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The Girl Who Played Fetch with Fire

The Girl Who Played Fetch with Fire

Hello again, beautiful readers. I need to get something out before I begin. Have any of you ever spent any time in a coffee shop in a “hip location” of Chicago? Because I thought this would be a good idea, but apparently any hip location is swarmed with starving artists ready to punch each other for an open table to continue writing their unacknowledged poetry. It is terrifying.

Besides my current horrified state of what I’d call “Stuck in Maximum Overload of the Unemployed,” I’d like to introduce Jordan Sanderson and our interview about his wonderful poem, “Desiree.” A few things Jordan confirmed for me in this interview, in numerical order:

1. Poems can be inspired by students, so be a good student and one day some poem will float out into the internet universe that you’ll never know about. But it will be there.
2. Other people go to Laundromats to write poetry. I am not insane.
3. Like 90% of the things we write are going to be shitty, so you better accept that now and start digging through the muck to find the good stuff.

We all have and love our pets. What if your pet was fire? Well, let’s see what Desiree would do in this situation by reading on! Check out the poem and the interview below. (Please, do it for my sake, so I know surrounding myself with overpriced coffee and unshowered Macbook users was worth it, okay?) P.S. – Jordan, to answer your question yes, when you burn all the old love letters, do it in front of the former lover. Contort your body with rage-filled dance moves. It’s very freeing.


She took her pet fire, Ashes, with her everywhere she went. “What a cute fire!”
people exclaimed. “Where did you get it?” It was a stray. A fireman she used to
date had rescued it from a tree and given it to her one night after an argument.
It didn’t remind her of him. She used to sit outside of the Laundromat while her
clothes dried, her fire licking her face. Even though it sometimes chased other
fires, she never kept it on a leash. She knew it knew its way home. She kept it on
a diet of leaves and napkins to keep it from falling prey to the obesity epidemic,
which affected not only people, but their pets, too. On special occasions, she let it
gorge itself on mattresses and love letters. One time, it got away and gnawed the
neighbors’ porch. She tucked it inside her coat and waved “sorry.” Knowing pets
will be pets, they weren’t too upset. She had trouble keeping the damp fire smell
out of her house, but other than that, it was the perfect pet. Some people said such
pets were dangerous, but she said pets take on the personalities of their owners.
When they walked down the street, you could hardly tell one from the other.

First, I love the name of your poem, “Desiree.” Any significance I can find there? My poetry teacher, Susan Aizenberg, told us that the title of a poem is as important as the poem itself.

I, too, had a professor who emphasized the importance of titles.  He said that the word “title” comes from the word “titillate,” and he talked about what he called “the table-of-contents test,” which consisted of asking if one would turn to a poem based on the title alone.  I’m awful at titles—always have been—so when we workshopped my poems, we spent a lot of time working on the titles.  I still have trouble with titles.  I’m not great at naming pets either.

In the case of “Desiree,” the title preceded the poem—a rare and fortunate occurrence for me.  I had a student named Desiree, and I knew I would steal her name when I saw it on my roster.  The poem isn’t directly about her. The name is sort of playful and mysterious at once (yes, it’s a terrible pun on “desire”), and that shaped the poem.

Your poem is an interesting, block-like form that is contemporary—and a style that takes courage. I admire that very much. How did you come to the conclusion that this was the best way to present the piece? Did it go through many drafts and different forms before this final one?

I have a thing for the prose poem.  The form makes sense to me, and I find it liberating.  I find that most prose poems deal in a kind of dream logic that aligns pretty closely with my waking consciousness.

 I think the title influenced the poem’s form.  I knew it was from the realm of fables, so the prose form seemed like the best vehicle for it.  The poem was something of a gift: it went through only two or three drafts.  My friend and fellow poet, Allison Campbell, reads a lot of my work and gives good advice, so I used some of her suggestions.  I also lineated it one time to ensure that it had an ear, then put it back into the block.  I think sound is important in prose poems.

I get a kick out of how the girl’s pet, a fire cleverly named Ashes, is oddly treated by the people of the poem as any other pet—a dog or cat, even. How did you come up with the idea for this interesting subject? Is there a humorous note there?

I suppose I was thinking about traditional imagery of desire and wanting to make it new in some way, so fire was on my mind, but it’s such a familiar image that it’s easy to go wrong with it.  My student (whose name serves as the title) was the Paris Hilton type.  She never brought a dog to class in her purse, but had I seen her outside of class, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the head of a Pomeranian sticking out of a Coach bag.  I don’t mean that in a judgmental way.  She was a good student.  I think she was a symptom of the beautiful disease that is our culture.  To take Lacan out of context, we have to love our symptoms.  So I guess the line resulted from the serendipitous convergence of literary tradition and popular culture.  Of course, I wasn’t conscious of any of this when I wrote the line.  There is definitely a humorous note there.

I, too, enjoy hanging around Laundromats and recently wrote a story about one—all while sitting atop a washing machine, watching my clothes spin. Where do you find writing to be most comfortable, and when do you find time to write?

I think about poetry often and everywhere, but the actual writing takes place every night after dinner.  I sit in a recliner with a laptop, with TV or music on in the background.  I had the opportunity to hear Stephen Dobyns speak once, and he said that one should treat writing like a job: set a time and go to work every day, even if you don’t want to be there.  The professor who has influenced my writing more than anyone else, Angela Ball, said something similar.  A student asked her how much time one should spend on writing, and she said, “Eight hours a day.  It’s a job.”  I don’t spend eight hours a day writing, but I do treat it like a job.  When I started writing, like most young writers, I had visions of constant inspiration and muses and lightning.  Fortunately, I was disabused of that delusion.

I see that you have a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. Is there where you got a lot of free time to spend writing? Did you ever contemplate getting an MFA instead? As a college senior, this is a choice I’ve been contemplating lately. I just want a place to write away my days.

I loved my time at the Center for Writers at USM.  I had sufficient time to write.  I spent a lot of time reading, and at the time, reading was probably more beneficial than writing.  I still read a lot.  Wallace Stevens called poetry an ongoing conversation among poets, and as any book about relationships says, listening is an important part of conversation. 

I also took an M.A. from the Center for Writers, and at the end of it, I knew I wasn’t ready to leave.  I had much more to learn from the people at USM.  So I didn’t consider an MFA, but if the program at USM had been an MFA instead of a PhD, I would have an MFA instead of a PhD.  It wasn’t so much about the type of terminal degree as it was about the people with whom I wanted to study.  Perhaps I was naïve, but I didn’t think about the long-term value of the degree until a great poet with an MFA and an award-winning book entered the PhD program in Hattiesburg.  He said it was harder to find a job with an MFA than with a PhD.  I haven’t verified that statement, but I’ll take his word.

Was “Desiree” inspired by anyone in particular? As a red-haired woman, sometimes I feel a special connection to fire—as if a fire exists within me and comes out through my head and mind. Maybe you agree about this metaphorical inner-fire? Perhaps as the passion, the writer’s curse? We must get words on paper or the fire in us might consume us.

As I said, the title is a former student’s name, and her personality or spirit—not sure what to call it—inspired the tone of the poem, but as far as I know she had no unusual relationships with fire.

I have to defer to Stevens on the inner-fire question.  I see poetry as the supreme fiction that must be perpetually written.  Poets have to keep writing to keep up with the world, and as soon as we write the poem, the world changes, and we have to—or get to—write another poem.  For me, poetry is the search for what will suffice.  It’s as if all speech, all poetry—both the reading and writing of poetry—is an attempt to regain silence.  Yet we remain in motion, so the silence breaks.  I sometimes have the urge to write THE poem, but I don’t think that poem can be written—the final poem, and that’s fine.  Without poetry, I fear that I would lose contact with the world, lose touch with life.  So, yes, I think we’re talking about the same thing.

Have you, like Ashes, ever found yourself burning old love letters? It’s very therapeutic, if you haven’t. I highly recommend it.

I’ll keep that in mind, should anyone ever write me a love letter.  Should I burn it in the writer’s presence?  Perhaps the fire could become our child.

After being published in many admirable literary journals, do you feel accomplished? Are you constantly yearning for more success, or are you content? Do writers ever really stop writing?

Publications are still exciting for me.  They’re validating.  They assure me that I haven’t run completely amok, at least in terms of poetry.  I definitely want to continue to publish, but I think it’s dangerous to measure one’s success in terms of publications.  Look at all the terrible music in the weekly countdowns.  Those people are selling records, but that doesn’t mean they’re making good music.  I don’t think I’ll ever be content because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to say exactly what I want to say.  It’s a bit like the Daoist idea that one can never name the Way; one can talk around it, get close to it, maybe even smell it, but one can never name it.  Whatever compels me to write is like that.  I’m always writing from it and to it, but I’ll probably never write it. 

Where I live, people fish a lot.  Sometimes, they catch a mess of fish; sometimes, they catch nothing.  Sometimes, they catch big fish; sometimes, they catch fish that they should probably throw back.  But the people I’m talking about are not fishing solely for the sake of sport.  They eat the fish.  I guess that could be a criterion for measuring success—how well the poems are sustaining the poet.  If that makes any sense.

If you’re one of the lucky ones that don’t ever stop, any advice for a young girl (spoiler alert: it’s me) with writer’s block?

I’ve heard blues musicians say that only the blues can cure the blues.  Only writing can cure writer’s block. One has to write the shitty stuff to get to the good stuff.

Jordan Sanderson earned a PhD from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi.  His work has appeared in several journals, including burntdistrict, The Fiddleback, Caketrain, and Double Room.  His reviews and criticism have appeared in The Hollins Critic, Rain Taxi, and Heavy Feather Review.  Jordan currently lives in Moss Point, Mississippi, and teaches at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. 


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