Tag Archives: University of Houston

A Virtual Interview with Robin Reagler

Background

Thursday, August 12, 2021 7:15 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.

Register for this event on EventBrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/bookwoman-2nd-thursday-poetry-reading-and-open-mic-with-robin-reagler-tickets-162818493497

Feature Robin Reagler is a poet, educator, and leader living in Houston, Texas. Over the past 22 years, she transformed Writers inthe Schools (WITS), a small grassroots organization, into a national literary movement with 40 sister programs across the US. She retired in September to focus on her own writing. Since then, she found publishers for two new books of poems. Into The The, winner of the Best Book Award, was released on March 21, World Poetry Day (Backlash Press). Night Is This Anyway, will be published by Lily Poetry Books (March 2022). Reagler is the author of Teeth & Teeth, selected by Natalie Diaz, winner of the Charlotte Mew Prize (Headmistress Press, 2018) and Dear Red Airplane (Seven Kitchens Press, 2012, 2018).

She earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. She has published poems in PloughsharesNorth American ReviewPleiadesCopper NickelIowa ReviewColorado Review, and Zocalo Public Square. Her essays have appeared in books, newspapers, and journals. The Other Mother: Letters from the Outposts of Lesbian Parenting was named best Houston parenting blog by Nickelodeon in 2009.

She has helped shape dozens of new literary organizations and has volunteered on national boards. In 2018-2019 she chaired of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Board of Trustees. Currently she is the Board Chair of LitNet, the national advocacy group representing literary organizations and publishers and Board Secretary for the equity-based Justice Hub Charter School.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry? When did you start thinking of yourself as a writer? As a poet?

RR: My first memory of poetry is my mother reading nursery rhymes to my sister and me. I remember that I had a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson on my bedside table. One of the poems, “Block City,” was about building imaginary worlds.

CH: What motivated you to get an MFA, and a Ph. D. in Creative Writing?

RR: Getting an MFA was, for me, about becoming a better writer and finding a community of writers. Getting a PhD was a career-focused decision. I hoped to teach in a college and that seemed like the best path forward. As it turned out, after I finished my doctorate, I chose to work with Writers in the Schools (WITS), an education organization with a K-12 focus, for 25 years. Now, after taking a year to focus on my own writing, I will be teaching college. Finally!

CH: How would you describe your experience at Iowa? What has been the biggest gift of doing these programs? The biggest drawback?

RR: The great gift of going to a program like Iowa is that I got to meet so many amazing poets and writers. Those friendships continue, even though we live across the nation. Having friends who support each other as writers and as people is the greatest gift for me. The biggest drawback is that when I went to Iowa it was not a diverse community, no matter how you define diversity. And the writers we studied were not very diverse either. This was in the 80s. It may be quite different now.

CH: Tell us a little about Dear Red AIrplane (Seven Kitchens Press, 2011 and 2018) and its re-release.

RR: When I submitted Dear Red Airplane to Seven Kitchens, I felt certain it would win their contest. It did not. I couldn’t believe. I’d been rejected many times, so it’s weird that I was surprised, but I was. A year later I got an email from the editor at 7K, Ron Mohring. He said he couldn’t stop thinking about the poems and asked if it was still available. That is how the chapbook was published the first time. It had a small print run and sold out quickly. The second printing was done through Seven Kitchen’s Rebound Series.

CH: I’ve recently had the pleasure of reading Teeth & Teeth (Headmistress Press, 2018), and was profoundly moved by its weaving of desire, grief, and identity. How did you select the pieces in this chapbook? How did you go about sequencing the poems?

RR: When I wrote the poems in Teeth & Teeth, my father had passed away and my mother was in hospice. The manuscript was selected by Natalie Diaz for the Charlotte Mew Prize. I mention that because I was influenced by Diaz in creating this collection. Her poem “Grief Work” was especially compelling to me. In my grief, I wrote the poems feverishly. I discovered that grief contain more than I had ever imagined—emptiness, anger, loss, rage, desire, love, and even hope.

CH: In Teeth & Teeth, I was really struck by the sense of the line in the poems, and by your use of whitespace and monostich stanza. How do you approach the use of whitespace in your poems?

RR: The line works musically in Teeth & Teeth. The white space provides silence, a key component to that music. In a monostich stanza, the words are isolated. Each line might be the last.

CH: Tell us about your most recent work: Into The The (Backlash Press, 2021) and the forthcoming Night Is This Anyway (Lily Poetry Books, 2022). How do you see the trajectory of this work with respect to your earlier books?

RR: Poems don’t necessarily get published in the order they were created. Into The The contains some of my earliest work, as well as some recent poems. Of the group, I think of it as first, chronologically. Following it, I would place Dear Red Airplane, then Night Is This Anyway (although I’m considering a title change), and then Teeth & Teeth.

CH: I understand you recently retired as Executive Director for Writers in the Schools (WITS) to focus on your own writing. How has this change made a difference for you? What is your writing life like now?

RR: I left Writers in the Schools so that I could focus on my own writing. It has made a huge difference in my writing life. Both Into The The and Night were accepted early in the year. I finished another manuscript that I’m sending to publishers now and am hoping to complete another in the coming months. So having this time has enabled me to BE a writer.

CH: You continue to be involved as a literary citizen. In your view, what are some of the gifts of literary citizenship?

RR: I’m very devoted to the literary community, and I have enjoyed being a part of it. Although writing itself is a solitary act, writers have a great deal to offer one another. Through my activism in organizations such as the WITS Alliance, AWP, and LitNet, I have connected with incredible, dedicated people. We are stronger together and able to serve the public in new and engaging ways.

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

RR: Right now, I am reading Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar.

A Virtual Interview with Melissa Studdard

Melissa Studdard will be the feature for the 2nd Thursday Poetry Reading and Open Mic at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar) on Thursday, March 10, 2016  from 7:15 to 9:00 p.m.

Background

Melissa Studdard is host of VIDA Voices & Views, an editor for American Microreviews and Interviews, and a judge for the monthly Goodreads ¡Poetry! Group contest. She is also the author of the novel, Six Weeks to Yehidah, a poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfastand a collection of interviews, The Tiferet Talk Interviews. Her awards include the Forward National Literature Award and the International Book Award, among others.

Her poetry, fiction, essays, reviews and articles have appeared in a wide range of publications, including Poets & Writers, Tupelo Quarterly, Psychology TodayPleiades, and the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day. Of her debut poetry collection, I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, Robert Pinsky writes, “This poet’s ardent, winning ebullience echoes that of God…” and Cate Marvin says her work “would have no doubt pleased Neruda’s taste for the alchemic impurity of poetry.” Learn more at www.melissastuddard.com.

The Interview

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

MS: Reading drew me to writing. I have always loved reading, and, as a kid, I read way more than I watched television. I was that weird person who read War and Peace over spring break and several volumes of Remembrances of Things Past over the summer. I remember my aunt laughing and asking, “A little light reading for the holiday?”

The thing is, I didn’t know you could become a writer. Writers weren’t actual, living people, as far as I knew. They were were dead and had been so for a long time. So, it never even occurred to me that I could write too—not until I started to meet living writers in my early twenties in my master’s program at the University of Houston, and they demythologized authorship for me. The funny thing is that I was writing in my head all along—I just never thought to put it on the page.

I didn’t start thinking of myself as a writer until I was in my later thirties, though. I’ve been a single mom for decades, and I spent all my time taking care of my daughter and earning a living. It wasn’t until she was older and loved reading too that I sat down and wrote a book. I guess I was trying to impress her—and it worked until she became a teenager. Then I was uncool again.

CH: What led you to choose Sarah Lawrence for your MFA? How has that experience shaped your work as a writer?

MS: I mentioned above that I got my first master’s degree at the University of Houston. As long as I’ve been on the scene, there’s been a well-lit path between Sarah Lawrence and the University of Houston. I walked it backwards—most come from Sarah Lawrence to UH. But it was an easy choice. During the time I was working on my MA at UH, I was surrounded by Sarah Lawrence grads. I even wrote short stories featuring characters who were Sarah Lawrence alums.

When I finally got there for real, it was everything I wanted and more. The environment was one of total support, and there was a vibe of freedom and mutual respect. It was a creativity sanctuary. You were to be authentic, daring, and real. As well, the college helped instill a sense of purpose and social service. Gifts were to be shared. These ideals were not unique to the writing program; they were at the very heart of what it meant to be on that campus in any capacity.

That experience shaped my life as a writer by granting me permission to be who I am in my writing—to be weirdly and happily me instead of trying to write something appropriate or mainstream.

CH: You’ve published a novel and a collection of poetry, as well as a collection of interviews. Do you have a primary identity as a writer? If so, what would that be?

MS: Right now I’d have to say no. In my physical life, I’m a bit nomadic. I like to travel around. I like to meet new people, try new things, have new experiences. I think it’s just who I am. It’s no coincidence that my debut collection is called I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast. I’m hungry. It’s about creating, giving, changing, trying new things. I think there are obvious reasons many of us write—to share, to connect, to make art—but pulsing beneath it all for me is a desire to set myself free and to find my courage. Aren’t they one and the same, anyway?

CH: What inspired you to write Six Weeks to Yehidah? How was that process for you? How did the idea for its companion, My Yehidah, come about?

MS: As I mentioned above, when you get right down to it, I wrote it for my daughter. But, as you know, inspiration is multifaceted. I was inspired by the children’s books I had been reading her—things like The Phantom Tollbooth and The wizard of Oz series. I was also inspired by non-fiction books I was reading about wisdom traditions. I wanted to share those traditions with kids and young adults in a fun, exciting way. One last cone in the inspiration potpourri was that I was in a writer’s group, and I was assigned to read The Oxford Book of Fairy Tales and write a short tale. That’s how the book began. It was just a short tale, and I fell in love with the characters and kept going and going. I had a friend who was also writing a book then, and we exchanged a chapter a month. It kept me going. The book is 19 chapters, and I wrote it in 19 months.

The companion came about because I knew this fabulous artist, Cheryl Kelley, and I was struck by the idea that with her illustrations, we could offer a journal and workbook that could personalize the main character Annalise’s journey for kids.

CH: I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast has been very well-received. How was this book conceived? What was your process in putting it together?

MS: The publisher, Ron Starbuck, said he’d like to bring out a collection of my poems, but I didn’t have one yet. I’d just been writing poems between stories and chapters, and though I really wanted to write a book of poetry someday, I didn’t think the poems I’d written made that—a collection, a complete thing. When I started looking at my poems I began to notice patterns, and I wrote poems to fill in gaps. It was really important to me to have a loose, organic sort of cohesion, and I worked hard for about a year to achieve the kind of associative and unconscious logical connections between poems and sections that was in the poems themselves. Here’s an article at Shewrites that details my exact process, with all the birthing pains and small victories included.

CH: How did you become interested in being an interviewer? How has your work as an interviewer influenced you as a writer?

MS: I was an editor at Tiferet Journal at the time, and the publisher, Donna Baier Stein, wanted to start a podcast and asked me to host it. To this day I’m surprised and flattered that she chose me. She said my voice was warm. That was really a lovely thing to say. So, I said “YES!” Flattery will get you far with me. Eventually, she started to co-host, and then it finally became clear to me that she was doing a great job with it and didn’t really need me anymore, so I started doing VIDA Voices & Views instead. I also curate interviews for American Microreviews & Interviews.

Interviewing is a great passion of mine. I try to interview people who I truly want to study and who I believe have a lot to share. I read everything I can by them—not just their books but their interviews and articles too. I read reviews of their work. I watch their podcasts and listen to their recordings. I tell you this because the answer to the second part of your question is tremendously. When you study someone to the extent I do to interview them, you learn their style and their obsessions and how they approach their subject matter. You even learn, to some degree, how they think. It’s a great honor to interview someone and learn from them in this way.

CH: When I look at your website (melissastuddard.com), I find myself thinking you must be incredibly busy with your work as college professor, interviewer, writer, and editor. With all that going on, how do you create balance in your life?

MS: I won’t kid you—I feel utterly overwhelmed at times. But I love the work, so the work itself reenergizes me. I also make time to rest. Doing nothing, meaning staring at a bird hopping along a limb for an hour or watching a fire crackle, is one of the most soul nourishing, creativity nourishing, and important activities a writer (or human!) can engage in. We need time to daydream and fantasize in order to be creative—even to creatively problem solve outside of the arts. We need time to listen to the earth and the sky and the hum of humanity. It’s sometimes hard to claim that time for ourselves, because we fear we are not doing anything, but we are.

I also meditate and do yoga. I go for a bike ride several times a week. I walk around my neighborhood. I believe in recreation and rest as vital aspects of life and creativity. I say all of this as a reforming workaholic, of course.

CH: What are your current writing projects? What do you see on the horizon in the next couple of years?

MS: I’m happily embroiled in poetry at the moment. I do plan to write more fiction in the future, and possibly even a memoir, but I think the next two books will be poetry. I’m working on them simultaneously. One is a book about a girl who is sort of half-myth and half-dream. She has suffered some abuse, and the book is almost an out-of body sort of response to that abuse, though there are other characters and multiple viewpoints. The other book is all the poems I am writing that do not fit into that book. Like with I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast, I’m trusting that the organizational path will appear when I put my foot on the ground.

CH: Which writers have been your strongest influences? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

MS: The most recent book of poetry I’ve read is Behind my Eyes, by Li-Young Lee. It was a re-reading. I love him. He’s definitely one of my favorite poets. Sometimes when I can’t sleep at night, I put one of his readings on YouTube to soothe myself to sleep, which is kind of funny because he has a poem called “Virtues of the Boring Husband,” in which his talking makes his wife fall asleep. He’s not boring though, I can assure you. His lines take twists and turns and make associations I’d never have foreseen—all so gracefully, so elegantly, so naturally.

Other favorites (which are also influences, of course) are Pablo Neruda, Anne Sexton, Gabriel García Márquez, Amy King, César Vallejo, Audre Lorde, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Dorothy Bryant, Yehuda Amichai, Lucille Clifton, Alejandra Pizarnik, Carson McCullers. I could list so many, but those are the ones who come to mind just now.

CH: What advice would you give a writer who is interested in working in a genre that is new to them?

MS: Know what you love to read in that genre and why. Do you love a writer’s voice? Their character development? The way they handle metaphor? Figure out exactly what thrills you about the books you love, and then you go do it too. You have the opportunity to thrill someone the way your favorite writers have thrilled you. You have the potential to be someone else’s favorite writer. Isn’t that wonderful?