Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Patrick Duggan

In poetry, writing on January 16, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Patrick Duggan

Patrick Duggan. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2011).

An introduction to poet and writer Patrick Duggan. Originally from New Hampshire, Duggan has studied writing and literature at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts and California College of the Arts in San Francisco. He is also a National Poetry Series finalist, and Duggan’s poems have appeared in Shampoo, Beeswax Magazine, 26 Magazine, Oranges and Sardines, Mirage: A Periodical, Monday Night, Noö Journal, Parthenon West Review, and The Inman Review.

Quick Facts on Patrick Duggan

  • Home: San Francisco, California
  • Comfort food: pizza
  • Top reads: Frank O’Hara made me realize I could write in my own voice. Federico Garcia Lorca—he’s the poet who got me into poetry, and he showed me the beauty in the world that I could create in poetry. Garcia Lorca showed me that I could write things that were personal and in my own voice, but also absurd and beautiful at the same time. Ted Berrigan taught me how to give form to poetry, and also taught me that performing a poem can give it a life. George R R Martin, who wrote the book series A Game of Thrones; I have a lifelong love for fantasy novels. Robert Fisk is one of the most powerful journalists and political writers I’ve ever read.
  • Current reads: Louis Zukofsky’s A, a monster of a book. I tend to write long poems so I’ve been interested in reading other poets who write long manuscripts to see how they handle it. Also, a fantasy book called The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

What are you working on at the moment?  

I am working on very small things. I’ve spent about eight years writing long poems, series poems, poems 60 pages long, poems linked by refrains. I hit a wall about two and a half years ago. I couldn’t think of anything to write. I couldn’t write in long form; I was having horrible writer’s block. So, I started writing small postcard poems. I did like 120 of them and mailed them to friends. After the second year of this, I was still feeling like I hadn’t written anything, but I had—they were just small poems, a form I had never worked in before. I feel like I’m coming out on the other side of something and that I’m able to write new things.

“I feel like I’m coming out on

the other side of something

and that I’m able to write new things.”

Over the last few years I’ve had to completely rewire how I think about poetry from an editorial sense. I used to write pages and pages of poems, and pick out longer things that I could continue to riff off of. Lately, I’ve been using my editorial eye to just pare things down to really get to the bare bones of the poem, the most essential things. It’s been so hard to do that. I’ve had to retrain myself, but it’s now feeling like something I’m getting my head around. I always have one eye toward how things will look in a manuscript, and I’ve been thinking about a book of small poems. There’s a really great book by Trane DeVore called Dust Habit, and that’s a book that sort of inspired me to start the postcard poems.

When you’re struggling with a poem, where do you look for inspiration?

Usually, I sit down at a coffee shop or a bar and I just kind of stare off into space until inspiration hits me. Other times, I will go to my bookshelf, pick a random book of poetry, and just start reading through it. And other times, I will listen to music. Some of the best lines I think I’ve written over the last several years are actually misheard song lyrics. I either have to sit and force myself to continue working on something or grab other books of poems to jog my creative process.

I don’t have any firm writing habits, aside from trying to write often, which I don’t do enough of at the moment. But I know a lot of people who have these great writing habits. When they’re working on a poem and they’re stuck, they have ways of writing out of that bog. I’ve always been one of those poets who, when I’m writing in my notebooks I could just write whatever comes into my head without thinking through it. Then I go back and edit from that. When I’m actively working on something, after I finish that first random editorial process, when I have to create with something specific in mind I always hit walls. It’s frustrating, and I don’t always have the tools to write my way out. 

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

I hope people read my work and they can relate to it. Not all of it, but I hope that almost anyone could read my writing and find one thing in it that they can relate to, like one human experience, one bit of nostalgia, one bit of forward thinking hope, one image, one experience. I don’t think that there’s anyone who could read my writing and really get and love every single word because I don’t get and love every single word. But I hope that people can find moments of joy, sadness, beauty, and ugliness, and all that.

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

I don’t know if I have an ideal reader for my work. Okay, when I say that, I feel that’s not exactly true. Thinking back on my writing, I reference a lot of my own life—the music I listen to, art I’ve seen, cultural moments from my own life, things related to politics—and so I don’t really think of having an ideal reader, but I think that probably someone who has had a similar life experience to mine would get more of the references. And even if that’s the ideal reader, they might not appreciate it, or they might have a different opinion of the things that I reference and talk about.

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I prefer to write at coffee shops or café bars. I do my best writing in the late afternoon or early evening, like between 4pm and 7pm. It’s kind of funny to think that way, but it’s true. Whenever I write at different times during the day, I’m less productive. Normally, I like to sit and drink coffee or have a glass of beer or wine and spend like an hour and a half journaling, and then edit from there.

Where would you most want to live and write?

There isn’t one place. I’d like to have a comfortable home with a fireplace and an enormous selection of good bourbon for my home base. If money were no object, I would spend two months each in different parts of the world traveling and living. But really, I’ve lived in different parts of the country and I’ve traveled to a few different parts of Europe now, and there are different things I see everywhere I go that I love, but I’ve never found a place that’s ever felt like home to me.

What do you listen to when you work?

There’s two answers. When I’m writing, I’m usually out somewhere since I have a hard time writing in my own home, so I don’t have control over what I’m listening to. It could be anything depending on where I am. If I’m editing at home, I usually listen to alt-country, alt-folk, a lot of alt; I need music that won’t distract me. I like quiet indie music to edit to. When I’m at work, or I have headphones, I listen to punk and metal sometimes. When I’m writing I need things that can fall into the background but that I like.

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

 “I can’t not write.”

I write because I have to. When I was a little kid, I wrote and illustrated my own stories. Through growing up to the present, I’ve always written. I can’t not write. Even if my manuscripts are never published I’ll still keep writing because I have to. I write whatever comes to mind in my notebook. Sometimes it’s thoughts and feelings about the day, sometimes it’s quotes or bits of poems, or just song lyrics I’ve heard. I just write whatever I feel like in my journals and then I cull poems out of that. I’ve always written, but editing my work into poems is something that I’ve had to learn to do.

How do you balance content with form?

That’s something that has changed for me over time. I went through one phase where I was writing almost entirely prose poems, and in that case I wasn’t balancing form. I went through another phase of journaling, writing everything in prose, and then pulling out lines for poems and breaking them where my natural cadence fell. The way that I speak, I tend to stammer and stutter with my words. When I was little, I spoke incredibly fast and I also stuttered sometimes, and I still have some of that in my voice.  When I was writing to create poems in my own voice, often the lines broke where my train of thought paused or my cadence broke. Sometimes that made for really long lines, and occasionally two words on a line. Balancing form with content is something that has been a lifelong learning process for me.

Form is something that I didn’t think was important when I first started writing, and now I really enjoy form. I enjoy seeing how the form that words take on the page can inform your reading of it. Form is my friend now, especially since I’m working on smaller, more sparse writing. But what got me into writing was really more prose or prose poems. I learned form, but I couldn’t really execute it in my own writing. I still write in long lines and in prose blocks, and then I pull out the form from there.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I would say two things. Read a lot, and don’t just read things that resonate with your own writing. Ask your friends for recommendations, go online and get ideas—just read everything. The more you read, the better writer you will be. I have yet to meet anyone for whom that was not true. The other piece of advice I would give is to not be dissuaded, especially if you’re a poet. Poetry is a niche art; it’s never going to be appreciated by a lot of people; it’s never going to be financially rewarding. It’s an art that a lot of people do for themselves.

I write poetry because I love it and I always will. Whatever accolades I get from it is from the community of poets that I know. I’ll probably never see a dime from it. I can’t think of any positive adjectives that go along with doing something for yourself, but it’s self-affirming; it’s also kind of vain in some ways, and selfish. If you want to write poetry, it’s not going to be your job unless you’re very lucky. Don’t be dissuaded. You can be a poet and be true to yourself, and you can make it doing other things.

“You can be a poet and be true to yourself,

and you can make it doing other things.”

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

Read a lot. The best advice that I’ve gotten from a bunch of different sources is when you’re editing your own work, put it down and come back to it later. Give yourself time away from your writing. The more distance you have from your writing, the better your editorial eye will be. That’s certainly true for me.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

Honestly, the thing I find most challenging is getting my work published. I send out a lot of writing to poetry book contests, small presses, and journals and stuff. The most challenging things about writing is keeping that up diligently. I have work in maybe a dozen journals, and I don’t have a book published but I was a finalist in the National Poetry Series, which is awesome. Those are all great accolades, but I literally have more than a hundred rejection slips. For that one amazing finalist thing, I have been rejected from some 30 book contests. The most challenging thing is keeping faith. If I send my work to a poetry press, they’re also getting thousands of other submissions a year. Having confidence that my work might not be published, not because it’s not good but because of other circumstances—that’s challenging. It’s challenging to be able to say to yourself, I might go the next 60 years without seeing a book published, but that doesn’t mean that I should stop writing.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

When I’m not writing, I love to read. I like to go out to new and awesome meals, and make new and awesome meals with my girlfriend. I like going on long walks and bike rides, and stuff like that. I like museums and galleries. It also seems like the older I get, the less time I have to do those things. I don’t do enough of all the things that I just listed. A lot of my off-work, off-writing time is spent reading. I escape into books to relax.

About Patrick Duggan

Patrick Duggan is originally from New Hampshire, and has studied writing and literature at Emerson College in Boston, MA and California College of the Arts in San Francisco, CA. He is also a National Poetry Series finalist, and his poems have appeared in ShampooBeeswax Magazine, 26 MagazineOranges and SardinesMirage: A PeriodicalMonday NightNoö Journal, Parthenon West Review, and The Inman Review.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Patrick Duggan.” Words With Writers (January 16, 2012), https://wordswithwriters.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/patrick-duggan/.%5D

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