Tag Archives: Yusef Komunyakaa

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 J. Scott Brownlee

Background

J. Scott Brownlee will be the featured reader Thursday, November 9, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Scott Brownlee is a poet-of-place from Llano, Texas and a former Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU, where he taught poetry to undergraduates and fifth graders through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. His poems appear in The Kenyon Review, Narrative MagazineHayden’s Ferry Review, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He is the author of the chapbooks Highway or BeliefAscension, and On the Occasion of the Last Old Camp Meeting in Llano County. Honors for these collections include the 2013 Button Poetry Prize, 2014 Robert Phillips Poetry Prize, and 2015 Tree Light Books Prize. His first full-length collection, Requiem for Used Ignition Cap, was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and 2015 Writers’ League of Texas Book Award and selected by C. Dale Young as the winner of the 2015 Orison
Poetry Prize. It also won the 2016 Bob Bush Memorial Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters. Brownlee writes about the people and landscape of rural Texas and is a founding member of The Localists, a literary collective that emphasizes the aesthetically marginalized working class. He currently lives in Austin, Texas and teaches for Brooklyn Poets as a core faculty member.

The Interview

CH: What is your first memory of poetry?

JSB: I think the first poem I actually read and paid attention to was Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Blue Emmett” in Bat City Review. It was lying on the floor of the UT-Austin English Department, and as soon as I got to the end of the poem, I was mesmerized.

CH: When did you become interested in writing? When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?

JSB: I wrote some bad love poems in high school but thought initially I’d be a fiction writer as an undergraduate student. Things didn’t work out that way. I came to poetry as a result of a nudge or two from Michael Adams, a professor and mentor who told me to read Larry Levis and encouraged me to consider the “you can be a poet” idea.

CH: When did you first begin to consider pursuing an MFA? What were the influences that led to that decision?

JSB: I’d been dreaming of going to Michener ever since I figured out what it was, and so for a couple of years I applied there and was rejected. The year I cast a wider net and applied to multiple schools, NYU was the last one I applied to, and I did it on a whim after meeting some New Yorkers at ACL and thinking, “I kind of like these people—might as well apply to school there.” You’d think it would have been a more well-conceived plan, but it honestly wasn’t.

CH: How was your work received by fellow students during your time at NYU? What effect did this very urban location have on your process of writing about place?

JSB: I’d say there was probably about 50% positive support (which was very positive—Yusef Komunyakaa and Sharon Olds lit a fire in my writing life) and 50% negative feedback. At times I found the negative feedback frustrating (students with Ivy League undergrad degrees honestly just didn’t understand the context of rural Texas at all and would generalize to no-end in workshop), but ultimately I think having something to push against—a cliquish and never-appeased criticism of the rural—was helpful. I don’t know if I’d still be a poet-of-place without it.

Living in Brooklyn really helped me write strong poems-of-place as well. Being physically removed from the rural Texas landscape meant I had to imagine it, and I think the myth-making and imaginative leaps my poems make were in part made possible by being in a state of exile / dislocation.

CH: What kind of responses has your work received from the community in which you grew up?

JSB: I thought it would be negative initially, in all honesty, but it’s been 100% positive overall. There aren’t necessarily many poetry readers in Llano, Texas, but many members of that community still gave my first book a try, and I’m grateful that they did. Accessibility is important to me. I wanted to write a book of poems non-poets could access, and so far the reception of the book has aligned with that intention.

CH: Over what time period were the poems of Requiem for Used Ignition Cap written? Was this book conceived of from the first as a project, or did the book coalesce in a different way?

JSB: I wrote the poems over the course of about six years (the oldest poems are from around 2009, and the newest are from 2015—just several months before the book was published). My first plan for the book was for it to follow a church service in terms of flow and the order of the poems, but in the editing process Luke Hankins (the editor of Orison Books) and C. Dale Young (the judge of the contest I won) proposed some changes to the order that really helped the book take a more organic final shape.

CH: For me, Requiem’s title is deeply evocative. How did you decide on this as the title of the book, and of the poem that shares it?

JSB: The title comes from the poem of the same name that appears near the end of the book, which I wrote as a kind of metaphor for several people I knew growing up who took their own lives with firearms. Technically an “ignition cap” is a car part, but I was thinking of it as the small ignition cap on a bullet that, when struck, can leave so much emptiness and pain in its wake. Both definitions work when considering the meaning of the book’s title (Llano is one of those small towns where people will leave an old car out in the sun to rust down to nothing), which wasn’t intentional but is something I’ve come to appreciate after the fact.

CH: When I read “Disappearing Town,” I was struck by its reflection on the failure of journalism located in urban centers (e.g. the New York Times) to take the time and effort to truly engage with people in rural areas. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, this seems especially important. What kind of feedback have you received since the election regarding the news your poetry brings?

JSB: Thanks for noticing that! You are the first person to catch the intention behind that poem and ask about it. It’s a theme I’ve continued in my second book, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, which has a poem responding to the “poverty porn” mentality journalists and photojournalists tend to take when they cover the lives and landscapes of the working class.

Honestly, the election has had a mostly negative impact on my writing and its reception (which I think is justifiable given the current state of race relations in this country). I find myself in a position where I vehemently disagree with the current administration and feel like they have lied to and manipulated rural people (including rural white people, my primary subject) to no end, but there’s also that element of racism / xenophobia that individual rural people are responsible for themselves, and capturing that while also trying to draw attention to misinterpretations of rural America that are unfairly negative is a very difficult task.

CH: What are you working on now?

JSB: I recently finished and am sending out my second full-length poetry collection, A Little Bit of Hardly Anything, and am about 70% finished with a first draft of a novel called Diamond Kings, which follows a fictional rural Texas high school baseball team on their path through the state playoffs and centers around an episode of racially-linked gun violence that threatens to tear the team and wider community apart.

CH: Who are some poets that inspire and influence your work? What is the most recent book of poetry you’ve read?

JSB: I have too many favorite poets to bore you with list-wise, but right now I’m re-reading Natalie Diaz’s book When My Brother Was an Aztec and want to check out Tyehimba Jess’s book Olio, which I’ve picked up several times in the bookstore but still not gotten around to purchasing quite yet. I try to read local Austin poets as well and so have Lisa Olstein’s new book Late Empire on my coffee table as we speak. If I had to pick only one poet I could read forever, I’d probably pick Larry Levis—mostly because we are both narrative poets-of-place, and I feel like I have more to learn from him each time I revisit his writing.

A Virtual Interview with Huston-Tillotson University’s Katherine D. Oldmixon Garza, Jennine “DOC” Wright, Ryan Sharp, and Mike Hart

Background

Katherine D. Oldmixon Garza, Jennine “DOC” Wright, Ryan Sharp and Mike Hart will be the featured readers Thursday, October 12, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Katherine Durham Oldmixon is Professor and Chair of English at Huston-Tillotson University, and the author of a chapbook, Water Signs; she also co-directs the Poetry at Round Top Festival and is a senior poetry editor for Tupelo Quarterly. Jennine “DOC” Wright holds four Slam titles, and is an MFA student at Spalding University. Ryan Sharp is the Coordinator of Huston-Tillotson University’s Writers’ Studio, and editor of Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review; he is also the author of the chapbook my imaginary old man: poems (Finishing Line Press, 2017). Fiction writer Mike Hart is an Assistant Professor of English/Communications at Huston-Tillotson University. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including Southwestern Review, The Southern Review, The Southern Anthology, and The Greensboro Review.

The Interview

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

KDOG: I must have been about eleven when I began writing about a long essay on Queen Esther (she from the Old Testament), and another about the ghost named Timothy who sat on my bedroom window and sometimes followed me outside in our wooded yard. I thought of myself as a writer then, and then in high school, I began writing poems, which were more like letters to myself. For a long time, I mostly wrote letters.  I also draw, and sometimes when I didn’t think in words, I would draw.  I didn’t think of myself as a visual artist, though.

RS: I remember, back before Netflix and DVR, flipping through the cable channels and happening upon Saul Williams’s Slam. The 90s were an interesting time for poetry in mainstream pop culture. There was the continued development Hip Hop in general, often sporting poetic interludes and skits in-between tracks and in intros and outros. Tupac and Janet Jackson had starred in Poetic Justice about five years before Slam, and Mos Def started hosting HBO’s Def Poetry Jam about five years after. All were incredibly impactful for me. Yet, nothing struck me quite like seeing Saul spit “Amethyst Rocks” in the jail yard, literally rhyming his way out of a butt-whoopin’. I saw that and thought I want to do that (except maybe not while confined within prison walls or under the threat of violence).

Still, I am a little insecure about claiming the title of “poet.” I am no doubt a person who loves to read and write poetry, but I am not sure if I have a clear idea of what criteria is necessary when distinguishing between a poet and a person who writes poetry, or if even such a distinction is necessary. I am also working on my dissertation right now, so I guess I am also sharpening my craft as a scholar. And, while I am excited by the prospects of my project, I am cautious to make too large of claims there as well. That being said, it was a pretty great feeling to get a box full of my imaginary old man chapbooks from Finishing Line Press recently. That felt like a moment that made me feel a bit like I was becoming a poet.

JDW: It really wasn’t until this year that I even thought about it. Before, I just thought of myself as a poet, and even that title took time to accept. I was so much in awe of other poets to include my mother that I never acknowledged my own work on that level. It wasn’t until I started competing in slams that I took myself seriously as a poet. This year I wrote a children’s book and finished writing a musical so it took venturing out of poetry to consider myself a writer.

MH: I have written since I was little. Even, perhaps, before I had the discipline to hand-write or type prose, I was “writing” stories I imagined: stories about my childhood, toys I had, people in my life, dreams I had. I would re-write real conversations, sometimes as they happened, to make them fit narratives in my head. As I got to my teens, I would occasionally write actual works of fiction, maybe for an assignment, maybe because I had to get those internal narratives out. Then, in college, I finally started to focus on craft, on the discipline and focus it usually takes to become a writer. Even then, though, I don’t think I really understood either craft or dedication to it. Maybe I began to understand those things in grad-school. Maybe that’s when I started to imagine that I could be a writer.

CH: How has your career as an educator influenced your growth as a writer? What is one thing you’ve learned from a student (or from teaching) that you carry into your writing life?

MH: When I talk to students about writing, we usually build from the ground up: terminology associated with craft, fundamental principles of writing a story (character, desire, conflict, danger, crisis, denoument, etc.). I find that revisiting those principles with my students, helping them wrestle with how best to apply them to their own writing, makes me reconsider how I’m able to use them in my own writing. From my students, I’m often reminded that good story rarely starts out as a grand idea, a “statement” perhaps about human experience, whatever that is. Instead, story starts with the basics. With an image of a character or a situation or an event. Story is built from tiny parts, from the ground up.

KDOG: Reading literature (and reading a lot of literature) so as to teach and thinking about writing so as to teach writing must be the most significant influence from my profession on my growth as a writer.   Preparing to teach requires deep learning (which is why I require my students to teach in every course.)  One thing I’ve learned from students and from teaching (and from everyone in my life): listen.  Listen before you speak (write); listen more than you speak (write.)

RS: The first thing that comes to mind is the old teaching adage: “The best way to learn is to teach.” Having to not only have thoughts and ideas, but be able to teach thoughts and ideas to has forced me to be a more critical thinker and communicator. Having to present knowledge in interesting and innovative lectures and discussions forces me to reevaluate content in a way that further deepens and strengthens my own knowledge. Furthermore, no matter how many times I have read Their Eyes Were Watching God, or any text for that matter, I find that I am still surprised, and in awe of, the unique readings and perspectives students are able to bring to the text(s). The same goes for poetic forms. I have sat and wrote haikus with students and have been struck by how their fresh approach to the form and their use of language inspires me. All of that colors my reading and writing life, which, in turn, impacts my poetry.CH: Katherine, how did you go about writing and constructing your chapbook, Water Signs?

I imagined the concept of the three linked sonnet crowns, each set in the season of one of the water signs of the western zodiac. Simultaneously with conceiving the braid, I began in Scorpio, which is my sun sign, on a day in my garden, cutting basil flowers. (That crown would move to the center of the three crowns.  So in a way, I worked inside out to the edges.)  I went into a meditative trance, as crazy as that may sound to people, each time I would write, drawing on, weaving together personal, lived memory and present moments, global and intimate. I held the rhythm in my head and let the rhymes and other music come.  I shifted the voice slightly in each crown, as each is a different season in my life, as well, like turning a crystal prism in my palm.  As I write this, I am reminded of my students asking me when we are analyzing a poem or a passage in prose: “Do writers really think of these things when they’re writing?” Yes, yes, I do – but it isn’t calculating.  It’s listening.

JDW: I think I look at it in the opposite. It is my writing that influences me as an educator. I write about social justice issues and identity and tend to incorporate those ideas into my teaching. I often perform poems for my students to introduce topics or to introduce myself in new classes. I also think my poetry presents my passion for my subject so it helps to have an instructor invested in the content. No one wants the coach forced to teach a science course so they just pass out worksheets while they dream about being on the field. Practice what you preach! It wasn’t until I was teaching a unit on poetry and had a student share a poem she wrote about her grandmother that had recently passed to realize it. She cried and the whole class got up and surrounded her. It took bravery. After that I wrote about losing my mother, a poem that I had put off for so long.

CH: Ryan, what was your process in writing and constructing your recently-released chapbook, my imaginary old man?

RS: Patricia Smith was a visiting faculty member during my final semester at Pacific University’s low-residency MFA program, and I was blessed to get to hang out with her quite a bit. She mentioned to me that she had become interested in exploring the formal elements of poetry and talked about how furthering her knowledge of meter and rhyme has enhanced and expanded her poetic tool set.  She had been recommended I check out Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled. After graduating, I sat down and started going through a section describing all of the ways that masterful sonnet writers are able to signify on the form. During one of the book’s iambic pentameter exercises, it dawned on me that, if I were to write ten-syllable—or decasyllabic—lines without much regard for rhythm or poetic feet, I might be able to write lines that seem like really creative iambic pentameter; folks might give me credit for an acrobatic use of a spondee or a dramatic weak ending, when I was actually just writing ten syllables under the guidance of the natural rhythm of American English. The first line I wrote was something like “My imaginary old man is dead.” I thought that was an interesting idea. I am really into giving myself constraints, so I started building a form: decasyllabic lines, no punctuation or capitalization, ambiguous phrases that could be read as parts of different clauses. I had worked with Marvin Bell while at Pacific, so his Dead Man poems started to influence my imaginary old man in how he and his narrative are not static. The form gave me an interesting entry point through which to explore my own complicated paternal relationships and how I was, and still am, processing my childhood. I was obsessed with my imaginary old man for a few years. Some of the poems began to get published. I was invited to do some readings, and people seemed to receive them well.  That encouraged me to start grouping them together, and, luckily, Finishing Line Press liked them enough to give me a chapbook.

CH: Doc, what was your process for writing and constructing you chapbook, A Long Time Coming?

JDK: The title kind of says it all. I put the chapbook together because every time I would feature at a venue, people would come up and ask for copies of poems or ask if I had merch. I chose the poems based on what was being requested as well as including poems that weren’t typical 3-minute slam poems. It took years to even think I could put something like that together on my own. Onc you surround yourself with creatives you know you can really do anything.

CH: As professionals working for a university, how do you make room for your creative endeavors during the busy academic year? What advice would you give someone struggling to find that work / creativity balance?

JDW: I really have no idea. I guess I incorporate poetry/writing into my classes so it is just part of my life now. I still perform on weekends and write in my free time or along with my students when I give them writing prompts. I guess my advice is to love what you do and do what you love so it never feels like work. I am a mother, wife, writer, student, and activist, and all of those require creativity.

KDOG: This is a hard one for me.  I have to think back to before my life ruptured [Garza’s husband and life partner, musician Arturo Lomas Garza, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly in May 2016].  In the past seventeen months, I have written very few poems or toward poems, although I have written a lot of memories, meditations, letters (to myself and others.)  A very few poems.  I did begin another sonnet crown, and made it to the seventh poem, and then I put it down.  I’ve made more with my hands, visual arts, non-linguistic.

Well, when I was an active poet, I wrote mostly in the summer and between semesters, or, rather, I drafted all year, but I worked on poems and the manuscript (another kind of composition) in the interims between teaching.  My writing circles, poet friends who met (meet?) regularly, helped me to keep writing during busy times.  They helped me hold myself accountable, or keep my writer self from disappearing, I guess you would say.

RS: With all I am balancing right now, I have struggled to carve out time to dedicate to writing poems. However, I tend to be of the opinion that there is not such a great distance between the academic and the creative—for me, they seem to be working the same muscle. I am lucky that my work—teacher, editor, PhD candidate, husband, and father—is all about the creative, so I don’t feel like I am all work and no play. My struggle is more with time. I don’t have a lot of it these days. Pursuing my PhD has all but consumed the time I used to dedicate to writing poetry, and I do miss that quite a lot. I have had to try to be slick about how I sneak poetry into my day. One thing I do is that, Instead of listening to music in the car or while mowing the lawn or at the gym or so on, I try to listen to poetry podcasts. My favorites are the Poetry Magazine Podcast and VS, which is a new podcast hosted by Danez Smith and Franny Choi. I have downloaded a few of the Yale Open Courses, and I listen to them as well. When I am at a stop sign or at one of my kids’ soccer games, I use my phone to record bits and pieces of poems that, when I have a moment, I try to sit down and work on or I squirrel away for when I will have the time. I follow my favorite poets on Facebook, and read the poems they post when I can. Also, editing keeps me very engaged in poetry. Sticking with my muscle metaphor, while I am not writing as much as I would like, I still feel like I am exercising my poetry muscle, so, when I do have more time, I feel will be ready to get back to work.

MH: I don’t. Frankly, because of how I write, I find it almost impossible to sit and write during the school semester. I might try to take a little time here or there – between work or parenting or being a person involved with the world – to some prose, but it’s nearly impossible. My advice for someone struggling to find some balance is to wake up earlier. Go to bed later. Carve out time to separate yourself from your real life so that you can live inside constructed narratives for a while. If you can’t carve that time out, be patient. The job will slow down. Kids grow up. Story will always be there, so you’ll have time to create later.

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

RS: There are so many! I already mentioned Saul Williams and Marvin Bell. My teachers: Kwame Dawes, Dorianne Laux, and Joseph Millar. Being a student of Dorianne and Joe’s and having been raised in Portland, the Dickman twins’ poetry have been incredibly influential to me. I’m a big Lucille Clifton fan. Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets is an important book in my development as a poet. Yet, Terrance Hayes will forever be one of my favorite poets. He is my poetry role model—the way he plays with form and words and rhythm. He does everything that I hope to one do be able to do.

JDW: People that I look up to are mostly other spoken word artists and rappers. The ability to tell a story and bend metaphors like putty is an art that I will forever try to master. Dr. Kat at HT [Katherine Durham Oldmixon Garza] and other English instructors made me feel like my ideas were valid regardless of how the words came out and they made me trust in my own voice.

KDOG: Joy Harjo, for certain, and a small group of poets/memoirists with whom I was present in her master class at Taos one summer.  Jane Hirshfield, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Gregory Orr, as well, for spirit.  Derek Walcott, John Donne, Pablo Neruda, for language.  But those are only a few, the few who happened into my mind tonight.

One of the exercises that Joy had us do was to trace our poetic ancestors, those we read who have influenced us.  My list is long, as I am old, and a life-long reader and literary scholar, but I recognize some among all the writers whose work I’ve read entered my ear and moved into my hands.

MH: Flannery O’Conner, Yusef Komunyakaa, Barry Hannah, Fay Weldon, Richard Ford, Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, Adam Johnson.

CH: What has your literary citizenship given you as a writer?

KDOG: Co-directing Poetry at Round Top and editing Tupelo Quarterly (and several other literary magazines) have given me very different things, but in both I am grateful for the opportunities to commune with others, to read and listen. P@RT is a listening experience for me.

Editing has given me awareness of, well, editors, what editors see, hear, look for.  Has this helped me as a writer?  I’m not sure.  One would think I would be more rhetorically astute in submitting, but I am not regular about submitting, especially now.  I really don’t think editing particularly helps me as a writer. It helps me as a teacher.

RS: This dovetails off the previous work-creative balance question. My literary citizenship has given me community. My work at Borderlands not only allows me to be immersed in poetry, but has also afforded me the opportunity to get to meet and talk with so many fantastic poets. Same with Poetry at Round Top. I mentioned Terrance Hayes as my poetic role model. Two years ago I got to eat meals and talk about poetry and fatherhood with him for a whole weekend! I think that “citizenship” implies that I am giving something, which may be true, but I get way more than I give.

JDW: More than anything it has been a way to pass on to youth and minorities that their voices matter [Wright mentors writers in communities]. I have a better grasp on being able to leave the world to future generations if they feel confident to speak up and speak out for change.

CH: What are you working on now?

JDW: I am finishing up my MFA program so I am starting my creative thesis. It will be a collection called “a’SKIN for Trouble.” The collection will look at the intersections of race, gender, and identity. I am also working on the music composition for my musical, which is a fusion of medieval hip hop. It has Morgan Lefay as its protagonists and includes the knights of Camelot, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and some Chaucer’s Tales.

RS: My dissertation takes up the majority of my writing energy in this current stage of my life. In short, I am crafting an argument around how contemporary Black American poets are employing personae to redress and complicate archival representations of Blackness. I also have a related, but separate, project that I am trying to launch that consists of a collection of interviews I have conducted, or aspire to conduct, with contemporary Black American poets. Yet, I have been slowly working away on a newer group of poems that I call my 3 brothers poems. Similar to the my imaginary old man poems, they operate under a series of constraints. Also, similar to the my imaginary old man poems, they are another angle through which I am exploring my family history. The dream is that, once I finish my dissertation, I might take some time to focus on poetry, maybe even apply for a workshop or two, and develop the 3 brothers poems into its own collection.

MH: Now, when I work on stuff, it most frequently leans towards what can be characterized as speculative fiction. Maybe as magical realism. I’m interested in how the impossible interacts with the everyday. However, I live in the everyday, and it’s not something I’m very interested in writing about. I have a collection that I’ve considered sending out, but I haven’t yet done it.

KDOG: I have a medicinal garden.  I’m learning how to make tinctures and salves. Sometimes I give fragrant leaves as gifts.  I walk in the garden and touch our plants. I’m listening to my husband’s music.

A Virtual Interview with Jonathan Moody

Background

Jonathan Moody will be the featured reader Thursday, July 13, 2017 from 7:15 – 9:00 p.m. at BookWoman (5501 N. Lamar #A-105, Austin, TX),

Jonathan Moody holds an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh.  He’s also a Cave Canem graduate fellow whose poetry has appeared in various publications such as African American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Borderlands, Boston Review, The Common, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, and Harvard Review Online.  Moody is the author of The Doomy Poems (Six Gallery Press, 2012).  Olympic Butter Gold, his second collection, won the 2014 Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize.  He lives in Fresno, Texas, with his wife and son and teaches English at Pearland High School.

The Interview

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

JM: What interested me in writing was my mother’s advice. When I was a sophomore in
college, I suffered from bouts of insomnia. My mother felt that I had too many
thoughts racing through my head, which was accurate. She encouraged me to buy a
composition book & empty my thoughts onto the page. I didn’t set out to write poems;
it just happened organically. Writing became just as addictive as playing
PlayStation. So, it didn’t alleviate my sleeping difficulty. In fact, I slept less
after the writing bug latched onto my skin.

As far as my first memory of writing is concerned, I believe it was back when I was
in the 7th or 8th grade. I wrote a short story by hand about a work of art that got
stolen from the Smithsonian. The day after the story was due my English teacher gave
me high praise after the class returned from lunch.

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

JM: My realization that I became a poet had nothing to do with getting published or
receiving acceptance letters from MFA programs. I started becoming a poet the day I
started obsessing over word choice, metaphors, & line breaks.

CH: What motivated you to get your MFA? How did you decide on the University of Pittsburgh?

JM: What motivated me to get my MFA was that I needed to carve out a huge chunk of
time that would enable me to hone my craft.

And the reason why I applied to the University of Pittsburgh was because I’d become
fans of the faculty: specifically Lynn Emanuel and Toi Derricotte. Pitt was also
where Terrance Hayes received his MFA. When I was an undergraduate at Xavier
University of Louisiana, I enrolled in Terrance’s Intro to Poetry course. During
that semester, I went from having a C- at mid-term to having an A+ for the final
grade. Terrance was my only connection with Pitt, and I felt confident that he would
write me a strong letter of recommendation.

CH: How did the MFA program change your approach to writing? What was its biggest gift? Its biggest drawback?

JM: The Pitt MFA Poetry program didn’t change my approach to writing; it’s biggest
gift was the time it afforded me to read, read, read and write. It’s biggest setback
was its inability to procure a third poetry professor. We had a great rotating group
of visiting poets such as Ross Gay, Tracy K. Smith (who’s now the U.S. Poet
Laureate), & Tomaz Salamun (R.I.P.), but Pitt didn’t land a third poetry professor
until after I graduated.

CH: When did you decide to become involved in Cave Canem? How has your experience as a Cave Canem fellow influenced your work?

JM: I applied to Cave Canem while I was at Pitt. My experience at Cave Canem taught
me to be more ruthless when it came to my revisions and to be unapologetic when it
came to my insistence on embracing blackness in my poems.

CH: Tell us a little about your first full-length collection, The Doomy Poems. What was your process in putting the manuscript together? How did you find a publisher?

JM: The Doomy Poems explores the lives of three individuals through the use of
persona poems that are structured as revisionist narratives in which the two main
personas share alternative views on the same event/moment that they’ve experienced.

My writing process for the manuscript changed my whole approach to writing. Before
The Doomy Poems, I never started out a poem with the title in mind first. I’d save
the title for the last item. My usual method involves receiving a trippy image or a
series of lines that are so salient that I have to write them down immediately or
the spark is gone.

With my first book, I was always imagining Doomy and Irina, his love interest,
hanging out. These scenarios or rendezvous would play out in my head. I’m one of
those poets who spends as much time tinkering with titles as I do tinkering with
tension.

Creating such a basic title like “Doomy Pontificates…” was so liberating because I
could channel the bulk of my energy into writing solid poems.

CH: Your old school hip-hop inspired collection Olympic Butter Gold is a terrific read—I love its many voices, its sampling. What inspired this project? Over what period of time were these poems written?

JM: Chuck D inspired me to write Olympic Butter Gold when he made a controversial
comment in his seminal essay “Open Letter on Media, Messages & Pimps” in which he
claims that the United States wouldn’t win a medal in a Hip-Hop or Rap Olympics.

I actually came up with the concept for Olympic Butter Gold in 2011: one year before
I wrote The Doomy Poems. However, I abandoned OBG because I grew too frustrated at
my initial poems which were lousy.

In 2013, the impeding birth of my son as well as the deaths of unarmed black men
such as Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant drove me to figure out which
perspective/angle I wanted to take. Once I figured out my angle, my manuscript had
shape which was sorely lacking back in 2011.

CH: How has your work as a high school teacher influenced your writing?

JM: Within the past two years, teaching high school has influenced how often I write.
In the 2015-16 and the 2016-2017 school term, I didn’t write poems until summertime
arrived. I’m not sure if that will happen again for this school term. A few weeks
ago I wrote seven new poems: two of which have already been accepted for publication
in the Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review. I hope I can continue writing quality poems
throughout the year!

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

JM: I often turn to Langston Hughes, Bob Kaufman, Larry Levis, Lucille Clifton, Jane
Kenyon, & Garcia Lorca for inspiration. Other writers who inspire me are Patricia
Engel, Junot Diaz, Ta-nehisi Coates, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, & Haruki Murakami.

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

JM: The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa