Interview with Poet Patty Paine (Part 1): Write Fearlessly

To ‘write fearlessly’ means writing the poems I don’t want to, that I don’t want anyone to read, but that I have to write, and that I send out into the world trusting, hoping, that they will mean something to someone else.  ~ Patty Paine

Poet and writer Patty Paine sharply recalls the moment when poetry “first enthralled” her. She was 32 and a history major sitting in a Shakespeare class in which the graduate teaching assistant, no scholar of the Bard, had decided to read poetry aloud. Paine admits to only half-listening until the GTA took up the poems of Norman Dubie. It was a light-bulb moment: “The poems were like live wires, and I was riveted,” Paine tells me during our interview via e-mail. “I wrote my first poem on the spot in a stunned state of excitement.”

Paine’s poem was about “coming home from school and finding my mother dropping matches into the orange shag carpet, the arabesques of smoke, my furious stomping…” It came fully formed, she relates. “It was about something I hadn’t thought about in years, and had never told anyone. I remember thinking that I could tell my story through poetry—something I had never even considered before that moment.”

Paine showed the poem to the GTA, who recommended a poetry workshop with now-retired professor Gary Sange at Virginia Commonwealth University. A dozen Sange workshops later, Paine abandoned plans for a doctorate in history to pursue a master’s in fine arts in creative writing at VCU.

Patty Paine’s Creative Approach

I try to life a life that is creative by being observant and open, and by being attuned to possibility. ~ Patty Paine

For Paine, poetry writing and revision for publication is “both an intuitive and a methodical process, both drudgery and joy.” As do other writers, Paine on occasion experiences writer’s block. “[M]ostly it emanates from frustration over not writing so well as I want to. I try to allow myself to write poorly in the hope that better writing will come, and I try to write every day, even if it’s just free-writing or writing in my journal.”

Sometimes she has to set aside a poem for a long time “until what feels more right opens to me.” Over time, she says, she has become “better at seeing connections emerge . . . and writing toward those connections . . . of letting the poems lead me rather than seeing the poems as conduits for my will and intention.”

What might Paine’s creative approach look like if put under a microscope? Paine remarks, “I think what would be revealed is that what I thought was process wasn’t. I used to think that I needed everything to align perfectly for me to be able to write. My process was a litany of needs: I needed huge swaths of time, absolute quiet, the right environment, the right everything. I know better now. Trying to create the perfect writing condition was just a way to not write.”

Routine and Reading

Paine is clear, however, that “having a routine is necessary. There’s a difference between committing to a set period of time to write and needing the universe to align in order to write. I do try to wake up early every morning and write for at least an hour. If I can’t do this, though, I snatch whatever time I can—in airports, while my students are free-writing, during meetings—whenever, wherever I can, every day.”

Inspired to write poetry “by reading as much, and as widely and as deeply, as I can,” Paine typically works in her home office, at a desk facing a wall. She also enjoys writing in airports and hotel rooms, because “there’s an unreality about these spaces that is interesting to write in. I also love to write in nature but I tend to end up with poems about birds…”

While writing, she tries to follow “the best advice” she’s ever received: “Read more than you write, abhor abstractions, and revise ruthlessly.” Or, as she tells her own students, “Write with a paint roller but revise with a knife.”

salt, or the night you left

engulf me like a body
a stranger printed on skin
ocean me your childhood of terrible
birds   pretend I am
your mouth   your clavicle  the kiss
of your stabbing   once you
would have forgiven me

now everything has a feel
of rain and your face
mirrored in midnight wears goodbye

~ Patty Paine, from The Sounding Machine


Founding editor of Diode Poetry Journal, Patty Paine is also an assistant professor of English at VCU Qatar, where she teaches writing and literature, and is the assistant director of Liberal Arts & Sciences. Paine is the author of The Sounding Machine (Accents Publishing, 2012), Feral (Imaginary Friend Press, 2012), and Elegy & Collapse (Finishing Line Press, 2005). She also is co-editor of Gathering the Tide: An Anthology of Contemporary Arabian Gulf Poetry (Garnet Publishing/Ithaca Press, 2011).

Watch Gathering the Tide Book Trailer.

Read Patty Paine’s poems “Merciless“ and “One should not try to write after reading Levis“ in Revolution House Magazine 3.3 (also available in pdf).

Come back next Friday to read part two of Maureen’s interview with Patty Paine.

Featured photo by Kevin Dooley. Creative Commons License via Flickr. Post by  Maureen Doallas, author of Neruda’s Memoirs: Poems.

Read about more poets in our growing collection of poets and poems.


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  1. says

    I reacted emotionally to so much of this – from what it means to write fearlessly to someone else saying “it came out fully formed” to the green/red traffic light in the trailer. What? No Yellow? I can’t stop thinking about that… no yellow. Wondering how the presence of yellow has influenced our expectations of this life we live? Interesting that yellow is associated with caution as well as cowardice. Is there a fine line between the two? A gray line? (or should I say yellow?) And so that’s where my thoughts wandered through this great interview… I’m looking forward to part 2, Maureen. :)

  2. says

    I so appreciate learning about the writing process from others. “…what I thought was process wasn’t.” Maybe all these constraints that we add that interfere with the process of writing fearlessly. Maybe first we must develop the trust in our own voice that what we have to say matters, even if no one else agrees or is there to applaud our efforts. Fearless.


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