Tag Archives: Finishing Line Press

A Virtual Interview with Rebecca A. Spears

Background

2nd Thursday Virtual Poetry Reading and Open Mic

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

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

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Susan Signe Morrison

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

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

Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for additional information.

Background

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CH: What are you working on now?

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

CH: What are you reading these days for pleasure?

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

A Virtual Interview with Katrinka Moore

Katrinka Moore will be the featured reader Thursday, March 8, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Katrinka Moore comes from a long line of Texans. She grew up in Brazoria County and now lives in New York.  A former choreographer and dancer, she is a lyric and visual poet.

Her poems appear in Dos Gatos Press’ Weaving the Terrain: 100-Word Southwestern PoemsBig Land, Big Sky, Big Hair: Best of the Texas Poetry Calendar; and Milkweed Editions’ Stories from Where We Live: The Gulf Coast.

She is the author of Numa, Thief, and This is Not a Story, winner of Finishing Line Press’s New Women’s Voices prize. Her latest book, Wayfarers, is a collection of poems that are tales told by multiple narrators.

 

The Interview

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

KM: I first heard poetry in the Episcopal church when I was five years old—the beautiful language of the Book of Common Prayer. Although I drifted away from church as a teenager, I still like to dip into the BCP and feel the musical rhythm of the words. The first poetry I read was in Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I was especially fond of “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” maybe because I loved to eat oysters.

As a child I was more interested in playing outside and riding horses than in the idea of writing, though I did love to read.

My parents were print journalists and they raised my sister and me to consider writing as necessary a life skill as cooking or learning to drive (for which I thank them!). I thought writing was prose that explained something or told a story. Secretly I felt writing couldn’t describe— something, a feeling I had about the mystery in the world—but it took a long time for me to realize that what I wanted was poetry.

CH: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a poet? How would you describe your identity as a poet?

KM: I began to think of myself as a poet once I could purposely work on a poem, either start one or revise one, in whatever time I had available, even if I didn’t know where I was going. And being a poet meant being serious about reading others’ poetry, to delve into a poem without thinking of my own work but to find out what that poem was about.

I think of poetry as a bridge to the unseen, to mystery, something we feel but find hard to know what it is. So as a poet I want to cross back and forth on that bridge, try to discover something on the far side and bring it back over here, where we live. I set many poems in the natural world, which I sense is a way—the way for me, anyway—to try to understand how everything is connected in a non-hierarchical manner. Everything includes people, animals, plants, boulders, earth, stars, galaxies, the universe, and all that is invisible.

CH: Some might say a career in dance and choreography seems at odds with the stillness suggested by the life of a writer. What relationship do you see between dance and choreography and writing poetry? With poetry itself?

KM: The dance I studied, performed, and created was based in stillness. My mentor was Mariko Sanjo, a choreographer and dancer who incorporated traditional Japanese sensibility into her work. She taught her students to wait, to move only when absolutely necessary. We practiced being still, moving slowly, and making honest movements, not trying to look a certain way. It wasn’t that we held still or that we didn’t leap and run and fall, but that we were quiet inside.

I use that same idea of stillness, of quietness, to write, though I may have to go through a lot of words to get down to the honesty, the deep quiet, where I try to go. I do write a lot about movement, use a lot of active verbs, and I suppose that comes from my dance experience as well.

That said, I move when I write, walk around, pour over the OED, sit at one desk, stand at another. (I brought a drafting table into my little writing room just for that purpose.) I can’t sit still for hours and write but I can write for quite some time if I’m able to be active.

I think dance and poetry are very similar. Both are ways of saying what can’t be said directly, of exploring the world in a nonlinear fashion. While I mean for my poems to be clear and accessible, I do sometimes feel they are closer to dance or visual art than to prose.

CH: In your bio, you describe yourself as a lyric and visual poet. Please tell us about how your visual poetry manifests.

KM: Several years ago I took a visual poetry workshop with Jill Magi.  I learned from Jill but also from fellow participants, especially Christine Hamm and Sue Macklin. In that workshop I learned the process of erasure and developed ways of combining text with images such as maps or collages. I use these techniques in Thief.

Later I began making assemblages right on the scanner screen using three dimensional objects like nests and stones. I use this technique for images in both Numa and Wayfarers. I think of placing art next to poems in a book as similar to Japanese haiga, in which the visual work complements, rather than illustrates, the writing.

CH: How does place figure in your work? How had moving from Brazoria County to New York shifted your perspective?

KM: I grew up in a tumble-down house on 15 acres of pasture and woods, located in a bend of Cowarts Creek. I loved roaming the property, riding horses, just being outside.

Living in New York City, living more indoors, I’ve written a lot about my childhood home—the open spaces, the natural world, snakes, oak trees, the creek.

I’ve also had the opportunity to spend time in rural areas beyond the city and I’ve set a lot of poems in the Endless Mountains in Pennsylvania and the Catskills in New York state. My writing within a framework of nature definitely comes from having spent my early life in the rural Texas coastal plains.

CH: Your chapbook, This is Not a Story, won the Finishing Line Press “New Women’s Voices” Prize in 2003. How did you put this book together? How did you move, then, into your first full-length collection, Thief?

KM: I had been working on a full-length book, which was really just a bunch of poems. I finally collected a small group of poems that complemented one another. My decisions were on a subconscious level, I’d say now, but the process later helped me think about how to compose a book. I pulled the poems together in a hurry, to meet the FLP deadline. (Sometimes deadlines are very useful!) Later I realized the chapbook is about my childhood home.

That made me think I might try to write about my early days in New York City, wandering around, lost a lot of the time, slipping into used bookstores to find my emotional bearings. I began to include bits of writing from authors I loved, like Shakespeare and Tolstoy, and those I stumbled across while browsing, which is where I found Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, a book I’ve made a lot of erasures from. So the theme of Thief developed.

Gradually I set more poems in the natural world and thefts began occurring there, as well. This time I knew I was writing poems specifically to create a book, so I consciously tried to connect different poems to make a coherent work.

CH: Tell us a little about your collection, Numa. What inspired the writing of this epic poem? How did you find a publisher for it?

KM: I wanted to write an epic from the monster’s point of view, a female monster of course. Numa is a shape-shifting numen, or local divinity, who lives in a forest.  She’s part of the environment, but from the outside someone might consider her a monster on the order of Humbaba in Gilgamesh.

Numa grows up in the forest, learns how to be a skillful shape-shifter, mates with an otter, has a cub and begins to teach her to shape-shift.  Then a young man on a quest for glory comes to the forest to defeat the monster.

So Numa is part ecological cautionary tale and part feminist retelling of epic. It’s not written in a heroic style, but in fragmented narratives, though the poems about the young man use Anglo-Saxon alliteration and caesura.

I was very lucky with publishing. My sister, Nancy Jane Moore, publishes fiction with Aqueduct Press, a feminist SF publisher in Seattle, and she suggested I send the manuscript there. The managing editor Kath Wilham designed the book and helped me a great deal with the art I submitted.

CH: What was your process in collecting and constructing your newest book, Wayfarers? Looking back, what are the things that distinguish this collection from the others?

KM: I was thinking about the ongoing refugee crisis around the world. Rather than describe real-life events, I tried to create a sense of mythic storytelling about people uprooted from their homes. From there I leapt to a family story of my grandparents traveling across the Southwest in the 1920s. And gradually I wrote a number of poems about my past and present homes, I think out of appreciation for what I have.

Wayfarers is not a single story, as Numa is, and it’s more cohesive visually than Thief. As I wrote I let the idea of wayfaring broaden to include both traveling in space and exploring familiar ground. I may have been more willing to let the poems go where they wanted than in previous books.

CH: What do you do to nourish yourself as a writer?

KM: Whenever possible I spend time in nature, walk, sit, hike, just be there. I practice tai chi. And I love to get away from poetry and read character-driven novels with great plots—things I couldn’t possible write. I just finished Ursula LeGuin’s The Word for World is Forest and James McBrides’ Song Yet Sung, both wonderful.

But I also read poetry, especially contemporary women poets. And often writing itself nourishes me.

CH: Please share a few of your favorite poets. What’s the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

KM: I especially admire Kay Ryan, Susan Stewart, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Linda Gregg, Deborah Digges. Recently I’ve been enjoying Barbara Hamby’s work and have discovered Jamaal May, Molly Bashaw, Barbara Ras. I always come back to Shakespeare and frequently return to a volume of Japanese poetry, The Country of Eight Islands.

Currently I’m reading and re-reading Alicia Ostriker’s The Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog.  She manages to cover a wide range of topics in the voice of each speaker (woman, tulip, dog) and it’s both hilarious and heart-breaking, absolutely true.

A Virtual Interview with Huston-Tillotson University’s Katherine D. Oldmixon Garza, Jennine “DOC” Wright, Ryan Sharp, and Mike Hart

Background

Katherine D. Oldmixon Garza, Jennine “DOC” Wright, Ryan Sharp and Mike Hart will be the featured readers Thursday, October 12, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Katherine Durham Oldmixon is Professor and Chair of English at Huston-Tillotson University, and the author of a chapbook, Water Signs; she also co-directs the Poetry at Round Top Festival and is a senior poetry editor for Tupelo Quarterly. Jennine “DOC” Wright holds four Slam titles, and is an MFA student at Spalding University. Ryan Sharp is the Coordinator of Huston-Tillotson University’s Writers’ Studio, and editor of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review; he is also the author of the chapbook my imaginary old man: poems (Finishing Line Press, 2017). Fiction writer Mike Hart is an Assistant Professor of English/Communications at Huston-Tillotson University. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including Southwestern Review, The Southern Review, The Southern Anthology, and The Greensboro Review.

The Interview

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

KDOG: I must have been about eleven when I began writing about a long essay on Queen Esther (she from the Old Testament), and another about the ghost named Timothy who sat on my bedroom window and sometimes followed me outside in our wooded yard. I thought of myself as a writer then, and then in high school, I began writing poems, which were more like letters to myself. For a long time, I mostly wrote letters.  I also draw, and sometimes when I didn’t think in words, I would draw.  I didn’t think of myself as a visual artist, though.

RS: I remember, back before Netflix and DVR, flipping through the cable channels and happening upon Saul Williams’s Slam. The 90s were an interesting time for poetry in mainstream pop culture. There was the continued development Hip Hop in general, often sporting poetic interludes and skits in-between tracks and in intros and outros. Tupac and Janet Jackson had starred in Poetic Justice about five years before Slam, and Mos Def started hosting HBO’s Def Poetry Jam about five years after. All were incredibly impactful for me. Yet, nothing struck me quite like seeing Saul spit “Amethyst Rocks” in the jail yard, literally rhyming his way out of a butt-whoopin’. I saw that and thought I want to do that (except maybe not while confined within prison walls or under the threat of violence).

Still, I am a little insecure about claiming the title of “poet.” I am no doubt a person who loves to read and write poetry, but I am not sure if I have a clear idea of what criteria is necessary when distinguishing between a poet and a person who writes poetry, or if even such a distinction is necessary. I am also working on my dissertation right now, so I guess I am also sharpening my craft as a scholar. And, while I am excited by the prospects of my project, I am cautious to make too large of claims there as well. That being said, it was a pretty great feeling to get a box full of my imaginary old man chapbooks from Finishing Line Press recently. That felt like a moment that made me feel a bit like I was becoming a poet.

JDW: It really wasn’t until this year that I even thought about it. Before, I just thought of myself as a poet, and even that title took time to accept. I was so much in awe of other poets to include my mother that I never acknowledged my own work on that level. It wasn’t until I started competing in slams that I took myself seriously as a poet. This year I wrote a children’s book and finished writing a musical so it took venturing out of poetry to consider myself a writer.

MH: I have written since I was little. Even, perhaps, before I had the discipline to hand-write or type prose, I was “writing” stories I imagined: stories about my childhood, toys I had, people in my life, dreams I had. I would re-write real conversations, sometimes as they happened, to make them fit narratives in my head. As I got to my teens, I would occasionally write actual works of fiction, maybe for an assignment, maybe because I had to get those internal narratives out. Then, in college, I finally started to focus on craft, on the discipline and focus it usually takes to become a writer. Even then, though, I don’t think I really understood either craft or dedication to it. Maybe I began to understand those things in grad-school. Maybe that’s when I started to imagine that I could be a writer.

CH: How has your career as an educator influenced your growth as a writer? What is one thing you’ve learned from a student (or from teaching) that you carry into your writing life?

MH: When I talk to students about writing, we usually build from the ground up: terminology associated with craft, fundamental principles of writing a story (character, desire, conflict, danger, crisis, denoument, etc.). I find that revisiting those principles with my students, helping them wrestle with how best to apply them to their own writing, makes me reconsider how I’m able to use them in my own writing. From my students, I’m often reminded that good story rarely starts out as a grand idea, a “statement” perhaps about human experience, whatever that is. Instead, story starts with the basics. With an image of a character or a situation or an event. Story is built from tiny parts, from the ground up.

KDOG: Reading literature (and reading a lot of literature) so as to teach and thinking about writing so as to teach writing must be the most significant influence from my profession on my growth as a writer.   Preparing to teach requires deep learning (which is why I require my students to teach in every course.)  One thing I’ve learned from students and from teaching (and from everyone in my life): listen.  Listen before you speak (write); listen more than you speak (write.)

RS: The first thing that comes to mind is the old teaching adage: “The best way to learn is to teach.” Having to not only have thoughts and ideas, but be able to teach thoughts and ideas to has forced me to be a more critical thinker and communicator. Having to present knowledge in interesting and innovative lectures and discussions forces me to reevaluate content in a way that further deepens and strengthens my own knowledge. Furthermore, no matter how many times I have read Their Eyes Were Watching God, or any text for that matter, I find that I am still surprised, and in awe of, the unique readings and perspectives students are able to bring to the text(s). The same goes for poetic forms. I have sat and wrote haikus with students and have been struck by how their fresh approach to the form and their use of language inspires me. All of that colors my reading and writing life, which, in turn, impacts my poetry.CH: Katherine, how did you go about writing and constructing your chapbook, Water Signs?

I imagined the concept of the three linked sonnet crowns, each set in the season of one of the water signs of the western zodiac. Simultaneously with conceiving the braid, I began in Scorpio, which is my sun sign, on a day in my garden, cutting basil flowers. (That crown would move to the center of the three crowns.  So in a way, I worked inside out to the edges.)  I went into a meditative trance, as crazy as that may sound to people, each time I would write, drawing on, weaving together personal, lived memory and present moments, global and intimate. I held the rhythm in my head and let the rhymes and other music come.  I shifted the voice slightly in each crown, as each is a different season in my life, as well, like turning a crystal prism in my palm.  As I write this, I am reminded of my students asking me when we are analyzing a poem or a passage in prose: “Do writers really think of these things when they’re writing?” Yes, yes, I do – but it isn’t calculating.  It’s listening.

JDW: I think I look at it in the opposite. It is my writing that influences me as an educator. I write about social justice issues and identity and tend to incorporate those ideas into my teaching. I often perform poems for my students to introduce topics or to introduce myself in new classes. I also think my poetry presents my passion for my subject so it helps to have an instructor invested in the content. No one wants the coach forced to teach a science course so they just pass out worksheets while they dream about being on the field. Practice what you preach! It wasn’t until I was teaching a unit on poetry and had a student share a poem she wrote about her grandmother that had recently passed to realize it. She cried and the whole class got up and surrounded her. It took bravery. After that I wrote about losing my mother, a poem that I had put off for so long.

CH: Ryan, what was your process in writing and constructing your recently-released chapbook, my imaginary old man?

RS: Patricia Smith was a visiting faculty member during my final semester at Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program, and I was blessed to get to hang out with her quite a bit. She mentioned to me that she had become interested in exploring the formal elements of poetry and talked about how furthering her knowledge of meter and rhyme has enhanced and expanded her poetic tool set.  She had been recommended I check out Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled. After graduating, I sat down and started going through a section describing all of the ways that masterful sonnet writers are able to signify on the form. During one of the book’s iambic pentameter exercises, it dawned on me that, if I were to write ten-syllable—or decasyllabic—lines without much regard for rhythm or poetic feet, I might be able to write lines that seem like really creative iambic pentameter; folks might give me credit for an acrobatic use of a spondee or a dramatic weak ending, when I was actually just writing ten syllables under the guidance of the natural rhythm of American English. The first line I wrote was something like “My imaginary old man is dead.” I thought that was an interesting idea. I am really into giving myself constraints, so I started building a form: decasyllabic lines, no punctuation or capitalization, ambiguous phrases that could be read as parts of different clauses. I had worked with Marvin Bell while at Pacific, so his Dead Man poems started to influence my imaginary old man in how he and his narrative are not static. The form gave me an interesting entry point through which to explore my own complicated paternal relationships and how I was, and still am, processing my childhood. I was obsessed with my imaginary old man for a few years. Some of the poems began to get published. I was invited to do some readings, and people seemed to receive them well.  That encouraged me to start grouping them together, and, luckily, Finishing Line Press liked them enough to give me a chapbook.

CH: Doc, what was your process for writing and constructing you chapbook, A Long Time Coming?

JDK: The title kind of says it all. I put the chapbook together because every time I would feature at a venue, people would come up and ask for copies of poems or ask if I had merch. I chose the poems based on what was being requested as well as including poems that weren’t typical 3-minute slam poems. It took years to even think I could put something like that together on my own. Onc you surround yourself with creatives you know you can really do anything.

CH: As professionals working for a university, how do you make room for your creative endeavors during the busy academic year? What advice would you give someone struggling to find that work / creativity balance?

JDW: I really have no idea. I guess I incorporate poetry/writing into my classes so it is just part of my life now. I still perform on weekends and write in my free time or along with my students when I give them writing prompts. I guess my advice is to love what you do and do what you love so it never feels like work. I am a mother, wife, writer, student, and activist, and all of those require creativity.

KDOG: This is a hard one for me.  I have to think back to before my life ruptured [Garza’s husband and life partner, musician Arturo Lomas Garza, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in May 2016].  In the past seventeen months, I have written very few poems or toward poems, although I have written a lot of memories, meditations, letters (to myself and others.)  A very few poems.  I did begin another sonnet crown, and made it to the seventh poem, and then I put it down.  I’ve made more with my hands, visual arts, non-linguistic.

Well, when I was an active poet, I wrote mostly in the summer and between semesters, or, rather, I drafted all year, but I worked on poems and the manuscript (another kind of composition) in the interims between teaching.  My writing circles, poet friends who met (meet?) regularly, helped me to keep writing during busy times.  They helped me hold myself accountable, or keep my writer self from disappearing, I guess you would say.

RS: With all I am balancing right now, I have struggled to carve out time to dedicate to writing poems. However, I tend to be of the opinion that there is not such a great distance between the academic and the creative—for me, they seem to be working the same muscle. I am lucky that my work—teacher, editor, PhD candidate, husband, and father—is all about the creative, so I don’t feel like I am all work and no play. My struggle is more with time. I don’t have a lot of it these days. Pursuing my PhD has all but consumed the time I used to dedicate to writing poetry, and I do miss that quite a lot. I have had to try to be slick about how I sneak poetry into my day. One thing I do is that, Instead of listening to music in the car or while mowing the lawn or at the gym or so on, I try to listen to poetry podcasts. My favorites are the Poetry Magazine Podcast and VS, which is a new podcast hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi. I have downloaded a few of the Yale Open Courses, and I listen to them as well. When I am at a stop sign or at one of my kids’ soccer games, I use my phone to record bits and pieces of poems that, when I have a moment, I try to sit down and work on or I squirrel away for when I will have the time. I follow my favorite poets on Facebook, and read the poems they post when I can. Also, editing keeps me very engaged in poetry. Sticking with my muscle metaphor, while I am not writing as much as I would like, I still feel like I am exercising my poetry muscle, so, when I do have more time, I feel will be ready to get back to work.

MH: I don’t. Frankly, because of how I write, I find it almost impossible to sit and write during the school semester. I might try to take a little time here or there – between work or parenting or being a person involved with the world – to some prose, but it’s nearly impossible. My advice for someone struggling to find some balance is to wake up earlier. Go to bed later. Carve out time to separate yourself from your real life so that you can live inside constructed narratives for a while. If you can’t carve that time out, be patient. The job will slow down. Kids grow up. Story will always be there, so you’ll have time to create later.

CH: Who are some writers that changed the way you looked at language and writing?

RS: There are so many! I already mentioned Saul Williams and Marvin Bell. My teachers: Kwame Dawes, Dorianne Laux, and Joseph Millar. Being a student of Dorianne and Joe’s and having been raised in Portland, the Dickman twins’ poetry have been incredibly influential to me. I’m a big Lucille Clifton fan. Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets is an important book in my development as a poet. Yet, Terrance Hayes will forever be one of my favorite poets. He is my poetry role model—the way he plays with form and words and rhythm. He does everything that I hope to one do be able to do.

JDW: People that I look up to are mostly other spoken word artists and rappers. The ability to tell a story and bend metaphors like putty is an art that I will forever try to master. Dr. Kat at HT [Katherine Durham Oldmixon Garza] and other English instructors made me feel like my ideas were valid regardless of how the words came out and they made me trust in my own voice.

KDOG: Joy Harjo, for certain, and a small group of poets/memoirists with whom I was present in her master class at Taos one summer.  Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Gregory Orr, as well, for spirit.  Derek Walcott, John Donne, Pablo Neruda, for language.  But those are only a few, the few who happened into my mind tonight.

One of the exercises that Joy had us do was to trace our poetic ancestors, those we read who have influenced us.  My list is long, as I am old, and a life-long reader and literary scholar, but I recognize some among all the writers whose work I’ve read entered my ear and moved into my hands.

MH: Flannery O’Conner, Yusef Komunyakaa, Barry Hannah, Fay Weldon, Richard Ford, Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, Adam Johnson.

CH: What has your literary citizenship given you as a writer?

KDOG: Co-directing Poetry at Round Top and editing Tupelo Quarterly (and several other literary magazines) have given me very different things, but in both I am grateful for the opportunities to commune with others, to read and listen. P@RT is a listening experience for me.

Editing has given me awareness of, well, editors, what editors see, hear, look for.  Has this helped me as a writer?  I’m not sure.  One would think I would be more rhetorically astute in submitting, but I am not regular about submitting, especially now.  I really don’t think editing particularly helps me as a writer. It helps me as a teacher.

RS: This dovetails off the previous work-creative balance question. My literary citizenship has given me community. My work at Borderlands not only allows me to be immersed in poetry, but has also afforded me the opportunity to get to meet and talk with so many fantastic poets. Same with Poetry at Round Top. I mentioned Terrance Hayes as my poetic role model. Two years ago I got to eat meals and talk about poetry and fatherhood with him for a whole weekend! I think that “citizenship” implies that I am giving something, which may be true, but I get way more than I give.

JDW: More than anything it has been a way to pass on to youth and minorities that their voices matter [Wright mentors writers in communities]. I have a better grasp on being able to leave the world to future generations if they feel confident to speak up and speak out for change.

CH: What are you working on now?

JDW: I am finishing up my MFA program so I am starting my creative thesis. It will be a collection called “a’SKIN for Trouble.” The collection will look at the intersections of race, gender, and identity. I am also working on the music composition for my musical, which is a fusion of medieval hip hop. It has Morgan Lefay as its protagonists and includes the knights of Camelot, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and some Chaucer’s Tales.

RS: My dissertation takes up the majority of my writing energy in this current stage of my life. In short, I am crafting an argument around how contemporary Black American poets are employing personae to redress and complicate archival representations of Blackness. I also have a related, but separate, project that I am trying to launch that consists of a collection of interviews I have conducted, or aspire to conduct, with contemporary Black American poets. Yet, I have been slowly working away on a newer group of poems that I call my 3 brothers poems. Similar to the my imaginary old man poems, they operate under a series of constraints. Also, similar to the my imaginary old man poems, they are another angle through which I am exploring my family history. The dream is that, once I finish my dissertation, I might take some time to focus on poetry, maybe even apply for a workshop or two, and develop the 3 brothers poems into its own collection.

MH: Now, when I work on stuff, it most frequently leans towards what can be characterized as speculative fiction. Maybe as magical realism. I’m interested in how the impossible interacts with the everyday. However, I live in the everyday, and it’s not something I’m very interested in writing about. I have a collection that I’ve considered sending out, but I haven’t yet done it.

KDOG: I have a medicinal garden.  I’m learning how to make tinctures and salves. Sometimes I give fragrant leaves as gifts.  I walk in the garden and touch our plants. I’m listening to my husband’s music.

A Virtual Interview with Varsha Saraiya-Shah

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

Background

Varsha Saraiya-Shah’s first poetry chapbook, Voices, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. Her work has appeared in journals that include Asian Cha, Borderlands, Convergence, and Right Hand Pointing, as well as anthologies from Mutabilis Press, and is forthcoming in BorderSenses.  She has studied poetry in Houston, New York’s Sarah Lawrence College, SquawValley Community of Writers–California, Reed College–Oregon, and San Miguel De Allende–Mexico, and was a poet-in-residence at Noepe Literary Center, Martha’s Vineyard, MA in October, 2015.

Saraiya-Shah’s work is inspired and informed by humans, literature, visual and performing arts, gardening, travels, and an untiring eye for the small wonders of life. She lives in Houston, and currently serves on the board of Mutabilis Press.

The Interview

CH: When did you first become interested in writing poetry? What first drew you to poetry as a means of expression?

VS-S: I believe I got smitten with poetry in fifth or sixth grade.  I wrote it in my mother tongue, Gujarati.  (Gujarat is a western state of India.)

I think it was the fascination for words; what one can do with them.  I’m sure my maternal grandfather’s poetic genes and the teachers gave me the seed of this art.  All of it ignited a lifelong love for poetry.  Being able to write and the freedom to play with words drew me in and will take me through.

I studied Hindi and Sanskrit as part of my education through high school.  Poetry in each of these languages has its own cadence and persona. Recitations were part of the curriculum as well as cultural way of life.  Acting and folk dancing were my two other intimate loves besides math and science.  The dramatic monologues they demanded with the magic of harmonium and the beat of tabla — all of it have contributed to my poetic expression. Performing words on a podium gave me a chance to express myself, and also gave a sense of power over the social constraints in adolescent years.

Learning English as a second language began in the 8th grade; I was thirteen and learning to sing Mary Had A Little Lamb… with my teacher and classmates. I could not have imagined then I would be an English poet with my own book some day!

CH: When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer? How would you describe your identity as a writer?

VS-S: It came much later.  I guess when Houston Poetry Fest published my first poem in 1999: Tuesday Night Reading, kind of a love poem for my privileged encounter with the poet, Robert Creeley at MFAH.  As if I had arrived once again and knew, I have Miles to Go–– as Robert Frost expressed.

Winning contests for Gujarati poetry and debates deepened my interest and love for poetry.  When I started writing voraciously in English after a long dry spell during years of corporate career and family raising, I sensed a feeling of being “born-again” as a writer.

Writing has always been part of me, rather than a separate identity.  Being a financial professional (a Texas CPA with an MBA from California), I kept my writer side a secret during the grueling work years of “dress for success, failing is not an option, and work hard enough till you break the glass ceiling.” Though, I did enjoy all chances to do significant amount of business/technical writing.  And, grabbed every moment I could to write a poem in pockets of 15-20 minutes at lunch hours and while waiting for my children to finish their music lessons or game pursuits. For last five years or so, I feel grounded in a writer’s mojo.

CH: You’ve studied poetry in a variety of settings, from Squaw Valley Community of Writers to Sarah Lawrence College and San Miguel de Allende. What has motivated you to seek these experiences? How have you gone about selecting the programs in which you’ve participated?

VS-S: I sought these experiences to grow and satisfy that deep hunger to learn from the masters, to get better at the craft and seek critique from my peers away from home base.  A burning desire and innate curiosity to experience and enhance the creative process. To hone my calibre, to push myself in new ways while learning from others’ strengths.  All of these led me to workshops in a variety of settings. Repute and the repertoire of the faculty have been prime deciding factors.  Personal life and time constraints in which I could fit in these workshops also played a role in the selection process.  Then I simply plunged in with faith on taking a chance.

CH: Engaging in formal study takes a good deal of commitment, as does maintaining a writing life. What is your writing process like? How do you balance writing with other activities in your life?

VS-S: I try my best to catch on paper hints of creative sparks, through arrival of a phrase on NPR or a fleeting emotion, or when reading good books.  I’ve often pulled over from driving to jot down a few compelling lines.  At times a whole poem. I’ve locked myself in bathroom for a few minutes to catch my muse in writing when children were young and demanded non-stop attention. Some developed years later in beautiful poems.  My chapbook, Voices, has a few of those.

I’m a compulsive reviser.  But, my role models are––great writers, say Donald Hall, who starts each revision with a fresh draft each morning and whatever it takes–– as many as fifty drafts to make a poem work.  His book, Life Work delves into his process. Occasionally, I do a complete re-write of a poem when the umpteenth version is not working.  Perseverance always prevails and patience with the poem helps me understand what it wants from me.

Balancing writing with other tasks is mostly a matter of discipline.  I do have discipline and focus but easily get channeled into other pursuits. Good distractions, such as practicing on piano, or trimming a bush, or a bike ride, or picking up a book that’s poles apart from what I’m working on, actually help me with synergetic ideas.  Sometimes listening to music or walking long distances help me move on from where I’m stuck or bring in a fresh thought.

CH: What was it like to be poet-in-residence at Noepe Literary Center? How has this experience shaped your work?

VS-S: It was a challenge to stay focused day after day since the nature is so abundant and unique at Martha’s Vineyard (the kind I am not used to in my Houston’s city life). Initially I wanted to play all the time.  I was the only “poet” in residence; the rest were fiction writers, memoirists, creative non-fiction writers.  Though, they introduced me into their challenges of writing life as well.

I learnt that I need more discipline but it’s harder and different for a poet than a writer who’s doing x number of pages a day and writes within a framework/plot, whereas a poet doesn’t.  The residency reinforced my understanding how important it is to just write each day without any excuse, though I still make many and often.  Also the experience underscored:  Read, read and read some more, to be a better writer.

CH: Your chapbook, Voices, will be coming out soon from Finishing Line Press. How did you select the poems for this book? How did you go about finding a publisher?

VS-S: I wanted each of the poems in this collection to have an expression: an inner or outer voice.  Whether it was a sweet potato growing roots on my kitchen table, or a man with one earring precariously leaning out from his window I waved at in traffic jam.  Sky and its myriad manifestations, a piano telling me pay attention to me, an art exhibit that triggers a new dialogue with the faraway motherland.  At the end, all those poems made a cohesive collection.

I sent the manuscript to Finishing Line Press for New Women’s voices competition.  I didn’t win, but they liked my collection and offered to publish.  So, I accepted it.

CH: You list gardening among the inspirations for your poetry. How does the world of gardening inform and intersect with your work?

VS-S: Gardening is about life, about surprise (a poet’s candy) and demise, about living in the present moment and accepting decay.  It reminds me all the time: Begin Again, whenever I get frustrated with certain poems.   There’s no ego.  No fear of growth or contraction.  A weed asks for as much attention as a beautiful plumeria blossom or a wild flower.  Wish I would spend more time out there but for the heat and mosquitoes, that often keep me from interfacing with my lovely space, eh!

CH: I’ve found working as an editor with a small press (in my case, Dos Gatos Press), to be a very rewarding experience. How has being on the board of Mutabilis Press informed your views of writing/publishing?

VS-S: Cindy, I concur fully with you; my work with Mutabilis Press has been rewarding indeed.  I have been involved with Mutabilis from its conception days at Inprint Houston.  Through this small service, I feel like an integral part of my writers’ family here and elsewhere.  I’ve come to understand and appreciate the arduous process of selecting for an anthology through reading pages and pages of submitted poetry day after day. It has taught me “how to read a poem” as an editor as well as a poet.  My ability to discern from good to mediocre has grown tremendously.  I also work as their treasurer; a stint using my left brain. I appreciate the vital role small publishers play in promoting poetry which is hardly a lucrative business.  It is sheer labor of love for the literary arts and service to humanity. I feel grateful to be a tiny part in that endeavor.

CH: Please name a few poets whose work has influenced yours. How does your work reflect that influence?

VS-S: That’s a tough one to answer since I read many of them simultaneously.  And, there are numerous new poets too that I find inspiring and energizing my creativity.

Here’s a few of the many who’ve influenced my work: Octavio Paz, Jorge L. Borges, R. Maria Rilke, Rumi, W.Szymborska, Edward Hirsch, Tony Hoagland, Robert Creeley, Robert Hass, Naomi S. Nye, Sarah Cortez, Lorenzo Thomas, Reetika Vazirani, Mark Strand, William Stafford, Antonio Machado, F. Garcia Lorca, Jane Kenyon, Ruth Stone, Yehuda Amichai, Anna Akhmatova, Rabindranath Tagore, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Pablo Neruda, Gulzar, Ghalib.

A lot of these poets invite me in to emulate their voice or style.  Or, like a jazz artist, take me into a  “Call and Response” spin. Others linger under my skin till the inspiration ripens. I’m a product of multi-cultures, so I find translated poets intriguing and challenging for my own expression i.e. blending of my roots and experiences as an Indian American.

Western and Latin American poets’ teachings have instructed my work the most.  Especially studying the craft books like Richard Hugo’s “A Triggering Town” and Edward Hirsch’s “How To Read A Poem”, and “ The Demon and The Angel”. Late Lorenzo Thomas was my first English creative writing teacher; my Reverend Poet. Thanks to him, thanks to Naomi Shihab Nye, and also to Edward Hirsch for giving me “thumbs up” on my talent in my early years of writing.  Their initial advice on how I need to read a lot of contemporary poetry and spread my wings, to submit, share, and work with my community of poets. Their advice nurtured the roots of the tree I am now.  A communion received in my early forties when most successful poets have published at least a book or two. I knew I had a lot of catching up to do, to continue the new chapter of my writing life as an English poet.  Many thanks to Inprint Houston for giving me a sanctuary, kind of an ashram to study poetry.

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

VS-S: Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen — An American Lyric”.

A Virtual Interview with Logen Cure

Poet Logen Cure will be the featured reader on October 8, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for October’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Logen Cure is a poet and teacher. She is the author of three chapbooks: Still (Finishing Line Press 2015); Letters to Petrarch (Unicorn Press 2015); and In Keeping (Unicorn Press 2008). Her work also appears in Word Riot, Radar Poetry, IndieFeed: Performance Poetry, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She lives in Dallas-Fort Worth with her wife.

You can learn more about Logan at www.logencure.com.

The Interview

CH: When did you first become interested in writing? When did you first begin to consider yourself a writer?

LC:I’ve always loved words. I grew up in a house full of books. My parents took us to the library for fun. My great aunt was an English teacher her entire career; she introduced me to many of my favorite poets. I am fortunate to have a supportive family. They’ve always valued my work and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. Thanks to them, I can’t think of a time in my life when I didn’t consider myself a writer.

CH: What motivated you to get an MFA? How did you choose the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for your program?

LC: To be honest, I hit my junior year at Texas A&M and realized I had no idea what I wanted to do with my English degree. I talked with my English professors about my options for grad school. I wasn’t aware MFA programs existed until I started having those conversations. My mentor told me she didn’t think a PhD program would be the right fit for me and essentially dared me to apply to as many of the top MFA programs as I possibly could. So I did.

At that time, UNCG was ranked in the top ten. I visited Greensboro and found that it is just relentlessly gorgeous. I had a connection there, Alan Brilliant, the founder of Unicorn Press. I took a class on bookmaking with him at A&M shortly before he moved to Greensboro. Those things made UNCG my top choice of the eight programs I applied to. Strangely enough, it was my only choice; I got seven rejections and one acceptance. I was fortunate to be accepted at all, given how competitive those programs are. I was one of six poets in my year.

CH: How did your writing change in the course of obtaining your MFA? What were the MFA program’s greatest contributions to you as a writer? What were its biggest drawbacks?

LC:I never set foot in a poetry workshop before my MFA program. As an undergraduate, I took fiction courses because I saw prose as my weakness. I had poet-friends and regular readers I could depend on for feedback, but the immersion in workshop was a big change for me. I am a slow writer by nature, so the structure and expectations of workshop forced me to adapt. I learned to not toil too hard over the first draft; just write it. That alone changed my writing significantly. My work took turns I never expected.

The greatest contribution would definitely be the time. During those two years, I had the space and support to make poetry my first priority. Before that, poetry was something I madly pursued between other obligations. That was a tremendous and life-changing gift. I made lasting connections with people whose work I am still learning from; I was introduced to authors and ideas I’d never considered; I worked hard on poems that still make me proud today.

The drawbacks: I was 22. I know I could have gained more from the experience had I been smarter and more mature. I’m better at networking and advocating for myself now. If I could do it again, I would take full advantage of all the available resources. I wish I had learned more about the submission and publication process. I wish I had asked more questions to my mentors and the writers they brought in to visit us. I wish I had gained more teaching experience.

I think it all happened the way it did for a reason. My MFA helped me get my foot in the door as a higher ed professional (I’m an academic advisor and creative writing instructor), so my post-grad-school life has been pretty great.

CH: How do your three chapbooks (In Keeping (Unicorn Press, 2008), Letters to Petrarch (Unicorn Press, 2015), and Still (Finishing Line Press, 2015) relate to one another? Tell us a little about each.

LC:In Keeping is a spoken word chapbook and CD. It was originally conceived during the bookmaking class with Alan Brilliant. In 2006, I self-published a book, Something of a Mess. Another member of Al’s class partnered with me to create In Keeping as a companion to Mess. Together we selected the best spoken word pieces, then recorded and edited them. Al decided to move forward with the project via Unicorn and my first chapbook was born.

Letters to Petrarch and Still were written largely during my MFA years. Together, they’re pretty much my master’s thesis. I started working on Letters to Petrarch my senior year at A&M. I took an independent study to research and read Petrarch’s Canzoniere and other works, so I arrived at UNCG with this very clear goal in mind. The poems in Still were the result of my mental breaks from Letters to Petrarch over the years. The poems in Still were not written with the idea that they would occupy a book together.

Petrarch was the 14th-century Italian poet who popularized the sonnet and romantic love poetry. The Canzoniere contains 366 poems, composed over decades of his life, all centered around a figure he calls Laura. The story goes that he met Laura once, maybe from across a room, and fell in love with her instantly and permanently. There’s speculation that she was either a figment of his imagination or a real woman who was already married when he met her. Either way, this was not someone he knew personally. All the love poetry tropes we think are cliche now—her lovely eyes, her lovely hands—that’s Petrarch. His poems are complicated: he loves her but he’s furious with her; he praises her then blames her; she is at once an angel and his captor. So here’s a guy who not only changed poetry as we know it for a woman he never knew, but also managed to render perfectly so many of the feelings I had about my own love and loss.

I had so many questions in response to that. How could the work of a 14th-century sonneteer resonate so deeply with a modern-day queer woman poet? How could he feel all these things for someone he never spent time with? How much does anyone ever really know anyone else? To what degree are we all figments to each other, even in our most intimate relationships? I think everyone has a Laura—someone they love in this big, overwhelming way, even if it’s doomed or impossible or unattainable. I decided to tell Petrarch the only thing I knew about that he didn’t. I conflate my Laura with his and recount for him a single day spent with her. The poems alternate between letters and prayers corresponding to the canonical hours, which is how Petrarch would have conceptualized time. Petrarch also wrote a lot of letters, including one to posterity—me, you, everyone. I thought it was the least I could do to write him back. Letters to Petrarch is far and away the most challenging project I’ve completed thus far.

Still, like I said, wasn’t originally conceived as a project. I realized I had enough poems to make a second chapbook. When I sat down with what I had, I found the poems were not as disparate as I thought. The speaker in these poems is grappling with coming of age, trauma, loss, and identity. I won’t lie, some of the poems in Still are pretty bleak. The book is certainly more optimistic near the end. Fun fact for the Austin audience: the collection opens on a poem called “Sixth Street.”

CH: What would you describe as your obsessions as a writer? How do these obsessions figure in your chapbooks?

LC: I’m definitely a confessional poet. The poems and poets that have meant the most to me come from that tradition. Confessional poetry at its best can be liberating, life-changing. I’m obsessed with several questions surrounding truth-as-liberation. How do you be yourself? What is honesty? What can I do with my voice? How can I make connections with the world, other poets, and readers? How can I tell stories and render emotion in an accessible way? My chapbooks are all different iterations of the attempt to reach out for connection.

CH: How did you go about find publishers for your chapbooks?

LC:I was fortunate to encounter Alan Brilliant and Unicorn Press so early in my writing career. In Keeping was a very right-place-right-time situation. Letters to Petrarch is sort of a peculiar project. I wanted it to come from Unicorn because that’s part of what they do—publish peculiar projects—but also because Al has been such an influential force for me. Unicorn Press makes books by hand; they always have. Letters to Petrarch is a gorgeous, artfully-made hardback chapbook. I am honored and humbled to be a part of Unicorn’s venerable catalog.

Still is published by Finishing Line Press. I learned about the press from an editor that rejected me, actually. I received a printed form rejection with single hand-written line at the bottom: “Try Finishing Line.” I submitted the manuscript to a Finishing Line contest. I didn’t win, but the editors wrote to me and said they wanted to publish my book anyway. Finding publishers has been a combination of dogged persistence and random luck, I think.

CH: Of the authors whose work you first encountered during your MFA, which are your favorites? How has their work influenced your writing?

LC:Oh, there were so many. I was introduced to the work of CK Williams and had the opportunity to see him read. Same with Ellen Bryant Voigt. I went to AWP one year, where I saw Natasha Trethewey. I read Lynda Hull, Anne Carson, Robin Ekiss, and Terrance Hayes, among others. Good writing comes from good reading. My MFA taught me about the value of imitation as a generative and educational process. When I read, I’m always looking for ways to raise the bar on my own work. How do these poets do what they do? How can I do that?

CH: As a poet, I find community essential for giving me critical feedback as well as to help me expand my exposure to published and performed works. Post-MFA, how have you found community that has supported you as a writer?

LC: Yes, I agree that community is essential. I won’t lie, I had a hard time post-MFA. I burned out for a while; didn’t write a single word. After we moved back to Texas, it took some time for me to start writing again and find my people. I scoured the internet for readings, critique groups, and open mics around DFW. I finally attended an open mic in Dallas where I met a few people to cultivate friendships with. Those connections lead to more connections. You just have to show up. Support people. Engage on social media and promote each other. Say yes. Yes, I will read for you. Yes, I will teach that workshop. Yes, I’ll spread the word about your publication. Yes, I can help you make this event a reality. My DFW community is gracious and wonderful; I am so thankful to have found it. I do my best to branch out and find my people where they gather. AIPF (Austin International Poetry Festival), for example, where I met you, Cindy!

CH: What’s your next project? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

LC: I’m working on a full-length manuscript right now. I grew up queer in a super conservative West Texas town. The project includes a coming-of-age arc alongside poems about my hometown and the desert. So you’ve got these growing-up moments through a queer lens, like prom and learning to drive a standard car, next to poems about bizarre desert creatures, weather, historical events, etc. The common thread is survival in a harsh environment. My project is research-heavy. I’ve been working on it for about 3 years. I’d like to have it completed and find it a home within the next 5 years.

Right now, I’m a full-time academic advisor and adjunct instructor for Tarrant County College in Fort Worth. I love both jobs, but I am super busy all the time. In the next 5 years, I’d love to have a full-time teaching gig and only have that one job, leaving more hours in the day for poetry.

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

LC: I keep coming back to Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler lately. I’m trying to spend time with books that are a similar concept to my desert manuscript. Smith writes in the voice of Hurricane Katrina, shows us New Orleans and some of its characters. She incorporates true stories and excerpts from the media. The book is heartbreaking and difficult and I learn something different every time I pick it up. I highly recommend it.