[img_assist|nid=11470|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=99|height=134]After a ten-year period when she didn’t submit her work for publication, Rae Pagliarulo won the Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry with “Hide and Seek.” The Philadelphia native spoke with us to discuss the craft of poetry, embarrassing early drafts, her career in the nonprofit field, and what keeps her writing. Her work has been featured on the Huffington Post Blog, as well as West Chester University’s Daedalus: A Magazine of the Arts. She holds a BA from West Chester University, and is happily working towards her MFA in Creative Writing at Rosemont College.
Congratulations on winning the The Sandy Crimmins National Prize for Poetry! Any thoughts on winning the prize?
It came as a complete shock! I was certainly happy enough with my work to send it out for consideration, but to learn that it won first place, especially among such a talented group of writers, was humbling to say the least. It was also the first time I put anything I wrote out for public view in 10 years, so it was more than a little validating that I’m on the right path with working towards my MFA.
Did you have the ending for “Hide and Seek” set before you began the poem or did it grow out of various drafts?
The ending definitely slipped out of me very quietly. It came after the brunt of the piece had been written, after I realized what exactly I was trying to say.
One of the features of your work is your attention to physical details; how did you come by this skill?
I’m an introvert, and I always observe my surroundings carefully. I will say that, with this poem, I was lucky. As background, I live in the house that my dad grew up in with his mother. I knew her, but she died when I was young. After my dad and I renovated the house, I moved in with my best friend, and she and her entire family are very tuned in to “the other side” and people who have passed. We both felt my grandmother’s presence in the house at first, but after a while, I stopped feeling her around. One night, we were talking, and out of nowhere, I smelled her. I think it was her perfume or hairspray. I said, “I can smell Grandmom right here, but nowhere else. How weird is that?” And she responded, “Not weird at all – you’re standing in the place she is every night when I turn out the light in the hallway before I go to bed.” I was so stunned that, even though she was my Grandmom, my roommate could feel her, even see her, better than I could. A few days later in class, my poetry professor gave us the prompt “lost and found,” and all I could think about finding was Grandmom. I simply had to walk around the house to figure out where she might be hiding. The physical details in the poem are things I live with and use every single day.
How has your academic and non-profit experience affected your writing?
Back in college I found it easy to write because I had seemingly unlimited time to “navel-gaze” and roll over things in my head. The work of life, and of work itself, makes that time harder and harder to come by. Once I realized I wouldn’t have endless hours on a park bench to whittle a poem together in my head, I learned how to carve out pockets of time, and how to be creative in the time I had available. Poetry really helps with my work, too – being creative and economical comes in handy when I’m writing a grant with strict word counts!
Are there any similarities in writing blogs and writing poetry?
The blogs I’ve written have mostly been professional, so they have to be persuasive in a way. The point I’m making is on behalf of a larger goal, like gaining support for an organization or cause. While the things I know about poetry help me in all my writing, I think style is the only similarity. Writing without a point to be made frees you up to see what else can happen.
What are some of your favorite books of poetry?
Nicole Blackman’s Blood Sugar” made me realize the power of a good poem many years ago. She certainly helped me cut my teeth on writing. I also spent years worshipping the Beats and the Nuyorican Poets. These days, I’m very into Sharon Olds. But, I will admit that I’m a glutton for memoirs and go absolutely nowhere without a good one in my bag. Lately it’s been The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham or A Drinking Life by Pete Hamill.
What motivates you to write?
Writing is how I best communicate with the world. If I’m not writing a poem or an essay for class, I’m writing a grant proposal for work, or a sappy diary entry about an awful day I had. I’m constantly writing, or talking. If I can’t get everything out of my head, things pile up and get very messy. It’s one of the downfalls of being a “creative” person. It’s hard to turn it off.
During school, I do what I call “listening for the ping.” We get so many prompts and ideas from professors and one another, and every once in a while, I hear one and something goes “ping.” That’s when ideas start sticking together and I roll them around in my head like it’s a big rock tumbler. I think a lot before I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Usually the first written draft I put out is the fifth or sixth mental draft of that piece.
How do you know when you’re finished with a poem?
In high school, I knew I was done when I wrote it out by hand without any mistakes. Honestly. I was a little OCD, I think. These days, I just wait until it feels like there’s nothing more I can say. It’s a feeling. Reading it out loud helps a lot, too. When it feels good coming out of my mouth, I can walk away from it feeling accomplished.
Does music influence your writing?
I don’t know if it influences me, but I have it on constantly. I’m sure it seeps in, and I definitely have different kinds for different situations. At work, it’s upbeat indie rock, at home, it’s mopey singer-songwriters, and while I’m in the middle of a project, it’s piano jazz.
How long does it take for you to write a poem?
That depends on the poem and how we feel about each other. I recently revisited something I wrote in 2004, so that one was clearly a long game I didn’t know I was playing! Recently, though, it’s been around three days: days one and two are to think and roll ideas and pick words and recite them over and over in my mind, then I spend an hour or two on day three to get it out and clean it up.
What do you think of when you’re writing a poem?
“Is anyone going to know what the hell I’m yammering about? Ooh, that’s a nice word, I should use that in Scrabble. Should I italicize or quote my dialogue? Do I even need dialogue? I think pizza will help me finish this. Hawaiian, definitely.”
How long have you been writing poetry?
I have a highly embarrassing notebook full of poems that dates back to 1996. I also used to publish poems in my high school literary magazine under the pen name Trixie Magpie, because I thought, as a little goth-rock-listening, poetry-obsessed, fishnet-covered teenager in a North Philly Catholic girls’ school, I simply wasn’t sticking out enough.
Do you have any regular process for writing poems?
I don’t know if you’d call it a process. I always type instead of write, because my brain moves too fast for a pen to keep up with. I think I imagine I’m talking to someone in a small room when I write. I want my poems to feel intimate, like I’m telling you something I shouldn’t.