The Poet Who Married Her College Sweetheart: An Interview with Danielle DeTiberus
Danielle DeTiberus is an award winning poet from Connecticut. DeTiberus taught preschool, kindergarten and middle school in Asheville, NC before moving to Charleston, SC in 2009, where she is still living and thriving. When DeTiberus moved to Charleston, she began teaching composition, literature, and creative writing at Trident Technical College. She currently teaches creative writing at the Charleston School of the Arts. She holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Emerson College and a Masters of Fine Arts from The Solstice Low-Residency Program at Pine Manor College. DeTiberus received a fellowship from the South Carolina Academy of Authors. She currently holds the position of Program Chair in the Poetry Society of South Carolina which hosts nationally renowned poets to Charleston to give readings and lectures.
DeTiberus’ poem that drew me to find out more about her is “In a Black Tank Top” which appeared in Best American Poetry 2015. This poem is about romance, desire, youth, and fun. I love the unique structure of the poem, literally written in shape of a black tank top. The way love is depicted and the message the author sends was also something I hadn’t seen before in poetry. I am incredibly thankful I stumbled upon this poem in the anthology.
DeTiberus’ work has also appeared in Arts & Letters, Rattle, River Styx, the Southeast Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and elsewhere. In 2016, she received the Carrie McCray Nickens Fellowship in poetry from the South Carolina Academy of Authors. In 2012, her poems “I Thought After Thirty” and “Love and Other Hand Grenades” won the Dubose and Dorothy Heyward Society Prize and the Jane Moran Prize, respectively, from the Poetry Society of South Carolina. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2017.
The questions I asked Danielle DeTiberus were preceded by questions that Christina Chalis, a previous student from my high school, had asked her.
Christina Chalis: I read your article on the On Being, “Holding a Sacred Space of Many Silences” and it struck me that you have a very strong want to change the experience of your students. What sparked this ambition in you to push to discuss heavy topics?
Danielle DeTiberus: A society cannot have informed, active citizens without an education that focuses on critical analysis and empathy. I hold my position as a teacher as one of my most cherished roles— it’s a responsibility that I feel each day in the classroom. I’ve taught everything from preschool to college, and currently teach Creative Writing at a magnet arts middle and high school. The common thread through all of my teaching career has been my desire to foster a sense of curiosity in my students. If we cannot engage in something that challenges us every day, we begin to give in to indifference and despair. And this apathy leads to disconnection from our neighbors, which leads to violence and bigotry; apathy leads to an absentee or misinformed electorate; apathy leads to a sense of personal dissatisfaction, which leads us to want to fill up that void with nonsense or numbing agents. My antidote to apathy both for myself and for my students is rooted in the idea that we can all change for the better, we can all find something new to hold in awe. It sounds Pollyannaish, but being in the classroom is one of the only ways I find strength in uncertain times such as these.
C.C.: I’ve read a few of your poems such as “In a Black Tank Top” and “Love and Other Hand Grenades” and I noticed your poems have a recurring idea love. How do you come up with these poems regarding love? Where does the inspiration lie?
D.D.: After many, many years of writing bad love poems, I have come to find that the love poem is one of my specialties. I had the odd and very fortunate chance of meeting my life partner when I was 19. I wouldn’t recommend it, as it rarely works, and I have no idea why it happened to work so well for me, but there it is. I have loved the same man for almost half of my life now. And continue to do so. I’ve always been a romantic, but also consider myself a realist. I hate love poems that are too clean, too pretty. A true partnership is messy and takes hella work. Women especially are given models for romance in the form of fairy tales and romantic comedies that are not true to life. I wanted to write poems that pierced the veil of the flush and blush of love. Poems that celebrate the beloved, but that also wade down into the muck of what it means to compromise, to be vulnerable, to have female desire in a patriarchal society, to be wrong and mad and flawed. And to love anyway.
C.C.: I saw that you were born in Connecticut. Being from here myself, I’m curious: what pushed you to move and stay in South Carolina?
D.D.: I’ve always wanted to be an adventurer, living and travelling to as many places as possible. I’ve lived in CT, NY, Boston, MA, Asheville, NC and now Charleston, SC. I thought I’d only live in Charleston for a few years, but I have been here now for almost a decade. I originally moved here to teach and to luxuriate in beach life. But something happened to me here. This place has seeped into the very marrow of my bones. I love the smell of pluff mud and the salty marsh air, I love watching Great Egrets perch on live oaks and Fiddler crabs scurry through the sweetgrass. I have been changed by this land’s history both as a person and as a writer. I feel like Charleston is one of the great loves of my life. It has given me so much—my beloved job, a beautiful poetry community, dear friends and so very many oysters.
C.C.: The poem that made me inclined to reach out to you for interview was “In a Black Tank Top” featured in the BAP 2015, I personally loved it. What other responses have you gotten about the poem?
D.D.: Thank you so much! It’s such a funny thing to have someone call one of your poems Best. I would have never chosen that poem as one of my strongest, but that just goes to show you that you can’t ever really judge how your work will land. I thought that poem was cheeky and fun, a celebration of love and desire. I wanted it to convey the sheer delight of physical attraction. The responses from that poem have been equally delightful. I have heard from people all over the world— young and old, writers and readers. It has been translated into Spanish, and used as a writing prompt in several classes. The biggest compliment I ever received about the poem, though, was watching Jericho Brown, a poet I admire immensely, smile with glee and snap his fingers as I read the poem at the Best American Poetry Reading in NYC. That was an out of body experience. I want that poem to make people smile, and there was a room full of writers and audience members beaming back at me, thinking about their own beloveds.
C.C.: I’m obviously not thirty but your poem “I Thought After Thirty” got me thinking of my own future and what will happen. What made you think to write this? Did anything happen to spark this thinking?
D.D.: Literally, as I was about to answer this question, a panicked senior came into my office because she was afraid of what she will do if/when she faces sexual harassment in the film industry when she is in the workforce . . . like, five years from now. I gave her some practical advice, and then told her that she is also being insane for worrying about something—an imagined scenario— so far in advance. We laughed and I made her push my Screaming Goat toy. This is all to say that I am SO glad to be in my 30s. To be done with all of the angst and self-doubt of my teens and twenties. I feel powerful in a way that makes me excited to get older, to become more self-assured. This is also all to say that I am still growing, despite the fact that I had imagined I’d be a fully formed adult by the time I was thirty. I thought adult meant finished, complete. But the older I get, the more I realize that I’ll never be done growing, that I am a work in progress. Perhaps that seems daunting for a young person because we all grow up being so goal-oriented, but I find that idea entirely liberating.
C.C.: You are originally from the northeast and now live in South Carolina with travels in between, obviously both areas are quite different. Does this change in location ever effect you poetry or inspire any of them?
D.D.: I feel the same way about travelling as I do about teaching. I think the best way to step outside of your own limited experience is to see how other people live, to hear their stories, to eat their food. Leaving a place makes you see it more clearly, and so now I know the Northeast in a way that I couldn’t had I stayed. That distance has informed my work. And here in the South, I feel like some kind of lucky explorer. Charleston rings through my poems. Everything is new to me here, and I love holding up the beautiful and terrible to the light to see what I can make of it.
C.C.: In another of your articles, “Mask of Submission: Alexie, Hudson, and Chou”, you state that most people have an intent when they are creating poems. What would you say is your intent for writing?
D.D.: Oof. That’s a big question. I suppose that my specific intent changes with each poem, each time I sit down to write. It usually starts with trying to answer a question or suss out an image or memory. I write to understand myself and the world around me. But I guess the throughline to all of my work is that I want to write something that makes both me and the reader feel a sense of surprise and recognition at once. I want my poems to make someone say, Yes, that’s true.
I have my 9th graders write an Ars Poetica and we talk a lot about why we write poetry, why we write at all. This semester one of my students compared poetry to Norma Jeane Mortenson, who became Marilyn Monroe. She wrote something that I found particularly insightful, and so I will quote it here (shout out Katie—you are writing such gorgeous work!): “And that, that is poetry/ stripping the glamor clean.” That made me say, YES! Yes, my intent when I write is to strip the glamor clean so I can truly see myself and others, and hopefully make you see more truly, too.
Victoria Klarer: You talked about how you love travelling and your love for Charleston. How has Charleston or perhaps other places influenced your poetry and why?
Danielle DeTiberus: Place affects so much of what I write, what I look at when I write— literally and figuratively. I think if a writer allows herself to be properly seduced by a place—its landscape, its wildlife, its history—then all kinds of stories and characters and tones will open up to her.
V.K.: I really appreciate the message you send in your poem “In a Black Tank Top”. I love that you are celebrating love and also getting so real about it. In your other poem “Shock”, I think it’s about the hardship of making a relationship work again. What is the message you were trying to send in this poem? I had a hard time understanding it, especially the last line “A woman who cannot/ remember; a man who’s no one’s son.” I would love to hear your interpretation of these lines.
D.D.: Thank you for reading that poem so deeply. The first line came to me in a generative writing workshop with the fabulous poet Jillian Weise: “She was a ghost, of course, and trying/ to love her was like sliding a knife into/ a socket.” I had no idea where it came from or what it meant, and pursued a poem through that idea— what it’s like to love someone who wasn’t quite there, someone who could destroy you with their absence and coldness. Someone you couldn’t help but return to. When I was writing this, I ended up thinking about my father and his mother. She was a deeply complicated woman who ultimately ended up suffering for many years from Alzheimer’s. But really, this poem is about anyone who feels abandoned or disappointed by a parent.
V.K.: What is the process of creating a poem for you? How do you get over writer’s block? What is the best environment for you to write in? Is there a specific place where you like to write?
D.D.: Sometimes a poem will come to me as a line or title, as I mentioned with “Shock.” But mostly they begin as questions. These days, the way I get through the sense of feeling stuck or silent is through research. If I am curious about something—a historical event, a color, a flower— I fall into a rabbit hole of research and wait for something—some image, some surprising metaphor—to jump out at me. This is a new habit I’ve adopted in the past few years, and it’s really reinvigorated my writing routine.
That said, I can’t write in chaos—whether it be a mess of dishes or a mess of noises. So coffee shops aren’t an option for me, and I have to work in a clean space. My husband and I have recently purchased our first house, and he is going to build me my dream writing room. Floor to ceiling bookshelves, a window seat for napping and reading in the sunlight as I look out to the live oak across the street. I am already fantasizing of the writing days that await me this summer.
V.K.: Have you tried imitative poetry? In my poetry class this year, I tried imitative poetry and it really helped me come up with ideas. Do you like to imitate another poet’s style? Your poem “In a Black Tank Top” is the only poem I have seen that is structured to take on a shape of a symbol in the poem. Did you come up with this style yourself or did you get inspiration from another poet?
D.D.: Yes, in fact, I think all art is made in the shadow of someone else’s vision or voice. We can’t help but imitate what we love, what we’re first exposed to. This is why I tell my students to read widely and vigorously, so they can experiment with all kinds of styles and voices and moves. The moment I think I can’t do that in a poem, that’s when I know it’s something I must try. “In a Black Tank Top” came out of that process. Calligrams—or concrete poetry— can be dismissed as silly or childish, but that’s precisely why I thought it could work for this particular poem, which revels in the foolishness of desire. Apollinaire, who coined the terms surrealism and cubism, is famous for his calligrams—and I was just stumbling along in his footsteps.