Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer & Translator Denise Newman

In books, poetry, translation, writing on April 27, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Denise Newman

Denise Newman. Photo by Eva Whitney.

An introduction to the author of the poetry books The New Make Believe, Wild Goods, and Human Forest, and translator of Danish writer Inger Christensen’s novels. Newman’s third book of poems, The New Make Believe, is forthcoming from The Post-Apollo Press.

Quick Facts on Denise Newman

  • Home: San Francisco, California
  • Comfort food: Ice cream. Mint Chip.
  • Recent reads: Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Lawrence Weschler’s Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees
  • Often reads: Shobogenzo: Zen Essays by Dogen, trans. Thomas Cleary
  • Current reads: Chronic by DA Powell, Rae Armantrout’s Versed, Leslie Scalapino’s Floats Horse-Floats or Horse-Flows, Homero Aridjis’ Solar Poems, Carl Jung’s The Red Book

What are you working on?

My last project led to my current one, but I’m at such a beginning place with it, I don’t know yet what it’ll become.

I have been collaborating with artist Gigi Janchang, writing to photographs that Gigi created. They’re portraits made up of parts of many different faces that I call “Future People.” They look alive, their eyes are wet, and yet there is a deadness to them. I was investigating how one could be alive and yet somehow trapped by death. I came to see these figures as soulless, and this realization led me to my current question, which is, what actually is a soul?

I am also doing readings and events for the release of a new poetry book, The New Make Believe.

Who do you picture as the ideal reader of your work?

I guess ultimately I am the ideal reader. It’s got to be engaging to me.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

Early in the morning, before talking to anybody. I like to go right from the dream into writing, but having a child has made me more flexible about where, when, and how I write. I just do it whenever I can. I often carry something around that I’m writing, and pull it out of my pocket to consider it in different settings.

Where would you most want to live and write?

It’s necessary for me to have quiet; I usually don’t write in public spaces, and yet, it would be hard for me to live physically cut off from a community of writers. I appreciate living in the Bay Area for this reason.

Lately I’ve been dreaming about having a hut, a small separate structure in the backyard to write in. We’re working on it!

What do you listen to when you work?

Nothing apart from ambient noise, which sometimes makes it into the work. Never any music.

Do you have a personal philosophy for how and why you write?

Writing is a vehicle for discovering what I don’t know, and what I am not able to explore through any other means in my life. I guess if there is a philosophy, it is to continuously return to that place of not knowing what I’m doing, and to pay close attention to the language in order to make something surprising out of the shadowy material that gets me started.

Which authors have strongly influenced you?

The Bay Area is so rich with writers, and many of them have influenced my work. Leslie Scalapino is someone who has been a big influence over a long period of time. Earlier important writers have been William Blake, Emily Dickinson, HD, Søren Kierkegaard. Obviously, I’m leaving a lot out.

The Danish poet whose work I’ve been translating for the past ten years, Inger Christensen, also has had a tremendous influence on me. Translating is a kind of really deep reading, and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work closely with her writings.

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

Paul Valéry: “The mind is terribly variable, deceptive, and self-deceiving, fertile in insoluble problems and illusory solutions. How could a remarkable work emerge from this chaos if this chaos that contains everything did not also contain some serious chance to know one’s self and to choose within one’s self whatever is worth taking from each moment and using carefully?”

I find this quote especially inspiring when I’m at the messy beginning stages of a piece of writing.

What advice would you give aspiring writers?

I take comfort in what Frank O’Hara says about writing: “You just go on your nerve.” It’s important to develop and trust one’s own instincts and inspirations. Try to stay true to your sensibilities and what you value, because your most personal work will be expressed from contact with this approach.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Early on when I was writing a piece and didn’t know what it was, I showed it to somebody and he said, “just keep going.” That was really helpful—to learn not to judge it at that early stage, but to keep writing, almost blindly, to see how far I could take it.

When not writing, what do you enjoy?

If I’m not writing or parenting or teaching, then I’m probably taking a walk or swimming or reading, and drinking tea. These are all great pleasures to me.

About Denise Newman

Denise Newman is the author of Human Forest and Wild Goods (both published by Apogee Press), and the forthcoming The New Make Believe (The Post-Apollo Press). She is the translator of The Painted Room (Random House, UK) and Azorno, (New Directions)—two novels by the Danish poet Inger Christensen. She teaches at the California College of the Arts.

(Interview first published on in April 2010.)

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Denise Newman.” Words With Writers (2010),]

Wild Goods

Wild Goods by Denise Newman (Apogee Press)

Human Forest

Human Forest by Denise Newman (Apogee Press)

  1. […] Elliot (2011) Hirshfield, Jane (2011) Mandanipour, Shahriar (2010) Mohamadi, Sheida (2011) Newman, Denise (2010) Philipson, Robert (2010) Rogow, Zack (2010) Shurin, Aaron (2013) Spahr, Juliana (2010) […]

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