Tag Archives: Ellen Bass

A Virtual Interview with Lisa Dordal

Background

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What draws you to writing poetry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Margo Davis

Background

Thursday, April 14, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Register for this event: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-featuring-margo-davis-tickets-275801639127

Houston poet Margo Davis reads from her newly-released chapbook, Quicksilver (FInishing Line Press, 2022). Originally from Louisiana, Davis is a three-time Pushcart nominee, and recent work has appeared in ND QuarterlyAmethyst ReviewDead Mule School of Southern LitPanoplyEkphrastic ReviewDeep South MagazineMockingheart Review, the San Antonio Express-NewsHouston Chronicle, and Ocotillo Review. Her work may also be found in a number of anthologies, including Odes and Elegies: Eco-poetry from the Texas Gulf Coast (Lamar University Press, 2020), Untameable City (Mutabilis Press, 2015), and the Texas Poetry Calendar.

The Interview

CH; What is your first memory of poetry?

MD: Early on I discovered the beauty of metaphor by eavesdropping. Interactions seemed freighted with inference. One thing represented another. Our family, well, the males, told yarns, sometimes humorous and playful, or with unnerving undertones. I was rapt, and gullible. Also I’d attribute my hyperbolic nature, my love of embellishment, multiple meanings, my celebration in the face of defeat to Southern excess.    

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

MD: By four I fancied myself a witness. I’m still told, “Don’t stare!”  When I later realized there were multiple ways of seeing, of being, that what’s recorded or played out is often a larger truth, I wanted to write. I would master the novella. Then I turned to poetry, bite-sized, manageable. Gullible indeed! I revere poetry’s compression. Music. Concision. The power of suggestion.

CH: Congratulations on the publication of Quicksilver (Finishing Line Press, 2022). Tell us a little about your process in selecting and sequencing these poems. 

MD: Thanks, Cindy! Sequencing can be hellish. Does mine flow? A recurring theme in my poems is the slippery nature of Time. You know, anticipating what’s next while awash in flashbacks and  functioning in the present. And illusion fascinates me. So, the poems begin with “I don’t appear” which wrestles with what seems versus what is. Thematically this led me to “Grey Days,” a perspective poem. The viewer realizes this child at play is no reflection in glass but a moment caught on camera and contained within a mirrorless frame. The boy is boxed in. Next, “Backyard Primer” I would categorize as a list poem of close observations. “Dirt Poor” follows, clarifying the narrator’s perceptions. It did seem to fall into place. Or that’s my rationale.

CH: I found the poems of Quicksilver astonishing in their attention to detail, which especially serves poems in which you treat difficult situations and relationships (I’m thinking here of poems like “Picnic” and “Unexpected Guest.”). Would you tell us a little about how the practice of close observation influences your work?  

MD: What is it Faulkner wrote? “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Both these poems felt cinematic in the making. One closely observed detail can embody the whole. And lessen the overall intensity, don’t you think? even if one is within the frame. Telling it slant can diffuse it. Then drama steps onstage. Poetic license enters, stage left.

CH: I know you’re originally from Louisiana, and that you earned an MFA there. What motivated you to pursue that degree? How did you select your program? 

MD: My Creative Writing degree was offered locally, through UNO. It gave me balance and introduced great poets I’d not investigated. I’d been writing poetry seriously since 19, had published a fair amount as an undergrad, and read eclectically. Actually I yearned to study both film and writing at UT Austin, but at that juncture it proved unaffordable.

CH: What changed in your writing as a result of the MFA program?

MD: I was older than most all the students, quirky, disinclined to go the academic route. I came out of the program with “paralysis of analysis,” revising my thoughts before pen hit the page. Couldn’t write for maybe 5 years. Then I was advised to read. Simply enjoy reading. Eventually I wrote in response to stimulating notions. My imaginary dialogues embraced photos, film, paintings, overheard conversations. It was sage advice, don’t you think? My style’s changed over the decades. The earlier work was spare, elliptical, maybe stronger.

CH: I also understand you hold an MLIS degree. What is your area of focus in library science? How has that background influenced your writing?  

MD: Poetry probably fed my day job rather than the reverse. I worked at the LSU Library while earning BA and MLIS degrees. I settled on managing all aspects of law firm research services. This after putting in time at the LA legislature and, before that, drumroll… a prison library. All male, minimum security. Now that would be a novel in itself.

CH: I’m thrilled to have read Quicksilver, and eager to know more of your work. What’s on the horizon for you?  

MD: That means a lot, Cindy, thank you. I’m revising a manuscript focused on ekphrasis. About half the poems respond to art in another medium. The remainder enact that same remove as an observer, a voyeur, generally. I believe a life spent ‘closely observing’ art affects how one moves through the world. Each encourages the other. 

CH: Who are some poets whose work has influenced yours?

MD: Where to begin? Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore.  I remain awed by two amazing TX poet friends. Kevin Prufer’s seemingly casual constructions are flawless (latest: How he Loved Them). Read Sasha West’s visionary, disturbing Failure and I Bury the Body. They make this process look effortless. Purchase their books. My critique group’s work is so strong I can barely keep up!  Priscilla Frake (Correspondence), Rebecca Spears (Brook the Divide: Poems), Sandi Stromberg, and Stan Crawford (Resisting Gravity). Purchase a book, all these! Tony Hoagland was such an astute, humorous poet. His essays, Real Sofistikashun, invaluable. For quirky poems full of surprises, I turn to Mary Ruefle. Spiritual / otherworldly overtone: Brigit Pegeen Kelly. Kathleen Graber and Susan Prospere are must-reads. I’m a lifetime fan of Terence Hayes’ musicality. They must be read aloud. I sometimes marvel then dissect his poems. A. E. Stallings is so dexterous. Order any or all these from Bookwoman!

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

MD: Pandemic Zoom courses underscored the need to revisit several key poets. The Selected Larry Levis and Milosz: New and Collected Poems were marvelous. I’m still investigating poets discovered in Ellen Bass’s courses. I’m reading another strong collection, Anyone’s Son, by a former Austinite, David Meischen. Who else have I read? I’m sure to leave out many…Houston poet Dom E. Zuccone’s Vanishes is a virtual sleight of hand. I loved the chafing of humans and technology in your chapbook, Cindy, Burning Number Five: Power Plant Poems. Bookwoman can order most all of these. Oh, and Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds reminded me to lower the pitch. Confide to an audience of one.

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.