An Interview with Angela Decker

It’s the ordinary things that make up poetry.

Angela Decker grew up in Fresno, California, and received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a master’s degree in English from Notre Dame de Namur University. Her poems have appeared in The Jefferson Monthly, Comstock Review, Hip Mama, Carquinez Poetry Review, Red Rock Review, Sand Hill Review, The Wisconsin Review and Blue Arc West: An Anthology of California poets. She taught writing and literature at the College of San Mateo and Notre Dame de Namur University. She is the mother of two energetic and talented boys, a freelance writer, and a columnist for Ashland Daily Tiding.

EB: What does it mean to you to be a poet?

AD: I think being a poet means looking at the world, at every day life, from a different perspective. To take something like an apple on the table, and connect it to the hands of the farmer who planted the tree, or the pie that makes you remember your Aunt Hattie. There is so much beauty in day-to-day life and in people. I like my poems to reflect my own sense of wonder at that everyday beauty. That doesn’t mean that there are not a lot of serious issues for poets to address, but we can do both. For me, it’s ordinary things that make up poetry, that inspire it, the stuff you are doing when you aren’t writing: raising kids, riding a bike, burning dinner, whatever.

EB: How has being a poet affected your feelings about language?

AD: I like this question. I don’t think I can answer it well, but I like it. Poetry’s job is to sort of maximize all aspects of language whether figurative or literal. I think since I’ve been writing poetry I am more sensitive to the nuances of language. Or as I write this now, I may write poetry because I am sensitive to the nuances of language, to all one can do with it. I love being around people who speak multiple languages. I think it’s a gift to be able to express yourself in more than one way. I’m not fluent in another language, but I can express things in poetry that I can’t always express in general conversation.

EB: When did you first begin writing poetry?

AD: My parents were big readers, mostly fiction but there was poetry around the house too. Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes. When I was maybe 8 or 9 I started writing poems and leaving them around the house for my mom and dad. They were usually funny or silly. My mom says a lot of them rhymed with “butt,” or complained about dinner. At that age no one is self-conscious about their writing, so I just had fun. I think I lost interest around high school when all the poems seemed sort of heady and out of my reach. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I rediscovered poetry. Just for kicks, I took a creative writing class at a community college in the Bay Area and the teacher really emphasized poetry. We shared our poems, talked about them, some of us joined a writing workshop group. Suddenly poetry was a big part of my life. We picked places to submit poems, published our poems, had readings, all that fun poet stuff. That workshop group was great and supportive and the people in it (including local poets Amy Miller and Amy MacLennan) became lifelong friends.

EB: How do you write?–At a desk? Walking around? Filled with coffee?

AD: I write in total chaos. I have two peppy little boys, too many pets, a husband who likes power tools and an erratic freelance writing schedule. It is never quiet. Sometimes there’s coffee, sometimes there’s Cabernet. I write a lot of poems while I’m cooking dinner (which now that I think about it, may be why I have a lot of food images) and the kids are playing or watching a movie. I’ve written a couple while driving (only at the stoplights) but even then, the kids are in the car and NPR is on. There are a lot of first drafts written on scratch paper or napkins, in pencil or lipstick. I don’t always have pencils, but I always have lipstick. I can’t remember the last time I sat at a desk and wrote in silence. If I’m lucky enough to be all alone in silence I don’t want to busy myself with a poem, I just want to sit and enjoy the quiet.

EB: Who are your poetic influences and heroes?

AD: Wow, there are loads. I love big, gorgeous images in poems, so Elizabeth Bishop, Ezra Pound, folks who can distill something complicated and emotional in one quick image. Mark Doty does this as well. I’m a big fan of his work. I heard him read “A Display of Mackerel” years ago and I was just slack-jawed with amazement. Yusef Komunyakaa, too. Simple language that just punches you in the gut. Anyone with big, juicy images. My first two poetic heroes, the poets whose books I bought and bought were Gwendolyn Brooks and Lucille Clifton. I think Brooks is famous for saying poetry is life distilled. That’s what she and Clifton do. They take moments in life, gorgeous or painful or both, and they distill it to something universal. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve read Lucille Clifton’s “Terrible Stories” They are heart breaking and inspiring. Simply beautiful. I also get a lot of inspiration from science-focused books and magazines. I am the least scientific person around, but the language of science is so unfamiliar and exciting. Years ago, I had a job abstracting science textbooks and magazines. I learned all sorts of fabulous things about dragonflies and meteors and time travel. They were great seeds for poems. My sons love science, so I’ve been reading more about bugs and slime.

EB: What are you writing at the moment?

AD: I want so desperately to say that I am writing some groundbreaking poem series or a thrilling spy novel, but mostly I am writing reviews and columns for the local newspapers, and a travel article for a regional magazine. I have started several times to compile a poetry chapbook, and might actually get around to finishing it.

About Ed Battistella

Edwin Battistella’s latest book Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology was released by Oxford University Press in June of 2014.
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