Will you speak a little about your childhood? You grew up on Kitty Hawk, which is located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. That’s a fairly remote area. Has your time there shaped your development as a poet a great deal?

My parents moved to Kitty Hawk in 1974, when I was four years old. The island is reached by a three-mile bridge and it’s so windy the Wright brothers chose it for their first attempts at flight. It was a great place to be a child: full of fishing nets being mended on lawns, and abandoned beach cottages, and ribs of lost ships. It was also a fine place to read and swim: two things I still enjoy. I went away to New England and New York for high school and college but the island’s landscape is the one that survives in my imagination.

How do your poems come into being? Where do they start?

My poems begin in little notebooks, in my car. I keep lists of ideas and images and I scribble whenever I can, usually for at least an hour after I drop my daughter off at school. I file books and music I enjoy in my back seat; it’s a mess but it works well for me: a kind of traveling office.

You’ve said that the desire to write is “a desire to be in dialogue with the books I carry even into my bathtub and bed.” I was reminded of your heart-wrenching poem “Shackleton’s Decision,” which conjures a scene from a book you were reading. Can you describe what you mean by a “desire to be in dialogue with books”?

I think of reading as listening and writing as speaking; when I read something powerful or exciting, I find myself wishing I could respond.

What authors or books have played a significant role in your writing life? Is there a book you return to again and again?

I love so many books I have trouble answering this question. I began reading aloud to my daughter when she was small and we never stopped doing it, though she is now twelve. We discovered these great children’s books together, books I didn’t know about when I was young: Nurse Matilda by Christianna Brand, the Freddy the Pig series by Walter Brooks, E. Nesbit’s novels. We read the Harry Potter books and the Lemony Snicket books, and these entered my imagination and created a space for playfulness in my writing. The first poets I loved were Mark Strand and Robert Hass and Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. I like Bob Dylan’s lyrics and Spalding Gray’s monologues. I am inspired by certain David Sedaris essays and Woody Allen movies and the photographs of Diane Arbus and Sally Mann. A few poems I have reread dozens of times: Thomas Lux‘s “Refrigerator, 1957,” Mark Doty‘s “Homo Will Not Inherit,” Elizabeth Bishop‘s “One Art,” W.S. Merwin‘s “Death of a Favorite Bird,” Susan Mitchell‘s “Havana Birth,” Mark Strand‘s “Keeping Things Whole,” and Adrienne Rich‘s “Diving into the Wreck.”

The poet Mark Doty describes your work as the “wise wish to be able to love and to see clearly at once.” How useful is poetry as a vehicle for exploration? Do you go into writing a poem knowing what it is about?

Like a lot of writers, I write to see what I think; I write my way toward some kind of elusive revelation. I contemplate a scene or image that haunts me. I am continually surprised by what I find.

How do you know when a poem is finished?

I write a lot; most of what I write is discarded. I like the process of invention. After I have about six months of first drafts, I go back and read to see which ones are still exciting for me on the page. Only a tiny percentage of poems make it into a final manuscript. I don’t know how I decide they are finished. Maybe I just know I am not smart enough to make them any better at that moment?

So much of your poetry has a marvelous narrative quality running through it. Do you think of yourself as a storyteller?

I am a failed fiction writer. I wanted to be a short-story writer like Charles Baxter or Lorrie Moore or Joy Williams. I entered my graduate writing program in fiction. My stories were brief and they had carefully constructed prose with plenty of imagery but they lacked plot. Thomas Lux, a wonderful poet, let me join his poetry department halfway through my MFA courses. Still, the desire to tell some kind of story didn’t entirely leave me.

Would you consider your poetry to be autobiographical?

My poetry tends to contemplate whatever is in front of me so in this sense it is autobiographical. Degas had his dancers and Cassatt had her mothers and children and, like them, I am obsessed with certain figures. I don’t tell the factual truth in my poems but I am committed to an emotional truth.

How did you build confidence in your writing? Were workshops helpful?

I love to write and I’m willing to do it even when the world is disinterested because mostly, even now, I am rejected. I am not full of confidence. Every month or so, another batch of poems is returned to me without comment by an editor of a journal I admire. I was an unsuccessful NEA applicant for a full decade before I ever won a grant. My first book was rejected by nearly every press and contest over a seven-year period. I didn’t like workshops; I found that criticism early in my writing process did not help me stay engaged with a poem. I am stubborn, I think, and willing to be embarrassed and willing to try again. I am willing to fail.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new manuscript, which usually takes me three to five years. I have been living in a cabin on top of a mountain in West Virginia and my impossible driveway is a central obsession. I have a small, low-slung dog and a daughter who speaks Latin and loves atoms and spiders. There is a creature in my ceiling that makes wonderful scratching sounds. My husband wants to buy some chickens. I am writing poems in my car, before I swim.

Interview by Joy Biles, Writer's Almanac