A Virtual Interview with Carolyn Dahl

Thursday, April 8, 2021  7:15 – 9:00 p.m.

Event registration at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/142621415493

Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for more information.

Background

Carolyn Dahl was the winner of the “Poetry of the Plains and Prairies” chapbook competition sponsored by North Dakota State University. The press published her poems, A Muddy Kind of Love, as a limited edition, signed and numbered letterpress-printed book. Her 2019 chapbook, Art Preserves What Can’t Be Saved, won first place in the Press Women of Texas’ contest and the National Federation of Press Women’s Communications’ contest, chapbook division. She is the co-author of The Painted Door Opened with Carolyn Florek, the author of three art books, and has been published in many anthologies and literary journals.  Raised in Minnesota, she now writes from Houston Texas where she raises monarch butterflies, releasing them into her garden.   http://www.carolyndahlstudio.com. 

The Interview

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

CD: First of all, let me thank Bookwoman Bookstore and Cindy Huyser for this opportunity to read from my two chapbooks and to be interviewed with such interesting questions.  I’m grateful to participate in this series.

As to my earliest memory of poetry, I was maybe eight years old when I read a child’s poem called “Little Boy Blue” by Eugene Field and was reduced to tears. In that moment, I realized there were two kinds of language: the language of every day life and the crafted, heightened language of a poem that had the power to move emotions.  For some reason though, it never occurred to me to write poetry myself until late in life, even though I had been a diligent journal keeper since age eleven. It was only after a career in singing/acting and visual art, and the publication of three art books, that I dared to think of myself as a Writer, as opposed to a writer. An invitation to visit a poetry group returned me to the beauty of language that had so moved me as a child and started my interest in composing poems of my own.

CH: You’re a visual artist as well as a poet. How would you describe yourself as an artist? How does your life as an artist influence your work as a poet?

CD: My professional career for twenty five years was mainly focused on textile art, though I also worked in a variety of other mediums. (www.carolyndahlstudio.com).  I exhibited my work in many galleries, taught fabric dyeing and painting methods at national conferences, lectured, appeared on HGTV and PBS television, and wrote books and articles in my field.  Because I have always worked in multiple methods, I had no difficulty adding poetry to my options because all my creative endeavors flow from the same source. I don’t change who I am when I make art versus write poetry, nor do I feel I’m in different zones as I switch from the verbal to the visual.

In fact, bouncing back and forth can be beneficial, such as when I’m having a difficult intellectual problem with a poem, I find that the change to a physical activity (art) often breaks open a solution. Working in both seems to suit me as I like the duality of perspectives and the satisfaction each brings. 

CH: Tell us a little about your chapbook, Art Preserves What Can’t Be Saved (The Orchard Street Press, 2019). What was your vision for this book?  

CD: When the publisher asked me to submit a chapbook after a poem of mine had won a finalist award, I admit I didn’t have one ready. Instead of presenting him with a collection of already written poems organized around a unified theme, I had to uncover a vision inherent in a diverse collection of poems I had on hand. The method I used was to print all the possible entries, lay them on the floor, write on each page the main components (subject, emotion, images), contemplate the topics intently, and read them out loud multiple times. As I worked with the poems, I began to see an organizing principle develop of four sections based on the theme of the Art of My Life, what is important to me (making art, empathy for others’ lives, respecting animals, poetry writing). I was fortunate to have the publisher accept the book, allow me some artistic input on the selection of the book’s cover, and to change to perfect binding instead of a stapled chapbook, which allows it to have a spine and be stocked in bookstores.

CH: Most recently, your chapbook A Muddy Kind of Love (North Dakota State University Press, 2020) won the “Poetry of the Plains and Prairies” chapbook competition sponsored by NDSU. First of all, congratulations on this recognition. What inspired this book? How did your process in writing and compiling this manuscript differ from that of Art Preserves What Can’t Be Saved? How was it the same?

CD: Thank you.  I am very honored to have received this award from NDSU press and am especially pleased because it fulfilled a long held dream—to have a handmade, letterpress printed, signed and numbered collectors’ edition of my poems.

Unlike Art Preserves What Can’t Be Saved, these poems were written specifically to a theme (a disappearing way of life that I wished to preserve) and were part of a full-length manuscript I was writing. My first task was to decide which poems in the larger manuscript would lend themselves to the short form of a chapbook. I wanted it to read like a stand-alone book, totally sufficient to itself, without any gaps, or sense of missing poems in the through line of the theme.

Once again, I used my floor shuffle method to organize the book as I had with Art Preserves What Can’t Be Saved. Because the book features both a female and male perspectives, I also had to decide if I would group the poems by gender, or mix them together. After many arrangement tries, I chose the former because I thought it gave a more complex development of the characters through the power of a series.  An interesting result of developing this chapbook that I hadn’t anticipated was that I gained insight into my larger work’s organization and how my poems moved through its pages. The process also refined my definition of what a chapbook was versus a full-length book and how different they are.

CH: The poems of A Muddy Kind of Love reflect a very different place than your current home in Houston. How does place figure in your work?

CD: Very prominently. Place is the constant atmosphere behind all the poems.  It establishes tone, provides the conflict, stimulates images, and is often the catalyst for the poem’s existence.  I once read that the landscape of where you grew up affects who you become, your attitudes, approach to life, and dominates your memories, and that the places you live later don’t change your personality that much. I don’t know if this has been proven true, but perhaps it accounts for why so many people write about the terrain of their birth.

A Muddy Love Kind of Love is set in the past, in a rural midwestern environment (though similar farms and lives exist everywhere), uses the concrete diction of the area, and relies heavily on my memories of Minnesota.  However, this dedication to place isn’t static, but could shift with each book I write.   A Muddy Kind of Love relies on this Midwest landscape to spur the narratives of its poems; whereas, Art Preserves What Can’t Be Saved ranges through many locations, my travels, and my life in Houston.  Different environments always stimulate different poetic responses. What stays the same may be how you approach your topics.

CH: I was fascinated several years ago to learn you raise monarch butterflies, and I’m curious about your experience. What have you learned from this experience? How does the time and attention raising butterflies demands relate to the demands of art and writing? How has this experience influenced your art and writing?

CD: Raising Monarch butterflies has been my passion for many years. I can’t even remember when I started. If I am successful, I may produce 100-200 butterflies a year.  That’s not a lot for a short-lived, fragile creature.  But nurturing nature can’t be measured in numbers, nor the pleasure of living with wings described.  I consider it a privilege instead of a task. In return, they allow me to observe their form of life closely, with all its strange and fascinating habits (did you know some caterpillars nod their heads in time to singing), which forces my imagination into new areas. Such as, what does a caterpillar think about music? You can’t exactly google a caterpillar’s mind.

Many similarities can be found between the writing ritual and raising butterflies. Feeding caterpillars five times a day for many weeks echos the writing ritual of “showing up for the muse.” The thrill of the transformative process matches how a triggering idea becomes a poem, and the excitement of releasing the hatched butterflies into my garden clearly equals the joy of watching a new book move out into the world.  More importantly, raising butterflies brings a sense of awe, beauty and wonder into my daily, often repetitive life.  It is this awe that energizes my desire to write.

CH: In addition to your poetry books, you’re also the author of three art books. Where do the processes of creating an art book and a poetry book overlap?

CD: When I write an art book, it is like writing two books at once. I must compose an interesting text, the how-to step-outs which are an art form in themselves, and then create the art that illustrates the text.  It is a very long process, requiring a shifting back and forth between verbal and visual skills all in the same book. As a poet I work mainly with words and don’t need to consider how they will be illustrated.  When I am finished, I turn the manuscript over to a publisher to decide any visuals. A poetry book has a somewhat set format also, is divided into sections usually,  whereas art books take a variety of formats with no standard presentation.

CH: Do you have a particular medium you prefer as an artist? A particular form or aesthetic to which you’re drawn in poetry?

CD: Now that I no longer teach around the country, and only exhibit my textile art by invitation, I am returning to doing mainly drawings. Perhaps the presence of 100 sheets of white paper waiting in my studio to be filled with images motivates me. I can’t ignore blank surfaces for very long. As to what aesthetic attracts me in poetry, I tend to favor free verse, narrative, imagistic, nature referenced, and poetry where the surreal bumps up against reality.

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

CD: I don’t know if these poets influenced my style or technique. I tend to avoid dissecting poets’ work that I love because it loses some magic when I return to it. But these poets have certainly stunned, excited, taken my breath away, and saddened me because I wished so badly that their lines were mine: Mary Oliver for her alertness to nature, Kevin Prufer for intellectual complexity, Ted Kooser for the brilliance of the ordinary, and Bridget Pegeen Kelly for her ability to make me feel I’m in the middle of an incantation. However, when I begin to write, I find I’m taken over by a very strong inner voice that I fear often obliterates other poets’ influences. Of course, I could be wrong because influences are absorbed unconsciously. A reader might be able to detect an influence in my work that I do not see.  Poets aren’t always aware of what is in their own poems.

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

CD: I am reading a lot of poets from other countries now. I just finished Dear Ms. Schubert, translations by Robin Davidson of Polish Ewa Lipska’s poems.  With a pencil in hand, which is the way I always read,  I enjoyed underlining incredible phrases like:  “…I open my mouth and flip the switch in my throat,” or “…I won’t translate the words for you I never said,” or “…last page was torn out of the flying bird of messages,”  and “…he dreams of a literary pandemic capable of claiming millions of victims.” Wow.

A Virtual Interview with d. ellis phelps

Background

Thursday, March 11, 2021  7:15 – 9:00 p.m.

Register for this on-line event at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-d-ellis-phelps-tickets-138117614503

Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for more information.

Feature d. ellis phelps is the author of two books of poetry: what she holds(Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press, 2020) & what holds her (Main Street Rag, 2019) and of the novel, Making Room for George (MSSP, 2016). Her poems, essays, and visual art have appeared widely online and in print, and she has edited more than a dozen anthologies.

On her blog, Formidable Woman Sanctuary, she writes about spiritual and emotional healing and the writing life among other topics while also publishing the work of other writers and artists. She is the founding and managing editor of Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press and of fws:  international journal of literature & art. She has taught fine arts in various venues with students of all ages for decades and she currently facilitates The Art of Writing Workshop Series for the Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, Texas.

The Interview

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

dep: My first memory of poetry is listening to my mother recite nursery rhymes for me, how I loved to chime in, how much we laughed together over their various twists and turns, their sonorous interplay, their rhythms, and rhymes.  From as early as second grade, I participated in University Interscholastic League events like storytelling and declamation, often winning a red or blue ribbon for my recitations, memorizing the esteemed lines of  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in The Children’s Hour  or The Creation by James Weldon Johnson.  And I stood, for these contests, in the library stacks, sometimes for hours (and for years, as I competed through High School) reading one anthology after another, looking for these poems, as it was I who chose what I would memorize.

But my first memory of myself as a poet is as a fourth grader in Mrs. Anderson’s class.  She asked us to create our own anthology from chosen, favorite poets.  We were to copy the poems in our neatest handwriting and illustrate them then we were to compose a poem of our own.  I remember illustrating Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and that I included Invictus by William Ernest Henley, too.  The only line I remember of the poem I wrote is this:  and lightning refreshes the air in a poem about a thunderstorm.  I’ll say Mrs. Anderson’s project has stuck with me.

I continued to write poems, mostly bad ones, having published my first piece in a High School literary journal, something about lonely teenage angst.  But it wasn’t until the late 1980s when a San Antonio visual artist, Alberto Mijangos (now deceased), asked to read some of my poems and then invited me to collaborate with him, writing words to go alongside some of his paintings for a show that hung at the Blue Star, that I began to take myself seriously as a poet.  

CH: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a visual artist. What do you see as the connection between these forms of expression? How do your experiences as a maker of visual art inform your poetry?

dep: It was, in fact, also Alberto Mijangos who noticed my art.  When I brought my poems for him to read, he noticed the markings in the margins, all over the edges, inside and around my words and pointing to them he said, “What are these?”  “Doodles,” I answered.  He paused.  “I think you may be an artist,” he said.  Then he encouraged me to buy some art supplies and to begin.  And so, I worked in much the same spirit as the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham did as she started to choreograph a new dance by saying “Begin!”  I began.  I followed the marks as they appeared on the page.  I learned to ask or dialogue with the canvas, standing, sometimes for long minutes before making another mark, waiting for the mark or the color to make itself known to me.  It was a kind of improvisational play I had never experienced, and it changed me.  Thus, it also changed my writing, making it even more improvisational, helping me listen for what the poem wanted to say, helping me listen for what I wanted to say.

Every medium has its limitations and I think words may be the most limited medium.  Becoming more fluent as a visual artist meant having a whole other language, it meant being able to show ideas, worlds even, that words somehow seemed unable to touch. 

Both the written word and visual art are markings, ways to make marks, languages, movements.  And whether I am writing or painting or writing and painting, as lately, I often do a kind of mixed-media working with words, color and form, I am mostly dialoging with Universe, realizing and expressing the interconnectedness of all things, observing the natural order, or as in what she holds, working to resolve an emotional conflict.

CH: You’ve published a novel as well as two collections of poetry. How would you describe your identity as a writer?

dep: First, I am happy to announce here that I have a new book of metered, rhymed poetry for children, words gone wild, forthcoming from Kelsay Book’s Daffydowndilly Press this summer!

So my first book of poems, what holds her, is ecstatic verse.  My second book of poems, what she holds, is transformational, deeply personal, reconciliation work.  And my third book of poems, words gone wild, is light and fun and full of fantasy.  My novel, Making Room for George, is a highly embellished (fictionalized) memoir based on a true story, also a work of reconciliation.  I am currently shopping a fourth book of poems that are all social justice work.

Maybe it’s fair to say my work is transformational, deeply personal, even ecstatic work that celebrates the natural world and relationship in all its forms, a work that takes itself to the playground and knows how to whoop and holler, too!

CH: Tell us a little about your first book of poetry, what holds her (Main Street Rag, 2019). How did this collection come about?

dep: This book came to me as I processed the grief I was experiencing over the death of both of my parents within twenty-nine days of one another in 2009.  Prior to their fleshly departures and after, the grief was so deeply overwhelming that I would lie on my deck, spread out on my grandmother’s quilt in the shade of the redbud, mourning.  I almost always have a journal and pen nearby, so then there would be words, phrases floating into my consciousness between bouts of sobbing.  The words were in a foreign syntax, and very different from what I then considered my style of writing.  But the words and phrases were persistent day after day, so I began to record them.  Often, a few words or a line would arrive but nothing else would come until I had recorded the words given.     

The poems for what holds her came often simultaneously with the poems that would become the collection I title what she holds, as I struggled to process the fact that as my father left his fleshly body, my chances of reconciling my difficult relationship with him were ending.

The poems in both collections proved me wrong. 

I think the first collection came first as a collection as a teaching from the ether, from the Universe, from my Soul Pod (the one that includes my parents) to shore me up and ready me to really have the space and spiritual substance to process the trauma, experiences and revelations that were to come to me with my father’s discarnate self.  We had unfinished business.  That’s what the writing of many of the poems in what she holds addresses.

CH: Your new collection of poetry, what she holds (Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press, 2020), has followed quickly after what holds her. What was different for you in the process of creating and releasing this second collection? What effects did the pandemic have on the release of this book?

dep: In 2014, a good five years after my father’s passing, I began to break down emotionally.  As I describe in the afterword of what she holds, I had night terrors, there were psychic attacks of the most brutal kind, I was an emotional wreck, still in the throes of a relationship that clearly still needed to reconcile. I took up my pen and my paint.  I prayed and sang and chanted.  I sought counseling. I saw a spiritual guide. I joined a dream group.  I recorded my dreams.  I wrote and wrote and wrote.  I spoke out loud to my father.  I saw a shaman.  I cried.  I reasoned.  I pleaded.  I commanded.  And I returned, again and again, to the words, to the paint.  It took months, but Allelujah!  Healing happened.  what she holds is the product of that transformational process. 

What was different in the writing process was that in writing what holds her I felt as though I was taking dictation from the Spirit World.  In the writing of what she holds, I was actively working the memories, recording and working the dreams, both exhuming and laying to rest all that I was holding with the tools I use to do such transformational work:  my pen and my brush.

Because of the way our world has been turned inward during this year, the releases of what she holds and of what holds her have been soft and silent, almost as if that is just as it should be.  The readings I had scheduled for what holds her were cancelled and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to read from what she holds.  I don’t think though, that I could have done a reading of it maybe until now for every time I read it, it touches me so that I cry and cannot keep reading. 

CH: How do what she holds and what holds her speak to each other? Are there ‘through lines’ between your poetry collections and your novel, Making Room for George (Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press, 2016)?

dep: what she holds is a memoir:  what happened, how it felt and what I did with it.  It is “of this world.”  what holds her is not of this world.  It is beyond what happened.  It is like Mooji Baba, a Buddhist guru I follow says:  there is living as a person, taking everything personally, holding on to or being attached to things, happenings, circumstances, feelings and so on and then there is becoming aware of the True Self, letting go of the tangible world, living more in the timeless realm, recognizing who You really are and living out of a more neutral state, more connected to Pure Consciousness.  what she holds is a record of living more identified with  the personal state of being.  It is samsara or suffering. But what holds her is sutra, the Truth of Being, the way of being more identified with Pure Consciousness.  I think I had to have that knowing, its teaching in order to do the “of this world” healing my soul needed to do.

Making Room for George is also samara or suffering.  It was also written as a transformational process, working through difficult relationships with the men in my life, dealing with sexual ambiguity, discerning direction and purpose in my life, all of this done under the guise of the main character, Bet.  I was still very angry during the writing of George and I simply needed a place to put all of that angst.  I needed a record of what was happening to my life.  Writing it all down became my way out like hacking a path through a jungle.  I am grateful to the book and to George, himself, for giving me that path. You’ve made me curious about “through lines.”  Of course, the themes are interwoven.  It seems my soul work during this incarnation is to learn how to live in harmonious relationships, especially with men, to learn to forgive, and to do this and not give up being true to myself, to do this and to identify with my True Self, to do this as a graceful, peaceful, yet empowered, formidable woman.  Now I have to go read my books and find whether there are actual repetitions of lines in them.  I’ll bet there are!

CH: You’ve founded two literary enterprises: fws: international journal of literature & art and Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press. How has your work in the publishing sphere influenced your life as a writer?

dep: Mainly, my work as an editor has used a great deal of my writing time, but it has afforded me the opportunity to read a lot of contemporary work, a process that is educative and worthy.  I also follow the lead of many of the writers whose work I publish, finding new journals and submission opportunities, making connections and even friendships.  That’s fun!  Sometimes, when I’m publishing an anthology or collection, I contribute, having been inspired by the theme of the call.  I especially liked writing the lines I contributed to the Renga Edition of fws last spring.  That was such a joy to see unfold as it did.  Further, Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press has published two of my books that may have taken much longer to see in print had I opted to use a more traditional publisher.  In this respect, being a publisher has given me much freedom and I am certain, opened space for more work to come because, you know, rejection and the burdensome slowness of traditional publishing can be debilitating to a writer’s morale.  MSSP gave me speed and now and next.  I am very grateful for that!

CH: You’ve taught fine arts for decades, and currently facilitate The Art of Writing Workshop Series for the Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, Texas. What has your experience as a teacher brought to your writing life? Please also tell us a little about The Art of Writing Workshop Series.

dep:

Ah!  When I teach, I bloom!  I always work the prompts I am using to teach a concept or technique and the result is new work of my own, of course! It is said that if one wants to know a subject, one should teach it.  I find that I learn so much by trying to explain writing as craft to someone else.  In my preparation, I read many poems I would otherwise perhaps not have read.  I read commentary by other writers and teachers of writing on the subject I’m approaching.  And of course, I hear what the writers who attend my workshops write as a result of the prompts we are working and that is always so interesting and sometimes quite wonderful!

In The Art of Writing workshop series we have approached writing prose poems, memoir, the blessing, the epistle, form poems, poems of praise, rhyming poems, point of view poems, the personal essay, making metaphor, how poems move, and much more.  We do a writing warm-up, read some sample poems, try our hand at writing to a prompt or two, share and give soft feedback in every session.  We are an intimate group of twelve or less (on zoom for now) and we meet the second Saturday of each month from 1-3P through April, 2021.  Beginning in May through September of 2021, I will be continuing the series with a set of five workshops on the writing of memoir also on the second Saturday from 1-3P CST. Workshops are free and open to the public.  Please join us!  RSVP with interest to stauber@boernelibrary.org     

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets, contemporary or otherwise? If you could sit down for an afternoon with a poet from history, who would you choose?

dep: Emily Dickenson, Rumi, Kahlil Gibran, TS Eliot, Whitman, Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, Alfred K. LaMotte…I tend to like certain poems, those that stay with me, rather than certain poets or entire books, except Rumi and Eliot and Whitman and Oliver.  Those I can read again and again.  I love the work of my contemporary Robert Okaji. I love your work, Cindy, especially that poem about the Red Admiral I heard you read in Boerne last year and the two we published in Through Layered Limestone:  Praise for a Splintered Birdhouse and Nut Sedge.  I also very much enjoy the new book by my contemporary Lucy Griffith, We Make A Tiny Herd.

I’d like to sit down with Rumi  or Kahlil Gibran.

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

dep: I am reading Mary Oliver’s What Do We Know.

A Virtual Interview with Susan Signe Morrison

Thursday, February 11, 2021  7:15 – 9:00 p.m.

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-featuring-susan-morrison-tickets-138114936493

Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for additional information.

Background

Susan Signe Morrison is the editor of a recently-released chapbook, Another Troy (Finishing Line Press, 2020), containing poetry written by her mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison. Committed to bringing the lives of women hidden in the shades of history to a wider audience, she has also edited the wartime journals of Wehlen Morrison, which have been published as Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America. 

A Professor of English at Texas State University, Morrison is the author of four books on the Middle Ages, as well as a novel, Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, which retells the story of the Old English epic Beowulf from the perspective of the female characters. A broader audience has accessed Susan’s work through interviews with Wired, American Public Media, the History Channel, and The New Yorker.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of reading? What role did story play in your childhood?

SSM: My first memory of reading was when I was 7. I know I read before this, but the summer of 1966 really stands out to me. My parents took my brothers (ages 10 and 12) and me to England. While there we walked on the Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury—a storied pilgrimage path from the Middle Ages. We each had only what our rucksacks could hold which we carried on our backs. We’d walk 5-7 miles a day and sleep at inns. Because we had limited books, we all shared. I read everything from Agatha Christie to A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh.

In third grade, I would bring my beloved stuffed animals with me to class. They included a Tigger (the tiger) and Snakey (who was a…you guessed it! A snake!). My teacher allowed me to present little skits on a periodic basis to everyone. I would make up stories and act them out. Later, I acted on stage in theatre productions, but those moments of making up skits on the spot for my classmates filled me with the joy of creation and sharing.

CH: What inspired your interest in creating a retelling of Beowulf? What did you learn from the process of writing Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife?

SSM: I teach medieval literature at Texas State University. Regularly I have my Old English class. I teach all sorts of shorter works like saints’ lives and women’s songs, but end with Beowulf. As a feminist, I have always gravitated towards highlighting the women’s perspective in the epic. I learned that one can say through fiction what one might also do in scholarly tomes—only you reach a much different, wider, and more diverse audience!

CH: I understand you’ve written four books on the Middle Ages. How did you become interested in this period?

SSM: One semester in graduate school, I took a Chaucer seminar at the same time as a course on Middle High (medieval) German. There was no looking back for me! It was only after my first book on medieval women pilgrims was published in 2000, that I came to realization as to why I became a medievalist. As mentioned above, my parents took us on a pilgrimage when I was 7 to Canterbury Cathedral. Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims also went on such a pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales. So the seeds were sown when I was a child. Also, once I learned about medieval women and their writings, I was hooked.

CH: How do you see the literature of relatively distant historical periods speaking to a contemporary audience?

SSM: I teach a course on Quiet and Silent Women—with works ranging from Greek myth to the Harlem Renaissance. I designed it in early 2016 and taught it that fall—just as Hillary Clinton was running for president and the MeToo movement began. There is so much resonance between women’s lives thousands of years ago and now—sadly. You’d think things would have changed more in that time span. But, on the positive side, such female figures and women writers have amazing resilience and intelligence—I think they are role models for us all today.

CH: How did you become interested in telling the stories of women? Your volume, A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women’s Lives in the European Middle Ages, looks fascinating, and I enjoyed the thumbnail sketches I found on your blog, https://amedievalwomanscompanion.com. Tell us a little about your research for this book.

SSM : I have always been interested in women’s stories. After all, I am one! And my mom was a writer as well—an oral historian. Her perspective is: everyone has a story, even if they don’t realize it. I regularly teach a class on medieval women writers. They are so intelligent, sarcastic, and subversive.

CH: Please tell us a little about your mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison.  You’ve published Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America, which your mother wrote and which you edited. As you worked on this project, what did you learn about your mother that surprised you?

SSM: Well: I learned so many wonderful things! That she was intellectually precocious, poetic from her earliest writings (age 10—some little poems still exist), and so funny! Her humor about others and at her own foibles was a delight to behold. She was just the same woman I knew—only much younger. I wish I could have been her classmate. She and I always wanted to write a book together. Now we have: two of them. I only wish she were here to see them—she would be delighted.

CH: Tell us a little about Another Troy. The title of this book of your mother’s wartime poetry makes me think of course of The Iliad. How did you select the title? What was it like to edit this volume?

SSM: Actually, Another Troy was the original title for Home Front Girl, the volume of her diaries from the war years I edited. The publishers thought it was too poetic—hence the name change. But such a poetic name is perfect for a volume of poetry. My mom, Joan, was obsessed with classical languages and literature. She often mentions Troy, Helen, Pompeii, and the passage of time—seeing the destruction in Europe as parallel to that from 2,000 and more years ago. Hence the title. When she has just turned 18, on December 28, 1940 during the Blitz in England, she writes, “The world’s changing. Troy; who thinks of Troy now. London is Troy tonight; London is brave somehow—burning and huddled in shelters; yet walking also in the unlighted streets. . . . London is Troy.”

CH: As I look at the titles on your website (http://www.susansignemorrison.com/) , I see a range of interest that I find fascinating—not only Medieval scholarship, but books like The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter.  As a scholar, how would you describe yourself?

SSM: I would say I write about topics lying in the shadows and bring them to light—whether the hidden lives of women or, in my work in the Environmental Humanities, issues like waste and filth. I want to draw attention to these topics so people will pay attention so we can change the world for the better.

CH: What are you working on now?

SSM: I am writing a memoir about my time teaching in East Germany. Using archival research, I am documenting the impact of a 1970s/80s exchange program I participated in between two universities: Brown University in Rhode Island and one in the former German Democratic Republic—East Germany. Ultimately, I show how Stasi (secret police) files—including my own—responding to this program fail to accurately retell what happened. If you want to hear about my experiences, this podcast has an interview with me about my experiences in the former East Germany: https://coldwarconversations.com/episode130

CH: What are you reading these days for pleasure?

Well, it’s stressful, so I’m reading historical fiction to be in another time and place. I think one of the best cures for a pandemic is reading stories by P.G. Wodehouse—so silly and funny!

A Virtual Interview with Loretta Diane Walker

Background

Thursday, January 14, 2021  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information, or register with Eventbrite: (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-tickets-135623037155)

Loretta Diane Walker is the author of five collections of poetry, and her sixth collection, Day Begins When Darkness is in Full Bloom, is forthcoming in 2021. Her most recent title is Ode to My Mother’s Voice (Lamar University Press, 2019). Her third collection, In This House (Bluelight Press, 2015), won the 2016 Phyllis Wheatley Book Award. A member of the Texas Institute of Letters, a nine-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Best of the Net nominee, she is not only an award winning poet but a musician who plays her tenor saxophone sometimes, a daughter navigating a new world, a teacher who still likes her students, a two-time breast cancer survivor, and an artist who has been humbled and inspired by a collection of remarkable people. Of her work, Naomi Shihab Nye writes, “Loretta Diane Walker writes with compassionate wisdom and insight—her poems restore humanity.” 

The Interview

CH: When you last featured for the BookWoman 2nd Thursday series, it was 2016, prior to your winning the Harlem Book Fair’s Phyllis Wheatley Award for In This House. Congratulations on winning this national award. How did it change your life as a poet?

LDW: I garnered recognition from various entities I would have never considered. I was asked to deliver the commencement address for the 2016 fall commencement ceremonies at the University of Texas at the Permian Basin. In 2018, I was invited to serve as one of the back-to-school convocation speakers for the Ector County Independent School District.

I have been invited to read/present at a variety of poetry venues and have been asked to judge a number of poetry contests. The award afforded me a new level of respectability.

CH: Since 2016, you’ve also published two more volumes of poetry—Desert Light and Ode to My Mother’s Voice: and other poems, both from Lamar University Press. Tell us a little about how your relationship with the press came about.

LDW: Jerry Craven heard me read from the anthology Her Texas at The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas weekend. He heard me a second time at Angelo State Writer’s Conference. After the presentation at Angelo State, he said, “I like your work, send me something.” Afterwards, he gave me his business card. This is how Desert Light came into being. I submitted a second time, Katie Hoerth accepted my manuscript— Ode to My Mother’s Voice: and other poems came into fruition. I hope to publish with them again one day.

CH: What have you learned in the process of publishing these most recent books?

LDW: First of all, I have received the gift of “belief” in my work from the publisher. Twice this press has invested in me. This is also true of the other two collections (Bluelight Press). These last two books revealed, if I were writing a novel series, light and the night sky would be the protagonists. My reference to them is numerous. Also, when my mother was about to share something about herself with me, she would make a reference to something in the sky as a segue to the conversation. If she said, “That’s a harvest moon; we used to pick cotton by it,” I knew to listen. I mean really listen. She was about to share something that would make her vulnerable.  I have deduced the night sky is a perfect example of vulnerability.

CH: The sense of place that permeates the poems of Desert Light is striking. Please tell us a little about your experience of these poems, and how the book came together.

LDW: Odessa is nowhere on the top 100 places to visit in the world list (LOL), but it has a barren beauty that mesmerizes me. The sky here is absolutely intriguing. To watch it change is a show in and of itself.  In Desert Light, my goal is to share this beauty—from the way pink streaks a morning sky to the way the wind blows autumn leaves. This collection is a tour guide for hidden beauty in a desert place. 

CH: One of the pleasures I had in reading Desert Light was to encounter in the poems the presence of the night sky and the liminal surface between darkness and light. As a writer, how do these subjects call to you?

LDW: I have had an obsession with the night sky since childhood. I can remember stretching out on the sidewalk or in the grass looking up, ogling at the stars, the moon, or clouds skirting the moon. I felt a connection then, and still do, that I cannot verbalize. I believe as long as there is light in the darkness there is hope. Perhaps what I am actually writing about is hope— a hope that I have carried from childhood, hope I will carry into the future.

CH: Your fifth volume, Ode to My Mother’s Voice: and other poems, came out in 2019. Tell us a little about your connection to the ode, and how it informed the poems of this collection.

LDW: Since the ode is a platform to offer praise and honor, I thought it would be a perfect vehicle for what I was trying to achieve. The purpose of this collection is to honor my mother. All of my books thus far contain poems about her, this one however, is to “spotlight” her wisdom and essence. I asked my siblings to share at least one life lesson, or “Mary Walker sayings” as we fondly refer to them, with me to include in this book. Many of the epigraphs in this collection are things she said to us. Mother died June 15, 2018. My siblings and I experienced her slow decline starting in September 2017 until then. She spent much of that time in the hospital. All of us, including her caregiver, rotated time spending the night/day with her so she would never be isolated from her loved ones. I wrote some of these poems from her hospital room. Ode, in a sense, is my mother’s eulogy. 

CH: The way that you employ metaphor in your poems lends a plushness to the work, a deep dimensionality. How do you approach the use of metaphor in a poem?

LDW: I truly wish I had an intellectual answer for you. What I can offer is this—I view life in metaphors.

CH: How has the pandemic affected your life as a poet? I’m thinking not only of direct impacts, but of your work as a teacher and the extra demands the pandemic has made.  

LDW: Unfortunately, my pandemic reality includes a new cancer diagnosis. Much of my energy is spent on doctor’s appointments, visits to the oncology center for treatments, CT scans, all the care healing entails. Also, I teach face-to-face and I am also responsible for providing instructions for virtual students. This requires a great amount of energy as well. As far as writing, I write when I am in the waiting room, in the infusion chair, on lunch breaks, on the weekends if I have the energy, and sometimes in the evenings after work. Gratefully, I have had various opportunities to present workshops and do readings via Zoom.  

CH: What are you working on now?

LDW: I am working on a collection entitled Day Begins When Darkness is In Full Bloom. It is forthcoming from Bluelight Press in 2021. It is eclectic in nature, thus the title. Some poems address my current bout with cancer for the third time, teaching face-to-face during COVID, my response as a black person to our nation’s current social unrest, and how I am dealing with COVID in general. I don’t know how many times this proverb has been quoted to me: Things will look better in the morning; I find it quite ironic morning begins at the darkest hour. However, where there is light in the darkness, there is hope. This collection is my journey through the darkest part of morning, to the brightest part of day where the sun is hope incarnate.

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

LDW: I am currently reading, “Mary Oliver’s Devotions, Jan Richardson’s The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Time of Grief, and Karla K. Morton and Alan Birkelbach’s A Century of Grace. I have one book in the bedroom, one in my office, and the other in the living room. This is the way I read poetry. (LOL)

A Virtual Interview with Ann Howells

Background

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

Feature Ann Howells edited Illya’s Honey for eighteen years both in print and online. Her books include: Under a Lone Star (Village Books Press), Cattlemen & Cadillacs as editor (Dallas Poets Community Press), So Long As We Speak Their Names (Kelsay Books), and Painting the Pinwheel Sky (Assure Press). Her four chapbooks include: Black Crow in Flight, published through Main Street Rag’s 2007 competition and Softly Beating Wings was the 2017 William D. Barney Competition winner from Poetry Society of Texas (Blackbead Books). Ann gets involved in poetry whenever she has a chance, attending festivals, belonging to several workshop groups, and offering her services as contest judge when asked. She’s even won a couple local contests. Her work appears in many small press and university journals. She has received seven Pushcart nominations and one Best of the Net nomination.

The Interview

CH: You last appeared in this space in 2017. What’s been going on in your writing life since then?

AH: Later in 2017, my manuscript Softly Beating Wings won the William D. Barney Memorial Chapbook Competition and was published by Blackbead Books, which was a thrill. I read at poetry conferences and festivals, even travelling to Santa Fe – farthest afield I’ve gone to do a reading. And I’ve had two more books published, chaired the Student Poetry Competition for Poetry Society of Texas for two years, and served on their board for one. Of course, I’m still active with my first love, Dallas Poets Community, which returned to its original form as a workshopping group. I attend virtual lectures and classes often.

CH: I know that while you have been in Texas for many years, you hail from the northeast. Tell us a little about your thoughts in regard to the poetry of place?

AH: I hail from the Chesapeake Bay area, mid-Atlantic coast. Much of my early life was spent on an island, among watermen who harvested the bay. I’ve written so very much about the place and the people that I often feel there’s nothing left to say, but next time I sit down to write the place once again steals quietly into the poem. I guess I’ll never stop writing about it.

CH: I was delighted to hear about your most recent publications. What was your journey in writing and publishing So Long As We Speak Their Names?

AH: This book is the one I’ve been writing for twenty years or more – about watermen on Chesapeake Bay, their families, lifestyles, relationships, fears, and strengths. They greatly influenced my character, values, even thought processes. Memories of the area, the time, and the people are etched indelibly somewhere deep inside and continue to seep into my writing. This book is very close to my heart.

CH: What are your thoughts on poetry as portraiture? How can poems bridge time and space?

AH: Many of the poems in this book are character sketches. These were country people: all the women addressed as Miss or Aunt, then their first name. The men were addressed as Cap’n (Captain), a mark of respect in a waterman’s community, followed by their first name. My family appears, their friends, neighbors, and relatives. The poems keep them alive for me.

CH: I was also thrilled to hear about Painting the Pinwheel Sky. How did you arrive at this project?

AH: I became interested in Van Gogh, read several biographies, then his letters to Theo. I wrote one or two poems because Van Gogh’s thought processes as he planned a painting fascinated me. The project spiraled completely out of control. I wrote in Van Gogh’s voice, then in voices of his various mistresses, his family, and his acquaintances, including his doctor/therapist. What was originally intended as a chapbook, became a full-length book, albeit more novella than novel length.

CH: Tell us a little about the role of research as you went about writing the poems of Painting the Pinwheel Sky. As an artist, what did you learn?

AH: This book is a real departure for me. I kept referring to letters between Van Gogh and his brother, Theo, who managed an art gallery in Paris and saw promise in Vincent’s work, set up shows, and helped promote. I was intrigued by the fact that Theo and his wife were supportive while Van Gogh’s mother, a watercolor artist, was dismissive. After his death she burned many paintings that he had stored in her attic. In one letter to Theo, she even suggested that Vincent’s death would be a good thing. The lesson I took away was that if you feel compelled to create, nothing should be more important. You should let no one discourage you.

CH: You now have several titles to your name. How has your approach to poetry changed over time? What’s remained the same?

AH: More than before, I tend to become immersed in a single subject and write many, many poems exploring different aspects. Some duplicate subject matter, but I find that my thoughts evolve. When that happens, I destroy earlier versions or incorporate parts into newer poems. I write almost entirely in free verse, a few longer pieces now and some poetic series. The biggest change is that I now occasionally write about places other than Chesapeake Bay. Also, I am currently in a writing partnership with a friend. Writing response poems has expanded my manner of thinking about poetry.

CH: The isolation and stresses of the pandemic have affected people in so many ways, and 2020 has certainly been an “interesting time” in terms of our national life. What impacts has your writing life felt in 2020?

AH: In April, I took the April Challenge and wrote a poem a day. April extended into early May, though I sorely missed being able to workshop them. After that I had a dry spell until late September when I began writing furiously again, through September, October, and into early November. Now I’m in a dry spell again, but I spend my time revising and submitting. I’m a terrible housekeeper; I’d much rather be writing.

CH: What are you working on now?

AH: Currently I’m putting together two tiny volumes of tiny poems which I plan to send to a few friends and have available at readings I hope to do when the pandemic ends. Each volume holds about twelve poems. I’m calling them Hip Pocket Poems I and II. I may end up selling some at readings for a dollar each.

CH: What are you currently reading?

AH: In addition to poetry, I enjoy Scottish noir. And recently I’ve been reading about WWII, especially novels that take place in England. I’ve read that America observed the war while England lived it, and I’m finding that true, frequently shocked by what the English suffered. I also read poetry books recently published by friends – J. Todd Hawkins has a great one just out, tracing the blues through the south. Also, Ken Hada, Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue, Don Stinson, and Roy J. Bekemeyer have wonderful new books. I always keep one novel and one poetry book in progress.

A Virtual Interview with Rachelle Toarmino

Background

Thursday, November 12, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information.

Rachelle Toarmino is a writer, editor, and educator from Niagara Falls, New York. She is the founding editor in chief of Peach Mag, and is the author of the chapbooks Feel Royal (b l u s h, 2019) and Personal & Generic (PressBoardPress, 2016). Her poems and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Shabby Doll House, Sundress Publications, The Wanderer, and elsewhere, and have been anthologized in The Cosmonauts Avenue Anthology and My Next Heart: New Buffalo Poetry. She will be an MFA candidate in poetry at UMass Amherst in the fall. *That Ex *is her first full-length collection.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

RT: In fourth grade, I wrote a poem for religion class in which I made the impressive mistake of thinking thong—a word I had heard on Sisqó’s hit single “Thong Song”—was a synonym for soul. Horrible.

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

RT: I’ve always kept a diary, so I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t think of myself as a writer. I still have my very first one from when I was about five years old, which flaunts a pink plush princess cover and is filled with pages of fat glitter crayon of all the words I knew that rhyme with cat.

CH: How did the poems of the first chapbook, Personal & Generic (PressBoardPress, 2016), come together? How did your process change with your second, Feel Royal (b l u s h, 2019)? Is there a common through-line for these books?

RT: For Personal & Generic, I embroidered thirty micro-poems into needlepoint hoops of various sizes, shapes, and colors. I was interested in exploring what it might mean to make a poem solid—to approach poetry in three-dimensional space. At the time, I was really into Roni Horn’s sculptural representations of Emily Dickinson’s poems, and I wanted to explore a similar intersection of reading and looking in my own work. That intersection is also a big part of Feel Royal, in which I constructed poems by finding text on the clothing worn by celebrities in paparazzi photographs, but my process was opposite of Personal & Generic in that I began with three-dimensional objects and put them on the page.

CH: Tell us a little about your full-length collection, That Ex. How did the process of composing this longer work differ from that of collecting your chapbooks? What did you learn from the process?

RT: The poems in That Ex, unlike my two chapbooks, were not written with a project in mind. Instead, they catalog themes of heartbreak, rage, desire, conflict, and trust—the emotions and experiences that characterized much of my twenties. The poems began to take shape as a book when I became interested in looking at the character of the ex-girlfriend and how she is represented in pop culture and works of art, including, as in my chapbooks, how she is made both solid or flat.

CH: Hera Lindsay Bird writes about That Ex, “This is a sensitive, self-aware collection full of Britney Spears references, emotional vulnerability, and digital nostalgia.” Tell us a little bit about the role of pop culture and digital life in your writing.

RT: I don’t believe in shying away from the digital in my writing. Digital technology and communication are so part of my life—I spend hours looking at screens every day—that it would be insincere to exclude them. As for pop cultural references, the poems in That Ex are specifically interested in representing a heartsick lineage. The speaker calls on her various models of exes—pop stars, fictional characters, poets, musicians, artists, and others—to teach her how to navigate her world post-breakup. I think there is an emphasis on Britney because I grew up with her. She was my first real example of an ex-girlfriend, and I watched what the publicness of her breakup did to her. The speaker in That Ex is likewise interested not only in the experience of heartbreak but the spectacle of it, too.

CH: What was your vision in founding Peach Mag? How has your experience as an editor influenced your writing process?

RT: My two cofounders and I wanted to create a space for emerging writers and artists to discover and celebrate each other. The greatest effect of Peach Mag on my writing life is having found a way to be constantly surrounded by creative people. It has given me access to a community I’ve read, admired, learned from, and had fun with.

CH: I understand you’re an MFA candidate in poetry at UMass. How did you decide on making this investment in yourself, and how did you choose UMass? What do you hope the MFA will bring you?

RT: I had always wanted to pursue an MFA for the time, focus, mentorship from professors, camaraderie among a cohort of readers and writers, and exposure to new writing and ways of thinking about writing. I appreciate UMass Amherst’s program for many reasons: it’s three years of funding, requires candidates to take at least one workshop outside their genre, and provides editorial and arts administrative opportunities that prepare us for the world of creative labor post-MFA. I’m also totally star-struck by many of the writers who went through this program or teach here now. It feels wild to have this experience in common with them.

CH: What is your writing life like? How has it changed over time?

RT: Chaotic and bewildering. I’ve found that I favor long and sporadic stretches of uninterrupted time to write—in that one analogy, I relate more to the sprinter than the jogger. As my lifestyle and responsibilities evolve as I get older, though, I’m learning to balance this preference for spontaneity with a more disciplined routine.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets, contemporary or otherwise?

RT: Some of my favorite poets are Anne Carson, Frank O’Hara, Ocean Vuong, Hanif Abdurraqib, Hera Lindsay Bird, Tommy Pico, Kimmy Walters, and Jakob Maier. I’ve also been blessed both to discover and to publish some of my favorite contemporary poets through Peach Mag—our print and digital pages are full of work that challenges and excites me.

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

RT: Two books of poetry that I recently read and loved are Greyhound by Aeon Ginsberg and Not I by Sebastian Castillo. I highly recommend them.


A Virtual Interview with Jill Alexander Essbaum

Background

Thursday, October 8, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information.

Feature Jill Alexander Essbaum is the award-winning author of several collections of poetry including Heaven, Harlot, Necropolis, and the single-poem chapbook The Devastation. Her new collection, Would-Land, is just out from Cooper Dillon Books. Her first novel Hausfrau debuted on the New York Times Bestseller List and has been translated into 26 languages. Her work has appeared in dozens of journals including Poetry, The Christian Century, Image, and The Rumpus, as well as multiple Best American Poetry anthologies. A two-time NEA fellow, Jill is a core faculty member in The Low Residency MFA Program at University of California-Palm Desert. She lives in Austin, Texas. Twitter: @JAEssbaum

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry:

JAE: Oh dear.  I wrote two poems in elementary school the first, I believe in second grade about the Easter Bunny.  And later, third grade? I wrote one in honor of my father, who sold data communications equipment. It was a poem about modems. 

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

JAE: Sometime in high school. I wrote loads of stories and poems and little plays. Of varying depth and aptitude.  Oof.

CH: You’ve published a novel in addition to several volumes of poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer?

JAE: Where I land anymore is this: I play with words.

CH: I understand you are a two-time NEA fellow. What opportunities did they provide you? How did your writing life change because of them?

JAE: Honestly? The validation that came with them meant as much as the cash award. There’s something about being seen, you know? Recognized. Especially with poetry.

CH: Your first novel, Hausfrau, debuted a as New York Times Bestseller and has been translated into 26 languages. How did your practice as a poet influence the writing of Hausfrau?

JAE: I approached it as I do a poem which is, I wrote one word at a time, vetting all of them against each other. I think the practice of poetry in some real ways prepares you for writing a novel—we’re used to really thinking through what goes on the paper, and that meticulousness can make for some really polished fiction. 

CH: Tell us a little about Would-Land. Did you find that your experience as a novelist changed your approach to a new volume of poetry?

JAE: This book didn’t come as easily as my other poetry books, and I haven’t exactly pinned down why. It covers some of the same ground (literally in terms of setting) as Hausfrau and I had to dig in a bit harder to turn up new soil. I’m not a narrative poet but I did internalize (I think) some narrative structures (climax, denoument)—things that we play with intuitively in poetry, if not overtly. The genres really do feed on each other.

CH: What are some of the challenges for you as writer instructing in an MFA program?

JAE: Because I write in form or rather, versions of form, I sometimes worry that my students think that’s what I want from them.  But I don’t want them to write like me! I write like me! But honestly when I was in school I had that worry too. It’s such a vulnerable moment, sharing what you write either in a workshop or when it’s published. I never want to make anyone in my workshop feel like they don’t have the space to be themselves, for their poems to be their poems.  That said, I am going to press on them, challenge them as poets, challenge their poems as poems.  My goal is to get them to a place where, when they’re out of the program, they can put the pressure on their work without having me around to remind them to.  If I can teach them how to do that, then I’m doing ok. 

CH: How do you nurture yourself as a writer?

JAE: I do several daily writing exercises. I’ve done this for a year now, without fail. It’s revolutionized my practice. I do a lot of crossword puzzles too. It’s good to fool with words.  But lest anyone think that’s all I do, I confess it here: I watch a LOT of television. And it’s all terrible. Wonderfully, uselessly terrible.

CH: Who do you view as some of your strongest influences? Please share with us a few of the poetry titles to which you turn and return.

JAE: There are five poems that I constantly return to simply for the glory of the craft that went into them. I learn so much from them every time I read them, which is often. I could LIVE on these five poems alone: Eliot’s Prufrock, Lavinia Greenlaw’s “The End of Marriage”, Ted Hughes’ “February 17”, Simon Armitage’s “To His Lost Lover”, and the utter tour-de-force that is Carol Ann Duffy’s “The Laughter of Stafford Girls’ High”. Masterpieces, all.

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

JAE: Julie Bloemeke’s Slide to Unlock and Gary McDowell’s Aflame. Just this past week. Highly recommended, the both.

A Virtual Interview with Liliana Valenzuela

Background

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

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

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

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Christopher Manes

Background

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

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

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What are you working on right now?

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

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

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

CH: Where can readers find your book?

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

A Virtual Interview with David Meischen

Background

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What are you working on right now?

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

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

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