Tag Archives: Larry Levis

A Virtual Interview with Susan Niz

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

Susan Niz’s first poetry chapbook is Beyond this Amniotic Dream (Beard Poetry, Minneapolis, 2016). She has a second chapbook, Left-Handed Like a Lightning Whelk, forthcoming with Finishing Line Press (November 2019). Her short work has appeared in Wanderlust Journal, The Write Launch, Chaleur Magazine, Typishly, Tipton Poetry Journal, Carnival Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, Blue Bonnet Review, Two Words For, Belleville Park Pages, Ginosko, Cezanne’s Carrot, Flashquake, Opium Magazine, and Summerset Review. She has been featured in live poetry shows in Minneapolis. Susan writes across genres. Her novel Kara, Lost (North Star Press, 2011) was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award (MIPA) for Literary Fiction. She has a Master’s Degree in Education, raises kids, has been a grassroots community organizer, and conserves Monarchs. She recently relocated from Minnesota (having survived the Polar Vortex last winter) to the Austin area where she will delve into new creative and literary projects and enjoy the sun and warmth.

The Interview

CH: What first interested you in writing? What is your first memory of writing?

SN: In second grade, I got very excited to write a story about a girl who took a car trip with her family.  I loved the way ideas became words that tumbled sloppily across the line, down the page, that a story could go somewhere, that it could be read and re-read aloud. I had a teacher who gave us these spiral notebooks with blue covers. Writing time was a special event and that white space between lines became a place of focus where I could put some of myself, which was better than keeping the pain of my isolated home life inside. Later, when I was thirteen, I had another spiral notebook with a blue cover. It became a secret place to feed lines of hot ink in unraveling scrolls of angst and wonder and loneliness. I called it poetry. I had a lot of questions! I then copied some of my angst in Sharpie inside the entire back of a denim jacket (along with song lyrics from The Cure). This writing thing was mine. It was uncontrolled, it was limitless, and the page always listened. I was hooked on this outlet.

 

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

SN: I studied writing and poetry in college as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. I was able to take classes from some outstanding writers, but I wasn’t ready for the work of revision and I wasn’t yet able to access my voice because I carried a lot of shame from a very turbulent teenage experience. I gravitated to language study, learned Spanish, and became a teacher. I even abandoned journaling and part of me was missing. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I finally found the focus to undertake a big project: a semi-autobiographical novel about a sixteen-year-old runaway. I dove into this in a time that I was waiting for a family and worked on it for several years, finally publishing it after my first daughter was born. I also wrote short fiction and published a few pieces. I published one poem that was written based on an image from a dream that I had. About a year later, the journal asked to reprint my poem in an anthology and I got motivated to try more poetry. It felt mysterious to me and for a while I thought my poems had to be conceived in my dreams! Eventually, I gained more of a flow to writing effective poems. I really developed my poetic voice through a series held in Minneapolis called the New Shit Show. I read at the open mic several times, was asked to feature, then submitted my first chapbook, Beyond This Amniotic Dream, to Beard Poetry. My first chapbook is about the two events of my father dying and my second daughter being born, which happened two weeks apart. I experienced delayed grief in order to be a present mother, and writing the poems finally processed the loss.

CH: I know that you write fiction as well as poetry. How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?

SN: I like to write across genres. In addition to poetry, I write short nonfiction essays, which are autobiographical. I wrote a second novel that did not get published because the revisions required would have taken too much time from my second and final baby. One thing that works with poetry for me is that it can be written in bits and pieces, unlike fiction which for me requires long stretches of focus. I think a big thing that defines me as a writer is that my writing is largely autobiographical. Even the idea of a persona poem is something I have not yet tackled. I plan to continue to keep writing across genres.

CH: How has your life as a community organizer and parent shaped your writing?

SN: As a parent, I learned to write sleep-deprived and all hours of the day, which made me a more adaptable writer. It made my writing time much less frequent when my kids were little, but luckily I stuck with it slow and steady and was able to create work and publish occasionally which added up over time. As a community organizer, for a long time I struggled with the idea of writing creatively about Resisting, instead of only more personal topics. I felt that as a white, straight, cis-gendered ally, I had to consider perspective carefully and not try to write a story/poem that wasn’t mine to tell.  I think I finally bridged this when I wrote poems about school shootings, a topic that touches me personally because I am a parent. I also use nature imagery to bridge topics. For example, a poem about stitching the wound of a snowy owl (What passes through flesh/ Is forever) is about sexual abuse. Having found a way to enter writing of Resistance, I feel more freed to continue to write about topics such as immigration issues, as my husband is from Guatemala. Writing poetry also made my campaign and advocacy writing more effective and emotionally connected.

CH: What is your writing life like?

SN: Usually slow and steady, but I feel like my move to Texas has helped it pick up momentum. I carve out bits of time to jot notes or record poem ideas using voice to text if I’m running around, then write them out late at night. When I can keep an observant view of the world around me, I get more ideas for poems. When I can read more and hear other poets read live, I write more poems. When I have time and want to produce more, I read a favorite book of poetry and engage in a read-write-read-write cycle, drawing inspiration from the poems. I’ll generally write new poems for a few months, then revise, then submit, and repeat.

CH: What inspired the title of your forthcoming chapbook, Left-Handed Like a Lightning Whelk? How did you arrive at this sequence of poems?  

SN: The title speaks to the potential absurdity of the connections I attempt to make with nature. I went to Mustang Island last year with my family. A naturalist had set up a tent and table to show beach-goers some of the sea creatures. I get extremely excited about this stuff. The moments of learning the names of animals, of witnessing them in the wild, are thrilling to me and make me feel very alive. I just moved to Texas from Minnesota, and I’ve raised Monarchs the last several years and I miss them a lot, but I’m planting milkweed and hope to see them in September. The winters there were very hard for me, and warmth and wildlife and time outdoors means I am not in hibernation, which became increasingly brutal to endure. An earlier draft of this chapbook was called “Measure My Wingspan in Words,” which is a line from a poem that is in the book. Maybe that title worked would have worked as well. I write poems about motherhood, which I think sounds saccharine, but I write about the harsh and dark corners of motherhood after a difficult childhood, and with nature often as a refuge and a vehicle for emotions and metaphor.

CH: By the end of this year, you will have published two poetry chapbooks since your novel, Kara, Lost, came out. What are you working on now? Where would you like to be five years from now?

SN: I have been writing a few poems and also short non-fiction pieces. Maybe next I would like to publish a full-length book of poetry or of the essays. Maybe I feel like I can be a little more patient about that now. I’m also working on planning for a poetry workshop that I’ll be leading at several local libraries this year called “You are a poet.” It’s for beginners and all levels. I want to feel prepared with a whole bunch of writing exercises that I probably won’t have time to squeeze in. If I do it well, the participants will do a lot of writing and I’ll do not too much talking. (Please like “Susan Niz Writer” on Facebook to find out where to join a workshop.) In five years, I hope to feel part of the poetry community in Austin. My writing goals have shifted from lofty aspirations to more finding what is fulfilling, challenging, rewarding—without boundaries. I will regather my strength to use my writing abilities to continue to Resist. I think we each need to focus on developing whatever our individual superpower for protest may be—whether it’s organizing, speaking, writing, leveraging and sacrificing privilege, gathering resources—and hone that power, or we’ll get tired of screaming.

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

SN: Making time to go be a part of live poetry is so important. Nature experiences are a given in my life, but following them up with writing is necessary. Establishing boundaries with my kids for them to be more independent and allow me time to read, write, get out. That is the hardest, but easier with time. I think, too, setting goals and having some ambition and also self-love and patience when it comes to setbacks. I’m looking on the bright side of life in between writing poems. Poetry writing can be emotionally painful, but finding joy and ease in other areas of life is important for self-renewal.

CH: What poetry do you find yourself turning to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite writers?

SN: Jim Moore, Larry Levis, Adrienne Moore, Louise Erdrich, Laura Kasischke, ee cummings, Ocean Vuong, Federico García Lorca, W.H. Auden, Danez Smith, Kendrick Lamar

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

SN: Blue Horses by Mary Oliver, Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith, and also Poetry Will Save Your Life: A Memoir, Jill Bialosky

Cindy, thank you for this opportunity to reflect!

CH: You are more than welcome.

 

 

A Virtual Interview with J. Scott Brownlee

Background

J. Scott Brownlee will be the featured reader Thursday, November 9, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Scott Brownlee is a poet-of-place from Llano, Texas and a former Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU, where he taught poetry to undergraduates and fifth graders through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. His poems appear in The Kenyon Review, Narrative MagazineHayden’s Ferry Review, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbooks Highway or BeliefAscension, and On the Occasion of the Last Old Camp Meeting in Llano County. Honors for these collections include the 2013 Button Poetry Prize, 2014 Robert Phillips Poetry Prize, and 2015 Tree Light Books Prize. His first full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and 2015 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award and selected by C. Dale Young as the winner of the 2015 Orison
Poetry Prize. It also won the 2016 Bob Bush Memorial Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. Brownlee writes about the people and landscape of rural Texas and is a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes the aesthetically marginalized working class. He currently lives in Austin, Texas and teaches for Brooklyn Poets as a core faculty member.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

JSB: I think the first poem I actually read and paid attention to was Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Blue Emmett” in Bat City Review. It was lying on the floor of the UT-Austin English Department, and as soon as I got to the end of the poem, I was mesmerized.

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

JSB: I wrote some bad love poems in high school but thought initially I’d be a fiction writer as an undergraduate student. Things didn’t work out that way. I came to poetry as a result of a nudge or two from Michael Adams, a professor and mentor who told me to read Larry Levis and encouraged me to consider the “you can be a poet” idea.

CH: When did you first begin to consider pursuing an MFA? What were the influences that led to that decision?

JSB: I’d been dreaming of going to Michener ever since I figured out what it was, and so for a couple of years I applied there and was rejected. The year I cast a wider net and applied to multiple schools, NYU was the last one I applied to, and I did it on a whim after meeting some New Yorkers at ACL and thinking, “I kind of like these people—might as well apply to school there.” You’d think it would have been a more well-conceived plan, but it honestly wasn’t.

CH: How was your work received by fellow students during your time at NYU? What effect did this very urban location have on your process of writing about place?

JSB: I’d say there was probably about 50% positive support (which was very positive—Yusef Komunyakaa and Sharon Olds lit a fire in my writing life) and 50% negative feedback. At times I found the negative feedback frustrating (students with Ivy League undergrad degrees honestly just didn’t understand the context of rural Texas at all and would generalize to no-end in workshop), but ultimately I think having something to push against—a cliquish and never-appeased criticism of the rural—was helpful. I don’t know if I’d still be a poet-of-place without it.

Living in Brooklyn really helped me write strong poems-of-place as well. Being physically removed from the rural Texas landscape meant I had to imagine it, and I think the myth-making and imaginative leaps my poems make were in part made possible by being in a state of exile / dislocation.

CH: What kind of responses has your work received from the community in which you grew up?

JSB: I thought it would be negative initially, in all honesty, but it’s been 100% positive overall. There aren’t necessarily many poetry readers in Llano, Texas, but many members of that community still gave my first book a try, and I’m grateful that they did. Accessibility is important to me. I wanted to write a book of poems non-poets could access, and so far the reception of the book has aligned with that intention.

CH: Over what time period were the poems of Requiem for Used Ignition Cap written? Was this book conceived of from the first as a project, or did the book coalesce in a different way?

JSB: I wrote the poems over the course of about six years (the oldest poems are from around 2009, and the newest are from 2015—just several months before the book was published). My first plan for the book was for it to follow a church service in terms of flow and the order of the poems, but in the editing process Luke Hankins (the editor of Orison Books) and C. Dale Young (the judge of the contest I won) proposed some changes to the order that really helped the book take a more organic final shape.

CH: For me, Requiem’s title is deeply evocative. How did you decide on this as the title of the book, and of the poem that shares it?

JSB: The title comes from the poem of the same name that appears near the end of the book, which I wrote as a kind of metaphor for several people I knew growing up who took their own lives with firearms. Technically an “ignition cap” is a car part, but I was thinking of it as the small ignition cap on a bullet that, when struck, can leave so much emptiness and pain in its wake. Both definitions work when considering the meaning of the book’s title (Llano is one of those small towns where people will leave an old car out in the sun to rust down to nothing), which wasn’t intentional but is something I’ve come to appreciate after the fact.

CH: When I read “Disappearing Town,” I was struck by its reflection on the failure of journalism located in urban centers (e.g. the New York Times) to take the time and effort to truly engage with people in rural areas. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, this seems especially important. What kind of feedback have you received since the election regarding the news your poetry brings?

JSB: Thanks for noticing that! You are the first person to catch the intention behind that poem and ask about it. It’s a theme I’ve continued in my second book, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, which has a poem responding to the “poverty porn” mentality journalists and photojournalists tend to take when they cover the lives and landscapes of the working class.

Honestly, the election has had a mostly negative impact on my writing and its reception (which I think is justifiable given the current state of race relations in this country). I find myself in a position where I vehemently disagree with the current administration and feel like they have lied to and manipulated rural people (including rural white people, my primary subject) to no end, but there’s also that element of racism / xenophobia that individual rural people are responsible for themselves, and capturing that while also trying to draw attention to misinterpretations of rural America that are unfairly negative is a very difficult task.

CH: What are you working on now?

JSB: I recently finished and am sending out my second full-length poetry collection, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, and am about 70% finished with a first draft of a novel called Diamond Kings, which follows a fictional rural Texas high school baseball team on their path through the state playoffs and centers around an episode of racially-linked gun violence that threatens to tear the team and wider community apart.

CH: Who are some poets that inspire and influence your work? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

JSB: I have too many favorite poets to bore you with list-wise, but right now I’m re-reading Natalie Diaz’s book When My Brother Was an Aztec and want to check out Tyehimba Jess’s book Olio, which I’ve picked up several times in the bookstore but still not gotten around to purchasing quite yet. I try to read local Austin poets as well and so have Lisa Olstein’s new book Late Empire on my coffee table as we speak. If I had to pick only one poet I could read forever, I’d probably pick Larry Levis—mostly because we are both narrative poets-of-place, and I feel like I have more to learn from him each time I revisit his writing.

A Virtual Interview with Jonathan Moody

Background

Jonathan Moody will be the featured reader Thursday, July 13, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Jonathan Moody holds an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.  He’s also a Cave Canem graduate fellow whose poetry has appeared in various publications such as African American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Borderlands, Boston Review, The Common, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, and Harvard Review Online.  Moody is the author of The Doomy Poems (Six Gallery Press, 2012).  Olympic Butter Gold, his second collection, won the 2014 Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize.  He lives in Fresno, Texas, with his wife and son and teaches English at Pearland High School.

The Interview

CH: What first interested you in writing? What is your first memory of writing?

JM: What interested me in writing was my mother’s advice. When I was a sophomore in
college, I suffered from bouts of insomnia. My mother felt that I had too many
thoughts racing through my head, which was accurate. She encouraged me to buy a
composition book & empty my thoughts onto the page. I didn’t set out to write poems;
it just happened organically. Writing became just as addictive as playing
PlayStation. So, it didn’t alleviate my sleeping difficulty. In fact, I slept less
after the writing bug latched onto my skin.

As far as my first memory of writing is concerned, I believe it was back when I was
in the 7th or 8th grade. I wrote a short story by hand about a work of art that got
stolen from the Smithsonian. The day after the story was due my English teacher gave
me high praise after the class returned from lunch.

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

JM: My realization that I became a poet had nothing to do with getting published or
receiving acceptance letters from MFA programs. I started becoming a poet the day I
started obsessing over word choice, metaphors, & line breaks.

CH: What motivated you to get your MFA? How did you decide on the University of Pittsburgh?

JM: What motivated me to get my MFA was that I needed to carve out a huge chunk of
time that would enable me to hone my craft.

And the reason why I applied to the University of Pittsburgh was because I’d become
fans of the faculty: specifically Lynn Emanuel and Toi Derricotte. Pitt was also
where Terrance Hayes received his MFA. When I was an undergraduate at Xavier
University of Louisiana, I enrolled in Terrance’s Intro to Poetry course. During
that semester, I went from having a C- at mid-term to having an A+ for the final
grade. Terrance was my only connection with Pitt, and I felt confident that he would
write me a strong letter of recommendation.

CH: How did the MFA program change your approach to writing? What was its biggest gift? Its biggest drawback?

JM: The Pitt MFA Poetry program didn’t change my approach to writing; it’s biggest
gift was the time it afforded me to read, read, read and write. It’s biggest setback
was its inability to procure a third poetry professor. We had a great rotating group
of visiting poets such as Ross Gay, Tracy K. Smith (who’s now the U.S. Poet
Laureate), & Tomaz Salamun (R.I.P.), but Pitt didn’t land a third poetry professor
until after I graduated.

CH: When did you decide to become involved in Cave Canem? How has your experience as a Cave Canem fellow influenced your work?

JM: I applied to Cave Canem while I was at Pitt. My experience at Cave Canem taught
me to be more ruthless when it came to my revisions and to be unapologetic when it
came to my insistence on embracing blackness in my poems.

CH: Tell us a little about your first full-length collection, The Doomy Poems. What was your process in putting the manuscript together? How did you find a publisher?

JM: The Doomy Poems explores the lives of three individuals through the use of
persona poems that are structured as revisionist narratives in which the two main
personas share alternative views on the same event/moment that they’ve experienced.

My writing process for the manuscript changed my whole approach to writing. Before
The Doomy Poems, I never started out a poem with the title in mind first. I’d save
the title for the last item. My usual method involves receiving a trippy image or a
series of lines that are so salient that I have to write them down immediately or
the spark is gone.

With my first book, I was always imagining Doomy and Irina, his love interest,
hanging out. These scenarios or rendezvous would play out in my head. I’m one of
those poets who spends as much time tinkering with titles as I do tinkering with
tension.

Creating such a basic title like “Doomy Pontificates…” was so liberating because I
could channel the bulk of my energy into writing solid poems.

CH: Your old school hip-hop inspired collection Olympic Butter Gold is a terrific read—I love its many voices, its sampling. What inspired this project? Over what period of time were these poems written?

JM: Chuck D inspired me to write Olympic Butter Gold when he made a controversial
comment in his seminal essay “Open Letter on Media, Messages & Pimps” in which he
claims that the United States wouldn’t win a medal in a Hip-Hop or Rap Olympics.

I actually came up with the concept for Olympic Butter Gold in 2011: one year before
I wrote The Doomy Poems. However, I abandoned OBG because I grew too frustrated at
my initial poems which were lousy.

In 2013, the impeding birth of my son as well as the deaths of unarmed black men
such as Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant drove me to figure out which
perspective/angle I wanted to take. Once I figured out my angle, my manuscript had
shape which was sorely lacking back in 2011.

CH: How has your work as a high school teacher influenced your writing?

JM: Within the past two years, teaching high school has influenced how often I write.
In the 2015-16 and the 2016-2017 school term, I didn’t write poems until summertime
arrived. I’m not sure if that will happen again for this school term. A few weeks
ago I wrote seven new poems: two of which have already been accepted for publication
in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review. I hope I can continue writing quality poems
throughout the year!

CH: What poetry do you find yourself turning to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite writers?

JM: I often turn to Langston Hughes, Bob Kaufman, Larry Levis, Lucille Clifton, Jane
Kenyon, & Garcia Lorca for inspiration. Other writers who inspire me are Patricia
Engel, Junot Diaz, Ta-nehisi Coates, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, & Haruki Murakami.

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

JM: The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa