Category Archives: black poetry

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 Sequoia Maner

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What are you working on now?

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

CH: What do you read for pleasure?

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

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

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