IFOA: Where did you draw inspiration from to write your latest collection?
Naomi: I spent a brief time in my twenties studying music, for which I had very little talent. They say that for writers all experience is grist, so I guess that the beginnings of writing about music and musicians go back to that time. I’ve always been interested in food and in the past dozen years as I’ve created courses on food and participated in conferences on food, I’ve met a wide array of people who are also interested in food, with eating it, researching it, and writing about it.
Needless to say, those of us obsessed with food are in many ways hedonists, and Donny is a character who embodies the Dionysian qualities that stress life’s sensory pleasures, including food. You might say that I created Ari as an ascetic counterweight. Their “opera,” or song, is a conversation I have with myself every day: do I indulge in the pleasures of the world as they are given to me, especially those of food, or do I choose restraint in the recognition that the planet’s resources are in fact dwindling under population and environmental pressures?
IFOA: What is your writing process?
Naomi: It’s very slow. With this book I began by setting myself the goal of writing prosy blocks of poetry, 10 lines per poem. At first I wanted to capture each character’s point of view, via an omniscient narrative voice. Because I wanted to tell a story, eventually I had to figure out how to create more dramatic poems rather than simply meditative ones. I also realized that I wanted to do more formal experimentation, and that took some time to develop. I teach, so the book was written in fits and starts, mostly over summers. I’d say it took about 4 years to complete the manuscript, and another year or so to polish it.
IFOA: If you could collaborate with any writer, who would it be and why?
Naomi: I’d love to collaborate with a composer and a librettist, perhaps using “Donny & Ari” as the basis of a contemporary opera. I’m also very interested in the personal documentary and would love to collaborate with Alan Berliner, or someone like that. But most writers are solitary types, so it’s hard to imagine it happening.
IFOA: What are some of the subjects aspiring authors explore in your creative writing classes? Do you have advice for them about finding inspiration?
Naomi: Young people, naturally, gravitate to writing about what they know. I often begin a course with childhood memories, important places, and dreams as sources for their writing (I have them read Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”); at the same time, I want them to turn the usual advice on its head: as the writer Brett Lott said, “Write what you don’t know about what you know.” I ask students to consider the mystery, the gaps between what they think they know and what they actually know.
IFOA: What’s next for you?
Naomi: I’m working on a personal documentary in video. I don’t know that it will ever be of a quality that I’d want to show the world, but I’m enjoying the exercise of putting visual material, recorded voices, and music in relationship to one another. I’m also working on some personal essays. I’m still writing poems, but I haven’t zeroed in on collecting a new manuscript, though I believe that if I looked at my notebooks, I might be able to see the beginnings of another volume of poems.
See Naomi read live at Brick Books’ 40th Anniversary Celebration on May 25th at 7:30pm.