Category Archives: Texas poetry

A Virtual Interview with Rebecca A. Spears

Background

2nd Thursday Virtual Poetry Reading and Open Mic

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

Register to attend this virtual event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-open-mic-w-rebecca-spears-tickets-165695089473

Rebecca A. Spears is the author of Brook the Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2020), and The Bright Obvious: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2009). Her poems, essays, and reviews have been included in TriQuarterlyCalyxCrazyhorseBarrow StreetVerse DailyArs MedicaField Notes, and other journals and anthologies. She has received awards from the Taos Writers Workshop, Vermont Studio Center, and Dairy Hollow House. Brook the Divide was shortlisted for Best First Book of Poetry (Texas Institute of Letters). Spears is also a Pushcart nominee.

“The gorgeous poems in Brook the Divide reverberate with change, following the speaker through seasons of luck and loss. Along the way, Vincent van Gogh becomes an intimate mentor for the hard joy of making. We see how artists transform the world into pieces of art that then transform us: “you ablaze in my eye / and I in yours.” Throughout, Rebecca Spears’ memorable writing invites us into looking, then lingering…. What a beautifully written book.” — Sasha West

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? Did you write poetry during childhood?

RAS: My first memory of poetry is of my mother reading to me from A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. I was three years old. She read to me and my siblings nearly every day when we were all quite young. I remember several of the poems even in adulthood—“The Cow,” “Happy Thought,” “The Swing,” and “Time to Rise.” Of course, many of the poems are dated and out of sync with my thinking now. But my mom reading these poems to me helped me to developed an “ear” for poetry at a pretty young age.

As a young kid, I was more interested in drawing, painting, making collages. I never wrote poetry unless prompted by a teacher for a very specific reason—like Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. I did begin writing poems as a teenager—really angst-ridden stuff, yet there are also some poems where I look into the landscape and observe life with a close eye.

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

RSA: When I was in my 30s, I worked in educational publishing as a Language Arts editor. That’s when I began to think of myself as a both editor and writer. Not only did I recruit writers, but I worked closely with many of them, collaborating, writing, and editing. I used to remark to friends, “I get paid to read books and work with writers!”

Not until I was in my 40s, did I begin to think of myself as a poet. I hadn’t paid much attention to poetry for many years. A friend invited me to a reading by Naomi Shihab Nye, and I was so engaged in hearing Naomi’s poetry that I later read everything she had written. Shortly after, I began to practice poetry. For a while, I “just wrote poetry.” Then I began attending Creative Writing workshops at the University of Houston, and during that time, I started to think that I might be a poet.

CH: I understand you received your MFA from Bennington College. How did you end up deciding to pursue an MFA? How did you choose Bennington?

RSA: Working on an MFA became important to me when I realized, from those classes at UH, that I needed to undertake some serious study of other poets and learn some new techniques to become a better poet myself.

To get an MFA, I knew that I needed a low-residency program because I was raising adolescent children at the time. I checked out the top low-residency programs and applied to five of those. At the time, Jane Hirshfield was teaching at Bennington, so that ultimately drove my decision to go to Bennington. I worked with her during my second semester at Bennington. Curiously, while I treasure the time I spent in her workshop, I learned more from the faculty whose style was quite different from mine. I suppose that is because I was entirely challenged in my thinking and writing. Another important reason that I chose Bennington was because of their motto: Read 100 books. Write one. That made a lot of sense to me, that we need to read the writers who have given us our poetic background.

CH: How did your writing change as a result of participating in this program? How did your experience in the program align with your expectations prior to starting?

RAS: The program at Bennington exceeded my expectations. I loved the writerly friends I was making, the reading I was doing, the formal annotations I was submitting, the poems I was challenged to write every month. The faculty were varied in their thinking and writing—and that engaged me. Many top poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers read and lectured at every semester gathering. It was astonishing, really. The research I did for my graduating lecture on poetry of the Vietnam War still influences me as I continue to make connections between trauma and poetry. (And by the way, the creative manuscript that I wrote for the MFA, has not been published—though I still have aspirations for it.)

CH: Laurie Kutchins describes your chapbook, The Bright Obvious (Finishing Line Press, 2009), as constructing “narrative moments converging with a larger collective story.” Tell us a little about this chapbook, and about your process of composing it.

RAS: The larger collective story of The Bright Obvious (2009) is the basis for my full-length collection published in 2020. In the chapbook, I was attempting to link the art of Vincent van Gogh with the way that I view the landscapes around me. You’ll also see my fledgling explorations of his personality, as well as a writer’s personality. Some of the poems were composed specifically as a sequence of van Gogh poems. Others were revisions (and retitling) of some poems that I had already written.

CH: Your first full-length collection, Brook the Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2020), came out just last year, and was shortlisted by the Texas Institute of Letters for Best First Book of Poetry. Tell us a bit about the book and its journey to publication.   

RAS: By the time I put together Brook the Divide, I had thoroughly immersed myself in van Gogh’s letters to his friends and families. Many of those letters contain his thoughts about the way he saw landscapes and people and the methods he used to create his art. I tried to connect the poems I wrote about van Gogh with my own translations of the world around me. And I also, more closely linked the emotional landscapes of my world and van Gogh’s.

The poet Sasha West first helped me see that I might have a worthwhile project, and I worked with her advice to help me sequence a manuscript. I kept writing and adding poems where I saw “holes” in the manuscript. After a few years on my own and with critiques from my writing group friends, I felt I had a finished manuscript. I sent out the final version to maybe five publishers (during open submissions, not contests), and it was accepted in 2018 by Unsolicited Press in Portland, Oregon.

CH: The life of Vincent van Gogh is a through-line for both The Bright Obvious and Brook the Divide. When did you first encounter Van Gogh’s work? What do you see in your work that resonates with his?

RAS: I first encountered van Gogh’s work in high school art classes, and later at a large exhibition of the Impressionists (at the Kimball, I think). At the exhibit, my young son tried to touch a van Gogh painting, and I was panicked as I tried to stop him. Later, that incident made me think of how we can reach into and inhabit the work of artists.

My early experiments in the visual arts trained me to view still life paintings, portraits, urban and natural scenes as impressions of the larger world. This carried over into my writing. Good grief, it’s hard for me to not employ landscapes—fields, mountains, roads, woods, gardens—in my writing. I suppose looking at the scenes outside my head keep me anchored.

CH: You’ve received awards from the Taos Writer’s Workshop, Vermont Studio Center, and The Writer’s Colony at Dairy Hollow. How have these workshops / residencies informed your work?

RAS: At the Taos Writer’s Workshop, early in my creative writing life, I workshopped with Laurie Kutchins. She is a generous, energetic person, and she had many writing activities planned that really gave me more courage to keep doing what I was doing—and to try some new techniques. By the time I was awarded a scholarship to the Vermont Studio Center, my life had changed drastically, and it was difficult to find the time to attend. So ultimately, I let that opportunity slip away. My stretch at Dairy Hollow was solitary but productive. The residency occurred at a time when I felt a little stagnant with my writing. The solitude helped me to rely on my instincts again and take on  the challenge to do more reading and writing.

CH: Tell us a little about your writing practice. How has that practice evolved over time?

RAS: When I first began writing poetry as an adult, I wrote nearly every morning. When my life changed, after the break-up of a long marriage, I only had the energy to write on weekends and in the summers when I wasn’t trying so hard to make a living teaching. I still seem to follow this second pattern, depending on summers and other breaks to come up with new ideas and drafts. When classes are in session, I typically spend a few hours on the weekends writing and revising the work I did in the summer.

CH: Are there books to which you find yourself returning from time to time? What are you reading now?

RAS: Yes, there are a number of books and poets that I keep returning to. Let me say, though, that I read a lot of popular novels and stories at the end of a work day. Currently, I am reading, The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Murray, and I’m about to take up Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy. Yet this past winter, I read the new biography of Sylvia Plath, Red Comet, and I was just immersed in her life and Ted Hughes’ life for quite a while. In fact, I ordered Plath’s letters and journals, along with Hughes’ Birthday Letters—I’m still working my way through those. The poets I keep returning to are Rose McLarney, Ada Limón, Katie Ford, Sasha West, Franz Wright, Seamus Heaney, and Rainer Maria Rilke.

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 Loretta Diane Walker

Background

Thursday, January 14, 2021  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information, or register with Eventbrite: (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-tickets-135623037155)

Loretta Diane Walker is the author of five collections of poetry, and her sixth collection, Day Begins When Darkness is in Full Bloom, is forthcoming in 2021. Her most recent title is Ode to My Mother’s Voice (Lamar University Press, 2019). Her third collection, In This House (Bluelight Press, 2015), won the 2016 Phyllis Wheatley Book Award. A member of the Texas Institute of Letters, a nine-time Pushcart Prize nominee and a Best of the Net nominee, she is not only an award winning poet but a musician who plays her tenor saxophone sometimes, a daughter navigating a new world, a teacher who still likes her students, a two-time breast cancer survivor, and an artist who has been humbled and inspired by a collection of remarkable people. Of her work, Naomi Shihab Nye writes, “Loretta Diane Walker writes with compassionate wisdom and insight—her poems restore humanity.” 

The Interview

CH: When you last featured for the BookWoman 2nd Thursday series, it was 2016, prior to your winning the Harlem Book Fair’s Phyllis Wheatley Award for In This House. Congratulations on winning this national award. How did it change your life as a poet?

LDW: I garnered recognition from various entities I would have never considered. I was asked to deliver the commencement address for the 2016 fall commencement ceremonies at the University of Texas at the Permian Basin. In 2018, I was invited to serve as one of the back-to-school convocation speakers for the Ector County Independent School District.

I have been invited to read/present at a variety of poetry venues and have been asked to judge a number of poetry contests. The award afforded me a new level of respectability.

CH: Since 2016, you’ve also published two more volumes of poetry—Desert Light and Ode to My Mother’s Voice: and other poems, both from Lamar University Press. Tell us a little about how your relationship with the press came about.

LDW: Jerry Craven heard me read from the anthology Her Texas at The Langdon Review of the Arts in Texas weekend. He heard me a second time at Angelo State Writer’s Conference. After the presentation at Angelo State, he said, “I like your work, send me something.” Afterwards, he gave me his business card. This is how Desert Light came into being. I submitted a second time, Katie Hoerth accepted my manuscript— Ode to My Mother’s Voice: and other poems came into fruition. I hope to publish with them again one day.

CH: What have you learned in the process of publishing these most recent books?

LDW: First of all, I have received the gift of “belief” in my work from the publisher. Twice this press has invested in me. This is also true of the other two collections (Bluelight Press). These last two books revealed, if I were writing a novel series, light and the night sky would be the protagonists. My reference to them is numerous. Also, when my mother was about to share something about herself with me, she would make a reference to something in the sky as a segue to the conversation. If she said, “That’s a harvest moon; we used to pick cotton by it,” I knew to listen. I mean really listen. She was about to share something that would make her vulnerable.  I have deduced the night sky is a perfect example of vulnerability.

CH: The sense of place that permeates the poems of Desert Light is striking. Please tell us a little about your experience of these poems, and how the book came together.

LDW: Odessa is nowhere on the top 100 places to visit in the world list (LOL), but it has a barren beauty that mesmerizes me. The sky here is absolutely intriguing. To watch it change is a show in and of itself.  In Desert Light, my goal is to share this beauty—from the way pink streaks a morning sky to the way the wind blows autumn leaves. This collection is a tour guide for hidden beauty in a desert place. 

CH: One of the pleasures I had in reading Desert Light was to encounter in the poems the presence of the night sky and the liminal surface between darkness and light. As a writer, how do these subjects call to you?

LDW: I have had an obsession with the night sky since childhood. I can remember stretching out on the sidewalk or in the grass looking up, ogling at the stars, the moon, or clouds skirting the moon. I felt a connection then, and still do, that I cannot verbalize. I believe as long as there is light in the darkness there is hope. Perhaps what I am actually writing about is hope— a hope that I have carried from childhood, hope I will carry into the future.

CH: Your fifth volume, Ode to My Mother’s Voice: and other poems, came out in 2019. Tell us a little about your connection to the ode, and how it informed the poems of this collection.

LDW: Since the ode is a platform to offer praise and honor, I thought it would be a perfect vehicle for what I was trying to achieve. The purpose of this collection is to honor my mother. All of my books thus far contain poems about her, this one however, is to “spotlight” her wisdom and essence. I asked my siblings to share at least one life lesson, or “Mary Walker sayings” as we fondly refer to them, with me to include in this book. Many of the epigraphs in this collection are things she said to us. Mother died June 15, 2018. My siblings and I experienced her slow decline starting in September 2017 until then. She spent much of that time in the hospital. All of us, including her caregiver, rotated time spending the night/day with her so she would never be isolated from her loved ones. I wrote some of these poems from her hospital room. Ode, in a sense, is my mother’s eulogy. 

CH: The way that you employ metaphor in your poems lends a plushness to the work, a deep dimensionality. How do you approach the use of metaphor in a poem?

LDW: I truly wish I had an intellectual answer for you. What I can offer is this—I view life in metaphors.

CH: How has the pandemic affected your life as a poet? I’m thinking not only of direct impacts, but of your work as a teacher and the extra demands the pandemic has made.  

LDW: Unfortunately, my pandemic reality includes a new cancer diagnosis. Much of my energy is spent on doctor’s appointments, visits to the oncology center for treatments, CT scans, all the care healing entails. Also, I teach face-to-face and I am also responsible for providing instructions for virtual students. This requires a great amount of energy as well. As far as writing, I write when I am in the waiting room, in the infusion chair, on lunch breaks, on the weekends if I have the energy, and sometimes in the evenings after work. Gratefully, I have had various opportunities to present workshops and do readings via Zoom.  

CH: What are you working on now?

LDW: I am working on a collection entitled Day Begins When Darkness is In Full Bloom. It is forthcoming from Bluelight Press in 2021. It is eclectic in nature, thus the title. Some poems address my current bout with cancer for the third time, teaching face-to-face during COVID, my response as a black person to our nation’s current social unrest, and how I am dealing with COVID in general. I don’t know how many times this proverb has been quoted to me: Things will look better in the morning; I find it quite ironic morning begins at the darkest hour. However, where there is light in the darkness, there is hope. This collection is my journey through the darkest part of morning, to the brightest part of day where the sun is hope incarnate.

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

LDW: I am currently reading, “Mary Oliver’s Devotions, Jan Richardson’s The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Time of Grief, and Karla K. Morton and Alan Birkelbach’s A Century of Grace. I have one book in the bedroom, one in my office, and the other in the living room. This is the way I read poetry. (LOL)

A Virtual Interview with Jim LaVilla-Havelin

Jim LaVilla-Havelin will be the featured reader Thursday, June 14, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Jim LaVilla-Havelin is an educator, arts administrator, community arts advocate, consultant, critic and poet. His fifth book of poems, WEST, POEMS OF A PLACE is recently out from Wings Press. LaVilla-Havelin is the Poetry Editor for the San Antonio Express-News and the Coordinator for National Poetry Month in San Antonio.

LaVilla-Havelin retired in 2013 after seventeen years as the Director of the Young Artist Programs at the Southwest School of Art, to write, teach, and consult. He teaches Creative Writing in the Go Arts Program of Bihl Haus Art, in the Writers in Communities program at Gemini Ink, where he teaches at the Cyndi Taylor Krier Juvenile Correctional Treatment Center, and in the BFA program at the Southwest School of Art, where he teaches The Image of the Artist in Literature and Cinema.

He has offered workshops, classes, and public programs for the McNay, San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio Independent School District, Georgetown Poetry Festival, Gemini Ink, and many other sites . He lives in Lytle, Texas, (the “place”,of  “poems of a place” with his wife, artist, Lucia LaVilla-Havelin.

The Interview

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

JL-H: My mother read me Robert Louis Stevenson’s A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES and Mother Goose rhymes, Burl Ives and Belafonte/Odetta/Makeba  and Lenya/Weill poem songs, and Odgen Nash and of course, Dr. Seuss. (That I’m not writing doggerel is a testament to William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman.)

I was writing stories and puppet plays in third grade, and from there, never looked back.

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

JL-H: Consciously, or probably self-consciously, in high school. It was kind of an affectation,  except I was writing, reading voraciously, listening to Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Ginsberg. And wrote a novel when I was in high school (that is, thankfully lost forever). Went off to college as an anti-war radical and a writer (pretentious).

CH: I’ve recently been reading your collection, Counting (Pecan Grove Press, 2010). I was struck by the way these poems engage with the larger world, their social consciousness. How has the theme of social consciousness developed in your work over time?

JL-H: Social consciousness has been part of the work forever. Levertov and Piercy, Merton, Gandhi, Whitman, the Beats, Dan Berrigan, Grace Paley – they were all a significant part of my writing life, shaping my sense of the engaged, committed, writer. And while that has changed some over the years – as radicalism has shifted,too. My work is always political.

CH: Tell us a little about your newest collection, West: Poems of a Place. What got you started on this project? How does this book differ from other work you’ve done?

JL-H: WEST, poems of a place, is a book by a city poet who now lives (and has done for fourteen years now in the country. It is about adjusting my eyes. It is different from other work I’ve done in the way that country life is different from city life. It Is much more about the space of the West, the look of a place, the time of it. I think my earlier work was grounded in place and places, and in multi-sensory observation, but I think the country has cleansed my palate (or is it the palette that it cleansed?)

CH: You’ve long been involved in the community as a teacher and an arts advocate, and you’ve been very active as a “literary citizen.” How has this public commitment to arts and to poetry informed your own work?

JL-H: I hear new work. I find great energy and inspiration in teaching, workshops, students of all ages. I listen closely to the sounds of the poems of others and am amazed at how many ways there really are to look at a blackbird. The work gives me hope, sound, courage and often outrage to keep working at my own writing. (It isn’t so different from the social consciousness – in fact it may be my 21st century version of social consciousness.)

CH: What are some of the things you have learned from your students?

JL-H: Given that I work with students across the lifespan – and in a variety of settings, the lessons are varied and rich – from my Golden’s (senior citizens) to my Juvenile Detention kids to Young Women’s Leadership Academy girls, to fellow writers in many workshops I’ve taught –so just a few of the lessons

  • rage and loss fit on the page with the joy in letting them loose
  • memory is a sharpen-able tool
  • every writer will crack it open when they’re ready
  • there are ways to help folks get ready
  • my voice, my poems, my solutions to problems posed in work are generally only about half-right for most students
  • that half is good enough

CH: Thinking back to your early work as a poet—perhaps to your first book, or earlier—what’s changed in your writing? What threads are constant?

JL-H: I love language, words, the sound of words banging against one another. I love the look of a poem on the page.

What’s changed? The scene, my sense of time (both the local-rural time, and aging time). I think I’m more playful now (though that’s up for argument. Probably my definition of the “meditative quality of writing” has shifted some. (again that’s about time.)

CH: What are you working on now?

JL-H: Many projects – a double-chapbook called Will Be a House / Will Be a Book –

dedicated to my father (house) and my mother (book) is done, looking for someone to love it; PLAYLIST a ten year project, finished, in the hands of two very good readers – a narrative poem about jazz; the second book of a five book sequence of narrative poems which started with SIMON’S MASTERPIECE. So I’m onward to the third book (hoping it doesn’t take 10 years)

CH: Who are some of the poets to whose work you turn, time and again, for inspiration?

JL-H This list is very long. It starts with William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, Philip Levine,and Pablo Neruda. But includes local and regional poets, friends.

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

JL-H: THE LAST SHIFT by Philip Levine; VOICES IN THE AIR  by Naomi Shihab Nye and books or manuscripts by Charles Darnell, Linda Simone, Laura Quinn Guidry, and Michelle Hartman.

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 Loretta Diane Walker

Loretta Diane Walker will be the featured reader for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, July 14, 2016  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.

Background

Loretta Diane Walker is a three-time Pushcart nominee. She has published three collections of poetry, including Word Ghetto, which won the 2011 Blue Light Press Book Award, and In This House, released by Blue Light Press in 2015.  Loretta was recently named “Statesman in the Arts” by the Heritage Council of Odessa.  Walker’s work has appeared in numerous publications, most recently Her Texas, Texas Poetry Calendar 2015, Pushing Out the Boat International Journal, San Pedro River Review, Illya’s Honey, Red River Review, Diversity: Austin International Poetry Festival, Boundless Poetry: Rio Grande Valley International Poetry Festival, Pushing the Envelope: Epistolary Poems,  Perception Literary Magazine, Connecticut River Review, The Texas Poetry Calendar 2016, The Houston Poetry Festival, Siblings: Our First Macrocosm, and is fort coming in The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VIII: Texas.

Loretta is a member of the Poetry Society of Texas, Pennsylvania Poetry Society, The National Federation of State Poetry Societies and Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. She teaches music in Odessa, Texas.  Loretta received a BME from Texas Tech University and earned a MA from The University of Texas of the Permian Basin.    http://lorettadianewalker.weebly.com/.

The Interview

CH: What first inspired you to write? When did you begin to identify as a writer?

LDW: I have been fascinated with words since I was four or five years old. I was intrigued with Dr. Seuss’ books. He is still one of my favorite authors. Of course, I did not understand then what I do now. I was/am intrigued with the “power” of words. I used to scribble stories in my red Big Chief tablet. I did this before I could read or write.  I started to identify myself as a writer about twelve years ago. At the time, I had been teaching music for twenty years. I was visiting my youngest brother and his family. On the way from the airport, he and I had a heartfelt conversation. He said, “You have only loved two things in your life, music and writing. You have spent twenty years focusing on music. Don’t you think it’s time you concentration writing?”  I answered his challenge and started focusing more on writing. An aside, in the mid-nineties I took a writing class at our community college. The instructor returned my first writing assignment with a note. It read: You have no talent for writing. You should give it up. I was crippled by those words and I could not write for a while. I had lost all my confidence.

CH: You’ve had many successes with poetry, including your three collections of poetry, three Pushcart nominations, and numerous journal acceptances in addition to three collections of poetry. How have you gone about developing your writing talents?

LDW: I have an incredible mentor, Diane Frank. I started taking her workshops via email about nine years ago. I still take them. I attend other poetry workshops when possible, each summer I attend a poetry conference, I read heaps of poetry by various poets, and I read texts about writing poetry. My two favorites are Wingbeats I and Wingbeats II: Exercises & Practice in Poetry. I have a ten-one rule. I read ten poems for each poem I write.

CH: How has your career as a music educator influenced your poetry?

LDW: I have over six hundred little muses in my face Monday through Friday. Like my family, their lives are intertwined in my poetry. I get inspiration from the exchanges I have with my students and with the exchanges they have among themselves. I am often inspired by one of their expressions, a response to a class activity or question. In my book Word Ghetto, I have a section devoted entirely to my students. Those poems are based on conversations I had with students while doing lunch duty.

CH: As someone who works full-time, how do you make room for your writing? What is your writing practice like?

LDW: I write during my lunch time, after school, and on the weekends. If I eat out alone, which I do quite a bit, I will write while I am having dinner. I have written some of my most successful pieces in a restaurant.  When school is in session, my goal is to write collectively at least an hour a day. When possible, I will write for a longer period of time. Sometimes I get twenty minutes here, thirty minutes there.  I do the bulk of my writing during holidays and the summer. At those times, my goal is to write three hours daily. My writing time also involves my reading time. I have a ten one rule. For every one poem I write, I read ten. This has been my practice for the last several years.

CH: As long as I’ve known you, you’ve lived in Odessa. How has its various landscapes—geographic, vegetal, social—influenced your work? Have you lived elsewhere?

LDW: Although flat, open, barren and nestled in the breast of distance, Odessa poses characteristics of beauty resembling no other place. It’s a type of rugged beauty the natives  have learned to appreciate. The landscape is a banner of fortitude, a reflection of many of the people here. Strength is important to me. I am fascinated with our sky. The sunrises and sunsets are stunning. The night sky is beautiful as well. In many of my poems, I make a reference to our sky. Usually, the reference is a segue to an unveiling or revelation in the poem.  I lived in Terrell, Texas for one year and Lubbock, Texas while I attended Texas Tech. I was born in Dawson, Texas, but was very young when we moved away from there.

CH: Your first book, Word Ghetto, won the 2011 Bluelight Press Book Award from 1st World Publishing. How did you find out about the award? How did you select the poems that would go into that book?

LDW: After taking Diane Frank’s online workshops for four years, she encouraged me to submit to the Bluelight Press Book Award competition. Many of the poems included in the manuscript, I wrote in her workshops. If I received a poem from her with this message, “This should be in a book,” I put it in a file labeled Book. The remaining poems I selected based on these criteria: if it won first place in various state sponsored poetry contests, or if it was published in an anthology or literary journal. Over the course of four years, I discovered various themes and grouped the poems accordingly. Ironically, many of these poems were written using words or stanzas taken from my “word ghetto.” Hence the title. My word ghetto is a rather large file of hoarded words, stanzas and phrases that do not fit in one poem but work well or are seed ideas for others.

CH: Your most recent book, In This House, addresses a rich variety of topics—everything from desire for the ultimate steam iron to struggles with illness, including your own cancer diagnosis. How did you arrive at the vision for this book? How did you decide on its title?

LDW: Initially, this book was going to be about my mother. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I shifted gears and started writing about what I was experiencing. While writing those poems, I shifted gears yet again. I was battling depression; I had to focus outwards. I remember the day I said aloud, you’re not the only person “going through something.” After that meeting with myself, I reverted to writing about landscapes and other topics. I chose the title “In This House” because of the varied meanings of the word house. Its multiplicity allowed me to encompass all of the poems in the book.

CH: Writing poems of intimacy, especially about relationship with family, is a difficult task—one you handle with aplomb in In This House. How has your family received your writing, especially the work in which they appear?

LDW: My family has received my writing about them quite well. They are extremely supportive of me. I wrote about them in my other books. More than likely, one or more of them will show up in my next book.  In In This House, I give voice to some of the emotions they were experiencing. They gracefully allowed me to do so.

CH: With so much success with your poetry, I would imagine you would identify primarily as a poet. But your website (http://lorettadianewalker.weebly.com) hints at an interest in writing a novel. How would you describe your identity as a writer? In what direction do you see your writing going now?

LDW: Yes, I primarily identify myself as a poet. I have published some short stories and essays; however, I feel at home writing poetry; it’s my passion. The reference on my website is based on a conversation I had with a friend. We were discussing an idea I have had stirring inside of me for several years. Actually, I already have a title for the novel. I want to write it after I retire.

CH: Please name a few poets whose work has influenced yours. What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

Wow, this is a difficult task. There are so many! Some of my influences are Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Diane Frank, Lucille Clifton, Jonas Zdanys, Gwendolyn Brooks, Larry D. Thomas, Karla K. Morton, Alan Birkelbach, Ted Kooser, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Katharine Coles, Natasha Trethewey, Robert Frost and several poets published by Bluelight Press and many other Texas poets.  The most recent book of poetry I read is I Watched You Disappear by Anya Krugovoy Silver.

A Virtual Interview with Debra L. Winegarten

Debra L. Winegarten will be the feature for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, January 14, 2016  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.

Background

Debra L. Winegarten is a poet, biographer, and publisher, and is on the faculty of South University. A sociologist by training, Debra is a past president of the Texas Jewish Historical Society. She has written two Jewish-themed poetry books, There’s Jews in Texas?, winner of Poetica Magazine’s 2011 Chapbook Contest, and Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From.

Debra’s biographies include Oveta Culp Hobby: Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist (University of Texas Press, 2014) and Katherine Stinson: the Flying Schoolgirl (Eakin Press, 2000). Oveta Culp Hobby has received a gold medal from the Military Writers Society of America as well as the 2015 award for best Biography from the Texas Association of Authors, and was a literary award finalist for the WILLA award from Women Writing the West. Katherine Stinson was a finalist for Foreword Magazine’s “Book of the Year” award in the Biography category.

Debra is currently working on an adult biography, Zvi Yaniv: From the Mysterious Island to Nanotechnology, and a biography of two Texas women. Meeting God at Midnight by Ahuva Batya Scharff, the first poetry collection  published by Debra’s publishing company, Sociosights Press, received the 2015 Best Poetry Book award from the Texas Association of Authors. Sociosights Press will be publishing its first children’s book, Almost a Minyan, in 2016.

The Interview

CH: How did you first get interested in becoming a writer? When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer?

DW: I have always loved to write. My first published poem was in the third grade, the Temple Emanu-El synagogue monthly newsletter printed my poem, “God is Everywhere.”

I first seriously thought of myself as a writer when I received a contract from Eakin Press in 1996 for my book on Katherine Stinson.

CH: You wrote your first book, Strong Family Ties, as a co-author with your mother, Ruthe Winegarten. I knew Ruthe, and always appreciated her sparkling intellect as well as her commitment to writing women’s stories. How was it to write this book with her? How did that experience shape your growth as a writer?

DW: I had a lot of fun writing the book with Mom. We travelled to Dallas once a month on the weekend for a year and interviewed Dr. Hawkins. Mom “let” me do the brunt of the work as well as keep most of the money we made doing the book. She served more in an advisory role and really stayed in the background and just kind of made sure I was on track. Doing the book gave me confidence in my own abilities as a researcher and author and really set me on the road of my own writing career.

CH: You’ve published multiple books of poetry and biography. Do you have a primary identity as a writer? How would you describe yourself as a writer?

DW: Whenever I introduce myself, I always say, “I’m an award-winning author.” I think of myself as an author rather than a writer, somehow for me the word “author” carries more authority and doesn’t seem somehow as confining to me. I write non-fiction of all sorts, memoir, biographies, even my poetry is quite autobiographical, and when it’s not about me, it’s often based on my experiences or a snippet of something that I’ve observed in my travels.

CH: Your poetry chapbook, There’s Jews in Texas? (Poetica Magazine, 2011), won the 2011 Poetica Magazine Poetry Chapbook Contest, and you’ve followed it up with Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From (Sociosights Press, 2014). What inspired you to write these books? How widely did you distribute the manuscript for There’s Jews in Texas? before it was selected by Poetica? What influenced your decision to publish Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From with your own press?

DW: One of my best friends, Ahuva Batya Scharff, saw the call for submissions for the Poetica Publishing chapbook contest. The theme was anything having to do with “contemporary Jewish poetry.” She sent me the link, said, “You write contemporary Jewish poetry, you ought to enter.” I thought about it for about a second, decided she was right, and put together a manuscript for the contest.

I didn’t distribute this manuscript widely, I felt like it was “beginner’s luck,” it was the first chapbook I had ever put together, the only place I entered it was this particular contest, and I won the national prize!

As it turned out, people loved “There’s Jews in Texas?” and I kept hearing the complaint, well, not really a complaint, but more like a whine that it was too short and people wanted more from me. Now of course as an author, that’s the kind of “problem” one wants to have—people wanting to have more of your work. Since I had such good successes with “There’s Jews in Texas?” from a marketing viewpoint (I think the book is in its third or fourth printing now), I decided it would be smart to stay with the same genre and niche market.

Dos Gatos Press published the title poem, “Where Jewish Grandmothers Come From” in one of their annual Texas Poetry calendars, so I used that poem as the jumping-off poem for the second book in the series. I decided to publish the book through Sociosights Press because I learned from “There’s Jews in Texas?” that if I maintained control over the printing/publishing/distribution of the book, I would also make more money. It’s interesting because I don’t really do much to market “Jewish Grandmothers” the way I did with “There’s Jews in Texas?” and yet, the book sells consistently in its own quiet way and I’ve already paid for the first print run of 500 books.

CH: In addition to poetry, you’ve had a good deal of success with writing biography. Katherine Stinson: The Flying Schoolgirl (Eakin Press, 2000) was a finalist for best biography of the year from Foreword Magazine, and Oveta Culp Hobby: Colonel, Cabinet Member, Philanthropist (University of Texas Press, 2014) recently won a gold medal from the Military Writers Society of America. What excites you about the genre?

DW: I really love writing biographies of Texas women for middle school students, in particular for girls. The educational research shows that by the fifth grade, girls choose “books” or “boys.” I want them to choose “books” AND whatever. I remember the summer between fifth and sixth grades, I read the entire row of biographies in my school library, trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. And it was tough because the majority of the biographies were about men and the great things men had done, and there was almost no literature on women. So, I’ve made it my mission to follow in my mother’s footsteps and continue bringing stories of amazing Texas women into the limelight.

CH: How do you select the subjects of your biographies? Of your poetry books? What are you working on now—biography? poetry? something else?

DW: For the biographies of Texas women for middle school students, I go to the Texas Education Agency’s online curriculum to see which women are required learning for seventh grade social studies, where Texas history is taught. I try to pick women who have not only significance in Texas history, but have national prominence, as a way of expanding and broadening the people interested in reading my books.

I have two biographies in the works. The first book is set in San Antonio and is actually two biographies in one, where I’m juxtaposing the lives of two fascinating early 20th century Texas women’s lives and the places where those lives intersect. The other book I’m working on a proposal for right now involves a famous Texas female politician who has not yet had a biography written.

In terms of poetry, I’m putting the finishing touches on the third in my Jewish poetry series; this one entitled, “Have Torah, Will Travel.”

For the past 15 months, I’ve worked together with Dr. Zvi Yaniv, an Israeli-American inventor with over 300 patents on his book, “My Life on the Mysterious Island of Nanotechnology: An Adventure through Time and Very Tiny Spaces.” We are submitting his manuscript to publishers right now.

CH: You’ve long had Sociosights Press, but you’ve recently expanded your role as publisher. How would you describe the mission of Sociosights Press? What has inspired you to turn more of your energy toward publishing? Has your training as a sociologist influenced your work as a publisher?

DW: The mission of Sociosights Press is “Transforming society, one story at a time.”

I’ve turned more of my energy towards publishing because people keep coming to me with projects they want published, and since I’ve done 6 books, I have a lot of experience I can offer to people just starting out. My training as a sociologist has influenced my work as a publisher to the degree that I’m interested in using the books I publish as a way to bring out marginalized voices whose stories have the ability to make a difference in people’s lives.

CH: Ahuva Batya Scharff’s Meeting God at Midnight (Sociosights Press, 2014) garnered the “Best Book of Poetry” award in 2014 from the Texas Author’s Association, and I know it must be gratifying to see your work as a publisher being acknowledged in this way. Does Sociosights Press have projects on the horizon that you can share with us?

DW: I’m super-excited about a book that the Press will publish either in 2016 or 2017. Lori Sales Kline has written a delightful book, Almost a Minyan, which is a coming-of-age story of a young Jewish girl. I had the good fortune of meeting a masterful children’s illustrator, Susan Simon, when I did a workshop at the Highlights Foundation several years ago. I managed to talk Susan into illustrating this book, which I’m pretty sure is going to win major Jewish children’s book awards.

I also have the honor and privilege of publishing Sacred River: Poems from India, a chapbook collection from Shubh Shiesser, an Indian-American feminist role model whose poetry shines with stories “bucking” the patriarchal world in which she was raised.

CH: What writers inspire you? Who are your strongest influences?

DW: I can quote Dr. Seuss. As a child, I read all the Newberry Medal award winners. I particularly love Madeleine L’Engle’s book, “A Wrinkle in Time.” Lately I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs, my two recent favorites have been [Joan Didion’s] “A Year of Magical Thinking” and Leah Lax’s “Uncovered.”

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

DW: The most recent poetry book I’ve read is my wife and heart partner Cindy Huyser’s award-winning chapbook, Burning Number Five: Power Plant Poems. I don’t read a lot of poetry books, I am usually exposed to poetry by going to readings. I’m lucky and blessed that Austin has a terrific community of poets and wonderful venues and support for poets, from Poetry at Round Top to the Austin International Poetry Festival, to splendid weekly and monthly open mic sessions all around town.

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.