A Virtual Interview with Michelle Iskra

Michelle Iskra will be the featured reader Thursday, January 9. 2020 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Michelle Iskra earned an M. A. in English Literature from Texas State University and has taught English at both Austin Community College and Cedar Park High school for sixteen years. She’s a writer, painter, educational consultant, researcher, and lover of cats.

The Interview

CH: What first drew you to writing? When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?

MI: The first original story I remember writing down was about a stegosaurus named Tego in second grade, but I was always making up stories and annoying adults with them. Four wonderful, encouraging teachers were instrumental in my becoming a writer.

Reading was an important part of my daily life as a child. My first chapter book was Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince; I identified with the prince’s being marooned and alone in a foreign place. The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder was also an early favorite. I wanted to write like these novelists, but had no idea how to go about it.

CH: What do you remember about your earliest encounters with poetry? When did you begin to identify yourself as a poet? 

MI: My grandmother on my mother’s side was very kind and attentive to me. She taught me to play the piano, to develop my own style, to appreciate the arts, and to take care of myself. She and I would write letters back and forth, and in mine I included poems from Wordsworth and Keats, T.S. Eliot, and many others. I loved their vivid imaginings and facility with language, fascinated by meter and rhyme and the beautiful economy of it all. I didn’t actually write any poetry until I was in high school. It was a shaky thing to actually call yourself a poet except to people who wouldn’t betray your confidence.

CH: How has your work as a painter influenced your perspective as a poet? Is that influence bidirectional?

MI: I learned to paint as a result of my efforts to grow closer to my elder son, who was 10 and taking art lessons at the time. I loved to draw, but when I tried painting, I was very disappointed with the result. I kept practicing because of him and eventually discovered that I could transcend my own ideas about what I was supposed to make. As I became what I think of as a receiver of the work I was doing, emptying my mind as I went about it, the work became exponentially better. This simultaneous detachment and connection through painting, and the simple practice of making art, improved my writing. Writing sends me back to the canvas. I can paint when I can’t write, and the opposite is also true. The experience is strange and wonderful.

CH: I imagine your schedule as an instructor at both Cedar Park High School and Austin Community College must be a hectic one. How do you balance your professional and creative lives?

MI: This is the fundamental challenge of creative people: how do you make a living while developing work? There have been semesters in which I’ve taught 9 classes between the two positions (a full time position is five). I was grumpy because I was tired all the time and wasn’t making any art. Even without the extra stress of such a semester, it’s a constant challenge to restrict the planning, reading, and paper marking to a particular number of hours per week so that I’m making art weekly, as well. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but the necessary discipline is still a work in progress. 

CH: How do you nourish yourself as a writer?

MI: I’m an introvert and need alone time every day to stay sane. I try to get outside as often as possible, seeking to avoid thinking about anything for a little while. Being in nature inspires me, as does reading and being around calm, intelligent, inquisitive people. I also love cooking and other creative processes. I’ve kept a journal for over twenty years, writing each morning as meditative practice. Working through thoughts, ideas, and feelings on the page helps make sense of them and provides material for poetry and other work.

CH: How has your writing been influenced by the process of teaching and mentoring others?

MI: When you work with other people, especially in areas (like writing) where they naturally feel exposed and vulnerable, your own flaws also emerge. People are both complex and simple; all of us are revealing and hiding ourselves by turns. My students and mentees have influenced how and what I think, feel, and write about, gradually shaping my ideas about what needs to be said or implied, and what needs no mention. Compassion and empathy are important each time I write anything, but they can be hard to summon if I’m not making art and listening to myself.

CH: Who are three of your favorite poets to teach?

MI: Pablo Neruda, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Claude McKay are three of my favorites because they are so skilled, yet many students find them accessible. All of them have something important to say that needs to be heard, but each of them approach poetry in stylistically distinct ways. Students are constantly amazed that you can say so much, so beautifully and sometimes painfully, in so few words.

CH: What three things would you tell someone who is starting out as a poet?

MI: Rainer Maria Rilke broke the mold with what became Letters to a Young Poet, and his advice still rings true: be kind to all you meet for we are all fighting a hard battle, never stop practicing, and be courageous in facing your life. 

CH: What are you working on now?

MI: I’m working on two projects: the first (and most pressing) is a book on teaching poetry and poetic language in middle and high schools. The creation of poetry at those levels is regularly discussed, but analysis and interpretation is not. My students struggle to learn these skills in the one year I have them and I feel qualified to address the problem. I have plans to start a blog and podcast in support of it.

The second is a novel about family secrets and the problem of traditional Western power based on gender and race. 

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

MI: My writing group recently read aloud Rebecca Hazelton’s Fair Copy, which was marvelously inventive; Robert Pinsky’s compilation, Essential Pleasures, has been a recent choice for classroom work, and I frequently reference poets.org, poetryfoundation.org, and the Library of Congress Poetry 180 project website.

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