Category Archives: formal poetry

A Virtual Interview with Allyson Whipple

Background

Thursday, September 8, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-allyson-whipple-tickets-389991443907

Allyson Whipple is the editor and host of the Culinary Saijiki blog and podcast (https://culinarysaijiki.com/), a project devoted to the intersection of food and haiku. During her 14 years as a Texas resident, she served as board president of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, co-editor of the Texas Poetry Calendar, and was co-creator of the interactive fiction Choice: Texas (www.playchoicetexas.com). Allyson is also the author of the chapbooks Come Into the World Like That (Five Oaks Press) and We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are (Finishing Line Press). She now lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her family.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What ignited your interest in it?

AW: Poetry has been in my life in one way or another since I was a small child. I remember having beautiful illustrated anthologies of nursery rhymes that had belonged to my father when he was young. I think it’s easy to get dismissive of nursery rhymes as being just for children, but when you think about it, they’re really illustrations of rhyme, meter, and other major literary devices in formal poetry—and I believe formal poetry is still worth studying, even if you want to write free verse. When children recite nursery rhymes, they’re internalizing poetic structures, even if those structures are not being taught explicitly.

I can’t recall what specifically interested me in writing poetry regularly. I think it was simply the impulse of adolescent angst and the need to express myself. There might have been a particular poem, or a particular assignment in my middle school language arts class, but if so, enough time has passed that I lost it. Maybe I just really wanted a reason to justifying a notebook covered in blue glitter at the mall? Honesty, that would be pretty on-brand if it’s true.

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

AW: I was 12 years old, on spring break visiting my aunt in Pennsylvania, and I just got it into my head one day that I was going to be a poet. The way I remember it is that I was sitting on the couch at her apartment, and the thought came to me like a flash. Or maybe I was already at the mall, and the moment I saw that blue glitter notebook at the Claire’s store, that was the moment the divine inspiration struck. This was 26 years ago, so the finer points are a little fuzzy. But I still remember that notebook. I filled it before the summer was out.

I will say that my identity as a poet waxed and waned for many years. After being a prolific writer of angsty adolescent sonnets, I really struggled to hack it in creative writing classes at Kenyon College, and turned my undergraduate focus to literary theory and criticism. I would return to poetry occasionally—it could never leave me completely—I didn’t really start to feel like I could be a serious poet again until I moved to Austin. When I started working at BookWoman and started meeting all the poets that hung out there, I found a community where I could be a writer, and things started to blossom from there.

CH: Tell us a little about your two chapbooks, Come Into the World Like That (Five Oaks Press, 2016) and We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are (Finishing Line Press, 2013). What would you say they have in common? How do they reflect your development as a poet?

AW: We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are is about my first years in Texas. I’d moved there from my home of Ohio, and those were some intense years. I’d had a rough time in my first graduate program, and even though I’d finished my master’s degree, I was feeling ashamed of not riding it out all the way to a PhD. I was working in a nonprofit where I was getting paid too little to work too much. I was trying to be in a marriage even though we were both too young and had ignored so many warning signs of incompatibility that were glaringly obvious in hindsight. It covers the period of time where I was just trying to figure out what it meant to be an adult, and what kind of life I wanted to create for myself.

Come Into the World Like That came together in a burst of productivity about a year after my divorce. I put it together in the span of one summer. Some of the poems in the manuscript were older, but most of them were written in a span of about six weeks. It’s like I was purging things I still hadn’t processed, getting ready for the next phase. It’s more overtly confessional than We’re Smaller Than We Think We Are, and doesn’t conceal identities. The chapbook focuses first on my childhood, and then on my own marriage and divorce. I was looking at my parents’ own fraught marriage through the lens of my own, using the past to make sense of the present, and also using the present to make sense of the past. The book is an exploration, but also a reckoning.

Both chapbooks cover periods of my life that feel so distant to me now. I don’t read from these collections very often at all anymore, even though there are some great poems in both of them. They’re also time capsules of some intense periods of my life, and it doesn’t always feel good to revisit the past like that. I still write poems about difficult things, but I’m more interested in sharing my awe of the world around me. I’m more interested in poems that balance the tension of difficult topics with a love for the world.

CH: I find both your chapbook titles to be intriguing. What’s your approach to titles at the level of the poem and the collection?

AW: I actually hate having to title things! For individual poems, I wait for the title to reveal itself during revision. Often I take a line out of the poem itself, and that becomes the title. Since I tend to write shorter poems, I prefer not to also have the title be a line in the poem; that often feels repetitive to me in a short piece. Of course, with haiku, I don’t have to worry about titles at all!

With my first chapbook, the title was also the title of one of the poems that I felt was really at the heart of the collection. Abe Louise Young was mentoring me through the chapbook development process, and that title emerged through our explorations of the manuscript’s themes. For my second chapbook, the phrase “come into the world like that” was used in a poetry prompt; when I saw it, I knew that had to be the title from my chapbook. The manuscript was untitled at the time, but I had the immediate gut sense that it was the right fit.

CH: How has the focus of your work changed since the publication of Come Into the World Like That

AW: A lot has happened since 2016! That chapbook came out when I was 1/3 of the way through my MFA, which I finished in 2018. I unfortunately had a great deal of difficulty writing after I finished my program and went through a long fallow period.

I did turn my MFA thesis into a chapbook manuscript, though I had been frustrated with the thesis experience because it felt like I was putting together a manuscript by committee. After about 18 months, I went through and stripped out everything that didn’t feel authentic to me or to the manuscript (even cutting some poems people thought were fantastic), and ended up with a solid chapbook. I sent it out to contests and open reading periods for about two years, and then decided I was done paying $15-$30 reading fees. I absolutely understand why small presses need reading fees–my time working with Borderlands and handling the financial aspects of the journal was illuminating–but eventually I just got tired of spending the money to get nowhere. I believe in the chapbook and I know that presses can only take on a certain number of books per year. I was just ready to be done with that system.

The chapbook really synthesizes my last few years in Texas, my explorations of Mexico, and chronicles the first few years of my relationship with my partner. Although it’s less confessional than my first two chapbooks, it’s in many ways more vulnerable and personal. Especially now that I’ve moved to St. Louis, I want to get that chapbook into the world as a final farewell to my Texas years. I think the DIY route is the way to go; that’s my approach to so many of my other projects these days. Self-publishing is new territory for me, though, so I need to get settled a little more in St. Louis before embarking on that project.

The early months of COVID were also rough on my creativity. The disruption, the uncertainty, and the fear all made it difficult for me to focus on writing. It was even difficult for me to read. So many people were writing work in immediate response to the crisis, and much of it was quite good, but I just couldn’t look at any of it. That’s actually how I got into quilting; it gave me a creative outlet without having to work with words.

And that’s also how I ended up focusing on haiku. I’d been interested in the form for years, but I always have a number of projects going, and haiku would drift out of my life sometimes. The brevity of haiku, the immediacy of it, made it a form that I found comforting. I could even read other people’s COVID-inspired haiku, because there’s no room for analysis. There’s just the moment. The haiku form has a level of complexity that often gets glossed over in English-language education, so I started reading books and listening to podcast that covered haiku beyond just the number of lines and syllables. I haven’t tired of it yet; I think I will be with haiku and its related forms for many years to come.

CH: I understand you have a black belt in Kung Fu, and I know that you have been working on a Pilates certification. How do these embodied practices inform your writing?

AW: I loved movement before I loved poetry. I started ballet when I was 8 and studied various forms of dance until moving on to other practices. I try to get some sort of movement in every day. Pilates helps me tune into my body and focus. My favorite form of movement is walking. It’s a chance to get out of my head, let my mind wander, and work out problems without overthinking things. That’s where I get my best ideas.

CH: I’m intrigued by one of your newer projects, the Culinary Saijiki blog and podcast (https://culinarysaijiki.com/), which is “devoted to the intersection of food and haiku.” Tell us a little about this project and how it got started.

AW: This past spring, I decided to embark on a daily haiku practice focused around the concept of kigo, which are words that denote specific seasons in haiku. Kigo are often compiled in saijiki, which are volumes that organize kigo based on season, and provide sample haiku that show excellent use of seasonal words. Usually, those who compile a saijiki usually offer some commentary for each season word, explaining why it ties to that particular season. One of the most famous Japanese kigo is “cherry blossoms,” which denote spring. Of course, living in Texas, cherry blossoms weren’t a relevant spring kigo!

One of the best-known English-language saijiki is Haiku World: An International Poetry Almanac by William J. Higginson. There are also a number of online saijiki, as well as those offered in e-book format, but I still love print books, and I liked the idea of choosing a kigo a day from Haiku World and using that to inform my writing practice, making notes in the margins as necessary. Although a short form, haiku have many facets, and I wanted to see what would happen if I just focused on kigo for an extended period of time.

I was only two days into the project, which I started in March, when I was struck by the idea to explore more about how food serves as a seasonal word in haiku. I was walking my dog, which is where I do most of my poetry-related thinking, and it occurred to me that with food being intimately connected to the seasons, food words had the potential to serve as useful kigo. However, Haiku World only contains a few food words, and many of them fall into the All-Year category, rather than a specific season. I browsed some other saijiki, which again, had few to no food words, many of them only pertaining to foods specific to Japan—not necessarily useful when you’re writing from Texas! So I decided to start a blog in which I would collect haiku with food words, organize them according to season, and write about my observations. At the moment, this isn’t structured like a formal saijiki, but ultimately, I do plan to put together a print volume that resembles Haiku World.

The idea for the podcast came soon after. I’d always wanted to do a podcast, but couldn’t think of what specific thing I wanted to talk about. I realized that with The Culinary Saijiki, the podcast could be a complement to the blog. I love conversational podcasts, so I wanted something where I could be in dialogue with my fellow haiku practitioners, and add another layer to the conversation.  

CH: You were a long-time resident of Austin and have recently moved to St. Louis. What’s enlivening about being in this new place?  What impact has the move had so far on your writing?

AW: This week, my partner and I are closing on a house in St. Louis proper, after three months of staying with family in the suburbs. I love being in an old city in St. Louis, and am excited to live in walking distance of the historic Soulard Market. It’s a neighborhood where you can really be part of a community. Being in a liminal state for the past few months, I haven’t been writing regularly. I did the Poetry Postcard Fest in August, which did help me with the structure I needed to carve out writing time every day. But between adjusting to a new job and searching for a place of our own, I haven’t had the brain space. I’m looking forward to being settled with my furniture and all of my writing tools, and cultivating a new space to work.

CH: You were co-editor of the Texas Poetry Calendar, and board president of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review. How did these literary citizenship roles affect you as a writer?

AW: Literary citizenship is part of my overall practice as a writer. To me, there’s no real distinction between the two. There are times when editing a publication, or doing budget reporting for a literary nonprofit, can take away from the time you spend as an individual writing or revising. But that doesn’t mean it’s not contributing to your writing life. Literary citizenship is how we ensure continuity of community. It’s how we foster relationships, find mentors, and support each other when times are tough. That sense of community is going to feed your work in its own way. How that works is not always immediate, tangible, or quantifiable. But I believe that being in community is essential to most of us as writers.

There are plenty of ways to be in community, and there are plenty of ways to practice literary citizenship. You don’t need to have a lot of money or even a lot of time. Sometimes, literary citizenship is as simple as giving someone a ride to a poetry reading because they can’t drive, or lack access to public transit. Literary citizenship, to me, is simply the actions we take that foster the greater literary community, without worrying about how it’s going to benefit us as individuals.

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

AW: Right now I’m reading A New Resonance 12: Emerging Voices in English-Language Haiku, edited by Jim Kacian and Julie Schwerin. I love this series, published by Red Moon Press. Each edition consists of a chapbook-length number of poems of a few haiku poets. A New Resonance 12 is the newest installment, and it’s got some of my favorite haijin (haiku practitioners) who are working right now.

One of my all-time favorite poetry collections is All-Night Lingo Tango by Barbara Hamby. This collection features free-verse poems, but also sonnets and abecedarians. It’s one of the best collections of formal poetry I’ve ever read. Part of the poem “Nine Sonnets from the Psalms,” is tattooed on my arm. It reads:

I’m a hundred million molecules in search
of an author. If that’s you, thank you for my skin.
Without it, I’d be in worse shape than I’m in.  

A Virtual Interview with Christine H. Boldt

Background

Thursday, June 10, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-christine-boldt-tickets-154458799427

Feature Christine H. Boldt will be reading from her inaugural poetry collection, For Every Tatter (Lamar University Press, 2021). Boldt, a retired librarian, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria in the 1960s, lived in Italy during the 1970s, and has lived in Texas for forty years.  She has published in Christianity and Crisis, the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, and Working Mother.  Her poetry has appeared in Christian Century, Windhover, The Texas Poetry Calendar, Bearing the Mask, Adam, Eve, and the Riders of the Apocalypse, the Poetry Society of Texas’ Book of the Year; Red River Review, Ilyia’s Honey, and Encore. Her collection Missing, One Muse:  The Poetry of Sylvia St. Stevens was selected as the winner of the 2018 Alabama State Poetry Society Morris Memorial Chapbook Competition.  

The Interview

CH: What are your first memories of poetry? What was your experience with poetry growing up?

CHB: My first memory is of my having an ability to memorize verse easily.  When I was three, my grandmother would ask me to entertain her bridge club by standing next to the fire place in our living room and reciting nursery rhymes. 

My father, who had memorized a great deal of Nineteenth Century poetry as a boy, recited it to me in lieu of bedtime stories. In both elementary and high school I was required to do lots of memorization.  Students were asked to take turns standing in front of the class and repeating the poetry they had learned. I took what were called “elocution lessons” from a private tutor who required even more memorization.  I also compensated for not being able to carry a tune by memorizing ALL the verses of hymns, and not just hits songs from Broadway Musicals but all the witty patter that preceded the stars’ bursting into song.

When, at age 12, I received a gift of money during the holidays, I bought a copy of the Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and spent evenings beside the Christmas tree reading her work.  I still return to those poems each year during the holidays.

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

CHB: In Elementary School in Buffalo, New York, I won two city-wide essay contests.  These affirmations encouraged me to write.  Because of all the poems swirling around in my head, poetry seemed the natural way to express my interest in writing, but after college I set poetry aside for about 40 years.

CH: I understand you volunteered with the Peace Corps in Nigeria in the 1960s, and lived in Italy in the 1970s. How have these experiences shaped your perspective? In what ways have they influenced your writing?

CHB: Living in foreign countries required me to appreciate life from other peoples’ point of view.  It also taught me empathy for “outsiders,” (since I was one), and it challenged me to question my own assumptions.  Most of my poetry is preoccupied with character study of one kind or another.  I turn to poetry when I want to puzzle out why people think and behave as they do.

Language exposure has been another plus of foreign travel. Being conversant with Latin, French, and Italian gives me many more words to use as building blocks when I construct my poetry.

People in the countries where I lived or visited had amazing traditions of expressing religious thought through sculpture and painting. Although I did not write poetry during the years I lived abroad, when I returned to poetry in my later life, I was prompted write ekphrasic poems and poems with religious themes because of sensitivities I had developed in my years of travel.

CH: You had a long career as a librarian. What do you see as the influence of this career on your development as a poet?

CHB: Well, as a reference librarian I was astounded by the variety of things people wondered about.  I was so curious about library patrons’ interests that I was encouraged to think someone else might be interested in the things I reflect on.  Often the answers to reference questions seemed like poetic metaphors just waiting to be tapped.

CH: Tell us a little about your chapbook, Missing (New Dawn Unlimited, 2018), which won the Morris Memorial Chapbook Contest of the Alabama State Poetry Society. How did you collect and assemble this manuscript? What did you learn from this process?

CHB: I imagine that everybody who writes poetry writes ars poetica, poems about writing poetry.  It is not strange that the processes we are involved in, and the discoveries we make, would be one of the chief topics of conversation we have with ourselves.  But it is also likely that writing poems about writing poetry is a guarantee of having a small audience for one’s work.  When I found myself writing too many of those poems, I decided that I either had to own them or quit writing them.  So I imagined a persona, a character named Sylvia, who stumbles into poetry for all the wrong reasons, has a comeuppance, and then approaches poetry again from a new perspective. Each poem Sylvia “writes” is a milestone on her journey.  I hoped her path into poetry could be emblematic of the paths that others might take in crafting their own lives.  Assembling this manuscript made me wish that I had learned about poetry by reading entire volumes written by individual poets, rather than by reading the anthologies that were the texts for most of my classes.  I learned a collection needs a narrative thread that holds the poems together.

CH: For Every Tatter (Lamar University Literary Press, 2021) is exquisite in its treatment of aging, both from the standpoint of individuals who are reaching their later years and from the perspectives of those around them. How long has the subject of aging been a writerly obsession for you? How did you come about deciding to use an excerpt from William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” as an organizing principle for the book?

CHB: Thank you.  I think I have been writing this book for most of my life.  I grew up in a four-generation household where the difficulties of aging were much discussed by my grandparents and great-grandparents.  Often my parents would take me aside to explain what it was my elders were experiencing.  They always described our elders through a prism of love, and always assured me that “One day you will understand.”  And, sure enough, I have.  As I began to age, I wrote more and more poems on the various aspects of aging, but I could never decide how to organize them.  Yeats has been a favorite poet since I read some of his poems in a children’s anthology “Silver Pennies,” seventy years ago.  I was listening to a CD of his poetry while driving in my car one day and was struck by the verse from “Sailing to Byzantium” that I have used to introduce my book:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,

I thought that I might use each line of that verse to headline a group of poems offered by different voices:  In the first section I would have old folks reflecting on the disabling factors of age.  In the second I would present the voices of younger people as they regard their elders rather critically. I then envisioned a third section where the older voices would remark on the joys of aging, and a fourth where young people would express admiration for their elders.  I soon realized that the third and fourth sections would need to be combined because many of the joys of aging are found in the interactions between the elderly and the young people who are a part of their lives. With this scheme in mind, I began to order each section so that it moved from a confusion of emotions toward resolution and acceptance.

CH: Many of the poems in For Every Tatter take on lyric forms. Who are some of your influences in lyric poetry?

CHB: The Romantic and Victorian poetry my father recited for me when I was young still rings in my ears today: poems like “Abu ben Adhem” by Leigh Hunt, “The Children’s Hour” by Tennyson, and “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray.  Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Yeats, Frost, and Dickinson, came into the picture pretty early on.  Auden is very important to me. Galway Kinnell is another poet whose writing has meant a lot to me.  But then every poet whose work is in my CD collection or whom I have heard read at the Georgetown Poetry Festival, or at Roundtop, or at Baylor’s Beall Poetry Festival in the last twenty years has left his or her mark.  It was a highlight of my Covid Year to be able to Zoom the Dodge Poetry Festival!

CH: I was struck by your deft use of received form throughout the book. What are some of the challenges you find working in form? What calls you to the use of form? What informs the decisions that you make to alter received form, as you do with the rhyme scheme in “The Changeling?”

CHB: I think I was imprinted by exposure to so much rhythmic poetry as a child. Rhythm does not come easy to me.  I have tried mapping stressed and unstressed syllables and simply can’t do it.  I just have to keep saying the words over and over again and making corrections until they sound right. But I keep at it because I need form.  I need to build some kind of structure in which I can think my thoughts, have my feelings and express them without being overwhelmed by them. I recall someone once describing a formal poem as a rubber room in which one could bounce to her heart’s content.  

As many people have discovered, concentrating on form lowers a poet’s guard, allowing unexpected words and ideas to slip into a stanza,  words and ideas that might otherwise have been held at bay by logic, prudery, or fear. And I have been struck by the way rondels, pantoums, and villanelles echo our thinking processes as we mull over decisions in our lives rehearsing and rerehearsing our decisions. 

I am happiest when I can create a poem with true rhymes, but I will always prefer to use near rhymes, or an extra beat, when it is a choice between doing that and contorting the syntax of a poem.

CH: How was the process of creating For Every Tatter different from that of creating Missing? If you had one piece of advice to share with a poet working on their first full-length collection, what would it be?

CHB: In both cases it was a matter of finding a pattern.  Missing has only one voice, Sylvia’s.  Well, actually, it has two, because each poem “written” by the Sylvia has a second, ironic title which comments on her thoughts and behavior. Perhaps it is better to say that Missing is the story of one woman coming to understand her life and her gifts.  Tatters organization was trickier because I tried to include as many voices and perspectives on aging as I was able to create. Each section is a somewhat random compilation of voices, but I still tried to nudge the poems in each section–and the combined sections–toward definite conclusions.

I guess I would have to give two pieces of advice that helped me: First, to read other poets books from cover to cover and think consciously about their organization. Second, to identify the story you want to tell and to keep shuffling the poems until their order allows the story to be told.  That process may require writing poems that fill in missing pieces of the “story.”

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

CHB: Bonfire Opera by Danusha Laméris.  Wonderful!

A Virtual Interview with Amanda Johnston

Amanda Johnston will be the featured reader Thursday, December 13, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Amanda Johnston earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine. She is the author of two chapbooks, GUAP and Lock & Key, and the full-length collection Another Way to Say Enter (Argus House Press). Her poetry and interviews have appeared in numerous online and print publications, among them, Callaloo, Poetry, Kinfolks Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Muzzle, Pluck!, No, Dear and the anthologies, Small Batch, Full, di-ver-city, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, and Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism.

The recipient of multiple Artist Enrichment grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Christina Sergeyevna Award from the Austin International Poetry Festival, she is a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. Johnston is a Stonecoast MFA faculty member, a cofounder of Black Poets Speak Out, and founding executive director of Torch Literary Arts. She serves on the Cave Canem Foundation board of directors and currently lives in Texas.

The Interview

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

AJ: Reading. When I was a child, my mother gave me Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic. I didn’t have the language for it then, but now I believe it was the risk he took to be daring and surprising in his poetry that pulled me to the page. His subjects and narratives in his work was at times naughty and out of the ordinary. I loved it! I can’t say that I wrote outside of school then, but those poems still excite me today and I turn to them when I forget to have fun with the lines and turn to the unexpected.

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

AJ: I lived in Kentucky from 2000 to 2005 while my husband was in the Army. I worked at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College and started writing with a group on campus and helped with the campus journal, The Heartland Review. That’s when I felt the drive for more. I wanted to read more, write more, and learn more about poetry and the literary world. Shortly after that, I was inducted into the Affrilachian Poets and was awarded a Cave Canem fellowship. These communities encouraged me to continue writing and to publish professionally. This is when I started ‘doing the work’ seriously on and off the page.

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

AJ: The Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine was the only program I applied to. My friend and Cave Canem faculty, poet Patricia Smith, attended Stonecoast and taught there after graduation. She encouraged me to apply. I learned a long time ago that if Patricia tells you to do something you do it because it will probably change your life for the better. It did! Stonecoast has an incredible faculty, and as a student, I was able to work with Joy Harjo, Tim Seibles, Aaron Hamburger, Ted Deppe, Jim Kelly, Alexs Pate, and Annie Finch. I also took advantage of their study abroad program and attended a summer residency in Dingle, Ireland. Most of all, the program allowed me time to selfishly focus on myself and my writing. I needed that uninterrupted time to listen to the voice within and learn additional tools to help it rise to the page.

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

AJ: During the program, I took traditional form and cross-genre workshops that broadened the scope of my reading and writing. I wanted more and I needed to understand prosody and apply the study to my work so I could break it down and build it back up. I learned scansion and meter. I learned form. I love to break apart forms and mash them up with others in new ways. The freedom to take control of form and structure, along with time, was the greatest gift. I gained this whole world where other writers were just as curious and focused on the work as I was. That gave me strength and support to continue writing and push my work.

The biggest drawback? It is a financial expense, but one worth making. My husband and I discussed it like buying a new car. Do we need it? Yes. Why? To get to work! I certainly got to work and I would advise anyone considering their MFA to really consider the work they need to get to and how the program as a whole will help them accomplish their goals.

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

AJ: I applied to Cave Canem in 2005 and was offered a fellowship that year. I applied because Nikky Finney, a founder of the Affrilachian Poets, encouraged all of us APs to apply. I didn’t know much about it, but again, Nikky is one of those people you better listen to if they give advice.

After attending my first Cave Canem retreat, my life was truly changed. I moved back to Texas that summer and only applied to jobs that would support me creatively as a poet. The home my family chose had to have an office and quiet spaces where I could read and write. Being a Cave Canem fellow reinforced my commitment to poetry and broadened my community in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Over three years of retreats, I studied with Elizabeth Alexander, Yusef Komunyakaa, Afaa Weaver, Cyrus Cassells, Marilyn Nelson, Kwame Dawes, Erica Hunt, Patricia Smith, and founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. Guest poets during the retreats included Lucille Clifton and Rita Dove. My life changed. My world changed. I couldn’t get enough.

I stayed after graduating to work as retreat staff and served as retreat coordinator until 2017. I now serve on the board of directors. My life is dedicated to Black poetry and supporting marginalized groups across the literary landscape. Becoming a Cave Canem fellow lifted me up in such a way that I can’t image not having this opportunity for others. My writing is stronger because of this house and my dedication to the community is unwavering.

CH: Tell us a little about the Affrilachian Poets. How does this community nurture you as a writer?

AJ: The Affrilachian Poets is a collective of poets from the Appalachian region. Poet Frank X Walker, a Danville, Kentucky native, coined the term in the ‘90s when he didn’t see people of color included in the definition of appalachians. He didn’t see himself. Along with other founding members, Kelly Norman Ellis, Nikky Finney, Crystal Wilkinson, and others, they formed the Affrilachian Poets to give voice to their experiences and the experiences of other people of color from the region.

In 2004, while living in Kentucky, I was inducted into the APs as part of the second generation, the first group of inductees after its formation. As an AP, I was able to explore my writing and history wholly without restraint. I felt free writing in community with others who looked like me and understood what it means to be Black in America and daring to write about it. Because of the Affrilachian Poets, Kentucky will always be my poetic birthplace. My time there with them gave me the foundation I needed to carry my work forward with pride and purpose.

CH: Tell us a little about Another Way to Say Enter. How would you compare the experience of putting this full-length collection together vs. that of composing your chapbooks, GUAP and Lock & Key?

AJ: Another Way to Say Enter is the gathering of many years of writing into a meditation on my personal journey of womanhood. It’s not soft. It’s not pretty. If anything, I hope it’s honest and carries the places that hurt toward healing. I hope readers find the poems in this collection and know that they are not alone.

It took time and the support of an incredible editor, Teneice Durrant founder of Argus House Press, to see this book become reality. It didn’t follow the business of production. Putting this collection together took patience and compassion and I’m thankful she was able to offer that to me and my book.

GUAP and Lock & Key were personal projects that I arranged and produced. I had complete control. Each of these projects were necessary to make way to grow and enter the next phase of work. AWSE is only a year old, but I can feel the seeds starting to take root for what’s to come. It’s all part of the process of listening and staying present with the work.

CH: How has your experience teaching at Stonecoast influenced your writing?

AJ: Being that I attended Stonecoast, I want to provide the same experience I received as a student for my students. This means I read a lot! I dive into what they are interested in and that often opens up a new world of work to me. Creating coursework for workshop and individual intense study requires I offer my knowledge and experience, but stay open to the riff and flow of each student’s own needs and growth. It keeps me on my toes and I learn so much in the process. They inspire me and it makes me hold myself accountable to them and my own work. I fully believe you must practice what you teach! 

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

AJ: Anything by Lucille Clifton because she gives me permission to write short poems that cut and love deeply. And anything by Sharon Olds because she gives me permission to write the personal, intimate, experience through my own lens without blinking.

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

AJ: On my desk right now are Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez and Monument by Natasha Trethewey

 

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

Background

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: As professionals working for a university, how do you make room for your creative endeavors during the busy academic year? What advice would you give someone struggling to find that work / creativity balance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What are you working on now?

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

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

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

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