A Virtual Interview with Jonathan Moody

Background

Jonathan Moody will be the featured reader Thursday, July 13, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Jonathan Moody holds an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.  He’s also a Cave Canem graduate fellow whose poetry has appeared in various publications such as African American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Borderlands, Boston Review, The Common, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, and Harvard Review Online.  Moody is the author of The Doomy Poems (Six Gallery Press, 2012).  Olympic Butter Gold, his second collection, won the 2014 Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize.  He lives in Fresno, Texas, with his wife and son and teaches English at Pearland High School.

The Interview

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

JM: What interested me in writing was my mother’s advice. When I was a sophomore in
college, I suffered from bouts of insomnia. My mother felt that I had too many
thoughts racing through my head, which was accurate. She encouraged me to buy a
composition book & empty my thoughts onto the page. I didn’t set out to write poems;
it just happened organically. Writing became just as addictive as playing
PlayStation. So, it didn’t alleviate my sleeping difficulty. In fact, I slept less
after the writing bug latched onto my skin.

As far as my first memory of writing is concerned, I believe it was back when I was
in the 7th or 8th grade. I wrote a short story by hand about a work of art that got
stolen from the Smithsonian. The day after the story was due my English teacher gave
me high praise after the class returned from lunch.

CH: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?

JM: My realization that I became a poet had nothing to do with getting published or
receiving acceptance letters from MFA programs. I started becoming a poet the day I
started obsessing over word choice, metaphors, & line breaks.

CH: What motivated you to get your MFA? How did you decide on the University of Pittsburgh?

JM: What motivated me to get my MFA was that I needed to carve out a huge chunk of
time that would enable me to hone my craft.

And the reason why I applied to the University of Pittsburgh was because I’d become
fans of the faculty: specifically Lynn Emanuel and Toi Derricotte. Pitt was also
where Terrance Hayes received his MFA. When I was an undergraduate at Xavier
University of Louisiana, I enrolled in Terrance’s Intro to Poetry course. During
that semester, I went from having a C- at mid-term to having an A+ for the final
grade. Terrance was my only connection with Pitt, and I felt confident that he would
write me a strong letter of recommendation.

CH: How did the MFA program change your approach to writing? What was its biggest gift? Its biggest drawback?

JM: The Pitt MFA Poetry program didn’t change my approach to writing; it’s biggest
gift was the time it afforded me to read, read, read and write. It’s biggest setback
was its inability to procure a third poetry professor. We had a great rotating group
of visiting poets such as Ross Gay, Tracy K. Smith (who’s now the U.S. Poet
Laureate), & Tomaz Salamun (R.I.P.), but Pitt didn’t land a third poetry professor
until after I graduated.

CH: When did you decide to become involved in Cave Canem? How has your experience as a Cave Canem fellow influenced your work?

JM: I applied to Cave Canem while I was at Pitt. My experience at Cave Canem taught
me to be more ruthless when it came to my revisions and to be unapologetic when it
came to my insistence on embracing blackness in my poems.

CH: Tell us a little about your first full-length collection, The Doomy Poems. What was your process in putting the manuscript together? How did you find a publisher?

JM: The Doomy Poems explores the lives of three individuals through the use of
persona poems that are structured as revisionist narratives in which the two main
personas share alternative views on the same event/moment that they’ve experienced.

My writing process for the manuscript changed my whole approach to writing. Before
The Doomy Poems, I never started out a poem with the title in mind first. I’d save
the title for the last item. My usual method involves receiving a trippy image or a
series of lines that are so salient that I have to write them down immediately or
the spark is gone.

With my first book, I was always imagining Doomy and Irina, his love interest,
hanging out. These scenarios or rendezvous would play out in my head. I’m one of
those poets who spends as much time tinkering with titles as I do tinkering with
tension.

Creating such a basic title like “Doomy Pontificates…” was so liberating because I
could channel the bulk of my energy into writing solid poems.

CH: Your old school hip-hop inspired collection Olympic Butter Gold is a terrific read—I love its many voices, its sampling. What inspired this project? Over what period of time were these poems written?

JM: Chuck D inspired me to write Olympic Butter Gold when he made a controversial
comment in his seminal essay “Open Letter on Media, Messages & Pimps” in which he
claims that the United States wouldn’t win a medal in a Hip-Hop or Rap Olympics.

I actually came up with the concept for Olympic Butter Gold in 2011: one year before
I wrote The Doomy Poems. However, I abandoned OBG because I grew too frustrated at
my initial poems which were lousy.

In 2013, the impeding birth of my son as well as the deaths of unarmed black men
such as Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant drove me to figure out which
perspective/angle I wanted to take. Once I figured out my angle, my manuscript had
shape which was sorely lacking back in 2011.

CH: How has your work as a high school teacher influenced your writing?

JM: Within the past two years, teaching high school has influenced how often I write.
In the 2015-16 and the 2016-2017 school term, I didn’t write poems until summertime
arrived. I’m not sure if that will happen again for this school term. A few weeks
ago I wrote seven new poems: two of which have already been accepted for publication
in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review. I hope I can continue writing quality poems
throughout the year!

CH: What poetry do you find yourself turning to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite writers?

JM: I often turn to Langston Hughes, Bob Kaufman, Larry Levis, Lucille Clifton, Jane
Kenyon, & Garcia Lorca for inspiration. Other writers who inspire me are Patricia
Engel, Junot Diaz, Ta-nehisi Coates, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, & Haruki Murakami.

CH: What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

JM: The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa

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