the end of the world via alternate futures described in letters by those experiencing it. This will happen over the course of a year with one postcard being written each day, and then collected into an on-line repository (so that everyone can read all the postcards) that might then be further collected into a book.
Ode to the Love Bug
O Unthreatening Sex Fiend, climb your gendered body-twin
and strive to futurize. Four days alive (a little more
if male) is barely time enough for love, or even death.
But, O Fragile Gloves, how you throw your bodies into it!
In smokes of thousands, you dress the baking highway
and declare your passion to every passing glass. Do you see
yourself eternal? Even as you die, your angel-self in air
declares another love affair, and those two, too,
are crushed against the grill of this fine day. O girl, come with me
and love as only insects can. Let us be reborn
a hundred times an hour to fresh our faces to each other’s lips.
O Tiny Fuckers, teach us to let the world consume us.
(“Ode to the Love Bug” originally appeared in Kenyon Review.)