portrait Interview with Nikki Moustaki

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 75 ~ August, 2003

Nikki Moustaki’s poetry has appeared in such publications as TriQuarterly, Cimarron Review, Alaska Quarterly, Cream City Review, Quarterly West, Madison Review, Many Mountains Moving, Berkeley Poetry Review, Spoon River Literary Review, and Yankee Magazine.

Moustaki, who graduated from Florida International University with a BA in English Literature, earned an MA in Creative Writing from New York University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Indiana University. She was awarded several W.B. Yeats Society of New York Prizes for poetry, was a Nation Discovery finalist, a nominee for a Pushcart Prize in 1999 and 2000, and received a 2001 NEA Grant in poetry.

She is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Poetry (Alpha Press, 2001), the Cliffnotes for George Orwell’s 1984 and Dante’s Inferno, and co-authored the recently released Not Another Feel Good Singles Book (Alpha Books, 2003).

Moustaki, who hosts the writing web site: www.betterwordsbooks.com, has taught poetry and writing at NYU, Indiana University, and most recently taught poetry at the New School for Social Research.

An avid pet lover, and expert in bird behavior, Moustaki writes regularly for Dog Fancy, Popular Dogs, Pet Product News, Ferrets Magazine, Bird Talk Magazine, Veterinary News, and Water Garden News, among others. Her most recent book on the subject is Your Outta Control Bird (TFH Publications), and she also runs the web site www.goodbird.com.

Derek Alger: Is it true you were actually writing haiku in fourth grade?

Nikki Moustaki: I did actually. Didn’t everyone? I remember counting syllables and working the language into something that I thought was pretty cool at the time. I didn’t think about form then, obviously, but I do remember being excited at a “job well done,” getting the syllables just right. I think that’s part of the reason I’m so intrigued with form, both writing it and teaching it – the “I did it!” factor.

DA: You have said that Robert Frost was a big influence on you early on.

NM: Yes, I wrote my big term paper on him in 11th grade, and I loved how dark his writing was, and how subversive. His life was also dark and interesting, and I loved that he could turn adversity into art. Today, I really like his work, its adeptness with formal elements – you don’t even notice when he’s writing in blank verse or in the sonnet form unless you’ve got a keen eye for it. That’s real talent, and he definitely had it. My Mom saw him read when she was in high school, and I’ve always been jealous of that.

DA: Many aspiring poets have praised your book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Poetry. How did you come up with the idea for it?

NM: I simply saw a need for something like it in the marketplace. There were a lot of good how-to volumes out there already, but none of them really broke poetry down to its basic elements the way the Idiot’s Guides are designed to do. I mean, you can learn how to write a sestina, code your web site, or lube your chassis from those books. They’re excellent starter manuals, though I’ve had intermediate poets tell me that my book is a great reference tool for them too. A lot of professors are using it in their beginning classes, and I get e-mails from students across the country telling me about the poems they’re writing. it’s wonderful. Those books reach an audience that wouldn’t normally pick up anything about poetry. It’s an unassuming tome filled with a lot of encouragement and solid information.

DA: Coming from Florida to New York City in pursuit of a writing career was a big step. What was your experience like studying poetry at NYU?

NM: In Florida, my poems were filled with the bizarre landscape of the place, and I don’t mean just the countless miles of sawgrass. Florida is a strange place where almost anything can happen, and my poems bore witness to that. They had a lot of the natural world in them, but after about a year in NYC, they became more heady and “citified.” NYU was a fantastic experience for me and being in the City allowed me to do things I would not have been able to do in Florida, like take an internship at Regan Books – the experience there was integral to landing my first job as an editor at Macmillan. The writing program itself is a very nurturing environment and my work thrived there.

DA: You obviously have good academic credentials. How did you end up at Indiana University getting an MFA in creative writing?

NM: The first person I ever spoke to in New York City was a poet named Catherine Bowman. My poetry professor in Florida, Campbell McGrath, went to Columbia with Cathy, and I had met her at his house. She lived on the upper west side and invited me to visit with her at a coffee shop. We kept in touch, and in my second year at NYU, she moved to Indiana to take a position at IU. When I graduated from NYU, I needed something to do, and getting a job with an MA in poetry isn’t the easiest thing to do. I love taking classes, so more school seemed like the way to go. Cathy said that she loved the university in Indiana, and that I should apply. That’s how I ended up there. Indiana was definitely a change for me and I had a lot of adjusting to do, and in the end, fled the state back to NYC and finished my thesis from here. I’m just not a country girl. Though the University was beautiful, the town quaint, and the faculty amazing, it wasn’t enough to keep me there at the time. Now, I’d probably love to live in a small town for a while – I just wasn’t ready for it then.

DA: You also host a web site. What’s that about?

NM: Better Words Inc. is my corporation and I use it to help other writers get work. I’m a successful freelancer with some great connections and a lot of energy, and I believed that sharing some of that was important.

DA: A lot of people think freelance writing is easy. What’s been your experience, the pluses and minuses? And I don’t believe you’ll do anything for money.

NM: Oh, I’ll write anything for money. Don’t be fooled by this artsy exterior. I never thought I’d be that way, but when it comes right down to it, I like to eat regularly and buy shoes on occasion. Freelance writing is not easy – it’s a job like any other. But if it’s what you’re meant to do, then it seems easy to other people who want to do it. The best advice I have for someone just starting out is this: Find your niche. Write about something you know and have a passion for, then try to sell it to a place where it will fit. If it’s Vogue, great, but if it’s Model Train Quarterly, that’s fantastic too. Also, you may have to write some gratis articles in the beginning, or take very little money, but that’s part of paying your “dues” and building your resume.

DA: I see you have another book out, Not Another Feel Good Singles Book, co-authored with two others. Will singles feel good after reading it?

NM: The title is kind of deceiving — my co-authors and myself didn’t title it – the publishing company did. The book is really for someone who has been in a relationship for a while and has relied on the other person to do certain things around the house or with the finances. Now that the other person is gone, the single is left not knowing how to do laundry, travel alone, or cook. It’s really just a funny, pep-talky book with a lot of good, practical information for someone newly single.

DA: Since you seem to be involved with so many multi-tasks, how do you find time for your own poetry?

NM: The poetry gods guilt me and I just sit down and write. Admittedly, writing for money has had the detrimental side effect of making me believe that words = $$$. When I’m writing, it’s hard not to think, “Ok, how much cash am I getting for this? Again, it’s a function of pure survival. With poetry and my other “art” writing, I really have to shake the money thoughts out of my head to be able to do it. A long walk with one of my dogs usually does the trick. Also, not sitting at one of my computers helps too — writing longhand is a great way to become a part of the physical process.

DA: You have a lot of experience teaching poetry. Do you find that helps you with your own work?

NM: Certainly. The questions that my students ask and the “ah-ha” moments they have help to jar my “poetic self.” Teaching also encourages me to read so that I bring in new examples to my classes, and I’ll often write an example for my students, just so they can see that what I’m asking isn’t impossible. I wrote a sestina in 20 minutes the other day to see if I could do it, then brought it in to class. It wasn’t the greatest sestina ever written, but it served as a good exercise for me. I really believe that teaching creative writing is what I’m meant to be doing. I love the classroom environment. It’s the only job I’ve ever had that has immediate rewards. It’s not just about the paycheck, but about how I feel inside when I teach.

DA: You recently taught a course at the New School where you encourage poets and students not to feel unwarranted anxiety or view form as a restriction on verse.

NM: I didn’t know whether or not anyone would sign up for that course, and it was full. I’d never had such a talented bunch of students. They really pushed themselves with form, and what they didn’t realize in the beginning, and what I think everyone who writes in form comes to realize, is that it’s actually very freeing, rather than being restrictive. Form allows the poet to explore new, scary and exhilarating places.

DA: I like the way you believe that a poetry writing class should be held in a supportive atmosphere. Did you decide this based on your own experience or what you wish it should have been?

NM: Most of the workshops I’ve been in have been very supportive and I learned by example. I also learned what I liked and didn’t like in workshops I’ve taken and tailored my own classes to suit what I feel is the perfect environment.

DA: I know you love and admire George Orwell. What inspired you so much about him and his work?

NM: I think I like Orwell for the same reasons that I’m attracted to Frost’s work — its darkness and cynicism. I love reading essays and his are amazing. The technical aspect of his writing, his diction, is mind blowing — there’s no other way to describe it. He’s very honest and expressive, and his writing is beautiful.

DA: I guess writing the Cliffnotes for 1984 was a labor of love but also another example of a freelance assignment.

NM: Writing the Cliffnotes for 1984 was indeed just another writing assignment, but I loved it because I love that book. Writing the note for Dante’s Inferno, now that was hell. Bah-dum-bump. Seriously, that note was very difficult to write.

DA: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention your love of pets and the number of books you’ve written on the subject. Was that another early childhood love?

NM: I’ve always loved animals and have found a terrific writing niche in the animal world. I’m quite well known these days as an animal writer. As a writer, I lead a kind of double life which sometimes overlap, but not often. I’ve got an academic, poetic self, and a pet writer self, both of which use such different parts of my brain and expertise. The audiences are very different too. But I wouldn’t change anything I’m doing at the moment. I’m working on larger projects, things I’m very excited about, which combine my love for literature and my love for animals.

DA: It’s only natural to end with a question about poetry. As the world seems to accelerate and people complain about not having enough time for things, what are your thoughts on the enduring nature of poetry?

NM: If you compared art to the food pyramid, poetry would be the large building block on the bottom (grains — the basics of a good diet — 6 to 11 servings a day) AND the tiny pyramid topping the whole thing off (fats and sweets – the yummy stuff – use sparingly). Poetry is on the top and the bottom of the art food chain – it’s the most erudite of the fine arts, and at the same time it’s also a popular art, attracting people that wouldn’t think of painting or sculpting, but who think nothing of writing poem after poem in their journals and submitting their works to Internet forums and journals. It’s an academic and a populist art, and not many other fine arts can claim a place in both of these territories. Viva poetry!