Dan Chelotti is the author of x (McSweeney’s) and two chapbooks, Compost (Greying Ghost Press) and The Eights (Poetry Society of America). His poems have appeared in A Public Space, Boston Review, Conduit, Poetry, and many other journals. He is an associate professor of English at Elms College.
How did writing poetry come to be your genre of choice? What appeals to you about the form?
I have always loved poetry so much that it never seemed a choice. Poetry is as necessary to me as, say, memory.
What is one challenge you face in writing poetry and how do you overcome it?
I don’t much like to edit my poems after the edits I make in-process, but I overcome my laziness thanks to friends who challenge me to make my work better.
What advice has helped you most in honing your craft?
My father died while I was in a workshop with James Tate. When I returned to class, I spent a few weeks writing insular grief-ridden poems. While everyone in the workshop was being really nice to me and to these poems, Jim didn’t say anything. After about a month, Jim let the nice comments happen during the workshopping of my poem, and then before we moved on, he looked at me and pointed at the window. There is a whole world out there, Dan, he said. Look out the window, he said.
Can you recommend two or three must-read poems? Why do you love them?
I love Frank O’Hara’s “For Grace, After a Party.” It is an excellent example of a love poem that does not have any “ta da” moments. Yes, there is much parataxis and many other formal delights – but they are all rather quiet as the meaning grows out of the form: the ordinariness of wanting something different but instead getting exactly what you need in the unmodified thing. An ashtray. Scrambled eggs.
I love Nazim Hikmet’s “Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.” I love this poem because I once read it to my wife on a train in a blizzard. It made us both cry. This poem can stop time.
How do you know when a poem is ready to be published?
A poem is ready to be published when an editor tells me they would like to publish a poem. I send out work very early in the life of each poem. Submission is part and parcel of my revision process. The second I send a poem out, I immediately find things that I would like to change. Often, poems that land in journals continue to evolve as I edit them into pieces of a book.
What is your writing process like? Where do you work best?
I like to sit quietly or with music (a lot of Steve Reich lately) and wait for a start to come. It always does. The start can be an image or piece of language. And then I trust in form and my ear and let them lead me through the poem. I never ever deign to think I know where a poem is going once I have started. If I can’t let go of what I want to say in favor of what the form of the poem needs the poem to say, I take a walk. My mind while walking is my most fervent editor.
Sometimes I get in the habit in working in a particular café, or at my desk at home, or on a little footbridge in the woods. But I am happy writing pretty much anywhere.
Do you remember the first poem you wrote? If so, what was it about and how do you feel about it now?
I do. I wrote a poem for a friend in middle school. I was trying to save my life when I wrote that poem. And I was trying to save my friend’s life.
What the poem is about rarely tends to matter – what does matter is the poet’s tacit belief in uncertainty and the mysteries that rise when the poet addresses their uncertainties by investigating the forms of poetry. That said, the poem I wrote in middle school was about love and courage in the face of transience and death, of course.
Drink of Choice: Coffee or wine?
I call “false opposition.” Coffee and wine, please.