An Interview with Natalie Shapero

Natalie Shapero received her MFA in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University and afterwards attended law school at The University of Chicago.  She is currently a Kenyon Review Fellow. Her work has been published in Poetry, The New Republic, Poetry Northwest, 32 Poems, The Progressive, Redivider, and elsewhere.  Shapero’s first book, No Object, was published by Saturnalia Books earlier this year. She recently spoke with Associate Poetry Editor Jenna Kilic about her new book, writing poetry while in law school, the themes and concerns of her writing, and advice for current MFA students.

Jenna Kilic: In your new book, No Object, your long poem “Hot (Normal)” takes its title from a washing machine cycle. In what other ways do you discover poetry in quotidian things?

Natalie Shapero: Any object emblazoned with text has to be, in some way, talking. With that washing machine, the HOT (NORMAL) washing machine, I had a sense, whenever I trucked to the basement to do my laundry, that it was screwing with me. You know, telling me to my face I was hot and then, as soon as I turned my back, dismissively turning to the dryer to register how actually nonplussed it was: “eh, normal.” I imagined it as a dude going through a kind of slick routine, trotting out some effusive rhetoric to get his date undressed. Can I really blame it, though? It is a washing machine, after all—its purpose in life is to get the clothes.

But, yeah, I guess one first-step approach for me is just to listen to whatever’s talking. I try to attend to bumper stickers and vanity plates, warning labels, posted rules, what have you. I also have a soft spot for signage that has become partially obscured. This actually happens a lot with book spines that are crowded by library stickers. I have a book out right now that advertised itself, on the shelf, as Building the Ideal Communist, but is actually Building the Ideal Communist City. What a letdown.

JK: I assume that while in law school you found it difficult to find the time or energy to write poetry. Was it difficult to find time? Did you have to force yourself to set aside time for it every day or week?

NS: Actually, law school was a very generative environment for making poems—I wrote my whole book there, in a way that felt natural. Even before law school, most of my “writing time” was actually spent just reading—I’m kind of shy and awkward and really dependent on books for material. Law school was sort of perfect for my writing in that way. You spend hours every day with these massive books of court cases—it’s an intense feeling of passing acquaintance with the entire sweep of American conflict and cooperation.

Once I was in North Carolina and had to leave because of an impending hurricane. It was like a parade, a thousand cars driving at three miles per hour, and the more stubborn residents out on their porches and roofs, watching us flee and waving signs about what suckers we were to run scared. (I should say here that it wasn’t the kind of murderous storm we’re seeing more and more of, but still one that was going to do some real property damage. Predicted to be rough in the Outward Bound way, not the Superdome way.) That impulse is the one I aspire to when it comes to delving into new areas of scholarship: to be the person out on the porch with a case of beer and massive piece of poster board: I WANNA SEE IT. (Again, though: not an attitude I aspire to with an actual global-warming hurricane that is gunning for you. When you see one of those, take cover.)

JK: Legal writing is often perceived as boring and tedious, though obviously very logical—or at least it’s supposed to be. Within all your poems there seems to be the logic of a lawyer but the intrigue and creativity of a poet. To what extent has legal writing influenced how you write poetry?

NS: This is a good question, though also I feel obligated to say that I’ll go toe-to-toe with anyone who thinks legal writing is boring. It’s rigorous and structured, to be sure, but if those things equated with tedium, we wouldn’t write poetry, either. But, yeah, I do try to have a logical progression in my poems, in part just because I have a kind of completion fetish, am not so satisfied with unfinished thoughts. For me, if the thought is unfinished, the poem’s unfinished. That means that one of my struggles as a writer, something I try to stay conscious of, is not to make poems that are too pat and recursive. Just pat and recursive enough.

JK: The Journal recently published your poem “Winter Injury” in which the speaker reflects on the passivity of her character: how it was developed through her childhood, how it relates to the passivity of animals, and how it allowed for a violent relationship with a lover (“I let it happen”). Many of your other poems also deal with the theme of passivity. To what extent do you see passivity as a virtue, and to what extent do you see it as a vice? The poem ends with the line, “The songs I like are mostly swears and clapping,” which indicates that the passive speaker finds an aggressive side to herself through music—that perhaps music, to some extent, acts as a safety-valve for aggression. Do you find that sort of response in a passive person healthy?

NS: You’re right—passivity is a huge theme for me. I don’t know if I really see it as either vice or virtue, but instead just a personality trait that, like any other, is a fact of who someone is and brings with it both perils and leg-ups (legs-up? is there any way to pluralize this? hmmm). My own passivity, sure, is a great saboteur and has, in times past, caused me to get into some bad situations. I do, then—as to your question about the swears and clapping—have a great respect and even envy for people who can be large and brash and more take-charge. I love that in poems, too—a voice more booming and assured. Even just reading poems like that, itself a passive act, can instill in me a sense of strength.

JK: I’m getting ready to start my thesis, and the idea of putting together a book-length work of poems seems daunting. What advice do you have for MFAs working on their theses? Any mistakes to avoid?

NS: Often, the biggest challenge with a poetry thesis is the overall organization. It can really help, if you get stuck there, to take collections you love and fully deconstruct how they’re put together—examine the logic and meaning that gets made when one poem is plunked down after another, and try to tease out for yourself the larger emotional trajectory of the book. I’m a big believer in imitation—if you find something that works for you as a reader, it may just work for you as a writer. Also, have a lot of group dinners. This was what made my thesis year. I used to live on West Pacemont by this nice hill that was called The Boob, maybe by a lot of people, maybe just by my roommate. Anyway, it’s a good spot for picnicking and poetry-talk, just saying.

Jenna Kilic is an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University and a poetry editor at The Journal. She received her BA in English and theater from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Birmingham Poetry Review, Pleiades, Portland Review, and elsewhere.