Tag Archives: Maya Angelou

A Virtual Interview with Sequoia Maner

Seqouia Maner will be the featured reader Thursday, February 13. 2020 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Sequoia Maner is a poet and Mellon Teaching Fellow of Feminist Studies at Southwestern University. She is coeditor of the book Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era (Routledge, January 2020). Her poems, essays, and reviews have been published in venues such as The Feminist WireMeridiansObsidian, The Langston Hughes Review and elsewhere. Her poem “upon reading the autopsy of Sandra Bland” was a finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize and she is at work on a critical manuscript about the history of African American Elegy.

The Interview

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

SM: I’ve kept journals since I was a girl for song lyrics, poems, and intimate thoughts. I was a quiet observer as a child (still am if I’m honest) and writing was how I processed / articulated in my own special way. I think there are many reasons I was drawn to libraries, books, and music. I spent a significant portion of my childhood in foster care & this special bond with books was a way to process trauma. Books opened worlds for me & libraries have always been a singular refuge. Also, I am sensitive to sound, an auditory learner, so music and poetry play significant roles in my life for mediating the world. I have always been just dazzled by the possibilities of language.

CH: When did you start to think of yourself as a poet? Do you have a primary identity as a writer?

SM: I didn’t have people in my life who wrote for a living & I didn’t even think to dream that I could someday write books like Morrison, or Angelou, or Shange. Those were writers; that couldn’t be me. It wasn’t until my college experience at Duke University that I first called myself a poet but, even then, I didn’t realize a career for myself as a writer. I knew that I would write poetry for a lifetime as a personal self-care ritual, but I was open to career paths, studying chemistry & photography, relegating poetry to the sidelines. As an English major, college was the first time I studied major writers and eras, learned form and structure, and wrote with a close circle of writers. Before then, my writing had been for myself, you know. I started to experiment with public performance in the form of spoken word & collaborations with other artists—even still, I never called myself “a writer.” After college I moved home to Los Angeles, California & was working in an interesting & lucrative career field but I was writing bullshit for corporations and yearned to truly create from a place of intention. So, I enrolled in a PhD program, sold most of my things to move to Austin, TX and never looked back. Now, I am a writer.

I refer to myself as a poet and scholar, giving equal weight to both. Teaching in the classroom plays just as central a role in my life as wiring literary criticism and poetry.

 

CH: I’m currently reading Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era, which of course you recently co-edited. Encountering its discussions of elegies that refuse both consolation and narrow boundaries of time and location has been quite an enriching experience for me. How has the experience of editing this book influenced you?

SM: Oh, it has been beautiful and heavy. I’ll simply say that this project has reaffirmed my dedication to working against oppression and violence in all of the spaces I inhabit.

CH: I recently read your poem, “upon reading the autopsy of Sandra Bland,” and first would like to congratulate you on it being a finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize. I love the way this poem uses etymology and definition to explore alternation of meaning as it investigates and grapples with its subject. The poem is in the form of a justified block of text in which phrases are separated by a slash (“/”), which made me think of the way poems with line breaks are quoted within prose. How did you arrive at this form for the poem?

SM: Thank you. I am so humbled to have been named a finalist—its beyond my dreams!

I have to tell a quick story about this poem! I first wrote this in response to Kenneth Goldsmith’s abhorrent, offensive reading of Mike Brown’s autopsy report as “poetry” to a Brown University audience in 2015. I was so distraught by Sandra Bland’s death. We were the same age. Her arrest and jailing happened two hours away from where I live, on a road I drive often. She was an outspoken activist. She loved black people. She believed in the transformational power of education. She was resilient and inspirational. I didn’t know her, but I feel like she was my sister. She is my sis and I loved her. So, I read every damn word of her autopsy report. Gosh, this was on Christmas Eve (morbid, I know) and I was in a work session with my homegirl, painter Beth Consetta Rubel, and we was vibin. I was in the zone. I wrote this poem in two hours & have never edited it since. It came out in a trance & I remain astounded that I am able to honor her in this way.

This was my attempt to recapture the beauty and brevity of Sandra’s life / to honor breath / to breathe / to acknowledge an afterlife / to unravel the structures that bound her / to identify all the ways one can asphyxiate: miscarriages – economics – policing – mental illness – black womanhood in a white supremacist nation / to release her from all that shit.

Yes, this is an etymological poem that pivots along the varied meanings of “ligature” and “furrow.” I was thinking about how the language of the autopsy report tells us everything and nothing… the language is useless in reviving the dead, useless in telling the truth of it. Although it is a poem about meaning, I think it is a really a poem that reaches beyond meaning, if that makes sense.

Last thing I want to say is that poem was chosen by Patricia Smith as finalist for the Gwendolyn Brooks prize. I submitted it for this purpose alone. I knew that she was also writing exquisite “autopsy poems” & I hoped that she would get it. She got it. I am so honored to have had her read and anoint this poem.

CH: 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?

SM: I have no balance, really. I’ve been in a dry spell with my poetry for too long & I’m really frustrated. I am in the early stages of my career as a professor in a tenure-track role & this job is all encompassing. There are teaching demands, publishing demands, and service demands. This means that for the past year or so I’ve been focused on other kinds of writing: I published the co-edited book, two essays, and a couple of book reviews. I try not to be hard on myself for producing less poetry because shame is useless and debilitating. I try to tell myself that I am building other muscles for the time being and will be stronger when I rec-enter poetry in my life. I am headed to the James Baldwin Conference in Saint Paul de Vence, France for a creative writing workshop in the summer & I am so excited to rediscover my poetic voice.

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

SM: I return to Langston Hughes at different stages in my life. He is so deceptively simple, so pure in his love & hope for black people, and unabashedly critical of oppressive power. Hortense Spillers and James Baldwin are master essayists I look to. Evie Shockley & Douglas Kearney are some of my favorite contemporary poets—I think I share their experimental sensibilities. Brenda Marie Osbey & Sonia Sanchez teach me the power of chant and repetition and pacing. Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Keats, and John Milton have taught me something about formal rigor and beautiful images. Steinbeck’s opening pages of East of Eden rocked my world as did so many of Morrison’s openings—Paradise, Sula, and The Bluest Eye come to mind. I consider two books my literary bibles: Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems and Zora Neale Hurston’s Collected Letters. Both of these writers teach me about authentic voice & the unabashed celebration of black womanhood.

CH: What are you working on now?

SM: I’m working on two monographs. The first is a critical study of Kendrick Lamar’s work. The second is what I’m calling a critical history of the African American elegy.

CH: What do you read for pleasure?

SM: Fiction. I have about four novels on my nightstand at the moment. I adore the detective novels of Chester Himes, the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler. I return to Baldwin/Morrison every other summer, reading their respective bodies of work in full. I love everything Kiese Laymon has written. Right now, I’m about halfway through Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, it is marvelous.

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

SM: Right now I’m toggling between Chad Bennet’s Your New Felling is the Artifact of a Bygone Era, Faylita Hicks’s Hood Witch and AI’s Vice. Additionally, I’m teaching with Rampersad’s Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry, so I’ll be reading nearly the entire volume over the next few months.

A Virtual Interview with Nicole Cortichiato

Nicole Cortichiato will be the featured reader Thursday, November 14, 2019 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Nicole Cortichiato is a writer with narcolepsy who resides on the edge of consciousness. You’ll find her napping in unusual places and making a creative life of joy and service despite her disability. She’s published numerous poems, plays, and children’s stories that blend fiction with reality and dark humor with optimism. Her short play “Fries” was featured in TILT Performance Group’s production of “Flip Side Redux.” She also won 2nd place in Austin Film Festival’s First Three Pages Live competition for her TV script “How to Grow a Man.” If you attend an open mic in Austin, chances are you will see Nicole perform. She’s been featured at Malvern Books’ I Scream Social and Writer’s Roulette, NeWorlDeli’s Poetry Night, and the One Page Salon with Owen Egerton. On the side she is also a member of the band Nicole and Eric’s Guide to a Meaningful Life in which she plays theremin and gives life advice. She lives in Austin with her partner and two demanding corgis.

The Interview

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

NC: Children’s books. I loved the humor, simplicity and illustrations.

I wrote a few short stories in 2nd grade about a dachshund named Boodie. But honestly, I mostly read during my early years or tried to. Often, I would fall asleep because of my undiagnosed narcolepsy.  I wrote in journals and such but it was mostly therapy. I didn’t start writing seriously until about 2012.

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

NC: Only in the last few years. But honestly, sometimes I cringe when people compliment my writing or even call me a writer. Not because I don’t think I am one, but probably because I’m still learning to take a compliment.

CH: In addition to poetry, you’ve also published plays and children’s stories, and you’ve written a TV script. How would you describe yourself as a writer?

NC: Easy going. I’m not hard on myself regarding what I write or don’t write– and I’m not a perfectionist. I edit of course but I don’t make myself crazy doing it. I do make sure I come back around and finish poems or stories that I’ve started. But once I’ve read them out loud at an open mic a couple of times then I’m kind of done with editing. I’m also a meditative writer.

CH: Do you have a primary identity as a writer?

NC: No, I’m just a perpetual learner. If there is a class that makes me uncomfortable, then I will make myself take it. For example, the very thought of memoir made me ill so I took a class on it. I’m probably still trying to figure out my identity but I prefer to dip in as many genre pools as I can.

CH: What excites you about theatrical writing? How do you see the intersection between your theatrical writing and poetry?

NC: Figuring out what is funny and what is not. And of course seeing your play performed and watching how the audience reacts. I like discovering what kind of dialogue keeps an audience’s attention. I feel blessed I can even keep people from getting bored.

When I write theatrically it is mostly dialogue and relationships. My poetry often has a bit of humor. What interests me most about the two intersecting is my connection with the audience. I like to surprise people.

CH: What is your writing life like?

NC: I don’t write everyday. I write mainly in the morning. I don’t care what I write about and I don’t think about it too much before hand. I just write. And then later I’ll read it — sometimes weeks or years later. Sometimes I’ll take a line from it and make a poem or a story. Sometimes I’ll make my list of things to do for the day and I’m inspired. Or I’ll take notes of conversations.

My favorite thing to do is to take a writing class or workshop because then you know you are producing and learning. And the great thing about a class is you can apply almost any idea to the assignments in class. I love the creative writing classes at Austin Community College. I highly recommend them. If I do have a specific goal with my writing— I will meditate before or during the process.

CH: You’ve been public about having narcolepsy. How does your experience with this disability shape your writing?

NC: In the beginning my writing was internal. It was mainly in journals and my therapy. One thing that helped me take my internal to the external was getting a reaction to my poetry. I remember the first piece I read in front of an audience. One woman gasped after my reading and said, “Wow.” It was her reaction that probably encouraged me to get started.

CH: Tell us a little about your experience with the Imagine Art studio.

NC: Imagine Art is a wonderful art studio in Austin for adults with disabilities. When I first came to Austin, it was Imagine Art and Art Spark Texas that first nurtured my creative side regarding visual art and writing. I wrote and directed my first two plays at an Imagine Art artist retreat. And at Art Spark Texas I assisted with a storytelling class called “Opening Minds, Opening Doors (OMOD).” It was OMOD that helped me be a more succinct and impactful writer.

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

NC: I keep taking classes in anything and everything related to writing and performing. My most recent class was “Stand Up for Mental Health” through Art Spark Texas. In that class I learned how to be a stand up comic. I also constantly make myself perform at open mics. Reading poetry in front of a group is infectious and you learn a lot about how to edit your work. In addition to that, I study other people’s work. For example, every few months I go to BookPeople, (the children’s section) to review their newest books. I’ll grab a huge stack of them and then go back downstairs to the coffee shop and spend a couple of hours reviewing them in a notebook.

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

NC: I like finding writers that are also good at performing their poetry. Right now I’m inspired by poetry with unique analogies. I prefer short poetry. And I like poems that tell stories.

My favorites are always changing. Maya Angelou (I love listening to her), John Steinbeck, Franz Kafka, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, Arnold Lobel, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Anthony de Mello, Tracy Oliver, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and Dina El Dessouky.

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

NC: The Arrow” by Lauren Ireland. She has lines that stay with you.

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.