A Virtual Interview with the Editors of Red Sky

 

The poets and editors of Red Sky: Poetry on the Global Epidemic of Violence Against Women will be the featured readers Thursday, February 8, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Red Sky, edited by Melissa Hassard, Gabrielle Langley, and Stacy Nigliazzo, was born as a response to the murder of Houston nurse Caroline Minjares as a vehicle for making the voices of victims of violence heard. Readers for the evening will be contributors E. Kristin Anderson,  Dr. Katherine Durham Oldmixon Garza, and Dr. Andrea Witzke Slot, and editors Gabrielle Langley and Stacy Nigliazzo. Here, we interview editors Gabrielle Langley, Stacy Nigliazzo, and Melissa Hassard.

The Interview

CH: Tell us about the inspiration for Red Sky, and how you began this collaboration.

SN: The project was launched after the death of my colleague, Caroline Minjares. She was murdered by a former boyfriend, who then took his own life. Gabrielle Langley and I discussed the possibility of creating an anthology project to honor the voices of those impacted by such acts of violence after I crafted an erasure poem in Caroline’s memory. Melissa Hassard of Sable Books read the poem and approached us about making the anthology a reality. Thus, Red Sky was born.

GL: Stacy Nigliazzo and I became friends through poetry. I have always admired her work tremendously. I had also been trying to write a poem dealing with war crimes against women; these are the types of crimes that affected both my grandmother and my aunt, as well as thousands of other women who were living in Berlin under Russian occupation at the end of WWII. These crimes had been kept secret for so long, at both the macro and the micro level. But when you investigate medical and hospital records from Berlin at that time, the rates of female suicides sky-rocketed disproportionately under Russian occupation. Not surprisingly, there were also reports of sky-rocketing abortion rates as a result of the unwanted pregnancies that came from the rapes. I saw so much psychic damage in my own family from holding on to these secrets. Something inside of me needed to give voice to this.

Subsequently,  after I returned back from a trip to Berlin (a pilgrimage of sorts), Stacy lost a friend and colleague who had been stabbed to death by her husband. When Stacy sent me a draft of her amazing erasure poem that she had crafted from a newspaper article about the crime, the rage that pulsed in the lines of that poem really grabbed me. And you have to understand that Stacy is an emergency room nurse, so she is no stranger when it comes to facing violence head-on. At the same time, she is one of the kindest spirits I have ever met. Her intense compassion has always been a hallmark of her poetry, but this piece (“Triptych”) was something else entirely.  The absolute rage was palpable. It was like a light flashed inside of me, and I thought women need to have a special place for these poems, an anthology.

CH: How did you find the work that you published? How long did it take this book to grow from inspiration to publication?

GL: We put out a call for submissions, through Sable Books.  We also posted on poetry boards through social media. I think all three of us were pretty certain that this topic was going to capture the attention of many poets. What we NEVER expected was to receive close to a thousand submissions coming in from poets all over the world. When they began pouring in, we knew we had struck a nerve.

SN: I am immensely proud of the poems in Red Sky. They were culled from a general submission call, word-of-mouth, and personal invitations. It took the better part of a year to receive, read, re-read, and select the pieces for this work. Gabrielle, Melissa, and I poured over each submission, often two or three times, sharing our impressions and recommendations with each other. We felt a great sense of privilege to read these words. Each story was a gift.

CH: What was your process in organizing this work?

GL: Well, first of all, thank goodness for Dropbox! With Melissa living out of state, and Stacy and I both keeping really crazy schedules, this project could not have been possible without this technology. Melissa Hassard at Sable Books is also eminently qualified when it comes to organizing a project like this.

SN: For me, this was the hardest part, logistically. In my personal collections I have always relied on the expertise of a skilled editor for direction and guidance in framing a book. In the case of Red Sky, Melissa filled this role to perfection. The sequence is incredibly apt and inspiring. Each poem folds into the next. I am awed and humbled by her creative vision.

CH: What was the greatest challenge of this project? Its greatest gift?

SN: From the start, I was worried about re-traumatizing victims of violence through this collection. There is a quote by Margaret Atwood: A word after a word after a word is power (from the poem Spelling). I was determined not to allow my sense of fear to overpower the spirit of the book—the good I knew it could do. Yes, we offered works of harrowing violence, but also of survival and recovery.  And these stories need to be told.

GL: Well, as you can imagine, reading close to a thousand poems that speak so honestly and intimately about violence against women was, both spiritually and emotionally, a huge challenge.  I had to find something very resilient and tough within myself; it became my own determination not to back down.  More to the point, it was my determination not to let the perpetrators dominate, yet again. Something inside of me was compelled to stare these bastards down, and to do so without blinking.

As I kept moving with the editing process, I realized that each and every poem was a triumph for the person who wrote it. As tough as these poems can be to read, I began to understand that, in addition to the sheer physical and psychological trauma that the victims face, there is yet even another damage, too. It is the way that perpetrators effectively hi-jack the entire story of the woman’s life.  He robs her of this, seemingly forever.  However, in being able to write about it, the woman takes back her story! The story is told her way, She decides what gets put in and what gets left out. Where the poem is concerned, the perpetrator falls powerless at her feet. This victory, for me, has been the greatest gift.

CH: With the rise of the #MeToo movement and the large-scale Women’s Marches that have been taking place in the U. S., feminist issues have risen in prominence in the national conversation. How has the book been received? Have you seen any change in its reception in the last year?

SN: This book has been very well received, and I suspect, would have been regardless of the current social/political climate. This is because violence against women is not a new thing, as Red Sky compellingly illustrates. There are poems from people of all ages covering a myriad of historical periods—personally, generationally, and metaphorically. And there are so many stories yet to be told.

GL: We felt amazingly fortunate that Red Sky has had such support and interest from the beginning. Obviously, it came out before the #metoo movement. Even so, on the same  day that it came back from the printer, Michelle Obama blew us all away with her incomparable speech in response to the “just grab em by the pussy” story. For me, there was a real synergy in that moment. It felt like it was the herald of something really big.

CH: What advice would you offer to someone who is thinking of compiling an anthology around social justice issues?

MH: One of the things we saw as a priority with Red Sky was to make sure we were constantly self-critiquing and -evaluating to make sure we were reaching and encouraging marginalized communities to send work so that their voices would be heard as much as we could.

During this project, there was value in moving deliberately and slowly through the process. Delving deeply and authentically into these injustices or crises or failures of humanity is important, difficult work and one can be triggered by some of what he/she/they is/are reading. I didn’t realize this could or would happen, and sometimes it would absolutely bringing to me a stop for at least a few days. People are beautiful and experiences are terrible and there is nothing one person won’t do to another.
Reading the work aloud holds enormous value. After a while, the poems began to call out for one another — but only after we’d had some time to sit with them and really listen — to hear the moments and places where they resonated with each other.
Before launching into any next project, I continue to stop and ask myself if I am the one who should do the work, or if it would be better to center and support others who are already doing this work.

GL: Try to find a publisher with the experience and resources that you may lack. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Ask really well=known poets if they will consider contributing a poem to your project.  Support can come from the most unlikely places, but only if people know what you are up to. So many of us who are poets tend to be really introverted and even shy. Where social justice is concerned, it becomes important to step out of that quiet space and speak up.

A Virtual Interview with Leticia Urieta

Leticia Urieta will be the featured reader Thursday, January 11, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Leticia Urieta is proud Tejana writer from Austin, Texas. She works as a teaching artist in the Austin community. She is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and holds an MFA in Fiction writing from Texas State University. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cleaver, Chicon Street Poets Anthology, BorderSenses, Lumina, The Offing and others. She has recently completed her first mixed genre collection of poetry and prose and is currently at work completing her novel that tells the story of a Mexican soldadera caught up in the march to Texas during Texas’ war with Mexico.

The Interview

CH: What brought you to poetry? What is your first memory of it?

LU: My grandma was a poet who wrote in English and Spanish, but was unpublished. As I got older, she gifted me several books of poetry by Pablo Neruda, and encouraged me to write in both languages. Because of this, I became more interested in experimenting with poetry and reading more in the genre at school.

CH: Do you have a primary identity as a writer? How would you describe yourself?

LU: I don’t like to limit my writing to labels or genres per say-it makes life unexciting if I feel I can only identify with one genre or style. However, much of my writing is a hybrid of genres and styles, and I explore Tejana identity and womanhood in my work because that is what feels vital to me right now.

CH: You recently completed your MFA in Fiction writing at Texas State. What was this program’s greatest contribution to you as a writer? its greatest challenge?

LU: I think what I took away from that experience was the mentorship of other graduates and friends, such as Sarah Rafael Garcia, who brought me into the community at Resistencia Bookstore and provided me with the opportunity to become the program coordinator in Austin of the youth writers workshop that she founded called Barrio Writers. I also sought out support from professors like Jennifer DuBois and my adjunct reader and friend Natalia Sylvester, who always met my work where it was and worked with me to make it better.

CH: How does your work in fiction intersect with your work in poetry?

LU: Studying poetry and its forms has helped me to think about the structure of stories and how I enjoy emphasizing images and experimental language in fiction to the points where I think the genres merge, and some stories feel like extended prose poems and some poems feel like ongoing narratives. I think that often these distinctions are arbitrary. I want to write something engaging, that feels meaningful to me, and ultimately the form will be dictated by the content of the piece.

CH: Tell us about your recently-completed mixed genre collection. How long did it take you to write? How did you decide on the mixed genre expression?

LU: The collection is called Las Criaturas. It took me about six months to write all of the stories and poems in it. All of them explore the word “criaturas,” which in Spanish has several meanings roughly translated as “baby”, “animal,” “monster,” and “creation.” Most of the stories, both in traditional structures or poetic forms, explore traditional storytelling influenced by fairytales, fables and the indigenous stories of the feminine across multiple cultures. As a mixed woman, this representation of hybridity feels very right to me. I was reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ seminal work “Women Who Run With Wolves” and that work greatly influenced the subject and structure of the stories.

CH: How does place figure in your work?

LU: My novel, which is still in progress, is heavily influence by place because it is about a Mexican woman marching in Santa Ana’s army during the Mexican-Texas war in 1836. That physical movement of the characters across space and time is central to the narrative, as is the spiritual space that the heroine and narrator inhabits in the afterlife. I have completed, and plan to complete further research on the subject. What is challenging about this process is that so little is written about these women, called “soldaderas” who travelled with the male soldiers during the war. This, however, also gives me quite a bit of freedom to invent and play with space and time as I imagine it, which is energizing.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets and fiction writers?

LU: I both love and hate this question. There are those writers I go back to over and over: Sandra Cisneros, Leslie Marmon Silko, Toni Morrison. I try to read widely. I am a multifaceted person, and want to read multifaceted books across many genres.

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

LU: I am currently reading “Lessons on Expulsion” by Erika Sanchez, which is fantastic. I read a little every day. When I read collections of poetry, I want to take my time with each poem.

A Virtual Interview with Christia Madacsi Hoffman

Background

Christia Madacsi Hoffman will be the featured reader Thursday, December 14, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Christia Madacsi Hoffman grew up along the banks of the Mystic River in Mystic, Connecticut. Her poetry collection, Intent, was published by Hedgehog & Fox in 2017.  A longtime Austin, Texas resident, Hoffman’s work has appeared in the Texas Observer and the annual anthology of the Austin International Poetry Festival. Through her company, CenterLight Media, Hoffman works as a marketing and editorial writer, graphic designer, and actor. Her early career adventures included antique furniture restoration and leading treks in the high Himalaya.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

CMH: Shakespeare – and winter readings in a close upstairs room above the Captain Daniel Packer Inne bar in Mystic.

CH: When did you become interested in writing? When did you begin to think of
yourself as a writer?

CMH: In my early work as a graphic designer, I found I was incidentally
writing and editing on most projects that came my way – developing ad headlines and
copy; discovering copy errors and suggesting changes; writing company communications
and marketing materials. About 10 years into my design career, I got certified as a copy
editor in AP style. While I’d been writing all along, it wasn’t until I submitted my first
feature article to a travel magazine that I felt the title officially applied.

CH: You grew up along the Mystic River in Connecticut, but have long lived in Austin.
How have these two environments helped shape your perspective? How does place
figure in your work?

CMH: I moved to Austin sight-unseen. I hadn’t planned to stay more than a year, but, well, love… Some 12 years in, just as I was planning my departure, a tap on the shoulder on the dance floor at the Broken Spoke held me here. Score two for love. My heart is with the sea (see “I Belong”), but over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate and integrate the openness and friendliness I’ve found in Austin, which is something I believe I needed to learn. While I’ve lived in some stunning cities, I find it’s the people here who give this city its beauty. Austin is young yet and developing unevenly, but each time I leave, I’m encouraged by the dynamism I feel upon returning. At home, in Mystic (it will always be “home”), nature and the seasons define the sense of place. Here, it’s so much less about the landscape and the greater environment. In Austin, the energy of the people and change itself define the sense of place for me. (See “An Age for Innovation.”)

CH: Tell us a little about your collection, Intent. How did you arrive at this collection?
How long did you take to write it? What was your process in sequencing its poems?

CMH: I began writing when my daughter was an infant. A photographer friend of mine, Sarah Bork Hamilton, had challenged herself to post a photo to Facebook every day for a year. While she’s a professional with full kit and gear, she elected to limit herself to her
iPhone. Sarah unwittingly inspired me to set a challenge for myself: to write two lines of
verse a day.

While it doesn’t sound like much, the commitment to two lines seemed significant in
combination with caring for an infant. And the accountability factor was key: I made a
commitment to post those lines each day to Facebook. Very quickly, two lines turned into
complete, usually short, poems – the length being both a function of time and natural
style. Most of the poems in “Intent” were completed in 15 minutes to an hour, with
editing taking place in-line, so to speak, as they were developed. Working in Microsoft
Word, I could iterate quickly – faster than I could write longhand, which I do only if
inspiration strikes out of range of a keyboard.

The book is the culmination of work from 2013 through the early months of 2017. I
wrote each day for the first two years, and have written regularly, though not daily, from
2015 through today. At this point, the practice feels almost essential. As with exercise, I
feel grumpy and muddle-headed if I don’t take time for writing poetry. And while I write
most every day to earn a living, the practice of poetry clears my mind and contributes to
my overall sense of well-being and purpose.

CH: You’ve had a very interesting career trajectory, from restoring antique furniture
and leading treks in the high Himalaya to leading your own company, CenterLight
Media, and working in writing, graphic design, editing, and acting. What do you see
as the trajectory of your literary life? Where would you like to be in five years?

CMH: I’m laughing reading this. I always have a challenging time answering the question,“What do you do?” The answer depends on the context, but I’ve always felt that each pursuit developed something else in the other. Especially now, with a focus on writing and designing for business, acting for both business and art, and writing poetry for art, I see the complementarity in each component. But that’s not what you asked about…

My goal at present is to find residencies so that I can discover what it is to write within a
greater span of time, in contrast to the few hours I devote over the course of a week. In
particular, I’m interested in exploring and capturing sense of place in my poetry as an
artifact – a leave-behind for the people who inhabit a particular locale now, and for future inhabitants. A snapshot in time of culture and character – character of both place and people. Especially now, as we see traditional skills and crafts being overshadowed and lost to new ones, and as climate change alters our landscapes and traditions, I want to assist in capturing what is fading and how it’s being replaced, or in fact, saved or
reclaimed. I might say I want to practice cultural anthropology through poetry –
ethnographic poetry. (I just looked that up. Turns out it’s already a thang!)

CH: How has your work as a voice actor influenced your approach to poetry and its
performance?

CMH: I like that you referred to the “performance” of poetry, because in fact, I’ve discovered that’s indeed what’s happening, even outside of a slam. When it comes to
poetry, the term “reading” is something of a misnomer.

I’ve observed that the work is most effective, the event most enjoyable, when story is interwoven into the delivery of the pieces, and when the poet is fully committed to the words on the page – just as in acting. Depending on the nature and character of the author, this can take different forms, but the audience knows whether or not you’re genuinely invested in your words and your “role” as a performer. (This can be especially
challenging if you suffer at all from imposter syndrome, which I’ll admit to experiencing
at some point in just about every facet of my career.)

I’m still discovering the differences between VO (voice-over), on-screen, and poetry performance. With VO, the trend these days is for a “natural” read. That means clear articulation but no over-enunciation, while still hitting the key words – not to mention the emotion and meaning that needs to be conveyed in the copy, and getting the pacing right for time (:15-, :30-, :60). On screen, in certain instances you can “throw away” a few lines here and there – intentionally give them less emphasis – and articulation depends on your character. And of course you have the benefit of the camera to pick up what you’re saying with your eyes.

With poetry, I’ve found I have to slow myself down and allow words and phrases to land
– both on me and on the audience. Clear articulation is especially important because the
audience usually isn’t reading along, but you also want to let your genuine voice come
through. It’s an interesting balance to try to strike, and I’m still learning. I’ve also
discovered that poems that tell a story, which rely less on word play that might only be
realized on the page, are more successful in “performance.”

CH: . How do you balance the many demands of entrepreneurship with your writing life?
How do you make room for poetry?

CMH: I have a regular writing practice. During the week, I typically get up at the same time each morning – 6 a.m. Three of those mornings I work out; the other two are for writing.

CH: What are you working on now?

I’m writing poetry regularly – two days a week. Some of my work is trending more political these days, given the current climate. I’ve begun researching residencies and feeling out ways to spend more time writing. I’ve observed that the more you do what you want to do, the more you get to do it. I believe the more time I can give to poetry, even if it’s in small increments, the more I’m likely to be able to spend time within that realm.

CH: Who are some poets that inspire and influence your work?

CMH: I don’t know that I could point to one poet whose work has directly inspired my own; influence is so often subconscious. I would say instead that I feel most inspired by seeing other poets at work. My local (Austin) influencers are Joe Brundidge, Aimée Mackovic and Jim Trainer.

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

CMH: I just picked up Aimée Mackovic’s newest release, “Love Junky,” which is rather tremendous. I’ve been balancing out “Darkness Sticks to Everything” by Tom Hennen with an international anthology edited by Czeslaw Milosz entitled “A Book of Luminous Things.”

A Virtual Interview with J. Scott Brownlee

Background

J. Scott Brownlee will be the featured reader Thursday, November 9, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Scott Brownlee is a poet-of-place from Llano, Texas and a former Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU, where he taught poetry to undergraduates and fifth graders through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. His poems appear in The Kenyon Review, Narrative MagazineHayden’s Ferry Review, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbooks Highway or BeliefAscension, and On the Occasion of the Last Old Camp Meeting in Llano County. Honors for these collections include the 2013 Button Poetry Prize, 2014 Robert Phillips Poetry Prize, and 2015 Tree Light Books Prize. His first full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and 2015 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award and selected by C. Dale Young as the winner of the 2015 Orison
Poetry Prize. It also won the 2016 Bob Bush Memorial Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. Brownlee writes about the people and landscape of rural Texas and is a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes the aesthetically marginalized working class. He currently lives in Austin, Texas and teaches for Brooklyn Poets as a core faculty member.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

JSB: I think the first poem I actually read and paid attention to was Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Blue Emmett” in Bat City Review. It was lying on the floor of the UT-Austin English Department, and as soon as I got to the end of the poem, I was mesmerized.

CH: When did you become interested in writing? When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?

JSB: I wrote some bad love poems in high school but thought initially I’d be a fiction writer as an undergraduate student. Things didn’t work out that way. I came to poetry as a result of a nudge or two from Michael Adams, a professor and mentor who told me to read Larry Levis and encouraged me to consider the “you can be a poet” idea.

CH: When did you first begin to consider pursuing an MFA? What were the influences that led to that decision?

JSB: I’d been dreaming of going to Michener ever since I figured out what it was, and so for a couple of years I applied there and was rejected. The year I cast a wider net and applied to multiple schools, NYU was the last one I applied to, and I did it on a whim after meeting some New Yorkers at ACL and thinking, “I kind of like these people—might as well apply to school there.” You’d think it would have been a more well-conceived plan, but it honestly wasn’t.

CH: How was your work received by fellow students during your time at NYU? What effect did this very urban location have on your process of writing about place?

JSB: I’d say there was probably about 50% positive support (which was very positive—Yusef Komunyakaa and Sharon Olds lit a fire in my writing life) and 50% negative feedback. At times I found the negative feedback frustrating (students with Ivy League undergrad degrees honestly just didn’t understand the context of rural Texas at all and would generalize to no-end in workshop), but ultimately I think having something to push against—a cliquish and never-appeased criticism of the rural—was helpful. I don’t know if I’d still be a poet-of-place without it.

Living in Brooklyn really helped me write strong poems-of-place as well. Being physically removed from the rural Texas landscape meant I had to imagine it, and I think the myth-making and imaginative leaps my poems make were in part made possible by being in a state of exile / dislocation.

CH: What kind of responses has your work received from the community in which you grew up?

JSB: I thought it would be negative initially, in all honesty, but it’s been 100% positive overall. There aren’t necessarily many poetry readers in Llano, Texas, but many members of that community still gave my first book a try, and I’m grateful that they did. Accessibility is important to me. I wanted to write a book of poems non-poets could access, and so far the reception of the book has aligned with that intention.

CH: Over what time period were the poems of Requiem for Used Ignition Cap written? Was this book conceived of from the first as a project, or did the book coalesce in a different way?

JSB: I wrote the poems over the course of about six years (the oldest poems are from around 2009, and the newest are from 2015—just several months before the book was published). My first plan for the book was for it to follow a church service in terms of flow and the order of the poems, but in the editing process Luke Hankins (the editor of Orison Books) and C. Dale Young (the judge of the contest I won) proposed some changes to the order that really helped the book take a more organic final shape.

CH: For me, Requiem’s title is deeply evocative. How did you decide on this as the title of the book, and of the poem that shares it?

JSB: The title comes from the poem of the same name that appears near the end of the book, which I wrote as a kind of metaphor for several people I knew growing up who took their own lives with firearms. Technically an “ignition cap” is a car part, but I was thinking of it as the small ignition cap on a bullet that, when struck, can leave so much emptiness and pain in its wake. Both definitions work when considering the meaning of the book’s title (Llano is one of those small towns where people will leave an old car out in the sun to rust down to nothing), which wasn’t intentional but is something I’ve come to appreciate after the fact.

CH: When I read “Disappearing Town,” I was struck by its reflection on the failure of journalism located in urban centers (e.g. the New York Times) to take the time and effort to truly engage with people in rural areas. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, this seems especially important. What kind of feedback have you received since the election regarding the news your poetry brings?

JSB: Thanks for noticing that! You are the first person to catch the intention behind that poem and ask about it. It’s a theme I’ve continued in my second book, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, which has a poem responding to the “poverty porn” mentality journalists and photojournalists tend to take when they cover the lives and landscapes of the working class.

Honestly, the election has had a mostly negative impact on my writing and its reception (which I think is justifiable given the current state of race relations in this country). I find myself in a position where I vehemently disagree with the current administration and feel like they have lied to and manipulated rural people (including rural white people, my primary subject) to no end, but there’s also that element of racism / xenophobia that individual rural people are responsible for themselves, and capturing that while also trying to draw attention to misinterpretations of rural America that are unfairly negative is a very difficult task.

CH: What are you working on now?

JSB: I recently finished and am sending out my second full-length poetry collection, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, and am about 70% finished with a first draft of a novel called Diamond Kings, which follows a fictional rural Texas high school baseball team on their path through the state playoffs and centers around an episode of racially-linked gun violence that threatens to tear the team and wider community apart.

CH: Who are some poets that inspire and influence your work? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

JSB: I have too many favorite poets to bore you with list-wise, but right now I’m re-reading Natalie Diaz’s book When My Brother Was an Aztec and want to check out Tyehimba Jess’s book Olio, which I’ve picked up several times in the bookstore but still not gotten around to purchasing quite yet. I try to read local Austin poets as well and so have Lisa Olstein’s new book Late Empire on my coffee table as we speak. If I had to pick only one poet I could read forever, I’d probably pick Larry Levis—mostly because we are both narrative poets-of-place, and I feel like I have more to learn from him each time I revisit his writing.

A Virtual Interview with Huston-Tillotson University’s Katherine D. Oldmixon Garza, Jennine “DOC” Wright, Ryan Sharp, and Mike Hart

Background

Katherine D. Oldmixon Garza, Jennine “DOC” Wright, Ryan Sharp and Mike Hart will be the featured readers Thursday, October 12, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Katherine Durham Oldmixon is Professor and Chair of English at Huston-Tillotson University, and the author of a chapbook, Water Signs; she also co-directs the Poetry at Round Top Festival and is a senior poetry editor for Tupelo Quarterly. Jennine “DOC” Wright holds four Slam titles, and is an MFA student at Spalding University. Ryan Sharp is the Coordinator of Huston-Tillotson University’s Writers’ Studio, and editor of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review; he is also the author of the chapbook my imaginary old man: poems (Finishing Line Press, 2017). Fiction writer Mike Hart is an Assistant Professor of English/Communications at Huston-Tillotson University. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including Southwestern Review, The Southern Review, The Southern Anthology, and The Greensboro Review.

The Interview

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

KDOG: I must have been about eleven when I began writing about a long essay on Queen Esther (she from the Old Testament), and another about the ghost named Timothy who sat on my bedroom window and sometimes followed me outside in our wooded yard. I thought of myself as a writer then, and then in high school, I began writing poems, which were more like letters to myself. For a long time, I mostly wrote letters.  I also draw, and sometimes when I didn’t think in words, I would draw.  I didn’t think of myself as a visual artist, though.

RS: I remember, back before Netflix and DVR, flipping through the cable channels and happening upon Saul Williams’s Slam. The 90s were an interesting time for poetry in mainstream pop culture. There was the continued development Hip Hop in general, often sporting poetic interludes and skits in-between tracks and in intros and outros. Tupac and Janet Jackson had starred in Poetic Justice about five years before Slam, and Mos Def started hosting HBO’s Def Poetry Jam about five years after. All were incredibly impactful for me. Yet, nothing struck me quite like seeing Saul spit “Amethyst Rocks” in the jail yard, literally rhyming his way out of a butt-whoopin’. I saw that and thought I want to do that (except maybe not while confined within prison walls or under the threat of violence).

Still, I am a little insecure about claiming the title of “poet.” I am no doubt a person who loves to read and write poetry, but I am not sure if I have a clear idea of what criteria is necessary when distinguishing between a poet and a person who writes poetry, or if even such a distinction is necessary. I am also working on my dissertation right now, so I guess I am also sharpening my craft as a scholar. And, while I am excited by the prospects of my project, I am cautious to make too large of claims there as well. That being said, it was a pretty great feeling to get a box full of my imaginary old man chapbooks from Finishing Line Press recently. That felt like a moment that made me feel a bit like I was becoming a poet.

JDW: It really wasn’t until this year that I even thought about it. Before, I just thought of myself as a poet, and even that title took time to accept. I was so much in awe of other poets to include my mother that I never acknowledged my own work on that level. It wasn’t until I started competing in slams that I took myself seriously as a poet. This year I wrote a children’s book and finished writing a musical so it took venturing out of poetry to consider myself a writer.

MH: I have written since I was little. Even, perhaps, before I had the discipline to hand-write or type prose, I was “writing” stories I imagined: stories about my childhood, toys I had, people in my life, dreams I had. I would re-write real conversations, sometimes as they happened, to make them fit narratives in my head. As I got to my teens, I would occasionally write actual works of fiction, maybe for an assignment, maybe because I had to get those internal narratives out. Then, in college, I finally started to focus on craft, on the discipline and focus it usually takes to become a writer. Even then, though, I don’t think I really understood either craft or dedication to it. Maybe I began to understand those things in grad-school. Maybe that’s when I started to imagine that I could be a writer.

CH: How has your career as an educator influenced your growth as a writer? What is one thing you’ve learned from a student (or from teaching) that you carry into your writing life?

MH: When I talk to students about writing, we usually build from the ground up: terminology associated with craft, fundamental principles of writing a story (character, desire, conflict, danger, crisis, denoument, etc.). I find that revisiting those principles with my students, helping them wrestle with how best to apply them to their own writing, makes me reconsider how I’m able to use them in my own writing. From my students, I’m often reminded that good story rarely starts out as a grand idea, a “statement” perhaps about human experience, whatever that is. Instead, story starts with the basics. With an image of a character or a situation or an event. Story is built from tiny parts, from the ground up.

KDOG: Reading literature (and reading a lot of literature) so as to teach and thinking about writing so as to teach writing must be the most significant influence from my profession on my growth as a writer.   Preparing to teach requires deep learning (which is why I require my students to teach in every course.)  One thing I’ve learned from students and from teaching (and from everyone in my life): listen.  Listen before you speak (write); listen more than you speak (write.)

RS: The first thing that comes to mind is the old teaching adage: “The best way to learn is to teach.” Having to not only have thoughts and ideas, but be able to teach thoughts and ideas to has forced me to be a more critical thinker and communicator. Having to present knowledge in interesting and innovative lectures and discussions forces me to reevaluate content in a way that further deepens and strengthens my own knowledge. Furthermore, no matter how many times I have read Their Eyes Were Watching God, or any text for that matter, I find that I am still surprised, and in awe of, the unique readings and perspectives students are able to bring to the text(s). The same goes for poetic forms. I have sat and wrote haikus with students and have been struck by how their fresh approach to the form and their use of language inspires me. All of that colors my reading and writing life, which, in turn, impacts my poetry.CH: Katherine, how did you go about writing and constructing your chapbook, Water Signs?

I imagined the concept of the three linked sonnet crowns, each set in the season of one of the water signs of the western zodiac. Simultaneously with conceiving the braid, I began in Scorpio, which is my sun sign, on a day in my garden, cutting basil flowers. (That crown would move to the center of the three crowns.  So in a way, I worked inside out to the edges.)  I went into a meditative trance, as crazy as that may sound to people, each time I would write, drawing on, weaving together personal, lived memory and present moments, global and intimate. I held the rhythm in my head and let the rhymes and other music come.  I shifted the voice slightly in each crown, as each is a different season in my life, as well, like turning a crystal prism in my palm.  As I write this, I am reminded of my students asking me when we are analyzing a poem or a passage in prose: “Do writers really think of these things when they’re writing?” Yes, yes, I do – but it isn’t calculating.  It’s listening.

JDW: I think I look at it in the opposite. It is my writing that influences me as an educator. I write about social justice issues and identity and tend to incorporate those ideas into my teaching. I often perform poems for my students to introduce topics or to introduce myself in new classes. I also think my poetry presents my passion for my subject so it helps to have an instructor invested in the content. No one wants the coach forced to teach a science course so they just pass out worksheets while they dream about being on the field. Practice what you preach! It wasn’t until I was teaching a unit on poetry and had a student share a poem she wrote about her grandmother that had recently passed to realize it. She cried and the whole class got up and surrounded her. It took bravery. After that I wrote about losing my mother, a poem that I had put off for so long.

CH: Ryan, what was your process in writing and constructing your recently-released chapbook, my imaginary old man?

RS: Patricia Smith was a visiting faculty member during my final semester at Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program, and I was blessed to get to hang out with her quite a bit. She mentioned to me that she had become interested in exploring the formal elements of poetry and talked about how furthering her knowledge of meter and rhyme has enhanced and expanded her poetic tool set.  She had been recommended I check out Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled. After graduating, I sat down and started going through a section describing all of the ways that masterful sonnet writers are able to signify on the form. During one of the book’s iambic pentameter exercises, it dawned on me that, if I were to write ten-syllable—or decasyllabic—lines without much regard for rhythm or poetic feet, I might be able to write lines that seem like really creative iambic pentameter; folks might give me credit for an acrobatic use of a spondee or a dramatic weak ending, when I was actually just writing ten syllables under the guidance of the natural rhythm of American English. The first line I wrote was something like “My imaginary old man is dead.” I thought that was an interesting idea. I am really into giving myself constraints, so I started building a form: decasyllabic lines, no punctuation or capitalization, ambiguous phrases that could be read as parts of different clauses. I had worked with Marvin Bell while at Pacific, so his Dead Man poems started to influence my imaginary old man in how he and his narrative are not static. The form gave me an interesting entry point through which to explore my own complicated paternal relationships and how I was, and still am, processing my childhood. I was obsessed with my imaginary old man for a few years. Some of the poems began to get published. I was invited to do some readings, and people seemed to receive them well.  That encouraged me to start grouping them together, and, luckily, Finishing Line Press liked them enough to give me a chapbook.

CH: Doc, what was your process for writing and constructing you chapbook, A Long Time Coming?

JDK: The title kind of says it all. I put the chapbook together because every time I would feature at a venue, people would come up and ask for copies of poems or ask if I had merch. I chose the poems based on what was being requested as well as including poems that weren’t typical 3-minute slam poems. It took years to even think I could put something like that together on my own. Onc you surround yourself with creatives you know you can really do anything.

CH: As professionals working for a university, 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?

JDW: I really have no idea. I guess I incorporate poetry/writing into my classes so it is just part of my life now. I still perform on weekends and write in my free time or along with my students when I give them writing prompts. I guess my advice is to love what you do and do what you love so it never feels like work. I am a mother, wife, writer, student, and activist, and all of those require creativity.

KDOG: This is a hard one for me.  I have to think back to before my life ruptured [Garza’s husband and life partner, musician Arturo Lomas Garza, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in May 2016].  In the past seventeen months, I have written very few poems or toward poems, although I have written a lot of memories, meditations, letters (to myself and others.)  A very few poems.  I did begin another sonnet crown, and made it to the seventh poem, and then I put it down.  I’ve made more with my hands, visual arts, non-linguistic.

Well, when I was an active poet, I wrote mostly in the summer and between semesters, or, rather, I drafted all year, but I worked on poems and the manuscript (another kind of composition) in the interims between teaching.  My writing circles, poet friends who met (meet?) regularly, helped me to keep writing during busy times.  They helped me hold myself accountable, or keep my writer self from disappearing, I guess you would say.

RS: With all I am balancing right now, I have struggled to carve out time to dedicate to writing poems. However, I tend to be of the opinion that there is not such a great distance between the academic and the creative—for me, they seem to be working the same muscle. I am lucky that my work—teacher, editor, PhD candidate, husband, and father—is all about the creative, so I don’t feel like I am all work and no play. My struggle is more with time. I don’t have a lot of it these days. Pursuing my PhD has all but consumed the time I used to dedicate to writing poetry, and I do miss that quite a lot. I have had to try to be slick about how I sneak poetry into my day. One thing I do is that, Instead of listening to music in the car or while mowing the lawn or at the gym or so on, I try to listen to poetry podcasts. My favorites are the Poetry Magazine Podcast and VS, which is a new podcast hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi. I have downloaded a few of the Yale Open Courses, and I listen to them as well. When I am at a stop sign or at one of my kids’ soccer games, I use my phone to record bits and pieces of poems that, when I have a moment, I try to sit down and work on or I squirrel away for when I will have the time. I follow my favorite poets on Facebook, and read the poems they post when I can. Also, editing keeps me very engaged in poetry. Sticking with my muscle metaphor, while I am not writing as much as I would like, I still feel like I am exercising my poetry muscle, so, when I do have more time, I feel will be ready to get back to work.

MH: I don’t. Frankly, because of how I write, I find it almost impossible to sit and write during the school semester. I might try to take a little time here or there – between work or parenting or being a person involved with the world – to some prose, but it’s nearly impossible. My advice for someone struggling to find some balance is to wake up earlier. Go to bed later. Carve out time to separate yourself from your real life so that you can live inside constructed narratives for a while. If you can’t carve that time out, be patient. The job will slow down. Kids grow up. Story will always be there, so you’ll have time to create later.

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

RS: There are so many! I already mentioned Saul Williams and Marvin Bell. My teachers: Kwame Dawes, Dorianne Laux, and Joseph Millar. Being a student of Dorianne and Joe’s and having been raised in Portland, the Dickman twins’ poetry have been incredibly influential to me. I’m a big Lucille Clifton fan. Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets is an important book in my development as a poet. Yet, Terrance Hayes will forever be one of my favorite poets. He is my poetry role model—the way he plays with form and words and rhythm. He does everything that I hope to one do be able to do.

JDW: People that I look up to are mostly other spoken word artists and rappers. The ability to tell a story and bend metaphors like putty is an art that I will forever try to master. Dr. Kat at HT [Katherine Durham Oldmixon Garza] and other English instructors made me feel like my ideas were valid regardless of how the words came out and they made me trust in my own voice.

KDOG: Joy Harjo, for certain, and a small group of poets/memoirists with whom I was present in her master class at Taos one summer.  Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Gregory Orr, as well, for spirit.  Derek Walcott, John Donne, Pablo Neruda, for language.  But those are only a few, the few who happened into my mind tonight.

One of the exercises that Joy had us do was to trace our poetic ancestors, those we read who have influenced us.  My list is long, as I am old, and a life-long reader and literary scholar, but I recognize some among all the writers whose work I’ve read entered my ear and moved into my hands.

MH: Flannery O’Conner, Yusef Komunyakaa, Barry Hannah, Fay Weldon, Richard Ford, Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, Adam Johnson.

CH: What has your literary citizenship given you as a writer?

KDOG: Co-directing Poetry at Round Top and editing Tupelo Quarterly (and several other literary magazines) have given me very different things, but in both I am grateful for the opportunities to commune with others, to read and listen. P@RT is a listening experience for me.

Editing has given me awareness of, well, editors, what editors see, hear, look for.  Has this helped me as a writer?  I’m not sure.  One would think I would be more rhetorically astute in submitting, but I am not regular about submitting, especially now.  I really don’t think editing particularly helps me as a writer. It helps me as a teacher.

RS: This dovetails off the previous work-creative balance question. My literary citizenship has given me community. My work at Borderlands not only allows me to be immersed in poetry, but has also afforded me the opportunity to get to meet and talk with so many fantastic poets. Same with Poetry at Round Top. I mentioned Terrance Hayes as my poetic role model. Two years ago I got to eat meals and talk about poetry and fatherhood with him for a whole weekend! I think that “citizenship” implies that I am giving something, which may be true, but I get way more than I give.

JDW: More than anything it has been a way to pass on to youth and minorities that their voices matter [Wright mentors writers in communities]. I have a better grasp on being able to leave the world to future generations if they feel confident to speak up and speak out for change.

CH: What are you working on now?

JDW: I am finishing up my MFA program so I am starting my creative thesis. It will be a collection called “a’SKIN for Trouble.” The collection will look at the intersections of race, gender, and identity. I am also working on the music composition for my musical, which is a fusion of medieval hip hop. It has Morgan Lefay as its protagonists and includes the knights of Camelot, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and some Chaucer’s Tales.

RS: My dissertation takes up the majority of my writing energy in this current stage of my life. In short, I am crafting an argument around how contemporary Black American poets are employing personae to redress and complicate archival representations of Blackness. I also have a related, but separate, project that I am trying to launch that consists of a collection of interviews I have conducted, or aspire to conduct, with contemporary Black American poets. Yet, I have been slowly working away on a newer group of poems that I call my 3 brothers poems. Similar to the my imaginary old man poems, they operate under a series of constraints. Also, similar to the my imaginary old man poems, they are another angle through which I am exploring my family history. The dream is that, once I finish my dissertation, I might take some time to focus on poetry, maybe even apply for a workshop or two, and develop the 3 brothers poems into its own collection.

MH: Now, when I work on stuff, it most frequently leans towards what can be characterized as speculative fiction. Maybe as magical realism. I’m interested in how the impossible interacts with the everyday. However, I live in the everyday, and it’s not something I’m very interested in writing about. I have a collection that I’ve considered sending out, but I haven’t yet done it.

KDOG: I have a medicinal garden.  I’m learning how to make tinctures and salves. Sometimes I give fragrant leaves as gifts.  I walk in the garden and touch our plants. I’m listening to my husband’s music.

A Virtual Interview with Sarah Cortez

Background

Sarah Cortez will be the featured reader Thursday, September 14, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Houston Poet Sarah Cortez is a Councilor of the Texas Institute of Letters and Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and has poems, essays, book reviews, and short stories anthologized and published in journals such as Texas Monthly, Rattle, The Sun, Pennsylvania English, Texas Review, Louisiana Literature, Arcadia, Langdon Review of the Arts, The Midwest Quarterly, Southwestern American Literature.  Her debut poetry collection, How to Undress a Cop, won the PEN Texas Literary Award.  Her books have placed as finalists in the Writers’ League of Texas awards, Los Angeles Book Festival Awards, and the PEN Southwest Poetry Awards.

An anthologist of eight volumes, Cortez has won the Southwest Book Award of the Year, multiple International Latino Book Awards, Border Region Librarians Assn. Award, Press Women of Texas Editing Award, and the Skipping Stones International Honor AwardHer most recent anthology, Vanishing Points: Poems and Photographs of Texas Roadside Memorials, has already been named a 2016 Southwest Book of the Year and won the prestigious First Place in Editing from the National Federation of Press Women. She is both a Houston and Texas finalist for poet laureate.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What is your first memory of writing? 

SC: My first memory is related to childhood verse, which is a totally different animal than literary poetry, but a very satisfying animal to cuddle up with when you’re a child—repetitive rhyme, puzzles with words, the repetition of a standard beat.  I have always enjoyed words and what people do with words on the written page.

Of course, I had a great Classical education in my 12 years in Catholic schools, so I was exposed to the great British and American poets of the last several hundred years as well as to the epic poetry of the Greeks and Romans.

CH: You have published essays, short stories, memoir, and poetry—do you have a primary identity as a writer? How would you describe it?

SC: My primary identity as a writer has been as a poet.  I believe that focus is shifting—mostly because the editors who ask me for work are asking for some poems, but for a lot of essays, fiction, and memoir.  Also, a lot of book reviews and proposals for projects.

CH: Your professional life has been wide and varied, with law enforcement work coming after other white-collar work. What was your writing life like before you entered the police academy? How did police work change the focus of your writing?

SC: Before entering the police world wholeheartedly in the Academy, I already had written and was extensively published in poetry. I also had some major international publications in fiction.  However, I didn’t begin writing about policing until I had been a full-time patrol police officer for a few years.  Frankly, it didn’t occur to me to writing about policing.  Think about it—how many people do you know who write literary poetry about their jobs?  Right?  Almost none.  In fact, Jim Daniels, an amazing poet and professor at Carnegie-Mellon has stated that if you look at the job descriptions of any contemporary American poetry anthology you would draw the conclusion that no poet works for a living.

I was able to write more when I was a full-time police officer than I’ve been able to write my own work since I because a freelance writer and editor.  Part of that is because I have such a full plate of editing jobs for presses and individual clients, but part is also that I always put my clients first, ahead of my own work.

CH: You’ve published two collections of poetry centered on your career in law enforcement (How to Undress a Cop and Cold Blue Steel), in addition to Against the Sky’s Warm Belly, your recent new and selected volume. Has your manuscript composition process changed over time?

SC: That’s a fascinating question to ponder.  There are two components about my analysis of composing a manuscript that have changed.  First, my books are now much more focused in the subject matter or themes within one book.  Second, I now title and compose the sections within a book—something that I didn’t have the expertise to do in my first book and that the publisher certainly didn’t have the expertise to do for me.

CH: You’ve multi-book relationships with both Arte Publico Press and Texas Review Press. How did those relationships develop? What advice would you give a poet looking for a publisher?

SC: I would suggest that a poet have multiple poems within a manuscript already published by high quality journals and magazines.  I would also say that the poet should realize there’s a difference between being published and being published well.  Many writers are just so plain eager to be published that they don’t care who publishes them.  It’s a shame because sometimes a writer’s craft just has to improve.  Think about it—once an ineffective book is published with your name on the front cover, then that’s what people will remember you for—a bad book.

A Virtual Interview with Jason Edwards

Background

Jason Edwards will be the featured reader Thursday, August 10, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Jason Edwards began his spoken word career in 1997 as a member of the Dallas Slam Team, which got the first perfect score for a group piece in slam history. Edwards performed in the national “SlamAmerica” tour, then formed the gay performance troupe “TriggerHappyJacks” with Ragan Fox.

At the peak of what was becoming a promising artistic career, Jason’s life unraveled when he lost his trans-sister in a tragic car accident at the same time as he had begun to experience the symptoms of schizophrenia. After a number of years of struggle, he began to re-emerge as an artist, recording an album with his partner in 2011. In 2015, he was featured as part of the 20th Anniversary of the Austin Slam, and last summer had the honor of opening for the U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.

The Interview

CH: When did you first start getting interested in poetry? What is your first memory
of poetry?

JH: My first memory of poetry was my mother reading Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and Sylvia Plath’s The Bed Book. I can’t remember not loving poetry and I started writing my own poetry in the 2nd grade.

CH: When did you first start thinking of yourself as a poet?

JH: I started thinking of myself as a poet in the 3rd grade when my favorite teacher told me I was a poet–Mrs. Richie. That teacher really mapped out my destiny.

CH: How did you become involved in the spoken word scene?

JH: I became interested in the spoken word scene in the early 90’s when I went to The Green Room in Deep Ellum in Dallas. I saw my first poetry reading there but I have been reading and performing since grade school to classmates and family and friends.

CH: What is your writing process like? Do you have particular times you like to write
or practices you do to get your creativity flowing?

JH: I feel writing is like channeling. I almost don’t feel responsible for my own poetry. I write when I feel inspired and I find life very inspiring.

CH: How do you nurture yourself as a writer? 

JH: Art literature music the world all of it nurtures me.

CH: Please describe your education as a poet. Who are some poets whose work has
influenced yours?

JH: I love the Beats and the Confessional poets, and I have a special place in my heart for Phillip Levine and Adrienne Rich.

CH: Tell us a little about your experience as part of a slam tem at the national
level, and about participating in SlamAmerica. How did those experiences shape your
work?

JH: Seeing people like Patricia Smith and Saul Williams forever changed the direction of my poetry career, it was mind blowing. And performing in Austin for The National Poetry Slam in 98 at the beautiful Paramount Theater in finals in front of thousands of people was the most transportive experience of my life. As far as the SlamAmerica tour, it was wonderful and terrible because I had just lost my sister to a horrific car accident.

CH: Tell us a little about your work with TriggerHappyJacks. What did you take away
from that experience into your spoken word poetry?

JH: Being the artistic director for the TriggerHappyJacks was a true honor. I learned a lot about being creative in a group setting and a lot about the business of art.

CH: What is your relationship to poetry on the page? Do you see yourself releasing
poetry in a print medium?

JH: I find writing on the page to be very rewarding but my heart is in performing my work.

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

JH: The last book of poetry I read was Closer by my close friend and mentor Christopher Soden. It was transcendent.