Interview with Award Winning Poet, Danielle DeTiberus

Photo: Danielle DeTiberus

Photo: Danielle DeTiberus

Brief Biography:

Danielle DeTiberus lives and teaches in Charleston, SC. She holds a BFA from Emerson College and an MFA from The Solstice Low-Residency Program of Pine Manor College. Her work has appeared in Mead, Rattle, The Southeast Review, Gulf Stream Magazine, Naugatuck River Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Tar River Poetry. Her poem “Like That” was chosen as Honorable Mention for the 2009 Arts & Letters Rumi Prize in Poetry. In 2012, her poems “I Thought After Thirty” and “Love and Other Hand Grenades” won the Dubose and Dorothy Heyward Society Prize and the Jane Moran Prize, respectively, through the Poetry Society of South Carolina. Her first manuscript, Love and Other Hand Grenades, is currently seeking a home.

Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin from the other work you do besides writing. You teach at Trident Technical College, Charleston. How long have you been teaching?

Danielle DeTiberus: I’ve been teaching on and off for about twelve years. I came to teaching slowly and almost by accident after graduating from college. I took a position as a teaching assistant for children with special needs; I had no teaching experience and a BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing. I had no mentor or training and had to teach myself along the way. Eventually, I ended up teaching preschool and kindergarten, and fell in love with the way young minds play and work. That kind of work, though, requires a lot of energy, and I decided to take a step away from teaching in order to pursue graduate school. After I received my MFA, I decided to try teaching one college class to see whether or not it was something I wanted to pursue—and if it was something I was any good at. Something clicked during that first semester, and I’ve been teaching ever since.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you teach or what is your specialty?

Danielle DeTiberus: I teach composition and literature. I love teaching poetry, of course, but I also really enjoy weaving in discussions of historical and contemporary social and cultural issues within the context of literature. It’s incredibly rewarding to help facilitate thoughtful, analytical debate within the safe space of a classroom, especially as I see those discourses minimized more and more into sound bites.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think writers ought to consider teaching as a means of survival?

Danielle DeTiberus: This is an important question, I think, because of both the waning economy and the push for the commodification of education—at least, that’s the trend I’m seeing in the States. I think that sometimes writers can be great teachers. I have had many. The first poet I ever met was a teacher I had in undergrad, Dzvinia Orlowsky, who ended up also being my mentor in graduate school. However, I’ve also had teachers that seemed less interested in their students’ successes than in their own. I think that it’s dangerous to assume that teaching is a fall-back position for two reasons: as an adjunct, which I am and which schools are turning to for their workforce at astounding rates, salary is minimal and benefits are non-existent; also, it assumes that one will have gobs of free time to write. Teaching is a full-time job that requires a lot of passion and dedication. For me, teaching has been the best job of my life, but I think a writer could easily make her living as a waitress (which I did for many moons), an office assistant, a banker, etc.

Geosi Gyasi: What advice do you give to your students on the first day of class?

Danielle DeTiberus: I have found that the number one reason that students feel frustrated or defeated in a composition class is due to the assumption that if one can communicate orally, one should have no difficulty communicating on the page. When one struggles with physics or a foreign language, say, one doesn’t feel a sense of failure because that’s “supposed to be hard.” However, when my students sit down to write an essay or response, they feel that their first attempt should be “good” or “correct.” I tell my students to be kind to themselves. We read Anne Lamott’s “Shitty First Drafts,” and I urge them to think of writing—and of critical analysis— as a process. This advice is always easier said than done, of course!

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me, how did you enter into writing?

Danielle DeTiberus: Literally, as I wrote in my biography for Rattle, I got hooked on writing when I was five and wrote—or rewrote—a story for my mom. She cried and I couldn’t believe that I had the power to make her feel something so deeply. Granted, I’m quite sure those weren’t my thoughts at the time, but something about it all felt very visceral. I feel blessed to have a calling in life, and even more lucky to have stumbled upon it so early. Whenever pesky doubts or fears arise, I remember that, and it sustains me.

Geosi Gyasi: What sort of things goes into writing poems?

Danielle DeTiberus: One of my contemporary heroes—Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer who I dismissed smugly due to the whole Eat, Pray, Love business and then who subsequently made me eat my words when I actually read her work— likens the process of writing to the process of a plow mule, stubbornly working a field day after day. This resonates with me. There have been a few times when I felt that I had snatched a poem out of the air. Those moments are transcendent, a high like no other. But, looking back on those moments, I surely had been thinking about and living with those images and ideas for years before the moment that inspiration struck. Even when I am struggling, as the plow mule, I feel that it is the process of working through something. I think that’s the best way to approach writing—or any art: as a process of discovery.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you a great reader?

Danielle DeTiberus: I always wish for more time to read, so in my heart I feel that I am not as great a reader as I should be. But it is one of my most cherished passions and pastimes.  I read novels, poetry, essays, short fiction, biographies, and pretty much whatever magazine I can get my hands on. I subscribe to three to four literary journals at a time, as I think it’s so important to support the publishers who champion contemporary writers. Right now, my favorite journals are Rattle and The Missouri Review, and my favorite books that I’ve read recently are Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah, Roger Reeves’s poetry collection King Me, and Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half.

Geosi Gyasi: Which books have influenced you as a writer?

Danielle DeTiberus: For so many different reasons that I probably can’t fully comprehend: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Tim Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume, Pablo Neruda’s selected poems Full Woman, Fleshly Apple Hot Moon, Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, Russel Banks’s Trailer Park, Adélia Prado’s The Alphabet in the Park, Julianna Baggot’s This Country of Mothers, and all of the works of Milan Kundera, Larry Levis, and Sylvia Plath. How’s that for a motley crew!?!

Geosi Gyasi: Was it difficult choosing to become a writer?

Danielle DeTiberus: I honestly don’t feel as if it were a choice. The most difficult aspect of doing this thing I love so much is making choices about what I cannot do so that I may write.

Geosi Gyasi: What influenced you to write “in a black tank top”?

Danielle DeTiberus: I was nearing the end of graduate school, and I started writing poems that I considered impossible—poems that featured Madonna lyrics (I mean, who can afford to publish that!?), concrete poems, etc. I wanted to have a little fun and play with both subject and form. I write a lot of love poems because I am very much influenced by my muse, my partner of fifteen years. I had been writing serious, contemplative poems about how someone can never really know someone else, about the daily struggles to make a go of romance, that kind of thing. At one point, I thought about how much attraction and desire can sustain a long-term relationship, and that all seemed so instinctual, so base, so juvenile.  It then dawned on me to write a poem that combined my mature self with that teenage girl I used to be, who drew hearts around boys’ names and who was obsessed with sex. The poem makes me laugh, and I think it’s one of my sexiest poems precisely because it approaches sex from the perspective of someone who is just discovering her sexuality.

Geosi Gyasi: So could you describe the elements that make a poem sexy? Have you ever felt shy writing about sex?

Danielle DeTiberus: I guess the same elements that make a moment or a person sexy make a poem sexy: desire; evocative, sensory details; a little reveal with a little left for the imagination. I dislike poems that approach sex in obvious ways or that discusses sex explicitly with no other purpose than to shock.  Sex is kind of the equivalent to a location joke– as in, you had to be there to really get it. Lena Dunham once said in an interview that the fact that we are born from the physical act of sex is the greatest cosmic joke of all time, and I tend to agree. This means that graphic descriptions of sex or easy sexual imagery can become trite, boring, even laughable. I guess that would be the only reason I would feel hesitant when writing about sex, and probably why I’m more interested in that moment just before or just after desire is fulfilled, sexually or otherwise.

Geosi Gyasi: Can you describe “in a black tank top” as a love poem?

Danielle DeTiberus: A long-term relationship is usually depicted in media or literature as lacking—in fun, sexuality, and spontaneity. I wanted to attempt to capture that moment of desire that feels new and exciting in the context of the everyday banal aspects of life.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do many drafts?

Danielle DeTiberus: Yes! Sometimes I can spend hours working out a line break, a word, or an image. The longest I have worked on a poem so far has been eleven years. Once I went to a friend’s house and her mom was cooking this huge pot of soup that smelled like heaven. I was eight, she was nine; her parents had come to upstate New York from Vietnam in the late 70s. I opened the lid and waited for the steam to waft away, only to find some bones and liquid at the bottom of the pot. Bone marrow stew, my friend told me, but this was unheard of in that time and place.  Of course, that kind of thing is absolutely in vogue here now in the States. I like to think of revision like that. Taking something that is true and delicious, but not quite ready for the consumption of others—and cooking it down to its essence so that nobody can deny how delicious it is.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever encountered any challenges as a writer?

Danielle DeTiberus: A writer needs time: time to observe and reflect on life. Who among us feels an abundance of time? I think the biggest challenge a writer faces is the luxury of time. Virginia Woolf wrote about the limitations women must confront when creating art. I think that still applies, and I also see the waning number of readers as a major impediment to the craft.

Geosi Gyasi: What happened to your first manuscript, “indifferent miracle” or was it rather “Love and Other Hand Grenades”?

Danielle DeTiberus: I am tickled that you asked this question because you have clearly done some serious internet sleuthing. When I finished graduate school, I got feedback from two of my teachers—two poets with very different aesthetics—that my collection of poems was competitive, complete if you will. I sent it out and received nothing but stock rejection letters. After about five years, I returned to the collection—after writing new poems and having a lot of different life experiences. The original manuscript was entitled “indifferent miracle.” I later wrote a poem called “Love and Other Hand Grenades,” and found that it contained all of the themes I was trying to work through. After I finished it, I told a friend and poet that I had figured out the title of my next collection. As I was telling her about this plan, I realized how silly it was to hold on to an old idea that didn’t work—a title that was, frankly, too precious for the poems that were contained within it— and I was inspired to rework the whole manuscript.

Geosi Gyasi: “I Thought After Thirty” won the Dubose and Dorothy Heyward Society Prize, Winter 2012. There are beautiful words crafted into the poem. What does the power of language mean to you?

Danielle DeTiberus: Thanks—that poem was inspired by both a Jackson Pollock painting and a radio show I heard about how and why the brain dreams. I wanted the poem to have the tone and feel of a dream, hence the layering of images and hopefully surprising— or even unsettling— diction. Trying to find language to convey some unnamable longing or fear is an inherent part, I think, of being both a poet and a human being.  Lucille Clifton put it best when she said, “Poetry began when somebody walked off a savanna or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said, “Ah-h-h!” That was the first poem.”

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write from personal experiences?

Danielle DeTiberus: Yes, and I think that all writers do. Some just mask it more than others. Even when I write a persona poem or try to write from outside of my own experience, I can’t help but view the world from my own perspective— in either small or large ways.

Geosi Gyasi: Your work has appeared in a number of places including, The Southeast Review, Rattle, Arts and Letters, Spoon River Poetry Review, Tar River Poetry and others. Do you think about rejections when sending your work out for consideration?

Danielle DeTiberus: I think about rejection when I’ve been waiting for a response from a journal for a few months. I also think about rejection in general when I’m feeling especially low about my work. However, when I send my work out for consideration, I think about how great it would feel to get an acceptance or a short note of encouragement. It’s a huge gamble, so it’s best to send out positive thoughts and feel confident in the work itself. There’s plenty of time for self-doubt and worry when that letter or email arrives with a stock rejection.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the hardest part of writing?

Danielle DeTiberus: As I said above, the hardest part of writing is making time and creating a sacred space to do one’s work. That, and the pay!

Geosi Gyasi: Where did you get the idea to write “Shock”?

Danielle DeTiberus: I wrote this poem just this winter, and so I was very pleased to have it published in Mead. It was a bit of a departure for me in a number of ways, which felt both exciting and unnerving. I had been kicking around the first lines of the poem for almost two years: “She was a ghost, of course, and trying/ to love her was like sliding a knife into/a socket.” I had no idea where it came from or where I would go with it, but I liked the images and felt compelled by this idea of a person who kept loving someone at great costs to themselves. Eventually, I returned to these lines after my grandmother died. She had a very long battle with dementia, among other illnesses, and it was very painful for everyone involved. I was thinking about my dad, and about how one never really stops being someone’s child. I was going to name the poem “Dementia” or something obvious like that when it dawned on me that this could be a poem about loving someone with another kind of mental illness or with addiction or any number of issues. This is, I hope, what makes the poem both particular and universal— that shock of recognition, so to speak.

Geosi Gyasi: Besides writing and teaching, what else do you do?

Danielle DeTiberus: I am a reader and a great taker of naps. I am not a chef, but I love to cook and think I have mastered the poetry of a few really delectable dishes. I love swimming in the ocean and walking around the haunted and haunting streets of Charleston—of any city, really. Also, this past year, I’ve taken a position with the Poetry Society of South Carolina, which has allowed me to invite and host nationally renowned poets from all over the country to come give a reading and a lecture to our small, yet thriving community.

END.

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