Tag Archives: Ellen Bass

A Virtual Interview with Martha K. Grant

Poet Martha K. Grant will be the featured reader on Thursday, May 11 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for May’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Martha K. Grant is the author of A Curse on the Fairest Joys (Aldrich Press), poetry that explores the wounds of childhood and the grace of healing. Her work has been published in Borderlands, New Texas, Earth’s Daughters, The Yes! Book, the anthologies Red Sky: Poems about the Global Epidemic of Violence Against Women and Unruly Catholic Women Writers, and nine editions of the Texas Poetry Calendar . She has a Pushcart nomination and received an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. A visual artist and a sixth generation Texan, she has a home and studio in the Hill Country northwest of San Antonio.

The Interview

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

MKG: I have to laugh when I think of this: Casey at the Bat, Ernest Thayer’s 1888 poem. The last stanza still gives me a frisson of memory of my dad at the radio listening to baseball games. I was around 10 or 11. The poem’s baseball story line was most familiar and the energy, drama and imagery captivated me at this early age.  Oh, somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout / but there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out. I still get goosebumps.

The story of Casey and his Mudville team was in an anthology on the family bookshelf, The Best Loved Poems of the American People . I would thumb through it often for poems with a particular cadence or rhythm, but primarily ones with an engaging narrative. Another favorite from that volume was about a red balloon, but I am startled to find now that the poem, written by Jill Spargur, was actually titled Tragedy.  I always wanted a red balloon, / It only cost a dime / But Ma said it was risky / They broke so quickly / And beside, she didn’t have time. . . . I got a little money saved now / I got a lot of time / I got no one to tell me how to spend my dime / Plenty of balloons—but somehow / There’s something died inside of me / And I don’t want one now.  The wistfulness, the melancholy, hooked me and spoke for me in ways I couldn’t. I can’t say it inspired me to write poetry, but it impressed on me that you can find your own story in someone else’s writing.

CH: When did you first begin to write poetry? When did you start to think of yourself as a poet?

MKG: It must have been high school and the fork in the road of choosing an elective in 11th grade. Even though I had taken oil painting lessons since the age of 12 ,  I signed up for journalism rather than art—the first evidence of competition between my creative muses, the visual and the literary arts. Writing came easy to me and  I liked the various formats for  news articles. As editor of the school paper my senior year, the creative visual challenge of collaging blocks of copy into specified space was like an art project in disguise. A harbinger of later combinations of the two fields.

I wrote exactly one poem in school, accepted for a  local contest that is still active today—Young Pegasus—and not another poem until the late ’80s when I discovered the poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye. Exposure to her very accessible, thoughtful personal narratives was a defining AHA moment in my earliest of poetry inclinations. Its deceptive simplicity redefined poetry for me as entirely possible. Though I would soon  learn that it was way harder than I thought!

CH: I understand that in addition to being a writer, you are both a fiber artist and a calligrapher. What role have your other artistic interests played in your development as a poet?

MKG: Between that first and only poem and the Naomi “epiphany” that inspired actual writing were decades of visual arts, primarily intense calligraphy study, professional lettering contracts and exhibiting “word painting” combinations layering abstract imagery and text. I worked at first on paper and canvas, then silk screening and dyeing art fabrics.

It coincided with a time inner shifting, searching and questioning. The meaningful  passages I rendered were a reflection of my own quest. The authors of these became my teachers along the way. Notably Thomas Merton, Rainer Maria Rilke, Rumi, Carl Jung and others. I soon understood that I was living a ‘footnoted life’, that the personal credos I publicly professed in my calligraphy broadsides were actually declared by others and I was just hitching a ride. I wanted to make art out of my own words. But first I had to write them! This is where Naomi entered the picture, along with writing classes at Gemini Ink in San Antonio, open mics around town, and publication in an anthology of women’s voices, A Garland of Poems and Short Stories, edited by Michael Moore.

CH: I understand you’ve recently finished your MFA. What inspired you to enter that path? How has it changed your work as a writer?

MKG: Epiphany again. I put off an MFA for years. Time. Money. Nerve. Age. Distance. In  2012 I was at a workshop with Ellen Bass and Dorianne Laux who are on the poetry faculty at Pacific University and they spoke of the low-residency MFA format. It dawned on me: if I lived as long as my mother was (98)  and didn’t challenge myself with further study,  I would be disappointed at the end of my own life. The MFA gave me of course better writing skills, a wider appreciation of the lineage and legacy of poets, and great confidence and satisfaction in having pursued the adventure at this age. And thanks to the encouragement of my faculty mentors, I was able to dig deeper into old memories and release them into poetry.

CH: Please tell us a little about your book, A Curse on the Fairest Joys. What was its inspiration?

MKG: The title is taken from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “As the butterfly chooses the fairest leaves to lay her eggs, so the priest lays his curse on the fairest joys.” The collection is a poetry memoir, an effort to bring to light the ghosts of  childhood and the extraordinary power of hope and healing.  It helped me reframe and claim my life and find in the writing new ground to stand on.

CH: How did you go about finding a publisher for the book? What was it like to work with Aldrich Press? 

MKG: A poet friend  they had published recommended me to them. I made an inquiry and they accepted my manuscript. It was that simple! I had previously turned down the opportunity to publish a chapbook with another press, taking a chance and holding out for the larger manuscript. The gamble paid off. I followed the layout/formula of other poetry books from this press and it was a good fit for my work. The basic structure of the book is my MFA thesis manuscript.

CH: How do you identify as a writer? Is poetry your primary writing interest? 

MKG: After completing my degree and publishing my book,  I moved into memoir and nonfiction because there were many more stories and episodes that seemed to beg for  a larger format, a more conversational exploration than poetry allowed me. I pursued post-grad work with several nonfiction mentors. Of late I’ve been on a prose poem bender. I find even more “permission” in prose poetry to loosen up in subject matter and voice.  Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Prose Poetry is one of the best of the genre. In David Shields’ work on literary collage I’ve found a home for the varied subjects and genres I seem to come up with.

CH: I understand your family goes back generations in Texas. How does place figure in your work?

MKG: We live in the Hill Country northwest of San Antonio and our live oak-and-cedar landscape with its variety of critters is an ongoing conversation with nature. The Texas Poetry Calendar has been a terrific catalyst for encouragement to “write Texas” and become as rooted in the landscape as I am in my genealogy.  I’m delighted to have been included in 10 editions of the calendar.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? Were there poets you discovered as part of your MFA who have become especially influential in your work?

MKG: Gregory Orr’s writing about the accidental shooting of his brother taught me a lot about dealing with childhood trauma, and  his personal encouragement not to run from my memory of a young friend’s murder helped me write through that old but lingering anguish. Jane Hirshfield’s very zen poetry is work I turn to again and again. So are Coleman Barks’s translations of Rumi. Stephen Dunn, Dorianne Laux, Tony Hoagland are ongoing favorites.

CH: What was the last book of poetry you’ve read?   

MKG: I always have a book of poetry within arm’s reach. I have been facilitating a memoir class for seniors this year. Not surprisingly, narrative poetry with its depth, honesty, lyricism and concision provides many provocative examples and inroads into personal stories. I offer my students selections from Barbara Ras, Ted Kooser, Phillip Levine, Jane Kenyon, Naomi Shihab Nye to help trigger memories and a lyrical approach.

My latest creative form is a blend of the visual and the literary: a series of panels,  15” x 15” hand-dyed and screen printed art fabrics on which I am lettering my poems in brush calligraphy and embellishing with embroidery. My muses collaborating at last!

A Virtual Interview with Laura Guli

Louise Richardson and Laura Guli will be the features for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, December 20, 2015  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.

Background

Laura Guli is a poet-psychologist who lives in Austin, TX. Laura graduated from the University of Virginia, where she majored in English, and later earned a Doctorate in School Psychology from University of Texas at Austin. Her chapbook, A Fiery Grace (2010), was a finalist in the Finishing Line Press New Women’s Voices competition. Laura’s poetry has been in several literary journals including Kalliope, Lilliput Review, Heliotrope, Plainsongs, Potomac Review and Offerings. In addition to poetry, Laura has published a drama-based social skills curriculum for children (Social Competence Intervention Program, Research Press, 2008). She is also currently writing a musical for children and families.

The Interview

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

LG: I’ve been writing and thinking of myself as a writer since I was about 11, perhaps earlier. (According to family legend, at age 2 after losing a balloon at the zoo, I looked up and said: Balloon in sky/Baby cry. Not sure how much credence to give to this..!) I’ve always been drawn to creative expression of all kinds, and find that I’m not happy unless I’m creating on a regular basis. I read voraciously as a child, and was so inspired by the writers that influenced my life that I decided I wanted to follow in their footsteps. I soon found that rather than fiction, poetry was the way I best expressed what I thought and felt. Poetry pretty much got me through adolescence.

 

CH: In addition to being a poet, I know from your bio that you have an interest in drama, and that you’re currently working on a musical for children and families.  Tell us about the musical.

LG: It’s about a shy and bullied sixth-grade girl who enters magically enters the world of a famous painting and meets the artist. As a result of her experience, she finds the courage and inspiration to face her fears and be her unique self.  I don’t want to say too much at this point because it’s still a work in progress.

CH: How did you become interested in writing a musical? What draws you to the musical as an expressive form?

LG: I’ve always been crazy about musicals. Back in the 80s I was a somewhat unusual teenager.  Instead of singing along to Madonna or REM, I was belting out Les Miserables  and Phantom of the Opera songs. Singing is another way I love expressing myself, and I find that the musical perfectly blends story, music, poetry, drama and visual art into one great artistic experience. The musical idea was born when a talented pianist/composer friend of mine and I realized that when we wrote lyrics and music together something magic happened. I shared the budding idea with her, we wrote one song, and it went from there.

 

CH: Please tell us about your chapbook, A Fiery Grace. What prompted you to write this collection?

LG: This is my first collection and so was a long time coming. It’s comprised of stuff I wrote in my 20s and 30s, much of which was published in journals. I’d been wanting to publish a short collection and hadn’t made it a priority before. As time passed, I realized I want to share this part of myself more widely. The collection was my coming out of the poetry closet, so to speak. Although I didn’t put this collection together with any particular theme in mind, I realize now that many of the poems speak of culture, passion and identity.

CH: Authors frequently send collections to a number of publishers before they are accepted for publication. What was your experience with A Fiery Grace?

LG: I was extremely lucky, actually. I read about the annual New Women’s Chapbook competition sponsored by Finishing Line Press in the Poets and Writers magazine, and submitted the manuscript only there on a longshot. At the time, I wasn’t regularly involved in the Austin poetry community, but had a couple of poet friends offer some edits and suggestions regarding selection and order of poems. I didn’t anticipate publication!

 

CH: How has your background as a psychologist influenced your poetry?

LG: I think my poetry often includes themes of growth, change and emotional healing. Much of my poetry deals with my own past and family of origin, and in this way is therapeutic in and of itself. Curiously, I rarely write about my actual experience as a psychologist. I’ve been a poet much longer than a psychologist, so probably the greater influence is the other way around. I sometimes use writing and/or other creative modalities with clients to help them access their own healing processes.

CH: As someone who is still working a “day job,” I know it can be challenging to make time for my creative life. What is your writing process like? What strategies do you use that help you make writing a priority? 

LG: I never schedule writing time but allow myself lots of free time on the weekends. Saturday and Sunday mornings I often find myself writing. Scheduling creative writing time for me has never been effective (I rebel against “having” to do anything), although when I’m editing poetry and working toward deadlines I do discipline myself more. Generally ideas come at random moments (the car, in between clients, getting dressed, etc.) and I just scribble them on whatever paper I have, and flesh them out later. And of course insomnia is always useful. I love when I find a scrap of paper months later and have no memory of writing it.

 

CH: Where do you see your writing going? What’s next for you as a writer?

LG: I’d like to take greater risks as a writer, both in terms of what I write and by sharing my work. Right now I have two more chapbook manuscripts that need editing. I’d also like to write more about my Italian American heritage. I’m also figuring out how to blend my two identities as both a poet and a psychologist.

 

CH: Who are some of your favorite authors? Your strongest influences?

LG: Some of my longtime favorite fiction authors include Madeline L’Engle, Tolkien and Isabelle Allende. Early poetic influences include Emily Dickinson and Rilke.  As an undergraduate I was a student of Gregory Orr, so he’s a strong influence as well. More recent poet favorites include Jane Hirschfield, Ellen Bass, Mary Oliver, and Sufi poets like Rumi and Hafiz.

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

LG: Mules of Love by Ellen Bass. I love her raw, honest expression and gorgeous, unforced use of metaphor. Her previous life as a therapist is something I can relate to. I was really thrilled to meet her at Round Top last year.