Millicent Borges Accardi has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Foundation. Her work has appeared in over 50 literary publications including Laurel Review, New Letters, Nimrod and the Wallace Stevens Journal. Among the anthologies in which you’ll find her work are Boomer Girls, Chopin with Cherries (Moonrise Press) and To Honor a Teacher.
Her newest collection, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, has just been released. We took this opportunity to ask her a few questions about her philosophy and her process. Happily, we’ll be spotlighting her work in the coming months.
By way of introducing this stunning collection, you cite an experiment where men were interviewed by a woman after crossing a shaky bridge and others after crossing a solid bridge. Apparently the woman was asked out by more of the men who crossed the unsure path, leading to the conclusion that anxiety and sexual arousal are closely linked. Are you the woman or are you the observer of anxiety—or both?
I’d say I am the observer. Poets are witnesses, observers, the ones who write the history down so events will be remembered. I like the study because it associates sexual arousal with danger/anxiety, a notion that explains so much about how men and women interact in the world.
Now the obvious question: Did you always know you were a poet and that this would be your chosen path? How old were you when you first published?
In elementary school, I got walking pneumonia and was confined to bed, where I read TONS of books and got the bug in my brain that I might want to be a writer. In junior high, friends of my parents put together a chapbook of my poetry. After that I was an editor on a journal for young people, sponsored by the public library. Then, fast forward, I majored in English in college and was getting an MA in literature looking to apply for PhD programs when I did a 180 and decided to abandon my thesis and do a terminal writing degree (this was the Master of Professional Writing at University of Southern California—USC), deciding that I would rather piecemeal a life with writing. This took me on a path road of freelance technical writing, instructional design, reviews and articles for a local arts publication.
I’d say my poems started appearing regularly in journals in the early 1990s—No major markets like The New Yorker or Poetry, but nice university journals like Tampa Review, Seattle Review, Nimrod, New Letters. There is so much wonderful work in small presses and indie journals these days.
Do you write at a specific time of day? Do you make an appointment with your muse?
My husband gets up at 5 a.m. for work, and I usually start my day then too. When I lived in Venice, I used to write in the early morning nearly every day before my “day job” started. Now, I’d say I just keep the channels of inspiration open and am grateful when poems arrive. Some say they wait for the muse or “a ghost.”
I think I just have the good sense to stop and write down thoughts when they sound important to me. My writing time is more like my life, unplanned and free-flowing. Each day is a new experience, a new schedule.
It’s just part of my life, whether the poems show up in the middle of the night or after lunch. I try to listen to the muse rather than force or impose my will, although I do encourage her with reading, the use of prompts, and exchanging work with other writers. I founded a women’s writers group and we meet once a month to share work and literary news (as well as chit chat and lunch, which may or may not involve wine). I also exchange poems once a week with another writer.
Some of what I think is my best work has shown up after long periods of what people might call doing nothing. It’s creating a vessel for the work to happen and being open and willing to record the inspiration when it comes along. Often times, I will write about events years or months after the fact. I’m not so great at writing on command.
Our readers are women who are believers in life offering new opportunities at vitality after the burst that is youth. Do you have any advice for those who would like to start writing at this point in their lives?
I think writers who discover their voice later in life often have more to say and have a better sensibility about where they fit in the universe. Youth possesses a certainty, a misnamed sarcasm or cockiness that, when stripped away by life itself, often reveals wisdom. I think people who write later in life have more to say because they have a half a lifetime of built up memories with which to work. I don’t know what I would do if I could not write. It brings meaning to my life.
We assume you work as a technical writer in order to afford to be the poet you are and we see that you’ve had numerous artist residencies. Could you comment on how you bring those parts of yourself together?
In my life, time, especially time to write, is what I fight for. It is a priority, it is my focus. My “day job” as a technical writer/instructional designer not only buys me a roof over my head, it “buys” time.
My day job is primarily remote, so I get to stay home and, in between meetings and deadlines, I bake bread, garden or do yoga. Every day I am grateful for this lifestyle. The unpredictable pace is an asset. My days range from 12 hours to part-time. The variety and the flexibility allow me to spend more time making poems. No one seems to have time to sit still, to be grateful, and to just “be.” I feel as if I have gladly adopted a simpler, easier, more earth-bound way of life. My days are, for the most part, unscheduled. I make food from scratch and am always trying to find new ways to simplify, to save money, to do with less. Of course I worry about finances—but my goal is to buy as much time to write as I can. That’s what I work for.
Unless I am forced to because I cannot find a new project (for whatever reason), I truly aim for remote, freelance assignments. Of course, in the back of my head, I tell myself that if things really get bad, I can always go back to being a waitress or an artist model (the “careers” I had which put me through college).
Then, when I get lucky, every once in a while, like a blind squirrel I find an acorn! And, I am lucky enough to be offered a residency, which is a massive blessing. My NEA fellowship allowed me to take nearly a year off to write poetry! I was in Spain for a month in the fall of 2008 and last September, I was in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. I cannot thank these foundations enough for their support and belief in me and my work. It means everything.
You’ve put together a good strategy strategy for sustaining your creative life. By and large, though, you don’t see American women as being particularly well-situated these days. Why is that?
I think so many women won a battle and yet lost a war with the women’s movement. Sure, women have made inroads in a man’s world in the workplace (in a few areas) but they have also lost a lot. While I like the options I am afforded as a female, I am also in mourning for the losses. Women in the 1950s were expected to be housewives and mothers and that was it—unless you were outside the model of what was expected.
Then came the 1960s and everything changed. I think the idea was equality and freedom, but in actuality, woman got stuck with the short end of the stick.
Today, if a woman wants to be a stay-at-home mother, the workplace generally does not support this model due to the expected two-income households that especially in the US have become “the norm.”
Having “it all” does not mean having it all. It means working a full-time job while someone else raises your children and then ALSO maintaining a house (cleaning, cooking, etc.).
We women have not gained that much in return for a distinct loss of time and leisure. I chose not to have children, but I see my friends struggling. They deal with daycare and the expectations are still that they are housewives (responsible for the exact same chores that women have always been responsible for). In my own circle of friends I see very little has changed in the ways of men splitting household duties. Maybe a few men cook? Or maybe others pitch in once in a while to fold laundry, but, the bulk of the chores seem to rest on women’s shoulders. Sometimes I wonder just what we women HAVE gained?
That’s a provocative position! We’ll be interested to hear what WVFC readers think about that. Meanwhile, to close our conversation, here’s one final query: What question do you wish we’d asked you and how would you answer it?
Oh gosh. I guess I want to answer a question about the book cover for Woman on a Shaky Bridge. My husband is an artist and the painting (of me) is a large-scale oil that he painted. It was one of those moments—I was sitting on the couch and Charles had finished a series of nude self portraits, then, another series of fallen soldiers, and was about to launch onto a new pathway when he looked at me and said, There! I had just returned from yoga and had no makeup on and I was not all that engaged. But when it came time to choose a cover, I thought that painting was perfect.