Tag Archives: Natasha Trethewey

A Virtual Interview with Lisa Dordal

Background

Thursday, May 12, 2022 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Event Registration: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-virtual-poetry-reading-featuring-lisa-dordal-tickets-302471098197

Feature Lisa Dordal will be reading from her new collection, Water Lessons (Black Lawrence Press, forthcoming April 2022). Dordal teaches in the English Department at Vanderbilt University and is also the author of Mosaic of the Dark, which was a finalist for the 2019 Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry. She is a Pushcart Prize and Best-of-the-Net nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, the Robert Watson Poetry Prize, and the Betty Gabehart Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in NarrativeRHINOThe SunThe New Ohio ReviewBest New Poets, Greensboro ReviewNinth Letter, and CALYX. Her website is lisadordal.com.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer? a poet?

LD: My first memory of writing poetry is from when I was 8 years old. I wrote a poem (I think it was for a school assignment) about cows and chickens and the pillows I was sure they needed for their heads…!

Then, during high school, I started writing poetry on my own, mostly as a way to deal with what was probably undiagnosed depression. All I knew during high school and college was that I felt different and was deeply unhappy. This was back in the late 70s, early 80s. I would realize much later that I was a lesbian.

It took me a long time to actually think of myself as a poet. I grew up in a very math/science-oriented family—a career as a poet definitely wasn’t on the table! Furthermore, my family of origin embraced fairly traditional gender roles, and the primary expectation was that I would marry a man and that my husband would provide for me. So, after college I dutifully adhered to those expectations and married a man! Through my 20s I wrote poetry occasionally though not as consistently as I had in high school and college. Then, at the age of 30, I realized I was a lesbian and filed for divorce.

I had been a Religious Studies major during college and, in my early 30s, had been enrolled for a few years in a graduate program in feminist theology. In my late 30s, I decided to go to divinity school. During the program, I was drawn to studying the Bible, and one of the things I learned was the importance of asking who has voice in a particular text and who doesn’t, who has power and who doesn’t. Who is central to a story and who isn’t.

Towards the end of my MDiv program I started to write poetry again. Most of the poems I was writing after my long hiatus were about women in the Bible. I creatively re-imagined stories in which women appear only peripherally, hoping to give them a voice that had been long denied. A few months after I finished the program, I saw an advertisement on the Vanderbilt webpage for an evening poetry class. After taking that class, I began auditing poetry workshops at Vanderbilt and eventually applied to the MFA program which I completed in 2011.

CH: What draws you to writing poetry?

LD: I started writing poetry to help process the pain I was feeling in high school and college., and I think I’ve been drawn to it ever since as a way to help me make sense of what it means to be alive in this world. I like the concision of poetry—how it can take people so far with just a few words. I also think there is a real connection for me between theology and poetry: they are both trying to get at something that can’t be fully or directly named. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been drawn to “big” questions. What does it mean to be alive? What happens when we die? Poetry is a natural partner for those sorts of questions.

CH: I understand you have an MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University. What motivated you to get the degree? How did the process meet with your expectations? What changed most for you as a writer in the process of getting the degree?

LD: I had been auditing workshops in the MFA program at Vanderbilt for a couple of years, but I never considered doing the program because of the cost. Once Vanderbilt began to offer financial support to their students, I thought, “why not?”

Doing the program was a huge help to my writing in terms of deepening my understanding of my own voice. But like a lot of people who do MFA programs, I needed some recovery time afterwards, time to turn inward and do a lot of studying and writing on my own to get back on track. Workshops can be challenging—it’s a very intense experience mostly in terms of the emotional work, and you can’t incorporate every opinion, or your poem will just fall apart.

Overall, I’d say it was a completely worthwhile experience. I’d never be doing any of what I’m doing now without the degree

CH: Your first collection, Mosaic of the Dark, came out from Black Lawrence Press in 2018. Tell us a little about it, and your journey toward it. Over what period of time were the poems written? How did you go about selecting and sequencing them? How did they find a home with Black Lawrence Press?

LD: As a whole, Mosaic of the Dark addresses the psychological harm that can arise from restrictive societal expectations for women. Its poems focus on my experiences as a closeted lesbian trying to fit my life into what felt like a prescribed script of heterosexuality, as well as on my mother’s possibly non-heterosexual orientation and eventual death from alcoholism. It took me a long time to write the book—some of the earliest poems were from 2007.

I don’t remember all the decisions I made about sequencing the poems in Mosaic of the Dark, but I’m pleased with how it turned out. I had entered a few contests with Black Lawrence Press and was a finalist a few times, then decided to submit through one of their open reading periods. I was so thrilled when Diane Goettel—the executive editor—called with the news back in May 2016!

CH: Congratulations on your new collection, Water Lessons, just out from Black Lawrence Press. Tell us a little about it, and how the book came together.

LD: In many ways, Water Lessons continues to wrestle with many of the themes of Mosaic of the Dark, especially with respect to my mother. There are a lot of poems in the book about my mother’s alcoholism and eventual death. I thought, after writing Mosaic of the Dark, that I was done writing about my mother, but it turns out I’ll probably never be done writing about her!

There are also poems in this collection about my father’s (recent) dementia and my own childlessness, as well as poems about my own complicity in systemic racism as a white girl growing up in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Those poems were inspired by the work I’ve been doing the past five years or so—thanks in large part to my church, First UU Nashville—to better understand systemic racism and my role in it.

For example, there’s a poem in the book called “Primer,” which was inspired by an NPR interview with a black scholar in which I learned about the racist content in Pippi Longstocking books. I was horrified when I re-read one of my Pippi Longstocking books, and began to think a lot about how problematic narratives operate on young minds.

Water Lessons also examines the patriarchal underpinnings of the world I grew up in, and meditates on a divine presence that, for me, is both keenly felt and necessarily elusive. There’s a lot in the book about relationships between reality and imagination, faith and doubt, and presence and absence.

The book came together quite easily—well, at least that’s how it feels looking back on the process! I do remember wondering to myself after Mosaic of the Dark came out, whether I would ever have enough poems for another book. So maybe it wasn’t an easy process after all—it’s just that the manuscript came together so much more quickly than my first book.

Water Lessons’ four main topics form a loose narrative or chronological arc. The bulk of the poems about my mother’s death (in 2001) come first; poems about the failed adoption my wife and I experienced (after my mother’s death) and about my father’s decline (which began four years ago) come later in the book. Then there are the poems focusing on the dynamics of race, many of which reflect a much earlier period in my life.

I knew I didn’t want to group all the poems by topic because this isn’t how life happens; life is much more fluid than that. So, while I wanted to begin with poems about my mother, I didn’t want to begin with all the poems about my mother. My mother is still very present to me and, consequently, the book, in a certain sense, requires her to appear again and again. The first section of the book ends with the poem “My Mother, Arriving” because this title paves the way for future appearances, as does the last line of the poem: “My mother, not going away.”

I also knew that the postcard poems (“Postcards from the 70s”)—which explore the larger societal messages I received about race, gender, etc.—needed to come relatively early in the book, since they describe the world I grew up in just as much as the poems about my mother’s drinking do. So, the first two sections serve as the foundational and chronological beginning in the narrative arc, while the rest of the book moves forward in time to the present—a present deeply infused by the past.

CH: How did the experiences of putting your first and second books together differ? How has it been to work with Black Lawrence Press?

LD: It took a lot longer to put Mosaic of the Dark together. Some of the poems date from when I was auditing poetry workshops at Vanderbilt—so back in 2006 through 2008. When I received my MFA in 2011, I thought I had a finished manuscript (based on my master’s thesis), ready to send out to publishers. But it turned out that a lot of the poems still needed more work or needed to be scrapped altogether. Over the next five years, I sent out versions of the manuscript, though it wasn’t really ready until 2016.

Because I had my first book published by Black Lawrence Press, I was able to submit Water Lessons as a current author, so the process of submitting was a lot easier. I had loved what they did with Mosaic of the Dark and they were/are such a great press to work with.

CH: I also understand you hold a Master of Divinity from Vanderbilt. How has this background shaped your work as a poet?

LD: Going to divinity school had a huge impact on my journey as a poet. I see poetry very much as a kind of spiritual practice—a way of paying deep meaningful attention to the world. When I read and write poetry, I feel connected to something much bigger than myself and know that I am not alone—that my life is bound up in the lives of those who have come before me and who will come after me. Poetry isn’t my only spiritual practice, but it is definitely one element.

I also see poetry as being very related to the prophetic tradition. In the Bible, the primary role of a prophet was to respond critically to the present—i.e., to call attention to societal issues. So many poets use their gifts to raise awareness about any number of societal ills, and I would argue this kind of poetry is very much in line with the prophetic voice in Biblical tradition. 

In my poetry courses, I make a point of exposing students to poets who are examining racism, calling out white supremacist thinking or calling attention to stories typically ignored in the dominant historical record. In this sense, my work in divinity school continues to impact not only my writing but my teaching.

Even though I’m no longer writing directly about Biblical stories, it’s not unusual for me to incorporate images or stories from the bible into my poetry. For example, my poem “Holy Week” from Mosaic of the Dark is about my mother’s alcoholism but is in conversation with the story of Jesus’s return from death. And my poem “The Lies that Save Us” is in conversation with the story of Sarah and Abraham.

I make similar connections in Water Lessons. For example, in “Postcards from the 70s” I’m next door at my best friend’s house when my friend’s mother appears in the doorway to ask a question. When I finally sat down to write about this moment from more than forty years ago, the Biblical image of the angel appearing to Mary came to me as a way of connecting religious and cultural expectations of women to the narrative scene of the poem.

CH: I know that you now teach in Vanderbilt’s English Department, and I’m curious about the interplay between your teaching and writing lives. How do you make room for your creative work? How has working with students influenced your writing practice?

LD: Making room for creative work is always a bit of a challenge during the school year. I can usually stay on track with my writing practice for the first three or four weeks of the semester, after which things start to fall apart. During the summer, I’m able to devote much more time to writing. I used to beat myself up about not having a more consistent writing practice during the school year, but now I just accept it and I kind of enjoy the rhythm. I love teaching and I love writing. And this way I have the best of both worlds.

CH: Who are some of the poets to whose work you return for inspiration?

LD: Jane Kenyon was one of the first poets whose work resonated with me in a deep way and was one of the most influential poets for me when I was starting out. She writes in a fairly plain style but her poems have such depth.

Marie Howe’s work has had a huge impact on me, and I return to it again and again. In fact, we just finished reading her book What the Living Do in my Intro to Poetry class. What I love about her work is that her voice is simple and conversational but, like Jane Kenyon, has enormous depth. And I love the way she weaves in references to Biblical stories in her poems. Those allusions really resonate with me.

Another poet whose work I admire is Natasha Trethewey—especially her book Native Guard,in which she writes a lot about the loss of her mother. Though the circumstances surrounding her mother’s death are very different from those surrounding mine, I relate deeply to Trethewey’s descriptions and images of loss and grief. She also writes a lot about how historical events are remembered and taught—what gets left out of the main historical record, for example.

Other poets I love and keep retuning to are Ellen Bass, Maxine Kumin, Sharon Olds, Li-Young Lee, and Mark Doty.

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

Well, I just finished re-reading Marie Howe’s book, What the Living Do! That was for class and of course I’ve read it many times before, but I never get tired of those poems. Not long ago I read Didi Jackson’s lovely book, Moon Jar. And now I’m in the process of reading Skirted by Julie Marie Wade and The Absurd Man by Major Jackson.

And now that the semester is over, I’ll be able to read a lot more!

A Virtual Interview with Christopher Manes

Background

Thursday, August 13, 2020  7:15 – 9:00 p.m. — Contact bookwoman2ndthursdaypoetry@gmail.com for meeting information.

Feature Christopher Lee Manes is the author of the newly-released poetry collection Naming the Leper, (LSU Press, 2020). He is a poet, scholar, and educator, and his work has appeared in Louisiana History, the Southwestern Review, Carville: Remembering Leprosy in America, and Think Global Health, an online publication of the Council of Foreign Relations. Manes is a Lecturer I Rhetoric instructor at the University of Texas at Dallas and teaches History at Richland College, where is primary role is Response to Intervention Coordinator for Richland Collegiate High School, a charter school of Dallas County Community College District at Richland College. He lives in Dallas, Texas.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

CM: My first memory is listening to my mother read Edgar Allan Poe poems to me from a book that belonged to my grandfather. “The Raven” captured my imagination. My next memory is listening to my high school English teacher read aloud William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis”; I remember the language being hypnotic, in a way, and my teacher (Mrs. Segura) read it twice: one time just reciting it, but the second time, she stopped after each line and analyzed it. That is when I realized poems had this whole other world that could be discovered. I suddenly became interested in reading poetry and trying to figure out what I could discover from it.

CH: When did you begin writing poetry? When did you begin to think yourself of a poet?

CM: I began writing poetry in the 8th grade. Sonnets. But I did not think of myself as a poet until my first year in grad school when I wrote a chapbook of about 10 poems. Prior to that period, I had written poetry, but I would do so as a means of brainstorming ideas for what I thought would be works of fiction. After I wrote the chapbook, however, I began thinking of other chapbooks and considered myself a poet. It was after I finished my doctoral studies in 2011 that I had the time to investigate topics and write for myself instead of for academic requirements. Between 2012 and 2017, I wrote 9 manuscripts: four book-length and five chapbooks, each ranging from 15-40 pages.

CH: When did you first envision the project that became your new book, Naming the Leper?

CM: The first chapbook I wrote in 2001 was originally titled “Regardez” and included about 10 poems that eventually became my master’s thesis by the same title. In 2017, after the death of a friend of mine, I reread my thesis and, well, frankly, I found it lacking in parts. I felt that what I had written about “leprosy” lacked multiple perspectives and did not fully represent all my family’s experiences. So that April in 2017 I put my thesis aside, stacked my copies of family letters in front of me and opened a binder of medical papers and I gave time to just reading the documents. In May I wrote about 15 new poems, which then inspired the manuscript that would become Naming the Leper. Unlike the first time I had written on the subject, I was 20 years older—in fact, close to the same age of my great-grandfather the year he died—and looked at my family’s medical papers with a completely different understanding and weight.

CH: The LSU Press release for your book mentions interviews with your relatives that were incarcerated in the National Leprosarium at Carville. Were you able to conduct some of these interviews? How was it for you to hear your relatives’ first-hand experience?

CM: The interviews were not with my relatives in Carville but included patients who had known my relatives. My last relative in Carville died the year before I was born in 1977. Additionally, I had interviewed cousins, some of whom had memories of my Uncle Albert. When I first went to Carville in the late 1990s, I had also interviewed one of the nuns who had known some of my family in the leprosarium.

CH: What was your process in crafting the book? To what constraints did you adhere in writing a book of documentary poetry?

CM: It was important to me to not write about my family’s experiences as if they were only in the past. I wanted to show the legacy of trauma that I believe was caused by my family’s forced separation and the terrible knowledge that this isolation did not have to happen, that there was medical and scientific evidence to warrant questioning the stigma about this disease in the 1920s and 1930s, when my great-great Uncle Norbert and my great-grandfather Edmond were forced to go to the leprosarium (Norbert in 1919 and Edmond in 1924).

As someone who teaches history, I believe the past is present, that something from it can be learned and most importantly used today. When I reread my family’s letters, I realized these relatives had longed for a sense of purpose. My great-grandfather, for example, did not mind being studied if he thought the examination would prove useful to medicine and science or improve someone else with his disease. My great-great aunt Marie asked to work in a “leper colony”; therefore, when I wrote Naming the Leper I wanted the documents to have weight and, equally important, to be understood from multiple perspectives since I believe that for far too long amid my own family there has been a tendency to tell only parts of the story but often without analysis or historical context.

As long as “leper colonies” exist, there is a dehumanizing namelessness that people with this disease suffer. When writing these poems, I wanted the names of my relatives and complexity of their perspectives and of their memories to be forefront in the poetry. Without scrutiny, stories about my loved ones become reduced to past events and dates that can seem without relevance today; they may be self-preserving for some in my family, but are not entirely accurate to the lives, tribulations, and legacies of my relatives (Norbert, Edmond, Amelie, Marie, and Albert) who were forced to live inside Carville. While the name of the disease was changed to Hansen’s disease in the mid-twentieth century, people today continue to be shunned because of the stigma and misconceptions of “leprosy”.

CH: Who are some of the poets whose work inspired you as you wrote Naming the Leper?

CM: My poetry guides are Joy Harjo and Natasha Trethewey.

CH: It seems we’re at a unique juncture, in terms of pandemic and its necessity of quarantine, to receive this book. And since quarantine in Carville was effectively a life sentence, I’m also reminded of current conversations about carceral systems. Where do you see connections between your relatives’ experience and current-day issues?

CM: Too often these systems fail to rehabilitate, improve, and regard the people inside them. Carville, for example, was established with good intentions: to provide safety and quality health care for people with “leprosy”, but that is not what happened in it, not for decades. It quickly became a place to send people and then forget them.

Institutions like the National Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana cannot exist without a society that is complicit in doing nothing but pass responsibility off to someone else. “Leprosy” was thought to be a sexually transmitted disease in the early twentieth century. People diagnosed with it were often blamed for their own illness. They were ostracized for what they had and not regarded for who they were.

Incarceration of any kind, in my opinion, assumes a very one-dimensional focus and narrow-mindedness. My own relatives in Carville were not understood and their experiences were not validated by family outside of the institution. My great-grandmother did not make any effort to hear her husband’s grievances about the place because if she had, she would have had to do something, to act outside of her comfort zone. Therefore, she in many ways dismissed him, not in words but in her silence. She abandoned him and convinced herself that he was in the right place, even though he more than once wrote her and his folks that he was not being helped or treated in Carville, and that his disease was not the dread that she believed it to be. My great-grandfather and his siblings did not argue against quarantine, but I think they feared being caged and forgotten, without purpose or hope.

Even today, there is a tendency to think of “leprosy” as being in the past or as a disease that occurs elsewhere. There is a tendency to do as my great-grandmother did and perhaps feel pity for people with this disease but not do the work to change mindsets and advocate for political and social reforms. “Leprosy”—what is today called Hansen’s disease—is not a terminal disease nor does it make limbs fall off, but if left untreated or mistreated, people with this disease can suffer from side effects and other illnesses or compromised health, causing disfigurement or scarring. The fact that in the twenty-first century, globally, we lack healthcare systems that can properly treat these patients, among others, and still have need for leprosariums or “leper colonies” should be a critique of our inhumanity and incompetence. That as a human race we have not done enough to enfold the sick and disabled into our everyday routines is more than a problem; it is a public health crisis and, in the case of the history of “leprosy,” a human rights concern.

CH: What are you working on right now?

CM: A series of poems based on prison stories and racial injustice.

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

CM: Two books: the first is Pierre Reverdy’s The Song of the Dead, translated by Dan Bellm and the second is Unfinished City by Nan Cohen, both of which I picked up at this year’s AWP Conference in San Antonio.

CH: Where can readers find your book?

CM: My book can be obtained at LSU Press or ordered at most bookstores including Book Woman.

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 Ann Howells

Poets Michelle Hartman and Ann Howells  will be the featured readers on Thursday, March 9, 2017 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX).

Background

Ann Howells is editor of the Dallas Poetry Community’s literary magazine Illya’s Honey and author of Under a Lone Star (Village Books Press, 2016), chapbooks Black Crow In Flight (Main Street Rag Publishing), The Rosebud Diaries (Willet Press), and Letters for My Daughter (Flutter Press). She is also the editor of Cattlemen & Cadillacs, an anthology of D/FW poets. Her poems appear both domestically and internationally, and she has four Pushcart nominations.

The Interview

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

AH: In third grade I wrote a poem that was chosen for publication in my school newspaper. That planted a seed — not only could I write but others might actually be interested in what I had to say — a rather momentous realization for an eight-year-old. Still, I remained primarily a reader, quite indiscriminate, even literature that came with cough syrups and on backs of cereal boxes. It was a family joke that I was always curled in a quiet corner with a book. I believe, though, that first publication set the foundation for my writing. In college I shared poems, primarily angst-ridden, with other equally angst-ridden poets, doesn’t everyone? After that, I didn’t return to poetry until my daughter was diagnosed with cancer. My husband traveled, and family lived a thousand miles away. I put on a cheerful face and dealt with my fear through poetry.

CH: How did you become drawn to poetry? When did you begin to identify yourself as a writer? As a poet?

AH: I have always enjoyed a good story, but stories tell what is happening, leave little room for interpretation. A poem has a different meaning for each person who reads it; we each bring our own experience and expectations to it. I should explain that I was a visual artist, and in fact, taught oil painting for several years. I enjoyed lush and vivid images; they were important to me, but found myself turning more and more toward written images as opposed to visual ones. I suppose it was sometime after I became involved with Dallas Poets Community that I began to see myself as a poet. Our founder had recently completed his MFA and was concerned with the manner in which a writer “gives himself permission to be a poet,” that is, to self-identify as a poet. I grew into that identity slowly and didn’t fully identify as a poet until my work was being regularly accepted by journals.

CH: What was your path to becoming a published poet? How have you nurtured yourself and grown your craft?

AH: Another poet in my workshop pressed me to submit, suggesting venues that might be open to my writing style. I wasn’t eager; in fact, I was teaching oil painting for the City of Carrollton at the time, and feeling some of the ideas expressed in my writing might be offensive to a rather conservative city government, I published my first poems under a pseudonym. Seeing my work in print seemed a sort of validation. However, it has only been in the last five or six years that I have made regular submission a part of my routine. I try to keep most of my completed poems under consideration somewhere. When poems return, I reorganize the ones not accepted and send them to another journal. I also attend as many conferences and festivals as I can, meeting other poets, learning, taking and giving advice, keeping up with what contemporaries are writing. I buy a lot of poetry books, and I frequently trade books with other poets.

CH: Tell us a little about your chapbooks Black Crow in Flight and the Rosebud Diaries. Over what periods were the poems for these books written? How did you go about finding publishers for each of the chapbooks?

Black Crow in Flight was written after my father’s death. He was patriarch of our family with children, step-children, grandchildren, and numerous great-grandchildren. He held our family together. All the poems in the book were written during the three to four month period following his death. I submitted the chapbook to several contests, and it became a finalist in two competitions. M. Scott Douglas of Main Street Rag called my home. My chapbook was first runner-up, and he wanted to publish it. He asked if prize money was a consideration or if I was more interested in the publication. Publication, of course! I accepted his offer; I’d understood from the beginning that no one grows rich writing poetry.

The Rosebud Diaries has a similar story. My daughter had a child whom, in the context of the poems, I call Rosebud. Following her birth, my daughter was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. Fearing I was too old to raise a child, she chose a cousin to adopt. Legal difficulties slowed the process, and I cared for both my daughter and her daughter for eighteen months. Poems in the chapbook were written during that period and shortly after. I sought out a small publisher who worked with limited editions to publish that one. Copies of the book were given to family and friends. And, by the way, the cardiologist subsequently found my daughter’s heart condition a temporary aberration.

CH: Tell us a little about your most recent book,Under a Lone Star. What inspired this collection? How does it relate to your previous work?

AH: Under a Lone Star has a completely different story. First, we had moved to Texas explored the state on every two week vacation and three day weekend. I photographed around 200 of the state’s 254 courthouses and  probably saw more of the state than many natives. Second, after I began editing Illya’s Honey, the fifty-five became a popular form of flash fiction. The idea was to tell a complete story in exactly fifty-five words. There were few rules, which I applied to poetry, then utilized journal entries I had made while travelling the state. These poems began life as prose poems written without punctuation. They evolved into free verse poems with a lot of white space. At that point an artist friend, J Darrell Kirkley, asked if I’d like him to illustrate a few of them. I gave him the manuscript, and he returned it several months later with an illustration for every poem. Then, Dorothy Alexander (Village Books Press) accepted the manuscript for publication and took the poems back to a prose poem format but organized like short newspaper columns rather than extending the width of the page. These poems are really quite different than anything else I’ve written.

CH: What was the biggest challenge for you in putting together a full-length collection? How did that experience compare to your experience with Black Crow in Flight and the Rosebud Diaries?

AH: Under a Lone Star just happened. I had the journals, and I was experimenting with prose poems. My artist friend came along at just the right time. My current manuscript, So Long As We Speak Their Names, is more closely aligned with the two chapbooks. It is semi-biographical, containing poems about growing up among watermen along Chesapeake Bay. I have been writing about this subject most of my life. The manuscript grew unwieldy over a number of years. I cut. I shuffled. I replaced. I repeated this countless times. I narrowed the focus and began again. Still it felt disorganized. I finally understood that I was too close to the material to be subjective. Currently, I have a completed manuscript of approximately seventy poems edited by Cindy Huyser. It is now ready to send to prospective publishers. Thank you, Cindy.

CH: Tell us a little about Letters for My Daughter. What was the inspiration for this work? How did you decide on the publishing route for these poems?

AH: Letters for My Daughter contains twenty-eight poems that were written for or about my daughter over the years. I didn’t write any new poems for the book. I simply realized one day that     I had a good group of poems about daughters and the mother/daughter relationship that might appeal to other mothers and daughters. I pulled them into a chapbook, and my friend, Darrell Kirkley designed a cover using my photos, some ribbon, and letters of his own. It was a spur of the moment thing. The book was published, though Flutter Press utilizing CreateSpace for printing. Sandy Benitez (Flutter Press) had published a chapbook by a friend who couldn’t praise her enough, so I sent my manuscript to her. She accepted it. Later I learned she also published four of Steve Klepetar’s chapbooks and recently accepted one by Jeff Alfier. She does not read full length manuscripts, but I recommend her highly for chapbooks.

CH: In addition to being a poet, you’ve also long been an editor. How has your experience as an editor shaped your work?

AH: I became editor for Illya’s Honey in 1999. It is a job I enjoy greatly. In 2013, we gave up printed copy and went on-line. At that time I invited Melanie Pruitt, our primary poetry reader, to become co-editor. This turned out to be a wise decision. It allows me time to write and submit. I’d likely never have gotten either my book or the latest chapbook published if I hadn’t done that. I also edited Cattlemen & Cadillacs, an anthology of greater Dallas/Fort Worth area poets, during the period when Melanie was editing last winter’s Illya’s Honey. She edits summer and winter; I edit spring and fall. I currently have only one copy of Cattlemen & Cadillacs left from the original press run, but I am considering going into a second printing as demand has remained strong. The anthology contains work by seventy-six area poets, including two former Texas Poets Laureate. Work includes everything from haiku to performance to sonnet and free verse. Though Illya’s Honey publishes poets from around the world, it was my work on the journal that awakened me to the wide spectrum of good poetry originating in north Texas.

CH: What are you working on now?

AH: Currently I am concentrating on finding a publisher for So Long As We Speak Their Names and completing a small chapbook about Van Gogh and his work, which is as yet untitled. I have always been fascinated by “Starry Night”–who hasn’t? But I recently began studying some of his other works, particularly his portraits, and reading biographies. One fact that particularly struck me was that he was named after a brother, stillborn, exactly one year before his own birth. Each Sunday as he left the church where his father was minister, he passed the tombstone bearing his name and date. How could he have escaped melancholia with that beginning? That fact inspired my first poem about the artist, and the more I learned, the more I was drawn in.

In addition, I have been working on the spring issue of Illya’s Honey, which I now feel is complete with forty-four poems. Melanie and I recently began requesting poets to refrain from submitting for the two issues following publication. This gives us an opportunity to promote other voices, and ensures that individual poets will be read alternately by Melanie and me.

CH: Who are some poets whose work has influenced yours? What is the last book of poetry that you read?

AH: Pattianne Rogers influenced me greatly. I carried a copy of Geocentric  for quite a while. A poet friend once told me she usually began a reading with something by another poet whom she admired. If no one liked her work, at least they’d know she had good taste. I frequently opened with a poem by Pattianne Rogers. Marge Piercy is another who inspired me. I also enjoy Linda Gregerson, John Grey, Lola Haskins, Jane Hirshfield, Philip Levine (My friends call him Phil.), Donna Masini, Charles Simic, Sue Ellen Thompson, and Natasha Tretheway among many others, not all well known nationally. I enjoy reading poets whose work I’ve admired in journals and poets I’ve published in Illya’s Honey. I follow their careers.

The last books of poetry I read, almost simultaneously, were The Crone at the Casino by Janet McCann (I’m a long time fan), The Distance to Nightfall by Patricia Hamilton (whom I  publish in Illya’s Honey), and A Cut-and-Paste Country by Kathleen Hart (whom I recently met at the Windhover Festival). I read as many or more books by writers I’ve discovered through journals and writers I meet at conferences as I do books by “big names.” I try to subscribe to two journals annually, changing titles each year. And, of course, I read submissions for Illya’s Honey, and poems of those in my workshop group.

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.