Cass Hayes: What kinds of things inform and inspire your writing? Are there any specific books or authors that had a big impact on Either Way, You’re Done?
Stephanie McCarley Dugger: I grew up on a farm, which is a big influence on my work; I write a lot about nature and animals and the night sky (it’s vast and gracious in the country). And music—I’m from a family of singers (but since I can’t sing to save my life, I became a flutist). So, music really inspires my work, too. Specific writers? So, so many. Definitely Mary Ann Samyn, Anne Carson, and, of course, Emily Dickinson. I didn’t recognize her influence until I was proofing one of the early drafts of Either Way, You’re Done and noticed that nearly every poem had two or three dashes. They’ve changed a lot since those early drafts, but I believe her influence is still evident in the poems.
CH: What about writing brings you joy?
SMD: Discovery. I write to find out—to investigate something—and when the writing results in some new discovery, some new truth, I get excited. When I wrote the last two lines of “After the Shooting,” “In my daydreams, / I do not beg for mercy,” I realized much of the manuscript is an act of begging for mercy, and refusing to do that is alluring and empowering, but also often impossible. That kind of surprise keeps me writing. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does I get all giddy.
CH: Why do you write poetry, and why did the topics you explore in Either Way, You’re Done need to be explored through poems?
SMD: I’m drawn to poetry in particular because rhythm is a form of meditation for me. It provides me focus to explore what I’m trying to learn about. I write essays, too, but I always return to poetry because the attention to rhythm, language, and space on the page helps me clear out all of the noise. I write a lot about trauma, and poetry seems to work best when I’m delving into those topics. I can cut, cut, cut until only the necessary remains. Often, the necessary ends up being more space on the page than words. That white space gives me (and maybe the reader) a place to breathe.
CH: What has been your biggest struggle in your writing and in publishing your work?
SMD: There are some love poems to women in the book, some about being bisexual in a Southern Baptist home. That isn’t something I’ve shared with many family members, so I have some concerns about how they’ll react. The biggest struggle, though, goes back to writing about trauma. Many of the poems are about my childhood experiences—physical and sexual abuse, my mother’s mental illness—and that’s hard to put out there. It isn’t something I go around talking about, so knowing these poems might be read by other people has been hard. I struggled for a long time with whether or not I should publish them at all. I want to protect my family and my privacy, so I’m torn between writing/publishing my experience or keeping it close. At some point, I had to make a decision. This is what I write about, and I’m going to either release it out into the world or abandon the work. I decided to release it.
CH: How do you decide what form a poem is going to take? Is there any significance in the form of the poems included in Either Way, You’re Done, or in the structure of the book as a whole?
SMD: I’m not very practiced in choosing a form and writing to that form, so I have to listen to the poem to find the form. I still handwrite the first draft of everything—it feels less restrictive. The handwritten draft is usually a sin
gle stanza, short lines. Then I type the poem out, but keep that basic form. I work in the white space and fragmentation after several revisions. I revise based on sound—I read the poem out loud over and over, and the pauses in rhythm usually suggest the white space. Funny, though—when I read the finished poems in front of people, I usually don’t read them as they appear on the page. The white space is diminished. I don’t always end up with a fragmented poem, but the poems dealing with trauma often end up in that form. It just needs more time, more space on the page. Not more words, just more space.
CH: Why are so many poems in Either Way, You’re Done dedicated to specific people?
SMD: That’s a great question. I didn’t actually intend for those people in the dedications to read these poems (this goes back to your earlier question about the struggles with writing). If they do, fine, but it wasn’t my aim to get their attention. Initially, none of the poems were dedicated, but there are so many different you’s in the first section of the book that it was confusing. No matter what I did, though, I couldn’t get away from second person point of view. Very few of the poems worked in third person. The best solution was to add a dedication when it was necessary to understand who the poem is directed to. In the first section, it’s important to know in order to keep the narrative clear. That information isn’t as necessary in the second section—whether the you’s are all the same or different doesn’t matter as much—so there are fewer dedications in the second half.
CH: Do you have any advice for someone just starting out writing poetry?
SMD: Keep writing. We need your voice, especially now.
And if you’re afraid to write about something, that’s the very thing you need to write about.
Oh, and there is no set path, no set time-table in writing. Go your own pace, no matter what everyone else is doing.
CH: Do you have any advice for revision? How do you go about revision?
SMD: I revise a lot. A lot! I like revising. I like it more than writing something new, so I’ll often put off generating new work by revising. I rarely know when to stop. It’s part of the reason there’s so much white space in my work—I cut and cut words and lines until I have to start the poem over.
My advice for revising: Read it out loud over and over. Reading out loud is the most productive means of revising for me. I get a clearer sense of the diction and rhythm.
Also, keep every draft so you can go back if you don’t like where it’s going, but don’t be afraid to do something drastic in revision. The poem isn’t some delicate thing that needs to be nestled and protected. It’s a process, a product of manipulation. So, blow it up, cut it apart, see what happens. You can always go back if it doesn’t work.
CH: What are you working on now? Do you have any other projects in the works?
SMD: I’m working on a children’s book and an essay collection (slowly). I recently finished my second manuscript, a long poem about mental illness and diagnosis, and I’m working on a third. I’ve been spending as much time outside as possible these last couple of years, and that is heavily influencing the new poems (back to nature!).
Stephanie McCarley Dugger is the author of Either Way, You’re Done (Sundress Publications, 2017). Her chapbook Sterling (Paper Nautilus, 2015) was co-winner of the 2014 Vella Chapbook contest. Her work has appeared in The Boiler Journal, Gulf Stream, Heron Tree, Meridian, The Southeast Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and other journals. She is an assistant professor at Austin Peay State University and is Assistant Poetry Editor for Zone 3 Press.
Cass Hayes is a writer from Waxahachie, Texas. She attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program at the University of Central Arkansas and works as the managing editor of the online literary journal Arkana. Her fiction and poetry appears or is forthcoming in various online and print literary journals, including Five:2:One, Work Literary Magazine, and Déraciné Magazine.