Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Caitlin Doyle

In poetry, writing on March 11, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Caitlin Doyle

Caitlin Doyle. Photo by Mike Robinson.

An introduction to poet Caitlin Doyle, who just completed her tenure as the winter term Writer-In-Residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Florida. Accolades for Caitlin Doyle’s work include Pushcart Prize nominations, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, a poetry award from The Atlantic Monthly, and prizes from the Academy of American Poets. Doyle is currently at work on her first book-length poetry manuscript. Her poems have recently been published or will soon appear in Best New Poets 2009, Black Warrior Review, The Boston Review, The Warwick Review, and Measure.

Quick Facts on Caitlin Doyle

  • Caitlin Doyle’s website
  • Home: I’m originally from Long Island, New York, but most recently I lived in Orlando, Florida.
  • Comfort food: Pizza with an ice-cold Dr. Pepper.
  • Top poetry reads: A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry, The Wild Party by Joseph Moncure March, The Oxford Book of American Light Verse, A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson; this last one is cheating, but indulge me: The Collected Poems of ___ (fill in the blank with any one of the following: Robert Frost, WH Auden, Philip Larkin, Theodore Roethke, Ben Jonson, Elizabeth Bishop, WB Yeats, Christina Rossetti, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Blake, Thomas Hardy, Richard Wilbur, Alfred Tennyson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edwin Arlington Robinson)
  • Current reads: The Known World by Edward P. Jones, The Diminishing House by Nicky Beer

When you have trouble getting started on a poem, where do you look for inspiration?

Often, when I’m stalling on a poem, I’ll pick up a book called Schott’s Original Miscellany by Ben Schott. It’s an almanac full of random facts, trivia, diagrams, charts, and lists. You can open to one page and find a description of Victorian mourning practices, and then turn to another page and read about famous horses in history. I like to flip through the book and let my consciousness fall on whatever piece of information presents itself to me. I never end up writing about the exact topics I find in Schott’s Original Miscellany, but perusing it helps me loosen my pen-grip and expand my sense of imaginative possibilities.

What do you hope readers will take away from your work?

I hope to reconnect readers with the primal ear-delight of their early years, bringing them back to their first pleasure in hearing nursery rhymes, lullabies, commercial jingles, and playground songs, while also feeding their grown-up appetites for intellectual depth, sonic complexity, and emotional resonance. Above all, I hope that readers take away a sense of lingering acoustic gratification, a ringing echo, a feeling that certain lines have been planted in their memories and assimilated into their inner worlds.

“I hope that readers take away

a sense of lingering acoustic gratification.”

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

My absolute ideal reader would be a teenager whose ears and imagination were tuned in early childhood by books like A Child’s Garden of Verse and Illustrated Poems For Children (the marvelous edition illustrated by Krystyna Stasiak). I picture this person as being in the first love-throes of encountering poets like Frost, Whitman, Plath, Dryden, Byron, Dickinson and Larkin, discovering and devouring them outside of school. This reader would be at the optimal life stage for receiving poetry in its purest pleasure-giving essence, not yet impeded by the defenses and fears that enter into many an adult’s relationship with poetry. In a nutshell: a reader smart and developed enough to apprehend the core profundities of a poem but still unguarded enough to experience the poem, more than anything else, as a form of incantatory magic.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

In general, I’m neither an early morning writer nor a late-night scribbler. My optimal writing time is between 10:00am and 6:00pm, with noon to 4:00pm usually comprising my most focused and productive period. As far as where I prefer to write, I love working in a big oversized chair, near to but not directly facing a window, with a spiral notebook propped up on a pillow that’s resting across my lap.

What do you listen to when you work?

I can’t listen to music when I’m working on an early draft. However, if I’m deep into a revision, I find that listening to piano music can galvanize my process, particularly songs that strike me as combining repetition and variation in hypnotic ways. Beethooven’s Apassionata and the Miroirs piano suite by Ravel are two that come to mind.

How do you balance content with form?

Sometimes I hear the form-and-content quandary in poetry discussed as if content is the sacred, immutable center of a poem and form only serves to enact and enhance the content. But this notion would suggest that a poet sits down with a fully determined idea of the things he or she wishes to convey and then shapes the poem’s form to enable the expression of those things. In my experience, the process is more symbiotic than that, with the form determining the content as often as the other way around.

“My writing process is at its liveliest

and sharpest when the form pushes back

against the content.”

I think that my writing process is at its liveliest and sharpest when the form pushes back against the content, resisting it rather than fully enabling it, so that I must work harder to say what I wish or else abandon my initial intentions and say something entirely different. For me, this kind of push-and-pull between form and content is often established either through writing with certain formal limitations (rhyme or meter, for example), or working with self-imposed patterns and constraining elements within a free-verse structure; essentially, always writing inside parameters that do not allow me absolute freedom of expression.

Is there a quote about writing that motivates you?

Alexander Pope’s couplet about writing springs to mind:
“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
as those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”

His words always spur me to remember an important question: How can a poet break the rules in a meaningful way unless he or she has mastered them first? I love the way the couplet enacts the very assertion it offers, constructed by Pope with a hard-won technical skill that makes the language sing while also appearing seamless and natural. I turn to this quote as a reminder that, when it comes to poetry, the way to achieve absolute originality in the future is to apprentice oneself to the past. Pope’s words help me keep in mind the necessity of absorbing and assimilating the time-honored tools of poetic tradition, learning the dance before I attempt to add any steps of my own.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

When I was a student, a prominent visiting writer told a bunch of us aspiring writers: “Remember, the world isn’t waiting for your work.” At first, this notion seemed a bit deflating. But he proceeded to elaborate by saying that a writer should separate and protect his/her artistic development from the worldly pressures of publication and recognition. He urged us to keep in mind that we should be far more focused on the work than on the pursuit of “literary success.”

“Be a homemade writer

rather than a world-made writer.”

I would repeat this insight to aspiring writers: The world isn’t waiting for your work. You have no obligation to anything other than the blank page in front of you, no expectations to fulfill except those set forth by your own pen. Take your time to develop arduously, painstakingly, and privately, rather than throwing your writing too hastily into the universe for recognition. Be a homemade writer rather than a world-made writer—only then will the world truly want and need your work.

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

When I’d handed in a lackluster poem dashed off for an English assignment, one of my teachers wrote this quote by the poet Don Paterson on the top of the page: “A poem is just a little machine for remembering itself.” The rest of her comments pointed to the fact that my piece lacked the elements that would distinguish it as a poem rather than simply a piece of prose with line-breaks. This set me thinking a great deal about some basic questions: What is poetry, and what exactly makes it different from other genres of writing? I kept coming back to the idea of a poem being a “machine for remembering itself,” and as I contemplated the defining features of poetry, I came to see that most of them were indeed related to memory. The more I read, the more I realized that the best poems were the ones that had been built to be remembered, the works that used sonic and structural elements to burn themselves into the reader’s mind.

I found that the most compelling poems were the ones that understood and maximized the art form’s unique, age-old ability to take up permanent residence in the human head. Over time, as I grew more serious about my own writing, the relationship between poetry and memory became a central aesthetic interest for me. The Paterson quote scribbled by my teacher on the top of that poem remains one of the most galvanizing insights I’ve ever been offered as a writer.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

The part that I find most challenging about the writing process is also the part that I find most rewarding: navigating the tension between contrasting components as a poem takes shape, elements like limitation and freedom, tradition and innovation, reserve and directness, and narrative clarity and lyricism, to name just a few.

Is there a question you find surprising that people ask you about your work?

I’m sometimes thrown by the question, “Why did you choose to become a poet?” Of course, it’s a perfectly valid question, and one to which I’ve heard various poets offer fascinating answers. But, in my case, there was never a defining moment or experience that led me to “choose” poetry. Rather, I feel like poetry chose me, as though it seized me and spirited me away when I was very young. I didn’t have much say in the matter at all! I can’t remember a time when poetry wasn’t “it” for me. I fell under the spell of poems as a kid, starting with Robert Louis Stevenson and progressing from there, and my entire life has taken shape from those early, indefinable experiences with poetry.

Is there a question that you wish people would ask you more often about your work?

At times, I wish people would ask less about the subject of the poems and more about the structure of them. I enjoy it when people inquire about the nuts and bolts of how a poem was built, touching on the specifics of the process instead of just focusing on the content. This is not to say that a poem’s structure should announce, “Pay attention to me!” When a poem shines, the technical and structural elements are working almost invisibly, impacting the reader in a largely subconscious way rather than calling overt attention to themselves. But it can be fun to discuss the framework under the surface of the building. I love specific structure-related questions along the lines of, “Why did you vary the meter in that part of the line?” or “Why did you switch to slant-rhymes in that section of the poem?” or “Why did you choose to break the lines in such a way at this point in the piece?”

“When a poem shines, the technical

and structural elements are working

almost invisibly.”

What book do you wish you owned a first edition of?

I’d love to own a first edition of so many books but my top choice, as of right now, would either be A Boy’s Will by Robert Frost or On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

About Caitlin Doyle

Caitlin Doyle has been awarded residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Jentel Foundation, and others. She has held writer-in-residence positions at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL, and St. Albans School in Washington, DC. She earned her MFA from Boston University, where she was the George Starbuck Fellow in Poetry. Her honors include two Pushcart Prize nominations, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize, a poetry award through the Atlantic Monthly, and two prizes through the Academy of American Poets. Ms. Doyle’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in several publications, including Best New Poets 2009, Black Warrior Review, The Boston Review, The Warwick Review, and Measure.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Caitlin Doyle.” Words With Writers (March 11, 2011), https://wordswithwriters.com/2011/03/11/caitlin-doyle/.%5D

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  1. […] Hugh (2010) Bell, Virginia (2013) Budbill, David (2012) Day, Lucille Lang (2014) Doyle, Caitlin (2011) Drewes, Steffi (2010) Duggan, Patrick (2012) Flowers, Arthur (2011) Foerster, Jennifer […]

  2. […] To read more about Caitlin and see additional samples of her work, you can visit her website. You can watch a video of Caitlin reading her poetry at Poetryvlog.com. You can also read Marissa Bell Taffoli’s interview with Caitlin on the Words With Writers website. […]

  3. […] that focuses on what makes writers tick. The latest post, up right now, is a great look at poet, Caitlin Doyle. It’s a great read, and I highly recommend […]

  4. Brilliant interview! One of the best. Original, penetrating, and extremely well-articulated answers. An especially astute discussion of the relationship between form and content. This young poet is on my radar from now on. Thank you for having her featured here. – Bert Dougal

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