Category Archives: women’s 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 Laura Van Prooyen

Background

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What are you reading now?

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

A Virtual Interview with Christine H. Boldt

Background

Thursday, June 10, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-christine-boldt-tickets-154458799427

Feature Christine H. Boldt will be reading from her inaugural poetry collection, For Every Tatter (Lamar University Press, 2021). Boldt, a retired librarian, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nigeria in the 1960s, lived in Italy during the 1970s, and has lived in Texas for forty years.  She has published in Christianity and Crisis, the Washington Post, the Dallas Morning News, and Working Mother.  Her poetry has appeared in Christian Century, Windhover, The Texas Poetry Calendar, Bearing the Mask, Adam, Eve, and the Riders of the Apocalypse, the Poetry Society of Texas’ Book of the Year; Red River Review, Ilyia’s Honey, and Encore. Her collection Missing, One Muse:  The Poetry of Sylvia St. Stevens was selected as the winner of the 2018 Alabama State Poetry Society Morris Memorial Chapbook Competition.  

The Interview

CH: What are your first memories of poetry? What was your experience with poetry growing up?

CHB: My first memory is of my having an ability to memorize verse easily.  When I was three, my grandmother would ask me to entertain her bridge club by standing next to the fire place in our living room and reciting nursery rhymes. 

My father, who had memorized a great deal of Nineteenth Century poetry as a boy, recited it to me in lieu of bedtime stories. In both elementary and high school I was required to do lots of memorization.  Students were asked to take turns standing in front of the class and repeating the poetry they had learned. I took what were called “elocution lessons” from a private tutor who required even more memorization.  I also compensated for not being able to carry a tune by memorizing ALL the verses of hymns, and not just hits songs from Broadway Musicals but all the witty patter that preceded the stars’ bursting into song.

When, at age 12, I received a gift of money during the holidays, I bought a copy of the Collected Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and spent evenings beside the Christmas tree reading her work.  I still return to those poems each year during the holidays.

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

CHB: In Elementary School in Buffalo, New York, I won two city-wide essay contests.  These affirmations encouraged me to write.  Because of all the poems swirling around in my head, poetry seemed the natural way to express my interest in writing, but after college I set poetry aside for about 40 years.

CH: I understand you volunteered with the Peace Corps in Nigeria in the 1960s, and lived in Italy in the 1970s. How have these experiences shaped your perspective? In what ways have they influenced your writing?

CHB: Living in foreign countries required me to appreciate life from other peoples’ point of view.  It also taught me empathy for “outsiders,” (since I was one), and it challenged me to question my own assumptions.  Most of my poetry is preoccupied with character study of one kind or another.  I turn to poetry when I want to puzzle out why people think and behave as they do.

Language exposure has been another plus of foreign travel. Being conversant with Latin, French, and Italian gives me many more words to use as building blocks when I construct my poetry.

People in the countries where I lived or visited had amazing traditions of expressing religious thought through sculpture and painting. Although I did not write poetry during the years I lived abroad, when I returned to poetry in my later life, I was prompted write ekphrasic poems and poems with religious themes because of sensitivities I had developed in my years of travel.

CH: You had a long career as a librarian. What do you see as the influence of this career on your development as a poet?

CHB: Well, as a reference librarian I was astounded by the variety of things people wondered about.  I was so curious about library patrons’ interests that I was encouraged to think someone else might be interested in the things I reflect on.  Often the answers to reference questions seemed like poetic metaphors just waiting to be tapped.

CH: Tell us a little about your chapbook, Missing (New Dawn Unlimited, 2018), which won the Morris Memorial Chapbook Contest of the Alabama State Poetry Society. How did you collect and assemble this manuscript? What did you learn from this process?

CHB: I imagine that everybody who writes poetry writes ars poetica, poems about writing poetry.  It is not strange that the processes we are involved in, and the discoveries we make, would be one of the chief topics of conversation we have with ourselves.  But it is also likely that writing poems about writing poetry is a guarantee of having a small audience for one’s work.  When I found myself writing too many of those poems, I decided that I either had to own them or quit writing them.  So I imagined a persona, a character named Sylvia, who stumbles into poetry for all the wrong reasons, has a comeuppance, and then approaches poetry again from a new perspective. Each poem Sylvia “writes” is a milestone on her journey.  I hoped her path into poetry could be emblematic of the paths that others might take in crafting their own lives.  Assembling this manuscript made me wish that I had learned about poetry by reading entire volumes written by individual poets, rather than by reading the anthologies that were the texts for most of my classes.  I learned a collection needs a narrative thread that holds the poems together.

CH: For Every Tatter (Lamar University Literary Press, 2021) is exquisite in its treatment of aging, both from the standpoint of individuals who are reaching their later years and from the perspectives of those around them. How long has the subject of aging been a writerly obsession for you? How did you come about deciding to use an excerpt from William Butler Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium” as an organizing principle for the book?

CHB: Thank you.  I think I have been writing this book for most of my life.  I grew up in a four-generation household where the difficulties of aging were much discussed by my grandparents and great-grandparents.  Often my parents would take me aside to explain what it was my elders were experiencing.  They always described our elders through a prism of love, and always assured me that “One day you will understand.”  And, sure enough, I have.  As I began to age, I wrote more and more poems on the various aspects of aging, but I could never decide how to organize them.  Yeats has been a favorite poet since I read some of his poems in a children’s anthology “Silver Pennies,” seventy years ago.  I was listening to a CD of his poetry while driving in my car one day and was struck by the verse from “Sailing to Byzantium” that I have used to introduce my book:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,

I thought that I might use each line of that verse to headline a group of poems offered by different voices:  In the first section I would have old folks reflecting on the disabling factors of age.  In the second I would present the voices of younger people as they regard their elders rather critically. I then envisioned a third section where the older voices would remark on the joys of aging, and a fourth where young people would express admiration for their elders.  I soon realized that the third and fourth sections would need to be combined because many of the joys of aging are found in the interactions between the elderly and the young people who are a part of their lives. With this scheme in mind, I began to order each section so that it moved from a confusion of emotions toward resolution and acceptance.

CH: Many of the poems in For Every Tatter take on lyric forms. Who are some of your influences in lyric poetry?

CHB: The Romantic and Victorian poetry my father recited for me when I was young still rings in my ears today: poems like “Abu ben Adhem” by Leigh Hunt, “The Children’s Hour” by Tennyson, and “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray.  Edna St. Vincent Millay, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Yeats, Frost, and Dickinson, came into the picture pretty early on.  Auden is very important to me. Galway Kinnell is another poet whose writing has meant a lot to me.  But then every poet whose work is in my CD collection or whom I have heard read at the Georgetown Poetry Festival, or at Roundtop, or at Baylor’s Beall Poetry Festival in the last twenty years has left his or her mark.  It was a highlight of my Covid Year to be able to Zoom the Dodge Poetry Festival!

CH: I was struck by your deft use of received form throughout the book. What are some of the challenges you find working in form? What calls you to the use of form? What informs the decisions that you make to alter received form, as you do with the rhyme scheme in “The Changeling?”

CHB: I think I was imprinted by exposure to so much rhythmic poetry as a child. Rhythm does not come easy to me.  I have tried mapping stressed and unstressed syllables and simply can’t do it.  I just have to keep saying the words over and over again and making corrections until they sound right. But I keep at it because I need form.  I need to build some kind of structure in which I can think my thoughts, have my feelings and express them without being overwhelmed by them. I recall someone once describing a formal poem as a rubber room in which one could bounce to her heart’s content.  

As many people have discovered, concentrating on form lowers a poet’s guard, allowing unexpected words and ideas to slip into a stanza,  words and ideas that might otherwise have been held at bay by logic, prudery, or fear. And I have been struck by the way rondels, pantoums, and villanelles echo our thinking processes as we mull over decisions in our lives rehearsing and rerehearsing our decisions. 

I am happiest when I can create a poem with true rhymes, but I will always prefer to use near rhymes, or an extra beat, when it is a choice between doing that and contorting the syntax of a poem.

CH: How was the process of creating For Every Tatter different from that of creating Missing? If you had one piece of advice to share with a poet working on their first full-length collection, what would it be?

CHB: In both cases it was a matter of finding a pattern.  Missing has only one voice, Sylvia’s.  Well, actually, it has two, because each poem “written” by the Sylvia has a second, ironic title which comments on her thoughts and behavior. Perhaps it is better to say that Missing is the story of one woman coming to understand her life and her gifts.  Tatters organization was trickier because I tried to include as many voices and perspectives on aging as I was able to create. Each section is a somewhat random compilation of voices, but I still tried to nudge the poems in each section–and the combined sections–toward definite conclusions.

I guess I would have to give two pieces of advice that helped me: First, to read other poets books from cover to cover and think consciously about their organization. Second, to identify the story you want to tell and to keep shuffling the poems until their order allows the story to be told.  That process may require writing poems that fill in missing pieces of the “story.”

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

CHB: Bonfire Opera by Danusha Laméris.  Wonderful!

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 Susan Signe Morrison

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

Event registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-featuring-susan-morrison-tickets-138114936493

Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for additional information.

Background

Susan Signe Morrison is the editor of a recently-released chapbook, Another Troy (Finishing Line Press, 2020), containing poetry written by her mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison. Committed to bringing the lives of women hidden in the shades of history to a wider audience, she has also edited the wartime journals of Wehlen Morrison, which have been published as Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America. 

A Professor of English at Texas State University, Morrison is the author of four books on the Middle Ages, as well as a novel, Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife, which retells the story of the Old English epic Beowulf from the perspective of the female characters. A broader audience has accessed Susan’s work through interviews with Wired, American Public Media, the History Channel, and The New Yorker.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of reading? What role did story play in your childhood?

SSM: My first memory of reading was when I was 7. I know I read before this, but the summer of 1966 really stands out to me. My parents took my brothers (ages 10 and 12) and me to England. While there we walked on the Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury—a storied pilgrimage path from the Middle Ages. We each had only what our rucksacks could hold which we carried on our backs. We’d walk 5-7 miles a day and sleep at inns. Because we had limited books, we all shared. I read everything from Agatha Christie to A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh.

In third grade, I would bring my beloved stuffed animals with me to class. They included a Tigger (the tiger) and Snakey (who was a…you guessed it! A snake!). My teacher allowed me to present little skits on a periodic basis to everyone. I would make up stories and act them out. Later, I acted on stage in theatre productions, but those moments of making up skits on the spot for my classmates filled me with the joy of creation and sharing.

CH: What inspired your interest in creating a retelling of Beowulf? What did you learn from the process of writing Grendel’s Mother: The Saga of the Wyrd-Wife?

SSM: I teach medieval literature at Texas State University. Regularly I have my Old English class. I teach all sorts of shorter works like saints’ lives and women’s songs, but end with Beowulf. As a feminist, I have always gravitated towards highlighting the women’s perspective in the epic. I learned that one can say through fiction what one might also do in scholarly tomes—only you reach a much different, wider, and more diverse audience!

CH: I understand you’ve written four books on the Middle Ages. How did you become interested in this period?

SSM: One semester in graduate school, I took a Chaucer seminar at the same time as a course on Middle High (medieval) German. There was no looking back for me! It was only after my first book on medieval women pilgrims was published in 2000, that I came to realization as to why I became a medievalist. As mentioned above, my parents took us on a pilgrimage when I was 7 to Canterbury Cathedral. Geoffrey Chaucer’s pilgrims also went on such a pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales. So the seeds were sown when I was a child. Also, once I learned about medieval women and their writings, I was hooked.

CH: How do you see the literature of relatively distant historical periods speaking to a contemporary audience?

SSM: I teach a course on Quiet and Silent Women—with works ranging from Greek myth to the Harlem Renaissance. I designed it in early 2016 and taught it that fall—just as Hillary Clinton was running for president and the MeToo movement began. There is so much resonance between women’s lives thousands of years ago and now—sadly. You’d think things would have changed more in that time span. But, on the positive side, such female figures and women writers have amazing resilience and intelligence—I think they are role models for us all today.

CH: How did you become interested in telling the stories of women? Your volume, A Medieval Woman’s Companion: Women’s Lives in the European Middle Ages, looks fascinating, and I enjoyed the thumbnail sketches I found on your blog, https://amedievalwomanscompanion.com. Tell us a little about your research for this book.

SSM : I have always been interested in women’s stories. After all, I am one! And my mom was a writer as well—an oral historian. Her perspective is: everyone has a story, even if they don’t realize it. I regularly teach a class on medieval women writers. They are so intelligent, sarcastic, and subversive.

CH: Please tell us a little about your mother, Joan Wehlen Morrison.  You’ve published Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America, which your mother wrote and which you edited. As you worked on this project, what did you learn about your mother that surprised you?

SSM: Well: I learned so many wonderful things! That she was intellectually precocious, poetic from her earliest writings (age 10—some little poems still exist), and so funny! Her humor about others and at her own foibles was a delight to behold. She was just the same woman I knew—only much younger. I wish I could have been her classmate. She and I always wanted to write a book together. Now we have: two of them. I only wish she were here to see them—she would be delighted.

CH: Tell us a little about Another Troy. The title of this book of your mother’s wartime poetry makes me think of course of The Iliad. How did you select the title? What was it like to edit this volume?

SSM: Actually, Another Troy was the original title for Home Front Girl, the volume of her diaries from the war years I edited. The publishers thought it was too poetic—hence the name change. But such a poetic name is perfect for a volume of poetry. My mom, Joan, was obsessed with classical languages and literature. She often mentions Troy, Helen, Pompeii, and the passage of time—seeing the destruction in Europe as parallel to that from 2,000 and more years ago. Hence the title. When she has just turned 18, on December 28, 1940 during the Blitz in England, she writes, “The world’s changing. Troy; who thinks of Troy now. London is Troy tonight; London is brave somehow—burning and huddled in shelters; yet walking also in the unlighted streets. . . . London is Troy.”

CH: As I look at the titles on your website (http://www.susansignemorrison.com/) , I see a range of interest that I find fascinating—not only Medieval scholarship, but books like The Literature of Waste: Material Ecopoetics and Ethical Matter.  As a scholar, how would you describe yourself?

SSM: I would say I write about topics lying in the shadows and bring them to light—whether the hidden lives of women or, in my work in the Environmental Humanities, issues like waste and filth. I want to draw attention to these topics so people will pay attention so we can change the world for the better.

CH: What are you working on now?

SSM: I am writing a memoir about my time teaching in East Germany. Using archival research, I am documenting the impact of a 1970s/80s exchange program I participated in between two universities: Brown University in Rhode Island and one in the former German Democratic Republic—East Germany. Ultimately, I show how Stasi (secret police) files—including my own—responding to this program fail to accurately retell what happened. If you want to hear about my experiences, this podcast has an interview with me about my experiences in the former East Germany: https://coldwarconversations.com/episode130

CH: What are you reading these days for pleasure?

Well, it’s stressful, so I’m reading historical fiction to be in another time and place. I think one of the best cures for a pandemic is reading stories by P.G. Wodehouse—so silly and funny!

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 Ann Howells

Background

Thursday, December 10, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information.

Feature Ann Howells edited Illya’s Honey for eighteen years both in print and online. Her books include: Under a Lone Star (Village Books Press), Cattlemen & Cadillacs as editor (Dallas Poets Community Press), So Long As We Speak Their Names (Kelsay Books), and Painting the Pinwheel Sky (Assure Press). Her four chapbooks include: Black Crow in Flight, published through Main Street Rag’s 2007 competition and Softly Beating Wings was the 2017 William D. Barney Competition winner from Poetry Society of Texas (Blackbead Books). Ann gets involved in poetry whenever she has a chance, attending festivals, belonging to several workshop groups, and offering her services as contest judge when asked. She’s even won a couple local contests. Her work appears in many small press and university journals. She has received seven Pushcart nominations and one Best of the Net nomination.

The Interview

CH: You last appeared in this space in 2017. What’s been going on in your writing life since then?

AH: Later in 2017, my manuscript Softly Beating Wings won the William D. Barney Memorial Chapbook Competition and was published by Blackbead Books, which was a thrill. I read at poetry conferences and festivals, even travelling to Santa Fe – farthest afield I’ve gone to do a reading. And I’ve had two more books published, chaired the Student Poetry Competition for Poetry Society of Texas for two years, and served on their board for one. Of course, I’m still active with my first love, Dallas Poets Community, which returned to its original form as a workshopping group. I attend virtual lectures and classes often.

CH: I know that while you have been in Texas for many years, you hail from the northeast. Tell us a little about your thoughts in regard to the poetry of place?

AH: I hail from the Chesapeake Bay area, mid-Atlantic coast. Much of my early life was spent on an island, among watermen who harvested the bay. I’ve written so very much about the place and the people that I often feel there’s nothing left to say, but next time I sit down to write the place once again steals quietly into the poem. I guess I’ll never stop writing about it.

CH: I was delighted to hear about your most recent publications. What was your journey in writing and publishing So Long As We Speak Their Names?

AH: This book is the one I’ve been writing for twenty years or more – about watermen on Chesapeake Bay, their families, lifestyles, relationships, fears, and strengths. They greatly influenced my character, values, even thought processes. Memories of the area, the time, and the people are etched indelibly somewhere deep inside and continue to seep into my writing. This book is very close to my heart.

CH: What are your thoughts on poetry as portraiture? How can poems bridge time and space?

AH: Many of the poems in this book are character sketches. These were country people: all the women addressed as Miss or Aunt, then their first name. The men were addressed as Cap’n (Captain), a mark of respect in a waterman’s community, followed by their first name. My family appears, their friends, neighbors, and relatives. The poems keep them alive for me.

CH: I was also thrilled to hear about Painting the Pinwheel Sky. How did you arrive at this project?

AH: I became interested in Van Gogh, read several biographies, then his letters to Theo. I wrote one or two poems because Van Gogh’s thought processes as he planned a painting fascinated me. The project spiraled completely out of control. I wrote in Van Gogh’s voice, then in voices of his various mistresses, his family, and his acquaintances, including his doctor/therapist. What was originally intended as a chapbook, became a full-length book, albeit more novella than novel length.

CH: Tell us a little about the role of research as you went about writing the poems of Painting the Pinwheel Sky. As an artist, what did you learn?

AH: This book is a real departure for me. I kept referring to letters between Van Gogh and his brother, Theo, who managed an art gallery in Paris and saw promise in Vincent’s work, set up shows, and helped promote. I was intrigued by the fact that Theo and his wife were supportive while Van Gogh’s mother, a watercolor artist, was dismissive. After his death she burned many paintings that he had stored in her attic. In one letter to Theo, she even suggested that Vincent’s death would be a good thing. The lesson I took away was that if you feel compelled to create, nothing should be more important. You should let no one discourage you.

CH: You now have several titles to your name. How has your approach to poetry changed over time? What’s remained the same?

AH: More than before, I tend to become immersed in a single subject and write many, many poems exploring different aspects. Some duplicate subject matter, but I find that my thoughts evolve. When that happens, I destroy earlier versions or incorporate parts into newer poems. I write almost entirely in free verse, a few longer pieces now and some poetic series. The biggest change is that I now occasionally write about places other than Chesapeake Bay. Also, I am currently in a writing partnership with a friend. Writing response poems has expanded my manner of thinking about poetry.

CH: The isolation and stresses of the pandemic have affected people in so many ways, and 2020 has certainly been an “interesting time” in terms of our national life. What impacts has your writing life felt in 2020?

AH: In April, I took the April Challenge and wrote a poem a day. April extended into early May, though I sorely missed being able to workshop them. After that I had a dry spell until late September when I began writing furiously again, through September, October, and into early November. Now I’m in a dry spell again, but I spend my time revising and submitting. I’m a terrible housekeeper; I’d much rather be writing.

CH: What are you working on now?

AH: Currently I’m putting together two tiny volumes of tiny poems which I plan to send to a few friends and have available at readings I hope to do when the pandemic ends. Each volume holds about twelve poems. I’m calling them Hip Pocket Poems I and II. I may end up selling some at readings for a dollar each.

CH: What are you currently reading?

AH: In addition to poetry, I enjoy Scottish noir. And recently I’ve been reading about WWII, especially novels that take place in England. I’ve read that America observed the war while England lived it, and I’m finding that true, frequently shocked by what the English suffered. I also read poetry books recently published by friends – J. Todd Hawkins has a great one just out, tracing the blues through the south. Also, Ken Hada, Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue, Don Stinson, and Roy J. Bekemeyer have wonderful new books. I always keep one novel and one poetry book in progress.

A Virtual Interview with Rachelle Toarmino

Background

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

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

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Virtual Interview with Jill Alexander Essbaum

Background

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

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

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: How do you nurture yourself as a writer?

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Liliana Valenzuela

Background

Thursday, September 10, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information.

Feature Liliana Valenzuela is the author of Codex of Journeys: Bendito Camino (Mouthfeel Press, 2013) and several artisan chapbooks. Her poetry has appeared in Edinburgh Review, Indiana Review, Tigertail, Huizache, Borderlands, Drunken Boat, and other publications. She has received writing awards and recognition from Luz Bilingual Publishing, Austin International Poetry Festival, Drunken Boat, Indiana Review, Austin Poetry Society, and the Chicano/Latino Literary Award, and has held residencies at Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow and Vermont Studio Center.

An acclaimed translator of U.S. Latinx writers Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Denise Chávez, Dagoberto Gilb, Cristina García, and others, Valenzuela was a guest of honor at the Congreso de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española in Córdoba, Argentina, in 2018. An inaugural CantoMundo fellow and a long-time Macondo Writers Workshop member, she writes poetry, essays, journalism, and is currently working on a memoir. She is the former editor of ¡Ahora Sí!, the Spanish publication of the Austin American-Statesman and is now a staff translator for Aparicio Publishing. A native of Mexico City, Valenzuela lives and works in Austin, Texas.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

LV: My great aunt Josefina in Mexico City was a practitioner of the art of “declamación,” where people learned poems by heart and recited them to a live audience, in this case, us family. I remember how the room fell silent and she commanded that space with her verses, and held us, spellbound.

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

LV: In my senior year in college I took a course on Experimental Women Writers at UT Austin and it blew my mind. I did not know women could write like this and could be so daring. I bought copies of Writing the Natural Way and The Artist’s Way and spent the whole summer after my B.A. graduation in Anthropology writing. Poetry is what came most naturally to me.

CH: How did you begin your journey as a literary translator?

LV: When I had my first child, I was looking for something I could do from home. Translation work started arriving, and I found that it was easy for me, as I’ve always had an affinity for languages. I speak Spanish, Danish, English, and some French. And, almost immediately, I realized I wanted to translate literature. I reached out to Sandra Cisneros, whom I had befriended when she lived in Austin in the late 80s, and the rest is herstory!

CH: How has your work as a translator influenced your work as a poet?

LV: Translation makes you a very close reader of literature and finely attuned to the rhythms and cadences of language. And, from the start, I was writing my own poetry and short stories in both languages, translating myself back and forth. So, translation was there from the beginning. And it continues to be a big part of what I do. My latest collection is fully bilingual. I translated myself from English to Spanish, and four different translators translated my work from Spanish into English: the late Angela McEwan and Fred Fornoff; and G.C. Racz and Arturo Salinas.

CH: Both titles of your poetry books identify them as codices. Would you tell us a little about the role of the codex in your work?

LV: I’ve always been fascinated by the ancient Aztec codices, and ancient manuscripts in general. I’m drawn to that primordial instinct of our ancestors to leave a written record of their creation stories, myths, historical records, and even basic accounting. This is my own codex, my testimony of an immigrant’s life in the late xx and early xxi centuries.

CH: Tell us a little about Codex of Love. How did the poems of this book come about? How does it relate to your earlier book, Codex of Journeys?

LV: These were actually a single codex, a single manuscript. The opportunity arose to publish Codex of Journeys first as a chapbook, so I went for it. And this year I published Codex of Love, which includes 5 books or sections. Codex of Journeys is really the 6th section. These codices belong together. Codex of Love is the poet looking within, and Codex of Journeys is the poet looking out to the world.

CH: You were for some years editor of ¡Ahora Si! What has your journalistic experience brought to your writing?

LV: It was a tremendous education in writing fast and on a deadline, and in being connected to community. I am deeply honored that people let me into their lives and homes and trusted me with their stories, those unsung heroes who are building Austin’s prosperity. I also got to interview fantastic human beings, such as Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucía, and the Colombian pop star Juanes, among many others, which was incredibly inspiring.

CH: How has participation in CantoMundo and the Macondo Writers Workshop figured in your development as a writer? What would be your advice to a novice writer who’s looking for writing community?

LV: When I was starting out, there was no real community where I could just be myself, that satisfied all my needs. That changed first with Macondo, where I found artists and thinkers of all backgrounds seeking social change, and then in CantoMundo, where I found poets of our many latinidades, different ways of being and singing your latinx song, in your own voice. My advice is to keep trying until you find the right fit. And the more you give, the more you receive. We are only as strong as our bonds with fellow writers and, ultimately, our audiences.

CH: How do you nurture yourself as a writer? How have residencies, such as those you’ve held at the Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow and the Vermont Studio Center, contributed to your reaching your goals?

LV: Besides attending workshops at Macondo and CantoMundo, I contribute to the Hablemos Escritoras Podcast (https://www.hablemosescritoras.com/), where I keep educating myself about women writers from the Spanish-speaking world. I’ve contributed book reviews, interviews with literary translators and writers who are also literary translators, like myself. Residencies are also a priceless opportunity to sit back, reflect on your path, and let stories germinate. Or pour out of your heart writing something you’ve longed to write. This summer I was at the Tasajillo Residency out in Kyle, Texas, in a cabin in the Hill Country, where I translated some short stories by Kimberly King Parsons, from her collection Black Light. That time out in nature during this pandemic was heavenly.

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

LV: Tiawanaku: Poems from the Mother Coqa by Judith Santopietro, translated by Ilana Luna (Orca Books, https://orcalibros.com/en/books/)