Tag Archives: Elizabeth Bishop

A Virtual Interview with Lucy Griffith

Lucy Griffith will be the featured reader Thursday, April 11, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Happiest on a tractor named Mabel (a muse of 55 horsepower), featured reader Lucy Griffith lives on a ranch beside the Guadalupe River near Comfort, Texas. As a poet and essayist, she has work in Bearing the Mask: Southwestern Persona Poems and Weaving the Terrain: 100-word Poems of the Southwest. She is co-editor of Echoes of the Cordillera: Attitudes and Latitudes Along the Great Divide, an ekphrastic anthology. She was a contributor at Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference in 2018. Her poetry collection We Are a Tiny Herd has just been released from Main Street Rag Press.

The Interview

CH: When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer? What inspired you to become a writer?

LG: I grew up visiting farms and ranches and those many hours in the out of doors formed the backbone of my vocabulary. In addition, my father loved poetry and quoted it throughout my childhood. Later, as an English major I studied poetry and wrote poems in college.  I started writing poems consistently after I “recovered” from writing my dissertation in Clinical Psychology. I come from a long line of raconteurs, and as a Narrative Therapist, I am drawn to stories that help clients make more sense of themselves in the world. Some stories just beg to be heard, and poetry seemed the best medium for me to do that, hopefully in a compelling way.

CH: I know it can be challenging to work in an unrelated field and to keep the flame of creativity alive. What strategies have you used to make room for writing while working in a professional arena?

LG: Though I am “mostly retired” from my work as a therapist, maintaining our ranch in the hill country takes plenty of time. Taking a page from Mary Oliver, I am never without a pencil and notebook. I have learned to write in the cab of a truck, on a tractor seat, while yanking thistles or sitting in Austin traffic!

CH: Tell a little about your new book, We Make a Tiny Herd. How did you conceive of this book? What was the writing / revision process like?

LG: On travels to West Texas, I used to see a woman riding a burro in the bar ditch. Seeing her made a trip special. Once I passed her on my bike! I was fascinated with how she managed to live in that harsh climate, but other than seeing her occasionally I didn’t know much about her. I found out that her name was Judy Magers, and that her legal address was: On the Road, Terlingua, Texas. Once I had read everything I could find out about the Burro Lady, nicknamed La Reina, I was transfixed by her story. Something resonated deep within me as I imagined what her life might have been like.

We Make a Tiny Herd began with a persona poem (“La Reina”) in the book you co-edited, Bearing the Mask: Southwestern Persona Poems. I believe that the power of a persona poem lies in its ability to help the poet role-reverse with someone else. As a therapist trained in psychodrama, I find role fluidity rich in inspiration.

After publication of the persona poem, for the next three years, my husband and I traveled to West Texas and interviewed folks who knew her. They in turn, gave me other folks to talk to, and it grew from there. I immediately felt protective of her privacy and treaded carefully to honor her in my approach. Once people knew I would not make a caricature of her, they were more open. Mike Capron, whose work is on the cover of the book, was especially generous with his stories. That portrait he did of Judy was painted entirely from memory.

I wrote whatever occurred to me after our visits to West Texas. Poems of place came, imaginings of conversations with her, what the burro might think, what must of it have been like to be her mother. It was a very unstructured approach until by the end I was dreaming about her and imagining her beside me each day.

CH: What were your inspirations for the book’s structure? Did the structure change over time, before the book was published?

LG  To begin with, I had a wild group of poems in several voices that needed to be wrangled into shape. Some fell away until I had the ones that seemed essential to the story. Sarah Cortez was helpful as a consultant by suggesting that I design sections in different voices (La Reina Speaks, El Burro Speaks, the Poet Speaks, the Stories Speak.) Eventually, a roughly chronological narrative arc emerged that seemed to fit. I have been tickled to hear that many readers have read it straight through as a story.

CH: How did you go about finding a publisher? How has the publication process been for you?

LG: I submitted We Make a Tiny Herd to the Main Street Rag Poetry Book Contest. As a finalist, I was offered publication and was thrilled to accept. The editor liked my idea for a cover and did not ask for any revisions, so it went very smoothly.

CH: Tell us a little about your writing life. What does it look like? How do you nurture yourself as a writer?

I begin my day by reading poems, good poems!  I also read fiction and non-fiction but I will let a book go if it is not what I think of as well-written. Garbage in, garbage out.

Three times a week I take a long run and it is usually there that I sort out rough spots in poems or get wild ideas to take a poem in a completely different direction than where it started. A writer friend and I call it “Bishoping” our poems, as inspired by the radical revisionist poet, Elizabeth Bishop. When I am really stuck, I get on Mabel, my tractor, and mow or push dead trees around. Empowering!

Rural poetry writing can be a lonely business, so I am blessed with poets nearby that I meet with regularly for solace after rejection, inspiration and critique, and tips on managing the world of po-biz. My husband, bless him, is my first audience and has had to weather many a rough draft, yet his encouragement is a constant that keeps me writing!

CH: You curate a reading series in Comfort, Texas. What has it been like to bring poetry to that arena?

LG: The Readin’s as they are affectionately called, have been such a surprise to me! Perhaps it is the lingering influence of the Freethinkers who settled Comfort in the mid-1800’s. They believed in creating your own fun, reading poetry and philosophy, sometimes in Latin, and were adamantly against slavery. I like to think that the Freethinkers laid the foundation for our well attended quarterly readings and the rapt faces of the listeners. Naomi Shihab Nye said reading there was her most enthusiastic audience in forty years! The local paper, The Comfort News, prints an article about some aspect of poetry and “poetry out loud” in particular before each Readin’ and that has further educated our attendees. It’s been a lot of fun!

CH: Which poets were your early influences? Among poets writing now, whose work excites you?

LG: My early “North Star” poets include Walt Whitman, Stanley Kunitz, Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver, who always felt like a friend I had yet to meet. As for poets writing now: Ada Limón takes my breath away with her fierceness, I have read all of Rita Dove that I can find, and Geffrey Davis, who taught me at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, speaks to me with a very tender heart.

CH: What are you working on now?

LG: I am working on another collection, this one more personal—about my experiences growing up on a South Texas brush country ranch called Esperanza. The working title is “Esperanza: School of Thorn and Fang.” The lessons were tough as well as memorable. My hope is that the collection will work on several levels, as a wilderness story, a bilingual childhood, an intra-psychic exploration.

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

LG: The Chasing by Ada Limón

A Virtual Interview with Loueva Smith

Loueva Smith will be the featured reader Thursday, October 13, 2016 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman.

Background

Poet and playwright Loueva Smith of Houston is the winner of the 2015 Robert Phillips Chapbook Prize, awarded by Texas Review Press, for Consequences of a Moonless Night. She is also the author of The Book Of Wool And Fur, a hand-made fur-covered collection of love poems. Her poems have been published in such journals as DoubleTake and the Louisiana Review, and anthologized in Goodbye, Mexico, Untamable City, The Weight Of Addition, and TimeSlice. Her poetry is spoken as narration in Shamed, a dance film by Frame Dance Production, choreographed by Lydia Hance, has  been painted into nude watercolors by Cookie Wells for the artist’s 2015 show, Body Language, at Archway Gallery in Houston, Texas.Her work has also been presented in a dance performance by jhon stronks called Purging Honey at Rice University. Her play Tenderina was staged at Frenetic Theater in Houston, Texas.

The Interview

CH: When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer? What inspired you to become a writer?

LS: I’ve written since I was a teenager but I don’t think I ever knew, or really understood myself as a writer until I started reading my poems out loud to people. Once I felt that connection to other poets listening to me, my understanding of myself as a writer deepened. I first read out loud when I was forty, and I’m fifty six now.

My inspiration to be a writer comes from a sense that by writing things down in an intuitive and skillful way I can become more deeply aware. I want to say I love you in a way that has my breath and my easily teary eyes in it, or the troubling dream I had last night. I need language to use as a container for the tenderness and bitterness of memory. I sense the power of knowing how to name my terror, or my astonishment, or my urgent yearning. In some ways, writing helps me to make power out of my powerlessness.

CH: Your work includes plays as well as poetry. How would you describe your identity as a writer? Do you have writing interests beyond poetry and drama?

LS: I think of poems as little performances. I often see them on a stage with lighting and props, movements and costumes. Sometimes a poem starts with notes about how it could be acted out.

I’m very drawn to the need to tell stories. And I’m variously drawn to ways of telling stories. I love to explore the various ways of not just telling a story but of ritualizing one.

Words are so constantly with us and in us. Once I got curious about that and wrote a story/poem partly in a book and partly on my body. I was trying to find out which words belonged on my body and which belonged on the page…and where on my body did they belong…and once they were on the page, did they need a picture?

CH: Tell us a little about your path as a poet and playwright. How did you go about growing and expanding your skills?

LS: Working with an actor and a director is the best experience a writer can have because they mostly only want to know one thing; what’s the motivation? An actor cannot act a symbol. It has to be real, alive, have a motivation like hunger.

A director gets under the skin of the character and can ask a writer very penetrating questions about the backstory which is a kind of hidden text that isn’t spoken but is implied in the actor’s gestures and clothing and tone of voice.

I think poetry is greatly constructed around implication, or a kind of backstory. Poets call it connotation.

So…I love processes that teach me about the nuances of language and communication…but like all writers I’ve had to earn my identity as a writer by writing which takes so much solitude and sometimes it makes me sad to spend time doing that instead of being with friends and family.

CH: What is your relationship with the world of dance? Tell us a little about your experiences with having your work danced.

LS: I saw Lydia Hance do movement to a story by Diana Weeks, and it was so magical how she made the words into almost physical objects. It felt like she was putting the story into my hands…setting it on my lap. She made the words prick, or curve, or scurry away.

I sought her out and tried to learn from her. I collaborated with her and her dancers on a few dance films which she choreographed from writing prompts and texts. She’d watch us put our words into movement and then distill phrases of our movement into choreography. Sometimes, she’d sit watching us with tears streaming down her cheeks.

It is an enthralling art form to put poetry and movement together.

Lydia danced to an art opening for Cookie Wells at Archway Gallery. Cookie had painted a series of watercolor nudes with lines from my love poems written along the lines of the figures and in the background. Lydia did a dance interpretation with the watercolor images surrounding her and me sitting off to the side saying poems. That performance is something that still gives me goose bumps.

CH: What inspired The Book of Wool and Fur, with its hand-made fur cover? How did you go about having it produced?

LS: The Book of Wool and Fur came out of a doomed and impossible love affair. I presented it at the Houston Fringe Festival, and my performance can be seen on YouTube. It’s pretty dramatic storytelling with a poetic dialogue in the middle.

My friends and I cut out fake-fur and glued it to three hundred hand-made copies of stapled text. I gave them away for free and billed it as a book of Lesbian love poetry. I also made an audio recording of the book and will give away those CDs  at BookWoman on Thursday the 13th.

CH: Some of the publicity for “Tenderina” describes it as “the surreal story of a stripper/ballerina and her journey to self-revelation.” What role does surrealism play in your work as a whole? How was this protagonist developed?

LS: I love surrealism because it surprises me. It feels like a surrealist moment has the power to jog my memory all the way down to its roots.

“Tenderina” is a dance/play about the trial of Tenderina. She is on trial for having a dead kitten for a heart. She is carrying around a huge pink egg which is the focus of the interrogation  because she can’t set it down, doesn’t know where it came from, or if it is saying something. It seems to be haunted somehow.

She can’t give an accurate account of this huge egg except she knows it can be easily broken. The prosecutor gets so angry he jerks it away from her and a dead kitten falls out. (Not a real one. No animals were harmed in the production.)

I play a one-eyed voyeur. I live under the stage platform at the strip club. I watch Tenderina and when she discovers me our hair becomes entangled. We walk around tied together by our hair. I’ve seen her practicing ballet moves. She has so perfected her ballet that does a fire-walking act on stilettos with military-grade bullets for heels. When the bullets get almost hot enough to explode she does spectacular high kicks out into audience. Thus, she is empowered, and as her mentor my character counsels her to give up stripping for ballet.

CH: I understand that “Tenderina” was a collaboration involving film and dance, in addition to the script. What role does collaboration play for you as an author? How has your own work evolved in response to working in collaboration?

LS: I love collaboration because it stretches me. I’m endlessly curious about the intersections between artists. Of course, all such intersections are on the outskirts of town, but it is there that magic is made. I mean, both “Tenderina” and Lydia’s dance performance at Archway gallery were so unique, and had within them a fleeting incandescence…or…a shimmering that lasted for a moment signaling possibilities. Collaborations have at times filled me with a rush of joy. Collaborations can be difficult. They are made of listening and responding from your real self.

CH: How were the poems of Consequences of a Moonless Night selected? How did you decide on sending the manuscript to the Robert Phillips Chapbook Contest at Texas Review Press?

LS: Of course, Robert Phillips is an incredible poet and scholar of confessional poetry. Who isn’t captured by Sylvia Plath? Who doesn’t remember the first time they met up with her book Ariel? But confessional poetry doesn’t have much to do with why I chose the contest.

I selected the poems with the intention of telling the story of my family and of showing at the end who I grew up to be. There is a falling off a cliff moment in the book where things turn from memory to more urgent matters. I wrote it while I was grieving the death of my brother. I was very aware of my family because of his passing.

I sent the book to the Robert Phillips Chapbook Contest because I graduated from Sam Houston State University. I wanted to give part of myself back to the university, and I have great respect for the Texas Review Press.

CH: What are you working on now?

LS: I’m working on a book called “What The Music Wants.” It is set in Houston. The speaker’s name is Zoe. She works at the Jung Center. She is fifty years old and is giving an account of her life’s journey by recalling all of her lovers and recipes.

CH: Whose poetry inspires and delights you? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

LS: I most recently read Vanessa Zimmer-Powell’s manuscript called “Girl Eating Bird.” It is a series of poems based on responses to paintings which she hopes to find a publisher for. She came over for a swim in my above-ground pool and we talked about the poems in it.

I love poetry so much. I love to go to readings. I love that there are a lot of readings going on in Houston. I will buy books of poetry whether I know the poet or not. Poets are just such interesting people with gorgeous souls.

The poet who first bewitched me was Emily Dickinson. The one who helped me find the voice for Consequences of a Moonless Night was Charles Simic. He is so incredibly imaginative.

The one who taught me how to write poetry was Paul Ruffin. There is always something dark hidden under the layers, or the waters of his poems.

The one who made me go temporarily insane was Coleman Barks with those recording he did of his translations of Rumi.

The one who most changed my understanding of poetry was Alicia Ostriker and her book of scholarship on women’s poetry called Stealing the Language.

The one I always come back to is Elizabeth Bishop.

A Virtual Interview with Usha Akella

Usha Akella and Varsha Saraiya-Shah will be the featured readers Thursday, September 8, 2016 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman.

Background

Usha Akella has authored four books, scripted and produced one musical. Her most recent book, The Rosary of Latitudes is published by Transcendental Zero Press with a foreword by Keki Daruwalla. Her poetry awards include the Open Road Review Poetry Prize, Egan Memorial Contest Prize, Nazim Hikmet Poetry Prize and the  Wine Poem Award at Struga Poetry Evenings.  She was selected as a creative ambassador for Austin in 2014-15. She has been invited to many international poetry festivals in Colombia, Macedonia, Nicaragua, Mexico, India, Turkey, Slovakia, Slovenia etc. In August 2015, she organized the first South Asian Poetry Fest ‘MATWAALA.’

She is the founder of the Poetry Caravan in Westchester County, NY and Austin. The caravan provides free readings at senior homes, women shelters and hospitals. The NY chapter has offered more than a 1000 free readings and the city of Austin proclaimed January 7th as Poetry Caravan Day. She will pursue a Masters in Creative Writing at Cambridge University, UK in the Fall of 2016.

The Interview

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

UA: I do remember the magical moment. I was very young; perhaps a fourth grader or fifth, studying in St. Anns, Hyderabad, and my English teacher Mrs. Eva read a poem about ‘The Naughty Boy’ by John Keats. That poem was an arrow and found its mark. I knew in a kind of dim witted, inchoate sense that that’s what I wanted to do too- write hypnotic sounds like that. I took my pen to paper for the first time. Rereading the poem, I am struck by it again- for I am much like that boy in the poem- it was really a metaphor for my self-I use the words marvel, wonder and bewilderment to describe my state of mind in response to life. Who knew!

For years, I’d forgotten who the poet was and looked it up this morning to answer the interview. What a delight! It’s John Keats who took my soul again with ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ as a Grad student in India. Keats and I go a long way! Thank you for starting my morning with this epiphany.

CH: When did you first begin to consider yourself a writer? A poet?

UA: Right around the time the Keats poem fell upon my ears, I guess. My mother says I announced I would be a poet when I was 6. That feels a bit of an exaggeration birthed from maternal pride. I wrote till I was 27 in Hyderabad without the notion of publishing, workshops, open mikes, creative writing programs, journals or mentors in Hyderabad. And I still wrote with no goal, as it was my form of breathing. (literally, as I was a chronic asthmatic while growing up.) The impulse to write was organic. It may be genetic as I come from a family of Telugu writers. No one asked me to write, there were no classes or prompts. I just wrote every day. If your primal response is to seek words to formulate you Self and the world you are a writer.  Through all my disappointment in my life as a poet I always remember that young girl writing for 20 years with no thought of external validation. For whom did she write?

CH: Your success as a poet has been marked by the publication of four collections as well as a number of prizes. What habits as a writer have contributed to your success? What stumbling blocks have appeared along the way?

UA: There’s only one habit- and that is ‘Write’. And the other is ‘Read’. You can’t give up as a poet- that’s a cardinal rule.

I have no fancy terms or guidelines- no favorite place or time, notebook, colored index cards, no inventions of comfort or superfluous embellishments of first world writers. I don’t keep a pot of sharpened pencils or a magical pen. I write anywhere, with anything that is available; Writing to me is a basic drive, it is unpretentious, and I keep it basic.  Maybe it’s my roots. I grew up with very little and we were never sustained by material definitions. Writing and the industry of poetry are two separate things.

I work hard I think, but I am incapable of routines. That’s a personal failing, perhaps. Struggles happen on two levels. Wanting to become the poet you want to be, requires dedication, honesty and work; it gives you a delicious unrest within. My weak links sting like ants: punctuation is a torture and I stumble on prepositions. I have to remind myself constantly about the premise of show and tell.

The stumbling blocks within the industry of poetry is another whole topic. It brings up issues of race, marginality and exclusion. There are walls and doors so politely construed they are invisible but exist. For example, I have been invited in the top tier world festivals of poetry but the local Round Top or most of the universities and colleges won’t acknowledge me as a poet. When you don’t acknowledge you make a person invisible, there is erasure from history, from the roster, from the industry. I am not called in for interviews when I apply for teaching posts or admitted to the local MFA/PhD programs. I’ve given up on the US, in some sense. ‘Matwaala’ was formulated as a very specific need for the South Asian poet to create ones’ own platform. And of course, there has also been support and kinship with some of the community of local poets and the city of Austin. I am grateful to them. I don’t forget these people.

CH: You’ve been invited to a number of international poetry festivals. How have these experiences shaped your sense of poetic community? How have they influenced your work?

UA: The invitation to international poetry festivals has had a volcanic impact on my view of the world and my Self. Since a little girl, I knew somehow, very early on that everything was ONE. Poetry has pushed me into the experience of that truth with these travels. So my poetics and my spirituality is the same. Poets belong to the world.  What I experienced in Medellin and Struga festivals is poetry as a mighty current; as a large open fist in poor countries;such generosity of hospitality can nowhere be found in the US; thousands of people present at opening and closing ceremonies like an olympics of Poetry;a reminder that Poetry is a pulse in the human soul. The industry of poetry is a more recent phenomenon.

Community for me is not local by circumstance. As a mother with a much-traveling husband my ability to physically participate in the local scene has been very limited. So the virtual community of poet friends the world over is my family and source of strength. I’ve learned to live with physical isolation and loneliness.  There is the curse of course all artists experience –being outsider in one’s own; the necessity of exile. I can’t seem to belong to the Indian community in whole either. Poets are always questioning and resisting something in the search for justice and harmony.

Becoming aware of poetics from other countries has been profoundly educative to pitch my own aspirations as a poet and understand what I would like to achieve. Take some Eastern European poets for example- the suggestive power of the poem dominates- that echoes with the Sanskrit concept of dhvani in poetry. There’s a gossamer, cultured and fine effect in poets like Nikola Madzirov. At times I like that. Or to learn that Filipino poetry has a long history of oral traditions is akin to traditions in Sanskrit history. Or the hypnotic  magic via repetition in the ghazal. To be able to make connections is a treasure hunt.  The appeal of Poetry for me as sound or as chant may be rooted in the Sanskrit slokas and hymns that abound in my life.

It has recently dawned on me that my own organic poetics would fall South to the border. The rhythms, power of the image and metaphor, outreach, tumult, energy and bread of the form in South American poetry is what I instinctively produce. More and more, I become restless with the contemporary American voice in poetry; the MFA factory manufactured voice. It is too constipated for me.

CH: The Rosary of Latitudes, now out from Transcendental Zero Press, is your fourth book. How did you select the work that became that book? How was the formulation of this book different from your earlier work?

UA: “Rosary of Latitudes” is specifically hinged on travel- inner and outer and the effect of each realm on the other; a place shapes my work, my poem shapes the place; a poem has a convex-concave rhythm. Did Northrop Fry say this? The book was formulated gradually as I traveled; I was stunned and marveled at what I was experiencing so travel articles first became the means to capture details as I have the most short termed memory you can find; I wanted to hold a country in my palms as waters to gaze in; the book got longer and bigger in its concerns- identity, immigration, home, self, memory. But it reflects what is in all my work- I am looking for my Self everywhere, for home.

CH; When I think of your work, what often comes to mind is its strong spiritual bent—for instance, the poems of Kali Dances, So Do I bring with them resonances with the ecstatic Sufi poems of Rumi. How do you see the presence of spirituality in your poems?

UA: I come from India. I cannot escape religion or spirituality or mythology; it’s dislodgable. My sensibility is shaped by it. The Vedantic  quest for the self is perhaps the underlying anthem to my work. I look for reference points from my cultural heritage. My poems seem to broadly fall around two poles- Kali and Rumi. Poems of transcendence from the centering self with underlying Sufi joy, bewilderment and marvel. And poems of immanence, of the body, rage from the black goddess, poems of activism, fighting patriarchy, racism, gender inequality. These are my obligation to write as a woman, my duty to the planet. I am peaceful now in the acceptance that both strains are a vital part of my soul not contradictory, but complementary.

CH: Among your many accomplishments, your founding of the Poetry Caravan in Westchester County, New York and Austin, Texas stands out as a way to extend poetry’s reach in the community. How did you first arrive at the idea of a Poetry Caravan? What has kept you working on that project?

UA: The poetry Caravan was birthed in the knowledge that Poetry is a great healing power. And I must take it to people who are incapacitated to experience its joy or avail of opportunities; that poets can make a difference every day and need not win a Pultizer to be validated as a poet. I wanted poets to feel this empowerment. When I read to a senior (sometimes there is just one senior waiting for you) I come back with a peace and validation unlike anything. It leaves me with the basic awareness of what poetry is and can do. Touch one heart at a time. Make bridges. Alleviate loneliness. The very quiet and true mission of poetry.

CH: India has a strong tradition of poetry, one that you have helped extend both through your own work and by contributions such as organizing the MATWAALA South Asian Poetry Fest in Austin in 2015. Which Indian poets have inspired you? If you were to recommend two Indian poets whose work has not received the attention it deserves in the U. S., who would they be?

UA: There are so many great voices in Indian English Poetry both in India and abroad. I have to spill out names in a long tongue to do justice but you’ve asked for two. I will mention two names of senior poets -Keki Daruwalla and Dilip Chitre. Fabulous anthologies have come out in recent years acknowledging so many poets Sudeep Sen’s Harper Collins anthology, “Dance of the Peacock” etc. I feel a sense of pride for all of them.

CH: I understand you’ll soon be at Cambridge University, UK, working on a Master’s in Creative Writing. How did you decide to embark on this path?

UA: Cambridge was destiny I guess. I don’t have the luxury of going away for long term studies as I am a mother.  UT Austin was my first choice as a mother-poet. I unfortunately had a very unpleasant experience in the application process that I don’t want to elaborate. If we are to walk guided by the wounds in our life, we would be paralyzed. Jack Hirschman says broken-heartedeness is the sign that the heart is alive. Poetry is a finally an inner guide and sustains us irrespective of outward signposts of success and failure.

It was my husband who discovered the low-res programs in Oxford and Cambridge and so here I am on the threshold of 50, going back to school fueled by the desire for knowledge. I found the interview process intense and fair, fair even when I was rejected by Oxford last year.

CH: Please name a few of your poetic influences. What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

UA: I read multiple books at a time- a schizophrenic method. So here is what’s happening now- Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Lorca, John Burnside, translations of Urdu poetry, Lewis Turco’s Book of Forms, Edward Hirsch’s How to Read a Poem, Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook. Also some drama and short stories on the Cambridge reading list.

Poetry influences: Eliot, Romantics, Rumi; woman poets- Sexton, Kamala Das, Plath, Olds, Mary Oliver;

Absolute favorite- Yehuda Amichai;

Poets who fuel me- Whitman, Octavio Paz, Szymborska, Nazim Hikmet, Keki Daruwalla, Ram Prasad, Mohammad Dawish, Nguyen Thieu, Nikola Madzirov.

And so many poets I like, I hope I will be forgiven as I cannot name so many.

A Virtual Interview with W. Joe Hoppe

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

Background

Joe Hoppe has taught at Austin Community College since 1996. He has published two books of poetry, Galvanized, by Dalton Publications in 2007, and Diamond Plate by OBSOLETE! press in 2012, as well as many self-published chapbooks. He also hosts the monthly W. Joe’s Poetry Corner at Malvern Books. Most recently he has been working very hard (and with a lot of help) to get his hotrod ’51 Plymouth on a ’90 Dakota frame with a 60’s-era 318 engine on the road.

The Interview

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

I probably really began to think of myself as a writer during my first year in community college.  I thought I was going to be a rock and roll journalist, but liked Creative Writing, too.  Language has always been important, though.  I think I get some of that from my dad, who is an inveterate punster and likes to tell jokes that often hinge on language. He communicated with me through jokes during my orneriest years, so I am pretty comfortable with metaphor.  I was a very sickly kid and read a lot, too. I think I really started liking writing for how it was written as opposed to what it was about in junior high.  Clockwork Orange with its language and the charm of Alex, although he was a murderous little thug, was a revelation.

CH:  You’ve published two books of poetry. How would you describe your writing and your identity as a writer?

I would like to be thought of as someone who sees the beauty in things that aren’t traditionally beautiful and who makes a point of being accessible. I like to pose as someone who knows a lot about machinery and has pretensions towards the working class—which are things you don’t see much in poetry—another reason I like your work so much. Also, I have been concerned with teaching the last few years—so pointing things out and being a positive role model in that you can be both a regular person and a poet. Mainly I think my identity is “the bald guy with the big red beard” at this point.

CH: I know you have a strong connection to Albert Huffstickler, the “Poet Laureate of Hyde Park.” How did you meet Huffstickler? What is your strongest recollection of him? How has his poetry influenced yours?

I first met Huff when he was running a Sunday night poetry gathering out of his apartment at 43rd and Avenue H.  This was the spring of 1990.  I had met Larry Thoren and Gregg Gauntner at Chicago House open mikes (it was a wonderful scene with lots of folks doing great unpretentious and meaningful work) and they invited me to come over.  I was the youngest guy, and Huff wasn’t too sure about me at first.  Eventually we hit it off, and eventually I became his driver towards the end of his life.

We spent a little over a year with monthly readings at the Austin State Hospital, as well. Good sweet memories there. One of my strongest recollections comes from one time when we were doing some kind of everyday thing at Capitol Plaza and Huff suddenly announced “Now it’s time to write poetry.”  So we found a place where we could sit down and have coffee and wrote poetry.  I also have a beautiful memory of one of his Ruta Maya (when it was downtown) readings in the summer when the place was packed and he read for over an hour with incredible ebb and flow and keeping everyone in the place engaged. I haven’t been able to sit still that long for anyone else’s poetry. The openness, accessibility, and social concerns Huff addressed have influenced me philosophically/spiritually.  He had a lot of students, but nobody tried to emulate his style.  We all had our own things.

CH: What inspired you to become a college professor? What has your long experience at Austin Community College taught you as a writer?

In  the mid-80s when I lived in Minneapolis, I tried for several years to be helpful by working with homeless folks in the social service system. I peter principled my way out of that, as well as having serious doubts as to the implicit promises that were being made.  I still wanted to be helpful, and I love writing and literature and the great variety of students at community colleges (I have taken community college courses in Michigan, Minneapolis, and here in Austin) so I set up a long-term goal of being a community college professor in 1989. I started working at ACC as an adjunct in 1996, and became a full timer in 2007.  I’m playing the long con.  Maybe the most important thing I have learned about writing at ACC is the importance of accessibility, but at the same time that people are generally more than willing to rise to an occasion.  I could go on for a long time about what I have learned at ACC, but we will leave it at that.

CH: I know that cars and their restoration have long been some of your passions. It seems that car restoration has aspects that relate to the work of writing: patience, persistence, an interest in knowing how things work and a certain creative spark. How has working on cars influenced your writing?

For a long time, I saw cars as somewhat inviolable—you could repair them, but the main goal was to restore them (or modify them, but even then)—within a set of parameters. Currently, I am putting together a 51 Plymouth body on a modified 90 Dakota truck frame with a mid-sixties 318 engine. The goal is a home-built cool daily driver.  The aesthetic is cool/fun/reasonable performance/affordable/and work within my own capability. I have learned a lot about fabrication, spent many hours working with skilled and generous friends whom I admire, and have kind of learned to weld, among other things.

So it has been very process oriented, and a more obvious externalization of skills, values, etc. I just over-extended my elbow so I am not going to be making an appearance with the car at the Lonestar Round-Up next week as I was planning to do. This is weighing heavy on my mind. But as you said, there are many, many parallels to poetry.  Some differences are that the car building can be cooperative—a good opportunity to hang out with friends, and I get props from another set of people.  Closer to the folks I grew up with. It has influenced my writing by reminding me that the process itself is one of the biggest points, and that things can be re-worked until they are the way that you want them to be.

CH: How did the publication of your first book, Galvanized, come about? How did you decide on what to include in the book?

Galvanized was my first full-length book of poetry. I have published a lot of chapbooks previously-I was deeply into the zine scene of the 80s—punk self publishing—and things progressed from there. Deltina Hay had published Ric Williams book The Secret Book of God, and Galvanized was the second book from Dalton Publishing. Ric was very supportive and encouraging, and Deltina liked my work. I included what I thought were some of my best poems, including a few about my son Max, and a few about my experiences working with homeless folks, along with poems that hadn’t been printed yet.  I had gotten kind of uppity about being published, and wasn’t sending stuff out to just anybody so I had a fair amount of unpublished poems by then. Dalton went on to publish probably eight other books. Then The Recession hit and that was that.

CH: How was the experience of publishing Diamond Plate different from that of Galvanized? How was it similar? How did your experience with Galvanized influence your decisions in putting together and publishing Diamond Plate?

Although I love the cover of Galvanized (the blue National Recovery Act eagle holding gears in one claw and lighting in the other, on white with red over and blue under), and it won an award for its designer, I think that people assume it is political due to the cover and the political connotations of the word galvanized. So, some might have thought it was kind of Rush Limbaugh/Glenn Beck—which is NOT the case at all. So there might be some unfortunate connotations there.

Diamond Plate was the first book of poetry from OBSOLETE! Press, whose editor, Rich Dana printed a magazine with a very, very similar worldview to my own. He was an old college friend of my wife Polly. Rich’s father, Robert Dana, was Iowa’s Poet Laureate, and had been part of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. So after I had corresponded with him for a while, I said “Hey, I’ve got this manuscript…”  He took the publishing very seriously, and had his dad’s widow, Peg Dana, go through and arrange things and give advice. She has her own small press. Since I was Rich’s only poet, I think I got more attention.  Also, we are pretty simpatico.  Dalton published a lot in a short time and got stretched a bit thin.  The contents for Diamond Plate were all more recent, as Galvanized had exhausted my slush pile.

CH: What are you working on now? Do you have another book on the horizon?

I am working on a chapbook called Hot Rod Golgotha after the phrase from Ginsberg’s Howl. It’s going to be more car and work stuff. Originally it was going to be a 20-poem chap for Raw Paw when David Jewell was editor. My real hot rod got in the way of finishing it. So it remains a bit far out on the horizon.

CH: Who are some of your favorite writers? How has their work influenced your writing?

Jack Kerouac was a huge influence early on. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind made me want to write poetry. I get caught up with the masters: William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Rainer Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, Randall Jarrell.  More recently Nick Flynn and Jim Harrison, who died just recently. I could go on and on. I think clear vision and relationships between the words—how they bang together and give off sparks– is what thrills me and I want to emulate.

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

I recently read Abe Louise Young’s Heaven to Me for when she was a guest at W. Joe’s Poetry Corner, which is an almost-monthly poetry reading I host at Malvern Books. I have also been delving in to Randall Jarrell’s collected poems and picked up a book of William Carlos Williams’ translations of Spanish poems. I am trying to get better at Spanish, and Williams’ translations, “in the American idiom” as he says, are absolutely exquisite.