Category Archives: teaching poetry

A Virtual Interview with Lisa Dordal

Background

Thursday, May 12, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-featuring-lisa-dordal-tickets-302471098197

Feature Lisa Dordal will be reading from her new collection, Water Lessons (Black Lawrence Press, forthcoming April 2022). Dordal teaches in the English Department at Vanderbilt University and is also the author of Mosaic of the Dark, which was a finalist for the 2019 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Robert Watson Poetry Prize, and the Betty Gabehart Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in NarrativeRHINOThe SunThe New Ohio ReviewBest New Poets, Greensboro ReviewNinth Letter, and CALYX. Her website is lisadordal.com.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer? a poet?

LD: My first memory of writing poetry is from when I was 8 years old. I wrote a poem (I think it was for a school assignment) about cows and chickens and the pillows I was sure they needed for their heads…!

Then, during high school, I started writing poetry on my own, mostly as a way to deal with what was probably undiagnosed depression. All I knew during high school and college was that I felt different and was deeply unhappy. This was back in the late 70s, early 80s. I would realize much later that I was a lesbian.

It took me a long time to actually think of myself as a poet. I grew up in a very math/science-oriented family—a career as a poet definitely wasn’t on the table! Furthermore, my family of origin embraced fairly traditional gender roles, and the primary expectation was that I would marry a man and that my husband would provide for me. So, after college I dutifully adhered to those expectations and married a man! Through my 20s I wrote poetry occasionally though not as consistently as I had in high school and college. Then, at the age of 30, I realized I was a lesbian and filed for divorce.

I had been a Religious Studies major during college and, in my early 30s, had been enrolled for a few years in a graduate program in feminist theology. In my late 30s, I decided to go to divinity school. During the program, I was drawn to studying the Bible, and one of the things I learned was the importance of asking who has voice in a particular text and who doesn’t, who has power and who doesn’t. Who is central to a story and who isn’t.

Towards the end of my MDiv program I started to write poetry again. Most of the poems I was writing after my long hiatus were about women in the Bible. I creatively re-imagined stories in which women appear only peripherally, hoping to give them a voice that had been long denied. A few months after I finished the program, I saw an advertisement on the Vanderbilt webpage for an evening poetry class. After taking that class, I began auditing poetry workshops at Vanderbilt and eventually applied to the MFA program which I completed in 2011.

CH: What draws you to writing poetry?

LD: I started writing poetry to help process the pain I was feeling in high school and college., and I think I’ve been drawn to it ever since as a way to help me make sense of what it means to be alive in this world. I like the concision of poetry—how it can take people so far with just a few words. I also think there is a real connection for me between theology and poetry: they are both trying to get at something that can’t be fully or directly named. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to “big” questions. What does it mean to be alive? What happens when we die? Poetry is a natural partner for those sorts of questions.

CH: I understand you have an MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University. What motivated you to get the degree? How did the process meet with your expectations? What changed most for you as a writer in the process of getting the degree?

LD: I had been auditing workshops in the MFA program at Vanderbilt for a couple of years, but I never considered doing the program because of the cost. Once Vanderbilt began to offer financial support to their students, I thought, “why not?”

Doing the program was a huge help to my writing in terms of deepening my understanding of my own voice. But like a lot of people who do MFA programs, I needed some recovery time afterwards, time to turn inward and do a lot of studying and writing on my own to get back on track. Workshops can be challenging—it’s a very intense experience mostly in terms of the emotional work, and you can’t incorporate every opinion, or your poem will just fall apart.

Overall, I’d say it was a completely worthwhile experience. I’d never be doing any of what I’m doing now without the degree

CH: Your first collection, Mosaic of the Dark, came out from Black Lawrence Press in 2018. Tell us a little about it, and your journey toward it. Over what period of time were the poems written? How did you go about selecting and sequencing them? How did they find a home with Black Lawrence Press?

LD: As a whole, Mosaic of the Dark addresses the psychological harm that can arise from restrictive societal expectations for women. Its poems focus on my experiences as a closeted lesbian trying to fit my life into what felt like a prescribed script of heterosexuality, as well as on my mother’s possibly non-heterosexual orientation and eventual death from alcoholism. It took me a long time to write the book—some of the earliest poems were from 2007.

I don’t remember all the decisions I made about sequencing the poems in Mosaic of the Dark, but I’m pleased with how it turned out. I had entered a few contests with Black Lawrence Press and was a finalist a few times, then decided to submit through one of their open reading periods. I was so thrilled when Diane Goettel—the executive editor—called with the news back in May 2016!

CH: Congratulations on your new collection, Water Lessons, just out from Black Lawrence Press. Tell us a little about it, and how the book came together.

LD: In many ways, Water Lessons continues to wrestle with many of the themes of Mosaic of the Dark, especially with respect to my mother. There are a lot of poems in the book about my mother’s alcoholism and eventual death. I thought, after writing Mosaic of the Dark, that I was done writing about my mother, but it turns out I’ll probably never be done writing about her!

There are also poems in this collection about my father’s (recent) dementia and my own childlessness, as well as poems about my own complicity in systemic racism as a white girl growing up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Those poems were inspired by the work I’ve been doing the past five years or so—thanks in large part to my church, First UU Nashville—to better understand systemic racism and my role in it.

For example, there’s a poem in the book called “Primer,” which was inspired by an NPR interview with a black scholar in which I learned about the racist content in Pippi Longstocking books. I was horrified when I re-read one of my Pippi Longstocking books, and began to think a lot about how problematic narratives operate on young minds.

Water Lessons also examines the patriarchal underpinnings of the world I grew up in, and meditates on a divine presence that, for me, is both keenly felt and necessarily elusive. There’s a lot in the book about relationships between reality and imagination, faith and doubt, and presence and absence.

The book came together quite easily—well, at least that’s how it feels looking back on the process! I do remember wondering to myself after Mosaic of the Dark came out, whether I would ever have enough poems for another book. So maybe it wasn’t an easy process after all—it’s just that the manuscript came together so much more quickly than my first book.

Water Lessons’ four main topics form a loose narrative or chronological arc. The bulk of the poems about my mother’s death (in 2001) come first; poems about the failed adoption my wife and I experienced (after my mother’s death) and about my father’s decline (which began four years ago) come later in the book. Then there are the poems focusing on the dynamics of race, many of which reflect a much earlier period in my life.

I knew I didn’t want to group all the poems by topic because this isn’t how life happens; life is much more fluid than that. So, while I wanted to begin with poems about my mother, I didn’t want to begin with all the poems about my mother. My mother is still very present to me and, consequently, the book, in a certain sense, requires her to appear again and again. The first section of the book ends with the poem “My Mother, Arriving” because this title paves the way for future appearances, as does the last line of the poem: “My mother, not going away.”

I also knew that the postcard poems (“Postcards from the 70s”)—which explore the larger societal messages I received about race, gender, etc.—needed to come relatively early in the book, since they describe the world I grew up in just as much as the poems about my mother’s drinking do. So, the first two sections serve as the foundational and chronological beginning in the narrative arc, while the rest of the book moves forward in time to the present—a present deeply infused by the past.

CH: How did the experiences of putting your first and second books together differ? How has it been to work with Black Lawrence Press?

LD: It took a lot longer to put Mosaic of the Dark together. Some of the poems date from when I was auditing poetry workshops at Vanderbilt—so back in 2006 through 2008. When I received my MFA in 2011, I thought I had a finished manuscript (based on my master’s thesis), ready to send out to publishers. But it turned out that a lot of the poems still needed more work or needed to be scrapped altogether. Over the next five years, I sent out versions of the manuscript, though it wasn’t really ready until 2016.

Because I had my first book published by Black Lawrence Press, I was able to submit Water Lessons as a current author, so the process of submitting was a lot easier. I had loved what they did with Mosaic of the Dark and they were/are such a great press to work with.

CH: I also understand you hold a Master of Divinity from Vanderbilt. How has this background shaped your work as a poet?

LD: Going to divinity school had a huge impact on my journey as a poet. I see poetry very much as a kind of spiritual practice—a way of paying deep meaningful attention to the world. When I read and write poetry, I feel connected to something much bigger than myself and know that I am not alone—that my life is bound up in the lives of those who have come before me and who will come after me. Poetry isn’t my only spiritual practice, but it is definitely one element.

I also see poetry as being very related to the prophetic tradition. In the Bible, the primary role of a prophet was to respond critically to the present—i.e., to call attention to societal issues. So many poets use their gifts to raise awareness about any number of societal ills, and I would argue this kind of poetry is very much in line with the prophetic voice in Biblical tradition. 

In my poetry courses, I make a point of exposing students to poets who are examining racism, calling out white supremacist thinking or calling attention to stories typically ignored in the dominant historical record. In this sense, my work in divinity school continues to impact not only my writing but my teaching.

Even though I’m no longer writing directly about Biblical stories, it’s not unusual for me to incorporate images or stories from the bible into my poetry. For example, my poem “Holy Week” from Mosaic of the Dark is about my mother’s alcoholism but is in conversation with the story of Jesus’s return from death. And my poem “The Lies that Save Us” is in conversation with the story of Sarah and Abraham.

I make similar connections in Water Lessons. For example, in “Postcards from the 70s” I’m next door at my best friend’s house when my friend’s mother appears in the doorway to ask a question. When I finally sat down to write about this moment from more than forty years ago, the Biblical image of the angel appearing to Mary came to me as a way of connecting religious and cultural expectations of women to the narrative scene of the poem.

CH: I know that you now teach in Vanderbilt’s English Department, and I’m curious about the interplay between your teaching and writing lives. How do you make room for your creative work? How has working with students influenced your writing practice?

LD: Making room for creative work is always a bit of a challenge during the school year. I can usually stay on track with my writing practice for the first three or four weeks of the semester, after which things start to fall apart. During the summer, I’m able to devote much more time to writing. I used to beat myself up about not having a more consistent writing practice during the school year, but now I just accept it and I kind of enjoy the rhythm. I love teaching and I love writing. And this way I have the best of both worlds.

CH: Who are some of the poets to whose work you return for inspiration?

LD: Jane Kenyon was one of the first poets whose work resonated with me in a deep way and was one of the most influential poets for me when I was starting out. She writes in a fairly plain style but her poems have such depth.

Marie Howe’s work has had a huge impact on me, and I return to it again and again. In fact, we just finished reading her book What the Living Do in my Intro to Poetry class. What I love about her work is that her voice is simple and conversational but, like Jane Kenyon, has enormous depth. And I love the way she weaves in references to Biblical stories in her poems. Those allusions really resonate with me.

Another poet whose work I admire is Natasha Trethewey—especially her book Native Guard,in which she writes a lot about the loss of her mother. Though the circumstances surrounding her mother’s death are very different from those surrounding mine, I relate deeply to Trethewey’s descriptions and images of loss and grief. She also writes a lot about how historical events are remembered and taught—what gets left out of the main historical record, for example.

Other poets I love and keep retuning to are Ellen Bass, Maxine Kumin, Sharon Olds, Li-Young Lee, and Mark Doty.

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

Well, I just finished re-reading Marie Howe’s book, What the Living Do! That was for class and of course I’ve read it many times before, but I never get tired of those poems. Not long ago I read Didi Jackson’s lovely book, Moon Jar. And now I’m in the process of reading Skirted by Julie Marie Wade and The Absurd Man by Major Jackson.

And now that the semester is over, I’ll be able to read a lot more!

A Virtual Interview with Kai Coggin

Background

Thursday, January 13, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-kai-coggin-tickets-206977474197

Kai Coggin (she/her) is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Mining for Stardust (FlowerSong Press, 2021) and INCANDESCENT (Sibling Rivalry Press 2019). She is a queer woman of color who thinks Black Lives Matter, a teaching artist in poetry with the Arkansas Arts Council and Arkansas Learning Through the Arts, and host of the longest running consecutive weekly open mic series in the country—Wednesday Night Poetry. Recently awarded the 2021 Governor’s Arts Award and named “Best Poet in Arkansas” by the Arkansas Times, her fierce and powerful poetry has been nominated four times for The Pushcart Prize, as well as Bettering American Poetry 2015, and Best of the Net 2016 and 2018. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRYCultural WeeklySOLSTICEBellevue Literary ReviewTABEntropySWWIMSplit This RockSinister WisdomLavender ReviewTupelo PressWest Trestle Review, and elsewhere. Coggin is Associate Editor at The Rise Up Review. She lives with her wife and their two adorable dogs in the valley of a small mountain in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas.

The Interview

CH: How would you describe yourself as a reader? What is your first memory of poetry?

KC: As a reader, I would describe myself as hungry, always searching for a voice, and image, a light that reflects mine, that speaks to the devastation and triumph of the human experience. I love language that gives hope, gives space to the trauma of living in these perilous human experiences, but also guides me to something higher within myself. I love Rumi, Harjo, Hirshfield. I open poetry books of my friends at random and let them speak to me in in the moment. I love humor and dry wit as well, and love Sedaris for that. 

My first memory of poetry is reading and re-reading Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends. I checked it out at the library with a stack of “choose your own adventure” books, and it was like the top of my head was suddenly opened up to a whole other world— poems.

CH: How did your interest in writing develop? When did you begin to think of yourself as a poet?

KC: I hardly have memories of my life up until the age of 7. I know I lived in Bangkok, went to a British International private school, and took ballet lessons— all experiences I can glean from photographs. My parents divorced and my mom, little sister and I crossed the pacific and came to Houston TX to chase the American dream. It’s something inherent, perhaps, the writing. My American father was a writer, a journalist for the AP and TIME Magazine. He interviewed sheiks and kings, reported on global atrocities and wars, but I didn’t know that as a child, just knew that he left us. My Filipina mother grew up on a farm, in a village in the Philippines. She memorized and recited poems to perform in neighboring villages, and I can recall a sepia photo of her mid-recitation, atop a feebly-formed platform reciting with the drama and ache of a seasoned actor. So this storytelling, this language, this need to voice something deeper— inherent.

As my young adolescence continued, I questioned my attraction to girls, my inner conflict of being raised in the Catholic faith while, at the same time feeling i would be “cast to the fires of hell” or something because I thought Kelly, the blonde girl in homeroom, was so pretty. I was raped at 13 by a stranger who knocked on the door asking for a glass of water. Many things tried their hardest to break me, and I wrote. I wrote in a journal. I wrote unrequited love letters for the girls I liked, but could never tell. I wrote tragic love poems that would never be read. Words saved me from myself. Words were where i could be myself. Words were my safe space in a world that made me feel unsafe.

In 7th grade, my language arts teacher Miss Sloan told me I could be a writer one day. It was the first time someone noticed something was good about me, that saw my real talent. I leaned in. I believed her.

CH: I understand you hold a Bachelor of Arts in Poetry and Creative Writing from Texas A&M, and that you were once a high school English teacher. I also understand you are currently a teaching artist with both the Arkansas Arts Council and Arkansas Learning through the Arts. How did you become interested in the role of teacher? What have you learned from teaching?

KC: Yes–a BA in creative writing and poetry, and a masters from the school of hard knocks. When I graduated with the degree in poetry, I didn’t know how to actually BECOME a poet, how to make a life out of it. This is something you learn in an MFA, but I barely survived undergrad as a lesbian in the Corps of Cadets (another story), so wanted to just get started with my life, start a career somehow. I had been in a teaching role for many years, in many different capacities, working with youth and in leadership roles growing up. Teaching seemed like something I could sink my teeth into, and looking back on my life at that point, it had only been teachers who saw me, who gave me a hand in the dark. I wanted to be that hand to other kids.

I got my emergency teacher certification and was in a 9th grade classroom the very next fall after graduating from college, back teaching in Alief, the same school district of my personal education. Alief was/is a very diverse demographic, about 98% Black and Latinx, 1 % Asian, 1% white. I knew (from personal experience) that kids growing up here were predestined to live on the margins of life/society. I wanted to be someone they could see as a reflection of themselves, who was “making it,” who had gone to college, gotten a job, bought a home for their mama, all the things.

I could see what the kids needed because I needed the same things when I was in their shoes. They needed safety, relevance and connection to the curriculum, to be heard, seen, and valued. I brought in unconventional lessons, and “radical” literature. I took them outside for poetry and drum circles. We read Romeo and Juliet with meter-stick sword battles and a balcony scenes where boys played Juliet and girls played Romeo, and there was no bullying, there was just love and laughing. So much laughing. Teaching was like my whole heart was on fire, with purpose and passion. But poetry still burned in the background… waiting.

By my fifth year, I had a poetry unit that was so incredible it culminated with Sandra Cisneros flying in to see and visit with my students for a whole day, bringing them signed copies of her brand new hardcover novel, signing them, listening to their poetry. It was LIFE-CHANGING for my kids (students). I saw what poetry had the capacity to achieve. I won Teacher of the Year that year, then won for the whole school district, then was a top-5 finalist out of 85,000 teachers in the Region. Then you know what I did?

I quit.

To become a poet.

Fast forward ten or so years, and here I am in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, with four published books under my belt, named “Best Poet in Arkansas” by the Arkansas Times in 2020, and was just awarded the Governor’s Arts Award in Education from the Arts Council in 2021. I am a poet, now, yes. But I am also a Teaching Artist with Arkansas Learning Through the Arts, bringing the healing and emotionally freeing magic of poetry to thousands of kids across the state each school year.

My high school kids in Houston are all grown up now and are my friends on FB, but I still feel like I am an example for them, a reflection of someone who looks like them— someone who chased her dreams, and caught them.

CH: Tell us a little about your work as editor at Rise Up Review. How has this work shaped you as a writer?

KC: Being an Associate Editor is a humbling experience. Seeing how many types of poets there are, how many different voices out there trying to be heard, it’s just mind-boggling. I always read submissions hoping to feel, hoping to be struck by emotion, tension, action, hope. I want to learn and see perspectives of others when I read for RUR. Rise Up Review is a journal of resistance, born out of defiance to the acts against humanity of the last administration. I am honored to help facilitate more poems being pushed out into a greater sphere, that fight towards justice and light. I see myself as a warrior poet. I write the wrongs. I fight with the sword of my words. There is still much work for us to do.

CH: You published your first poetry collection, Periscope Heart (Swimming with Elephants Publications, 2014), and have since published Wingspan (Golden Dragonfly Press, 2016), Incandescent (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2019), and now Mining for Stardust (FlowerSong Press, 2021). What do you see as the arc of your development as a writer?

KC: First of all, these are SUCH great questions, Cindy. Thank you for the opportunity to answer them. My arc as a writer has definitely shifted from book to book. PH was very inward facing, about my body image, love, spirit. Wingspan is laced with all of these inward facing poems as well, those reflections, but also I began to see the power of my platform (having a mic to read poems at each week, and naming injustices I see and felt, as a progressive blue flame in a very red state). My justice work began. My activism. My poetry as protest. Incandescent is almost all of that entirely, as we were in the hands of a cruel the of darkness.

Throughout all my books, I write with light, hoping to bring beauty and nature back into the consciousness of the reader, in such a troubling time. There are always love poems. Requited now. Queer and beautiful. But my work has gotten increasing more political, and as consciousness has evolved, I have evolved with it, adding my voice to the conversations on race and inclusion. Black Lives Matter, let me take the moment to say.

Mining for Stardust is all prismatic views of the previous facets of my work, plus the pandemic. It is my most intentional work. It was the hardest to write, to find the light in such unprecedented chaos and dark, such volatile upheaval. Here, let my book trailer try to convey what I hope this book does.

CH: Tell us a little about how Mining for Stardust came to be. What does it share with your earlier work? How does it differ?

KC: I wrote the first poem of the book after watching a viral video of a quarantined Italian opera star sing “Nessun Dorma” to his isolated comrades from his balcony– the future for all of us bleak and unknown. I cried, and I wrote. For all of 2020, I did this, leading a community of poets on Wednesday Night Poetry each week with pointed poems of emotion and light. The poems breathe and grieve, lose and love, heal and hope–they take you through and to the other side of this darkest time in our collective lived human experience. Mining for Stardust is memorial, grief, joy, beauty, truth, resistance, reflection, love, and balm for the aching human heart. It is the work of a scribe who earnestly engraves this moment into our human history. This collection is something you can hold in your hands, point to, and say, “I lived through all of this, too. I survived. I made it to the other side.”

CH: I found the breadth of poems in Mining for Stardust to be fascinating: from love poems to poems that rage against the pandemic and social injustice to poems that celebrate the way that land can be medicine. What guided you in the selection of the poems for this book, and in their sequencing?

KC: Chronological devastation and hope, loss and love. As I moved through the moments in earnest empathic feeling, the poems emerged.

CH: What sustains you in your writing practice? 

KC: Beauty. Being struck by beauty. Feeling that I am the only one on earth at a particular moment, seeing with the eyes of a poet, a minuscule precise sliver of existence. Naming it. Holding it on my tongue. Making it live forever.

CH: You’ve been hosting the monthly Wednesday Night Poetry series for quite some time. How was it for you to assume the role of continuing the unbroken streak of readings since February of 1989? How has it been for you to continue this practice through the pandemic?

KC: It has been the honor of my life holding space for poets all over the world to survive this pandemic.

CH: Now that Mining for Stardust is out, what are you working on?

KC: Resting. Breathing. Noticing. Writing. Being.

A Virtual Interview with d. ellis phelps

Background

Thursday, March 11, 2021  7:15 – 9:00 p.m.

Register for this on-line event at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-d-ellis-phelps-tickets-138117614503

Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for more information.

Feature d. ellis phelps is the author of two books of poetry: what she holds(Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press, 2020) & what holds her (Main Street Rag, 2019) and of the novel, Making Room for George (MSSP, 2016). Her poems, essays, and visual art have appeared widely online and in print, and she has edited more than a dozen anthologies.

On her blog, Formidable Woman Sanctuary, she writes about spiritual and emotional healing and the writing life among other topics while also publishing the work of other writers and artists. She is the founding and managing editor of Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press and of fws:  international journal of literature & art. She has taught fine arts in various venues with students of all ages for decades and she currently facilitates The Art of Writing Workshop Series for the Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, Texas.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer? As a poet?

dep: My first memory of poetry is listening to my mother recite nursery rhymes for me, how I loved to chime in, how much we laughed together over their various twists and turns, their sonorous interplay, their rhythms, and rhymes.  From as early as second grade, I participated in University Interscholastic League events like storytelling and declamation, often winning a red or blue ribbon for my recitations, memorizing the esteemed lines of  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in The Children’s Hour  or The Creation by James Weldon Johnson.  And I stood, for these contests, in the library stacks, sometimes for hours (and for years, as I competed through High School) reading one anthology after another, looking for these poems, as it was I who chose what I would memorize.

But my first memory of myself as a poet is as a fourth grader in Mrs. Anderson’s class.  She asked us to create our own anthology from chosen, favorite poets.  We were to copy the poems in our neatest handwriting and illustrate them then we were to compose a poem of our own.  I remember illustrating Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening and that I included Invictus by William Ernest Henley, too.  The only line I remember of the poem I wrote is this:  and lightning refreshes the air in a poem about a thunderstorm.  I’ll say Mrs. Anderson’s project has stuck with me.

I continued to write poems, mostly bad ones, having published my first piece in a High School literary journal, something about lonely teenage angst.  But it wasn’t until the late 1980s when a San Antonio visual artist, Alberto Mijangos (now deceased), asked to read some of my poems and then invited me to collaborate with him, writing words to go alongside some of his paintings for a show that hung at the Blue Star, that I began to take myself seriously as a poet.  

CH: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a visual artist. What do you see as the connection between these forms of expression? How do your experiences as a maker of visual art inform your poetry?

dep: It was, in fact, also Alberto Mijangos who noticed my art.  When I brought my poems for him to read, he noticed the markings in the margins, all over the edges, inside and around my words and pointing to them he said, “What are these?”  “Doodles,” I answered.  He paused.  “I think you may be an artist,” he said.  Then he encouraged me to buy some art supplies and to begin.  And so, I worked in much the same spirit as the dancer and choreographer Martha Graham did as she started to choreograph a new dance by saying “Begin!”  I began.  I followed the marks as they appeared on the page.  I learned to ask or dialogue with the canvas, standing, sometimes for long minutes before making another mark, waiting for the mark or the color to make itself known to me.  It was a kind of improvisational play I had never experienced, and it changed me.  Thus, it also changed my writing, making it even more improvisational, helping me listen for what the poem wanted to say, helping me listen for what I wanted to say.

Every medium has its limitations and I think words may be the most limited medium.  Becoming more fluent as a visual artist meant having a whole other language, it meant being able to show ideas, worlds even, that words somehow seemed unable to touch. 

Both the written word and visual art are markings, ways to make marks, languages, movements.  And whether I am writing or painting or writing and painting, as lately, I often do a kind of mixed-media working with words, color and form, I am mostly dialoging with Universe, realizing and expressing the interconnectedness of all things, observing the natural order, or as in what she holds, working to resolve an emotional conflict.

CH: You’ve published a novel as well as two collections of poetry. How would you describe your identity as a writer?

dep: First, I am happy to announce here that I have a new book of metered, rhymed poetry for children, words gone wild, forthcoming from Kelsay Book’s Daffydowndilly Press this summer!

So my first book of poems, what holds her, is ecstatic verse.  My second book of poems, what she holds, is transformational, deeply personal, reconciliation work.  And my third book of poems, words gone wild, is light and fun and full of fantasy.  My novel, Making Room for George, is a highly embellished (fictionalized) memoir based on a true story, also a work of reconciliation.  I am currently shopping a fourth book of poems that are all social justice work.

Maybe it’s fair to say my work is transformational, deeply personal, even ecstatic work that celebrates the natural world and relationship in all its forms, a work that takes itself to the playground and knows how to whoop and holler, too!

CH: Tell us a little about your first book of poetry, what holds her (Main Street Rag, 2019). How did this collection come about?

dep: This book came to me as I processed the grief I was experiencing over the death of both of my parents within twenty-nine days of one another in 2009.  Prior to their fleshly departures and after, the grief was so deeply overwhelming that I would lie on my deck, spread out on my grandmother’s quilt in the shade of the redbud, mourning.  I almost always have a journal and pen nearby, so then there would be words, phrases floating into my consciousness between bouts of sobbing.  The words were in a foreign syntax, and very different from what I then considered my style of writing.  But the words and phrases were persistent day after day, so I began to record them.  Often, a few words or a line would arrive but nothing else would come until I had recorded the words given.     

The poems for what holds her came often simultaneously with the poems that would become the collection I title what she holds, as I struggled to process the fact that as my father left his fleshly body, my chances of reconciling my difficult relationship with him were ending.

The poems in both collections proved me wrong. 

I think the first collection came first as a collection as a teaching from the ether, from the Universe, from my Soul Pod (the one that includes my parents) to shore me up and ready me to really have the space and spiritual substance to process the trauma, experiences and revelations that were to come to me with my father’s discarnate self.  We had unfinished business.  That’s what the writing of many of the poems in what she holds addresses.

CH: Your new collection of poetry, what she holds (Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press, 2020), has followed quickly after what holds her. What was different for you in the process of creating and releasing this second collection? What effects did the pandemic have on the release of this book?

dep: In 2014, a good five years after my father’s passing, I began to break down emotionally.  As I describe in the afterword of what she holds, I had night terrors, there were psychic attacks of the most brutal kind, I was an emotional wreck, still in the throes of a relationship that clearly still needed to reconcile. I took up my pen and my paint.  I prayed and sang and chanted.  I sought counseling. I saw a spiritual guide. I joined a dream group.  I recorded my dreams.  I wrote and wrote and wrote.  I spoke out loud to my father.  I saw a shaman.  I cried.  I reasoned.  I pleaded.  I commanded.  And I returned, again and again, to the words, to the paint.  It took months, but Allelujah!  Healing happened.  what she holds is the product of that transformational process. 

What was different in the writing process was that in writing what holds her I felt as though I was taking dictation from the Spirit World.  In the writing of what she holds, I was actively working the memories, recording and working the dreams, both exhuming and laying to rest all that I was holding with the tools I use to do such transformational work:  my pen and my brush.

Because of the way our world has been turned inward during this year, the releases of what she holds and of what holds her have been soft and silent, almost as if that is just as it should be.  The readings I had scheduled for what holds her were cancelled and this is the first opportunity I’ve had to read from what she holds.  I don’t think though, that I could have done a reading of it maybe until now for every time I read it, it touches me so that I cry and cannot keep reading. 

CH: How do what she holds and what holds her speak to each other? Are there ‘through lines’ between your poetry collections and your novel, Making Room for George (Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press, 2016)?

dep: what she holds is a memoir:  what happened, how it felt and what I did with it.  It is “of this world.”  what holds her is not of this world.  It is beyond what happened.  It is like Mooji Baba, a Buddhist guru I follow says:  there is living as a person, taking everything personally, holding on to or being attached to things, happenings, circumstances, feelings and so on and then there is becoming aware of the True Self, letting go of the tangible world, living more in the timeless realm, recognizing who You really are and living out of a more neutral state, more connected to Pure Consciousness.  what she holds is a record of living more identified with  the personal state of being.  It is samsara or suffering. But what holds her is sutra, the Truth of Being, the way of being more identified with Pure Consciousness.  I think I had to have that knowing, its teaching in order to do the “of this world” healing my soul needed to do.

Making Room for George is also samara or suffering.  It was also written as a transformational process, working through difficult relationships with the men in my life, dealing with sexual ambiguity, discerning direction and purpose in my life, all of this done under the guise of the main character, Bet.  I was still very angry during the writing of George and I simply needed a place to put all of that angst.  I needed a record of what was happening to my life.  Writing it all down became my way out like hacking a path through a jungle.  I am grateful to the book and to George, himself, for giving me that path. You’ve made me curious about “through lines.”  Of course, the themes are interwoven.  It seems my soul work during this incarnation is to learn how to live in harmonious relationships, especially with men, to learn to forgive, and to do this and not give up being true to myself, to do this and to identify with my True Self, to do this as a graceful, peaceful, yet empowered, formidable woman.  Now I have to go read my books and find whether there are actual repetitions of lines in them.  I’ll bet there are!

CH: You’ve founded two literary enterprises: fws: international journal of literature & art and Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press. How has your work in the publishing sphere influenced your life as a writer?

dep: Mainly, my work as an editor has used a great deal of my writing time, but it has afforded me the opportunity to read a lot of contemporary work, a process that is educative and worthy.  I also follow the lead of many of the writers whose work I publish, finding new journals and submission opportunities, making connections and even friendships.  That’s fun!  Sometimes, when I’m publishing an anthology or collection, I contribute, having been inspired by the theme of the call.  I especially liked writing the lines I contributed to the Renga Edition of fws last spring.  That was such a joy to see unfold as it did.  Further, Moon Shadow Sanctuary Press has published two of my books that may have taken much longer to see in print had I opted to use a more traditional publisher.  In this respect, being a publisher has given me much freedom and I am certain, opened space for more work to come because, you know, rejection and the burdensome slowness of traditional publishing can be debilitating to a writer’s morale.  MSSP gave me speed and now and next.  I am very grateful for that!

CH: You’ve taught fine arts for decades, and currently facilitate The Art of Writing Workshop Series for the Patrick Heath Public Library in Boerne, Texas. What has your experience as a teacher brought to your writing life? Please also tell us a little about The Art of Writing Workshop Series.

dep:

Ah!  When I teach, I bloom!  I always work the prompts I am using to teach a concept or technique and the result is new work of my own, of course! It is said that if one wants to know a subject, one should teach it.  I find that I learn so much by trying to explain writing as craft to someone else.  In my preparation, I read many poems I would otherwise perhaps not have read.  I read commentary by other writers and teachers of writing on the subject I’m approaching.  And of course, I hear what the writers who attend my workshops write as a result of the prompts we are working and that is always so interesting and sometimes quite wonderful!

In The Art of Writing workshop series we have approached writing prose poems, memoir, the blessing, the epistle, form poems, poems of praise, rhyming poems, point of view poems, the personal essay, making metaphor, how poems move, and much more.  We do a writing warm-up, read some sample poems, try our hand at writing to a prompt or two, share and give soft feedback in every session.  We are an intimate group of twelve or less (on zoom for now) and we meet the second Saturday of each month from 1-3P through April, 2021.  Beginning in May through September of 2021, I will be continuing the series with a set of five workshops on the writing of memoir also on the second Saturday from 1-3P CST. Workshops are free and open to the public.  Please join us!  RSVP with interest to stauber@boernelibrary.org     

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets, contemporary or otherwise? If you could sit down for an afternoon with a poet from history, who would you choose?

dep: Emily Dickenson, Rumi, Kahlil Gibran, TS Eliot, Whitman, Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, Alfred K. LaMotte…I tend to like certain poems, those that stay with me, rather than certain poets or entire books, except Rumi and Eliot and Whitman and Oliver.  Those I can read again and again.  I love the work of my contemporary Robert Okaji. I love your work, Cindy, especially that poem about the Red Admiral I heard you read in Boerne last year and the two we published in Through Layered Limestone:  Praise for a Splintered Birdhouse and Nut Sedge.  I also very much enjoy the new book by my contemporary Lucy Griffith, We Make A Tiny Herd.

I’d like to sit down with Rumi  or Kahlil Gibran.

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

dep: I am reading Mary Oliver’s What Do We Know.

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 Michelle Iskra

Michelle Iskra will be the featured reader Thursday, January 9. 2020 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Michelle Iskra earned an M. A. in English Literature from Texas State University and has taught English at both Austin Community College and Cedar Park High school for sixteen years. She’s a writer, painter, educational consultant, researcher, and lover of cats.

The Interview

CH: What first drew you to writing? When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?

MI: The first original story I remember writing down was about a stegosaurus named Tego in second grade, but I was always making up stories and annoying adults with them. Four wonderful, encouraging teachers were instrumental in my becoming a writer.

Reading was an important part of my daily life as a child. My first chapter book was Antoine de Saint Exupery’s The Little Prince; I identified with the prince’s being marooned and alone in a foreign place. The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder was also an early favorite. I wanted to write like these novelists, but had no idea how to go about it.

CH: What do you remember about your earliest encounters with poetry? When did you begin to identify yourself as a poet? 

MI: My grandmother on my mother’s side was very kind and attentive to me. She taught me to play the piano, to develop my own style, to appreciate the arts, and to take care of myself. She and I would write letters back and forth, and in mine I included poems from Wordsworth and Keats, T.S. Eliot, and many others. I loved their vivid imaginings and facility with language, fascinated by meter and rhyme and the beautiful economy of it all. I didn’t actually write any poetry until I was in high school. It was a shaky thing to actually call yourself a poet except to people who wouldn’t betray your confidence.

CH: How has your work as a painter influenced your perspective as a poet? Is that influence bidirectional?

MI: I learned to paint as a result of my efforts to grow closer to my elder son, who was 10 and taking art lessons at the time. I loved to draw, but when I tried painting, I was very disappointed with the result. I kept practicing because of him and eventually discovered that I could transcend my own ideas about what I was supposed to make. As I became what I think of as a receiver of the work I was doing, emptying my mind as I went about it, the work became exponentially better. This simultaneous detachment and connection through painting, and the simple practice of making art, improved my writing. Writing sends me back to the canvas. I can paint when I can’t write, and the opposite is also true. The experience is strange and wonderful.

CH: I imagine your schedule as an instructor at both Cedar Park High School and Austin Community College must be a hectic one. How do you balance your professional and creative lives?

MI: This is the fundamental challenge of creative people: how do you make a living while developing work? There have been semesters in which I’ve taught 9 classes between the two positions (a full time position is five). I was grumpy because I was tired all the time and wasn’t making any art. Even without the extra stress of such a semester, it’s a constant challenge to restrict the planning, reading, and paper marking to a particular number of hours per week so that I’m making art weekly, as well. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but the necessary discipline is still a work in progress. 

CH: How do you nourish yourself as a writer?

MI: I’m an introvert and need alone time every day to stay sane. I try to get outside as often as possible, seeking to avoid thinking about anything for a little while. Being in nature inspires me, as does reading and being around calm, intelligent, inquisitive people. I also love cooking and other creative processes. I’ve kept a journal for over twenty years, writing each morning as meditative practice. Working through thoughts, ideas, and feelings on the page helps make sense of them and provides material for poetry and other work.

CH: How has your writing been influenced by the process of teaching and mentoring others?

MI: When you work with other people, especially in areas (like writing) where they naturally feel exposed and vulnerable, your own flaws also emerge. People are both complex and simple; all of us are revealing and hiding ourselves by turns. My students and mentees have influenced how and what I think, feel, and write about, gradually shaping my ideas about what needs to be said or implied, and what needs no mention. Compassion and empathy are important each time I write anything, but they can be hard to summon if I’m not making art and listening to myself.

CH: Who are three of your favorite poets to teach?

MI: Pablo Neruda, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Claude McKay are three of my favorites because they are so skilled, yet many students find them accessible. All of them have something important to say that needs to be heard, but each of them approach poetry in stylistically distinct ways. Students are constantly amazed that you can say so much, so beautifully and sometimes painfully, in so few words.

CH: What three things would you tell someone who is starting out as a poet?

MI: Rainer Maria Rilke broke the mold with what became Letters to a Young Poet, and his advice still rings true: be kind to all you meet for we are all fighting a hard battle, never stop practicing, and be courageous in facing your life. 

CH: What are you working on now?

MI: I’m working on two projects: the first (and most pressing) is a book on teaching poetry and poetic language in middle and high schools. The creation of poetry at those levels is regularly discussed, but analysis and interpretation is not. My students struggle to learn these skills in the one year I have them and I feel qualified to address the problem. I have plans to start a blog and podcast in support of it.

The second is a novel about family secrets and the problem of traditional Western power based on gender and race. 

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

MI: My writing group recently read aloud Rebecca Hazelton’s Fair Copy, which was marvelously inventive; Robert Pinsky’s compilation, Essential Pleasures, has been a recent choice for classroom work, and I frequently reference poets.org, poetryfoundation.org, and the Library of Congress Poetry 180 project website.