This week’s installment of Ten Questions features Nancy Krygowski, whose second poetry collection, The Woman in the Corner, is out today from the University of Pittsburgh Press. In The Woman in the Corner, Krygowski discovers grace in even the most trying of circumstances. In one poem, she tries to help a friend who fantasizes about suicide rekindle a sense of purpose. She offers—both to the friend and to her readers throughout the collection—a series of impossibly delicate images: “Here. Let me show you,” she writes, “those perfect empty shells” of the egg tossed at her house by “a kid who doesn’t know yet why he’s angry.” No matter the subject—American politics, sex, marriage, the act of bathing a mother who can no longer recognize you—no scene is reduced, only polished to allow its ambiguity to shine. “Krygowski’s ferocious wit and no-nonsense truth-telling thrill and sting,” writes Dianne Seuss. “The Woman in the Corner is a woman who has lived, and struggled, and knows that struggle is often (though not always) beautiful.” Nancy Krygowski is also the author of Velocity, winner of the 2006 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. She is the recipient of awards from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Pittsburgh Foundation, as well as residencies from Jentel, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Ragdale. She lives in Pittsburgh, where she teaches at Literacy Pittsburgh and in Carlow University’s Madwomen in the Attic writing workshops.
1. How long did it take you to write The Woman in the Corner?
A long, long time. I pretty much stopped writing after the publication of my first book, Velocity. My life had changed drastically, and in this new life, I had trouble locating myself as a writer. I forced myself to start writing in drips—mostly unhappy drips. Then, foolishly, after a few years I thought I knew how to put a book together, having done it once before. I wrote poems to that idea of a book and it failed. So I took time off, tried to figure out if I wanted to write, and eventually started writing poems more honestly—without the goal of a book. After about two years of this, the book started taking shape.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
This is embarrassing to admit, but in a good review of Velocity, the reviewer questioned whether I could “do it again.” I questioned the same thing for a long time partly because I didn’t know what “it” was. Writing in some ways feels magical to me—I’ve never been good at figuring out what poems are going to work for other readers. This is particularly challenging for me when I’m writing about deeply personal stuff.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write in this great windowed room in my house. If I look one way, it’s like I’m in the country hills; if I look the other, I can see downtown Pittsburgh. I prefer writing in the early morning, but that’s not always possible, and for this book, I had to give up on my notions of needing to have the right time and/or circumstances to write. The “how often” is super erratic: Sometimes I write once or twice a month, sometimes, like right now, when I’m participating in The Grind—a poem writing challenge created by Ross White—I’m kicking out a draft of a poem every day for a month.
4. What are you reading right now?
Poetry: I’m reading Kathleen Graber’s new book, The River Twice, which is gorgeous, Vievee Francis’s Forest Primeval, and Martha Collins’s Because What Else Could I Do, and I’m rereading Anna Swir’s Happy as a Dog’s Tail. Fiction: I’m reading Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. Nonfiction: I’m reading Tony Hoagland’s The Art of Voice and Damon Young’s What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker.
5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
Isn’t the answer to that question all but the ten wildly popular poets of the moment? There are too many underappreciated poets to name—and a lot of them live in Pittsburgh! I hope that’s not a cop-out answer.
6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
I have a job I’m passionate about: I teach English to refugees and immigrants at Literacy Pittsburgh, a nonprofit. It’s simultaneously an extremely different way to interact with language —I always need to be super direct and super simple—and crazily similar to writing poems: I am literally thinking hard about every word that comes out of my mouth. This kind of work, where I’m helping others and where there are real-life problems to solve, always, always is more important to me than sitting alone in a room plunking out poems. I’m constantly battling how to balance my work life and my writing life.
7. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started The Woman in the Corner, what would you say?
I’d say, Nancy, remember that the desire and ability to write is a privilege—having the time, the luxury, to dig deep into your heart, your soul, your weirdo brain. Sometimes that desire can feel like a burden, but it is a privilege.
8. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
The fiction writer, former San Francisco Bay Guardian columnist, and editor of Tiny Day Danielle Leone has been by my side writing and otherwise for many, many years. She’s a great editor and she believes in me and my poems in a way that’s astounding and comforting, but even more importantly, her writing makes me love what people can do with words and makes me want to write.
9. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
Oh, please, can I do two? First, I’d let writers just be writers instead of publicists/self-promoters. And secondly, I’d find a way to magically build a larger audience for poetry. I’ve puzzled over this for forever: You’d be hard pressed to find a person who hasn’t, at some point in their lives, written a poem, harder pressed still to find a person who hasn’t read and loved a poem. However, people don’t buy poetry books as much as I wish they did and it’s difficult to get people to come to readings—even though everyone loves being read to!
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Not so much advice, but words about writing. Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” The idea of beginning in not knowing is a comfort to me—there’s so much I don’t understand about the world and our human hearts. And another: A poet friend who has a super large reading audience told me that when he writes, he’s writing for the few people he thinks really get him. There’s something for me about remembering that, at the heart of it, writing is about connection—to yourself, to those you love, and then, hopefully, to others—that is really important to me. This is what makes me want to start tapping the keyboard.