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.

A Virtual Interview with Jonathan Moody

Background

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JM: The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa

A Virtual Interview with Griselda Castillo

Background

Griselda Castillo will be the featured reader Thursday, June 9, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX

Griselda Castillo is an unapologetically bilingual poet and creative nonfiction writer from Laredo, Texas. The youngest daughter of Mexican immigrants, she is a first-generation American and explores her Mexican-American heritage and identity in much of her work. Her poems and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Spark + Blink, Unlikely Strangers, Chachalaca Review, and the di-vers-city anthology.

The Interview

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

GC: My first memory of writing goes deep. I don’t remember how young I was but I remember watching the cool important people writing. The scientists on TV, the news anchors shuffling white paper, David Letterman’s note cards. Were they blue?

As a kid, I would pretend I was a scientist taking notes that were really just scribbles. I would play news anchors with my little brother. We wrote stories about what had happened at the house or in the neighborhood that day and reported them later. Top stories were us making fun of our other siblings and stuff.

My first memories of poetry are more ambivalent. Kinda like my poems, surprise! I remember the initial complicated feelings that pushed me to frustration and thinking just say what you mean. Get on with it. I also remember seeing my sister write poems with abandon. And how she was the only one in the family who I ever saw writing more than their homework. She shared them unabashedly too. She used to call the radio station, recite a poem to the DJ…and get it played live on the radio! Fearless. Those are my two first memories of poetry as an art form.

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

GC: Probably in college. I was a theater major at first but quickly questioned if that was the right path for me. I was very disappointed in the lack of diverse roles and the rigor of the major was sort of ridiculous to me. Having come from a fine arts high school, I expected something a bit more… well collegiate. But it felt too chaotic for me.

I took a poetry and politics class that was taught by 3 professors who lectured and discussed with students during the same one class. We read and learned about Vietnam, watched Apocalypse Now and read Douglas Anderson, The Iliad and The Odyssey. I felt my world shift. I saw with eyes for the first time. Through the cross pollination of all of that media, I got Vietnam. It was a thing in our consciousness. I also began to understand how I could convey what I contained in a controlled context. And how, when a poet can articulate all those things well, it feels powerful. It moved the important things within you. I’ve always asking myself: How does this poem mean to get to where it wants to get?  And then we sort of figure it out together.

CH: Your bio describes you as both poet and creative nonfiction writer. How do these two passions inform one another?

GC: It’s the pearl and oyster scenario. With poetry, there is always this nagging particle. Something I mull and mull and ignore but can’t get rid of so I roll around until it starts to form. With creative nonfiction, it’s more about the oyster. There is more of a process or narrative, more thinking , more flesh and shell, more story. Can’t have one without the other.

CH: How has growing up along the border shaped your writing? How does place figure in your work?

GC: Border towns are…interesting places. But you don’t know that until you leave them. While you are in a border town, you are blinded by the border town drama. Almost everyone is brown, all the business signs are in Spanish, everyone speaks Spanglish: in other words not great English or great Spanish. Menus are in Spanish but everyone orders in English. It’s a bizarre spot.

When I left for school, I experienced great culture shock and was exotic. The latter was not a great feeling. I learned about people’s weird relationships with their parents and other people and also realized how poor my schooling had been at times. My grammar is still terrible! I was writing more sterile poems during that time because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into being a Hispanic writer. Didn’t want to become gimmicky. I was also young and didn’t have the experience or reading brain needed to write the kinds of things that painted my interior self.

But then I got homesick and homesick for the Mexican-ness of what makes up my “poet home.” In hindsight, I realized the richness from where I came and found fertile earth. The search from my severed roots led me to an understanding of the how the border weaves in and out of my identity and writing.

CH: How has your experience as a first-generation American shaped your work?

GC: I think it’s that border town bizarreness again. When you are in Laredo you’re a not really Mexican. When you are not in Laredo, you are very Mexican to others. And to make things even more confusing, when I say Mexican, I really mean Mexican-American. It was odd growing up as an American in a Mexican home that happened to be in America. I think that propels the treatment of identity in the poems.

CH: As a bilingual poet, you live with the music of two languages. How has this influenced the sonic landscape of your work?

GC: This is an area I am still developing an ear for. I write by instinct and nostalgia, always enamored with image. So the sounds in my poems flow like underground rivers. I feel them more than know there are there.

CH: What do you do to nurture yourself as a writer? What paths have you taken to deepen your skill?

GC: This is a hard fucking thing to do. I am still learning how to nurture myself so I can nurture my writing. It’s hard. I am sensitive, combative, but want to take care of everyone. I’m sure my husband loves that about me! 🙂

But when there is cause for a poem, I get tunnel vision. It sit down to work for hours at a time, doing intense editing, handwriting draft after draft, until I leave it to rest for a while. What I am getting better at is coming back to them quicker. Writing in stints vs bursts. I feel more enjoyment from the writing when I can write that way. I also self-imposed a sabbatical at my brothers house one time to finish something. I want to do more of that. Removing myself from the world to write. Just writing that felt good.

CH: What is your writing process like? How do you make room for writing in your life?

GC: I ruminate a lot. I like to see stuff. Remember. I talk about ideas with Jim. Pull stories out of the depths of my parents. Then I get to work. Making room for it is tough though. I write for a living and the demands of that sometimes leaves little stamina for myself. I want to balance that a little better. Make enough money to be able to.

CH: Tell us a little about Five Voices One Brush. How did you get involved with the project?

GC: I never thought I would be a part of this amazing collaborative. I read poetry with Terry Dawson, a man with a very groovy past, and Joe Morales who is a Grammy winning musician. Joe puts together the trio, Terry puts together a very diverse set of poets and Chris Rogers does live painting to it all. It’s very cool and we hope to get the word out about it some more.

I write much differently for that. More of my performer side comes out. The outfit, hair and make up. I let the poems go loose for Five Voices One Brush and imagine the jazz band when I’m building my sets. The amazing thing about the collective is that it’s the poets that anchor the show. The jazz follows the poetry. We never rehearse! Yet it all works out. It gives me the most prized feelings: freedom and confidence.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

GC: I love Saul Williams, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath less and then more again, John Berryman, Robert Haas.

A Virtual Interview with Martha K. Grant

Poet Martha K. Grant will be the featured reader on Thursday, May 11 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for May’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Martha K. Grant is the author of A Curse on the Fairest Joys (Aldrich Press), poetry that explores the wounds of childhood and the grace of healing. Her work has been published in Borderlands, New Texas, Earth’s Daughters, The Yes! Book, the anthologies Red Sky: Poems about the Global Epidemic of Violence Against Women and Unruly Catholic Women Writers, and nine editions of the Texas Poetry Calendar . She has a Pushcart nomination and received an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. A visual artist and a sixth generation Texan, she has a home and studio in the Hill Country northwest of San Antonio.

The Interview

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

MKG: I have to laugh when I think of this: Casey at the Bat, Ernest Thayer’s 1888 poem. The last stanza still gives me a frisson of memory of my dad at the radio listening to baseball games. I was around 10 or 11. The poem’s baseball story line was most familiar and the energy, drama and imagery captivated me at this early age.  Oh, somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout / but there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out. I still get goosebumps.

The story of Casey and his Mudville team was in an anthology on the family bookshelf, The Best Loved Poems of the American People . I would thumb through it often for poems with a particular cadence or rhythm, but primarily ones with an engaging narrative. Another favorite from that volume was about a red balloon, but I am startled to find now that the poem, written by Jill Spargur, was actually titled Tragedy.  I always wanted a red balloon, / It only cost a dime / But Ma said it was risky / They broke so quickly / And beside, she didn’t have time. . . . I got a little money saved now / I got a lot of time / I got no one to tell me how to spend my dime / Plenty of balloons—but somehow / There’s something died inside of me / And I don’t want one now.  The wistfulness, the melancholy, hooked me and spoke for me in ways I couldn’t. I can’t say it inspired me to write poetry, but it impressed on me that you can find your own story in someone else’s writing.

CH: When did you first begin to write poetry? When did you start to think of yourself as a poet?

MKG: It must have been high school and the fork in the road of choosing an elective in 11th grade. Even though I had taken oil painting lessons since the age of 12 ,  I signed up for journalism rather than art—the first evidence of competition between my creative muses, the visual and the literary arts. Writing came easy to me and  I liked the various formats for  news articles. As editor of the school paper my senior year, the creative visual challenge of collaging blocks of copy into specified space was like an art project in disguise. A harbinger of later combinations of the two fields.

I wrote exactly one poem in school, accepted for a  local contest that is still active today—Young Pegasus—and not another poem until the late ’80s when I discovered the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye. Exposure to her very accessible, thoughtful personal narratives was a defining AHA moment in my earliest of poetry inclinations. Its deceptive simplicity redefined poetry for me as entirely possible. Though I would soon  learn that it was way harder than I thought!

CH: I understand that in addition to being a writer, you are both a fiber artist and a calligrapher. What role have your other artistic interests played in your development as a poet?

MKG: Between that first and only poem and the Naomi “epiphany” that inspired actual writing were decades of visual arts, primarily intense calligraphy study, professional lettering contracts and exhibiting “word painting” combinations layering abstract imagery and text. I worked at first on paper and canvas, then silk screening and dyeing art fabrics.

It coincided with a time inner shifting, searching and questioning. The meaningful  passages I rendered were a reflection of my own quest. The authors of these became my teachers along the way. Notably Thomas Merton, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, Carl Jung and others. I soon understood that I was living a ‘footnoted life’, that the personal credos I publicly professed in my calligraphy broadsides were actually declared by others and I was just hitching a ride. I wanted to make art out of my own words. But first I had to write them! This is where Naomi entered the picture, along with writing classes at Gemini Ink in San Antonio, open mics around town, and publication in an anthology of women’s voices, A Garland of Poems and Short Stories, edited by Michael Moore.

CH: I understand you’ve recently finished your MFA. What inspired you to enter that path? How has it changed your work as a writer?

MKG: Epiphany again. I put off an MFA for years. Time. Money. Nerve. Age. Distance. In  2012 I was at a workshop with Ellen Bass and Dorianne Laux who are on the poetry faculty at Pacific University and they spoke of the low-residency MFA format. It dawned on me: if I lived as long as my mother was (98)  and didn’t challenge myself with further study,  I would be disappointed at the end of my own life. The MFA gave me of course better writing skills, a wider appreciation of the lineage and legacy of poets, and great confidence and satisfaction in having pursued the adventure at this age. And thanks to the encouragement of my faculty mentors, I was able to dig deeper into old memories and release them into poetry.

CH: Please tell us a little about your book, A Curse on the Fairest Joys. What was its inspiration?

MKG: The title is taken from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “As the butterfly chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.” The collection is a poetry memoir, an effort to bring to light the ghosts of  childhood and the extraordinary power of hope and healing.  It helped me reframe and claim my life and find in the writing new ground to stand on.

CH: How did you go about finding a publisher for the book? What was it like to work with Aldrich Press? 

MKG: A poet friend  they had published recommended me to them. I made an inquiry and they accepted my manuscript. It was that simple! I had previously turned down the opportunity to publish a chapbook with another press, taking a chance and holding out for the larger manuscript. The gamble paid off. I followed the layout/formula of other poetry books from this press and it was a good fit for my work. The basic structure of the book is my MFA thesis manuscript.

CH: How do you identify as a writer? Is poetry your primary writing interest? 

MKG: After completing my degree and publishing my book,  I moved into memoir and nonfiction because there were many more stories and episodes that seemed to beg for  a larger format, a more conversational exploration than poetry allowed me. I pursued post-grad work with several nonfiction mentors. Of late I’ve been on a prose poem bender. I find even more “permission” in prose poetry to loosen up in subject matter and voice.  Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Prose Poetry is one of the best of the genre. In David Shields’ work on literary collage I’ve found a home for the varied subjects and genres I seem to come up with.

CH: I understand your family goes back generations in Texas. How does place figure in your work?

MKG: We live in the Hill Country northwest of San Antonio and our live oak-and-cedar landscape with its variety of critters is an ongoing conversation with nature. The Texas Poetry Calendar has been a terrific catalyst for encouragement to “write Texas” and become as rooted in the landscape as I am in my genealogy.  I’m delighted to have been included in 10 editions of the calendar.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? Were there poets you discovered as part of your MFA who have become especially influential in your work?

MKG: Gregory Orr’s writing about the accidental shooting of his brother taught me a lot about dealing with childhood trauma, and  his personal encouragement not to run from my memory of a young friend’s murder helped me write through that old but lingering anguish. Jane Hirshfield’s very zen poetry is work I turn to again and again. So are Coleman Barks’s translations of Rumi. Stephen Dunn, Dorianne Laux, Tony Hoagland are ongoing favorites.

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

MKG: I always have a book of poetry within arm’s reach. I have been facilitating a memoir class for seniors this year. Not surprisingly, narrative poetry with its depth, honesty, lyricism and concision provides many provocative examples and inroads into personal stories. I offer my students selections from Barbara Ras, Ted Kooser, Phillip Levine, Jane Kenyon, Naomi Shihab Nye to help trigger memories and a lyrical approach.

My latest creative form is a blend of the visual and the literary: a series of panels,  15” x 15” hand-dyed and screen printed art fabrics on which I am lettering my poems in brush calligraphy and embellishing with embroidery. My muses collaborating at last!

A Virtual Interview with Jan Benson and Agnes Eva Savich

Literary haiku poets Jan Benson and Agnes Eva Savich will be our features on Thursday, April 13, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).

Background

Jan Benson is an award-winning haiku poet living in Fort Worth, and her work
has appeared in translation in several foreign languages. Her haiku have been published in many of the world’s leading haiku journals and magazines as well as regionally in “form poetry” magazines.  In 2016, she won or placed in three international haiku contests. She s a member of Poetry Society of Texas and The British Haiku Society, Jan Benson’s haiku poetry and public profiles can be viewed at The Living Senryu Anthology (http://senryu.life/poets-index/80-index-b/benson,-jan.html), The Haiku Foundation Poet’s Registry (https://www.thehaikufoundation.org/poet-details/?IDclient=1980), Twitter: @janbentx, Facebook: Jan Folk Benson.

Agnes Eva Savich lives in Pflugerville with her husband, two kids, & four cats. She has been writing poetry since she was 12 and haiku for over a decade. She has over 100 haiku published in literary journals such as Modern Haiku, Frogpond, and Acorn, has been translated into 5 languages, and has placed in international haiku contests. She has an early collection of poetry, The Watcher: Poems (Cedar Leaf Press, 2009) and a first haiku collection in the works.

The Interview

CH: What first attracted you to writing? What is your first memory of writing?

AES: Writing was a vehicle for awareness of self. I was 12 and my two best friends and I were at a sleepover. Sometimes our group dynamic was such that two of us would be on the same wavelength, leaving the 3rd one out for a bit. On this occasion, faced with just my own thoughts while they were busy with something else, I grabbed a pink sheet of lined notebook paper and tried to write the stream of consciousness thought process I was experiencing of their bonding together and my feelings of alienation. When I read it to them, they cried (tweens and their emotions!) and I realized what a powerful tool for expressing and channeling emotions poetry could be.

Of course my next poem was a vehicle for the silliness of being young, called Ode to a Nerd, which we turned into a ridiculous rap (loosely based on the Beastie Boys) using a Casio keyboard and a cassette tape. So even in the beginning I knew poetry could also be a vehicle for the lightness of being.

JB: My first memory of an impetus to write was at age 26, one year after the birth of my daughter. I had been keeping a journal-style record of her days, using first person.

At her first birthday, I decided I had a life too and began to journal. The practice has continued to this day, though with a couple of interruptions. First, in the mid 1980’s when my mother was fighting cancer; Second, in May 2014 when a medical procedure in the hospital caused me to lose my brain… down to no capacity for speech, no short-term memory, no sequencing skills, no writing at all.

CH: What was your exposure to poetry while you were growing up?

AES: I can’t say that I remember reading much poetry in grade school, but by 8th grade they had us memorize The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe and I was also obsessed with The Jabberwocky from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (which I still have mostly memorized). I also went to Polish school (like a good little Polish immigrant in Chicago; all the way through high school), where they made sure we memorized the Invocation from Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz in Polish and would test us on it every year (yup, still have that in my brain too).

I was also heavily influenced in early high school by the poetry of Jim Morrison, and I’m sure I was introduced to the classics in my AP English courses. I was more into literature than poetry, but I did get a comprehensive tour of the fundamentals in a great poetry course I took at Northwestern University. From there I came away with a healthy appetite for Sylvia Plath, Gary Snyder, Wislawa Szymborska, ee cummings, Robert Pinsky, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Bukowski.

JB: The long made short, there was little poetry.

Mother occasionally read children’s books to my sisters and I. She had no inclination for poetry, except for songs and ditties. I clearly remember the song “Three Little Fishies” that had a chorus of: “boop boop diddum daddum waddum choo / and they swam and they swam / all over the dam.”

In 6th Grade we were putting on a play for the PTA that Spring and I wanted to be in the play. My English teacher insisted I could not audition for the play until I memorized Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain! My Captain!”  Which I did, auditioned for the play, and took one of the speaking roles.

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

AES: That was in high school for sure. I started my own zine with a friend; I submitted to the district student writing publication; my friend anonymously submitted my poem to her high school’s literary magazine where she had some editorial powers, just so I would see it in print; and I wrote about many experiences through the lens of poetry when they seemed to have meaning beyond just journaling about them.

The first poem that felt like a real work of art I wrote the summer I was 16 and attending band camp at the University of Kansas. There was a boy involved that I had a crush on and the poem I wrote about him afterwards really felt like a masterpiece to me! It was powerful to me that I could use poetry to describe an experience abstractly which would yield the same feelings in the reader that I had in the experience. It was also key that writing was a way to channel unrequited energy; he had a girlfriend back home or something, so it was just puppy love on my part, with no reciprocation or activity beyond talking. I would say after that summer, I felt like writing was my thing (along with playing oboe of course, which is what I was doing in camp, and still do to this day.)

JB: Truly, it was in a court ordered class for defensive driving after I was caught speeding in 2000 (Alvarado, TX) returning from a poetry fest in ATX.

In the car, as the officer was writing the ticket, I knew I was high on poetry, lost to the world of rules. But did not recognize myself as a poet until the class monitor asked our names, and what we do.

“Jan, I’m a poet”

CH: How did you become interested in Japanese poetry forms? How did they become the focus of your work?

AES: I became interested in writing shorter poems as a way of having fun and communicating experiences and feelings in a more condensed way. There’s this awful website, poetry.com, which back then had a couple of fun haiku contests going: magnetic poetry, where you had to make a short poem with only their given subset of words, and a “haiku this photo” contest. So for about a year I wrote a bunch of these pseudo-haiku, having no idea what the form was really about in the literary world. I threw a lot of metaphorical, poetical dense word clusters into 5-7-5 syllable, three line format and rejoiced at this neat little art form that could encapsulate my writing without having to go the distance of a full length poem!

But then I wanted to know what was being written in the ‘professional’ world of haiku, so I went and picked up a copy of Cor van den Heuvel’s Haiku Anthology. By the end of the book, I knew haiku was a much more complex and nuanced writing genre, far beyond the 5-7-5 form definition being thrown around by school teachers and mass media. Eventually I joined the Haiku Society of America, subscribing to the foremost haiku journal Frogpond, where the true literary power of haiku as a genre really blossomed for me.

JB: In 1999, Fort Worth, at one of the various poetry venues, I made friends with a haiku poet and got interested in the concept of juxtaposition. I had to adjust my mind to the “new” rules, moving well away from my “elementary school” understanding of 5/7/5. I joined the group, workshopping and writing haiku, until I moved to S.C. in 2001 just after 9/11.

When I scratched my way back to Texas in 2010, I immediately picked up the practice again, learning even more devices and advancements in the genre.

In May 2014 when I lost my brain, it was a slow recovery. After about 9 months I thought I might be able to do haiku again, as a therapy. Haiku requires an equal balance of right and left brain activity.

After struggling alone, I joined The Haiku Foundation (online) for their haiku workshops. There I met the mentors, Alan Summers (Britain) and Marion Clarke (Northern Ireland), who were patient with my limitations.

CH: When I think of haiku, I think of its precision and richness. For me, it connects to and opens into the natural world and the movement of time. How do you experience haiku?

AES: Yes, for me haiku is the singular expression of a brief moment of time in which I feel deeply some facet of or delight in the meaning of life. Often this moment feels inexplicable, intangible, so all I can do is write down its details and recreate the scene so that the reader might too feel the subtle poignancy. Rooting it in season elicits richer commonly shared connotations and draws those in to add further flavor to the haiku.

JB: While I do use haiku as a therapy, I find it opens nature in me and provides a connectedness to the universe not before experienced.

Truthfully, I experience haiku through the academics; the research of this growing form is unlike any other under the umbrella of poetry. The devices are not at all common to Western genres of poetry and are a challenge to approach and sort out. Incorporating just the beginner level haiku devices has seen me grow to international notoriety as a haiku poet. I will gladly be sharing those devices during my presentation at BookWoman on April 13, 2017.

What encourages me forward are the ever unfolding and new devices that can grow my current catalogue of haiku and never allow the work to become boring.

CH: How has the practice of short forms influenced the way you approach writing?

AES: When I wrote longer poems, I would wait for inspiration to strike me. I am a natural introverted watcher of things, so inspiration would come at me just from being in the world.

With haiku, that happens sometimes, but most often I consciously create space for the inspiration to happen. I pointedly observe the details of the world around me and try to conjure forth what’s special. Sometimes it’s like tuning fully into a radio station and a perfectly formed cluster of words will come at me! But I am ok with editing that later, or taking incomplete pieces as they come – I spend a lot of time, say a lunch hour, just jotting down plain observations and then seeing on the page how these juxtapositions interact, and then try to dig deeper into what else I’m experiencing while observing the natural world. What thoughts was I just having, what else is going on in life, what memories just popped up out of nowhere? And then I apply that layer to what I’m observing and see how those things cook together.

A lot of my haiku get born that way. Staring at a pond full of lotus flowers and realizing I was just thinking about whether I’ll have any more kids, and how can I package that moment into a poem. Or even being in a work seminar and realizing the sound of everyone shuffling their papers has a magical feeling, and trying to capture that in a poem. I’ve also realized that not everything I write has to be amazing – some haiku are there just to be bridges to the really good ones.

JB: Oh, Brevity! Power and Joy are thy names!

I do believe it might do well to clarify here, that English Language Haiku is currently the most broad expression of the genre, and even the writers of Japanese haiku acknowledge its domination in the world of short-form poetry.

CH: When I think of your work, I think first of your haiku. How have the Japanese forms in particular influenced other writing that you do?

AES: Writing haiku has really sharpened my Occam’s razor: the simplest way to write something is the best way! I’m very influenced by the brevity and simplicity of haiku, which is rooted in my earliest literary love: Hemingway. I like to find a simple, direct, and clear way to say something, which then elicits connection and emotion. When I write a longer poem or prose, I wind up gravitating towards simplicity. When I edit an initially dense word cluster, I see how many words I can cut away for it to still have meaning.

JB: As I am yet recovering my brain capacity, I am all-haiku all-the-time. But yes, even in correspondence I notice and count on the resonance of words. Well worded brevity can be a powerful influence.

CH: How do you nurture yourself as a writer? As a non-MFA writer, what paths of growth have you followed?

AES: I self-assign myself a lot of reading (online and print journals, forums, and books) as well as involvement in the haiku community. I have a robust journal and contest submission schedule (Google calendar) and tracking system (Excel spreadsheet) for all my haiku. In the early days I was a frequent participant in several yahoo discussion groups where many of today’s best haiku writers were active, and now it’s mainly Facebook groups and The Haiku Foundation Forums.

The kill-your-darlings path of workshopping poems in online forums is particularly conducive to growth. I am protective of my haiku but without question I have gotten very valuable feedback that’s nudged work towards a polished gem as seen through others’ eyes – because ultimately haiku belongs just as much to the reader as the writer. It’s all about recreating your experience for someone else to experience in their own way. It’s amazing what depths are added when you bring another person’s viewpoint into evaluating your work!

I also think it’s important to collaborate. I’ve participated in renku, which is collaborative writing where there’s a leader and you take turns (sometimes competitively) adding to a chain of haiku according to specific rules. I’ve also started collaborating, notably with Jan Benson, on haiga, which is art or photography combined with a juxtaposed haiku.

I also try to push myself into presentation roles such as leading a haiku workshop at an Austin Writergrrls retreat, speaking at Waco Wordfest, and reading at BookWoman events. I am also planning on attending my first Haiku North America conference this fall in Santa Fe, NM. Immersing myself in workshops and lectures and meeting many of the haiku community in person will be an amazing experience.

JB:  Being classically trained as a musician in my youth did teach me discipline. One of my therapies prior to returning to haiku was regaining my musical knowledge. To this day, I will put down a haiku journal to listen to a concert or musician. Pop music as well as classical do the same for me…replenishing my spirit!

A learned drive is now built into me. I enjoy researching the academics of haiku. Further, many of the BBC and PBS series of dramas feed me. As well, I avoid images of war, and greed.

CH: Please tell us about poets whose work has influenced yours. How has your work changed in response to their work?

AES: I pick up clues that influence my writing from reading my favorite haiku poets. Jack Kerouac’s haiku teaches me that haiku can be cool; Chase Gagnon teaches me to stay authentic and that urban grit and detailed personal experience are amazing in haiku; Marlene Mountain teaches me that one line haiku can capture the multisensory gist of a moment in as little as 5 words; Jim Kacian, John Stevenson, and George Swede all teach me that what seems like a fleeting thought can be a universal truth; Chiyo-ni teaches me to appreciate nature juxtapositions with the eyes of a child; Johannes S.H. Bjerg teaches me to dive head-first into the abstract; Jan Benson teaches me to dissect and clarify the possible interpretations of words; Alan Summers and Mark Brooks teach me to be playful with nature and thought; Alexis Rotella teaches me to look for the true delights in any given natural scene; Jane Reichhold teaches me about tenderness and deep listening; and finally Peter Newton, whose work I am most heavily crushing on right now, inspires me to write about the indescribable by catching seemingly disparate clues out of thin air and putting them together like a chef using exotic ingredients to create a multi-dimensional experience. There are so many more that are universally delightful and inspiring, but those are some of the specific lessons I’ve picked up from this set of poets.

JB: In the haiku world, these dozen poets most influence me:

Marlene Mountain (USA), for her brevity.

Johannes S.H. Bjerg (Denmark), for his experimentation in the form

Roberta Beary (USA), for ubiquitous presence, and feminism

Debbie Strange (Canada), for her unique expressions of nature

Chen-ou Liu (Canada), for his tenacity to publish and be published

Agnes Eva Savich (USA), for her sophistication and knowledge

Brendon Kent (Britain), for his whisper-soft juxtapositions

Marietta McGregor (Australia), for her unique images

Ben Moeller-Gaa (USA), for nuances in Midwestern observations

Marion Clarke (N.I.), for her deft hand at shahai (photo haiku)

Michael Smeer (Netherlands), for his international mentorship

Alan Summers (Britain), for his ability to teach students the value of a close

read in haiku and mentoring others to see themselves as “more-than”.

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

AES: I’m usually in the middle of like 6 books (it’s ok, with haiku you can skip around!) but the most recent favorite I’ve read is Christopher Patchel’s Turn Turn. He’s the kind of writer that whatever piece I read in whatever journal his work pops up in, I immediately feel like he’s reached into the deepest nethers to illuminate a universal truth and simultaneously stretched the boundaries of what haiku could be. He is currently the editor in chief of The Haiku Society of America’s Frogpond publication. I highly recommend his book, each poem is delicious like a French pastry baked from scratch.

JB: I read at least three books a week online. Fortunately, haiku has many PDF files on specific sites that one can access for free.

The most recent perfect-bound book I’ve read is the international anthology, “Wild Voices”, in which both Agnes Eva Savich and I have poetry. We will be reading from this book at the BookWoman Event.