Category Archives: MFA

A Virtual Interview with Laura Van Prooyen

Background

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

Register for this event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-laura-van-prooyen-tickets-158345005173

Feature Laura Van Prooyen is author of three collections of poetry: Frances of the Wider Field (Lily Poetry Review Books), Our House Was on Fire (Ashland Poetry Press) nominated by Philip Levine and winner of the McGovern Prize and Inkblot and Altar (Pecan Grove Press). She is also co-author with Gretchen Bernabei of Text Structures from Poetry, a book of writing lessons for educators of grades 4-12 (Corwin Literacy). Van Prooyen is the Managing Editor for The Cortland Review, she teaches in the low-residency MFA Creative Writing program at Miami University and is the founder of Next Page Press: www.nextpage-press.com. She lives in San Antonio, TX. www.lauravanprooyen.com

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? What do you remember about your relationship with books during childhood?

LVP: Most of what I heard as poetry was from the Bible and old Hymns sung in church. So, the Psalms, Song of Solomon, and plenty of Hymn meter in songs. At the time, I was not thinking in terms of poetry at all, but I imagine that’s where and how my ear got tuned. Books were not a big part of the culture of my childhood, but I remember a teacher who read aloud to the class in fourth grade. I remember loving that.

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

LVP: First glimmer: in college when two different professors at two different colleges planted the seed that I had something going on. Honestly, there have been a couple of times in my life I’ve tried, weirdly and consciously, to not be a writer. But I would soon learn that I was deeply unhappy if I wasn’t involved in reading, writing, thinking, and creating, so I supposed I really was a writer.

CH: Your educational background includes an MFA from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. How did you decide on that path? How did your MFA experience change you as a writer?

LVP: I’m first-gen. My sister and I were the first in our family to complete college. I’m the only one who got addicted and just kept going. Not long after college, I decided to get an MA, which was fine and good. Then I spent a decade working, marrying, having a family and writing in isolation. I knew I needed a community and I missed, terribly, engaging in the life of the mind. I went to Warren Wilson as a more “seasoned” student with three small children. Going to that program remains in the top three decisions I ever made. I realized how much I didn’t know, how much I wanted to know, and how much I could push my work. I found the community I was looking for.

CH: Tell us a little about your first book, Inkblot and Altar (Pecan Grove Press, 2006), and your second volume, Our House Was On Fire (Ashland Poetry Press, 2015). How did the experience of your first book shape your approach to the second one?

LVP: My first book was written nearly all in third-person. I don’t think I felt brave enough to write from the lyric “I” and I needed distance to write anything at all. I felt pretty outside of art, of the writing community, and I wrote that book while my babies napped. The second book was completed as and after I went to Warren Wilson. Truth is, that feels like my first book—the other feels like a warm up. Nevertheless, I embraced writing in first-person, and I also paid closer attention to musicality. It felt like I had found a way in to speak with a truer voice.

CH: Your third collection of poetry, Frances of the Wider Field (Lily Poetry Review Books, 2021), has just been released. Over what period of time did you write the poems of this most recent collection? What was different for you in the process of making this book?

LVP: The oldest poem in Frances of the Wider Field is 10 years old and the most recent to be included was written a few months before the manuscript was selected by Lily Poetry Review Books. The book, as a whole, saw many versions in between those points. This time around, I gave myself some rules so I didn’t fall into comfortable habits. For the subject: no husbands, no daughters, no birds. I mostly stuck to that. So, in writing away from what I “knew” I found my way into what I “didn’t know.” Frances became a presence that showed me into some absences and unknowns.

CH: One of my great pleasures in reading Frances of the Wider Field was in encountering its formal variety—from single-stanza, couplet, and tercet poems to ones in which white space inhabits margin and mid-line caesura (as in “Imaging Test’). Please tell us a little about what animates your use of form in Frances of the Wider Field. How has your approach changed over time?

LVP: I’m open to anything, stylistically, and I like to play. I made choices about what was ultimately included in the book, paying attention to having poems that varied in style, but that still carried a thread of thought throughout the collection. My hope was that the variations would create a textured, layered experience.

CH: There’s a strong evocation of place in Frances of the Field: the place the adult speaker inhabits, and the place of her childhood. What do you see as the importance of place in your work?

LVP: If you can imagine it, my mother has never moved in her life. She lives in the house next door to the house she was raised in, next door to the house that was my great-grandmother’s. Three houses on one plot of ground. The address of the houses changed four times, from Rural Routes to numbered streets as farmland was replaced with subdivisions. I chose to leave. And my parents live there still. We are losing my mom to dementia, but there she still is, physically in that place. And here I am.

CH: Your other recent publication is Text Structures from Poetry (Corwin Literacy, 2020), a book of writing lessons for educators you co-authored with Gretchen Bernabei. What was something that surprised you during that project?

LVP: Yes. When Gretchen and I met each other, within 30 minutes we discovered that her methodology of teaching in her Text Structures series of books was similar to the way I approach teaching poetry, so she invited me to write a book with her. I was surprised that something I was already doing intersected with curriculum that was publishable and could be adapted to help teachers, especially those who were a little intimidated by poetry.

CH: One of the things I love about poetry is its ability to surprise, to make me see the world freshly. Can you point to a collection that’s helped change how you think about what’s possible in poetry?

LVP: Adelia Prado’s Alphabet in the Park knocked me out with the juxtaposition of strange, bold statements.

Brenda Shaughnessy’s My Andromeda made me consider how to write with fresh eyes about personal challenges. And Richard Siken’s Crush showed me about intensity and the use of commands. I’ve come back to each of these books through the years.

CH: What are you reading now?

LVP: I just finished C. Dale Young’s new book Prometeo. Also, Sean Thomas Dougherty’s The Second O of Sorrow. Dilruba Ahmed’s Bring Now the Angels. And I’m reading Alyssa Nutting’s novel, Made for Love. I have stacks of books, due to an addiction of buying more than I can read. I recommend each of these titles. Also, I’ve been reading . . . I plan to announce this news this summer . . . I am launching a poetry press, and the first title is a chapbook by Ann Hudson called Glow. It is coming out in October. The first full-length book is Ricochet Script by Alexandra van de Kamp. I can’t wait to share these books. The website is just up www.nextpage-press.com. You’re the first to know!

A Virtual Interview with Rachelle Toarmino

Background

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

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

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Virtual Interview with Jill Alexander Essbaum

Background

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

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

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: How do you nurture yourself as a writer?

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with 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.

A Virtual Interview with Jonathan Moody

Background

Jonathan Moody will be the featured reader Thursday, July 13, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Jonathan Moody holds an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.  He’s also a Cave Canem graduate fellow whose poetry has appeared in various publications such as African American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Borderlands, Boston Review, The Common, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, and Harvard Review Online.  Moody is the author of The Doomy Poems (Six Gallery Press, 2012).  Olympic Butter Gold, his second collection, won the 2014 Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize.  He lives in Fresno, Texas, with his wife and son and teaches English at Pearland High School.

The Interview

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

JM: What interested me in writing was my mother’s advice. When I was a sophomore in
college, I suffered from bouts of insomnia. My mother felt that I had too many
thoughts racing through my head, which was accurate. She encouraged me to buy a
composition book & empty my thoughts onto the page. I didn’t set out to write poems;
it just happened organically. Writing became just as addictive as playing
PlayStation. So, it didn’t alleviate my sleeping difficulty. In fact, I slept less
after the writing bug latched onto my skin.

As far as my first memory of writing is concerned, I believe it was back when I was
in the 7th or 8th grade. I wrote a short story by hand about a work of art that got
stolen from the Smithsonian. The day after the story was due my English teacher gave
me high praise after the class returned from lunch.

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

JM: My realization that I became a poet had nothing to do with getting published or
receiving acceptance letters from MFA programs. I started becoming a poet the day I
started obsessing over word choice, metaphors, & line breaks.

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

JM: What motivated me to get my MFA was that I needed to carve out a huge chunk of
time that would enable me to hone my craft.

And the reason why I applied to the University of Pittsburgh was because I’d become
fans of the faculty: specifically Lynn Emanuel and Toi Derricotte. Pitt was also
where Terrance Hayes received his MFA. When I was an undergraduate at Xavier
University of Louisiana, I enrolled in Terrance’s Intro to Poetry course. During
that semester, I went from having a C- at mid-term to having an A+ for the final
grade. Terrance was my only connection with Pitt, and I felt confident that he would
write me a strong letter of recommendation.

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

JM: The Pitt MFA Poetry program didn’t change my approach to writing; it’s biggest
gift was the time it afforded me to read, read, read and write. It’s biggest setback
was its inability to procure a third poetry professor. We had a great rotating group
of visiting poets such as Ross Gay, Tracy K. Smith (who’s now the U.S. Poet
Laureate), & Tomaz Salamun (R.I.P.), but Pitt didn’t land a third poetry professor
until after I graduated.

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

JM: I applied to Cave Canem while I was at Pitt. My experience at Cave Canem taught
me to be more ruthless when it came to my revisions and to be unapologetic when it
came to my insistence on embracing blackness in my poems.

CH: Tell us a little about your first full-length collection, The Doomy Poems. What was your process in putting the manuscript together? How did you find a publisher?

JM: The Doomy Poems explores the lives of three individuals through the use of
persona poems that are structured as revisionist narratives in which the two main
personas share alternative views on the same event/moment that they’ve experienced.

My writing process for the manuscript changed my whole approach to writing. Before
The Doomy Poems, I never started out a poem with the title in mind first. I’d save
the title for the last item. My usual method involves receiving a trippy image or a
series of lines that are so salient that I have to write them down immediately or
the spark is gone.

With my first book, I was always imagining Doomy and Irina, his love interest,
hanging out. These scenarios or rendezvous would play out in my head. I’m one of
those poets who spends as much time tinkering with titles as I do tinkering with
tension.

Creating such a basic title like “Doomy Pontificates…” was so liberating because I
could channel the bulk of my energy into writing solid poems.

CH: Your old school hip-hop inspired collection Olympic Butter Gold is a terrific read—I love its many voices, its sampling. What inspired this project? Over what period of time were these poems written?

JM: Chuck D inspired me to write Olympic Butter Gold when he made a controversial
comment in his seminal essay “Open Letter on Media, Messages & Pimps” in which he
claims that the United States wouldn’t win a medal in a Hip-Hop or Rap Olympics.

I actually came up with the concept for Olympic Butter Gold in 2011: one year before
I wrote The Doomy Poems. However, I abandoned OBG because I grew too frustrated at
my initial poems which were lousy.

In 2013, the impeding birth of my son as well as the deaths of unarmed black men
such as Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant drove me to figure out which
perspective/angle I wanted to take. Once I figured out my angle, my manuscript had
shape which was sorely lacking back in 2011.

CH: How has your work as a high school teacher influenced your writing?

JM: Within the past two years, teaching high school has influenced how often I write.
In the 2015-16 and the 2016-2017 school term, I didn’t write poems until summertime
arrived. I’m not sure if that will happen again for this school term. A few weeks
ago I wrote seven new poems: two of which have already been accepted for publication
in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review. I hope I can continue writing quality poems
throughout the year!

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

JM: I often turn to Langston Hughes, Bob Kaufman, Larry Levis, Lucille Clifton, Jane
Kenyon, & Garcia Lorca for inspiration. Other writers who inspire me are Patricia
Engel, Junot Diaz, Ta-nehisi Coates, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, & Haruki Murakami.

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

JM: The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa

A Virtual Interview with Martha K. Grant

Poet Martha K. Grant will be the featured reader on Thursday, May 11 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for May’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Martha K. Grant is the author of A Curse on the Fairest Joys (Aldrich Press), poetry that explores the wounds of childhood and the grace of healing. Her work has been published in Borderlands, New Texas, Earth’s Daughters, The Yes! Book, the anthologies Red Sky: Poems about the Global Epidemic of Violence Against Women and Unruly Catholic Women Writers, and nine editions of the Texas Poetry Calendar . She has a Pushcart nomination and received an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. A visual artist and a sixth generation Texan, she has a home and studio in the Hill Country northwest of San Antonio.

The Interview

CH: How did you become interested in poetry? What is your first memory of poetry?

MKG: I have to laugh when I think of this: Casey at the Bat, Ernest Thayer’s 1888 poem. The last stanza still gives me a frisson of memory of my dad at the radio listening to baseball games. I was around 10 or 11. The poem’s baseball story line was most familiar and the energy, drama and imagery captivated me at this early age.  Oh, somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout / but there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out. I still get goosebumps.

The story of Casey and his Mudville team was in an anthology on the family bookshelf, The Best Loved Poems of the American People . I would thumb through it often for poems with a particular cadence or rhythm, but primarily ones with an engaging narrative. Another favorite from that volume was about a red balloon, but I am startled to find now that the poem, written by Jill Spargur, was actually titled Tragedy.  I always wanted a red balloon, / It only cost a dime / But Ma said it was risky / They broke so quickly / And beside, she didn’t have time. . . . I got a little money saved now / I got a lot of time / I got no one to tell me how to spend my dime / Plenty of balloons—but somehow / There’s something died inside of me / And I don’t want one now.  The wistfulness, the melancholy, hooked me and spoke for me in ways I couldn’t. I can’t say it inspired me to write poetry, but it impressed on me that you can find your own story in someone else’s writing.

CH: When did you first begin to write poetry? When did you start to think of yourself as a poet?

MKG: It must have been high school and the fork in the road of choosing an elective in 11th grade. Even though I had taken oil painting lessons since the age of 12 ,  I signed up for journalism rather than art—the first evidence of competition between my creative muses, the visual and the literary arts. Writing came easy to me and  I liked the various formats for  news articles. As editor of the school paper my senior year, the creative visual challenge of collaging blocks of copy into specified space was like an art project in disguise. A harbinger of later combinations of the two fields.

I wrote exactly one poem in school, accepted for a  local contest that is still active today—Young Pegasus—and not another poem until the late ’80s when I discovered the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye. Exposure to her very accessible, thoughtful personal narratives was a defining AHA moment in my earliest of poetry inclinations. Its deceptive simplicity redefined poetry for me as entirely possible. Though I would soon  learn that it was way harder than I thought!

CH: I understand that in addition to being a writer, you are both a fiber artist and a calligrapher. What role have your other artistic interests played in your development as a poet?

MKG: Between that first and only poem and the Naomi “epiphany” that inspired actual writing were decades of visual arts, primarily intense calligraphy study, professional lettering contracts and exhibiting “word painting” combinations layering abstract imagery and text. I worked at first on paper and canvas, then silk screening and dyeing art fabrics.

It coincided with a time inner shifting, searching and questioning. The meaningful  passages I rendered were a reflection of my own quest. The authors of these became my teachers along the way. Notably Thomas Merton, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, Carl Jung and others. I soon understood that I was living a ‘footnoted life’, that the personal credos I publicly professed in my calligraphy broadsides were actually declared by others and I was just hitching a ride. I wanted to make art out of my own words. But first I had to write them! This is where Naomi entered the picture, along with writing classes at Gemini Ink in San Antonio, open mics around town, and publication in an anthology of women’s voices, A Garland of Poems and Short Stories, edited by Michael Moore.

CH: I understand you’ve recently finished your MFA. What inspired you to enter that path? How has it changed your work as a writer?

MKG: Epiphany again. I put off an MFA for years. Time. Money. Nerve. Age. Distance. In  2012 I was at a workshop with Ellen Bass and Dorianne Laux who are on the poetry faculty at Pacific University and they spoke of the low-residency MFA format. It dawned on me: if I lived as long as my mother was (98)  and didn’t challenge myself with further study,  I would be disappointed at the end of my own life. The MFA gave me of course better writing skills, a wider appreciation of the lineage and legacy of poets, and great confidence and satisfaction in having pursued the adventure at this age. And thanks to the encouragement of my faculty mentors, I was able to dig deeper into old memories and release them into poetry.

CH: Please tell us a little about your book, A Curse on the Fairest Joys. What was its inspiration?

MKG: The title is taken from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “As the butterfly chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.” The collection is a poetry memoir, an effort to bring to light the ghosts of  childhood and the extraordinary power of hope and healing.  It helped me reframe and claim my life and find in the writing new ground to stand on.

CH: How did you go about finding a publisher for the book? What was it like to work with Aldrich Press? 

MKG: A poet friend  they had published recommended me to them. I made an inquiry and they accepted my manuscript. It was that simple! I had previously turned down the opportunity to publish a chapbook with another press, taking a chance and holding out for the larger manuscript. The gamble paid off. I followed the layout/formula of other poetry books from this press and it was a good fit for my work. The basic structure of the book is my MFA thesis manuscript.

CH: How do you identify as a writer? Is poetry your primary writing interest? 

MKG: After completing my degree and publishing my book,  I moved into memoir and nonfiction because there were many more stories and episodes that seemed to beg for  a larger format, a more conversational exploration than poetry allowed me. I pursued post-grad work with several nonfiction mentors. Of late I’ve been on a prose poem bender. I find even more “permission” in prose poetry to loosen up in subject matter and voice.  Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Prose Poetry is one of the best of the genre. In David Shields’ work on literary collage I’ve found a home for the varied subjects and genres I seem to come up with.

CH: I understand your family goes back generations in Texas. How does place figure in your work?

MKG: We live in the Hill Country northwest of San Antonio and our live oak-and-cedar landscape with its variety of critters is an ongoing conversation with nature. The Texas Poetry Calendar has been a terrific catalyst for encouragement to “write Texas” and become as rooted in the landscape as I am in my genealogy.  I’m delighted to have been included in 10 editions of the calendar.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? Were there poets you discovered as part of your MFA who have become especially influential in your work?

MKG: Gregory Orr’s writing about the accidental shooting of his brother taught me a lot about dealing with childhood trauma, and  his personal encouragement not to run from my memory of a young friend’s murder helped me write through that old but lingering anguish. Jane Hirshfield’s very zen poetry is work I turn to again and again. So are Coleman Barks’s translations of Rumi. Stephen Dunn, Dorianne Laux, Tony Hoagland are ongoing favorites.

CH: What was the last book of poetry you’ve read?   

MKG: I always have a book of poetry within arm’s reach. I have been facilitating a memoir class for seniors this year. Not surprisingly, narrative poetry with its depth, honesty, lyricism and concision provides many provocative examples and inroads into personal stories. I offer my students selections from Barbara Ras, Ted Kooser, Phillip Levine, Jane Kenyon, Naomi Shihab Nye to help trigger memories and a lyrical approach.

My latest creative form is a blend of the visual and the literary: a series of panels,  15” x 15” hand-dyed and screen printed art fabrics on which I am lettering my poems in brush calligraphy and embellishing with embroidery. My muses collaborating at last!

A Virtual Interview with Ashley Smith Keyfitz

Poets Desiree Morales and Ashley Smith Keyfitz  will be the featured readers on Thursday, February 9, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).

Background

Ashley Smith Keyfitz is the author of various chapbooks & the forthcoming collection Park of Unwired Asking from Xexoxial Editions (2017). She was a founding editor of the press Little Red Leaves & lives in Austin where steps on many legos, ferments anything, and designs websites for the government.

The Interview

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

ASK: In first grade, I had a poem about an autumn tree being like fire published in Highlights Magazine. So that was basically my breakthrough publication. And it’s easy to like anything you’re recognized for. But even then, I really loved poems — as if they were these mysterious, incandescent launching pads for something. You weren’t trapped in poems they way you were stories — rather they pitched you into this incantatory, deeper field. At least I thought, and I sort of still do. I like novels, but when I read them there is a tiny part of me that resents that the story is trying to trick me into its narrative — as if the narrative wants to smooth over other possibilities and act like this were the only way. I remember also having the Random House anthology of poetry and really loving it. The first poem in it is Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.” But I was also fond of some really great poems by Christina Rossetti in that anthology. I’ll copy one here because who reads Rossetti these days?–and so good. The poet Elizabeth Willis has a fascinating essay about the noir Kiss Me Deadly and Christina Rossetti’s poems against the atomic age (who wouldn’t want to remember now that that movie begins with the recently belated, but at that time gloriously young, Cloris Leachman running in front of the protagonist’s car wearing nothing but a trench coat and telling him she is named after Christina Rossetti), but I feel like many of Rossetti’s poems are protest poems:

Flint

An emerald is as green as grass, 
    A ruby red as blood:
A sapphire lies as blue as heaven:
    But flint lies in the mud. 

A diamond is a brilliant stone, 
    To catch the world’s desire:
An opal holds a fiery spark:
    But flint holds fire. 

Before that though, I remember my mom singing songs to my sister and me to put us to sleep & I really liked puzzle songs like “I Gave My Love A Cherry.” I also grew up close to a dance hall &  I would spend a lot of time, while my mom was working at a pottery shop, writing songs I thought I could sell to, like, Lyle Lovett or Robert Earl Keen. I don’t remember if they bought any. But later, in middle school, I did sell “seductive” or “romantic” poems to people to give to the objects of their affections.

CH: When did you first begin to identify as a writer? as a poet?

ASK: The answer to this seems to be something between — I never have or I never stopped. Because I don’t have day job that gives me an official writer title, I feel somewhat outside that moniker. But I also remember at one point when I was a teenager looking at the many notebooks I had filled over the years and thinking, these are basically me. And also, what am I supposed to do with all these notebooks? In this way, writing can sort of externalize what feels like the   immensity of an inner life — and I had this sense growing up that women, like women in real life, weren’t known to have inner lives. I don’t know why.

But writing was a kind of evidence against this — like material evidence of a fuller, more complex existence than would fit in the snapshot of femininity I felt like I was going to be forced to step into and was sad about. To write then, is in many ways a resistance of erasure — resistance of being tucked quietly into bed. Returning to Kiss Me Deadly for a second —  in Cloris Leachman’s exchange with the protagonist Mike Hammer she alludes to a poem by her namesake, Rossetti:

Christina: “If we don’t make it … ”
Hammer: “We will.”
Christina: “If we don’t …. remember me.”

The poem she alludes to is–surprise!–Rossetti’s “Remember Me” — which is itself a weird meditation between burial and disclosure, departure and endurance — which is memorable in its resistance to giving up any options. A really great contemporary corollary to this is Taylor’s Swift’s “Wildest Dreams”– the chorus of which goes “Say you’ll remember me.” But there’s a sort of sci-fi implosion of time that happens in as much as the ground she’s requesting to be remembered in is not on the ground of what happened — but in the feral, potential-infused ground of “your wildest dreams.” This juncture between presence, remembrance and holding open the door toward something more is where writing lives for me. So I guess my answer then to when I began to identify as a poet is — in my wildest dreams.

CH: How did decide to embark on getting an MFA? What made you choose Texas State?

ASK: When I was in high school, I started working at a native plant propagation house during the day & taking community college classes at night.  I had 4 particularly great teachers. The first was a math teacher who was really insistent that I was great at math. Somehow that was important to my poetics, but it’s hard to explain. The second, Kimberly Saunders, was also a poetry student in the MFA program at Tx State. She was such a fantastic teacher, an amazing, statuesque angel of encouragement and intelligence, and still is. I remember complaining when reading a Hawthorne story once that it took forever to wade through his super floral prose — and her saying that maybe we are just so attached to the sound bite of the moment that we’ve lost to ability to stay with the language, to hold complexity, to let it teach us what it’s trying to say. That changed the way I read.

When I transferred to Tx State later, I was lucky enough to take a class with Austin’s own Annie Hartnett. At the time she was an MFA fiction student and dancer. She’s now a dancer and activist and badass. I love her. In her class, when she got to the end of James Joyce’s The Dead, she cried. That gesture of showing students that it’s okay to love the work you’re studying — to be moved by it is a huge gift. Both teachers were women I admired — so that’s how I was introduced to the idea that an MFA existed. Later I took classes with Kathleen Peirce. That seemed essential to me. Kathleen is such an intense thinker and teacher. She would say things in her classes about how we live in a world that is always trying to get us to become harder, less sensitive, tougher — but the object of her class was to increase tenderness, sensitivity, vulnerability as an act of resistance. These are still ideas essential to my politics and poetics and sense of self.

After college I moved to the Rio Grande Valley and Mexico and worked at a coffee roasting house and with the World Birding Centers. I loved that, but I came to a point where I just wanted time to read & learn more and an MFA seemed like a possible way to do that. I applied to a bunch of schools — but in the end Tx State made the most financial sense. I only hesitated to go back because I had already been there. And there is part of me that regrets not expanding my Alma Mater — but I’ve come to realize that the quality of education that was open to me at a state school was really as good as what is available at the most prestigious or ivy league programs. So I thought — poetry is not about getting rich; I can go to Tx State, learn, and get my cognate in Tech Comm as backup. I guess it turned out to be an okay idea as I have fended off living in a ditch eating berries by working in IT since then.

CH: Looking back, what was the greatest gift of the MFA? Its greatest drawback?

ASK: Time / time.

CH: How did you decide become a founding editor for Little Red Leaves press? How has that experience shaped your own work?

ASK: So one of my first roommates in college was the poet CJ (Chris) Martin. I was riding a tram to school one day and he was wearing this very brightly colored crocheted hat. Tx State is full of bros — so it was unusual to see a regular guy wearing this humble but intense thing. When we got off the bus I said something like — I like your hat, and he said “Thanks, my Grandma made it.” Later when I moved up for my MFA, Chris had moved to Buffalo with the poet Julia Drescher to pursue a PhD. He quit and they both moved back to central Texas and started a double-sided book arts press and online journal. I basically asked if I could build the web journal as a way of fulfilling class project requirements toward my degree and they said yes.

Later, when we would solicit work, sometimes poets would send us entire chapbooks. Sometimes books that had gone out of print. Suddenly it made sense to start an online imprint for these works & we settled on a distribution model where you could download a PDF for free or order a print-on-demand copy of the book at cost. Each of the books we printed were intensely important to me. I learned so much. An element of the book I’m working on now was stolen from an LRLe-edition– Susan Gevirtz’s Prosthesis::Cesarea. The first section of Gevirtz’s book deals with the idea of art as prosthetic memory & ventriloquism & eighteenth century concepts of witchcraft. Here’s a quote:

Led to the definition of engastriloque:
   a. 1728, Hutchinson, Witchcraft: There are also many that can form Words and
   Voices in their Stomach, which shall seem to come from others rather than the
   Person that speaks them. Such people are called Engastriloques. ... There was a
   compact between the engastriloque and the exorcist…
   b. To cast the voice
   c. A wench, practicing her diabolical witchcraft. Some have questioned whether it
   can be done lawfully or no. Speaking from the bottom of the belly is a thing as
   strange as anything in witchcraft.

Gevirtz’s book questions these ideas of proper form, writing as memory, the voice that exists outside the body — and pushes against concepts of what’s natural. One of the ways she does this is by scattering these cast voices — basically backwards printed text on the page opposing the poem. The way a sort of residue of the poem is left on the opposite page, and yet exceeds it, is fascinating to me. So I’m stealing this idea and expanding it for the book I’m working on now where a majority of the poems will have something I’m calling transposition erasures on the opposite page (from the original poem). This makes the book so much more spatial to me — or understands the poems as migratory — signalling what can’t be moved or fully put down. It witches it.

Here’s a link to Gevirtz’s book: http://littleredleaves.com/ebooks/catalog/susan-gevirtz-prosthesiscaesarea

So yeah — I dropped working on the journal after my son was born for various reasons. But editing is pretty much one of the best things I’ve done. I would like to get back to it. So grateful to all the people who carry the work of publishing forward.

CH: I understand you have a manuscript in progress that should be forthcoming from Xexoxial Editions this year. Tell us a little about Park of Unwired Asking.

ASK: I started the book when my son was a baby and his father left. I was driving into the next town to work each day and driving back to pick up the baby in the dark after work. It seemed impossible to have time to write. But then, the cards seemed so stacked against being able to write from the space I was in — I became really interested in trying to find a form that might make it possible. Like if I could find a way to go on writing, I could find a way to go on. So I gave up the end of the line — or rather, I started using a spaced period as a way of preserving what the line does, but in a responsive format. This seemed necessary to me, b/c if I was going to be able to write into digital space, it was going to require a form with the flexibility to be accessed from my phone & my work computer or a laptop or the computer at the library — and typed in stolen moments between editing projects and while a baby slept on one arm and while feeding the dog and while washing diapers and while waiting for my car at the worst mechanics or bailing someone out of jail. And it would need to be able to move from a cloud doc to a blog post to a print format to a digital journal (that would be accessed by a person on a phone or a tablet or an ancient PC) and somehow survive.

So what is the lyric of that? I don’t think of the poems in the book as prose poems (which people sometimes refer to them as) but I think of them as lyrics in a form capable of migration, and responsiveness, and survival. In this process, I latched onto the figure of the pigeon as corollary inspiration — as a creature capable of adapting to the environment it finds itself in and exceeding that space. At the beginning of this project, when I was trying to write each day in April, one day I could only come up with the phrase “pigeon of tears” — that was it. “No one wants to read about the pigeon of tears.” I wrote. But I was wrong. Pigeons have a huge fan club. I would say Pattie McCarthy, Danielle Pafunda, Jessica Smith, Sarah Campbell, and Michelle Detorie were really encouraging to me at this time & I hugely appreciate that as well as the inspiration their writing gives me. And working in a group with you and Lisa Moore and Desiree Morales and Tina Posner has made everything since then possible. Other than that the book is also about money and survival and edible plants.

CH: What was your process in selecting the poems for this manuscript? How did you find a publisher?

ASK: My process for selecting poems for the manuscript was just to put all the poems I had that didn’t suck into the manuscript. And then the try to arrange them into some kind way that felt alive.

I was extremely lucky in that mEIKAL aND had edited a special issue of Truck I got to be a part of and I had shown him what I had of a manuscript at that time and he said he would be interested in publishing it through Xexoxial Editions. That was huge for me. Xexoxial has such a deep experimental catalog– it feels amazing to think of being a part of that. Like, I get to have the same publisher as Rachel Blau DuPlessis — who’s been so central to my work since like . . .forever. And mEIKAL has also been really patient and helpful in letting me do weird things.

CH: How do you find time to write amid your full-time employment and your role as a parent? How do you nurture yourself as a writer?

ASK: I don’t. That’s why these interview questions are late 😉

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets?

By way of answering that I want to turn back a second to a point Willis brings up in talking about the Rossetti poem: “Kiss Me Deadly figures poetry generally and Rossetti’s poetry specifically as a hermetic field of information in danger of disappearing unless someone (whether the implausible Hammer or the incredulous viewer) is called upon to remember it –or, as Ruskin writes, ‘to learn it by heart.’”

There is an essay by Cole Swensen where she talks about the free verse line emerging as the chosen line of the city’s flaneur — and how as the urban perambulator would not know what was behind the increasingly tall downtown buildings — that each corner turned was a surprise — so too did the modern poetic line mimic this state of wandering and discovery. But in shedding rhyme, the poem lost a bit of the memorability rhyme adds to verse. And yet, free verse maintained an edge — a sense of something behind where each line ended. One might say back then there was a sense of the depth behind things, and idea that an unconscious controlled our real actions. And that slowly as technology changed, this sense of depth dissolved until now we can look into the vast digitized space of the internet as an externalized unconscious we gaze upon to know ourselves.

These layers are external and crack in the digital fragile. I think my own work probably reflects the realities of this (whether I like it or not). While country music, in particular, is a huge influence on my work, I think of my poems as more collaged, pixilated, carrying moments of infrasound & resisting recitation. A sort of hillbilly glitch work. But idk recently I’ve heard people saying, during the turn to globalized technological present, poetry became more forgettable. It’s definitely become less memorized, less ‘learned by heart.’ But last night at a reading I heard Sequoia Maner perform her poems for Muhammad Ali from memory and it was so impressive, so electric — how she was able to link through her voice the freestyle poetry of  Muhammad Ali’s own past, voices cracking through “the prismatic grey radio,” our cellphone cameras turned to cops, a poetic lineage traceable through hiphop to here & the fragility of the body. So, yeah, while children aren’t required to recite Frost or poetic battle hymns in the classroom any longer, and while rhyme has often dissolved into the tiniest folds of the poem, there’s a pretty badass tradition preserved elsewhere –in the recursive grooves of the slam circuit and hiphop and the in poets who put their bodies on the line in presenting their work without a screen — as if what exists on a piece of paper can be taken away, but what is known by heart goes with you, as vulnerably as the body does. I feel like my own work comes from such a different place, I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Which is to say there is so much great poetry right now, it’s redic & amazing.

Some writers other than the ones I already mentioned throughout I’ve been really into recently are Susan Briante, erica lewis (who has a new book), Layli Long Soldier, Allison Cobb, Raquel Salas-Rivera, Rob Stanton, Wendy Trevino, Jeff Sirkin, Sarah Mangold, and Rosa Alcala, whose new book I’m especially looking forward to.

  1. What is the last book of poetry you’ve read?

It’s been a sadly long time since I read a book from cover to cover. I think the last book I read the whole thing of was josé felipe alvergue’s GIST : RIFT : DRIFT : BLOOM from Further Other Book Works. It’s a gorgeous book.

A Virtual Interview with Cindy St. John

Cindy St. John will be the featured reader Thursday, November 9, 2016 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman.

Background

Poet Cindy St.John is the author of the newly-released collection Dream Vacation, published by H_NGM_N Books, as well as four chapbooks: I Wrote This Poem (Salt Hill), Be the Heat (Slash Pine Press), City Poems (Effing Press), and People Who Are In Love Will Read This Book Differently (Dancing Girl Press). . She holds an MFA from Western Michigan University. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she teaches at a public school.

The Interview

CH: I’m always interested in how writers get started on the path. How did you first become interested in writing? When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?

CS: In elementary school, my teachers often praised my writing, so I guess I just assumed that writing was something I was good at and therefore something I should do. However, I didn’t think of myself as a writer until I was much older.

CH: When did you start to write poetry? How was your identity as a poet forged?

CS: I can’t remember when I started writing poems. I think poetry has always been a part of my life. Just the other day my mom gave me a book of poetry I made in the fifth grade. It was illustrated, bound with a plastic clip and I even invented a publisher. Most of the poems were about puppies and trees. I became a serious reader of poetry as a teenager. I used to skip class to go to the library to read Sylvia Plath and Allen Ginsberg. This makes me laugh now. I did not identify myself as a poet until my mid-twenties. Then, I lived in a small city in Michigan where many other writers lived and people identified each other by what they wrote. People called me a poet, so I started calling myself a poet.

CH: How did you select Western Michigan University for your MFA? What were your expectations of the program before you entered it? Did it deliver?

CS: I applied to Western Michigan because former professor suggested it. I didn’t have any expectations for graduate school and I’m still not really sure why I applied. I just wanted to get out of Texas and live in a small apartment by myself where I could think and write. It was clear during my first few classes that it was going to require quite a bit more work than that because I was severely unprepared. I had not read many contemporary poets and I didn’t have the vocabulary of my classmates. But at Western Michigan my professors and fellow writers were kind and it wasn’t competitive like many other MFA programs. They really helped me become a better reader, and introduced me to so many writers that have influenced me.

CH: I understand you were a Millay Colony artist-in-residence in 2013. What did that experience bring to your work?

CS: The Millay Colony helped my feel validated as a writer, like if a foundation was willing to support my work, then maybe the work had value. It was a wonderful experience to spend my days living in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s barn and walking in her garden, then have dinner every night with other writers and artists.

CH: You have four chapbooks: I Wrote This Poem (Salt Hill), Be the Heat (Slash Pine Press), City Poems (Effing Press), and People Who Are In Love Will Read This Book Differently (Dancing Girl Press). How has your work evolved through these collections?

CS: The chapbook format is what I write in naturally; for whatever form or subject I am working with, 25 pages is usually a good length. So, I just keep writing them. Each of my four chapbooks feels like it has its own identity, but I do see an evolution. I am a writer very centered in place. I think my poems have evolved from a physical place to the poem as place, and that is reflected stylistically as well.

CH: How did you first conceive of your collection, Dream Vacation? How were you drawn to the haibun form for this work?

CS: Dream Vacation took a long time to write, and that is because, as I have said, I usually write in shorter formats. My time at the Millay Colony helped me to write poems as a longer work. I actually printed out all the poems and arranged them on the wall, then I found some pink butcher paper and literally mapped out the poems into a structure. At times it felt forced for me to write a full-length collection, but I don’t feel that way about the finished book. Now, it feels solid.

CH: Dream Vacation was a finalist for the 2015 TS Book Prize from Tarpaulin Sky, part of whose tag line is “Lovely Monstrous Hybrid Texts, Amen.” When did you first become interested in hybrid forms? As a poet, what do hybrid forms of poetry deliver that non-hybrid forms lack?

CS: For me, hybrid forms, particularly the haibun, allow me to write more closely to the way I think. We spend our days in prose: we make coffee, go to work, do the dishes, etc. But there are also small moments of beauty that open to us throughout the day, and I experience those moments in verse. Neither has more value than the other, hence, why I write in both prose and verse.

CH: We met in Hoa Nguyen’s workshop here in Austin, an incredibly rich environment. In what other ways have you nurtured yourself as a writer since finishing your MFA?

CS: In Kalamazoo, I was nurtured by such a rich community of writers. I was nervous about finding and meeting other writers in Austin outside of the university. At some point, probably as AWP, I picked up some beautiful chapbooks from Effing Press and shortly before moving, I saw that they were based in Austin so I emailed the editor, Scott Pierce. Right away, he asked me to give a reading with some other poets at 12th Street Books. There I met poets Hoa Nguyen, Dale Smith, the artist Philip Trussel, and later Farid Matuk, Susan Briante and Kyle Schlesinger, all of whom very much influenced have influenced my work. When many of those writers left Austin, I started a reading series, Fun Party, with Dan Boehl and I published an art and poetry publication called Headlamp as a way to keep myself connected to the writing community.

CH: What role does poetry take in your work as a teacher? Is it something your students resist? Embrace?

CS: Honestly, I think my students like poetry because they know I love poetry so much. I teach wonderfully open-minded and open-hearted teenagers, and when I am passionate about a text, they are excited about it too

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

CS: Favorite poets: Frank O’Hara, Brenda Coultas, Mary Ruefle, Frank Stanford, Jack Spicer, Kate Greenstreet, Alice Notley, James Schuyler and all of my friends. I often wonder how I have come to know so many amazing writers. I recently read two books: Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong and The Market Wonders by Susan Briante, both books I admire.

A Virtual Interview with Logen Cure

Poet Logen Cure will be the featured reader on October 8, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for October’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Logen Cure is a poet and teacher. She is the author of three chapbooks: Still (Finishing Line Press 2015); Letters to Petrarch (Unicorn Press 2015); and In Keeping (Unicorn Press 2008). Her work also appears in Word Riot, Radar Poetry, IndieFeed: Performance Poetry, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She lives in Dallas-Fort Worth with her wife.

You can learn more about Logan at www.logencure.com.

The Interview

CH: When did you first become interested in writing? When did you first begin to consider yourself a writer?

LC:I’ve always loved words. I grew up in a house full of books. My parents took us to the library for fun. My great aunt was an English teacher her entire career; she introduced me to many of my favorite poets. I am fortunate to have a supportive family. They’ve always valued my work and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. Thanks to them, I can’t think of a time in my life when I didn’t consider myself a writer.

CH: What motivated you to get an MFA? How did you choose the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for your program?

LC: To be honest, I hit my junior year at Texas A&M and realized I had no idea what I wanted to do with my English degree. I talked with my English professors about my options for grad school. I wasn’t aware MFA programs existed until I started having those conversations. My mentor told me she didn’t think a PhD program would be the right fit for me and essentially dared me to apply to as many of the top MFA programs as I possibly could. So I did.

At that time, UNCG was ranked in the top ten. I visited Greensboro and found that it is just relentlessly gorgeous. I had a connection there, Alan Brilliant, the founder of Unicorn Press. I took a class on bookmaking with him at A&M shortly before he moved to Greensboro. Those things made UNCG my top choice of the eight programs I applied to. Strangely enough, it was my only choice; I got seven rejections and one acceptance. I was fortunate to be accepted at all, given how competitive those programs are. I was one of six poets in my year.

CH: How did your writing change in the course of obtaining your MFA? What were the MFA program’s greatest contributions to you as a writer? What were its biggest drawbacks?

LC:I never set foot in a poetry workshop before my MFA program. As an undergraduate, I took fiction courses because I saw prose as my weakness. I had poet-friends and regular readers I could depend on for feedback, but the immersion in workshop was a big change for me. I am a slow writer by nature, so the structure and expectations of workshop forced me to adapt. I learned to not toil too hard over the first draft; just write it. That alone changed my writing significantly. My work took turns I never expected.

The greatest contribution would definitely be the time. During those two years, I had the space and support to make poetry my first priority. Before that, poetry was something I madly pursued between other obligations. That was a tremendous and life-changing gift. I made lasting connections with people whose work I am still learning from; I was introduced to authors and ideas I’d never considered; I worked hard on poems that still make me proud today.

The drawbacks: I was 22. I know I could have gained more from the experience had I been smarter and more mature. I’m better at networking and advocating for myself now. If I could do it again, I would take full advantage of all the available resources. I wish I had learned more about the submission and publication process. I wish I had asked more questions to my mentors and the writers they brought in to visit us. I wish I had gained more teaching experience.

I think it all happened the way it did for a reason. My MFA helped me get my foot in the door as a higher ed professional (I’m an academic advisor and creative writing instructor), so my post-grad-school life has been pretty great.

CH: How do your three chapbooks (In Keeping (Unicorn Press, 2008), Letters to Petrarch (Unicorn Press, 2015), and Still (Finishing Line Press, 2015) relate to one another? Tell us a little about each.

LC:In Keeping is a spoken word chapbook and CD. It was originally conceived during the bookmaking class with Alan Brilliant. In 2006, I self-published a book, Something of a Mess. Another member of Al’s class partnered with me to create In Keeping as a companion to Mess. Together we selected the best spoken word pieces, then recorded and edited them. Al decided to move forward with the project via Unicorn and my first chapbook was born.

Letters to Petrarch and Still were written largely during my MFA years. Together, they’re pretty much my master’s thesis. I started working on Letters to Petrarch my senior year at A&M. I took an independent study to research and read Petrarch’s Canzoniere and other works, so I arrived at UNCG with this very clear goal in mind. The poems in Still were the result of my mental breaks from Letters to Petrarch over the years. The poems in Still were not written with the idea that they would occupy a book together.

Petrarch was the 14th-century Italian poet who popularized the sonnet and romantic love poetry. The Canzoniere contains 366 poems, composed over decades of his life, all centered around a figure he calls Laura. The story goes that he met Laura once, maybe from across a room, and fell in love with her instantly and permanently. There’s speculation that she was either a figment of his imagination or a real woman who was already married when he met her. Either way, this was not someone he knew personally. All the love poetry tropes we think are cliche now—her lovely eyes, her lovely hands—that’s Petrarch. His poems are complicated: he loves her but he’s furious with her; he praises her then blames her; she is at once an angel and his captor. So here’s a guy who not only changed poetry as we know it for a woman he never knew, but also managed to render perfectly so many of the feelings I had about my own love and loss.

I had so many questions in response to that. How could the work of a 14th-century sonneteer resonate so deeply with a modern-day queer woman poet? How could he feel all these things for someone he never spent time with? How much does anyone ever really know anyone else? To what degree are we all figments to each other, even in our most intimate relationships? I think everyone has a Laura—someone they love in this big, overwhelming way, even if it’s doomed or impossible or unattainable. I decided to tell Petrarch the only thing I knew about that he didn’t. I conflate my Laura with his and recount for him a single day spent with her. The poems alternate between letters and prayers corresponding to the canonical hours, which is how Petrarch would have conceptualized time. Petrarch also wrote a lot of letters, including one to posterity—me, you, everyone. I thought it was the least I could do to write him back. Letters to Petrarch is far and away the most challenging project I’ve completed thus far.

Still, like I said, wasn’t originally conceived as a project. I realized I had enough poems to make a second chapbook. When I sat down with what I had, I found the poems were not as disparate as I thought. The speaker in these poems is grappling with coming of age, trauma, loss, and identity. I won’t lie, some of the poems in Still are pretty bleak. The book is certainly more optimistic near the end. Fun fact for the Austin audience: the collection opens on a poem called “Sixth Street.”

CH: What would you describe as your obsessions as a writer? How do these obsessions figure in your chapbooks?

LC: I’m definitely a confessional poet. The poems and poets that have meant the most to me come from that tradition. Confessional poetry at its best can be liberating, life-changing. I’m obsessed with several questions surrounding truth-as-liberation. How do you be yourself? What is honesty? What can I do with my voice? How can I make connections with the world, other poets, and readers? How can I tell stories and render emotion in an accessible way? My chapbooks are all different iterations of the attempt to reach out for connection.

CH: How did you go about find publishers for your chapbooks?

LC:I was fortunate to encounter Alan Brilliant and Unicorn Press so early in my writing career. In Keeping was a very right-place-right-time situation. Letters to Petrarch is sort of a peculiar project. I wanted it to come from Unicorn because that’s part of what they do—publish peculiar projects—but also because Al has been such an influential force for me. Unicorn Press makes books by hand; they always have. Letters to Petrarch is a gorgeous, artfully-made hardback chapbook. I am honored and humbled to be a part of Unicorn’s venerable catalog.

Still is published by Finishing Line Press. I learned about the press from an editor that rejected me, actually. I received a printed form rejection with single hand-written line at the bottom: “Try Finishing Line.” I submitted the manuscript to a Finishing Line contest. I didn’t win, but the editors wrote to me and said they wanted to publish my book anyway. Finding publishers has been a combination of dogged persistence and random luck, I think.

CH: Of the authors whose work you first encountered during your MFA, which are your favorites? How has their work influenced your writing?

LC:Oh, there were so many. I was introduced to the work of CK Williams and had the opportunity to see him read. Same with Ellen Bryant Voigt. I went to AWP one year, where I saw Natasha Trethewey. I read Lynda Hull, Anne Carson, Robin Ekiss, and Terrance Hayes, among others. Good writing comes from good reading. My MFA taught me about the value of imitation as a generative and educational process. When I read, I’m always looking for ways to raise the bar on my own work. How do these poets do what they do? How can I do that?

CH: As a poet, I find community essential for giving me critical feedback as well as to help me expand my exposure to published and performed works. Post-MFA, how have you found community that has supported you as a writer?

LC: Yes, I agree that community is essential. I won’t lie, I had a hard time post-MFA. I burned out for a while; didn’t write a single word. After we moved back to Texas, it took some time for me to start writing again and find my people. I scoured the internet for readings, critique groups, and open mics around DFW. I finally attended an open mic in Dallas where I met a few people to cultivate friendships with. Those connections lead to more connections. You just have to show up. Support people. Engage on social media and promote each other. Say yes. Yes, I will read for you. Yes, I will teach that workshop. Yes, I’ll spread the word about your publication. Yes, I can help you make this event a reality. My DFW community is gracious and wonderful; I am so thankful to have found it. I do my best to branch out and find my people where they gather. AIPF (Austin International Poetry Festival), for example, where I met you, Cindy!

CH: What’s your next project? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

LC: I’m working on a full-length manuscript right now. I grew up queer in a super conservative West Texas town. The project includes a coming-of-age arc alongside poems about my hometown and the desert. So you’ve got these growing-up moments through a queer lens, like prom and learning to drive a standard car, next to poems about bizarre desert creatures, weather, historical events, etc. The common thread is survival in a harsh environment. My project is research-heavy. I’ve been working on it for about 3 years. I’d like to have it completed and find it a home within the next 5 years.

Right now, I’m a full-time academic advisor and adjunct instructor for Tarrant County College in Fort Worth. I love both jobs, but I am super busy all the time. In the next 5 years, I’d love to have a full-time teaching gig and only have that one job, leaving more hours in the day for poetry.

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

LC: I keep coming back to Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler lately. I’m trying to spend time with books that are a similar concept to my desert manuscript. Smith writes in the voice of Hurricane Katrina, shows us New Orleans and some of its characters. She incorporates true stories and excerpts from the media. The book is heartbreaking and difficult and I learn something different every time I pick it up. I highly recommend it.