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10(ish) Questions for David Roderick

Begone deadpan
mother into stones

arranged like a skeleton,
begone fatherly blades

that scotch my greening. . . —from "Ballad of the Wild," Volume 60, Issue 1 (Spring 2019)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
Most of my first successful (sort of) poems I wrote in the MFA program at UMass and published in my first book, Blue Colonial. They focused on my hometown, Plymouth, Massachusetts, and tried to deconstruct the mythology of its local and national history. Some of the poems were written in the voices of Pilgrims. Mostly I was trying to write against the whitewashed history we learn in elementary school about the colonists’ interaction with Native Americans, the Mayflower, Plymouth Rock, etc.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Robert Frank’s photography, especially The Americans. I borrowed that title for my last book of poems. James Tate has always been my most important touchstone, though I’ve never myself managed his unique tragicomic style. Who could?

The work of many contemporary writers has moved or inspired me. While writing, I can almost feel myself drifting into the channels of Tongo Eisen-Martin’s Heaven Is All Goodbyes, Lynn Melnick’s Landscape with Sex and Violence, Shara Lessley’s The Explosive Expert’s Wife, Christopher Kempf’s Late in the Empire of Men, Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, and Li-Young Lee’s Book of My Nights. Tomas Transtromer’s Baltics, translated by Samuel Charters and published beautifully by Tavern Books, is a literary bible for me.

What other professions have you worked in?
I taught middle school for five years, which was a thrilling ride but led to burnout. For another nine years I taught in UNC-Greenboro’s MFA Program. I had great colleagues and some very talented students there. Now I co-direct Left Margin LIT, a creative writing center in Berkeley.

What inspired you to write “Ballad of the Wild”?
Probably having children. I wrote this poem when my two daughters were very young. Becoming a parent caused me to reassess parenting, including my own style and how my parents guided, supported, and loved me.

In most cases the child, especially if she wants to be a writer, must slip the yoke of home. Sometimes I feel like I embody the voice in “Ballad of the Wild.” Sometimes I feel like its audience.

Are you particular about your workspace or can you write anywhere?
I used to need total quiet, to cloister myself away. Now I’d rather work at Left Margin LIT or in a cafe. Writing makes me feel lonely, so it’s good for me to be in the company of others, even if I’m not interacting with them. I never write at home anymore. Too many domestic tasks call to me there, like the sirens from The Odyssey.

Is there a city or place that influences your writing?
Home, wherever that happens to be. Charles Wright, another one of my masters, famously writes in and about his back yard. His vision and viewpoint have certainly influenced my approach. I wish I could mine my backyard the way he mines his.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you perform when writing?
I read a little bit first, often some prose. Then I travel into one of my writing notebooks, where I hope to stumble upon an arresting image or catchy line. I can’t exactly remember, but I bet “Begone deadpan mother” came from one of those notebooks.

What is your favorite food and/or drink to have while writing?
Peet’s coffee. I brew it as crude as my body can tolerate.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My best friend, writing partner, and wife: Rachel Richardson. She’s my pilot.

DAVID RODERICK is the author of Blue Colonial and The Americans. He is the program director of Left Margin LIT, a center for literary arts in Berkeley, CA.

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