“How to Poem”: An Interview with Gandy Dancer Contributor Ashley Olin

Posted by Rachel Powers, GD Poetry Reader for 5.1


Ashley Olin - Poem

From Miley Cyrus to “Wikipedia-ing,” Gandy Dancer’s former contributor discusses the writing process behind her poems.

We are excited for the chance to visit with former Gandy Dancer 3.1 contributor, Ashley Olin. Although Ashley no longer travels across Geneseo’s college green to get to poetry workshops, her time as an undergraduate student at SUNY Geneseo has shaped her unique writing process. From surfing Wikipedia to finding inspiration in pop culture, Ashley shares some sources of inspiration for her poems.


GD: I noticed that one of your poems in Gandy Dancer referenced a newspaper, the Daily Dispatch. Does your inspiration usually stem from other sources? If not, what would you consider your greatest source of inspiration?

This is a poem that I wrote for my Poetry workshop.  If I remember correctly, it is the result of a prompt that instructed us to write a “myth poem,” or in other words, take something that is kind of mystical or unknown and make it known–give it that story that nobody knows or has ever heard in its entirety.  I remember doing what I’ll call Wikipedia-ing–i.e. clicking different links that interest you–for hours and when I somehow got to Miley Cyrus’s page and read that quote I knew I had to run with it.  To answer your question, no, that isn’t something I’d done before but I mostly used that quote as an epigraph to my poem because it was what initially allowed me to run away with my thoughts and answer for myself, and for readers, what Miley would really be like if she were her own country.

I would probably say that although I haven’t been writing poems for a while, I was most influenced by the domestic and tangible.  The two poems in Gandy Dancer were written toward the end of my Poetry course when I was truly entrenched in poet-ing and images and craft, so I was able to get away from my more comfortable pool of inspiration, but in a lot of my work there are images that come from homes–kitchens, clocks, chairs–and also a lot that is suggestive of loneliness. I don’t know why those two themes run through my poems and perhaps I didn’t keep writing long enough to flesh them out entirely, but I could feel myself getting closer to it by the end of my time at Geneseo.

GD:  How long has it taken you to hone your craft? Do you think that poets, or authors in general, ever plateau in regards to their work? In other words, they simply stop improving their work?

It took me a while to figure out how to poem (no typo–I am using poem as a verb.)  I first had to buy into the philosophy that poetry is just a band of tangible images and not lyrics to a bad pop song.  I had to not use phrases like “broken heart” or “you’re my everything” (Wow, I hope I never did that!) in poems because those are what make poems fail. For a while, I was just writing into poems anything that I could see: red chair, dirty floor, TV on, sunspot–things that would never become cheesy because they are what they are and they describe something specific.  From there I was able to start taking more creative leaps and getting a little more daring with the images I chose and the ways I pieced them together.  Poetry is so lyrical and also so dense, and it was definitely hard to figure out how to evoke the desired emotion while coming up with new images and ideas.

GD: Do you try to write for an audience and thus attempt to make your work relatable or do you simply write without concern for a prospective audience?

I think that in these cases, I was writing for myself but also for anyone.  Cori Winrock (a wonderful person and poet, and also one of my favorite professors) used to tell my class that a good poem speaks to everyone but when you read it feels like it was meant for one person–I didn’t explain that very well but I guess a good poem just aims to have a very personal experience with a very wide variety of readers.  When I wrote the poems I obviously had the thoughts and feelings that sparked them, but if I wrote them explicitly for myself nobody would care, read them, like them, etc.  I imagine my poems would be most enjoyed by somebody in the same phase of life as myself, but hope that anybody would be able to get something out of them.

GD: What are you doing career-wise as of now?

I’m currently working at Paychex in accounts payable and am not really sure what I want to do. It I stay here, I’m hoping to use it to get into Human Resources; otherwise, I may try to get into some sort of job with more writing and room for creativity.

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