Category Archives: poetry of place

A Virtual Interview with Christia Madacsi Hoffman

Background

Christia Madacsi Hoffman will be the featured reader Thursday, December 14, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Christia Madacsi Hoffman grew up along the banks of the Mystic River in Mystic, Connecticut. Her poetry collection, Intent, was published by Hedgehog & Fox in 2017.  A longtime Austin, Texas resident, Hoffman’s work has appeared in the Texas Observer and the annual anthology of the Austin International Poetry Festival. Through her company, CenterLight Media, Hoffman works as a marketing and editorial writer, graphic designer, and actor. Her early career adventures included antique furniture restoration and leading treks in the high Himalaya.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

CMH: Shakespeare – and winter readings in a close upstairs room above the Captain Daniel Packer Inne bar in Mystic.

CH: When did you become interested in writing? When did you begin to think of
yourself as a writer?

CMH: In my early work as a graphic designer, I found I was incidentally
writing and editing on most projects that came my way – developing ad headlines and
copy; discovering copy errors and suggesting changes; writing company communications
and marketing materials. About 10 years into my design career, I got certified as a copy
editor in AP style. While I’d been writing all along, it wasn’t until I submitted my first
feature article to a travel magazine that I felt the title officially applied.

CH: You grew up along the Mystic River in Connecticut, but have long lived in Austin.
How have these two environments helped shape your perspective? How does place
figure in your work?

CMH: I moved to Austin sight-unseen. I hadn’t planned to stay more than a year, but, well, love… Some 12 years in, just as I was planning my departure, a tap on the shoulder on the dance floor at the Broken Spoke held me here. Score two for love. My heart is with the sea (see “I Belong”), but over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate and integrate the openness and friendliness I’ve found in Austin, which is something I believe I needed to learn. While I’ve lived in some stunning cities, I find it’s the people here who give this city its beauty. Austin is young yet and developing unevenly, but each time I leave, I’m encouraged by the dynamism I feel upon returning. At home, in Mystic (it will always be “home”), nature and the seasons define the sense of place. Here, it’s so much less about the landscape and the greater environment. In Austin, the energy of the people and change itself define the sense of place for me. (See “An Age for Innovation.”)

CH: Tell us a little about your collection, Intent. How did you arrive at this collection?
How long did you take to write it? What was your process in sequencing its poems?

CMH: I began writing when my daughter was an infant. A photographer friend of mine, Sarah Bork Hamilton, had challenged herself to post a photo to Facebook every day for a year. While she’s a professional with full kit and gear, she elected to limit herself to her
iPhone. Sarah unwittingly inspired me to set a challenge for myself: to write two lines of
verse a day.

While it doesn’t sound like much, the commitment to two lines seemed significant in
combination with caring for an infant. And the accountability factor was key: I made a
commitment to post those lines each day to Facebook. Very quickly, two lines turned into
complete, usually short, poems – the length being both a function of time and natural
style. Most of the poems in “Intent” were completed in 15 minutes to an hour, with
editing taking place in-line, so to speak, as they were developed. Working in Microsoft
Word, I could iterate quickly – faster than I could write longhand, which I do only if
inspiration strikes out of range of a keyboard.

The book is the culmination of work from 2013 through the early months of 2017. I
wrote each day for the first two years, and have written regularly, though not daily, from
2015 through today. At this point, the practice feels almost essential. As with exercise, I
feel grumpy and muddle-headed if I don’t take time for writing poetry. And while I write
most every day to earn a living, the practice of poetry clears my mind and contributes to
my overall sense of well-being and purpose.

CH: You’ve had a very interesting career trajectory, from restoring antique furniture
and leading treks in the high Himalaya to leading your own company, CenterLight
Media, and working in writing, graphic design, editing, and acting. What do you see
as the trajectory of your literary life? Where would you like to be in five years?

CMH: I’m laughing reading this. I always have a challenging time answering the question,“What do you do?” The answer depends on the context, but I’ve always felt that each pursuit developed something else in the other. Especially now, with a focus on writing and designing for business, acting for both business and art, and writing poetry for art, I see the complementarity in each component. But that’s not what you asked about…

My goal at present is to find residencies so that I can discover what it is to write within a
greater span of time, in contrast to the few hours I devote over the course of a week. In
particular, I’m interested in exploring and capturing sense of place in my poetry as an
artifact – a leave-behind for the people who inhabit a particular locale now, and for future inhabitants. A snapshot in time of culture and character – character of both place and people. Especially now, as we see traditional skills and crafts being overshadowed and lost to new ones, and as climate change alters our landscapes and traditions, I want to assist in capturing what is fading and how it’s being replaced, or in fact, saved or
reclaimed. I might say I want to practice cultural anthropology through poetry –
ethnographic poetry. (I just looked that up. Turns out it’s already a thang!)

CH: How has your work as a voice actor influenced your approach to poetry and its
performance?

CMH: I like that you referred to the “performance” of poetry, because in fact, I’ve discovered that’s indeed what’s happening, even outside of a slam. When it comes to
poetry, the term “reading” is something of a misnomer.

I’ve observed that the work is most effective, the event most enjoyable, when story is interwoven into the delivery of the pieces, and when the poet is fully committed to the words on the page – just as in acting. Depending on the nature and character of the author, this can take different forms, but the audience knows whether or not you’re genuinely invested in your words and your “role” as a performer. (This can be especially
challenging if you suffer at all from imposter syndrome, which I’ll admit to experiencing
at some point in just about every facet of my career.)

I’m still discovering the differences between VO (voice-over), on-screen, and poetry performance. With VO, the trend these days is for a “natural” read. That means clear articulation but no over-enunciation, while still hitting the key words – not to mention the emotion and meaning that needs to be conveyed in the copy, and getting the pacing right for time (:15-, :30-, :60). On screen, in certain instances you can “throw away” a few lines here and there – intentionally give them less emphasis – and articulation depends on your character. And of course you have the benefit of the camera to pick up what you’re saying with your eyes.

With poetry, I’ve found I have to slow myself down and allow words and phrases to land
– both on me and on the audience. Clear articulation is especially important because the
audience usually isn’t reading along, but you also want to let your genuine voice come
through. It’s an interesting balance to try to strike, and I’m still learning. I’ve also
discovered that poems that tell a story, which rely less on word play that might only be
realized on the page, are more successful in “performance.”

CH: . How do you balance the many demands of entrepreneurship with your writing life?
How do you make room for poetry?

CMH: I have a regular writing practice. During the week, I typically get up at the same time each morning – 6 a.m. Three of those mornings I work out; the other two are for writing.

CH: What are you working on now?

I’m writing poetry regularly – two days a week. Some of my work is trending more political these days, given the current climate. I’ve begun researching residencies and feeling out ways to spend more time writing. I’ve observed that the more you do what you want to do, the more you get to do it. I believe the more time I can give to poetry, even if it’s in small increments, the more I’m likely to be able to spend time within that realm.

CH: Who are some poets that inspire and influence your work?

CMH: I don’t know that I could point to one poet whose work has directly inspired my own; influence is so often subconscious. I would say instead that I feel most inspired by seeing other poets at work. My local (Austin) influencers are Joe Brundidge, Aimée Mackovic and Jim Trainer.

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

CMH: I just picked up Aimée Mackovic’s newest release, “Love Junky,” which is rather tremendous. I’ve been balancing out “Darkness Sticks to Everything” by Tom Hennen with an international anthology edited by Czeslaw Milosz entitled “A Book of Luminous Things.”

A Virtual Interview with J. Scott Brownlee

Background

J. Scott Brownlee will be the featured reader Thursday, November 9, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Scott Brownlee is a poet-of-place from Llano, Texas and a former Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU, where he taught poetry to undergraduates and fifth graders through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. His poems appear in The Kenyon Review, Narrative MagazineHayden’s Ferry Review, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbooks Highway or BeliefAscension, and On the Occasion of the Last Old Camp Meeting in Llano County. Honors for these collections include the 2013 Button Poetry Prize, 2014 Robert Phillips Poetry Prize, and 2015 Tree Light Books Prize. His first full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and 2015 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award and selected by C. Dale Young as the winner of the 2015 Orison
Poetry Prize. It also won the 2016 Bob Bush Memorial Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. Brownlee writes about the people and landscape of rural Texas and is a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes the aesthetically marginalized working class. He currently lives in Austin, Texas and teaches for Brooklyn Poets as a core faculty member.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

JSB: I think the first poem I actually read and paid attention to was Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Blue Emmett” in Bat City Review. It was lying on the floor of the UT-Austin English Department, and as soon as I got to the end of the poem, I was mesmerized.

CH: When did you become interested in writing? When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?

JSB: I wrote some bad love poems in high school but thought initially I’d be a fiction writer as an undergraduate student. Things didn’t work out that way. I came to poetry as a result of a nudge or two from Michael Adams, a professor and mentor who told me to read Larry Levis and encouraged me to consider the “you can be a poet” idea.

CH: When did you first begin to consider pursuing an MFA? What were the influences that led to that decision?

JSB: I’d been dreaming of going to Michener ever since I figured out what it was, and so for a couple of years I applied there and was rejected. The year I cast a wider net and applied to multiple schools, NYU was the last one I applied to, and I did it on a whim after meeting some New Yorkers at ACL and thinking, “I kind of like these people—might as well apply to school there.” You’d think it would have been a more well-conceived plan, but it honestly wasn’t.

CH: How was your work received by fellow students during your time at NYU? What effect did this very urban location have on your process of writing about place?

JSB: I’d say there was probably about 50% positive support (which was very positive—Yusef Komunyakaa and Sharon Olds lit a fire in my writing life) and 50% negative feedback. At times I found the negative feedback frustrating (students with Ivy League undergrad degrees honestly just didn’t understand the context of rural Texas at all and would generalize to no-end in workshop), but ultimately I think having something to push against—a cliquish and never-appeased criticism of the rural—was helpful. I don’t know if I’d still be a poet-of-place without it.

Living in Brooklyn really helped me write strong poems-of-place as well. Being physically removed from the rural Texas landscape meant I had to imagine it, and I think the myth-making and imaginative leaps my poems make were in part made possible by being in a state of exile / dislocation.

CH: What kind of responses has your work received from the community in which you grew up?

JSB: I thought it would be negative initially, in all honesty, but it’s been 100% positive overall. There aren’t necessarily many poetry readers in Llano, Texas, but many members of that community still gave my first book a try, and I’m grateful that they did. Accessibility is important to me. I wanted to write a book of poems non-poets could access, and so far the reception of the book has aligned with that intention.

CH: Over what time period were the poems of Requiem for Used Ignition Cap written? Was this book conceived of from the first as a project, or did the book coalesce in a different way?

JSB: I wrote the poems over the course of about six years (the oldest poems are from around 2009, and the newest are from 2015—just several months before the book was published). My first plan for the book was for it to follow a church service in terms of flow and the order of the poems, but in the editing process Luke Hankins (the editor of Orison Books) and C. Dale Young (the judge of the contest I won) proposed some changes to the order that really helped the book take a more organic final shape.

CH: For me, Requiem’s title is deeply evocative. How did you decide on this as the title of the book, and of the poem that shares it?

JSB: The title comes from the poem of the same name that appears near the end of the book, which I wrote as a kind of metaphor for several people I knew growing up who took their own lives with firearms. Technically an “ignition cap” is a car part, but I was thinking of it as the small ignition cap on a bullet that, when struck, can leave so much emptiness and pain in its wake. Both definitions work when considering the meaning of the book’s title (Llano is one of those small towns where people will leave an old car out in the sun to rust down to nothing), which wasn’t intentional but is something I’ve come to appreciate after the fact.

CH: When I read “Disappearing Town,” I was struck by its reflection on the failure of journalism located in urban centers (e.g. the New York Times) to take the time and effort to truly engage with people in rural areas. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, this seems especially important. What kind of feedback have you received since the election regarding the news your poetry brings?

JSB: Thanks for noticing that! You are the first person to catch the intention behind that poem and ask about it. It’s a theme I’ve continued in my second book, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, which has a poem responding to the “poverty porn” mentality journalists and photojournalists tend to take when they cover the lives and landscapes of the working class.

Honestly, the election has had a mostly negative impact on my writing and its reception (which I think is justifiable given the current state of race relations in this country). I find myself in a position where I vehemently disagree with the current administration and feel like they have lied to and manipulated rural people (including rural white people, my primary subject) to no end, but there’s also that element of racism / xenophobia that individual rural people are responsible for themselves, and capturing that while also trying to draw attention to misinterpretations of rural America that are unfairly negative is a very difficult task.

CH: What are you working on now?

JSB: I recently finished and am sending out my second full-length poetry collection, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, and am about 70% finished with a first draft of a novel called Diamond Kings, which follows a fictional rural Texas high school baseball team on their path through the state playoffs and centers around an episode of racially-linked gun violence that threatens to tear the team and wider community apart.

CH: Who are some poets that inspire and influence your work? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

JSB: I have too many favorite poets to bore you with list-wise, but right now I’m re-reading Natalie Diaz’s book When My Brother Was an Aztec and want to check out Tyehimba Jess’s book Olio, which I’ve picked up several times in the bookstore but still not gotten around to purchasing quite yet. I try to read local Austin poets as well and so have Lisa Olstein’s new book Late Empire on my coffee table as we speak. If I had to pick only one poet I could read forever, I’d probably pick Larry Levis—mostly because we are both narrative poets-of-place, and I feel like I have more to learn from him each time I revisit his writing.