Washington Writers' Publishing HouseWashington Writers' Publishing House

David McAleavey

 Interview with David McAleavey

Q: How and when did you find out that your book was being published?

As my book was published in 1985, it’s hard to recall the precise sequence. I think I got a phone call, perhaps from Robert Sargent, who worked with me on the manuscript to tighten it up.

Q: What was it like seeing your book in print for the first time?

My WWPH was my fourth book of poems (the earlier 3 had all been published by a now-defunct publisher, Ithaca House, of Ithaca, NY), so seeing a new book was not a virginal experience. Nonetheless, I was very happy with the cover, and am still pretty happy with the poems in the collection.

Q: What kind of poet/ fiction writer do you see yourself as? Is there a particular genre or subject matter you find yourself revisiting often?

While it is not the only thing I am interested in or pursue, throughout my writing life it seems I have often responded to a bodily, sensory experience which I think has to do with an existential terror which is probably, for me, identical to the simple pleasure of being alive and self-aware. Coming across Existentialism was in fact a deeply formative experience for me, when I was a young student. Though I write as a free verse poet, I often gravitate toward formalism, which may take shape as “experimental” poetry (I’ve been affiliated with several of the “Language Poets”) and in nonce forms (often using syllabic forms of my own invention, as in my most recently published book, HUGE HAIKU [Chax Press, 2005]).

Q: When did you first realize that you were a writer? Can you pinpoint a specific time in your life, or did you always know that you wanted to write?

I started writing poems my senior year in high school, as a result of Mrs. Grandy’s AP English class, backing Wichita High School Southeast. I started taking myself seriously as a potential poet my sophomore year in college, at Cornell U. By the time I was a senior I was pretty dedicated to the idea of writing poems.

Q: Can you discuss your writing practice? Are there particular places or times of day that you find most conducive to writing?

With regret I have to say that most of the time I feel I need unfettered blocks of time — a month or more — and I haven’t been very able to arrange for such blocks of time. The result is that I haven’t been doing as much writing in recent years as I believe a writer has to spend at work. This is an area of torment, actually.

Q: What is it about your writing style that makes you unique?

I don’t think any of us could really answer this question; I know I can’t.

Q: What do you think the WWPH has done for the Washington literary scene?

It’s a wonderful model of a cooperative press, and I think it’s helped many writers, including me. Washington doesn’t have as many presses as it should have, which makes WWPH that much more important. Most presses, of course, express a particular literary approach, often simply the taste of a single individual; WWPH’s committee-of-authors approach has an obvious weakness (no single guiding light) and a compensating strength (the creation of a floating community of writers). For much of its life, WWPH has produced books which haven’t, to be honest, interested me very much; but a number of books over the years have been treasures.

Q: How involved are you in the DC literary scene now?

My main contributions stem from my spearheading the Creative Writing program at GW, which I think has had a large impact on the DC literary scene. Certainly many local writers have either taught for us or read their work for us, and I would like to think that our program has encouraged students to become involved in the local scene, too.

Q: What people have most inspired your work? Why?

Too long a list to contemplate writing! I could start with W. H. Auden and E. E. Cummings, who were the authors of the first two books of poems I ever purchased. I would have to mention A. R. Ammons, my influential teacher at Cornell (in grad school there). I’d have to mention George Oppen, who was the subject of my PhD dissertation. But what about Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Keats, Wordsworth, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich? What about my colleagues, and the long list of writers I’ve heard read or spoken with, as well as the works of theirs I’ve read? Man, the list is nearly endless.

Q: What is your favorite book? Why?

Leaves of Grass, I guess.

Q: Who are your favorite authors and why?

See above, for the beginnings of a very partial list.

Q: What is the best writing advice you ever received and from who?

I’ll paraphrase Ezra Pound: Write in the rhythm of the musical phrase, not the metronome. Or I could give a rough quote of a remark of A. R. Ammons: “If you have to have recover the old vision to revise, why not have a new vision?”

Q: What is the strangest job you ever had?

Most people are amused that I worked in San Francisco for a confidential business document destruction company. But probably the summer job I had in college, when I did 4th-grade arithmetic for a Siemens radio- and TV-transmission-tube factory, in what was then West Berlin, was really the strangest job I had.

Q: If you could travel anywhere in the world to write, where would you go? Why?

First, I would really travel almost anywhere to be in an artist’s colony again; other than that, I like the Mediterranean (though I’m not a beach person), esp. Greece (where we lived for a year, when I had my first sabbatical). I’ve written very successfully in artists’ colonies in both Virginia and Germany, but am thinking of applying for residencies in Malta, France, and Ireland, too.

Q: What is your favorite DC: restaurant, coffee shop, bookstore?

Favorite restaurant (not that I can afford to go there more than once every year or two) — Asia Nora.

Favorite coffee shop — I’m afraid I visit all the Starbucks around the GW campus, but sometimes I walk a little further to go to Caribou Coffee at 17th and Penn. Since I live in Arlington, I sometimes will drive to a couple of non-Starbucks places I like in and around Arlington, but I don’t have much experience of coffee shops in DC, outside Foggy Bottom, actually.

Favorite bookstore — I confess I buy books online more than in stores; but I prefer Chapters to either Politics and Prose or Bridge Street Books, of the local independents I visit on a somewhat regular basis. In suburbia, I sometimes go to the Borders in Bailey’s Crossroads (Falls Church/Fairfax), which is probably their largest store in Virginia or DC (I don’t know about what their stores are like in Maryland).

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