Lisa Dordal on Writing Poetry

In this interview on writing poetry, poet Lisa Dordal offers advice to new poets and shares her own writing process.

Lisa Dordal has published extensively in literary journals and has an upcoming chapbook, Commemoration, from Finishing Line Press. You can learn more about Lisa Dordal's poetry on her website,

A Conversation with Lisa Dordal

CWN: When do you write? Do you have a regular schedule or routine for writing poetry?

Lisa Dordal: During the school year (I teach at a private university in Nashville and also at a local community college), I typically set aside one or two days a week to write. During the summer, of course, I have the luxury of more time and can write every day. But during the school year I have found that what works best is to designate a day ahead of time for reading and writing – almost like making an appointment with myself – and then committing to writing that day. I know some writers speak of the importance of writing every day but that’s not possible for everyone and I think it’s important for writers to discover what works best for them. When my mother was a young woman she mentioned to someone that she wanted to be a writer and the person told her that the only way she could become a writer was to write every single day. But, at the time, my mother couldn’t write every day – she was juggling a job and lots of other responsibilities – and so, in the end, she never pursued her writing. My own sense is that it’s not the amount of time that we spend writing but the quality of that time. I am convinced that when I book an appointment with myself to write, something happens inside of me – something readies itself. There’s that famous expression: If you build it, they will come. I think you could say the same for writing: If you schedule the time, the writing will come.

CWN: Could you talk about your typical process for writing poetry -- from idea to final draft?

Lisa Dordal: Well, the process can vary quite a bit from poem to poem. Some of my poems have come out of me almost unconsciously – all at once and needing very little revision. Almost as if someone else wrote them. This has only happened for a few poems and for at least two of these poems I was very angry about something at the time and completely overcome with emotion. I think that’s why I barely remember even writing them.

But most of my poems don’t have such easy births! I would say my typical process starts with reading poetry. If I told myself that I had to wake up tomorrow morning and sit down in front of a blank computer screen or a blank piece of paper and start writing I think I would probably never get out of bed! Instead, what I tell myself is that when I get up in the morning I have to read poetry; i.e., read the work of some of my favorite poets or the work of new poets. Nine times out of ten, after an hour or so of reading, a line will pop into my head and that’s my cue to either take out a piece of paper and start writing or crank up my computer. My goal at that point is to write, as much as possible, without my “editor” turned on. I write and write until the basic reason for the poem’s existence has made itself clear. Only after this initial spark of creativity do I then allow myself to labor over the poem – to do the hard, brainy work of editing, choosing different words here and there, re-ordering the text, etc. Sometimes this process – from start to finish – takes a few days. But often it takes much longer. I wrote the first draft of my poem “Wedding,” for example, in 2006. It was a good first draft in terms of the emotions and ideas I was trying to convey. But the language itself was on the thin side, lacking in texture. It wasn’t until 2010 that I was able finally to get that poem to the place where I felt it needed to be.

CWN: What other poets have been important to your work? Could you talk about what you have learned about writing poetry from each of them?

Lisa Dordal: Jane Kenyon was a huge influence on me early on (i.e., when I really started working on my poetry in 2005). Much of her poetry focuses on completely mundane human-relational experiences and has helped me to see that, in many ways, there is nothing more sacred – nothing more extraordinary – than paying close attention to the ordinary moments of our daily lives. I love the simplicity, the plainness of her voice. There is a sparseness and succinctness in her voice that is consonant with my own; a kind of containment that I resonant with deeply. I’ve also been influenced by the way she incorporates religious imagery into her poems. Many of her poems contain a subtle religiosity – a kind of ordinary religiosity that is woven organically into the fabric of the everyday. In her poem “The Needle” she describes her grandmother’s body as “pale as Christ’s hands.” In “Depression” she references the women who visit Christ’s tomb and are not believed. And in “The Bat” she connects the elusiveness of a loose bat in the house to the elusiveness of the third person in the Trinity. My poem “Holy Week” – in which I connect the return of Jesus from the grave to the return of my mother from the stink and slur of nighttime drunkenness – emerged during a time when I was reading Kenyon almost exclusively, as did several other poems of mine in which I incorporate religious imagery.

Marie Howe, Ellen Bass, Dorianne Laux, Sharon Olds, Claudia Emerson and Natasha Trethewey are other poets who have had a big impact on me as a writer and to whom I continually return for inspiration. Much of the work of these poets is rooted in the domestic sphere with a focus on human-to-human relationships. Claudia Emerson’s Late Wifefocuses on the loss of relationship through divorce and widowerhood. Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard casts the brutal racism of a nation in a deeply personal light. Ellen Bass, Marie Howe, Sharon Olds and Dorianne Laux all write intensely personal narratives about sexuality, female bodies, and domestic abuse, topics that are of particular interest to me. In many ways, these poets have given me “permission” to write about these topics as they relate to my own life.

I also feel a particularly strong connection to the work of Maxine Kumin, even though there are significant differences between Kumin’s work and my own. The first time I devoted considerable attention to her work, during the summer of 2010, I was in a difficult place emotionally – anxious about my abilities as a poet and about my life in general. As soon as I began to read Kumin’s work, however, I felt a sense of peace, a sense of homeness. I was drawn particularly to the rhythm of her work (which I learned later was “loose” iambic pentameter). The simple act of reading her poetry aloud inspired me to write several poems in a similar meter and voice.

CWN: Could you talk about how your work has developed or changed since you first started writing poetry? Are there any mistakes you feel you made as a beginning poet?

Lisa Dordal: One huge misconception I had about poetry early on was the idea that poems weren’t supposed to have many words and weren’t supposed to take up much space on the page. Many of my early poems were skinny, wispy things. And, in many ways, I was a skinny, wispy thing, too! Slowly, as my feminist consciousness emerged, I began to see that I was entitled to take up space in the world. And, at the same time, I began to see that it was just as important for my written words to take up space. So, my poems now are much sturdier on the page; darker and more embodied.

Also, I would like to think that my poetry has become more textured since I started working on my writing. The problem with writing, as I do, in a “plain” style is that it’s easy to become too plain. I have to constantly work against this. Reading the work of other poets is something that has helped immensely – paying attention to the vocabulary they use, their word choice, the rhythm of their language. Claudia Emerson is someone I go back to again and again for a reminder – a tune-up! – about texture.

CWN: What advice on writing poetry can you offer to beginning poets just starting out?

Lisa Dordal: Read, read, read! I can remember way back in high school and college actually being afraid to read too much poetry because I was worried I would lose sight of my own voice; that I would end up sounding too much like other people. But, really, the best way for someone to find their own voice is to read the work of other poets. Other poets are our best teachers. The voice of another poet – particularly if it is a voice that is resonant with your own – can help immensely to draw out your own voice.

My other piece of advice is to not compare yourself to other people. There are always going to be writers who are better than you are, more “successful” than you are. But the point is to love who you are as a writer. And to encourage yourself to grow into the best writer you can become.

Writing Poetry - Next Steps

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