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Interview with Lavonne Adams, February 13, 2008 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Lavonne Adams, February 13, 2008
February 13, 2008
Interview with Lavonne Adams, instructor and B.F.A. coordinator for UNCW's Creative Writing program.
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Interviewee:  Adams, Lavonne Interviewer:  Diesenhaus, Doug Date of Interview:  2/13/2008 Series:  SENC Writers Length  60 minutes


Diesenhaus: Hello, I'm Doug Diesenhaus and today is February 13th, 2008. I'll be interviewing Lavonne Adams for the Randall Library Oral History Project on Creative Writers. One of the places that I always start is to ask people how they got started writing, how they've come to it. And I know in your case, if I'm correct, you came to it somewhat later in your life.

Adams: Definitely. I had three children who were already in school by the time I started writing. I was a second grade teacher's assistant, so I had summers off, and a friend and I got together and decided we were going to write a novel that summer, so I started out as a fiction writer. So we spent the entire summer writing, ended up with this really dreadful, dreadful novel, but we thought it was just magnificent. Went to the library to find out what do we do with this now. The librarian gave us a copy of the Writer's Market. We looked through that, found the name of an agency we liked, sent them the manuscript. He accepted it and tried to market it, and fortunately for both of us, could not find a publisher. (laugh) That would be haunting me now. But in the course of all that, I discovered how much I really loved writing and thought, you know what, there's some thing I need to know. Going back to school would be very helpful. So I checked at UNCW to see what kind of programs they had. At the time, we didn't have the MFA here. It was just a Masters in English with an emphasis in creative writing. So I came back to school and started taking classes and that was kind of the beginning for me.

Diesenhaus: Before that point in your life with writing, a reading and writing interest, did it come out of the blue, or it sort of led from certain things in your life?

Adams: Loved reading all my life. I mean that's one of my first memories is holding books in my hand and a big thrill when I was young. We did not have much money when I was growing up, but the one thing we did have was access to a library, so it was kind of going with my mother when I was very young. When I was old enough to start writing my bicycle, I would go by myself. And I used to go to the library every three or four days and just come home, especially in the summer, and read ravenously, completely enjoyed it. I don't remember reading a lot of poetry when I was young. I remember I had A Child's Garden of Verses that I used to kind of carry around the house with me and tried memorizing a few poems in that when I was young. My sister, however, swears I was writing poetry at a very young age and that she has it somewhere in her attic, but I have the feeling if she ever found it, it would be copied from some source. It was not my own work.

Diesenhaus: That first moment you started talking about the novel writing, forgive me if I'm off, but it seems more of your work is poetry now.

Adams: Definitely.

Diesenhaus: How did you sort of come to that part from when you started a novel? Where was the transition?

Adams: I was actually terrified of poetry as an adult, and when I did the writing program, the MA program, there was one semester. There weren't the number of courses that are offered now. There was usually just one workshop a semester. And I think it was my third semester in the program, the only workshop offered was poetry, so I kind of took a deep breath and said okay, I can do this. I had had a very bad experience with poetry in high school. I had a teacher who gave us poems, but the only thing we did with them, we didn't talk about what was happening in the poem, how we felt about it, we had to put the sheet in front of us and we had to start marking it, scanning. And then she would show us on the board exactly how it should have been scanned. And then there would be the red marks on the paper and you would get your grade in poetry based on whether or not you could scan well. And at that point in my life, I could not. And no matter how hard I would try, the way I would say words was different from the way she would say them, so that when she was putting accents, I was like, "No, that's not how it sounds!" And from that point, I think it was probably ten years before I picked up poetry after that. So for me, it was kind of a wonderful experience to be in a graduate workshop where we were looking intensively at poetry and at peer's work, and I just completely fell in love with it from that point on. I think I was actually a poet at heart. My fiction, my short stories really didn't have much plot. You know it was just like a long, very drawn out poem, so I think the transition was very good for me.

Diesenhaus: I wonder if you could talk a bit more about your time at UNCW and some of the differences that you had as a student that you're maybe now seeing, as a teacher, how the program has kind of evolved.

Adams: Yeah, I have quite a history with UNCW. I did one of those terrible things that we hope our students never do, and that is I dropped out of school in my final semester as an undergrad. And it wasn't until ten years later that I came back to school to finish out that undergraduate degree. In the meantime, I had married. I had three kids and I moved to this area. So I came back to UNCW as an undergraduate and did one year here to kind of get the undergraduate degree. Then I went back and started working, and then came back again for the Masters. And the one thing I found, I went to school at Virginia Tech for many years, and then I did a year at Old Dominion University, both of them wonderful, wonderful schools. The difference, though, that I felt in the level of commitment to teaching at this university was just amazing. I was so happy here and I felt so fortunate every day coming to class. So when I applied to come into the Masters program, I really thought that my sense of what I was going to do was I would keep teaching in the day. I would come in to do one class a night, you know, take care of my children. But I checked that little box on the application that said I'd be interested in teaching, even though I didn't even understand what a graduate teaching assistant was. And when I was accepted into the program, I was offered the teaching assistantship. And it was Barbara Waxman who called me and said, you know, "Would you like this?" And I heard myself say, "Yes, of course." And this part of me is going where did that come from? But I think that when you talk about fate, or instinct, or whatever it is, that was also a very good choice for me. I wanted to teach ever since I was maybe seven years old. By the time I was ten, I used to have this little school out on my front porch for the smaller kids in the neighborhood where I taught them reading and math, and kind of gave them little tests, and gave them recess and we'd have snack time. I used to think it was amazing that the parents trusted their kids to me. And then the older I got and I thought about it, I thought I was a free babysitter. They must have really, (laugh) really appreciated that, at least half a day where they didn't have to worry about their kids.

Diesenhaus: Let me understand. You've got both an MA and then did the MFA program.

Adams: I actually have three degrees from UNCW. I have the Bachelors, the Masters and the MFA.

Diesenhaus: Was the MFA right at the time when it became an official MFA?

Adams: Mm hmm. In fact, I did about a year after I got my Masters Degree. I worked for an attorney here in town and I was teaching part-time at that point. And then I came back and was teaching a full load here, though, as still adjunct. It was 1995 when I was offered a lecturer's position. So I was already full-time when the MFA program started, which meant I could take one class a semester and that was paid for. So that was very good for me, because at the time, I was still raising my three kids as a single parent, and then getting them off to college and doing all that stuff. So it would have been really hard for me to kind of cough up the money for the education. In fact, I was really, really fortunate. When I did the Masters was when I separated from my husband and I did my first year of school, and then I just couldn't even imagine how I could stay in school that second year. And I won the Sylvia MBD Schwartz Graduate Teaching Fellowship, which enabled me to stay in school; otherwise, I don't think I would have made it through.

Diesenhaus: You talked about how when you were in it, there was really only maybe one workshop.

Adams: Mm hmm.

Diesenhaus: Are there other changes that the MFA has gone through? It obvious that its grown quite bit. Are there are other things that have changed?

Adams: Tremendous, yeah. Well obviously, the number of courses that were offered. That growth process, it's strange when you're really deeply involved in it, it's so slow. You know it's like it opens up a little bit, a little bit, a little bit, and it's not till you go through several years and you kind of look back at where you were, versus where you are now. The BFA program, we didn't have an undergraduate degree. It was just kind of one of the small offshoots of the Bachelors in English. You know you could do a track, a track in creative writing, much, much less intense than it is now. The Pub Lab was a dream of Stan Colbert's that we could do this thing, and now that's firmly established in the new building in Kenan Hall. Gosh, we've added screenwriting. We have playwriting. The literature courses, the topics courses that we teach at undergraduate level, none of that was there. A lot of that has been faculty interest. You know we kind of sit around and we have this thing called assessment that we all have to do. But in our department, it's not kind of like okay, now let's sit down and access our program. It's something we do constantly. We're constantly talking about; what do the students need, what do they want, how can we improve. And certainly, the teaching assistantships went from just a few to a relatively significant amount. Still don't have all the support we'd like for the graduate students, but that, I think, has vastly improved in the past several years, also. I think the one thing that hasn't change, though, is the personality of the department. Most of the people have stayed. We had a few that were kind of transitory. They always say that we really do consider each other like family, but it is that sense. And most of us talk about it that way, that there's not really a whole lot of difference emotionally between being home with family versus coming to work. It's just a different type of family.

Diesenhaus: Perhaps in that light, can you talk a bit about how the BFA and MFA programs work together? You're the current BFA coordinator.

Adams: Mm hmm.

Diesenhaus: Do you also teach graduate classes at times?

Adams: I teach graduate literature courses, which are kind of just forms courses. I don't do the workshop courses yet. That's kind of reserved. I'm not tenure. So there's a difference there. (laugh) Can we pause for a second?

(crew talk)

Diesenhaus: Again, we were just talking about how the BFA and MFA programs work together, and your involvement in both of them.

Adams: Mm hmm. When we became a freestanding department, we understood that we would need to have a firm foundation at the undergraduate level, as well as the graduate level. And we did some research online to look at other BFA programs around the nation to see what was offered, what we have that's unique, which was a wonderful process. I mean to have to start, in a way, from nothing. And Phil Furia kind of headed this up and he's done a lot of this type of thing before. In fact, he ended up kind of playing the same role with the film studies when it kind of first got off the ground. But just sitting around as a community and saying; okay, what is it we want our students to have, what will serve them best, how many workshop courses should they have, should we require literature courses, do we want them to take other fine arts courses, just kind of that from the ground up. And of course, we already had a good sense of the MFA students, because that program had been in effect for awhile. And we were thinking okay, ideally, if one of our students were to move up from the BFA program into the MFA program, where would we want them to be? So that was kind of a good guiding host, so to speak, of what our intentions were, and really just wanted to kind of expand the writing community to find ways. Even though there is an age difference, there was an experience difference, the fact that once you create a community, even if it's just maybe introductory level students walking around in the hall and seeing the grad students, and knowing the grad students are giving readings. The grad students, whether or not they realize it, every single day they're walking in these buildings, they are role models for those young students, especially the graduate TA's. I got an email the day from a young student talking about the TA she's working with, and just what a wonderful experience it is. She's never had a better teacher. So to hear that from people and this is maybe the first independent course they've taught. Another student, I was at the GAP in the mall, and a young man there who was working at the cash register looked at me and goes, "Aren't you in the creative writing department?" I said, "Yes," and he goes, "Let me tell you about the TA I'm working with. He is amazing." And just for maybe five minutes, just kept talking about how his life was changed based on the personality of this young person that was teaching them, so just that kind of interaction. Some of the TA's have been students here and have kind of moved up and are now in the MFA program, which is really interesting for them, I would think, the fact that they were a student here and now making that transition into faculty. I think they can bring a lot to the program in that way.

Diesenhaus: You talked about as the MFA program grew; you saw the need for the BFA program. Is that as much from the rest of the world's perspective as from within the university, kind of like you needed the two sides to kind of help each other in a way?

Adams: I think so. I think like practically speaking, even the fact that we have introductory level writing courses that the TA's can teach, so that they get that experience before they go out there into the rest of the world, but also the fact that when you see a program that's so vital and so engaging, and we were already starting with the idea of writers week the different things we wanted to do, just having the students, if they were just in the English department and coming in and taking a few courses with us, that sense that we were holding them at bay, as opposed to just really opening up our arms and embracing these undergraduate students. So I think it's just philosophically, too. Anyone who teaches some of the undergrad courses, those students are amazing. They're so open to anything. They constantly push themselves. They're engaged. They're getting involved with things like Atlantis. I mean just their energy level, you can't help but be influenced by that. You know when you walk into a class and everybody's there and they're just ready to talk and argue. They're also ready to argue and that also is a good thing, you know, that they're not just going to sit back and just have somebody tell them okay, here's what you need to know. Here's what you need to do. You know they'll question everything and that's good.

Diesenhaus: Could you talk a bit more about Atlantis and also about other ways that BFA and MFA people may interact, or ways that you can see that in the future, other types of collaboration that might?

Adams: That's something we talk about every single year, once again, when we kind of talk about at the beginning of the year, where do we want the program to go-- we have a committee of faculty people in the BFA Committee-- how to work those two things together. A few of the things we've done, well Atlantis is undergraduate run, primarily, though in years past, many years ago, it was the grad students that actually did the editing and most of the work for Atlantis. But that has kind of been claimed by a very energetic group of BFA students. I think in the past, maybe the past five years, every single year, they kind of expand. They take on more responsibility. They upgrade the quality of the journal, itself. They've gone from just kind of a small, kind of rough paper, little publication to now it's like a glossy magazine. They're doing the One Art thing next week when they're dealing with all the arts, not just writing. So yes, certainly, their energy is well spent in that and it's just been amazing. I think it was about three years ago in the writer's league, we let graduate students do manuscript things with visiting writers. We kind of began opening that out to the undergraduate so that seniors can also do the same thing. So that was another way to kind of pull it together. And then, of course, that means we have this shepherding system where the people drive visiting writers here and they have lunch with them, so that now, the person I'm working with this year, Sharon Strange, I'll have two graduate students, two undergraduate students and we'll arrange meals so that they'll all be together. So that's another way. We've done readings in the past, where we kind of mingle the two. So we're kind of testing different thing. Of course, there are natural boundaries that are going to happen and, you know, things like you said, alcohol enters into that. We certainly can't serve alcohol to 18-year-old undergraduates. And you know if there's a graduate party, certainly, that kind of mingling, we don't encourage because, you know, we want to keep everything safe and sane. So there have to be some boundaries, but I think on campus, we're even looking at things like the outreach programs that the graduate students are doing, kind of working with the BFA to do internships with them. I think we actually had a couple interns working with Ecotone this past year. Yeah, Michael Bond is working with them this year, so we kind of want to encourage that, too. I think that's been a really good experience for him.

Diesenhaus: I want to ask some questions about your own work.

Adams: Sure.

Diesenhaus: I look back at some of your early works, actually your thesis.

Adams: Oh that's embarrassing, okay. (laugh)

Diesenhaus: But also, a couple of places online, I read that some of your earlier work used some of the life experiences that you were going through at the that time, raising a family, living in the community, not having ___________.

Adams: Mm hmm... yeah. (laugh)

Diesenhaus: I wonder if you could just talk about that and how that life interacted with your writing, and what it was like to kind of interact with your community in that way.

Adams: Yeah, I was-- before I came to school here, I was really deeply invested in that kind of community involvement. My children did all the youth baseball, softball, soccer, etcetera, etcetera, and I actually ran the baseball/softball program for a year. I was an EMT. Gosh, what else did I do? I was secretary for the basketball program. You know just like anything I could volunteer for, I was volunteering for. You know just that kind of involvement made me feel good about myself. It also felt like a responsibility that I needed to kind of pick up some of that. And when I came back to school, of course, I think when we begin writing; the first place anybody begins with is personal experience, so I kind of tapped into that. I know the very first piece I took to workshop, it was a nonfiction workshop and I brought in a piece on an ambulance run, like my first ambulance run and that was very helpful for me. I had had nightmares about that experience for years, and once I wrote about it, the nightmares stopped. So it was kind of like, I think, really letting go of that, so that was a good thing. That's also where I cut the Holly Pageant piece that I have been very fortunate in spending ________ several times, so those kinds of things pulling on that. I did the same thing with the poetry, at first. You know just kind of personal experience and working through that. And I think that's really a good place to start. If you're not worrying as much about what you're writing about, it gives you a lot of time to think about how you're writing about it. And you just start getting all those techniques under your belt, and to think about in poetry, things like line breaks, stanza breaks, language sounds, you know, just all the things you really need to work on. And then for me, it was kind of a natural progression. I'm actually a relatively shy person, like painfully shy when I was young to the point where I had a friend who told me-- I guess it was junior high year-- you know how you hang out at the bus stop in the morning and here come the cute guys. I was so tight, I could never say a word and she actually looked at me and said, "Okay, tomorrow, if you don't talk, we're not going to be friends anymore," so kind of that. And here come the guys, I couldn't talk and we were no longer friends. She was like, "Okay, I warned you," you know kind of, "Bye." So that sense of self, I was kind of glad to move away from that with the _______ and trying to pick up something else. And I was very, very influenced by some of the work that I started reading that was actually historical-based poetry, and that fascinated me and I started giving assignments to my students. I always pay attention to what I saw in my students, because that tells me that somewhere, on a subconscious level, I want to do it. So I gave my 400 level poetry writing students the assignment of research something and write a poem that somehow incorporates that research. And listened to theirs and, of course, I said okay, if I'm going to make them do it, I had to do it, so I wrote a couple of really bad poems until I kind of got in the hang of it. And then I found that to me, that was more gratifying. I guess that's that same thing as doing the volunteer work, moving outside of myself in a way to me. Nothing against conventional poetry or personal poetry, I still do write that occasionally, but for this point in my life, it's not where my interests lie.

Diesenhaus: If I'm correct, some of your recent work, complete collections have been historically based In the Shadow of the Mountain. And then this summer, were you working on two things about New Mexico?

Adams: Yeah, I kind of got very interested in the west, which surprised me. It was not something that I am particularly drawn to in the past. I went out to New Mexico with someone who was going to a conference out there and I kind of just went along to see what it was like to hang out. And while he was in the conference, I just walked the streets of Santa Fe and just fell in love with the place. And as I was walking around, I saw this plaque, and on the plaque it said "The end of the Santa Fe Trail" and I thought oh wow, Santa Fe Trail, I wonder what that is. I had no clue. And this was when I was working on In the Shadow of the Mountain, so I was really heavily invested in volcanoes, like everything I did was referenced to volcanoes. I drove everyone crazy, because that was all I wanted to talk about. You know I'd meet people and I'd say, "Have you heard?" You know, I just can't believe I did it now, but I was just obsessed. So at this point, I was finishing up In the Shadow of the Mountain, but I saw that Santa Fe Trail thing and that really stuck in my mind in an important way. Came back, finished the volcano poems, as I call them, and it was like okay, now what am I going to write? And no sooner did I say that, in the front of my mind, I saw that plaque and this part of me was like oh no, no, no, no, no, no. I am not writing about the west. I knew nothing about it. It would be too hard. You know I'm trying to talk myself out of this, and part of my mind, I guess, was like okay. So for probably a month, I kept trying to write and trying to write and nothing would come, until finally, I was like one of those bratty little kids talking to their parents. It was like, "Okay, fine. I'll go to the library. I'll look at some books and see what's there, but I guarantee you, I'm not going to write about the Santa Fe Trail." So I came to the library and I started kind of thumbing through the books, and there was this one marvelous book that's this whole collection of like maybe one or two-page excerpts from people who traveled on the Santa Fe Trail. And in all those excerpts, there were several that were women's voices and I was hooked. I was like oh my God, I feel like I know these women. You know the hundred years meant nothing, a hundred-plus years meant nothing. They became real to me and that's how I started on that collection.

Diesenhaus: I guess I wanted to ask you if you'd talk about how you manage the research and still be productive. Research is not necessarily intimidating, but do you not like it?

Adams: (laugh) It's intimidating, yeah. Well I've always loved to research, so in that sense, it isn't painful for me. In fact, when I did the Masters in English, of course, you end up doing a lot of research. There was a course that we took our first semester where we had to learn how to use the library, had to learn how to use all the resources and that was really a good course for me, because I didn't know those things. But it's very different when you're researching for a paper versus researching for poetry. I think for me, it was good that I started out with a chat book, because that was more manageable. It wasn't as overwhelming. When I started doing the Santa Fe Trail thing that was a lot harder for me, also, because I didn't really know that much about the background. So I had to do a lot of research and dealing with the fear that I would get things historically wrong, and forgiving myself and reminding my self this is poetry. It's not a history textbook; therefore if, you know, maybe I talk about some kind of nail that wasn't there yet, you know, that people would forgive me for that, so that was okay. So the Santa Fe one was hard. And then I made that transition. When you're in Santa Fe, you cannot be in Santa Fe for any period of time without going to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. I had always known about her work or known about her work for many, many years, you know, kind of recognized big flowers, balloons in the desert, you know and that was about all I knew about her work. I picked up a biography about her in the bookstore there and was just kind of flipping the pages, and it just caught my eye and there was something about her I wanted to know more. So that's when that process started, and then ended up being really challenging, because there was so much about her. It's more modern; therefore, I couldn't forgive myself for mistakes as easily, yet, in the biographies I was reading, constant contradictions. One would say one thing and one would say something else. And it was kind of like well; what's the truth, and what do I write and how do I do this, so also kind of coming to terms with that, that I could count on poetic license a little and choose whichever version worked better for the main story I was telling. But that ended up, I researched for about a year before I even wrote the first poem and that's been about a three-year project that I think I'm kind of winding up right now. You know I hate to say that, because no sooner do I say that and I'll find I have to write some more.

Diesenhaus: Were you the poet in residence at the Harwood Museum this summer?

Adams: Mm hmm.

Diesenhaus: What was that opportunity like? Did it afford you the opportunity to work on some of the things you've been talking about?

Adams: Yeah I think for me, since I'm a lecturer, I have a really heavy course load, and I do a lot of the advising, so during the school year, I don't get as much time to write as maybe some other people would. Financially, I need to teach one summer school course and that cuts down the writing time a little bit more. So usually, maybe six or seven weeks out of the summer, I really write, like that's all I do. I read. I write. I eat. I sleep and that's about it. Certainly, though, the residency at the Harwood was one of the most monumental professional experiences that I've been through yet. It was amazing to just go there. They gave me this wonderful little apartment right above the museum, no rent. You know I just lived there as if it were my own, brought food in. It was only a few blocks from the main square of Taos, so I'd get up and walk every morning while it was still cool, you know, around 6:00 or 7:00 o'clock in the morning, walk for about an hour, then come back, no TV. I didn't even have music. All I did all day was write, go out and walk around in the community, go to the Taos Cow Ice Cream Parlor. (laugh) I mean it was just such an idyllic experience, so inspirational. Just the smell of the place, good smell, you know and the air, the attitude of the people, I just felt so welcome there and that was extremely prolific for me. In a month's time, I think I wrote 14 poems, which for me, is a lot, you know 14 poems that I felt were good poems, so that was very, very helpful.

Diesenhaus: I want to go back to seeing the plaque and you kind of talking about the resistance. Was it resistance to kind of being engulfed in one subject? It sounds like the research you like and it's not something that's distasteful, but is it sort of being totally, not obsessed but--

Adams: Yeah and especially if it's foreign ground in a way. It's not something I was familiar with at all. In the course of reading about Georgia O'Keeffe, though, when she talked about where she said you should always feel challenge. You should always feel uncomfortable. You should always be pushing yourself in that way. And it was like well, okay. And certainly, once I felt okay with the Santa Fe poems and, you know, had those-- and they were persona poems and they were first person narrative-- then making the transition into Georgia O'Keeffe, was the first person persona no longer worked. I could not be Georgia O'Keeffe. You know that was so anti-everything that I felt about her personality that I felt like I was courting her in a way and had to try and find a point of view that would work, not only for how I was trying to tell this story and what I was trying to do, but that somehow, I could get her personality across in the poems. So I think with each project I've done, when I stepped into it, I felt extremely uncomfortable. I felt like it was new ground and I didn't quite know how I was going to deal with it. The volcano poems, In the Shadow of the Mountain, that was based on a news clip on the Public Radio where they talked about Krakatoa, and a new book had come out about Krakatoa and they said how many tens of thousands of people died. I think it was like 40,000 people died. And I heard that and I was like how in the world can 40,000 people die in a volcano explosion? Like okay, lava starts coming down the mountain. You see it and you leave. I had no concept of what that meant geologically. So I went to the library once again, a big probe through the library the whole way through all this. I went to the library, pulled out a book from the shelf and it was, you know, all these different stories about volcanoes. And I started reading about Krakatoa, but then there was this chapter before that about St. Pierre, Martinique and Mt. Pelee. I saw the dead was about-- how could this-- this was early 1900's. How could I not have heard about this, and then finding out there is like a political thing involved. And it was fascinating to me, also, because that's when we were first getting involved in Iraq, so to me, the parallels of government thinking they're doing a good thing, but isn't really a good thing, and I was intensely uneasy about the whole Iraq situation. So I think in a way, those poems ended up being political protests. So I think in a way, I'm always a little bit resistant about stepping outside my comfort zone, but ultimately, I will make myself do that because I don't want to be a stagnant person.

Diesenhaus: You talk about plugging the library. I wondered also if the Internet, is that a useful technology for you research-wise?

Adams: Yeah and that's always-- for me, that the easy research. In one of the poems I just did about Georgia O'Keeffe and mentioned in a source that she was walking on the San Antonio River with this man, who was courting her. And she reached up and she plucked a pomegranate blossom. I'm thinking pomegranate blossom. I know what a pomegranate looks like. And I could just walk into my bedroom, turn on the-- you know pull out the picture, image, Google image, pomegranate blossom, so it makes that a lot easier. But I'm still a book person. I really like having books sitting there. In fact, this is embarrassing to admit. I had been a Georgia O'Keeffe hog for like the past two years. I've had books. And I keep waiting for those little notices to come in the email saying, "Please return this book. Somebody else would like to have it. You're really selfish." And I've only had that happen once and I took the source back right away. But I would have those books kind of sitting around open. In fact, for a while there, one bedroom in my house was like Georgia O'Keeffe land. There was a poster up on the wall. There were books all over the floor, so that I could go in and just look at different pictures and try to kind of get a poem going. But also, the fact our inner library ______ here, there was once source I needed, and this was back when I was doing the Mt. Pelee poems. It was somebody who actually came several days after the eruption and he wrote this book about it, and I wanted that book so much. I wanted that book, so I did the inner library ______ thing and I just kind of hit that send button to see; is it out there, will they be able to get it for me. And two days later, I got the notice saying okay, here it is. Come pick it up. So there was like a special acknowledgement to the inner library long people, because they are just always-- it amazes me the things they can find for you and how quickly they'll get them to you. I can't imagine. I don't think I could have written anything I've written in the past five years without this library.

Diesenhaus: A couple of things that you mentioned, I just want to come back to with both the Santa Fe Trail and the Georgia O'Keeffe. There's a focus on women's perspectives, and if you could talk more about that. Is that part of the draw for you or how you feel relating to women's voices? You talked about the women's voices on the trail.

Adams: Yeah I think it's been really important to me in many, many ways, and it's not that I set out to say okay, I'm going to write literature about women or for women. I think it was part of my own growth process, and finding these strong women role models, I think, has been really inspirational to me. You know I've kind of felt like I've been plugging along with my own life and that's fine, and I'm responsible for myself. I raised my kids. They are now all adults living on their own. I'm really, really proud of them. But I think hearing stories about other women who are resourceful, who are strong, who don't crumble, or when they crumble, they can pull themselves back up and then keep going, and they improvise and they do all these wonderful things, I think that's really important for women to hear that. And for me to be able, when I read the stories by the women who traveled on the Santa Fe Trail, to think that book has been sitting up here in the library for years, and years and years, and there's a good chance I could have spent the rest of my life and never read that, and how many people will read that, how many people will connect to those lives, that when we do this kind of historical-based poetry, in a way, it's like resurrecting their lives so that they can continue, those voices can continue through my words. They keep going. And many of those stories, to me, were just so important. I can't let any small part I can play in keeping those voices alive, to me. That's like a gift and I'm so thankful I could do that. And so it's a strange thing that by the time you finish with a project, you feel kind of like you're friends with them. Like if you get something published, like they're dancing in the background going, "Yay, it was my poem! It was one about me!" (laugh) And the same thing with Georgia O'Keeffe. That was one, once again, was a little harder, because she was so reserved that I think I wrote maybe eight poems before I started to feel comfortable. And a poem that I wrote about her father's death, when I finished that one, I felt this sense of satisfaction and that yes, she likes that, like all of a sudden, I had crossed some kind of boundary in my mind, that it was okay for me to kind of claim this material and talk about it in this way. Her soul wouldn't be offended and be haunting me from that moment forward, so that was kind of a good feeling.

Diesenhaus: You also talked about, first of all, the poetry in residence giving you time. As a lecturer, you have a heavier course load. How do you deal with the kind of balancing obligations of life along with writing and with teaching? You mentioned that your children are grown up, but further still, are there types of obligations?

Diesenhaus: Sure. My daughter had surgery twice this past year and so there was some times with her and taking care of her. And family is something that, fortunately, when you love your family, they don't go away. You know that's best case scenario is that they don't kind of disappear into the world out there, that they're always deeply invested in your life and you're invested in their life. I think one thing I've learned, especially when my children were younger, is to forgive myself. I know often, a question that we're asked as writers, that kind of standard thing; do you have a set schedule, do you write every day for a certain amount of time? No, I don't. And I have friends who swear by that, and that's what they do, and that's what works for them. And you know what? My life has not been like that. And many people do not have lives like that, that they-- once again, kind of saying well that's good for those people, but I have to grab two hours here when I can, or I can tell myself every Monday is going to be my writing day. Then no sooner do I do that, then I get a notice saying okay, you have a hiring committee meeting this Monday, and then I have College of Arts and Sciences curriculum committee meeting Monday afternoon. And it's like okay, so maybe not Monday this week. Maybe it will be Friday this week, but then I'll do that and just kind of making time when I can. Then when I do have that intensive amount of time, that's when I get into more scheduling. I'll get up, walk every day, come home, eat, sit down, write, you know, have lunch break, write again. And then I can be on a more writerly schedule. I think that was something else that helped with poetry is that you can claim three or four hours of really good writing time to work on a poem. When I was doing fiction, that meant at least five or six hours to me and it's like you're in that hazy other world. And if one of my kids would come and interrupt, you know, just kind of look at them like I was a zombie and go, "What? What do you want?" which I now feel bad about. So in that sense, poetry was easier to put aside for me and to pick back up again. I think I actually read something like that somewhere that many single mothers cling to poetry as an outlet, for that very same reason, that they could get more accomplished in brief spurts of time, before they had to take somebody to the emergency room or go to a PTA meeting.

Diesenhaus: I was talking to Mark Cox last week and he talked about writing poetry on his drive from work at a construction job, but it was those short stretches of time that allowed for kind of focus on a small piece of writing.

Adams: Yeah, yeah, and little scraps of paper in your car. And the scariest thing is when my son and daughter were in college, my son was at NC State, my one daughter was at UNC Ashville, the other was in Savannah, so I was doing a lot of driving to go visit them. Like every month, I would go see one of them, so it was like alternating, and so there would be anywhere from two to five or six hours of driving. And I would drive and write at the same time, you know, with a notebook right there. You write a little and you're watching the traffic, and you're writing, and then you put it down and you're thinking, and then you pick it back up and you add one more line, and you put it down, yeah, random scraps of paper. It only became bad when you would remember that you had this great line and you threw it somewhere in the car, but now you can't find it, so you're looking under the seat, and picking up the mat, and this is like 2:00 o'clock in the morning when you're trying to find it. So it adds a little interest to life.

Diesenhaus: On your faculty statement on the website, you talk about how you're interested in the form of free verse. Can you talk more about the importance of form in poetry to you and why you're drawn to it?

Adams: And I think that I'm about to make another transition there, so that's kind of interesting. Getting more interested in kind of like the classic forms. I think I really want to play with those a bit more. I think I've kind of enjoyed experimenting with stanza breaks and line breaks, just kind of getting my understanding of that a little stronger than it was. When I was in the Masters program, I went to a workshop and the instructor said something about I really like this poem, though I question the line length. I question her line breaks. I thought it just kind of had the look almost like normal, like a certain-- you just described a certain length and you just keep breaking there. I had no concept, really, of what a line break did or was, so I spent that entire summer just reading poems, and looking at where all the line breaks were, and thinking about the effect of the line length, stanza length, just anything I could as far as the form was concerned, where it wasn't neater and it wasn't a form like a sonnet, so that was kind of already decided, but just free verse, what was happening in the free verse. And I thought, you know if I didn't know that as a grad student, what are the chances the undergrads are going to know that? So that's something I start working, like really intensively with my intermediate poetry writing students at an undergraduate level. I never want them to have somebody say about their poems, like I have no idea what you're trying to do with your line breaks. If somebody says that, I want them to be able to say, "Well I'm trying to make it move quickly down the page. I want certain parts." I want them to be able to do that, to talk intelligently about why they're doing that.

Diesenhaus: In the same statement, you say when you're teaching fiction that you're drawn toward work that pulls away from the traditional plot-driven format. What exactly do you mean by that?

Adams: That's a good question, because I think I wrote that statement like 15 years ago and haven't looked at it since. (laugh) It's like I rarely even teach fiction anymore. I think the last undergraduate fiction course I taught was probably about three years ago, though I do the intro to creative writing every summer, so I kind of dabble with the different genres then. At that point, I was-- okay, think back 15 years ago. There was kind of this tendency to move into-- well they were doing more flash fiction and that wasn't the norm. And maybe unique formatting, like stories that were written with-- I remember one. It was this wonderful story. It had a bunch of receipts in it, so that every now and then, there would be a receipt for something and it would tell you something about who the character was, so there's kind of playfulness in the fiction that I just found really intriguing. I think that was about the time when I was reading Laurie Moore's work, too, and just really loved that. Judy Budnitz was another one. I just loved her work and I would just read that over and over again. And that was kind of, once again, some of the short shorts. Second person, I know when I was a graduate student, the very first fiction workshop I did in that class, I think I did a first person short story and the instructor said, "You know really, that's kind of experimental. You need to stick to third person." Well now, you know, I realize that first person wasn't all that experimental at that time, but then I read something in second and then I was like wow, this is really cool. Listen to what happens to the voice when you talk a whole story to them in second person. How can you do that? So I was kind of interested in that. And I think really focusing on that in fiction helped me when I made that transition to doing persona things in poetry, because then you have the same choices, like you have to decide that point of view. There's so many things in the narrative poetry that I think a lot of the students who are doing fiction and nonfiction could kind of relate to the narrative poetry, because they're taking the same skills and they're rethinking; okay, how can I do this, like what point of view do I want, who's going to be talking. That ended up being kind of fun.

(tape change)

Diesenhaus: Actually, I realize I want to follow up just one last thing that you were saying.

Adams: Okay.

Diesenhaus: I know you said you're not teaching fiction as much, or haven't in a while, but even in your reading do you approach the reading of fiction and poetry differently?

Adams: Yeah. They're two very different animals I think. Fiction for me is very, very relaxing. And after I've written a lot I feel like I'm empty of words and fiction's a good way to kind of replenish that. And it's just so enjoyable, I love fiction. So that's kind of my relaxation. Poetry is more meditative, and I think it's a different-- it's a totally different experience, the work of reading poetry. And I consider it more work, though I love it. So that's when I'm kind of ready to get focused again, I'll start reading the poetry again.

Diesenhaus: You talked about not having a concrete schedule, or maybe being forced to not have one, but something such as the scraps, writing down notes, is that still part of your process, or are you sometimes sitting down working out something that you had in your head, or that comes to you from the moment you sit down?

Adams: I think when I was doing more personal poetry it was very different from what I'm doing now. There would be an image, it was always something that caught my eye and that-- it could be a pinecone lying on the street. It could be a flower bloom and the way the sun was hitting it, and I knew I would have to write about that. And a lot of it was writing to figure out why that caught my eye, and what it was trying to draw forth. I think with the research it's a little bit different, I feel like more-- like I'm priming the pump, and I have this feeling that I want to write about a poem, or write a poem about this one certain aspect of whatever I'm researching. And I spend a day just kind of walking around just thinking about it, and thinking about. And the writing process there isn't always convenient for me, especially when I'm teaching, I know-- I guess it was Monday night I was up most of the night because I wanted to write Monday, I couldn't write, and there were different things going on, and the poem just wasn't there. So it was like "Well okay, that's fine, it will come when it's meant to." So I went to sleep and I woke up at around midnight, and I had this sense of like one scene for the poem. So I know by now. I turned on the light, I spent ten or 15 minutes writing down that little bit, I turned off the light. It's like "Okay, now I can go back to sleep." No, doesn't work. So I turned back on the light, and finally after about, you know, maybe 45 minutes of doing that I was just like "Okay, fine." Turn on the computer, turn on all the lights, get something to drink, relax, and I just-- I was up to like I guess maybe 4:30 in the morning. Got another two hours of sleep maybe before I had to come in to teach my early class that day, but that's kind of a good exhaustion. You know, when you know you've accomplished something versus normal insomnia where you're just walking around the house and maybe mopping your floor or something, and I've done plenty of that too. So that's kind of different, but that sense that it's going to happen at odd times. And I'm always-- I'm learning over the years, there's a restlessness in my body before I start writing. And especially if I can't write during the week, by the time the weekend comes I can feel it, and I'm pacing. I'm like an animal and just pacing, pacing, pacing until finally something will get me going, and then I'll start writing, and then it's like "Thank you." You know, that I could get that down.

Diesenhaus: You talked about turning off all the lights, and when you're not in that position where you've almost been forced into the writing, but you choose it, are there are other kinds of habits or rituals that you might do? Things you kind of keep near you, or how you write at your desk, that help you kind of get going?

Adams: I never write at my desk anymore, so that's definitely not one. I'm usually sitting on my couch. And this is also part of the joy of doing poetry, is I can still write by hand.

Diesenhaus: That was my next...

Adams: I write in a large notebook, and often I'll write, and write, and rewrite, or carry around a smaller notebook, and I'll do a draft, I'll tear it out, I'll do it again, I'll tear it out, and I'll do that like five or six times just to get the first draft down. And it's not until I feel like I have a decent draft that I'll actually put it into the computer after that. So I love that, I love the feel like I'm forming the words with my hands, that kind of connection, and going over and over and over it.

Diesenhaus: And how much changes when you go from the final hand written draft to the typewriter or computer version?

Adams: I can't even count how many, for even a small poem, it's ridiculous the times I will revise it, maybe move a line to nearer the beginning of the poem, go back, changing 'the' to 'a', and then changing it back again. I mean, just all these small things. At first the revisions are much greater, but then they kind of-- it kind of, you know, as the poem's closer and closer to what I think is finished, though I always send it out too soon, and it gets rejected by some place I really would have liked to had it. And then I have to look at it again, and it's all, you know, really embarrassing that I even sent that out the first time. But that sense that you think it's done, you know, and-- which I always remind students of, and tell them I do that same thing, you know. And for them its they bring it to class and they think its done, and then they're upset when people say "Well think about this," and "Think about that," and I do that to myself all the time. And often putting a poem aside for three weeks and not even looking at it, and then pulling it back up again, it's so clear then what you need to do, it's just easy to revise it at that point. But I kind of like that process of revision, especially those times when I really feel like I want to write but I can't, I'll pull out a poem and take another look at it, and work on revisions instead. Because there's that same sense of satisfaction that you've actually crafted something. And I think that's more what the revision is, its that crafting, its not that first rush of inspiration that's always fun. But it's more gratifying in a way.

Diesenhaus: Is the revision, the handwritten revision different then the revision you do on the computer? You talk about moving the whole line; do you do more of that on the computer as opposed to...?

Adams: About the same amount. In fact if you ever saw one of the sheets of first draft of the poem it ends up having "1, 2, 3," and arrows, and little things bracketed and arrows to move it around. Then I'll rewrite it and do all that. And then I'll look at it again and move things around again. But even just that process of looking, and that's part of also the working with the line and stanza breaks, getting really good line integrity for each line in the poem, I think that's part of it, that playing with it, maybe moving a clause up to the beginning so you have better line integrity. So I really like playing with that, it's kind of like word puzzles, which I loved when I was a kid also, all the crossword puzzles etcetera.

Diesenhaus: One of the questions that I've been trying to ask as many of the interviewees as possible is if you're in just a casual conversation and you're at a social gathering, if someone asks you what you do, what do you say? Do you say you're a writer or do you say a professor, do you have any thoughts about that?

Adams: You know that's changed over the years. It used to be that when somebody asked that I responded that I was a teacher and I taught at the university, and I don't anymore. Now I say "I'm a poet and I teach at the university." And to me that 'and' is really important, and I always say those things together, because to me that has become-- I think I have more faith in myself as a poet now, to where it's like I'm not embarrassed to say "I'm a poet." Because then the next question is always "Well where have you published?" you know. And it's like "Okay." And now I don't even feel obligated to respond to that, you know? And strangely I don't get asked that as much, maybe because I say it with confidence. But for me the writing and the teaching work so much hand in hand, and just the fact that I have a job that enables me to also do something else I love, what a blessing. You know. And to be able, like for me there's no real difference between a Wednesday and a Saturday because I'm going to be working, I'm just going to be working on different things. I never, ever feel regretful about coming into work, unless of course I'm sick, but that's normal. But just like emotionally there's not any of that "Oh my God I can't wait until Friday." You know, for me its like "Oh, okay what am I doing today? Today's the day I'm doing these things." And that's just-- what a wonderful way to live a life.

Diesenhaus: And another question I try to ask everyone, and probably the last question is if you had any advice for aspiring writers, aspiring poets, people in the program current, or prospective people?

Adams: I think because I've seen my own career grow very slowly over the years, I think the thing I would tell them is the same thing I told to myself over and over, and that's "Don't give up," and to have a belief in yourself that even if you're not getting published now, when your work is good enough it will be published. It's not that anybody's out there trying to keep you from the gold ring or anything, it just means you have to work harder. And sometimes it doesn't reach the right audience, but basically I tell myself "If something is not getting accepted, it's not quite good enough yet." And I have to accept the responsibility, and I have to go back in and revise some more. And one of my first days of grad school, as I said it was a non-fiction class and this was when I was doing the MA and the professor in there said "Look around you." There were 12 people. "Out of the 12 of you there will probably be only two of you who are still writing ten years from now. And it depends on who's the most determined, who will not give up." And I'm really stubborn. Like that's one trait that my family didn't like when I was a kid, but now I'm really stubborn, and I just refuse to give up.

Diesenhaus: Thank you very much.

Adams: You're welcome.

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