Category Archives: MFA programs

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 Cheney Crow

Poet Cheney G. Crow will be the featured reader on September 10, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for September’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Cheney Crow began writing as a young girl in Washington DC.  She earned her BA at Sarah Lawrence College, and in 2014 she completed her MFA in poetry at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, The hiatus between arts degrees included more than a decade in Europe, a PhD in Applied Linguistics, and many years of teaching at UT.

In the last year Cheney’s poems have appeared in The Cortland Review, the online journal Human Equity through Art (HEART), the arts magazine Terminus, and Tupelo Quarterly, where her poem was a semifinalist in theTQ7 contest, and will be included in the anthology Best of Tupelo Quarterly. Her ekphrastic poem “Execution at the Temple” was selected for honorable mention in the 2014 Maine Media Character Contest. Last fall Cheney gave a workshop called “Claiming Collective Wisdom” at the Austin Feminist Poetry Festival. In 2016 one of her poems will appear in the Texas Poetry Calendar.

The Interview

CH: How long have you been writing? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer?

CC: I first remember writing in second grade, a “book” (based on Nancy Drew), called “The Mystery of the Hidden Staircase.”  I bound the pages by hand, drew a cover illustration and took it to school, where I added a library-style card that allowed my classmates to check it out. About the staircase – IT was hidden, but not in the sense one might think — one day it was missing! Ah, suspension of disbelief…

CH: II understand you spent many years as a sculptor. I also know that you have a PhD in Applied Linguistics, in addition to your arts degrees (including your MFA in poetry). As an artist, how would you describe yourself?

CC: I don’t believe one chooses art;  I believe art imposes itself, announces itself as a compulsion, something that must emerge. The form art takes is personal, and might be based on opportunity.

For me it was dance and music early on. I began writing songs as a 10-year-old, when I got my first guitar, so if you don’t count my spontaneous public ballet performances for my parents’ friends or my highly vocal enactments of my mother’s favorite opera arias (death scenes of the female leads in Madame Butterfly, Tosca and La Bohème)…I’d say performing music for wounded veterans air-evacuated to military hospitals in the DC area was the beginning.

By the time I was a senior in high school I was writing essays about the role of the artist in society.  The main argument of these essays was that the artist has a responsibility to society.  In a world where total annihilation was possible, I argued that the artist must present work that the public can both understand and participate in — that public interaction with art creates a dialogue necessary to society.  All this before I considered myself an artist.  I was preoccupied with the anti-war movement, politically active, working summers at the Capitol.  I got permission to spend the first anniversary of MLK’s death in my dorm room meditating and reading Gandhi.  I was a high school senior.

I still believe all those things. The critical decision in my life was the shift in focus from politics to art as a vehicle for change.  This happened when I was in my early 20s — I realized the inconsistencies and the ephemeral nature of political movements and attitudes; I began to believe that change can only come one person at a time. I looked to what lasts over centuries, and can change a life.  The answer was art.

Until this time I was performing music, learning sculpture, but my focus had been political. When I chose sculpture as a way of life, it was also because the pursuit of art is an evolving question; each piece leads inexorably to the next, in ways grossly evident in sculpture; one can begin with a two-ton piece of stone and keep revising until it fits in a pocket!  The challenge is stopping.  That’s true in all arts.  Carving stone, your second draft is a new sculpture, begun with what you learned by the end of the first one – how it should have begun, or what should be altered, how or when it should end.

CH: For me, image and sound in poetry can inform it in a way that seems similar to material choice in sculpture. How would you describe the relationship between sculpture and poetry? How does your experience as a sculptor figure in your work?

CC: Sculpture in stone is a full-body experience.  That’s not part of poetry, but all the rest of sculpture is: choice of subject matter, line-by-line decisions, rhythm of form and coherence of line, a certain inevitability that should emanate from the piece — the need not to have a favorite side, section, or line.

In the carving process there are many tools, each with a different rhythm, so rhythm is part of sculpture, too. Sculpture shapes my poetry: all my poems begin as image and feeling, not words.  I seek words to embody the image, but I don’t feel a need to be totally clear.  I know that comes from my training in sculpture —“if you have to explain it, you haven’t finished”…

I like making something that engages the reader, viewer, listener, with something recognizable, but with room for interpretation. A sculpture does that: it’s an offering.  A viewer can see it all at once, or look into its lines and shadows, its many angles, its subtleties.  It’s all about discovery, despite the obvious form.

CH: I recall Gertrude Stein attributing the expatriate environment of France with helping her distill and create English anew in her work. Were you engaged in creative writing during your many years abroad? How did your expatriate experience influence your relationship with language?

CC: Goodness, yes (was I engaged in writing)!  Writing has always been how I kept track of my emotional world, which was constantly changing. I have an essay on 2 rolls of floral-bordered paper towels about the nefarious influence politics of the cold war would have on love. I knew everyone at my school would melt if Washington were bombed.  I wrote that essay as a suicide note in seventh grade!

When I moved to France I was 19. I stayed in Europe for all but one semester until I was in my mid thirties. Before email or cell phones.  Eight of those years were in France, six without speaking English.  Although I was fluent in French at an academic level when I arrived (Sarah Lawrence required fluency for working individually with French professors) —I could read and discuss Marx or Plato or Jean-Jacques Rousseau — I was not fluent in culture or identity.

Joining another culture is the ultimate work of translation, finding a “voice” for your self – your cultural equivalent — in a somewhat familiar, but truly unknown environment.  One begins from scratch.  This was self-evident in France and Spain, but England took me by surprise.  A very different language from American, even East Coast/New England American, and a culture far more foreign to my upbringing than France.  I moved to Spain aware of the challenge, and welcomed it.  One becomes a bit of a chameleon, I suppose, fitting oneself to each culture in ways that are most comfortable, with the perennial “get out of jail free” card of being a foreigner if one guesses wrong.

CH: How is your training as a linguist reflected in your poetry? Are there linguists whose work you would cite as an influence?

CC: My focus in linguistics was phonetics and neurolinguistics —  specifically speech production, a miraculous dialogue of the brain with all our articulators, a dialogue that differentiates for each language, each set of speech sounds. The rules that govern them, their order, their melody and rhythm.  I love the discoveries of language at both extremes, the physical and the philosophical.

As influences I’d cite Bjorn Lindblom, Harvey Sussman and Peter MacNeilage for opening my mind to phonetics, neurolinguistics, language acquisition, and speech production, then Wittgenstein because of his interest in the relationship between language, culture and thought, a sort of chicken-and-egg question, since the vocabulary and gestures of each language describe relationships that are often intrinsic to the social and cultural ethos it enacts.  Every bilingual person knows there are thoughts you won’t have in a language that has no word for it – that a language is a doorway to a new relationship with both the physical world and the humans around you.  We’ve all heard about the many words for snow in Eskimo.  It’s that kind of thing: what you can conceive of is limited by the words and concepts we have at our disposal! Wittgenstein says it well. Of course, in German you can invent a word if you need it.  In English we do less of that, use the same word for multiple contexts, like “like”… a paring down of expressive vocabulary is hard at work in our American language. Did Hemingway start that trend with his abbreviated syntax?

CH: What launched you on a trajectory toward poetry? What made you decide to get an MFA?

CC: My mother launched me. She was very musical, and she loved poetry.  She read to me rhythmically. Long before I could read she insisted I learn and recite poems by heart at every occasion: birthdays, holidays, bedtime.

I began writing my own poems in grade school, and never stopped, although I kept sculpture and music in the foreground of my artistic expression.  All that ended with my arm injury, which required a new career and a different arm. Hence the linguistics, which (barely) paid the bills but never fed me as an artist.  When I couldn’t draw, carve, or play music, writing became my primary expressive mode.  The compulsion to art was instantly limited to writing, which, over time, refined itself, but I knew I lacked craft.

Having assiduously devoted myself to the craft skills of the arts I had practiced professionally (music and figurative sculpture), I knew craft was the path to more options, better tools, for what I had to express.  I think that’s true of all arts.  Anyone can have a moment of inspiration that produces something magical.  I’ve seen it happen – a composer who wakes up in the night with an entire piece in a dream.  Lots of musicians talk about that gift.  But writing it down takes a set of skills.  So does improving the work we generate in poems.

As soon as my daughter finished graduate school, and I could quit teaching, I devoted myself full time to learning craft.  I approached it as a beginner learning piano scales. I went to workshops with experienced poets, beginning with a Sarah Lawrence professor, until finally I was working with Ellen Bryant Voigt, founder of Warren Wilson College, who encouraged me to apply. I had taken workshops with three poets who had said the same thing. It was time.

CH: How did you go about choosing Warren Wilson for your MFA program?

CC: I knew Warren Wilson was the right place for me because equal weight is given to craft analysis and creative work. There is a huge analytical focus that forces students to delve deep into a single craft features in one poem, sometimes even one stanza. Working one-on-one is what I knew as an undergrad, and Warren Wilson sustains a blend of brilliance, rigor, and freedom of investigation reminiscent of what I had fallen in love with at Sarah Lawrence.

At Warren Wilson there isn’t just one star teacher; they are all brilliant poets and demanding teachers, pushing students to discovery through extremely hard work. A different mentor each semester helps you design and carry out a program that adapts your individual writing needs and goals to the program’s analytical exigencies.

I could describe my experience as something akin to being pushed out a high window by someone with a net you can’t see. The student body was as astounding and varied as the faculty.  I felt myself a newt among ancient frogs; most of my fellow students were new BFAs or English PhDs, long-time poetry profs.  Very deep water. Thankfully, about a quarter of us were less-versed professionals from non-English-major backgrounds.

CH: Name three or more poets whose work has influenced your own. How can their influence be seen in your work?

CC: My earliest influence was Akmatova.  I began reading her work in college, and it’s obvious now that her raw emotions and compact, image-laden small stanzas shaped what my work would become years later.  More recently, I would say Frank Bidart, for his ability to use multiple voices, the seamless interweave of emotion and idea. Finally, I’ll name Ilya Kaminsky, for what feels like a sprinkling of magic that renders even poems about Soviet atrocities beautiful to read. This brings me to a fourth poet I want to name, my friend and classmate Laura Swearingen-Steadwell, a Cave Canem Fellow known on the slam circuit as Laura Yes-Yes.  Laura said something in a workshop at Frost Place last month about how dark poems need a “release valve.” Just the right word.  What I’m looking for lately.

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

CC: Last Psalm at Sea Level  by Meg Day, who read at Bookwoman in July. Her images are extraordinary, and even her titles are compelling.  The poems themselves are as evocative and other-worldly as some of Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s, yet they are grounded in a terse, tense field of reality. Impressive.

CH: What are you working on now? Where do you see your work going?

CC: I have a book-length manuscript that follows something of a narrative arc around a particular theme.  I’ve been sending it out, but I’ve also come to believe it needs a lot more work, or that I’d like to reshape it.

Currently I’m focusing on a series of poems that came out of the two months I’ve spent in Valencia, Spain over the last year, and where I’m returning mid-September. My experience there was equally external and internal.  Living in a city founded long before the Roman empire, in a building with a convent, during months laced with enormous religious celebrations, day-long processions honoring Christianity and Valencia’s Moorish history, it was impossible not to address questions of history and faith.  I believe these poems will become at least a chapbook within the next year. That’s the goal I’ve set for this work.  I never know where the work is going.  I follow it as it comes and then do my best to craft it.  For some poems the process takes years.