Guest Writers · On Writing · Poetry · Writing Life

Q&A With Writer Domenica Martinello – She’s Iowa Writers’ Workshop Bound!

Photo Credit: Abdul Malik

It’s high time for another author interview, wouldn’t you say? This hot weather can really make you pine for a tall glass of water…well, let me give you one in the metaphorical sense…er…maybe she’s not that tall, but poet/writer Domenica Martinello is definitely a woman we need to know – and drink up! I met her on a jury this past year, and I immediately felt a girl-crush rooting within! Domenica is packed with wisdom and strength you don’t often see in someone so young. I felt a connection right away, and promised that I’d send her a load of questions about her writing life – including the incredible achievement that is getting a Canada Council grant and getting accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop – in like, the same week!

I’ve bolded some of my favourite quotable quotes…Domenica has a flare for words (so sweetie-girl, know there’s no worry about your talent in this regard!). I hope you find this interview enticing, inspiring, educational and entertaining. (You’re welcome.)


VS: For those of us who only know the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from Girls(wherein Hannah, Lena Dunham’s character, gets accepted, goes, seems to fight with the others and not fit in, then leaves…), it seems like a totally intense, writing-heavy, seemingly scary place for a writer to go! What prompted you to submit to the IWW?

DM: There were some practical reasons and some whimsical reasons. It might be too unsexy for Girls, but the truth is that I simply couldn’t afford to go back to school, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop—though one of the most competitive writing programs in North America—offers generous funding opportunities and tuition remission for successful applicants. I experienced the cycle before: I worked all throughout my undergraduate degree just to afford to be there, yet because I worked so much I was often too exhausted to be present (physically, mentally). I had no time, and a lot of debt. No money. And I didn’t have to take the GRE. Hannah probably appreciated not having to take the GRE.

As for the whimsy, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is unique and storied. It seems more like a mythic writers’ colony than a rigid graduate program. Its appeal in both pop culture and the literary imagination is undeniable, as is the surreal thought of stepping into history alongside the likes of Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver. And more contemporary graduates of the program, specifically female poets—Rachel Zucker, Matthea Harvey, and Alice Notley, for example—are doing some of the most compelling work today.

Contrary to how it’s portrayed in Girls, the creative community rallying around the Writers’ Workshop seems intensely supportive. It’s a really nourishing place for a writer to be, especially if they’re ready to get all ‘totally intense’ about their work.

I’d also like to say that I’d told myself that I was done with grad school after this round of applications. I applied (and was accepted) to York’s MA in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (an interdisciplinary intersecting of everything meaningful and interesting to me), and was ready to forgo a formal education in literature and writing. I didn’t need a graduate degree to keep being a poet, but I did need a graduate degree to teach. I decided to apply to Iowa thinking, I might as well go for it just this once.

VS: What was the submission process like for you? How did you choose the writing you sent? Were you confident about it? Did you write new pieces for the submission?

DM: Compiling and submitting the application was actually pretty painless and streamlined compared to the process at other universities. I submitted a selection of poetry from a manuscript I’m working on. I was aware of not wanting to submit a handful of one-off, stand alone poems. I wanted my entire submission to fit together in a way that compelled the reader to consider the selection in its entirety, and to get a clear sense of thematic continuity and momentum. In other words, my submission was more of a concept album rather than a playlist of really good individual songs.

I felt confident that what I was submitting was my best writing—what I felt most excited about—but not at all about getting into the program. It’s always a gamble, no matter how talented you are.

VS: What do you do for a living? How does your writing life fit into your work life…if it does or doesn’t? And how do you feel about the connection (or mis-connection) between the two?

DM: I’m really open about that fact that “making a living” and “being a writer” are two entirely separate struggles. Sometimes I’m asked this question and people seem crestfallen by the response (very unglamorous, very un-Hannah). I’ve had many, many jobs, and have cobbled a lot of random gigs together to pay the bills—only a few of these have been loosely related to writing. I worked at a bookstore for five great years, I worked any and all retail jobs, I worked in various customer service and operational capacities for a big tech company (despite being a complete luddite), I worked at a bacon sandwich shop, I wrote copy for porn websites, I wrote rich people’s resumes, I edited institutional directories. I write in between and around and through all this and it’s often very difficult. I feel little to no connection between these jobs and my creative life. I don’t associate making money with my creative/intellectual labour. So when I do get paid for it—selling chapbooks, small cheques from publishing in literally journals, sitting on advisory panels, doing readings, etc.—it does feel very good.

I’m comfortable acknowledging that what I do as a day job does not diminish the value of my work, which is something I used to feel insecure about. Money and the practical realities of life often get lost in discussions of the writing life, and as a working class writer from a working class background, it can be hard to reconcile the two without shame.

Currently I’m working as an editorial assistant for a marketing agency and I really love it. It’s basically reading and writing all day in a really great, structured atmosphere, and my brain doesn’t feel cluttered at the end of the day the way it did working service jobs. I have a lot of energy left over for my own reading and writing.

VS: What is your emotional state currently about moving to a new place, starting the IWW, your writing…and your general future in literary arts? (That’s a loaded question!)

DM: I was absolutely terrified (and feeling guilty about being terrified) up until just recently. I sort of told myself “okay, you get two more weeks to revel in anxiety, and then you’re going to be really fucking excited,” and it worked. I never seriously considered that I’d be uprooting my life and moving to Iowa, so it’s hard to imagine myself there. It didn’t seem to be something that happened to People Like Me.

Getting accepted to IWW also coincided with other big personal changes, so that contributed to some weird, negative feelings. I am thankfully past that now.

As for my feelings towards my writing—I feel how I always feel. Like I’ll somehow wake up one day and forget how to do it and then I’ll never write anything good ever again. But I still get up everyday and try anyway. That’s the real success—being undeterred.

VS: How do you feel you fit into Canada’s writing landscape – are you a poet? A novelist? A blogger?

DM: I write and experiment in multiple genres, and eventually (if I’m lucky/if I can ever finish anything) want to publish a wide variety of writing. Even so, I identify really strongly with being a poet. And in all honestly I think telling people—outside of a small but supportive literary community—that I write poetry is sort of embarrassing. But it’s what I do, it’s what I pour hours and hours into, it’s what I love thinking about. I don’t lose track of time doing anything else the way I lose track of time playing with language and rearranging words on a page. I think that no matter where my writing takes me, I’ll always be “a poet who wrote a novel” or a “a poet who wrote a screenplay.” And it will always be sort of embarrassing and cool. I like that embarrassing-but-cool niche.

VS: What motivates your writing life? Meaning, what is at heart of the reason why you write?

DM: I write to make sense of the world, to explore, and to complicate—to make myself possible. I like finding surprising ways to communicate, and pushing boundaries. Through writing I hope to connect to others who are questioning, grappling, and trying to make themselves possible, too.

It’s also an infinitely pleasurable and frustrating pursuit. I like to provoke, and to entertain. I love words and language, and thinking and feeling deeply.

VS: What do you hope to achieve while you’re at the IWW?

DM: I’m hoping to surprise myself. I want to finish the poetry manuscript I’m working on, of course, but I really have no clue what I’m capable of with all this time (the greatest gift of an MFA, I think). I’m kind of hesitant to talk about the projects I want to work on, because I’m afraid I’ll jinx them. I’m a bit superstitious that way. But definitely something other than poetry.

I just want to give myself some room to try new things and take risks. I’m really not thinking about any professional, career-related stuff—making connections, shopping myself around, being competitive. I just want to enjoy the process and throw myself into it wholeheartedly because I recognize that I might never get to live this way again.

VS: What is your biggest writing fear? (Ex. rejection, acceptance…what peers think of your work?)

DM: Like I mentioned, my fear is that I’ll get blocked permanently one day, and everything will freeze up. Starting something new never gets easier. I also fear that I’m too lazy, that I have no routine, that I’m not smart enough. It doesn’t really hinder me, but I do try to be kinder to myself. I used to feel worried that people liked my work not because it was strong, but because they liked me as a person. The writing community in Toronto (and Canada) is a small pond. Getting accepted to Iowa really boosted my confidence in that regard. It was only the words on the page speaking for me, and they’d travelled far, far away from the pond.

I don’t fear rejection or what peers will think of my work, though. Rejection has always been very useful for me. I’m more nervous about how far my loved ones will read into what I’m writing about (sometimes personal, sometimes not at all), and if they will find unpleasantness there.

VS: Who are some of your favourite writers and why?

DM: Very tiny sampling:

Lorrie Moore—especially her masterful short stories—because she is so cutting while also being effortlessly funny. F. Scott Fitzgerald for his perfect schmaltzy prose that is overindulgent but undeniably magical and transporting. Ariana Reines for being sexy and philosophical and giving no fucks. Frank O’Hara’s energy, nerve, movement, and willingness to name names. Chris Kraus for demolishing and rebuilding our understanding of the novel and female subjectivity. Sylvia Plath, poet-mother to us all. Miranda July for the pleasurably bizarre uniqueness of her voice and perspective. Roland Barthes and Maggie Nelson for their innovations in criticism, gender, and genre. James Joyce, prose-mother to us all.

VS: Where do you write? Do you have a favourite location? Writing utensil? Notebook?

DM: Unfortunately I’m not the type of person who “can write anywhere”—or at least I find it very difficult. If I’m writing at home, I can’t work from my bed or the couch. I need to get up, shower, get dressed, and sit at my desk. It’s all a very ceremonious way of convincing myself that I am actually doing something important. My desk is really small, so if I have a lot of papers and books that I’m using, I’ll spread everything out on the kitchen table. If I’m having a particularly distracted day, I will go work at the library or a café. I can’t go sit outside to write, for example, or write on the bus or train. I will just daydream, or read.

I am an obsessive list maker and frivolous journal keeper. If my mind is teeming with thoughts I get an uncomfortable, stunted feeling, and it helps to quickly jot things down. So I have various messy, haphazard notebooks for these purposes (literally several notebooks just full of lists). I write with a mechanical pencil usually, if that means anything.

But I do most of my getting-down-to-business writing on the computer, where all my unfinished drafts hang out together and try to kill me.

VS: What are you reading currently?

DM: Closer: Notes from the Orgasmic Frontier of Female Sexuality by Sarah Barmak, an engaging and readable exploration into the erasure (and rediscovery) of female sexual pleasure at the intersections of science, medicine, culture, ideology, religion, etc. Going to chase this book with Kuntalini by Tamara Faith Berger, which just came in the mail, to ride the wave.

VS: What is something you love that has nothing to do with your writing life? (If that’s possible!)

DM: Writing can be a very solitary act, but I love people, and making people happy.

VS: Tell us your favourite word and why.

DM: Sorry to be a bad sport, but I don’t have a favourite word. All words are beautiful, especially when sculpted in different ways—ah, sculpted. That’s a good one.

I think I could ask Domenica another batch of questions based on her answers here. I love that. I love that I’ve learned about new writers…and how writers affect writers…and how we all have our own demons that grip our creativity in ways that we are always battling – and we are winning!
Thank you so much Domenica!
Hear or read some of Domenica’s poetry by clicking HERE!
Puritan website:
CONTACT: @domenicahope

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