Author Archives: chuyser

A Virtual Interview with Liliana Valenzuela

Background

Thursday, September 10, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information.

Feature Liliana Valenzuela is the author of Codex of Journeys: Bendito Camino (Mouthfeel Press, 2013) and several artisan chapbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Edinburgh Review, Indiana Review, Tigertail, Huizache, Borderlands, Drunken Boat, and other publications. She has received writing awards and recognition from Luz Bilingual Publishing, Austin International Poetry Festival, Drunken Boat, Indiana Review, Austin Poetry Society, and the Chicano/Latino Literary Award, and has held residencies at Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow and Vermont Studio Center.

An acclaimed translator of U.S. Latinx writers Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Denise Chávez, Dagoberto Gilb, Cristina García, and others, Valenzuela was a guest of honor at the Congreso de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española in Córdoba, Argentina, in 2018. An inaugural CantoMundo fellow and a long-time Macondo Writers Workshop member, she writes poetry, essays, journalism, and is currently working on a memoir. She is the former editor of ¡Ahora Sí!, the Spanish publication of the Austin American-Statesman and is now a staff translator for Aparicio Publishing. A native of Mexico City, Valenzuela lives and works in Austin, Texas.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

LV: My great aunt Josefina in Mexico City was a practitioner of the art of “declamación,” where people learned poems by heart and recited them to a live audience, in this case, us family. I remember how the room fell silent and she commanded that space with her verses, and held us, spellbound.

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

LV: In my senior year in college I took a course on Experimental Women Writers at UT Austin and it blew my mind. I did not know women could write like this and could be so daring. I bought copies of Writing the Natural Way and The Artist’s Way and spent the whole summer after my B.A. graduation in Anthropology writing. Poetry is what came most naturally to me.

CH: How did you begin your journey as a literary translator?

LV: When I had my first child, I was looking for something I could do from home. Translation work started arriving, and I found that it was easy for me, as I’ve always had an affinity for languages. I speak Spanish, Danish, English, and some French. And, almost immediately, I realized I wanted to translate literature. I reached out to Sandra Cisneros, whom I had befriended when she lived in Austin in the late 80s, and the rest is herstory!

CH: How has your work as a translator influenced your work as a poet?

LV: Translation makes you a very close reader of literature and finely attuned to the rhythms and cadences of language. And, from the start, I was writing my own poetry and short stories in both languages, translating myself back and forth. So, translation was there from the beginning. And it continues to be a big part of what I do. My latest collection is fully bilingual. I translated myself from English to Spanish, and four different translators translated my work from Spanish into English: the late Angela McEwan and Fred Fornoff; and G.C. Racz and Arturo Salinas.

CH: Both titles of your poetry books identify them as codices. Would you tell us a little about the role of the codex in your work?

LV: I’ve always been fascinated by the ancient Aztec codices, and ancient manuscripts in general. I’m drawn to that primordial instinct of our ancestors to leave a written record of their creation stories, myths, historical records, and even basic accounting. This is my own codex, my testimony of an immigrant’s life in the late xx and early xxi centuries.

CH: Tell us a little about Codex of Love. How did the poems of this book come about? How does it relate to your earlier book, Codex of Journeys?

LV: These were actually a single codex, a single manuscript. The opportunity arose to publish Codex of Journeys first as a chapbook, so I went for it. And this year I published Codex of Love, which includes 5 books or sections. Codex of Journeys is really the 6th section. These codices belong together. Codex of Love is the poet looking within, and Codex of Journeys is the poet looking out to the world.

CH: You were for some years editor of ¡Ahora Si! What has your journalistic experience brought to your writing?

LV: It was a tremendous education in writing fast and on a deadline, and in being connected to community. I am deeply honored that people let me into their lives and homes and trusted me with their stories, those unsung heroes who are building Austin’s prosperity. I also got to interview fantastic human beings, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucía, and the Colombian pop star Juanes, among many others, which was incredibly inspiring.

CH: How has participation in CantoMundo and the Macondo Writers Workshop figured in your development as a writer? What would be your advice to a novice writer who’s looking for writing community?

LV: When I was starting out, there was no real community where I could just be myself, that satisfied all my needs. That changed first with Macondo, where I found artists and thinkers of all backgrounds seeking social change, and then in CantoMundo, where I found poets of our many latinidades, different ways of being and singing your latinx song, in your own voice. My advice is to keep trying until you find the right fit. And the more you give, the more you receive. We are only as strong as our bonds with fellow writers and, ultimately, our audiences.

CH: How do you nurture yourself as a writer? How have residencies, such as those you’ve held at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow and the Vermont Studio Center, contributed to your reaching your goals?

LV: Besides attending workshops at Macondo and CantoMundo, I contribute to the Hablemos Escritoras Podcast (https://www.hablemosescritoras.com/), where I keep educating myself about women writers from the Spanish-speaking world. I’ve contributed book reviews, interviews with literary translators and writers who are also literary translators, like myself. Residencies are also a priceless opportunity to sit back, reflect on your path, and let stories germinate. Or pour out of your heart writing something you’ve longed to write. This summer I was at the Tasajillo Residency out in Kyle, Texas, in a cabin in the Hill Country, where I translated some short stories by Kimberly King Parsons, from her collection Black Light. That time out in nature during this pandemic was heavenly.

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

LV: Tiawanaku: Poems from the Mother Coqa by Judith Santopietro, translated by Ilana Luna (Orca Books, https://orcalibros.com/en/books/)

A Virtual Interview with Christopher Manes

Background

Thursday, August 13, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. — Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information.

Feature Christopher Lee Manes is the author of the newly-released poetry collection Naming the Leper, (LSU Press, 2020). He is a poet, scholar, and educator, and his work has appeared in Louisiana History, the Southwestern Review, Carville: Remembering Leprosy in America, and Think Global Health, an online publication of the Council of Foreign Relations. Manes is a Lecturer I Rhetoric instructor at the University of Texas at Dallas and teaches History at Richland College, where is primary role is Response to Intervention Coordinator for Richland Collegiate High School, a charter school of Dallas County Community College District at Richland College. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

CM: My first memory is listening to my mother read Edgar Allan Poe poems to me from a book that belonged to my grandfather. “The Raven” captured my imagination. My next memory is listening to my high school English teacher read aloud William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis”; I remember the language being hypnotic, in a way, and my teacher (Mrs. Segura) read it twice: one time just reciting it, but the second time, she stopped after each line and analyzed it. That is when I realized poems had this whole other world that could be discovered. I suddenly became interested in reading poetry and trying to figure out what I could discover from it.

CH: When did you begin writing poetry? When did you begin to think yourself of a poet?

CM: I began writing poetry in the 8th grade. Sonnets. But I did not think of myself as a poet until my first year in grad school when I wrote a chapbook of about 10 poems. Prior to that period, I had written poetry, but I would do so as a means of brainstorming ideas for what I thought would be works of fiction. After I wrote the chapbook, however, I began thinking of other chapbooks and considered myself a poet. It was after I finished my doctoral studies in 2011 that I had the time to investigate topics and write for myself instead of for academic requirements. Between 2012 and 2017, I wrote 9 manuscripts: four book-length and five chapbooks, each ranging from 15-40 pages.

CH: When did you first envision the project that became your new book, Naming the Leper?

CM: The first chapbook I wrote in 2001 was originally titled “Regardez” and included about 10 poems that eventually became my master’s thesis by the same title. In 2017, after the death of a friend of mine, I reread my thesis and, well, frankly, I found it lacking in parts. I felt that what I had written about “leprosy” lacked multiple perspectives and did not fully represent all my family’s experiences. So that April in 2017 I put my thesis aside, stacked my copies of family letters in front of me and opened a binder of medical papers and I gave time to just reading the documents. In May I wrote about 15 new poems, which then inspired the manuscript that would become Naming the Leper. Unlike the first time I had written on the subject, I was 20 years older—in fact, close to the same age of my great-grandfather the year he died—and looked at my family’s medical papers with a completely different understanding and weight.

CH: The LSU Press release for your book mentions interviews with your relatives that were incarcerated in the National Leprosarium at Carville. Were you able to conduct some of these interviews? How was it for you to hear your relatives’ first-hand experience?

CM: The interviews were not with my relatives in Carville but included patients who had known my relatives. My last relative in Carville died the year before I was born in 1977. Additionally, I had interviewed cousins, some of whom had memories of my Uncle Albert. When I first went to Carville in the late 1990s, I had also interviewed one of the nuns who had known some of my family in the leprosarium.

CH: What was your process in crafting the book? To what constraints did you adhere in writing a book of documentary poetry?

CM: It was important to me to not write about my family’s experiences as if they were only in the past. I wanted to show the legacy of trauma that I believe was caused by my family’s forced separation and the terrible knowledge that this isolation did not have to happen, that there was medical and scientific evidence to warrant questioning the stigma about this disease in the 1920s and 1930s, when my great-great Uncle Norbert and my great-grandfather Edmond were forced to go to the leprosarium (Norbert in 1919 and Edmond in 1924).

As someone who teaches history, I believe the past is present, that something from it can be learned and most importantly used today. When I reread my family’s letters, I realized these relatives had longed for a sense of purpose. My great-grandfather, for example, did not mind being studied if he thought the examination would prove useful to medicine and science or improve someone else with his disease. My great-great aunt Marie asked to work in a “leper colony”; therefore, when I wrote Naming the Leper I wanted the documents to have weight and, equally important, to be understood from multiple perspectives since I believe that for far too long amid my own family there has been a tendency to tell only parts of the story but often without analysis or historical context.

As long as “leper colonies” exist, there is a dehumanizing namelessness that people with this disease suffer. When writing these poems, I wanted the names of my relatives and complexity of their perspectives and of their memories to be forefront in the poetry. Without scrutiny, stories about my loved ones become reduced to past events and dates that can seem without relevance today; they may be self-preserving for some in my family, but are not entirely accurate to the lives, tribulations, and legacies of my relatives (Norbert, Edmond, Amelie, Marie, and Albert) who were forced to live inside Carville. While the name of the disease was changed to Hansen’s disease in the mid-twentieth century, people today continue to be shunned because of the stigma and misconceptions of “leprosy”.

CH: Who are some of the poets whose work inspired you as you wrote Naming the Leper?

CM: My poetry guides are Joy Harjo and Natasha Trethewey.

CH: It seems we’re at a unique juncture, in terms of pandemic and its necessity of quarantine, to receive this book. And since quarantine in Carville was effectively a life sentence, I’m also reminded of current conversations about carceral systems. Where do you see connections between your relatives’ experience and current-day issues?

CM: Too often these systems fail to rehabilitate, improve, and regard the people inside them. Carville, for example, was established with good intentions: to provide safety and quality health care for people with “leprosy”, but that is not what happened in it, not for decades. It quickly became a place to send people and then forget them.

Institutions like the National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana cannot exist without a society that is complicit in doing nothing but pass responsibility off to someone else. “Leprosy” was thought to be a sexually transmitted disease in the early twentieth century. People diagnosed with it were often blamed for their own illness. They were ostracized for what they had and not regarded for who they were.

Incarceration of any kind, in my opinion, assumes a very one-dimensional focus and narrow-mindedness. My own relatives in Carville were not understood and their experiences were not validated by family outside of the institution. My great-grandmother did not make any effort to hear her husband’s grievances about the place because if she had, she would have had to do something, to act outside of her comfort zone. Therefore, she in many ways dismissed him, not in words but in her silence. She abandoned him and convinced herself that he was in the right place, even though he more than once wrote her and his folks that he was not being helped or treated in Carville, and that his disease was not the dread that she believed it to be. My great-grandfather and his siblings did not argue against quarantine, but I think they feared being caged and forgotten, without purpose or hope.

Even today, there is a tendency to think of “leprosy” as being in the past or as a disease that occurs elsewhere. There is a tendency to do as my great-grandmother did and perhaps feel pity for people with this disease but not do the work to change mindsets and advocate for political and social reforms. “Leprosy”—what is today called Hansen’s disease—is not a terminal disease nor does it make limbs fall off, but if left untreated or mistreated, people with this disease can suffer from side effects and other illnesses or compromised health, causing disfigurement or scarring. The fact that in the twenty-first century, globally, we lack healthcare systems that can properly treat these patients, among others, and still have need for leprosariums or “leper colonies” should be a critique of our inhumanity and incompetence. That as a human race we have not done enough to enfold the sick and disabled into our everyday routines is more than a problem; it is a public health crisis and, in the case of the history of “leprosy,” a human rights concern.

CH: What are you working on right now?

CM: A series of poems based on prison stories and racial injustice.

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

CM: Two books: the first is Pierre Reverdy’s The Song of the Dead, translated by Dan Bellm and the second is Unfinished City by Nan Cohen, both of which I picked up at this year’s AWP Conference in San Antonio.

CH: Where can readers find your book?

CM: My book can be obtained at LSU Press or ordered at most bookstores including Book Woman.

A Virtual Interview with David Meischen

Background

Thursday, July 9, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. — Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information.

Feature David Meischen has been honored by a Pushcart Prize for “How to Shoot at Someone Who Outdrew You,” a chapter of his memoir, originally published in The Gettysburg Review and available in Pushcart Prize XLIIAnyone’s Son, David’s debut poetry collection, is new from 3: A Taos Press. A lifelong storyteller, he received the 2017 Kay Cattarulla Award for Best Short Story from the Texas Institute of Letters. Storylandia, Issue 34, currently available, is entirely devoted to David’s fiction: The Distance Between Here and Elsewhere: Three Stories. David has a novel in stories and a short story collection; he is actively seeking an agent and/or publisher for both. He has served as a juror for the Kimmel Harding Nelson center for the arts; in the fall of 2018, he completed a writing residency at Jentel Arts. Co-founder and Managing Editor of Dos Gatos Press, David lives in Albuquerque, NM, with his husband—also his co-publisher and co-editor—Scott Wiggerman.

Cindy Huyser hosts; an open mic follows. Zoom connection info available from bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com.

The Interview

CH: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer. What is your first memory of poetry?

DM: I wanted to be a writer as soon as I knew what writing was. I wanted to write grand romantic novels in the tradition of the biblical epics that dominated movie screens when I was young. I spent years daydreaming one of them, including the title—Weep Not for Me—about Veronica, the woman who handed her veil to Jesus as he carried the cross, so that he might wipe his face. Not a word of this story ever made it onto a page. As for poetry, the first poem that captured my imagination was Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” Along about fifth grade, I memorized every single stanza—twenty two of them. To this day, some of the lines come back to me.

CH: You’ve had success in a variety of writing genres, including a Pushcart Prize for memoir-in-progress, publication of and awards for a number of short stories, and now this collection of poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer?

DM: I would not call myself a poet. I find the writing of poems deeply engaging but I would say the same about writing essays, a serious pursuit since my first semester of college English more than fifty years ago. Poetry came later, in my mid-thirties—and fiction in my mid-fifties. What ties them all together—essay, poetry, fiction—is narrative. I am a born storyteller. When I sit down to write, almost without exception, I hear a voice that wants to tell a story. I follow that voice.

CH: Your new full-length poetry collection, Anyone’s Son, is your first. How did this project come together? Over what period of time were these poems written?

DM: In my mid-forties, trying to acknowledge and then embrace myself as a gay man, I found that I was writing poems about identity, about gay identity, about gay experiences. The earliest of the poems in Anyone’s Son was drafted—in rough form—in 1992. About four years ago, I saw that I had enough “identity” poems for a chapbook. And then perhaps a collection. One member of my poetry critique group encouraged me to keep writing poems for this collection. Another read all the poems I thought I wanted to include and helped me see how I might shape them. Andrea Watson, at 3: A Taos Press, twice asked me the difficult questions I needed to re-organize and re-order, to write new poems to fill gaps she could identify for me.

CH: As someone who grew up in rural south Texas at a time when repression of gay expression was the norm, what is it like to have Anyone’s Son out in the world?

DM: Since the release of Anyone’s Son, two straight male friends my age have written to me, praising the collection, and explaining how the poems resonate with their own experiences, their own anxieties over sex, as they came of age. I can’t tell you how affirming it is to hear from these men that at our core we share something. Their testimonials make me feel that I chose the right title: Anyone’s Son.

CH: A few years ago, you left Austin behind for Albuquerque, and it wasn’t long before Dos Gatos Press found another publisher to take on The Texas Poetry Calendar. What’s changed in your literary life since moving to Albuquerque? Do you see changes in your writing because of it?

DM: I moved here with my husband. Think what it means for me, having grown up in remote rural South Texas, decades ago to claim the word husband. New Mexico gave me physical distance—and the perspective that goes with it. It gave me a new landscape. It gave me the space to approach memoir with confidence, to write the difficult poems for Anyone’s Son—to write them without fear. To celebrate myself and my husband.

CH: You’ve landed some residencies in the last few years. What does the residency experience give a writer? How have those experiences shaped your work?

DM: In the past decade I’ve had two residencies at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Institute for the Arts in Nebraska City, Nebraska, and one at Jentel Arts, near Sheridan, Wyoming. Both offered two invaluable gifts: time and the company of writers and artists who love what they are doing. In the fall of 2015, in Nebraska, City, because I had whole days of uninterrupted time, I sat down one morning and wrote a paragraph about the day I learned of Hank Locklin’s death. This paragraph led me to a childhood memory of washing the family car while country music poured out of my father’s transistor radio, and that memory took me to the dance hall in my home town. Days later, I had a narrative essay of some 5500 words, looping forward and back through time. The magic here was in the time I was given to write—and the infectious enthusiasm of the five young artists in residency with me. I got to read portions of my essay at a monthly event hosted by the Center. And then my good luck compounded. The Gettysburg Review published this piece and nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. The Pushcart folks selected it for Pushcart XLII. I credit the residency.

CH: Tell us a little about the novel in stories you’re circulating, and the short story collection. What drew you to the “novel in stories” form?

DM: In the summer of 1994, I set out to write a short story set in a small town in South Texas. I did not want to get stuck in my own home town of Orange Grove. I wanted the freedom of a fictional town, my own creation. I wanted intimations of drought-tolerant vegetation. The Spanish word nopalito, meaning prickly pear cactus leaf, suggested itself, and Nopalito, Texas was born. As an MFA student a decade later, I found myself returning to Nopalito. At some point, I could see characters and stories coalescing. I wrote more Nopalito stories. I tinkered with groupings, with sequencing. Nopalito: A Novel in Stories has gone through two major revision stages. Currently, it is seeking a publisher.

CH: What are you working on right now?

DM: I have an almost finished memoir. One of the chapters has been especially thorny. It needs a return visit. My fascination with pantoums continues apace. I want to write more of those. Lately, I am examining my fascination with place. I have the beginnings of a chapbook—poems set along the county road where I grew up. I’d like to set up and teach a course via Zoom—Place in Poems—six Saturday sessions exploring how poets do place, how place serves their poems. Stay tuned . . .

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

DM: The last time I flew, coming up out of San Antonio, I opened Bruce Snider’s Fruit and quite simply disappeared into the poems. The title poem begins with a bowl of peaches in the narrator’s adolescent art class and moves immediately into memories of the class bully, memories of attraction to the class bully. Eight of the poems are titled “Childless,” in which the narrator ponders the biological impossibility of two men bearing a child, no matter how close their relationship. Snider’s language in this collection, his insights, are quite simply revelatory. Put your hands on a copy of Fruit. You will not be disappointed.

A Virtual Interview with Susan J. Rogers

Background

Thursday, June 11, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. — Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for connection information.

Susan J. Rogers’ poetry weaves the personal with mythic tales, including those of Goddesses from Tibet to the British Isles. Rogers, a choir director and musician who has lived near Chicago’s Lake Michigan, in New Mexico’s desert, and in South Central Texas, draws metaphor from these landscapes.

Rogers’ first poetry collection, In the Beginning: an Egg, a Mask, a Woman, was published in 2018 and contains illustrations by her partner, artist Luisa-Maria Potter. Other recent publication credits include the di-vêrseˊ-city anthology of the Austin International Poetry Festival, and the anthology Enchantment of the Ordinary (Mutabilis Press, 2018). Rogers has been interviewed about her poetry on Texas Nafas, a poetry-centered public access television program, and her musical compositions (with poems as lyrics) have been performed at the University of New Mexico and at Chicago State University.

Cindy Huyser hosts; an open mic follows.

The Interview

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

SJR: My first memory of poetry was in the first grade. Our teacher had us make cards for events like Mother’s Day, but gave us a verse with a blank word at the end of every other line so we could fill it in. That was magical to me.

CH: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?

SJR: I started thinking of myself as a writer when I was nine years old. My primary identity is as a poet.

CH: Your poetry has long been interested in the mythic, from the Tibetan Tara to goddesses of the British Isles. Tell us a little about your connection to Goddess myth.

SJR: I have a thirst for knowledge about the Goddess and relevant mythology. It is about untangling the lies I was taught and standing proudly as a woman in the reflection of the divine.

CH: As a musician and choir director, what is your take about the role of music in poetry?

SJR: When I choose music for the choir, I always look at the lyrics first. When I write poetry, I listen for musical elements in words and phrases to inform line breaks, stanzas breaks, alliteration, and internal rhyme so the poetic techniques support the meaning.

CH: You’ve lived in a variety of climates, notably near Chicago’s Lake Michigan and in the desert of New Mexico, as well as in south central Texas. How does place figure in your work? What has changed in your work as you’ve moved locations?

SJR: The environment of a place is deep inside me even when I am not aware of it.  Moving is always a loss, like missing a person. For example, I wrote most of my New Mexico poems after I moved from there to Texas. My relationship with nature has evolved also.  Luisa says that painting a landscape is like saying a prayer.  Writing poetry with natural images is similar in some ways. It is about seeking the wisdom reflected in the web of life.

CH: You’ve been busy in the last couple of years, with a debut poetry collection in 2018, and another forthcoming. How have you managed to make room for this work? What is your writing life like?

SJR: I don’t have a writing schedule. I write when I feel an image or have an insight so strong it needs to be written down and then I work it into a poem. My goal is not just to have a poem emerge, but to somehow make the world a better place. For example, I wrote the title poem to In the Beginning: an Egg, a Mask, a Woman because I met a young woman struggling with self- esteem in the company of young men. It made me upset that this was still going on, so I wrote about women in control of their own image and that of the Goddess in ancient times.

CH: Tell us a little about your first poetry collection, In the Beginning’ an Egg, a Mask, A Woman. What inspired this book, and how did it come together? How was it to collaborate with your partner, Luisa-Maria Potter, for the book’s illustrations?

SJR: Luisa is a talented artist and I appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with her.  In the Beginning: an Egg, a Mask, a Woman started as a place to collect several poems about Tara.  She was the first goddess I encountered who was not a truncated personality or actively being humiliated by male gods. Instead, she has 21 wonderful qualities we can all emulate, and has a fully formed personality that responds to a variety of situations.  She is also fiercely protective to all who call out to her. I decided to poetically invite her into my own history and that of others I knew. I included other goddesses and stories later. I believe that when we rewrite our own history, it has the power to transform us.

CH: Tell us a little about your forthcoming book, Landscapes of the Mind. What’s been different for you in this project, as opposed to your inaugural book?

SJR: My new book, Landscapes of the Mind is longer and more diverse than my first book.  It includes poems about contemporary themes, for example about COVID-19. It includes several poems about place, including a series of New Mexico poems. It also includes more poems about the goddess and mythology from Kuan Yin and Nerthus to the original story of Eve.

CH: If you were to recommend three “must-read” poets, who would they be, and why?

SJR: I would like to recommend three directions of inquiry instead.  The first is to find a poet from history who you admire, in my case, W.B Yeats. The second is to find someone who speaks to you, who understands who you are. In my case, this is Judy Grahn.  The third is to find a poet who challenges your experience and expands your horizons, in my case, Audre Lorde.

CH: What are you reading now?

I am reading books by poet laureates of the U.S.:  Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings and Richard Blanco’s How to Love a Country.  I appreciate the fact that poet laureates are now as diverse as this country. Joy Harjo is from the Muscogee Creek Nation and Richard Blanco is a Gay Cuban-American.

A Virtual Interview with Nicole Brogdon

Background

Juliana Maldonado and Nicole Brogdon will be our features Thursday, May 14, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for information on how to join this virtual event.

Nicole Brogdon is a therapist and a writer living in Austin Texas. She graduated from Rice University with honors and earned an MA in creative writing from the University of Houston on a Barthelme writing fellowship. For fifteen years she worked as a writer in the schools, as adjunct English faculty at Houston Community College, and as a free-lance editor and writer.

Later she acquired a Masters in counseling from St Edward’s University. Currently she
works as a psychotherapist (a Licensed Professional Counselor, as well as a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist), specializing in trauma, attachment, creativity, and multicultural issues. She has worked with all kinds of admirable strugglers, from torture survivors to musicians to couples.

Married for 28 years to an Iranian doctor, the two have a grown daughter. Nicole likes poetry, sudden fiction, live music, and making objects with her hands. Nicole believes that her lifelong work has been connected under the umbrella of helping
people to tell their stories. As one of her favorite poets, William Matthews, wrote:

There’s no truth about your childhood,
though there’s a story, yours to tend,
like a fire or garden. Make it a good one,
since you’ll have to live it out, and all
its revisions, so long as you all shall live....

The Interview

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

NB: My mother used to read to me from big hard back used books, nursery rhymes, poetry, fairy tales, and Greek myths, when I was a little kid, before bed each night. Read aloud with Mom then read aloud to yourself, and you would get to stay up a little later —like, until 8:30 PM. Or don’t read, lose out, and just go to bed earlier—like, 8 pm! Ingenious of my mother. Later on, my mom went back to school and became an English teacher, then a school principal, always interested in books. She also used to pay my brother and I and a quarter each to write a fairytale. I still love dark fairytale elements, in poems, stories, movies.

CH: When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?

NB: In my heart, I am always a writer. Even when I have pursued other work, like therapy work since I was 40, I really do feel like I am helping people to tell their stories. Perspective, questions about whether this is a reliable narrator, show don’t tell, savor sensations, mindfulness, the somatic felt sense of things…. all of those concepts show up in work as a therapist, as well as in literature and writing (my background). I feel that I think in stories, I respond to stories, as many people do. In that sense, in my best brain, I am a reader and a writer.

CH: What inspired you to pursue an MA in poetry from the University of Houston? How did that experience shape your writing?

NB: I graduated from college with an English degree. I didn’t care much about money, as I was always working hard and getting jobs, waiting tables and doing freelance work proofreading, and so on. Probably, I would have benefited to care a little bit more about money, and personal stability, back then. Anyway, after college, I wanted more of the English major experience. I thought, apparently I’m going to be a poor English major type anyway —resourceful and hardworking, yes— but medium poor, anyway. So I might as well just keep looking at what I love, stories and poems, paper writing. And so I applied to graduate school in Houston and was accepted. I then spent a few years focusing on books and language —time and education which has been useful in every paid job that I’ve ever had since.

CH: Tell us a little about your work as a writer in the schools. What did that experience teach you?

NB: My experience working for Writers in the Schools in Houston taught me that, children have such innate and fearless imaginations; unsquashed unschooled imaginations. And so many of the great writers and artists throughout time have tried to get back to that child-like sensibility, in their own refined adult work. We civilized adults tend to educate that right-brain surrealist imagination right out of our kids, in most school situations. Anyone trying to write or make art can work to remember, what creative people like Picasso have known: “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist, once he grows up.”

CH: How did your writing life shift when you entered the field of psychotherapy?

NB: When I became a therapist, I consciously thought that I left my identity as a writer for a while. All the while though, unconsciously, when I was doing therapy, I was using a deep down story lens, perspective and narrative sensibility that I had learned from literature, as well as psychological and character sense that I had learned from reading poetry, and novels by the great Russians. I began to realize that often, doing therapy, I was traipsing around in a similar part of my head that I had lived in before, while reading and writing fiction and poetry. Making metaphors with people, for example. There ended up being lots of connections between my therapist work and my past writer-editor-English teacher work, a similar mindset.

CH: How do you make room for writing? What do you do to nurture yourself as a writer?

NB: Nowadays, after many years of experimenting with when and how to write, I am a little wiser and more organized. I’ve learned enough common sense skills to enable me to plan ahead the night before, to write every next morning early, even if it’s just for an hour (or occasionally, for a couple hours). I wrestled with this for years —when and how to write, nighttime or morning, how much sleep to get, how to balance paid work and writing work, and later, trying to balance parenting with some personal writing. I am glad that I never fully turned my back on my writing for too long though.

Now, I’m a big believer in sitting up, with a half-asleep concrete dream image, and just trusting that image imaginatively and starting to write from that early morning dream space. I like to start writing before my logical brain gets too wide awake and picky to have fun and be creative.

CH: Who are some poets whose work has influenced yours?

NB: Charles Simic, early Russell Edson, Mark Strand, Sylvia Plath for her darkness, and often, Latin American and Eastern European poets, for their surrealist fantastical bent. Also, Marge Piercy, and Lucille Clifton, for their writings from the body. Lately, the emotional honesty of Dorianne Laux’s poems, and the straightforward poems and poetry writing books by Kim Addonizio, are influencing me.

CH: If you could have an hour with any contemporary poet, who would you choose and why?

NB: I’ve so admired the last few books I’ve read by Dorianne Laux —her raw wisdom, her ability to talk about specific, possibly autobiographical trauma scenes. I’d like to sit down and talk with her about emotional bravery and language.

CH: What are you reading now?

I’m reading the poet Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. Poetic mini essays about objects and sensual experiences that delight him. With my mother, a year and a half ago, I heard the engaging poet Ross Gay read aloud from this manuscript at a college in Vermont. My mother sent me his book for my birthday just recently.

A Virtual Interview with Juliana Maldonado

Background

Juliana Maldonado and Nicole Brogdon will be our features Thursday, May 14, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for information on how to join this virtual event.

Juliana Maldonado is a poet who found her voice through Book Woman and Cindy Huyser’s open mics. She is ever striving to celebrate her mixed Chicana heritage and all things that make her soul sing. She is published in the ACC literary periodical The Rio Review and has featured at Malvern’s I Scream Social. She can only be found in person, so listen while you can!

The Interview

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

JM: My first memory of poetry is my mother reading “The Children’s Book of Illustrated Poetry” to me as a bedtime story. My favorites were Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe and The Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll.

I remember first dabbling with poetry around age 13, but I didn’t start exploring writing as a passion until college.

CH: What drew you to poetry? When did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?

JM: I’ve always loved reading poetry. I love the richness of emotion and textured language that poetry provides.

Last year I took a creative writing class which introduced me to poetry in a new light. Through that class I was able to find a more poetic part of myself, as well as a community of similarly inclined people. After completing the class, I felt I had been remade as a poet.

CH: Do you have other literary or artistic interests?

JM: I dabble in various artistic mediums such as drawing and sculpting. I like experimenting with prose from time to time as well.

CH: From what do you draw inspiration?

JM: My biggest sources of inspiration are nature and both my past and present life experiences.

CH: What is your writing process like? How do you make time to write?

JM: Inspiration strikes at various times, so whenever it does I try to jot something down. I try to keep a journal handy at all times. Later on, when I have some free time and free mental capacity, I gather up all the things I’ve saved in my journal, type them up, and edit them. If I’m really unsure about something I’ve written I’ll ask friends or family to proofread it.

I have time set aside every weekend to work on my writing, though I don’t always use it.

CH: Who are some poets whose work has influenced you?

JM: Poe is probably my biggest influence just because I’ve read so much of his work for so long. I think I’m also influenced by the patchwork of styles I hear at open-mics.

CH: If you could have an hour with any contemporary poet, who would you choose and why?

JM: Honestly, anyone. I still feel so new to this world that I feel I could learn a great deal from any poet. I love to marvel at these brave and beautiful people and I hope that I will be like them.

CH: What are you reading now?

JM: Various old zines I found at Half-Price Books.

A Virtual Interview with Koraly Dimitriadis

Background

Koraly Dimitriadis will be the featured reader Thursday, April 9, 2020 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. on Zoom. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information.

Koraly Dimitriadis is a Cypriot-Australian writer and actor. She is the author of the Australian poetry bestseller Love and F–k Poems and the recent Just Give Me The Pills, which together form the basis for her theatre show “Saying The Wrong Things”. Koraly also makes short films of her poems. She is a freelance opinion writer and has also been published in The Washington Post. Koraly was awarded the UNESCO City of Literature Residency in Krakow in 2019 to work on her debut fiction novel, Divided Island.  Much of her work has to do with cultural and religious repression. www.koralydimitriadis.com

The Interview

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

KD: I loved to write when I was in school, but because of my migrant upbringing, studying art was not an option and was considered the pastime of the lazy. So I became a computer programmer, however after the birth of my daughter, the creativity I had inside me exploded out as I questioned my life choices and what kind of role model I wanted to be for her. Writing then became a tool for survival, as I realized I was living a life others wanted for me and not what I wanted. I used my writing to help emancipate myself from my culture, my marriage and my religion, and to discover who I was and what I wanted from life.

CH: In addition to having published two collections of poetry, I know you recently had a UNESCO City of Literature Residency in Krakow to work on your debut novel, Divided Island. Do you have a primary identity as a writer? How would you describe yourself?

KD: It’s a really interested question and one I grappled with, as I am also an actor and my I make films and theatre of my poetry. I write opinion articles and I am deeply drawn to writing longer form books, particularly fiction. So I do a lot of different things. I call myself a writer and actor but I do think I spread myself too thin and I am in the process of trying to narrow down the things that I can do so I can pay more attention to what I really want to do. It’s a constant battle for me.

CH: What was your UNESCO City of Literature Residency like?

KD: It was really a one-in-a-lifetime experience, and in the current pandemic climate, I am so thankful for the travel experiences I have had through my career, as a large part of my work involves touring and connecting with people. I was given a beautiful room at Villa Decius which was in this very big garden, and I got to work on Divided Island, while also being involved in the Milos Literary Festival and performing poetry. Krakow is a beautiful city with a rich culture and I look forward to returning one day. I have also had the opportunity to have several poems of mine translated and published in Polish, and I also made a poetry video at Villa Decius of my poem, Shh, woman, ssh.

CH: In addition to being a writer, you’re an actor, and have also made short films of your poems. Tell us a little about your experience as a performer of your own work. How has that experience shaped you?

KD: I really do feel that my poetry is best on the stage in theatre as part of a theatrical narrative, and I do have a theatre show called “Saying the wrong things” which I hope to tour one day. Through my performance I’m able to add another layer to the meaning to my poems. The drive to perform came naturally to me as part of my emancipation from my culture. There was a drive to perform and share my story. From there I built on this, adding film and theatre and getting some formal acting training. I’d like to do more, but, like I said, I do too much!

CH: How did cultural and religious repression become important themes in your work?

KD: I write poetry about what is happening for me, at when I started writing poetry I was repressed, and confused, and trying to break out, so these themes naturally emerged in my work.

CH: Tell us a little about what it’s like to be a poet in Australia. Is it easy to find audiences for your work as a poet? What has it been like to have a bestseller?

KD: Very interesting question. The Australian literary community is very small, and as such I have found it necessary to tour, mainly because I do speak my mind, my poetry is raw and confronting, and unapologetic, it doesn’t conform to traditional rules, and all this can be difficult for some to swallow. It hasn’t been easy which is why I’m thankful for travel support I have received from the Cypriot government which allows me to tour the world. Love and F—k Poems is a bestseller in the poetry genre in Australia, but most books don’t sell more than a few hundred copies. It’s been great selling in the thousands, but because of the content of the book, I felt the conservative literary community didn’t do enough to support it and shied away. However, the spoken word community have been supportive.

CH: How do you nourish yourself as a writer? As a performer?

KD: I go to spoken word events and listen to other poets. They often inspire me. I try to read when I can. Films also inspire me.

CH: Who are three poets whose work you admire?

KD: Hera Lindsay Bird, Sylvia Plath, Charles Bukowski.

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

KD: Bukowski’s War All The Time.

A Virtual Interview with Patty Crane

Background

Patty Crane will be the featured reader Thursday, March 12, 2020 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX)

Patty Crane’s collection Bell I Wake To is just out from Zone 3 Press. Her book-length poem, something flown, was winner of the 2017 Concrete Wolf Chapbook Award. Her poetry and her translations of Swedish Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer have appeared in numerous journals, including Bellevue Literary Review,VerseDailyWest BranchAmerican Poetry ReviewBlackbird, and The New York TimesBright Scythe, a bilingual volume of her translations, was published by Sarabande Books in 2015.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? When did you begin to think of yourself as a poet?

PC: I vividly recall the joy of reading and reciting nursery rhymes, a joy embodied in the memory of looking up at the summer night sky with my grandmother while together we recited “Star light, Star bright, the first star I see tonight…”

I don’t know when I began to think of myself as a poet, but I’ve only recently begun to feel comfortable calling myself one. Maybe because I’ve learned what a conversation-stopper it can be. Why is that? This is a topic worthy of deeper discussion, but let’s just say it took far more external validation than it should have for me to fully acknowledge my poet-self.

CH: How do you trace your development as a poet?

PC: I came to poetry (with a capital P) relatively late in life, but poetry was always there in the background. As an adolescent, I journaled in a cheap spiral-bound notebook that I kept hidden in the bottom of a drawer. I wrote poems, song lyrics, thoughts, little epiphanies, and jotted occasional quotes. It wasn’t a diary or chronicle of my days, but a way to work things out—who I was, or wanted to be, and how to be that self in such a confusing world. I preferred to be alone, riding my bike long distances, often to the beach, where I’d walk for what seemed like hours and feel utterly free to observe and to think. This was surely formative to my becoming a poet, as was my training and career as a registered nurse, learning the limits of the human body, the reaches of human spirit, and the value of empathy.

CH: I’ve been exploring the poems on your website. I love the spare, lyric voice in them, and I’m intrigued with your play of space. Please tell us a little about your approach to the use of whitespace in your poems.

PC: The use of white space doesn’t feel intentional, but inevitable. The white spaces are pauses, periods of silence—sometimes hesitations, sometimes open waiting—as I listen to or for the quiet place in my mind that helps me to focus, tune out the static and chatter, and tune in to the object or objects of my attention in order to really see them. Also, pauses create the rhythm, the same way they do in music. Poetry is music. Whether it’s a blank page or score, silence is where the words and notes originate.

CH: How did you become interested in translation? How did you become engaged with translating Tomas Tranströmer’s work?

PC: During a three-year period living in Sweden, I gained a level of fluency in the language that eventually put me on the path to translation. What began as an exercise to refine my Swedish, grew into a curiosity about translating that turned into a passion. I’d been reading Tranströmer since the late 90’s (mostly Robert Bly’s translations), but suddenly I could read the original and it felt entirely new. Over the course of a winter, I translated his 1996 collection THE SORROW GONDOLA and, at roughly the same time, had the great fortune of befriending Tomas and his wife, Monica. I spent many hours visiting with them at their home in Stockholm, and ultimately many more hours discussing those first translations with them. In 2011 I was awarded a MacDowell fellowship to continue this work and while there, news arrived that Tomas had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. That was memorable! Those translations were gathered in “Bright Scythe” (Sarabande, 2015).

CH: How has working with translation influenced your own writing?

PC: Influence seems impossible to pin down. For example, the poems I wrote while living in Sweden have a spareness and voice that’s very different from my other work. Is this my translating coming through, or the Swedish landscape with its extremes of light, what I was reading at the time, or what was happening in the world or in my relationships? I just can’t say.

What I can say is that translating gets me out of my own head, allows me to time- and place-travel, and to see my own place a little more clearly because I’ve gained some perspective. And I get to temporarily inhabit the mind of a speaker like Tranströmer, who moves fluidly between the everyday and liminal worlds, offering me glimpses that, at the very least, heighten my sense of possibility for my own writing.

CH: What do you do to nourish yourself as a poet?

PC: What nourishes me as a person nourishes me as a poet: my relationships, my connections to place, bearing witness to beauty in its many forms and guises. Having a quiet, devoted space to write is key for me. I work in a tiny, humble studio I helped build with my own hands. It’s tucked into a field that overlooks an active beaver pond and is surrounded by woods. The natural world nourishes the whole of me, informing how I live, work and make sense of the world.

CH: What are you working on now?

PC: The growing disconnect between us humans and the natural world has been in the back of my mind these days as I write. I’m not overtly writing ‘about’ this, but it’s coming through, and in ways I hadn’t expected. The work is still raw and unfolding, and thus hard to talk about in any detail. I’m also actively sending out my second full-length collection of poems written during the years I lived in Sweden, and I’m deep into translating the complete poetic works of Tomas Tranströmer.

CH: What do you read for pleasure?

PC: Whatever strikes my mood, mind and senses at any given time; and often several different genres at once. Right now, I’m reading Edna O’Brien’s Girl, Brenda Shaughnessy’s The Octopus Museum, and, for the umpteenth time, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim of Tinker Creek.

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

PC: Shirt in Heaven by Jean Valentine. Times two. After turning the last page, I went right back to the beginning and read it again.

A Virtual Interview with Sequoia Maner

Seqouia Maner will be the featured reader Thursday, February 13. 2020 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Sequoia Maner is a poet and Mellon Teaching Fellow of Feminist Studies at Southwestern University. She is coeditor of the book Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era (Routledge, January 2020). Her poems, essays, and reviews have been published in venues such as The Feminist WireMeridiansObsidian, The Langston Hughes Review and elsewhere. Her poem “upon reading the autopsy of Sandra Bland” was a finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize and she is at work on a critical manuscript about the history of African American Elegy.

The Interview

CH: When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer? What inspired you to become a writer?

SM: I’ve kept journals since I was a girl for song lyrics, poems, and intimate thoughts. I was a quiet observer as a child (still am if I’m honest) and writing was how I processed / articulated in my own special way. I think there are many reasons I was drawn to libraries, books, and music. I spent a significant portion of my childhood in foster care & this special bond with books was a way to process trauma. Books opened worlds for me & libraries have always been a singular refuge. Also, I am sensitive to sound, an auditory learner, so music and poetry play significant roles in my life for mediating the world. I have always been just dazzled by the possibilities of language.

CH: When did you start to think of yourself as a poet? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?

SM: I didn’t have people in my life who wrote for a living & I didn’t even think to dream that I could someday write books like Morrison, or Angelou, or Shange. Those were writers; that couldn’t be me. It wasn’t until my college experience at Duke University that I first called myself a poet but, even then, I didn’t realize a career for myself as a writer. I knew that I would write poetry for a lifetime as a personal self-care ritual, but I was open to career paths, studying chemistry & photography, relegating poetry to the sidelines. As an English major, college was the first time I studied major writers and eras, learned form and structure, and wrote with a close circle of writers. Before then, my writing had been for myself, you know. I started to experiment with public performance in the form of spoken word & collaborations with other artists—even still, I never called myself “a writer.” After college I moved home to Los Angeles, California & was working in an interesting & lucrative career field but I was writing bullshit for corporations and yearned to truly create from a place of intention. So, I enrolled in a PhD program, sold most of my things to move to Austin, TX and never looked back. Now, I am a writer.

I refer to myself as a poet and scholar, giving equal weight to both. Teaching in the classroom plays just as central a role in my life as wiring literary criticism and poetry.

 

CH: I’m currently reading Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era, which of course you recently co-edited. Encountering its discussions of elegies that refuse both consolation and narrow boundaries of time and location has been quite an enriching experience for me. How has the experience of editing this book influenced you?

SM: Oh, it has been beautiful and heavy. I’ll simply say that this project has reaffirmed my dedication to working against oppression and violence in all of the spaces I inhabit.

CH: I recently read your poem, “upon reading the autopsy of Sandra Bland,” and first would like to congratulate you on it being a finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize. I love the way this poem uses etymology and definition to explore alternation of meaning as it investigates and grapples with its subject. The poem is in the form of a justified block of text in which phrases are separated by a slash (“/”), which made me think of the way poems with line breaks are quoted within prose. How did you arrive at this form for the poem?

SM: Thank you. I am so humbled to have been named a finalist—its beyond my dreams!

I have to tell a quick story about this poem! I first wrote this in response to Kenneth Goldsmith’s abhorrent, offensive reading of Mike Brown’s autopsy report as “poetry” to a Brown University audience in 2015. I was so distraught by Sandra Bland’s death. We were the same age. Her arrest and jailing happened two hours away from where I live, on a road I drive often. She was an outspoken activist. She loved black people. She believed in the transformational power of education. She was resilient and inspirational. I didn’t know her, but I feel like she was my sister. She is my sis and I loved her. So, I read every damn word of her autopsy report. Gosh, this was on Christmas Eve (morbid, I know) and I was in a work session with my homegirl, painter Beth Consetta Rubel, and we was vibin. I was in the zone. I wrote this poem in two hours & have never edited it since. It came out in a trance & I remain astounded that I am able to honor her in this way.

This was my attempt to recapture the beauty and brevity of Sandra’s life / to honor breath / to breathe / to acknowledge an afterlife / to unravel the structures that bound her / to identify all the ways one can asphyxiate: miscarriages – economics – policing – mental illness – black womanhood in a white supremacist nation / to release her from all that shit.

Yes, this is an etymological poem that pivots along the varied meanings of “ligature” and “furrow.” I was thinking about how the language of the autopsy report tells us everything and nothing… the language is useless in reviving the dead, useless in telling the truth of it. Although it is a poem about meaning, I think it is a really a poem that reaches beyond meaning, if that makes sense.

Last thing I want to say is that poem was chosen by Patricia Smith as finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks prize. I submitted it for this purpose alone. I knew that she was also writing exquisite “autopsy poems” & I hoped that she would get it. She got it. I am so honored to have had her read and anoint this poem.

CH: How do you make room for your creative endeavors during the busy academic year? What advice would you give someone struggling to find that work / creativity balance?

SM: I have no balance, really. I’ve been in a dry spell with my poetry for too long & I’m really frustrated. I am in the early stages of my career as a professor in a tenure-track role & this job is all encompassing. There are teaching demands, publishing demands, and service demands. This means that for the past year or so I’ve been focused on other kinds of writing: I published the co-edited book, two essays, and a couple of book reviews. I try not to be hard on myself for producing less poetry because shame is useless and debilitating. I try to tell myself that I am building other muscles for the time being and will be stronger when I rec-enter poetry in my life. I am headed to the James Baldwin Conference in Saint Paul de Vence, France for a creative writing workshop in the summer & I am so excited to rediscover my poetic voice.

CH: Who are some writers that changed the way you looked at language and writing?

SM: I return to Langston Hughes at different stages in my life. He is so deceptively simple, so pure in his love & hope for black people, and unabashedly critical of oppressive power. Hortense Spillers and James Baldwin are master essayists I look to. Evie Shockley & Douglas Kearney are some of my favorite contemporary poets—I think I share their experimental sensibilities. Brenda Marie Osbey & Sonia Sanchez teach me the power of chant and repetition and pacing. Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, and John Milton have taught me something about formal rigor and beautiful images. Steinbeck’s opening pages of East of Eden rocked my world as did so many of Morrison’s openings—Paradise, Sula, and The Bluest Eye come to mind. I consider two books my literary bibles: Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems and Zora Neale Hurston’s Collected Letters. Both of these writers teach me about authentic voice & the unabashed celebration of black womanhood.

CH: What are you working on now?

SM: I’m working on two monographs. The first is a critical study of Kendrick Lamar’s work. The second is what I’m calling a critical history of the African American elegy.

CH: What do you read for pleasure?

SM: Fiction. I have about four novels on my nightstand at the moment. I adore the detective novels of Chester Himes, the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler. I return to Baldwin/Morrison every other summer, reading their respective bodies of work in full. I love everything Kiese Laymon has written. Right now, I’m about halfway through Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, it is marvelous.

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

SM: Right now I’m toggling between Chad Bennet’s Your New Felling is the Artifact of a Bygone Era, Faylita Hicks’s Hood Witch and AI’s Vice. Additionally, I’m teaching with Rampersad’s Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry, so I’ll be reading nearly the entire volume over the next few months.

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.