A Virtual Interview with Ann Howells

Poets Michelle Hartman and Ann Howells  will be the featured readers on Thursday, March 9, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).

Background

Ann Howells is editor of the Dallas Poetry Community’s literary magazine Illya’s Honey and author of Under a Lone Star (Village Books Press, 2016), chapbooks Black Crow In Flight (Main Street Rag Publishing), The Rosebud Diaries (Willet Press), and Letters for My Daughter (Flutter Press). She is also the editor of Cattlemen & Cadillacs, an anthology of D/FW poets. Her poems appear both domestically and internationally, and she has four Pushcart nominations.

The Interview

CH: When did you first become interested in writing? What is your first memory of writing?

AH: In third grade I wrote a poem that was chosen for publication in my school newspaper. That planted a seed — not only could I write but others might actually be interested in what I had to say — a rather momentous realization for an eight-year-old. Still, I remained primarily a reader, quite indiscriminate, even literature that came with cough syrups and on backs of cereal boxes. It was a family joke that I was always curled in a quiet corner with a book. I believe, though, that first publication set the foundation for my writing. In college I shared poems, primarily angst-ridden, with other equally angst-ridden poets, doesn’t everyone? After that, I didn’t return to poetry until my daughter was diagnosed with cancer. My husband traveled, and family lived a thousand miles away. I put on a cheerful face and dealt with my fear through poetry.

CH: How did you become drawn to poetry? When did you begin to identify yourself as a writer? As a poet?

AH: I have always enjoyed a good story, but stories tell what is happening, leave little room for interpretation. A poem has a different meaning for each person who reads it; we each bring our own experience and expectations to it. I should explain that I was a visual artist, and in fact, taught oil painting for several years. I enjoyed lush and vivid images; they were important to me, but found myself turning more and more toward written images as opposed to visual ones. I suppose it was sometime after I became involved with Dallas Poets Community that I began to see myself as a poet. Our founder had recently completed his MFA and was concerned with the manner in which a writer “gives himself permission to be a poet,” that is, to self-identify as a poet. I grew into that identity slowly and didn’t fully identify as a poet until my work was being regularly accepted by journals.

CH: What was your path to becoming a published poet? How have you nurtured yourself and grown your craft?

AH: Another poet in my workshop pressed me to submit, suggesting venues that might be open to my writing style. I wasn’t eager; in fact, I was teaching oil painting for the City of Carrollton at the time, and feeling some of the ideas expressed in my writing might be offensive to a rather conservative city government, I published my first poems under a pseudonym. Seeing my work in print seemed a sort of validation. However, it has only been in the last five or six years that I have made regular submission a part of my routine. I try to keep most of my completed poems under consideration somewhere. When poems return, I reorganize the ones not accepted and send them to another journal. I also attend as many conferences and festivals as I can, meeting other poets, learning, taking and giving advice, keeping up with what contemporaries are writing. I buy a lot of poetry books, and I frequently trade books with other poets.

CH: Tell us a little about your chapbooks Black Crow in Flight and the Rosebud Diaries. Over what periods were the poems for these books written? How did you go about finding publishers for each of the chapbooks?

Black Crow in Flight was written after my father’s death. He was patriarch of our family with children, step-children, grandchildren, and numerous great-grandchildren. He held our family together. All the poems in the book were written during the three to four month period following his death. I submitted the chapbook to several contests, and it became a finalist in two competitions. M. Scott Douglas of Main Street Rag called my home. My chapbook was first runner-up, and he wanted to publish it. He asked if prize money was a consideration or if I was more interested in the publication. Publication, of course! I accepted his offer; I’d understood from the beginning that no one grows rich writing poetry.

The Rosebud Diaries has a similar story. My daughter had a child whom, in the context of the poems, I call Rosebud. Following her birth, my daughter was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Fearing I was too old to raise a child, she chose a cousin to adopt. Legal difficulties slowed the process, and I cared for both my daughter and her daughter for eighteen months. Poems in the chapbook were written during that period and shortly after. I sought out a small publisher who worked with limited editions to publish that one. Copies of the book were given to family and friends. And, by the way, the cardiologist subsequently found my daughter’s heart condition a temporary aberration.

CH: Tell us a little about your most recent book,Under a Lone Star. What inspired this collection? How does it relate to your previous work?

AH: Under a Lone Star has a completely different story. First, we had moved to Texas explored the state on every two week vacation and three day weekend. I photographed around 200 of the state’s 254 courthouses and  probably saw more of the state than many natives. Second, after I began editing Illya’s Honey, the fifty-five became a popular form of flash fiction. The idea was to tell a complete story in exactly fifty-five words. There were few rules, which I applied to poetry, then utilized journal entries I had made while travelling the state. These poems began life as prose poems written without punctuation. They evolved into free verse poems with a lot of white space. At that point an artist friend, J Darrell Kirkley, asked if I’d like him to illustrate a few of them. I gave him the manuscript, and he returned it several months later with an illustration for every poem. Then, Dorothy Alexander (Village Books Press) accepted the manuscript for publication and took the poems back to a prose poem format but organized like short newspaper columns rather than extending the width of the page. These poems are really quite different than anything else I’ve written.

CH: What was the biggest challenge for you in putting together a full-length collection? How did that experience compare to your experience with Black Crow in Flight and the Rosebud Diaries?

AH: Under a Lone Star just happened. I had the journals, and I was experimenting with prose poems. My artist friend came along at just the right time. My current manuscript, So Long As We Speak Their Names, is more closely aligned with the two chapbooks. It is semi-biographical, containing poems about growing up among watermen along Chesapeake Bay. I have been writing about this subject most of my life. The manuscript grew unwieldy over a number of years. I cut. I shuffled. I replaced. I repeated this countless times. I narrowed the focus and began again. Still it felt disorganized. I finally understood that I was too close to the material to be subjective. Currently, I have a completed manuscript of approximately seventy poems edited by Cindy Huyser. It is now ready to send to prospective publishers. Thank you, Cindy.

CH: Tell us a little about Letters for My Daughter. What was the inspiration for this work? How did you decide on the publishing route for these poems?

AH: Letters for My Daughter contains twenty-eight poems that were written for or about my daughter over the years. I didn’t write any new poems for the book. I simply realized one day that     I had a good group of poems about daughters and the mother/daughter relationship that might appeal to other mothers and daughters. I pulled them into a chapbook, and my friend, Darrell Kirkley designed a cover using my photos, some ribbon, and letters of his own. It was a spur of the moment thing. The book was published, though Flutter Press utilizing CreateSpace for printing. Sandy Benitez (Flutter Press) had published a chapbook by a friend who couldn’t praise her enough, so I sent my manuscript to her. She accepted it. Later I learned she also published four of Steve Klepetar’s chapbooks and recently accepted one by Jeff Alfier. She does not read full length manuscripts, but I recommend her highly for chapbooks.

CH: In addition to being a poet, you’ve also long been an editor. How has your experience as an editor shaped your work?

AH: I became editor for Illya’s Honey in 1999. It is a job I enjoy greatly. In 2013, we gave up printed copy and went on-line. At that time I invited Melanie Pruitt, our primary poetry reader, to become co-editor. This turned out to be a wise decision. It allows me time to write and submit. I’d likely never have gotten either my book or the latest chapbook published if I hadn’t done that. I also edited Cattlemen & Cadillacs, an anthology of greater Dallas/Fort Worth area poets, during the period when Melanie was editing last winter’s Illya’s Honey. She edits summer and winter; I edit spring and fall. I currently have only one copy of Cattlemen & Cadillacs left from the original press run, but I am considering going into a second printing as demand has remained strong. The anthology contains work by seventy-six area poets, including two former Texas Poets Laureate. Work includes everything from haiku to performance to sonnet and free verse. Though Illya’s Honey publishes poets from around the world, it was my work on the journal that awakened me to the wide spectrum of good poetry originating in north Texas.

CH: What are you working on now?

AH: Currently I am concentrating on finding a publisher for So Long As We Speak Their Names and completing a small chapbook about Van Gogh and his work, which is as yet untitled. I have always been fascinated by “Starry Night”–who hasn’t? But I recently began studying some of his other works, particularly his portraits, and reading biographies. One fact that particularly struck me was that he was named after a brother, stillborn, exactly one year before his own birth. Each Sunday as he left the church where his father was minister, he passed the tombstone bearing his name and date. How could he have escaped melancholia with that beginning? That fact inspired my first poem about the artist, and the more I learned, the more I was drawn in.

In addition, I have been working on the spring issue of Illya’s Honey, which I now feel is complete with forty-four poems. Melanie and I recently began requesting poets to refrain from submitting for the two issues following publication. This gives us an opportunity to promote other voices, and ensures that individual poets will be read alternately by Melanie and me.

CH: Who are some poets whose work has influenced yours? What is the last book of poetry that you read?

AH: Pattianne Rogers influenced me greatly. I carried a copy of Geocentric  for quite a while. A poet friend once told me she usually began a reading with something by another poet whom she admired. If no one liked her work, at least they’d know she had good taste. I frequently opened with a poem by Pattianne Rogers. Marge Piercy is another who inspired me. I also enjoy Linda Gregerson, John Grey, Lola Haskins, Jane Hirshfield, Philip Levine (My friends call him Phil.), Donna Masini, Charles Simic, Sue Ellen Thompson, and Natasha Tretheway among many others, not all well known nationally. I enjoy reading poets whose work I’ve admired in journals and poets I’ve published in Illya’s Honey. I follow their careers.

The last books of poetry I read, almost simultaneously, were The Crone at the Casino by Janet McCann (I’m a long time fan), The Distance to Nightfall by Patricia Hamilton (whom I  publish in Illya’s Honey), and A Cut-and-Paste Country by Kathleen Hart (whom I recently met at the Windhover Festival). I read as many or more books by writers I’ve discovered through journals and writers I meet at conferences as I do books by “big names.” I try to subscribe to two journals annually, changing titles each year. And, of course, I read submissions for Illya’s Honey, and poems of those in my workshop group.

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