A Review by William Abbott
Kim Addonizio has released Bukowski in a Sundress: Confessions from a Writing Life (2016, Penguin), a book of essays about herself and writing. From the first essay, where she picks up a man at the hotel bar and takes him back to her room, which she is sharing with another writer, this collection is a sharp and funny look at life as a poet and writer.
Addonizio, who is well known in recent years for Ordinary Genius and The Poet’s Companion (written with Dorianne Laux), has released this series of essays as “Confessions from a Writing Life.” Some of these essays are craft essays (“How to Succeed in Po Biz,” “DOA,” “The Process,” “What Writers Do All Day,” “How I Write,” and others), with varying degrees of advice. This is fine, of course, as this isn’t an advice book (cf. Ordinary Genius in particular). But it is a mirror, showing her reflection on how writers can waste time, or how they can be insecure about their work.
Some of her more personal essays also show how she works her life into her writing. It also shows a very real, very human person who has to care for her elderly mother (“Flu Shot” and “Space”), avoids her dysfunctional brother lest he try to take advantage of her financially (“Simple Christian Charity”), worries about screwing up her daughter (“All Manner of Obscene Things”), looks for love and sex (“Penis by Penis,” “How to Fall for a Younger Man,” and more), and enjoys her alcohol (“Cocktail Time”).
Through it all, Addonizio employs a witty, sarcastic style that gives you plenty of reason to like her. “Many are they,” she wrote, “who harbor the burning desire to become successful poets and rise to the top of their profession. To see one’s name on the cover of a slender paperback, to have tens and perhaps even dozens of readers, to ascend to a lecture podium in a modest-size auditorium after being introduced by the less successful poet, who is unsure of the pronunciation of your name – these are heady rewards.”
Her writing about writing is especially engaging to other writers. “I write crap, shit, clichés, whiny complaints, black speculations, goofy formulations, and give up. I go back and write, ‘nada nada nada I suck why can’t I write anything,’ and give up again. I write something I like, and the next day I realize it’s shit.” We’ve all been there. Like, daily.
The essays on being a writer and on how to write are the most interesting to me, and likely to most writers. The book talks about the stress, the distractions, the chaos of the writer’s life. It talks about how research can turn into the rabbit hole that distracts you away from writing. It talks about how writers mine their real lives for more writing material, and the essays demonstrate the truth to that statement.
The exploits with men are entertaining. The family stories are heartfelt. The alcohol runs throughout the essays. You’re pretty certain she’s being truthful with you, but if she isn’t, she’ll probably write an essay someday that tells where she lied, as she did in “Pants on Fire,” where she breaks down how she embellished stories in some of her poems, line by line. Her eye toward craft doesn’t blink often, and the reader is likely to enjoy her insights, laced as they are throughout the whole work.
The title of the book, according to the author in the eponymous essay, comes from a negative comparison of her from a judge for a book award, and after having read this book, I’d suggest it was 25% Bukowski, 75% sundress. Just the balance I was hoping for.