SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: JESSICA PIAZZA
Jessica Piazza is the author of two full-length poetry collections: Interrobang — winner of the AROHO 2011 To the Lighthouse Poetry Prize and the 2013 Balcones Poetry Prize — and Obliterations (with Heather Aimee O'Neill, forthcoming), as well as the chapbook This is not a sky. She is the poetry editor of Southern Pacific Review and in 2015 she started the Poetry Has Value project, hoping to spark the conversation about poetry and worth. Learn more at www.jessicapiazza.com or www.poetryhasvalue.com.
Jessica Piazza! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?
My undergraduate degree was in journalism, and when I was in college I saw writing for free as paying my dues. Once I left college, though, I felt like my internship days were behind me. Of course, once the Internet bubble burst and every writer I knew was in hot water, that changed really quickly. I knew I wouldn’t get paid for journalism anymore, so I decided instead to pursue my true love: poetry. I figured if I was going to be poor, I might as well be poor doing something I loved. Anyway, throughout my masters program and PhD, I basically ONLY published poetry for free. When I did get a stray check from a journal, it always came as a surprise. I was sure that there was no money in poetry, and that expecting it was selling out in the very worst way. But, you know, a decade plus is a really long time. And doing something you put your life into every damn day for no compensation except the promise of readers, and even that promise fulfilled only barely—well, it grinds you down. And that got me thinking. So this year, I started to pay attention to the idea of getting paid for poetry. So much attention, in fact, that I started the Poetry Has Value project. It started with a pledge to ONLY submit poetry to paying markets for one whole year, and blog about it. But it became so much more. Really, it’s a crusade to keep the conversation about poetry, money and worth going. Even if we can’t change the industry entirely, we can talk about why it’s okay for musicians and painters and novelists to want to sell their work, but not us poets.
Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?
That’s a loaded question. If you consider poetry my craft, then, well, no. But if writing is my craft, then the answer is: sort of. I teach Writing and Rhetoric at USC, which I think is a really important job. I couldn’t do that without a well-honed writing craft (and a well-honed teaching craft, too!). I also facilitate book clubs for groups all over LA, and I suppose it’s my craft of swift and analytical reading that allows me to do this. I know I might be stretching the definition here. The point I’m making, I guess, is that writers have a matrix of skills and talents, and any one or few of them has potential to make us a living if we work it well.
If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?
Sometimes. I’m so very busy. I mentioned two of my jobs, but there are many other small ones – I generally have five jobs at a given time. At my best, I like to hope that everything I’m doing – teaching and writing and lesson-planning and reading and conversing about books and meeting people – is part of the process of writing. At my worst, I feel stressed and rushed and unproductive. That’s human, I guess.
How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs revision?
There’s an itch. Something feels uncomfortable. I don’t get that ah feeling when I finish reading it, that sense of closure and satisfaction. OR, I come back to something much later and I hate it. Some people might say that something still needs revision if it’s been around the block a bunch and hasn’t been published. I’m not one of those people, really. It might still need revision, but only you can know that. Don’t change something that gives you that confident, happy feeling. If it’s wrong, you’ll feel it eventually.
When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?
See above. You both know (ah) and you don’t know (you might come back and see that everything is wrong).
Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?
Very much: both. I felt compelled to write, always. But I was never a person who believed that was all I could do. I was interested in law, in business, in urban environmentalism. But writing was the thing that I loved the most, so I kept doing it. Also, it didn’t hurt that I fell in love with my Creative Writing professor in college. Nothing makes you want to write impressively like a big, crazy crush! I am joking, sort of. I mean, I would have kept writing poetry anyway. I just didn’t realize it could be an actual career until I met him. And I wanted that. And perhaps that’s a big part of what I fell in love with. So. Yeah. A calling and a choice.
BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?
Oh my god, Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I knew religion didn’t sit well with me, and I had no way to articulate that. I read Cat’s Cradle when I was twelve years old and that was that. I understood religion and why I wasn’t into it and why other people were and why sometimes that’s beautiful and sometimes it isn’t. It’s still my go-to text on the philosophy of theology.