Thursday, December 9, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
BookWoman welcomes poets Tina Cardona and Kelly Ann Ellis, co-founders of the non-profit HotPoet, Inc., for an evening in celebration of Letters Sent Inland : Selected Poems of Glynn Monroe Irby.
In vivid poems that reflect Glynn Monroe Irby’s life-long connection with the Texas Gulf Coast, Letters Sent Inland explores Irby’s passionate relationship with both coastal ecology and industrial landscape. HotPoet, Inc. selected Letters Sent Inland for publication to honor Irby, who passed away in 2020. It is the first collection to be published by the organization.
hotpoet, Inc. is based in Houston, Texas. Its mission includes “creating literary arts events, publishing insightful literature, and building inclusive support networks that nurture joy as well as awareness of our obligation to care for each other and for our planet.” More information can be found at https://www.hotpoet.org/.
CH: I know that you two (Kelly Ellis and Tina Cardona) have long known each other as part of Houston’s poetry community. Tell us a little bit about how HotPoet, Inc. came to be.
TC and KE: Before there was a hotpoet, Inc., we were just two friends who wanted to celebrate poetry, build community, and encourage passion in poetry. Our endeavors started with a conversation over cocktails at Leon’s, a bar in Houston, with a couple of other poets. Kelly said she wanted to publish an anthology of sultry poetry and call it “Is it Hot Enough For You?” and Tina thought that was a great idea, and that we should have a party with that theme.
Our first party was in the summer of 2013 and by winter, we had decided it would be a solstice celebration. We started building certain traditions around the event (a poetry game, a fire, an exquisite corpse poem, an instant anthology, a themed cocktail, etc.). The theme of these parties was always “heat” –however the poet chose to address this theme (as in passion, weather, food, energy, or politics). We acquired the name “Hot Poets” when we threw a benefit for Public Poetry and called it “Hot Poets and All that Jazz,” in which we featured several poets and an open mic backed up by a jazz band. The idea was that anyone could be a “hot poet”—and the name stuck.
We shortened it to “hotpoet” (all lower-case letters) when we established the nonprofit. Over the years, we continued to throw parties, but we felt a need to pair our own social awareness and advocacy with the events. So, we hosted fundraisers for causes we supported as well as participating in 100,000 Poets for Change. Our themes took on a more serious tone as we attempted to address social and environmental issues that concern us all and to encourage fellow poets to use their voices to effect change. We decided that starting a nonprofit would enable us to further our efforts in this direction.
Since establishing hotpoet, Inc., we have had a big learning curve and it has been challenging in many ways, but it has also been a source of joy for us and, we hope, for others. Our mission is still the same as it was in the beginning: to build community, promote the arts, support artists and their work, and to help artists and others to use poetry and other self and/or body-based modalities (music, movement, visual arts) to increase their passion for life, and to write passionately about things they care deeply about.
CH: Founding a literary non-profit is an ambitious venture. How long did it take you to go from the idea of the non-profit to its implementation and first publication?
TC and KE: We got the idea for having a nonprofit some time ago, since we were already throwing events and fundraisers, trying to build community, and promoting artists and writers. It seems we had the idea for years before we had the impetus of Glynn’s book project to spur us into actually doing the groundwork for it.
KE: We began working on Glynn’s book in November 2020, started the nonprofit in December 2020, published the book in April 2021, and had the book launch event in June 2021. I think that this wouldn’t normally be a realistic timeline, but I had a lot of time on my hands due to the pandemic and did not have the constraints of working a full-time job. I think working full-time would have made the process a lot longer. Also, we had a lot of help from our Secretary, Jack Kendall, who did much of the paperwork, and my [Kelly’s] daughter Dominique, who put together the website.
CH: I remember Glyn Monroe Irby as a poet whose vision was so grounded in his life-long experience of the Gulf Coast, and as a warm and generous man who often spoke words of encouragement. Tell us a little about how you knew Glynn.
KE: I knew Glynn through the poetry community, where we became close friends. When we first met, I used to joke that I was like Eliza Doolittle and he was Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady. Glynn was brilliant, with a wealth of information about poetry, philosophy, science, art, architecture, history, you name it. He was also a good conversationalist and listener with a subtle sense of humor and a strong appreciation for beauty. I admired him greatly and cared for him deeply.
We used to trade poems often and, although we had very different styles, we appreciated each other’s work. He helped me extensively over the years with organizing and formatting chapbooks, both for myself and my students, with whom I did a yearly anthology chapbook and a book release party, and he was always generous with his time and efforts. He also helped hotpoet with designing flyers and covers for our instant anthologies. He loved a good party and was an integral participant in our annual solstice celebrations.
TC: I met Glynn when I was 14 years old and he was dating my older sister. I was an introverted bookworm with a stutter in a small town, and Glynn appeared worldly, wore bowler hats, cravats and carried an ornate walking cane (although he didn’t need a cane).
While he waited interminably for my sister, I would ask him a million questions and tell him about the books I was reading. He was the only person I knew who had the patience to hear me finish a sentence and who was genuinely interested in novels. We remained friends throughout adulthood and were not surprised when we realized we were both writing poetry.
CH: Letter Sent Inland: Selected Poems of Glynn Monroe Irby collects Glynn’s poetry in an individual volume for the first time. How did you come about engaging with this project?
KE: When Glynn passed away, several of his friends approached me and said that they would like to publish a volume of his poetry. Daniel Carrington and I both had PDF manuscripts of collections Glynn had put together and submitted to various presses, but they had gone unpublished. Dustin Pickering had worked with Glynn on covers and editing in the past, and he offered to help. Chuck Wemple and I discussed taking Glynn’s best work and creating a curated collection, and Chuck offered to facilitate the meetings.
Because Glynn had delegated funds to be given to organizations that promoted poetry and the arts, the executor of his estate decided to award some money to hotpoet for our projects, one of which was to include this book. We had been throwing events and benefits for years, and we felt it was time to become an official nonprofit and devote our resources and energies in a more focused way.
Glynn’s friend Jack Kendall, an accountant who has represented nonprofits over the years, agreed to be on the board as secretary/treasurer and graciously took on the bulk of paperwork needed to establish us as a nonprofit. Tina and I set up a bank account, my daughter Dominique helped to design our website where we advertised the book in advance, so that gave us a means to publicize the project. At that point we were underway. We began meeting weekly via ZOOM, and with each meeting would review what we had accomplished and then set up tasks to be finished before the next meeting.
CH: Book publication is always a collaborative process. Because this is a posthumous volume, I’m sure there were particular challenges, not the least of which was not having Glynn to consult. Tell us a little about the process and challenges in creating this collection.
KE: Glynn was a perfectionist, and it helped that the poems we had were complete and well crafted, but we still had some challenges with creating a cohesive manuscript from the extensive body of work he left behind. I think Daniel suggested the title “Letters Sent Inland,” which was a phrase from one of Glynn’s poems, and that sparked the concept of arranging four sections, beginning with coastal poems and working our way “inland” to more interior landscapes, moving even deeper with poems of memory, and ending with poems of the heart and spirit.
We decided together which poems were his strongest, and organized sections along these lines. Then we each chose the sections we were most interested in curating: Daniel took on the coastal poems, Chuck chose the inland landscapes, I chose the family and memory, poems, and Dustin took on the heart/spirit poems. We next sequenced our individual sections to create an arc within the section that complemented our overall arc. Daniel did the bulk of the formatting, using his skills and resources as a designer to create a new manuscript, which was challenging because he was working with PDFs.
After we had our manuscript, we began editing. This was challenging because, as you noted, Glynn was not present to consult. Still, we tried to stay as true to Glynn’s intentions as possible with each of the poems. Most of our edits dealt with punctuation, capitalization, word consistency, and we decided that we had to agree as a group before we made any changes. This involved some discussion, even though the changes were relatively few and minor. Occasionally Glynn had two versions of the same poem, and we had to figure out which was more recent (or which was the stronger version). I also had inherited his binder of hard-copy poems that he used when he did readings and we frequently referred to it. We did not always agree on everything, but we resolved our differences as friends, and we all viewed the project as a labor of love. The most important thing to all of us was to produce a collection that honored Glynn and of which he would have been proud.
CH: Since the publication of Letter Sent Inland, hotpoet, Inc. has also launched a bi-annual e-journal, Equinox, in which I had the pleasure of having my work published. What is your vision for the journal? How did you decide on the e-journal format?
TC and KE: The spirit of our solstice parties was always one of spontaneity, joy, and passion—but we decided that Equinox would be a bit different. We wanted a curated journal with emphasis on acquiring more crafted work and artistic balance. Madeleine Castator, our editor, conceived the idea of using the archetypal significance of the equinox as an aesthetic principal. The equinox is the beginning of change—a movement from light to dark in the fall (and dark to light in the spring)— and thus is poised on the cusp of transformation. This informed our theme: “A Change in the Weather.”
Compared to an in-print journal, we thought the e-journal would have less overhead expense and involve less labor, as in the physical work of storing books, keeping inventory, and mailing out orders. That way, we could use the reading fees for prize money and then make the journal free to the public, which we did. However, we did not figure on the cost of joining CLMP and subscribing to Submittable (both of which were expensive but necessary), so we did not exactly break even. But we are learning as we go and are quite proud of the finished product, which we think is beautiful. Kelly is old-school in that she still likes having a physical journal to hold in her hand, but there are so many possibilities with an e-journal that would be simply too expensive for us in a paper journal.
Having made the initial investment in CLMP and Submittable, our next issue will not be constrained by costs. That way, we can continue to have colorful images and beautiful elements of design without worrying about money, and thus we can keep it free to the public, feature both literary and visual arts, and stay true to our mission of supporting artists and their work.
CH: I understand Letters Sent Inland is the first publication of The Wildwood Project. Tell us a little about the mission of The Wildwood Project. Are additional titles currently in the works?
TC and KE: We formed The Wildwood Project to help us in our goal of publishing Glynn’s book, assembling a committee of editors and volunteers who gave generously of their time and efforts. We want to continue with our efforts as a small press and hope to publish future titles, but the committee of editors might change depending on the project and who wants to be involved.
Our next full-length book will probably be a collection of the poems submitted to our solstice celebrations over the past 8 years. We are also interested in publishing a heritage collection that features some of the poetry institutions that helped to found the Houston poetry scene (First Friday, Helios/the Mausoleum, NOTSUOH, etc.). We hope to honor the work of poets who paved the way for the thriving community we have today.
We haven’t yet started on any of these projects yet–these just some ideas that we have been discussing. Our next publication will probably be our traditional instant anthology, a spontaneous collection put together at our winter solstice celebration. This year our theme is “Still I Rise” (from the Maya Angelou poem by that name).
Beginning in December, we are also calling for submissions to the spring edition of Equinox. We don’t want to take on more than we can reasonably do well and we never want to get so overextended that it stops being fun. We think one publication per year might be a good beginning goal for us as a small press.
CH: Running a press, however small, is a huge undertaking. How do you balance your own writing lives with the work of hotpoet, Inc.?
KE: To be honest, that part is hard. My own writing has taken a back seat since starting the nonprofit. It is difficult to juggle the two different pursuits. I hope that as we get more grounded, I will have a better sense of how to stay balanced and keep up with my own writing.
I have heard this same concern voiced by other friends who have been involved in running nonprofits in the past and who quit for that very reason: the difficulty of pursuing their own writing while running the nonprofit. I think it is challenging to switch gears because the nonprofit requires the analytical side of brain and creative writing uses the other side. Hopefully I’ll get better at it, though, since both are important to me.
TC: I have a continuous reverberation of guilt because dedicated time for all endeavors remains a challenge. I am also a committed clinical social worker in education and this too is draining on every level. Add this to my own writing practice which requires cultivation of craft, mind and spirit and I find myself struggling to do all I value in a way that honors my love for it. hotpoet is celebratory though and the solstice parties have become a festive tradition within our local poetry community. I am honored to be a part of this community and to uplift local poets and our work.