Natalie Jane Edson: The feedback on the work has been amazing. People were reaching out to me all month to compliment me on the project, which of course feels great because I had no idea how the project would go. On a technical note I think the program looks nice—the animation is smooth and the code does what it’s supposed to. But that’s the only thing I was even remotely confident about when I started the residency.
For a long time I’ve had the sense that I need to expand the scope of my work to tackle things beyond the self. I am passionate about doing what is right, I always have been, but I’ve been anxious about bringing that fire into my poetry. The poetry classes I took this year really gave me the courage to explore new territory. The main takeaway—courtesy of the brilliant poet Aria Aber—has been that if you’re not sure how to write about something, you have to bring that uncertainty to the page. That’s an intimidating task. When I first heard her say that I thought it was insane. I had no idea where to begin.
So the main impetus of the project was to open myself up to something new, to bring uncertainty into what I’ve already been doing for years. In a general sense, all of my artistic work is concerned with the dissolution of self-mythology. I want to create poetry that brings down the assumptions that enclose my life and conveys the feeling of being in the middle of a open field. I think this project shows that the impulse to dissolve is deeply tied to politics, via ideas of the self in the context of society.
SS: What questions did the work answer for you, and what questions remain?
NJE: The main question was Can I do this? Will this turn out badly for me? Of course I did complete the project, and it didn’t turn out badly. I don’t think some of these poems are my best work ever, but that’s not the point. The point is that I challenged myself and hopefully said some interesting and true things along the way. The question I have now is How can I challenge myself further?
SS: How did a digital residency help or hinder your process? Do you feel that the Internet and social media contribute or detract from the well-being of poetry?
NJE: That’s an interesting question. I’m a software engineer by trade, so I’ve learned to see technology as a tool rather than a distraction. I spend so much time staring at screens that I need to make sure it’s meaningful when I’m doing it in my free time. This residency has certainly fulfilled that requirement because I’ve gotten to really investigate the creative potential of my technical knowledge. But even when I’m watching dumb YouTube videos or spending hours playing online logic games, I try to stay aware that there’s a purpose to what I’m doing. I need to unwind and let my mind rest.
In terms of the social media aspect, I have lost all self-consciousness around my online presence. I don’t have the energy to try and cultivate an image anymore. I’m just trying to have fun and make myself laugh. On Instagram and Twitter I’m a total clown. If someone loses respect for me in some way because of that, they weren’t going to respect me anyway.
However, it’s really easy to get discouraged by other people’s successes, on Twitter in particular. I’ve been rejected by a decent amount of magazines this year, and I always get more depressed about that when I spend a lot of time on Twitter looking at the successful publications of strangers. I have to step back every once in a while and remind myself that I’m doing enough. I’m devoted to my creative process, despite my deep suspicion that there isn’t a place for my voice in the current poetry landscape.
SS: What poets do you continually return to?
NJE: Dorothea Lasky and Marge Piercy are my big two. I also have Lyn Heijinian, Frank O’Hara...I’m sure that there are more. In general I tend to cycle through poets pretty quickly because I have a short attention span, but I definitely have a pantheon of people whose work really changed me. If we take a “thank u, next” approach to this: Dorothea Lasky taught me weirdness, Marge Piercy taught me honesty. Lyn Heijinian taught me broadness. And Frank O’Hara was the first poet I found whose voice also had a kind of plainness.
The connection between all the poets I revere the most is that they have all taught me something about my own work. They’ve taught me to trust myself, and that’s the best thing that art can do for artists—it’s a matter of empowerment. I am intermittently very insecure about my poetic voice and the things my poems are doing, but these poets get me so excited about poetry that I become indifferent to that insecurity.
SS: Did you write poetry as a child? What is your first memory of poetry?
NJE: I was just a giant dweeb as a kid. Math Team, Science Bowl, Academic Challenge...I did it all. But we did a poetry unit in middle school English class that really started something in me and pulled me away from being so focused on wanting to be a doctor or a scientist or whatever. I did this long report on ee cummings and got really into it. I actually still have a physical copy of one of his poems that I printed out in 2005, which is crazy. My teachers recognized that and nominated me to do special workshops with high schoolers and visiting poets they hired to read at the university. So I got to meet Naomi Shihab Nye and Li Young Lee when I was really young. That admiration and understanding has been there for a long time, even though I didn’t start writing until I was 20.
It’s a funny story actually—I’ve always been more of a songwriter, even when I was little. When I got to college I started writing music more seriously and playing open mics, which was great. The first poetry class I ever took was in an attempt to improve my lyrics, but I fell into it fast and the rest is history. I actually still write music but I rarely share it. A lot of stuff happened in my mid-twenties that stopped me from pursuing music, but maybe 2021 is the year I put some demos together.
SS: What are you reading right now? What are you going to read next?
NJE: I’m reading four books:
- Girls Against God, the latest novel by one of my favorite musicians, Jenny Hval. It’s about a lot of things, but so far it’s mostly Black Metal and adolescence, which is very up my alley.
- My Poems Won’t Change the World: Selected Poems by Patrizia Cavalli, an Italian poet that I recently discovered via a recommendation by Rachel Rabbit White on Twitter. These poems embody a kind of mundane bewilderment that I find incredibly inspiring. All I want is to write beautiful poems about the mundane.
- The Book of English Magic by Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate is a 600-page account of the history of magic in England. I read it to wind down before I go to sleep, because I know that it’s not going to get me excited and inspired to write. I bought it because I’ve been trying to learn more about my roots, and my dad’s side of the family is very English. We still have relatives over there.
- The Drama of the Gifted Child, by Alice Miller, upon my therapist’s strong recommendation.
SS: What's next for your poetry practice? How can soft surface readers follow your work?
NJE: The plan is to spend a few months focusing on magazine submissions and doing a revamp of my manuscript. I’ve been working on my full-length book project for about a year and half, and it has been a really enlightening process. I’ve gotten a few rejections on it and I sort of know what needs to happen with it now. It’s just a matter of putting in the work. But I have a few other projects going as well, not least of which is a nascent second manuscript.
This year I had the good fortune of being invited into a focus group for computational poetics that’s run by a few academics in North Carolina, which has been amazing so far. I’m fascinated by the intersection of language poetry and digital poetry and I’m thinking about developing that into a long-term research project that’s supported by everything I’ve learned in that focus group. I’m starting to do some critical writing for my website (nataliejaneedson.com). I also want to start making short film pieces based on longer poems. We’ll see what happens, but the best way to follow along is to follow me on instagram (@baby_of_air) and Twitter (@nataliejedson).