Jozelle Dyer: Writing through Confusion


Jozella Dyer was born in Trinidad and raised in New York. She currently lives in Alexandria, Virginia. She published "Ferguson (2014)" and "To Sylvia Gonzales" with us in 2016.

Alexandra Reynolds speaks with Jozelle below.

Your poetry's command of language is evident in lines such as, “…of kinder- / garteners with anemone hands flowering / into the air to answer questions like what day / is today?” Can you tell us about your writing process? 

I tend to draft quickly—usually within 24 hours—and revise slowly. I drafted "Ferguson (2014)" in a day and spent almost a year revising it. It was a very emotional poem for me, and I wanted to get it exactly right, but I fell in love with certain phrases, words, and images, and I had to be very strict with myself. I have also found that the more emotional you are about a subject matter, the more time it takes to see it clearly, to get the right words in the right order down on paper. 

How did you go about structuring “Ferguson (2014)” in order to develop such a powerful voice and compelling pace and rhythm?   

With "Ferguson (2014)," I began with couplets, got discouraged, and tried breaking the stanzas in different ways. In the end, the couplets worked best to show how broken, how fragmented my thoughts were.  I knew I wanted to begin with kindergarteners—their openness, their vulnerability—and show them growing into just-as-vulnerable teenagers. That was the point, but the structure speaks things I am still not quite able to voice. 

“To Sylvia Gonzales” has a tender tone and excellent locating imagery. I found the concluding lines to be phenomenal. How do you decide where and when to end a poem? 

With this particular poem, I began with the last stanza. It was my starting point, and I thought that it was really strong.  But although I loved it, I couldn’t find a way forward from there. I had to put it aside—that hurt—open a new document, and begin again. I found myself writing toward that point instead of beginning there, and that worked for me. The rest of the poem came in a matter of hours and required only minimal revision.    

How did you come to be a writer? Do you exclusively write poetry or do you write fiction or creative nonfiction as well?  

When I was young, I wanted to be an actor. I saw “The Who’s Tommy” in 8th grade and it was the most fun I’ve ever had. I sat in the balcony of the theater on the edge of my seat and thought, “This is what I want to do forever.” I was a theater major for a while in college until, at the age of 19, I realized that I was completely fed up with always speaking other people’s words, so I took a writing class. 

My MA is actually in fiction writing. My relationship with poetry is a lot more wild and informal. I’ve only been writing poetry for about five years. I know that sounds like a long time, but it really isn’t.  I took one poetry class, and it was the scariest, most exhilarating thing—all form and meter. I’m still trying to figure out the how’s and why’s of villanelles.  

What writers have influenced you? How have they affected your craft practices? 

In college, I used to sneak into the library to read Neruda. It was sort of a guilty pleasure of mine. I never checked the books out, but would snuggle up on my favorite couch and pass the afternoon that way. I felt that he was speaking to me with “To the Foot from its Child.” I loved the slight awkwardness that I suspect comes from translation. Since then I haven’t found any particular poet to pledge my allegiance to. I sit and stare at the poetry section in Barnes & Noble in an agony of indecision. (It’s one shelf). One of my foibles is to particularly favor the work of poets who I know personally. I like watching their experiences, their fears and desires, their obsessions find their way onto the page. 

What is your favorite thing about writing? Where is your favorite place to write? 

I can honestly say that my favorite thing about writing is finishing a draft. It’s so difficult to get that first sentence down, and so rewarding to place that final period and have a kind of drop mic moment. I love revising. I didn’t think I ever would. I took a class on Revision at Hopkins and hated every moment of it. With poetry I’ve found that elusive love (or at least liking) that I was hoping for. Poetry is new to me, so I’m much more open to criticism and change. I’m learning to approach fiction in the same way.  

My favorite place to write is in my bed.   

What did you learn while earning your MA in writing? How has your writing education impacted your craft?  

I had a wonderful mentor during my time at Hopkins who taught me that it’s okay to experiment. I had a wonderful time mucking around with words and structures. I’m much more serious now. I don’t stand things on end just for the sake of doing it, but I appreciated that my own particular point of view was encouraged, even celebrated. I always knew that I had a voice, but I never really considered that my individual voice could be unique and important.  

Why do you write?  

I write because I’m confused. I’m a very confused person. I don’t understand so many things about the world. And I’m a crier who would rather write than cry. Writing gives me a space to work things out, kind of like considering (not necessarily solving) a complicated equation using words. It has recently occurred to me that other people are confused too. (I thought being an adult meant never having to be confused.)  So I’m starting to offer up my work to say, “This is confusing to me, to you, to both of us. Let’s see if we can figure it out together.”