Tag Archives: Philip Levine

A Virtual Interview with Jim LaVilla-Havelin

Jim LaVilla-Havelin will be the featured reader Thursday, June 14, 2018 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Jim LaVilla-Havelin is an educator, arts administrator, community arts advocate, consultant, critic and poet. His fifth book of poems, WEST, POEMS OF A PLACE is recently out from Wings Press. LaVilla-Havelin is the Poetry Editor for the San Antonio Express-News and the Coordinator for National Poetry Month in San Antonio.

LaVilla-Havelin retired in 2013 after seventeen years as the Director of the Young Artist Programs at the Southwest School of Art, to write, teach, and consult. He teaches Creative Writing in the Go Arts Program of Bihl Haus Art, in the Writers in Communities program at Gemini Ink, where he teaches at the Cyndi Taylor Krier Juvenile Correctional Treatment Center, and in the BFA program at the Southwest School of Art, where he teaches The Image of the Artist in Literature and Cinema.

He has offered workshops, classes, and public programs for the McNay, San Antonio Museum of Art, San Antonio Independent School District, Georgetown Poetry Festival, Gemini Ink, and many other sites . He lives in Lytle, Texas, (the “place”,of  “poems of a place” with his wife, artist, Lucia LaVilla-Havelin.

The Interview

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

JL-H: My mother read me Robert Louis Stevenson’s A CHILD’S GARDEN OF VERSES and Mother Goose rhymes, Burl Ives and Belafonte/Odetta/Makeba  and Lenya/Weill poem songs, and Odgen Nash and of course, Dr. Seuss. (That I’m not writing doggerel is a testament to William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman.)

I was writing stories and puppet plays in third grade, and from there, never looked back.

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

JL-H: Consciously, or probably self-consciously, in high school. It was kind of an affectation,  except I was writing, reading voraciously, listening to Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Ginsberg. And wrote a novel when I was in high school (that is, thankfully lost forever). Went off to college as an anti-war radical and a writer (pretentious).

CH: I’ve recently been reading your collection, Counting (Pecan Grove Press, 2010). I was struck by the way these poems engage with the larger world, their social consciousness. How has the theme of social consciousness developed in your work over time?

JL-H: Social consciousness has been part of the work forever. Levertov and Piercy, Merton, Gandhi, Whitman, the Beats, Dan Berrigan, Grace Paley – they were all a significant part of my writing life, shaping my sense of the engaged, committed, writer. And while that has changed some over the years – as radicalism has shifted,too. My work is always political.

CH: Tell us a little about your newest collection, West: Poems of a Place. What got you started on this project? How does this book differ from other work you’ve done?

JL-H: WEST, poems of a place, is a book by a city poet who now lives (and has done for fourteen years now in the country. It is about adjusting my eyes. It is different from other work I’ve done in the way that country life is different from city life. It Is much more about the space of the West, the look of a place, the time of it. I think my earlier work was grounded in place and places, and in multi-sensory observation, but I think the country has cleansed my palate (or is it the palette that it cleansed?)

CH: You’ve long been involved in the community as a teacher and an arts advocate, and you’ve been very active as a “literary citizen.” How has this public commitment to arts and to poetry informed your own work?

JL-H: I hear new work. I find great energy and inspiration in teaching, workshops, students of all ages. I listen closely to the sounds of the poems of others and am amazed at how many ways there really are to look at a blackbird. The work gives me hope, sound, courage and often outrage to keep working at my own writing. (It isn’t so different from the social consciousness – in fact it may be my 21st century version of social consciousness.)

CH: What are some of the things you have learned from your students?

JL-H: Given that I work with students across the lifespan – and in a variety of settings, the lessons are varied and rich – from my Golden’s (senior citizens) to my Juvenile Detention kids to Young Women’s Leadership Academy girls, to fellow writers in many workshops I’ve taught –so just a few of the lessons

  • rage and loss fit on the page with the joy in letting them loose
  • memory is a sharpen-able tool
  • every writer will crack it open when they’re ready
  • there are ways to help folks get ready
  • my voice, my poems, my solutions to problems posed in work are generally only about half-right for most students
  • that half is good enough

CH: Thinking back to your early work as a poet—perhaps to your first book, or earlier—what’s changed in your writing? What threads are constant?

JL-H: I love language, words, the sound of words banging against one another. I love the look of a poem on the page.

What’s changed? The scene, my sense of time (both the local-rural time, and aging time). I think I’m more playful now (though that’s up for argument. Probably my definition of the “meditative quality of writing” has shifted some. (again that’s about time.)

CH: What are you working on now?

JL-H: Many projects – a double-chapbook called Will Be a House / Will Be a Book –

dedicated to my father (house) and my mother (book) is done, looking for someone to love it; PLAYLIST a ten year project, finished, in the hands of two very good readers – a narrative poem about jazz; the second book of a five book sequence of narrative poems which started with SIMON’S MASTERPIECE. So I’m onward to the third book (hoping it doesn’t take 10 years)

CH: Who are some of the poets to whose work you turn, time and again, for inspiration?

JL-H This list is very long. It starts with William Carlos Williams, Walt Whitman, Philip Levine,and Pablo Neruda. But includes local and regional poets, friends.

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

JL-H: THE LAST SHIFT by Philip Levine; VOICES IN THE AIR  by Naomi Shihab Nye and books or manuscripts by Charles Darnell, Linda Simone, Laura Quinn Guidry, and Michelle Hartman.

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 Ken Fontenot

Poet and novelist Ken Fontenot will be the featured reader on November 12, 2015 from 7:15 to 9:00 at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) for November’s 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic.

Background

Ken Fontenot’s most recent book of poetry, Just a Trace of Moon: Selected Poems from 2006 – 2013, was published in 2015 by Pinyon Publishing. He is the author of the novel For Mr. Raindrinker, which has been reissued by Alamo Bay Press in 2015. His poetry collection In a Kingdom of Birds won the Texas Institute of Letters Award for best book of poetry in Texas in 2012. Fontenot’s translations of contemporary German poems have appeared widely. He recently translated Wilhelm Genazino’s novel, Women Softly Singing. A native New Orleanian, he lives and works in Austin, Texas.

The Interview

CH: What was your first inspiration to write poetry? To engage in longer fiction? When did you first begin to think of yourself as a writer?

KF: I started writing at twenty-one, but I was a late bloomer considering many, especially women (via my experience), start writing seriously at eight or nine.  At that age they are no virtuosos, but they still have an advantage over those who begin later by having more years to develop as writers. By the age of twenty-one, they already have significant gains, in reading as well as writing.

My own writing grew out of psychological needs, in my case the need to overcome clinical depression.  And in the spring of 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War, three famous poets–Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and Nikki Giovanni–gave a reading at Tulane University, and I was in the huge audience.  I was impressed, knowing this was my calling.  My first publication that spring was in the Tulane newspaper, a bad imitation of Ginsberg’s “America,” but in retrospect, from my limited and naive viewpoint as a beginner, I was still as high as Mount Everest.

CH: You have published both a novel (For Mr. Raindrinker) and two poetry collections (In a Kingdom of Birds and Just a Trace of Moon: Selected Poems from 2006-2013), as well as good deal of work in translation. How would you identify yourself as a writer?

KF: Rilke said, that for a poet writing fiction, some great and undeniable event must happen to make him/her willing to engage in the struggle of spending several years at prose. In my case, it was a stint in a mental institution, which I consider seminal in my growth as a writer and as a human being.

I identify myself as a writer engaged in Southern regionalism with a cosmopolitan outlook. Many writers are hacks.  If they don’t write for money, they write for prestige.  Even Shakespeare was a hack, albeit a good one.  But neither money nor prestige is guaranteed.  Yet, on a deeper level, authors write because they have to, because they can’t stop. Like smoking. And we can be as little certain whether what we write will last as we are in guessing how many years we still have to live. I have lost much of my ego, so I write simply because the outer world I live in–its people–have encouraged me to keep going.  In 1990 one of my former German students at LSU in Baton Rouge told me, after 12 or thirteen years of study beyond high school and qualifying as a surgeon, that he now has a “trade.”  And that’s how I feel with poetry:  I have a trade.

CH: How did you first become interested in translation? How have you gone about finding work to translate?

KF: My academic credentials are in German language and literature.  The fact is, every time I encounter the German language, I translate it in my head, whether it’s spoken or written.  That’s just what people do who practice a second language (in my case third, the other being French). Translation, then, especially of the literature I admire, becomes something else to do when I’m not able to do my own poetry.

I’m not interested in translating German literature written before, say, 1960.  Many other translators have done so in a definitive way.  Most of those poets (including women like Droste-Hülshoff or Else Lasker-Schüler) are now already fully transcultural.  The German poet Ludwig Steinherr (b. 1962) is a friend, still alive, and I like translating him because he is an innovator in his unique poetic language that continues to evolve.

CH: How has translation influenced your poetry and prose? What are its gifts? Its challenges?

KF: Translating seems to me at times to be impossible work.  First, the act of interpretation must happen, both what the original author says and how that author says it.  How much should one adhere to the original, and how much stray from it in search of a brilliant rendering in the target language? Are completely free renderings (versions) allowed? Puns are practically impossible to deal with, and one move might be to replace them with doable puns in the target language.

The process of translation involves such a concentration in language use that I almost always come away with either memorable words or memorable syntax.  And who can say where these things will pop up in my own poems, albeit unconsciously.?

Really the only problem which translations don’t solve concerns the cultural atmosphere in which a poem takes place.  A reader won’t necessarily understand the local things endemic to that culture.  But then so many poems in English need footnotes to their allusions in the Norton Anthology of Poetry.  I see no difference.

CH: It has been said that the work of each poet is infused with that poet’s obsessions and preoccupations. What are the obsessions of your work? What themes or images do you find yourself frequently exploring?

KF: Robert Hass said in a poem, “all the new thinking is about loss.  In this it resembles all the old thinking.”  Loss, transformation, a great astonishment at simply being alive in an often beautiful world: all these inform my work.

With respect to images, the sun, the moon, and the struggle between light and darkness in both the physical and the symbolic senses–these things occur frequently.  Animals show up a lot.  In Just a Trace of Moon, music is a recurring theme, a leitmotif around which the collection is built.

CH: Your novel, For Mr. Raindrinker, was recently re-released by Alamo Bay Press. How did this re-release come about?

KF: For Mr. Raindrinker was originally published in 2010 by Chuck Taylor’s Slough Press, then located in College Station, Texas.  Mick White assembled that text to be sent to Lightning Source, the print-on-demand company.  Mick went on to Alamo Bay Press where he showed the novel to the director, Pam Booten.  She liked it enough to reissue it with new artwork on the cover, artwork done by a painter with a gallery on Magazine Street in New Orleans.  Her name is Mina Zavala Lanzas.

CH: I have long admired the craft of your poetry. How would you describe your journey to deepen your craft as a poet? How has your work in poetry influenced your prose?

KF: Originality results from the complexity of influences.  One woman I mentored said she was afraid that by reading someone else, his or her style might somehow have a detrimental effect on her writing.  I said:  “Don’t worry about that.  It doesn’t work that way.  Just read.  Keep reading and the influences will sort themselves out in their own manner.”

The theory of the writing process is no secret.  Read something, then write something.  Read something else, then write something else, and show, by what you have written, what you have learned. Of course, it’s not quite so simple.  The processes of seeing, remembering, and experience with the world must come into play.  To continue to test the limits of syntax and diction: that’s what I shoot for.

Since my novel claims to be lyrical, there are individual poems in there–two or three.  But a parataxis is included even in the prose itself. In two sections, for example, I make use of the list device Whitman was so fond of.

CH: Who are your literary influences in poetry and fiction? Your favorite writers/books?

KF: I have read so many poets intensively that if I started listing them, I would leave most of them out.  Some are Robert Bly, James Wright,  Carolyn Kizer, Adrienne Rich, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, Mark Strand, those American poets of my father’s generation.  Too, there’s the New York School of Kenneth Koch, Jimmy Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery.

Foreign influences include Tranströmer, Ritsos, Apollinaire, Desnos, Jacob, Jozsef, Vallejo, Lorca and all the Spanish surrealists.  Of course there are my exact contemporaries as well as the roughly two generations born since I was born.  It’s so hard to keep up, but I do my best.

The influences in my fiction have been mostly the German writers and filmmakers I encountered doing coursework as an undergraduate and graduate student.  In Raindrinker I tried to create a unique first-person narrator with all the idiosyncrasies of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye.

My favorite books have to do with classical music and jazz:  The Lives of the Great Composers, Gary Giddins’ Visions of Jazz, and Ken Burns’ Jazz.

CH: What projects are you working on now?

KF: At the moment I’m writing as few new poems as possible.  Rather, I’m going back to poems written since 1996 or so and seeing if I can breathe new life into those which are not beyond repair.  Revision means much to me.  I belong to a poetry critique group that meets once a month.  There I can get great feedback on how my poems strike other poets, who often happen to be the ideal readers, too.

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

KF: I’ve most recently been reading the collected poems of Frank Stanford who died so young at 30. Actually, I know writers in New Orleans, former friends of Frank.  His poetry is filled with narrative localisms of rural Arkansas along with surrealism.  It’s quite good.  I met him once, I think, in the spring of 1978 at the home of fiction writer Ellen Gilchrist, living at that time uptown in New Orleans’ Garden District.