Linda Harris Dolan is a poet and freelance editor in New York City. She holds an M.A. in English & American Literature from NYU and an M.F.A in Poetry from NYU, where she was a Starworks Creative Writing Fellow. She’s former Poetry Editor of Washington Square Review and has taught at The King’s College and NYU. Follow her on Twitter @lindahdolan.
Alexandra Reynolds speaks with Linda below.
“four years after my father died of our heart condition.” and “in the bones.” belong to your larger collection in-progress—a fragmented narrative in verse—which focuses on your family’s multigenerational struggle with heart disease. Why did you choose to address this personal topic in your poetry?
I can only say the topic chose me.
For a long time, my choice was to either write or not write. Over and over I think I can be okay if I don’t take the time to write, but that puts me on a path to self-destruct. I find myself continually relearning this.
If I do write, this is what’s in me. I was born into this family, this heritage, these stories, and this disease. From a young age, I was fascinated with the voices and stories of my family—and yet, I was already losing them. It’s woven into me so completely that I cannot not write from that space. Do I write to figure out? To mourn? To express? To elegize? To prepare? To question? To protect? Anyway you answer it—this is the topic that’s there. It called to me long before I wanted to answer.
Is it difficult to write poetry that is drawn from your personal and familial experiences? What other themes and ideas do you write about?
It’s horribly difficult, but it’s also an honor.
Sometimes when it’s particularly difficult, my husband and I play this game where we come up with “tangible” jobs for me—usually something I’d be terrible at, like baking.
As is, I’m stuck with myself and my stories and my feelings all day long. And no one can tell you the way. I’m the only one who really knows if I’m holding back. And even then, I’m very good at obscuring that knowledge even from myself.
There are periods where it’s been so painful I haven’t written at all. And periods where I’ve had to set a timer and tell myself that I only have to go there for ten minutes, or twenty minutes.
I’m also perpetually considering the ethics of writing about other people in my life. In much of my academic work, I’ve studied theories of memory and representation. I want to be respectful both to the people who are portrayed and to the work itself. And yet, being respectful is not the same as making everyone happy.
On a day-to-day basis, I’m continually negotiating all of this.
How did you come to be a writer, and what sustains your passion for writing?
That’s difficult to answer. How does a person become a coder? How does a person become a doctor? I think there’s a moment that strikes. From then on, it’s about persisting, training, sharpening your skills, and figuring out how to do it while also eating and having friends.
I think it’s always a process—and it’s been no less so for me. A person who decides to be a doctor still has to figure out where and what and how to individually function as a doctor. For me, becoming a writer has been like that. I’ve worked for the government, gotten my M.A. in literature and my M.F.A in poetry, taught college and creative writing, and worked as an editor. In all of it, I’ve sought to learn the patterns and practices that allow me to write and live as a writer—in a way that’s the most healthy and enabling. I’m still figuring that out.
And I’m an avid believer in community. Having a community of artists and writers who understand and are invested in me and my work has sustained me at every turn. And when I haven’t had that, I’ve suffered accordingly. Community is essential—to challenge and to support.
You earned your B.A. from Roanoke College. Since then you have led an impressive career and completed an M.F.A. at New York University. What is the most important lesson you have gathered from your writing education?
Write and keep writing. And also: be out in the world and live.
What has been the proudest moment of your writing career?
Oh, I don’t know. But here’s a moment when I was proud:
For a reading I did last year, I put together a series from the larger project. It came together rather naturally, and I felt it encompassed the notes I wanted to hit. And though it’s strange to say, since many in the crowd were crying by the end, I felt I did the material justice.
But it’s most memorable for me because of my husband’s reaction:
Chris told me he’d been relieved to hear it read—to sit in a room where people had to witness what we have to live. As I said earlier, I’m aware of how my own vulnerability could affect the other people in my life. And neither Chris nor I were represented in glowing terms in that series. So to have him say that my reading somehow served him, that it voiced something he needed but could not voice himself—well, it was a wonderful moment.
Where do you like to write?
I like to write in spaces where I can either tuck my body into my surroundings or somehow make the place itself disappear. So: big leather chairs. Cups of tea. Balconies. The library. Pubs in the afternoon.
Also: I like spaces where bread, cheese, chocolate, coffee, and bathrooms are easily accessible.
As a reader and editor, what do you look for in a poem?
I look for urgency. That can take a lot of different forms. Because something doesn’t have to be exciting or propulsive to be urgent. It can be quiet, calm, crazed, fragmented. It can be emotive or meditative. As long as there’s a level of vulnerability or earnest contemplation that makes me reckon with something anew.
What are you working on now?
I’ll probably be working on this book—or its various siblings—for the next thousand years.