Category Archives: elegy

A Virtual Interview with Robin Reagler

Background

Thursday, August 12, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Register for this event on EventBrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-robin-reagler-tickets-162818493497

Feature Robin Reagler is a poet, educator, and leader living in Houston, Texas. Over the past 22 years, she transformed Writers inthe Schools (WITS), a small grassroots organization, into a national literary movement with 40 sister programs across the US. She retired in September to focus on her own writing. Since then, she found publishers for two new books of poems. Into The The, winner of the Best Book Award, was released on March 21, World Poetry Day (Backlash Press). Night Is This Anyway, will be published by Lily Poetry Books (March 2022). Reagler is the author of Teeth & Teeth, selected by Natalie Diaz, winner of the Charlotte Mew Prize (Headmistress Press, 2018) and Dear Red Airplane (Seven Kitchens Press, 2012, 2018).

She earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. She has published poems in PloughsharesNorth American ReviewPleiadesCopper NickelIowa ReviewColorado Review, and Zocalo Public Square. Her essays have appeared in books, newspapers, and journals. The Other Mother: Letters from the Outposts of Lesbian Parenting was named best Houston parenting blog by Nickelodeon in 2009.

She has helped shape dozens of new literary organizations and has volunteered on national boards. In 2018-2019 she chaired of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Board of Trustees. Currently she is the Board Chair of LitNet, the national advocacy group representing literary organizations and publishers and Board Secretary for the equity-based Justice Hub Charter School.

The Interview

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

RR: My first memory of poetry is my mother reading nursery rhymes to my sister and me. I remember that I had a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson on my bedside table. One of the poems, “Block City,” was about building imaginary worlds.

CH: What motivated you to get an MFA, and a Ph. D. in Creative Writing?

RR: Getting an MFA was, for me, about becoming a better writer and finding a community of writers. Getting a PhD was a career-focused decision. I hoped to teach in a college and that seemed like the best path forward. As it turned out, after I finished my doctorate, I chose to work with Writers in the Schools (WITS), an education organization with a K-12 focus, for 25 years. Now, after taking a year to focus on my own writing, I will be teaching college. Finally!

CH: How would you describe your experience at Iowa? What has been the biggest gift of doing these programs? The biggest drawback?

RR: The great gift of going to a program like Iowa is that I got to meet so many amazing poets and writers. Those friendships continue, even though we live across the nation. Having friends who support each other as writers and as people is the greatest gift for me. The biggest drawback is that when I went to Iowa it was not a diverse community, no matter how you define diversity. And the writers we studied were not very diverse either. This was in the 80s. It may be quite different now.

CH: Tell us a little about Dear Red AIrplane (Seven Kitchens Press, 2011 and 2018) and its re-release.

RR: When I submitted Dear Red Airplane to Seven Kitchens, I felt certain it would win their contest. It did not. I couldn’t believe. I’d been rejected many times, so it’s weird that I was surprised, but I was. A year later I got an email from the editor at 7K, Ron Mohring. He said he couldn’t stop thinking about the poems and asked if it was still available. That is how the chapbook was published the first time. It had a small print run and sold out quickly. The second printing was done through Seven Kitchen’s Rebound Series.

CH: I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading Teeth & Teeth (Headmistress Press, 2018), and was profoundly moved by its weaving of desire, grief, and identity. How did you select the pieces in this chapbook? How did you go about sequencing the poems?

RR: When I wrote the poems in Teeth & Teeth, my father had passed away and my mother was in hospice. The manuscript was selected by Natalie Diaz for the Charlotte Mew Prize. I mention that because I was influenced by Diaz in creating this collection. Her poem “Grief Work” was especially compelling to me. In my grief, I wrote the poems feverishly. I discovered that grief contain more than I had ever imagined—emptiness, anger, loss, rage, desire, love, and even hope.

CH: In Teeth & Teeth, I was really struck by the sense of the line in the poems, and by your use of whitespace and monostich stanza. How do you approach the use of whitespace in your poems?

RR: The line works musically in Teeth & Teeth. The white space provides silence, a key component to that music. In a monostich stanza, the words are isolated. Each line might be the last.

CH: Tell us about your most recent work: Into The The (Backlash Press, 2021) and the forthcoming Night Is This Anyway (Lily Poetry Books, 2022). How do you see the trajectory of this work with respect to your earlier books?

RR: Poems don’t necessarily get published in the order they were created. Into The The contains some of my earliest work, as well as some recent poems. Of the group, I think of it as first, chronologically. Following it, I would place Dear Red Airplane, then Night Is This Anyway (although I’m considering a title change), and then Teeth & Teeth.

CH: I understand you recently retired as Executive Director for Writers in the Schools (WITS) to focus on your own writing. How has this change made a difference for you? What is your writing life like now?

RR: I left Writers in the Schools so that I could focus on my own writing. It has made a huge difference in my writing life. Both Into The The and Night were accepted early in the year. I finished another manuscript that I’m sending to publishers now and am hoping to complete another in the coming months. So having this time has enabled me to BE a writer.

CH: You continue to be involved as a literary citizen. In your view, what are some of the gifts of literary citizenship?

RR: I’m very devoted to the literary community, and I have enjoyed being a part of it. Although writing itself is a solitary act, writers have a great deal to offer one another. Through my activism in organizations such as the WITS Alliance, AWP, and LitNet, I have connected with incredible, dedicated people. We are stronger together and able to serve the public in new and engaging ways.

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

RR: Right now, I am reading Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar.

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.