Getting To Know Maggie Dietz and Her New Book That Kind of Happy

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Maggie Dietz is the author of   That Kind of Happy   and   Perennial Fall   and the former director of the Favorite Poem Project. She teaches at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. 

Maggie Dietz is the author of That Kind of Happy and Perennial Fall and the former director of the Favorite Poem Project. She teaches at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. 

When did you first encounter poetry? How did you discover that you wanted to write poems?
For my fifth birthday, my mother gave me A Child’s Book of Poems, with illustrations by Gyo Fujikawa. I loved the illustrations first. They were magic to me—Wyken, Blynken, and Nod as little boys in a giant wooden shoe, a girl in a field of daffodils, a giant elephant with intricate skin. At first I wanted the poems to be read to me. As I learned to read better, I enjoyed spending time alone with the book and began to love to say the poems out loud, especially the rhyming ones. There are poems and excerpts by Emily Dickinson, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Robert Louis Stevenson, Eugene Field. I still know many of those poems by heart, and I still have the book—it’s all beat up, the cover’s torn and it’s marked up where I underlined the titles and circled the numbers of the pages I liked best. My children have a fresh copy.

Do you have a writing routine? A favorite time or place to write?
I wish I did. I suppose I used to when I was less busy. Now I write whenever I can create a quiet stretch of time—and I do need quiet, and I do need some number of hours, not minutes. I envy the writers who can write lines on cocktail napkins on airplanes, or between classes. It was a sabbatical from my job at the University of Massachusetts Lowell that allowed me to finish the new book. That was glorious: I wrote from 8:00 a.m. to noon or 1:00 every day. I didn’t change the laundry, I didn’t answer the phone.

I’ve had a couple of longer writing fellowships, but I’ve never even applied for a residency. I like to be at my desk, which is a small farm table, in my house, with my yellow pot of green tea.

Where do your poems most often come from—an image, a sound, a phrase, an idea?
It’s my conviction that poems are made out of words and not ideas. And words are made out of sounds. Without the sounds, there are no words, without the words, there can be no ideas. So a poem starts for me with a sound—the sound of a certain word or phrase or line, or just the sense of an underlying rhythm.

Which writers (living or dead) do you feel have influenced you the most?
I’ll try to stick with “most”: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Wallace Stevens. Also, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. And my beloved teachers: Robert Pinsky, Rosanna Warren, David Ferry and others. And of course my writer friends who know who they are.

Tell us a little bit about your new collection: what's the significance of the title? are there over-arching themes? what was the process of assembling it? was is a project book? etc.
The title of the book comes from a line in the first poem, titled “Zoloft”: “…But who wants to be that kind of happy?” Various medicines make their way into the book, but at the heart of it are two experiences: becoming a mother and losing a father within a short span of time. But it’s not a project book, and I didn’t set out to write about anything in particular. One’s obsessions present themselves in the process, and one’s experiences inform one’s obsessions.

Assembling the book was tough, in part because I wrote the poems in it over ten years. When you have an order that’s not quite right, it’s like a thorn in your foot. You know something’s not right. Sometimes you need someone to pull it out for you. That happened to me with both my books—I needed some help. There’s a point where you get so nearsighted you can’t see what the book is actually doing. But then once you’ve arranged it as it seems to mean to be arranged, it starts to have this feeling of inevitability.