Dunes Review Interview Series: William Cordeiro

Will Cordeiro has recent work appearing or forthcoming in Best New Poets, concīs, DIAGRAM, Fjords Review, National Poetry Review, Poetry Northwest, Zone 3, and elsewhere. He received his MFA and Ph.D. from Cornell University. He lives in Flagstaff, where he teaches in the Honors College at Northern Arizona University.

Will's poem "Happenstance" appears in the 2017 summer/autumn edition of Dunes Review.

Do you typically write prose, poetry, or both?

I write poetry as well as fiction, essays, plays, hybrid work—really, a bit of everything. I have more poetry and flash prose pieces published than other genres, though. At least in part this might reflect how it’s easier to publish shorter work in today’s literary marketplace. My method, nevertheless, often favors a certain density of language and brevity. Perhaps ideally, I’d only scribble a single cipher, like Borges’s Aleph, and let it signify all possibilities of meaning.   

What first inspired you to write?

I loved stories and poems from a very young age. I remember being fascinated by Mother Goose, fairy tales, fables, Bible legends, and Dr. Seuss even before I could write. The first word I scrawled was C-A-T, an homage to the Cat in the Hat Comes Back (a book in which the alphabet is personified with magic powers—of erasure nonetheless). I wrote that first word with one of those jumbo preschool pencils onto a flattened-out grocery bag. When I finished, I ran outside to tell my mom. Returning, however, I realized my letters were overlaid on the logo printed on the grocery bag itself. The letters were running interference patterns with each other. Writing was a palimpsest. Each glyph was ghosting across another one already there. So from that very first word, the signs spun away from my control and language seemed sedimented with secret histories. It fractal’d out into a many-handled code.


What is your writing routine like?  Do you have a schedule, a favorite place to work, a favorite type of pen you always write with?

It depends on the circumstances and the piece I’m working on. Usually, I write notes longhand, whether gathering facts from research and experience or just jotting down stray lines, words, or ideas. With some longer pieces, I work out the plot, structure, and characters beforehand, too. I stitch these elements together on my laptop. I hammer out a draft, often revising as I go along. Then I keep revising, tweaking, fiddling to no end. I usually have multiple projects going on at once, so there’s always something I should be doing—and then there’s the thing I’m actually working on. I try to make my procrastination count. Also, I tend to write more at night, away from the distractions of the day. There’s a witchy magic that occurs past midnight: a wakefulness when the rest of the world is quiet. If a piece is going well, I might keep fussing with it until dawn, especially during the summer when I don’t teach.   


What's the first thing you do when starting a new piece of writing?

Where does the actual writing start? Is it having an experience, an insight, or thinking about something I’d been reading? Overhearing a conversation? Finding a stray word that tickles my tongue? Whatever impetus sparked me, I mull it over in my head a little, scratch down a few doodles to dither over. I accumulate notes and marginalia, sometimes many pages worth. I dicker around and noodle. At some point, I get the gumption to tidy up the mess and commit it to the laptop. From there, we’re off to the races. I like deadlines; I like prompts. They get me trying something new. Sometimes I give myself assignments. I play games, pen imitations, translate, and challenge myself to break out of stylistic ruts. I try to keep things off-balance and fun—if it starts to feel too onerous or obligatory, too canned or corny, the whole process stops dead. Maybe everything’s a new start and a starting over.   


Do you listen to music or must you have silence while you write?

I listen to the music of the words, the weight they have on the tongue. Writing is a physical activity—the mouth, the mind, the whole body is called into action. I read aloud as I’m working on a piece, feeling my way into the prosody, letting the sounds suggest alternatives and turning points. But in that sense of music you mean, I do sometimes work in a café or earbud into Pandora or Spotify. I think the background chatter or ambient music acts subliminally. When I work, I tend to tunnel into the piece, hyper-focused, and the reverb or pingback from my surrounds can act as a counterpoint which teases out something from my unconscious. I’m so deep into the music of my own mind, the peripheral burble helps me break up a tendency to monomaniacal concentration. Digression—even distractions at times—can kick the writing process in the pants since it allows one to braid new threads into the tapestry; it fosters those associative leaps that jump-cut away, that provide a different time signature from the assiduous clockwork of one’s own brain loop, at least for me.


Do you let other people read your works in progress?  If so, whom?

Sometimes. I have a few friends who are also writers. They offer me great feedback. I’ve probably exchanged work for comments less with them as I’ve begun to internalize their criticism. But my ideal is reading and interpreting another’s poem as impetus for an evolving conversation, a symposium. Works are always in progress as long as the conversations they springboard remain free-wheeling and inspiring. I was lucky when still in high school to find a community of serious writers who’d spend hours and hours talking poetry: critiquing each other’s work, theorizing, and reading and discussing a wide array of literature. And I’ve been lucky enough to find similar friends through grad school and elsewhere since then. Having that type of attentive, intelligent, and sympathetic audience is very valuable. It reminds you that your words have import and significance. In a couple cases, we not only offer criticism of each other’s works, but also pen lines and rewrite a piece for each other. It’s not the author that matters so much as the integrity of the poem, which, if redolent of some truth, takes on a power independent of any single voice or mind.           


How do you know when a piece is finished?

Hopefully a piece is never finished. Shakespeare’s works, to use a timeworn example, are not done yet—editors and scholars are still tinkering with new editions. The material texts are being revised and altered, even reattributed to Fletcher or Middleton in some cases. They’re still being translated, adapted, performed, memorized, read, argued over, and shared. The more vital a piece of writing is, the more the words begin to take on a life of their own. You revisit a line or it revisits you. Both you and it are subject to change. The struggle of interpretation is on-going. With powerful writing you can’t call uncle, otherwise you’re the one who’s donzo. You limp along and must keep wrestling it into being. It compels you to come back to it and speaks to each moment anew.


How do you feel about sharing your writing with readers?  What kind of feedback do you get from them? Do you have any insights into that experience?

Oddly, I feel that readers will inevitably each take away something different from the work if it’s any good. Once you push the little nipper from the nest, it takes wings of its own. Or doesn’t. The consequences—the afterlife—of writing isn’t really in the hands of its author, who becomes one amongst equals in the kingdom of readers. I think we strive to be misunderstood; only what can be misunderstood is splendid enough to issue in various perspectives. Only what is adaptable to new contexts continues to evolve as a living organism. We quibble and crux. We worry the lines. We bring our own experience to bear upon a work of art. Nietzsche once said, “That for which we find words is already dead in our hearts.” I think we can preempt this deadness, though, when the words are mysterious and come unmoored from their most literal reference, when we're never quite sure ourselves what we mean. In these cases, the words offer a source of vitality.


Can you tell us about a piece you are particularly proud of?

I’m less proud of any particular work I could single out than the simple fact that I have continued to engage in the process. I read and write and talk and think about literature every day. It is, if you will, all of a piece. Literature at its best is a lifelong endeavor of the imagination: the pressure to articulate something sharp, variable, and exact which possesses a certain music and sprezzatura; which brings the richness of human consciousness into the reach of words. I’m not yet defeated—dejected, sadistic, a Sunday golfer, a careerist, an ideologue, a suicide, a graphomaniac, a solipsist, a garbler, or otherwise entirely mad. I still know I need to work harder; that there’s so much more to learn. Sometimes I barely sleep at night, but I get up each day and do what I can.


What is your favorite thing to do when you're not writing?

I love travelling; chilling with friends. Running and working out. Hiking in wilderness areas. Exploring cities, especially in other cultures. Looking at art, watching movies, daydreaming, and just lazing about with my own weird thoughts. Having discussions. Learning about science. I honestly really enjoy teaching, too, most days, which is nice because that pays the bills.


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