Southeast Review poetry editor Dorsey Craft continues to sharpen her prize-winning writing

Dorsey Craft was in grade school when her childhood imagination first took the physical incarnation of a book.

“The first writing I remember doing was a fantasy novel about a boy who goes behind a playground and finds a Narnia-style country with all sorts of problems he needs to solve,” she says. “I named all the characters after kids from my class and filled up three composition books over a couple of years.”

Craft and a good friend at the time even had all-night, Coca Cola-fueled writing and drawing sleepovers. Those adventures subsided in middle and high school, when Craft kept her writing more personal and private. The public writing came back, however, in a different form, once she enrolled at Clemson University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature, graduating in 2013.

“I didn’t start writing poetry that I wanted other people to read until college, and that was because I took a survey class with a great teacher who encouraged me to take her poetry workshop,” Craft says.

Now, Craft is in her fourth year as a doctoral student in Florida State University’s Creative Writing Program, and her debut collection, Plunder, has won the 2019 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize. She also is a poetry editor for The Southeast Review (SER), the English department’s national literary magazine.

“Poetry has definitely taken over as my main genre,” she says. “When I was first getting into it, poetry felt like work to read and then novels were like vacation. Now it’s the reverse.”

The path to poetry started in earnest for Craft at McNeese State University. She earned her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with a focus in poetry from MSU in 2016, and she enrolled at FSU that fall for her doctorate studies. Aside from Plunder, her publishing accomplishments include a chapbook, The Pirate Anne Bonny Dances the Tarantella, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Greensboro Review, Massachusetts Review, and Poetry Daily, Salt Hill, Shenandoah, Southern Indiana Review, Thrush Poetry Journal, and elsewhere.

Plunder started out as Craft’s MFA thesis, but she says only two or three poems from the thesis made it into the final manuscript.

“Writing it was really jarring, because there were three or four times over the same number of years when I said, ‘Oh wait, that’s what it’s really supposed to be,’” she says.

“When I was first getting into it, poetry felt like work to read and then novels were like vacation. Now it’s the reverse. — Dorsey Craft

Along with other FSU graduate students, Craft also lends her creative insights and opinions to publishing SER. She says working with other talented poets on staff, such as Jayme Ringleb, Dorothy Chan, and Zach Linge, and many others, has helped bring new perspectives to her own work.

“For example, Jayme is such a generous reader of poems, he is willing to work hard to follow a poet’s line of logic, their conceit,” Craft says. “I’ll be ready to give up on a poem, and his reading of it will show me how much I was missing. I take that into my work as a permission to be complicated, to trust that the right editors will understand.”

Her advice to aspiring writers is to “write a lot more than you think you need to and keep going.” Which means to keep those caffeine drinks handy.

Q&A with Dorsey Craft

Q: What does the writing process generally look like for you?

Dorsey: It generally takes place in the summer. As soon as classes end I go on a writing retreat with a friend of mine and we just read and write and eat snacks all day for about a week before any summer classes start. That gets the ball rolling and I usually get a whole mess of poems out of the summer vacation. I read other poets to get myself started, sometimes new books and sometimes older favorites. I’ll sometimes work with prompts and I love the ones in The Poet’s Companion by Dorianne Laux and Kim Addonizio. The poem almost always starts with a phrase or word that just sounds good, and I usually don’t go in with a plan. I try to surprise myself, but I’m very tricky so it doesn’t always work.

Q: What impact has working at the SER had on your writing?

Dorsey: Working at SER has taught me what editors are seeing a lot of in their submissions. We get tons of unique, arresting, exciting submissions, but I also see some themes and word packages that keep cropping up and then I challenge myself to avoid them in my own work, or do them in a different way. But I think SER has impacted my submissions process as much as it has my writing. I’m not nearly as hard on myself for rejections now. We have table reads with all of our readers where people come in and advocate for poems they put forward, and it really astounded me at first how many great poems didn’t make it into the magazine. Now when I get an acceptance, I’m just all gratitude because I know how rigorous the selection process really is.

Q: Your manuscript Plunder is coming out in May 2020. What was writing Plunder like, and how are you feeling about its imminent release?

Dorsey: The book alternates between poems about or in the voice of Anne Bonny, an 18th-century female pirate, and poems from a 21st-century female speaker. I started writing Anne Bonny poems in the summer of 2016 and I wrote the last of them in the beginning of summer 2019, so the series became a larger and larger part of the book as it evolved and eventually became the driving force, along with gender and feminist criticism. The series itself changed, because at first I was visiting with Anne in her own time period and trying to imagine her feelings in specific moments from her life story. I was using the pronoun “you.” And then eventually I started speaking from her perspective with an “I” pronoun and having her speak to other women like Jane Eyre and Medusa. At the same time that Anne is convincing all of these feminist literary figures to join her crew, the 21st-century speaker is using feminist criticism to process her own experience in a much more cerebral, more passive way. Every time I re-realized what the book was about, I had to lose eight or ten poems, so for a while I felt like I was taking one step forward and two steps back. I was in a manuscript workshop where I realized about half the poems were not working with the other half, thanks to some excellent feedback from my classmates. But when I found the alternating structure between the two speakers, the book really started to make sense. I have to thank my friend Eleanor Boudreau for the strategy of amping up the tension and interplay between those two voices, because at one point I thought the book should be all Anne Bonny. Now that it’s coming out soon, I just feel grateful for the whole process and what it taught me about revision and patience.

Q: In your own words, how would you describe your style of poetry?

Dorsey: I think that my best poems are driven by sound. I love sonic repetition, especially when the repeated sound is in an unexpected place in the word. I use a lot of slant and internal rhymes as well. A lot of what drives Plunder, at least in my mind, is play with sound and with color. And I hate to use this word because I get on my students for overusing it, but my work is full of juxtaposition: I like to put delicate images next to more robust ones. If there is soft sun coming through a window, pretty soon I’m going to have to put in a swordfight or a tarantula. Poetry can also be a place for me to work out things I don’t quite understand. If I read something that feels too difficult for me, like Kristeva’s Essays on Abjection, for example, I’ll write a poem about it to see if it becomes clearer.

Q: How has your taste in poetry, or writing in general, evolved over time?

Dorsey: As far as taste goes, I like poets who have a voice of their own as well as poets who play with voice. It seems to not matter what the poem is about as long as the poet speaks with confidence. I love Ai’s persona poems. Over the last few years, I’ve loved Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men and What I Had On and Essy Stone’s What It Done To Us and Nickole Brown’s Fanny Says. Jose Hernandez Diaz is a newer poet who has the same thing going on: a voice that sounds like no one else. His poems revise myths and mix them with contemporary images and sensibility, and SER was lucky enough to publish the title poem from his chapbook The Fire Eater, in which he writes “The fire eater quickly got up and jumped back onto the curb. He counted his lucky stars. One star. Two stars. Three stars. But there was no reason to go on. At least he felt that way at the moment. His family of circus performers had abandoned him. He would have to make it on his own.” I love the deceptive simplicity of the voice, as well as the open-ended-ness. It’s an old cliché, but poems that show instead of tell always do it for me.

Q: What have been the most influential pieces of writing that you have read?

Dorsey: I think a lot about Frank O’Hara’s manifesto “Personism,” which was introduced to me in an undergraduate poetry workshop. I find myself mentioning it in job statements and class talks and introductions for other poets. I didn’t find out until a couple years ago that it was supposed to be a joke when O’Hara wrote it. At first I was super embarrassed, but now I reject that reading in favor of the one I had before. I’m still really drawn to the idea of “putting the poem squarely between two people,” of writing a poem as though I was on the telephone with the “you.” I memorized a few poems for my prelim exams last year and I think about those a lot, too. Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” always amazes me in its lushness and I always use it to teach negative capability to my Intro to Poetry students. I will also recite it to myself if I’m having trouble sleeping. Sappho’s poem that begins “Deathless Aphrodite of the spangled mind” has a speaker of great confidence, who speaks to a goddess and knows what the goddess would say to her. I love the vulnerability of this poem, especially when the speaker asks Aphrodite to “come to me now / and loose me from hard care / and all that my heart longs / to accomplish accomplish.” The repetition of “accomplish,” especially, gets me every time, probably because I’ve spent so many years in graduate school worrying about accomplishments. Agha Shahid Ali’s “The Dacca Gauzes” collapses metaphor and reality in such a beautiful, subversive way, and the image of yards and yards of fabric passing through a single ring is one of the most poignant I’ve read. I’d love to write one poem as masterful as that one.

Q: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Dorsey: When I was nearing the end of my MFA program, a magazine sent me a personal rejection that said “This writer will be great when she finds her voice.” I remember being very offended. I am almost an MFA! I have found my voice! But I really hadn’t, and I still don’t know if I have. I hope to look back at Plunder and reminisce fondly on when I was just starting to get it together. More practically, I’d recommend sending out a lot and sending out ambitiously. Keeping a lot of submissions out at once helps each rejection not sting quite as badly.

Q: What are your plans post-FSU?

Dorsey: My hope is that after FSU I’ll get a job teaching poetry at a college. My other hope is that that job will be near my husband’s job. Throughout my master’s and doctorate degrees we’ve both commuted between forty-five minutes and two hours to work, and I am pretty good and sick of it. So those are my only “plans”—employment and proximity to my guy. And continuing to write poetry, of course. I’m in the process right now of writing a bunch of poems and seeing what themes and narratives attract me for a second book—hopefully post-FSU I’ll be in the drafting/revision stages of that manuscript.

Megan Kirkham, who graduated from FSU in December 2019 with her bachelor's degree in English, conducted the Q&A portion of this article.

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