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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.