Tag Archives: Lucille Clifton

A Virtual Interview with Gabrielle Langley

Gabrielle Langley will be the featured reader Thursday, September 12, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Poet Gabrielle Langley will be our feature. Langley has been featured in the Huffington Post and the Houston Chronicle as one of Houston’s important emerging poets. With work appearing in a variety of literary journals in the United States, and in Europe, she was the featured poet for Houston Poetry Fest 2017, a recipient of the Lorene Pouncey Award, the Vivian Nellis Memorial Award for Creative Writing, and an ARTlines national poetry finalist. Ms. Langley works during the day as a licensed mental health professional. To safeguard her own mental health, she writes poetry and dances Argentine tango at night. Her first book of poetry, Azaleas on Fire, was released in March of this year.

The Interview

CH: When do you first become interested in writing? What drew you to it?

GL: My mother gave me my first book of children’s poetry when I was about four years old. It was Louis Untermeyer’s The Golden Collection of Poetry. With that anthology, my mother started reading me a poem every night before bedtime. I was always captivated by the rhythms of the poems. But perhaps even more than that, I loved all the magical imagery that started dancing in my head whenever I heard the poems being read aloud.

That book became a treasure to me. In fact, that same book is still a part of my library to this day; it has always remained with me wherever I have lived. No doubt, this was my first initiation into the magic of poetry.

CH: When did you first begin to identify as a writer? As a poet?

GL: I started writing poetry when I was an undergraduate at George Washington University. I was incredibly fortunate to have mentorship from the creative writing staff there. Washington DC also had – and I believe still has – an incredible community of poets and poetry lovers. I think the true game-changer for me was being placed in an advanced workshop with Lucille Clifton who was a visiting professor there at the time. (I was even invited to open for her at one of her readings in D.C. So that was just an incredible honor for me as a young writer.) Even so, I was not majoring in literature or creative writing–I was an Art History major. So I got into the poetry world through the backdoor, so to speak.

I didn’t really start identifying myself as a poet until about eight years ago. It was when I had two different poems published in Europe (Algebra of Owls in England and The Wild Word in Berlin); somehow those international publications gave me the courage and confidence to identify myself  as “a poet.”

CH: I have read that you describe yourself a “devout minimalist” in your sense of aesthetics. How does minimalism appeal to you as a writer? How would you describe its effects on your poetry?

GL: I am laughing here because for as long as I can remember, I have always felt claustrophobic in highly cluttered environments. My mother was actually something of a hoarder, so I can remember feeling really overwhelmed by all of the stuff everywhere in the home where I grew up. As an adult, I have never enjoyed owning lots of things; I don’t like feeling responsible for too many things. If hoarding can be considered a psychopathology, then I think of it on a spectrum. That would put me at the extreme – and perhaps equally neurotic – end we could call “anti-hoarding,” or maybe we could call it “hyper-editing.”

Having said all that, I do love the idea of having a few well-chosen pieces. Editing things down to a few exquisite essentials comes naturally to me, and isn’t that what poetry is really all about? For me, it is the ultimate goal, how we can say the most using the fewest, most exquisitely chosen words and images.

CH: I have also read of your interest in exploring romantic themes in your work. What do you see as the influences of Romantic poetry on your own work? What divergences do you see?

GL: Well to begin with, I have always been a Keats fan. His work has an exuberance to it that I cannot find matched by any other poet. (Ok, I will admit, Neruda is a possible exception).  Keats’ poems are, for me at least, like spiritual epiphanies. The Romantics, in general, invite us to celebrate our own inner worlds.

At the same time, I love the spare aesthetics of the Imagists. I am a big fan of T.S. Eliot, HD and Amy Lowell. I love their ability to create abstract meditations. I also love their ability to fracture symbols and images. This almost surreal ability to fracture images is one of the greatest gifts that Modernism brought to poetry.

Safe to say, it is the Imagists’ fearless free verse, combined with their riveting images, that brought us into the 20th century, and into Modern poetry as we know it today.

CH: Tell us a little about Azaleas on Fire. Over what period of time were the poems in this book written?

GL: Azaleas on Fire is a collection of works written in an on-and-off again time frame over the past twenty years. While studying with poet Justine Post (author of Beast, which is an exceptional collection of poems), she began working with me on culling through my existing poems, identifying recurring themes in the work. Learning how to identify the themes and obsession that emerged organically in my own work really helped bring clarity for me. From there the collection transformed into its own narrative arc.

CH: What was your process of selecting the poems for Azaleas on Fire? What strategies did you employ in ordering the poems?

GL: I cannot emphasize strongly enough the value a good editor. Azaleas on Fire benefitted tremendously from Melissa Hassard’s (Sable Books) expert eye. Melissa really perfected the narrative arc so that the book, when read in sequence, reads almost like a novella, even though the poems were written separately as stand-alone pieces; I was not thinking about a book when I wrote them.

I also had Stacy Nigliazzo go over the book once the narrative arc was set. Stacy was working on her most recent book, Sky the Oar, at the same time, so I recall that we spent one entire rainy day at my house together making last-minute final touches on our manuscripts.  If you are familiar with Stacy’s work, you know that she brings a surgeon’s precision to the page, demanding that every syllable earn its right to appear on the page. Of course, I had also worked with both of these amazing women, Stacy and Melissa, when we co-edited Red Sky: poetry on violence against women, so I was over-the-moon with delight to have them provide editing support for Azaleas on Fire.

CH: You have written about your eclectic background in terms of place (e.g. Europe and the American South). How does place figure in your work? 

GL: Having a sense of place in my work has always been a priority. I love travel, and have been fortunate enough to travel extensively. At the same time, I also love being at home (which for me is the Southeastern United States).

I am really sensitive not only to sights, but also to shifts in scents, weather patterns, light, taste, and sound. I find myself even more acutely aware of these things when I travel, and also again when I return home, as if I am experiencing the signature elements of home for the very first time. There is always some part of me that wants to share these experiences on the page. Sometimes it almost feels like writing a love letter where you want to tell your beloved all about the place where you are, and you hope, if you can write well enough, that the page you send can bring them to that exact place from where you are writing.

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

GL: Ark by Ed Madden. He is a really gifted poet from rural Arkansas. His work is really mysterious, like nothing else I’ve ever read, but it also has this instantly recognizable rural Southern United States setting.

The poetry of Ark deals with the ambivalence experienced by a family whose father is on hospice care. Madden’s work brings this wonderfully eerie sense of things that seems to accompany so many deaths. His work has a way of making you see the ghost before that person actually becomes a ghost. He brings you into that twilight space which is the very transition between life and death.

A Virtual Interview with Amanda Johnston

Amanda Johnston will be the featured reader Thursday, December 13, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Amanda Johnston earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine. She is the author of two chapbooks, GUAP and Lock & Key, and the full-length collection Another Way to Say Enter (Argus House Press). Her poetry and interviews have appeared in numerous online and print publications, among them, Callaloo, Poetry, Kinfolks Quarterly, Puerto del Sol, Muzzle, Pluck!, No, Dear and the anthologies, Small Batch, Full, di-ver-city, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, and Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism.

The recipient of multiple Artist Enrichment grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Christina Sergeyevna Award from the Austin International Poetry Festival, she is a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. Johnston is a Stonecoast MFA faculty member, a cofounder of Black Poets Speak Out, and founding executive director of Torch Literary Arts. She serves on the Cave Canem Foundation board of directors and currently lives in Texas.

The Interview

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

AJ: Reading. When I was a child, my mother gave me Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic. I didn’t have the language for it then, but now I believe it was the risk he took to be daring and surprising in his poetry that pulled me to the page. His subjects and narratives in his work was at times naughty and out of the ordinary. I loved it! I can’t say that I wrote outside of school then, but those poems still excite me today and I turn to them when I forget to have fun with the lines and turn to the unexpected.

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

AJ: I lived in Kentucky from 2000 to 2005 while my husband was in the Army. I worked at Elizabethtown Community & Technical College and started writing with a group on campus and helped with the campus journal, The Heartland Review. That’s when I felt the drive for more. I wanted to read more, write more, and learn more about poetry and the literary world. Shortly after that, I was inducted into the Affrilachian Poets and was awarded a Cave Canem fellowship. These communities encouraged me to continue writing and to publish professionally. This is when I started ‘doing the work’ seriously on and off the page.

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

AJ: The Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine was the only program I applied to. My friend and Cave Canem faculty, poet Patricia Smith, attended Stonecoast and taught there after graduation. She encouraged me to apply. I learned a long time ago that if Patricia tells you to do something you do it because it will probably change your life for the better. It did! Stonecoast has an incredible faculty, and as a student, I was able to work with Joy Harjo, Tim Seibles, Aaron Hamburger, Ted Deppe, Jim Kelly, Alexs Pate, and Annie Finch. I also took advantage of their study abroad program and attended a summer residency in Dingle, Ireland. Most of all, the program allowed me time to selfishly focus on myself and my writing. I needed that uninterrupted time to listen to the voice within and learn additional tools to help it rise to the page.

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

AJ: During the program, I took traditional form and cross-genre workshops that broadened the scope of my reading and writing. I wanted more and I needed to understand prosody and apply the study to my work so I could break it down and build it back up. I learned scansion and meter. I learned form. I love to break apart forms and mash them up with others in new ways. The freedom to take control of form and structure, along with time, was the greatest gift. I gained this whole world where other writers were just as curious and focused on the work as I was. That gave me strength and support to continue writing and push my work.

The biggest drawback? It is a financial expense, but one worth making. My husband and I discussed it like buying a new car. Do we need it? Yes. Why? To get to work! I certainly got to work and I would advise anyone considering their MFA to really consider the work they need to get to and how the program as a whole will help them accomplish their goals.

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

AJ: I applied to Cave Canem in 2005 and was offered a fellowship that year. I applied because Nikky Finney, a founder of the Affrilachian Poets, encouraged all of us APs to apply. I didn’t know much about it, but again, Nikky is one of those people you better listen to if they give advice.

After attending my first Cave Canem retreat, my life was truly changed. I moved back to Texas that summer and only applied to jobs that would support me creatively as a poet. The home my family chose had to have an office and quiet spaces where I could read and write. Being a Cave Canem fellow reinforced my commitment to poetry and broadened my community in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

Over three years of retreats, I studied with Elizabeth Alexander, Yusef Komunyakaa, Afaa Weaver, Cyrus Cassells, Marilyn Nelson, Kwame Dawes, Erica Hunt, Patricia Smith, and founders Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. Guest poets during the retreats included Lucille Clifton and Rita Dove. My life changed. My world changed. I couldn’t get enough.

I stayed after graduating to work as retreat staff and served as retreat coordinator until 2017. I now serve on the board of directors. My life is dedicated to Black poetry and supporting marginalized groups across the literary landscape. Becoming a Cave Canem fellow lifted me up in such a way that I can’t image not having this opportunity for others. My writing is stronger because of this house and my dedication to the community is unwavering.

CH: Tell us a little about the Affrilachian Poets. How does this community nurture you as a writer?

AJ: The Affrilachian Poets is a collective of poets from the Appalachian region. Poet Frank X Walker, a Danville, Kentucky native, coined the term in the ‘90s when he didn’t see people of color included in the definition of appalachians. He didn’t see himself. Along with other founding members, Kelly Norman Ellis, Nikky Finney, Crystal Wilkinson, and others, they formed the Affrilachian Poets to give voice to their experiences and the experiences of other people of color from the region.

In 2004, while living in Kentucky, I was inducted into the APs as part of the second generation, the first group of inductees after its formation. As an AP, I was able to explore my writing and history wholly without restraint. I felt free writing in community with others who looked like me and understood what it means to be Black in America and daring to write about it. Because of the Affrilachian Poets, Kentucky will always be my poetic birthplace. My time there with them gave me the foundation I needed to carry my work forward with pride and purpose.

CH: Tell us a little about Another Way to Say Enter. How would you compare the experience of putting this full-length collection together vs. that of composing your chapbooks, GUAP and Lock & Key?

AJ: Another Way to Say Enter is the gathering of many years of writing into a meditation on my personal journey of womanhood. It’s not soft. It’s not pretty. If anything, I hope it’s honest and carries the places that hurt toward healing. I hope readers find the poems in this collection and know that they are not alone.

It took time and the support of an incredible editor, Teneice Durrant founder of Argus House Press, to see this book become reality. It didn’t follow the business of production. Putting this collection together took patience and compassion and I’m thankful she was able to offer that to me and my book.

GUAP and Lock & Key were personal projects that I arranged and produced. I had complete control. Each of these projects were necessary to make way to grow and enter the next phase of work. AWSE is only a year old, but I can feel the seeds starting to take root for what’s to come. It’s all part of the process of listening and staying present with the work.

CH: How has your experience teaching at Stonecoast influenced your writing?

AJ: Being that I attended Stonecoast, I want to provide the same experience I received as a student for my students. This means I read a lot! I dive into what they are interested in and that often opens up a new world of work to me. Creating coursework for workshop and individual intense study requires I offer my knowledge and experience, but stay open to the riff and flow of each student’s own needs and growth. It keeps me on my toes and I learn so much in the process. They inspire me and it makes me hold myself accountable to them and my own work. I fully believe you must practice what you teach! 

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

AJ: Anything by Lucille Clifton because she gives me permission to write short poems that cut and love deeply. And anything by Sharon Olds because she gives me permission to write the personal, intimate, experience through my own lens without blinking.

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

AJ: On my desk right now are Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez and Monument by Natasha Trethewey

 

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 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

A Virtual Interview with Usha Akella

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

Background

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

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

The Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolute favorite- Yehuda Amichai;

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

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

A Virtual Interview with Valentine Pierce

Valentine Pierce will be the featured reader Thursday, August 11, 2016 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman.

Background

“This is not the quiet tap of civilized literature; this is the loud, raw truth of life.” Valentine Pierce, author of Geometry of the Heart, comes to BookWoman from New Orleans to perform her poetry. Pierce is a spoken word artist, graphic designer and artisan. She has performed in a variety of events from poetry to plays to one-woman shows. She has produced shows with musicians, poets, dancers, drummers and lyricists. Hailing from has performed and been published throughout the U.S.

Pierce’s poetry has been developed into visual art display (“The Geometry of Life”) and choreographed by the Newcomb College for Women dance department for the inauguration of Tulane University’s president (“Rivers of My Soul”). Guaranteed to  be a memorable evening.

The Interview

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

VP: I think I was drawn to writing because I was drawn to books. My mother had some interesting books like Amazing Facts, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and even a huge two-volume unabridged dictionary that I combed through. In fact, at one point dictionaries and thesauruses were my favorite books.

I actually thought of myself as a writer in high school. Wanted to be like Maya Angelou, presenting my poetry to the world.

CH: Your background includes journalism, spoken word, and performance. How do you identify as a writer? How was that identity forged?

VP: Writing has been the one constant in my life. My mother even bought me a typewriter for my 12th Christmas. She used to love to tell people my poem was published in the school bulletin when I was in second grade. She even carved one of my poems into a leather purse. I think it was my love of books, love of words that kept me writing. I had other dreams, such as being a fashion designer but writing was and is a spontaneous act for me.

CH: I know you’ve long been associated with New Orleans, but that you spent a few years in California. How did your experience in California shape your writing?

Actually, I was born and raised in New Orleans and always come back to it. Don’t ask me why. This is a troubled city but it is also a wonderful city. As for California, my formative years as a journalist were in the Marine Corps. I lived for feature stories, stories about people. It fed my spirit. I have been back and forth between California and New Orleans several times in my life. When New Orleans got too much  for me, I’d leave. I went to California because I had friends there.

CH: I understand you returned to New Orleans from California in 2004—just a year before Katrina. How was your writing life changed by the storm? What kind of influence has it had in your work?

VP: Oh goodness, Katrina was such a disaster not only to the physical place of New Orleans but to the emotional place. I freelanced as a journalist from 2004-2005. I was hired as a graphic designer for a small newspaper January 2005. (Graphic design was also something I have always done even though as a child I didn’t have a name for it. It is my second great vocation.) Katrina gave us the boot in August and at the time, I was actually pleased to see long lines at gas stations. I felt people were taking it seriously. I knew that as long as the people survived, the city, our culture would survive. I had just started working on a novel (all writers have that secret desire, right?). I never finished that novel but I hand-wrote 12 notebooks about Katrina. Today I still feel and see the damage it did. Even now my writing is angry. Every thought leads to anger because of what happened here. Soldiers locked and loaded on homeless, starving, dying Americans. I wrote a play (it won a community college contest — amazingly), prose, poetry, an entire book.

CH: How did your residency at A Studio in the Woods come about? What was the effect of the residency on your work?

VP: It was my friends who got me to apply for A Studio in the Woods. I was in Phoenix but I was still connected to home via email. In my mind, I didn’t see that I qualified. New Orleans is filled with fantastic writers in every crack of the sidewalks. Plus, I was in Phoenix, living with friends. Finally, after several prompts I applied. How the staff caught up with me is still a wonder because I changed phones, changed phone numbers. My internet reception was a challenge. They contacted me on their last attempt before moving to the next person.

As for the effect on my work, ASITW did more than affect my work. It affected my spirit. I was so crushed by Katrina. Two weeks before it hit, I had been to a meeting of Alternate Roots, an artist collective. I had performed, connected with a director for my plays, was tethered to a fast-moving chain of people pulling me into my own future. Then, Katrina hit. I spent the next 18 months deeply depressed. Some salvation came when Mona Lisa Saloy published her book of poems, Red Beans and Ricely Yours, which I read in one sitting. Beyond that, I felt hopeless. Then came the residency. Being a city dweller I didn’t know how I would do in the woods but I loved it. I did nothing all day but write. It was the only time in my life when all I had to do was what I loved most. I was home; I was safe; I was well-fed and well taken care of. I was rejuvenated. It was called the Restoration Residency and I have to say, I was restored. I began to be alive again.

CH: As a performance poet who’s also taught writing and has a book in print, you inhabit both the world of the “stage poet” and the “page poet.” How do you navigate those different worlds? What difficulties and opportunities have presented themselves as a member of both communities?

VP: Truthfully, I never even knew there was a difference until my book was in the process of being published. Poems went from the page to the stage with ease for me, although, in 1991 I attended a writer’s conference and the editor that reviewed my poetry didn’t get it at all. We were required also to read our work and that when she and everyone else got it. I still didn’t know the difference. I thought all poetry translated from page to stage. I guess because I don’t write for either one, I don’t see the difference. However, when other people read my work, it sounds different to me. People even get different meanings from it, surprisingly.

I just write. And if I decide it’s ready for the public or think people need to hear it, I present it. I find poetry a writing a great tool for saying “we all feel the same thing; we are all humans and have failings and wonders surrounding us.”

CH: It’s quite an honor to have your work chosen to honor the inauguration of a university president. How was your poem, “Rivers of My Soul,” chosen for the inauguration of the president Tulane University? Were you involved with the Newcomb College for Women dance department in the choreographing of the poem? What was that process like?

VP: I actually had no say in it. The director of the department somehow came across my work and included it. At the time, I was making that last cross-country trip to California after a failed marriage that led to a failed business. Naturally, with everything failing, my phone was out. I had a pager. Email was still new. One of the other artists finally caught up with me and told me about it. They wanted to make sure I was okay with it. I was. I didn’t get to see the inauguration because I was in Cali by then but came home for an exhibit at Delgado and got to see the rehearsal.

CH: How did you select the poems that are part of Geometry of the Heart? How did you find a publisher for the work?

VP: The publisher asked me. John Travis of Portals Press inherited the business from his father and regularly publishes local writers. The first weekend I was home to stay after Katrina I went to the Maple Leaf poetry series (which is the first place I ever did open mic). John is a regular there. He said, “It’s time; you’ve paid your dues.” As for selecting poems, I submitted them to him and he kept asking for more. He did reject a few but for the most part, the poems in the book are the poems I wanted in the book.

CH: Looking back on a writing career that continues to bloom, what advice would you offer your younger self? 

VP: I would tell me to find more writers but to not be wooed by the collective voice of what is and isn’t good. I would be part of diverse writing groups. I would also tell me to keep submitting despite rejections and doubts.

CH: Who are some of your favorite poets? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

You really don’t want the list of my favorite poets because I read everything imaginable: Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Khalil Gibran, Pablo Neruda, Alice Walker, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Claude McKay, Nikki Giovanni, Rita Dove, Robert Hayden, local poets from cities I lived in or near like Lee Grue, Asia Rainey, Niyi Osundare, Marcus Page, Geronimo, Chancellor Skidmore, Jerry Ward, Gina Ferrara, Quess, Shacondria Sibley, Jessica Mashael Bordelon, Eliza Shefler, John Sinclair.… . And anthologies. I love anthologies. My collection is vast and diverse. I’ve had to temper my love for poetry because of my budget. I even barter for books.

These days, most of my poetry comes from emails, Facebook, the internet and open mic. I am really into local artists and often they email me either their work or the works of poets they’ve come across online.

Well, I know this may be more than you wanted but more is better, right, because you can take what you need/want and discard the rest. Hopefully, it gives you a sense of who I am without being overwhelming.

Thank you so much for the opportunity to present my work at Bookwoman.

A Virtual Interview with Loretta Diane Walker

Loretta Diane Walker will be the featured reader for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, July 14, 2016  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.

Background

Loretta Diane Walker is a three-time Pushcart nominee. She has published three collections of poetry, including Word Ghetto, which won the 2011 Blue Light Press Book Award, and In This House, released by Blue Light Press in 2015.  Loretta was recently named “Statesman in the Arts” by the Heritage Council of Odessa.  Walker’s work has appeared in numerous publications, most recently Her Texas, Texas Poetry Calendar 2015, Pushing Out the Boat International Journal, San Pedro River Review, Illya’s Honey, Red River Review, Diversity: Austin International Poetry Festival, Boundless Poetry: Rio Grande Valley International Poetry Festival, Pushing the Envelope: Epistolary Poems,  Perception Literary Magazine, Connecticut River Review, The Texas Poetry Calendar 2016, The Houston Poetry Festival, Siblings: Our First Macrocosm, and is fort coming in The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VIII: Texas.

Loretta is a member of the Poetry Society of Texas, Pennsylvania Poetry Society, The National Federation of State Poetry Societies and Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. She teaches music in Odessa, Texas.  Loretta received a BME from Texas Tech University and earned a MA from The University of Texas of the Permian Basin.    http://lorettadianewalker.weebly.com/.

The Interview

CH: What first inspired you to write? When did you begin to identify as a writer?

LDW: I have been fascinated with words since I was four or five years old. I was intrigued with Dr. Seuss’ books. He is still one of my favorite authors. Of course, I did not understand then what I do now. I was/am intrigued with the “power” of words. I used to scribble stories in my red Big Chief tablet. I did this before I could read or write.  I started to identify myself as a writer about twelve years ago. At the time, I had been teaching music for twenty years. I was visiting my youngest brother and his family. On the way from the airport, he and I had a heartfelt conversation. He said, “You have only loved two things in your life, music and writing. You have spent twenty years focusing on music. Don’t you think it’s time you concentration writing?”  I answered his challenge and started focusing more on writing. An aside, in the mid-nineties I took a writing class at our community college. The instructor returned my first writing assignment with a note. It read: You have no talent for writing. You should give it up. I was crippled by those words and I could not write for a while. I had lost all my confidence.

CH: You’ve had many successes with poetry, including your three collections of poetry, three Pushcart nominations, and numerous journal acceptances in addition to three collections of poetry. How have you gone about developing your writing talents?

LDW: I have an incredible mentor, Diane Frank. I started taking her workshops via email about nine years ago. I still take them. I attend other poetry workshops when possible, each summer I attend a poetry conference, I read heaps of poetry by various poets, and I read texts about writing poetry. My two favorites are Wingbeats I and Wingbeats II: Exercises & Practice in Poetry. I have a ten-one rule. I read ten poems for each poem I write.

CH: How has your career as a music educator influenced your poetry?

LDW: I have over six hundred little muses in my face Monday through Friday. Like my family, their lives are intertwined in my poetry. I get inspiration from the exchanges I have with my students and with the exchanges they have among themselves. I am often inspired by one of their expressions, a response to a class activity or question. In my book Word Ghetto, I have a section devoted entirely to my students. Those poems are based on conversations I had with students while doing lunch duty.

CH: As someone who works full-time, how do you make room for your writing? What is your writing practice like?

LDW: I write during my lunch time, after school, and on the weekends. If I eat out alone, which I do quite a bit, I will write while I am having dinner. I have written some of my most successful pieces in a restaurant.  When school is in session, my goal is to write collectively at least an hour a day. When possible, I will write for a longer period of time. Sometimes I get twenty minutes here, thirty minutes there.  I do the bulk of my writing during holidays and the summer. At those times, my goal is to write three hours daily. My writing time also involves my reading time. I have a ten one rule. For every one poem I write, I read ten. This has been my practice for the last several years.

CH: As long as I’ve known you, you’ve lived in Odessa. How has its various landscapes—geographic, vegetal, social—influenced your work? Have you lived elsewhere?

LDW: Although flat, open, barren and nestled in the breast of distance, Odessa poses characteristics of beauty resembling no other place. It’s a type of rugged beauty the natives  have learned to appreciate. The landscape is a banner of fortitude, a reflection of many of the people here. Strength is important to me. I am fascinated with our sky. The sunrises and sunsets are stunning. The night sky is beautiful as well. In many of my poems, I make a reference to our sky. Usually, the reference is a segue to an unveiling or revelation in the poem.  I lived in Terrell, Texas for one year and Lubbock, Texas while I attended Texas Tech. I was born in Dawson, Texas, but was very young when we moved away from there.

CH: Your first book, Word Ghetto, won the 2011 Bluelight Press Book Award from 1st World Publishing. How did you find out about the award? How did you select the poems that would go into that book?

LDW: After taking Diane Frank’s online workshops for four years, she encouraged me to submit to the Bluelight Press Book Award competition. Many of the poems included in the manuscript, I wrote in her workshops. If I received a poem from her with this message, “This should be in a book,” I put it in a file labeled Book. The remaining poems I selected based on these criteria: if it won first place in various state sponsored poetry contests, or if it was published in an anthology or literary journal. Over the course of four years, I discovered various themes and grouped the poems accordingly. Ironically, many of these poems were written using words or stanzas taken from my “word ghetto.” Hence the title. My word ghetto is a rather large file of hoarded words, stanzas and phrases that do not fit in one poem but work well or are seed ideas for others.

CH: Your most recent book, In This House, addresses a rich variety of topics—everything from desire for the ultimate steam iron to struggles with illness, including your own cancer diagnosis. How did you arrive at the vision for this book? How did you decide on its title?

LDW: Initially, this book was going to be about my mother. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I shifted gears and started writing about what I was experiencing. While writing those poems, I shifted gears yet again. I was battling depression; I had to focus outwards. I remember the day I said aloud, you’re not the only person “going through something.” After that meeting with myself, I reverted to writing about landscapes and other topics. I chose the title “In This House” because of the varied meanings of the word house. Its multiplicity allowed me to encompass all of the poems in the book.

CH: Writing poems of intimacy, especially about relationship with family, is a difficult task—one you handle with aplomb in In This House. How has your family received your writing, especially the work in which they appear?

LDW: My family has received my writing about them quite well. They are extremely supportive of me. I wrote about them in my other books. More than likely, one or more of them will show up in my next book.  In In This House, I give voice to some of the emotions they were experiencing. They gracefully allowed me to do so.

CH: With so much success with your poetry, I would imagine you would identify primarily as a poet. But your website (http://lorettadianewalker.weebly.com) hints at an interest in writing a novel. How would you describe your identity as a writer? In what direction do you see your writing going now?

LDW: Yes, I primarily identify myself as a poet. I have published some short stories and essays; however, I feel at home writing poetry; it’s my passion. The reference on my website is based on a conversation I had with a friend. We were discussing an idea I have had stirring inside of me for several years. Actually, I already have a title for the novel. I want to write it after I retire.

CH: Please name a few poets whose work has influenced yours. What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

Wow, this is a difficult task. There are so many! Some of my influences are Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Diane Frank, Lucille Clifton, Jonas Zdanys, Gwendolyn Brooks, Larry D. Thomas, Karla K. Morton, Alan Birkelbach, Ted Kooser, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Katharine Coles, Natasha Trethewey, Robert Frost and several poets published by Bluelight Press and many other Texas poets.  The most recent book of poetry I read is I Watched You Disappear by Anya Krugovoy Silver.