Category Archives: Poet Interviews

The Impact of Unattractiveness: An Interview with Poet Camille-Yvette Welsch, Author of “The Four Ugliest Children in Chrstendom”

I am very pleased to introduce poet Camille-Yvette Welsch to ZPR readers. I met Camille at this year’s AWP conference in Portland, OR and had the great pleasure of reading with her at the off-site reading for The Word Works. I was immensely engaged with her collection of poems and think you will be too.  To illustrate what I mean, here is a sample poem from her book, followed by our interview together.

 

The Ugliest Girl in Christendom Goes to the Gynecologist

When she asks the doctor what it looks like,
the doctor hands the girl a small mirror.  The girl curls
her knobby shoulders forward,  places
the glass between her legs and gasps in fury.
Here, at last, all the missing pigment, all
the rich color, the plump curvature she longs for.

Outside, her body glows white, Siberian hair,
pale eyes, skin white as pneumatic froth.  And thin,
so very thin.  When she swims in front
of the pool light, her siblings see
her every attenuated bone, the long fingers
of ribs closing over her heart.  But here,
between her legs, smiling lipstick.

The doctor raises a questioning brow;
the girl scowls more deeply, shimmies
forward on the table and swings her legs down,
the knock of her knees a dull sound.
The doctor leaves, and the girl pulls
on her bra and shirt, contemplates ways
to wear very short skirts, to bend until people see
her burst, the real rage of her body, this small strip.
She pulls her bikinis up slowly, fuming.
What good is a secret that can’t be told?

Tell us about your book and the process of writing it. Where can readers find out more about your book and purchase it?

The book follows the lives of four children who have been adopted by two anthropologists, bent on doing a longitudinal study on ugliness. They handpicked these four children and keep subject reports on each child, monitoring their mental, physical, and emotional lives, and the impact physical unattractiveness has on those lives. In addition to the subject reports, we hear from the children themselves, get a sense of their voices and what it means to live inside these strictures.

The book got its start in some ways when my mother dragged my brothers and me to church as kids. I grew up Catholic and my mother loved the choir at one church in particular. One of the families at the church was led by a very angry woman who could not believe that she had not been invited to be a part of that choir. To make up for it, she screeched through all of the hymns as loudly as possible. When she and her children made their way up the aisle to accept the Eucharist, the kids looked dumpy and ashamed. I was talking to my parents about that as an adult, dubbing them the four ugliest children in Christendom. Immediately my mother said I should write a poem about that. When next faced with a blank page, I did exactly that.

Still, in the course of writing, and even in that initial moment, I had sympathy for those kids. They were in a tough situation with their mother demanding a kind of negative attention. Loudly and in a church. When I started writing the book, all of the poems were in third person. The narrator was a sort of anthropological voice over, in the early 20th century tradition of staring and studying anyone who was not white, cis-normative heterosexual and Eurocentric. My husband has a doctorate in Anthropology and an extensive collection of anthropology books and the early ones are insanely racist and paternalistic. I found myself wondering if we had gotten away from that or if we were simply more subtly immersed.

I submitted some of the poems to a workshop with Marilyn Nelson and she suggested writing from the children’s point of view. I really liked that idea a great deal, to give these charaters a voice would bring us a step closer to empathy rather than the more distant sympathy. Once I started writing in their voices, I felt I understood them much better and I started to see how the poems could become a novel in verse. Even then, I was in for more awakenings. My former student, Kayleb Rae Candrilli read a draft and told me that I had no climax, and they were right. Back to the drawing board again. I found joy in writing it as a novel in verse because there were lots of narrative, structural problems to solve, but because it was poetry, I didn’t have to do a huge amount of transition between time and place.

The other thing that worked out beautifully for me was sending my manuscript to The Word Works. Should you get a finalist or semi-finalist position, they offer feedback. That feedback was key. I revised again, submitted again, and got the acceptance I wanted.

For those interested in reading more, you can find the book at Small Press Distribution

How did you come up with your book’s title?

The titles all use some version of The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom do X. Because they are so visually marked, I wanted each poem, and the title, to also feel visually marked. The titles also gave me an entry point for each poem. I set up the plot and setting generally in the title, as in ‘The Ugliest Girl in Christendom Goes to the Gynecologist’ or ‘The Ugliest Boy in Christendom Attends the Star Wars Conference.’

Who are you reading right now?

I am all over the place, in part because I review books. I just read In My Own Moccasins, Helen Knott’s devastating memoir about violence against indigenous women, both by rapists and by the Canadian government. I was thrilled by Sarah Blake’s novel, Naamah that tells the story of Noah’s wife. She did all of the packing, the planning, the coordinating, the dealing with the in-laws—all of the mental load that plagues women today. It was a revelation. I am also diving into Lynda Barry to see if I can change up some of the ways that I write and teach.

For poetry, I just re-read Denise Duhamel’s book about Barbie, Kinky. Her book is fearless and funny. She pivots in so many directions with Barbie always at the center. My favorite poem is actually the title poem, where Ken and Barbie switch heads. My students are so alarmed by that poem, but it does everything I want poetry to do—it is startling, inventive, funny, and powerful.

What other creative activities do you take part in? What do you do to take a break from teaching, grading, writing, revising, etc?

A break, you say? I am not sure that I take breaks exactly. I do a LOT of reviewing, but I am also learning how to teach children how to write poems. In two classes I am offering this summer, we are creating our own Rorschach blots and writing about them based on an essay by Scott Beal called “Brain Spelunking.” And, I am writing poems with senior citizens about their lives as a part of the Poems from Life project sponsored by the PA Center for the Book.

I am also raising two children, so I find my creativity lit in that context—I designed an escape room style treasure hunt for my son’s birthday, and a series of ridiculous games for my daughter’s. We paint together and build things and make much of clouds and their shapes. Being with my kids helps me to pay more attention to little things as a caterpillar will stop them in their tracks, thus I am halted and returned to the world, breathless and awake.

What projects are you working on now?

Right now, I am working on poems about the body. Years ago, I wrote a poem entitled, “Ode to the Fat Woman at the Mutter Museum who, When Buried, Turned to Soap.” The alkaline in the soil reacted to the fat as it would to lanolin, thus turning it into soap. Crazy fascinating. The body has so much potential and is so very strange. We haul these bodies around but they are like a totally different galaxy inside with civilizations and outposts that we know nothing about. I find that compelling, and when these miraculous bodies don’t respond as we expected, we are at such a loss. Atul Gawande talks about bodies, or at least doctors’ perception of them, as being somewhere between the uniform melt of an ice cube, and the wildly divergent behavior of hurricanes. As a woman who experienced pregnancy, I know just how bizarre the body can be, the unexpected language attached to it, the ways in which it can suddenly and drastically change a life. The poems range from commentary on the Playboy Playmate who mocked a naked woman in a locker room to poems about being sliced open to reveal a face in your womb. I am both in awe and occasionally skeeved by the body and its manufacturings. I think that is a good place to be in a poem.

Camille-Yvette Welsch is the author of The Four Ugliest Children in Christendom and FULL. She works at The Pennsylvania State University where she is a teaching professor of English and director of the High School Writing Day. For more information, go to www.camilleyvettewelsch.com.

 

 

 

Interview with Caroline Goodwin

I am very excited to share this interview with poet and memoir-ist Caroline Goodwin, whom I have known for a couple of years now. We met through OneRoom, a coaching service for creative writers, and I worked closely with her for a combination of 12 months, first when completing my poetry manuscript and now while working on my own memoir.  Please enjoy this enlightening conversation:

Caroline Goodwin moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999 from Sitka, Alaska to attend Stanford’s creative writing program as a Wallace Stegner Fellow. Her books are Trapline (2013), Peregrine (2015) and The Paper Tree (2017). She teaches at California College of the Arts and the Stanford Writer’s Studio; from 2014 – 16 she served as the first Poet Laureate of San Mateo County.

The writing process often seems mysterious, even to writers who practice consistently. Tell me a little about your writing practice and how you keep yourself returning to the page. 

I like to see it as an adventure, a process of discovery. When I’m connected to the work (and this has definitely come and gone over the years — I have gone through long and painful “dry” periods), I look forward to seeing what might occur. I find that if I make it a priority to at least look at the work early in the day, then often the rest of the day is at least partially spent connected with the developing poem. For example, I have two texts set up in my kitchen next to the stove, and my laptop opened to the previous day’s work. I make this a part of my nightly routine, like taking my meds. The texts are: Common Plants of Nunavut and Li: Dynamic Form in Nature. I am working on a series of poems that explores the environmental degradation of our precious Arctic region, infused with my grief journey after losing my husband in August 2016. I think of them as a series of love poems, both for Nick and for the Arctic. I have rules: every poem must be seven lines (I am modeling this after my friend Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s wonderful collection Shy Green Fields). I make my tea and stand at the counter until I have seven lines. I love seeing what comes out in each piece, and I look forward to seeing what the next challenge might be. It’s kind of a puzzle, and it feels like a spiritual practice to me because I depend on a lot of serendipity. I am aiming for a full-length collection of these little guys. They are really weird.

I see that you have published two collections of poetry, one with Finishing Line Press and one with Big Yes Press. It’s easy to assume that once a poet gets a book published, it suddenly becomes easy to publish other works. How would you compare your experiences between your first publication and your second? Do you find it easier to publish now than before your first collection? 

Actually I also published with JackLeg Press in 2013 — a print-on-demand book entitled Trapline. So each of my books has been a different experience. Publishing has changed so much in the last twenty years, as we all know, and there are lots of small presses making terrific books. So I wouldn’t say it’s gotten easier, because the creative work itself is the same (VERY hard). It’s a matter of hanging in there, networking, staying grateful and showing up, staying committed to the art form and putting your hand out to fellow poets. I’ve found each of the presses lovely to work with and most days I can’t actually believe I have 3 books in the world! I also have a tiny chapbook called Text Me, Ishmael, handmade by the Literary Pocketbook series in Wales, UK. Oh, and two more self-published chapbooks, Kodiak Herbal and Gora Verstovia. I sewed these books up myself, punching the holes for the spines with a push pin. It was fun.

Since you are also a writer of non-fiction, tell me how the two genres dovetail for you. 

Great question. I recently carved out a writing retreat for myself in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. My goal was to finish a memoir about my daughter Josephine’s life and death (I’ve been working on this for more than ten years). However, I went to the Yellowknife bookstore and found a book by the poet Roo Borson. Well, before I knew it, my writing retreat was overtaken by a long poem that was exciting to me, that spun out from a line I found in her book: “unreadable book that will not close.” That line seemed, to me, to speak to the experience of grief. Poetry “won” and I stayed with that poem and the memoir was not completed.

I also have three pieces of nonfiction published now. One is about my daughter Josephine and Sitka, Alaska (entitled ROY) and another recent piece entitled AMARANTH. This one surprised me because I finished it six days before my husband died, and it’s full of these crazy premonitions. And I just published an essay in the South Dakota Review entitled “What They Do”. Currently, I’m working on an essay about online dating. So I think I’d say poetry and nonfiction dovetail and help each other, distract from each other, feed and deplete each other, if that makes sense. At the end of the day, they simply help me to figure out what I really want to say about something. The prose is slow for me, but I do hope to finish that memoir someday, I just have to let my mind wander where and when it will. 

What other creative practices do you pursue? 

I knit and crochet (I love Granny squares) and hang out with my pug, Jimi Hendrix. I also like to go boogie boarding in the ocean whenever I can and I’m working on my home garden.

I know that you are a writing coach with OneRoom in addition to teaching, writing, and publishing. How do you juggle it all? 

Very, very, very, very, very chaotically and with a whole lot of help from the Universe. My motto is “slow and steady wins the race” and to give myself lots of slack. If I show up for my own creative work, even if I just look at it briefly, that’s a good day for me.

Would you recommend writers get an MFA in creative writing? 

I have always seen the MFA as a gift to the self. I went to the University of British Columbia partly because needed to get out of a relationship, so I didn’t apply anywhere else. I just knew I needed to leave, but still be close to Alaska. Luckily I had the resources to do so. It was one of the best things I ever did for myself. I still am in touch with and admire the poets in my workshop from grad school. It’s a privilege to have an MFA and I remain grateful for the experience and all it taught me about how to be a poet in the world.

Are you working on any projects now? 

Yes, the manuscript is temporarily called Common Plants of Nunavut. Nunavut is the newest, largest and northernmost territory of Canada. I like the name, and the fact that it was nearly named “Bob” (true story). I love the Arctic; each poem’s title is the common name of a plant. 

When I was in Yellowknife I learned that the city is sitting on 237,000 tonnes of arsenic, the byproduct of a shut-down gold mine, the Giant Mine. That’s enough to kill every human on earth. The landscape is incredibly beautiful, and fragile, lots of colorful rocks and lichens. Many of my childhood weekends were spent on a lake north of Anchorage, and these experiences were profound for me. Going to Yellowknife was a spiritual journey back to the landscape of my childhood, so I’m writing about that. I started another manuscript entitled Old Snow, White Sun, which takes its title from a song by the Japanese acid rock group Kikagaku Moyo (Geometric Designs) and is about a recent love affair among other things. I also hope that my writing might play a small part in valuing and preserving this beautiful earth. I studied biology as an undergrad, so I love plant names. Plants are magical. They are the producers, really the only living thing that MAKES something helpful. They give us everything, really. So when I write I let the sounds of the names and also the ideas and emotions evoked come onto the page, interact, be weird, and possibly add up to a poem.

Can you share one of your poems with ZPR readers?

In a Time of Mourning

Interview with Santa Fe Poet Laureate, Joan Logghe

DRESSING DOWN FOR LOVE

Put on your love dress.
Take off your other garments
the ones that cost you most.
Wear your heart out.
Become a transvestite
for love. Dress as a heart.
Establish a municipality
with eyes you meet on the street.
Enter the election for Darling.
Let kindness reign. Put on
no airs. Be plain as feet
which also may carry you away
along the Love Highway.
Hello. What is your name?
I have forgotten. Remind me.

What did you take away from your experience as Santa Fe Poet Laureate?

First of all, this interview reflects today February 20, 2013 at 6 AM and at any other day and moment, you’d get that set of answers.

I called the two years my experiment with Happiness.  I was ecstatic to be given the opportunity to do my work, the work I love to do and am suited for, with recognition and appreciation from the outer world.  I also learned that being a poet, being called a poet, is a tricky thing.  It doesn’t depend on the outer nearly as much as the inner, the private act of setting aside time, concentration, opening to inspiration, and hoping to be struck by an idea, a music of phrase that results in poetry.  As for the outer, I was riding a wave of invitation and had energy to do everything asked of me.  It reinforced my experience that when we are on our path, the energy is there to buoy or surf one along.

What were some of the most difficult aspects of carrying out the duties of Poet Laureate?

Having to publicize everything I did was very challenging.  I didn’t want to bother my mailing list friends, the press would only have so much of the Poet Laureate activities.  People would ask if I was writing, and indeed, I was taking notes on my life, on the city of Santa Fe, and I wrote one hundred pages of poetry, some occasional and some my usual writing from the domestic. So that was not a problem.  It was hard to say no to people who asked impossible little jaunts for me, so mostly I said yes. I went on a few poetry goose chases.  Valerie Martinez, the city’s second poet laureate told me she mostly said yes, as it was only two years.  I thought I’d be different.  I would say no.  I m older, have grandkids to mind.  But that was exactly why I kept saying yes.

Tell me how you approach putting a manuscript of poetry together for publication.

I often draw from years of work, once I have a focus, theme, topic, some organizational thrust. So, most of my manuscripts come from fifteen years of work.  The only exception was Rice, where

I began keeping a sonnet journal, informal sonnets of 14 lines that surprisingly spanned a crisis.  Good luck for the poem comes from seemingly bad luck.  Then I spent several years organizing, editing,

and culling the over 100 poems down to 78 in the book.  For that final honing down, I had input from the other two chicas in Tres Chicas Books, Miriam Sagan and Renée Gregorio.  It was amusing as after they read the manuscript, I saw that they hardly ever agreed on which poems to omit. So I had to make that decision.

All the other manuscripts I organize in sections.  I like sections, as I am a pretty chaotic organizer, as evidenced by my office.  The books are my aesthetic opportunity to get it together and make some order in my life.

What has been the role of poetry in your development as a creative person?

Since I was a kid I was making things, gift wrapping elaborately, learning to knit, and drawing horses.  In High school I fell for Emily Dickinson and then the Beats.  Who could be more disparate than Allen Ginsberg plying his harmonium as the Children of Light danced in drag on stage, and Emily holed up in Amherst?  I loved poetry.  Friends of my parents saw that and gave me poetry books.  I got to talk with Flo Levitt this year, in her 90’s and in a poetry group. She and her late husband, Irv, gave me books of poems. I have been thanking people who saw me and encouraged me.

If I hadn’t done poetry, it would have been photography. I took over 100 rolls of film, developed them in a series of funky darkrooms around America.  I applied for a job in photography, got turned down, and that was that. With poetry I never applied for the job.  I did what I thought were poetic things, drove a school bus, lived in San Francisco, substitute taught, and worked in a garden center seven springs.  Poetry mostly was in the background, though for six or seven years when I had my first two children and we physically built this house, I stopped. I never went to graduate school, but when I came back to poetry I was fierce about it.  I went to readings, took little workshops.  I studied with the lesbian feminist Melanie Kaye Kantrowich who introduced me to feminist poets.  My mother was a feminist who ran a beauty shop, so I didn’t know the feminist literary tradtion and missed it in college.  Melanie had a partner called Michael, as I did, only hers was a woman. Birds flew around their house in Santa Fe, no cages, just little finches pooping and chirping as we critiqued.  I wrote about the beauty shop.

I think staying with one art form, having a creative aim, was most helpful.  I know people who do several things and very well.  I looked down on that, but now find myself wanting to paint a little, sew, have some relief from having to be on call for poetry all the time.

Who are you reading right now?

Such a sensible question.  This morning I read a Gerald Stern poem out loud from American Poet: the Journal of the Academy of American Poets.  I love his voice and the recently deceased Jack Gilbert, my Pittsburgh guys.  I keep a stack of poetry books by my bed and in the bathroom and in my car.  I have stacks that a friend who designed the Penguin Poetry Series gave me.  I find it hard to fall in love, but when I do I am very faithful, like this 40+ year marriage.  I maybe have a dalliance, but I have a monogamy of art form, and I truly love the poets I love.

Do you have a consistent writing practice?

How embarrassing that you asked.  I encourage students to do so, and I am wildly undisciplined.  Yet I am true to the muse.  If a phrase catches me I grab a pen. I write in the middle of the night, in a car, near and far, like eating green eggs and ham. I write at my typewriter, a manual Olivetti just like I had as a girl and through college, and San Fran and the dairy farm in Wisconsin, until it was stolen in Penasco, New Mexico, I loaned to a friend named Rhonda Velkovitch.  So, I say it’s like meditation where you are asked to return to the breath.  I return to the breath of poetry.  So on the short term I am pathetic, but in the long run, and I am lucky enough to have lived 65 years, I have a very consistent practice.

 

Interview with Redmond, Washington Poet Laureate Jeannine Hall Gailey

JHG200x300 (2)I Forgot to Tell You the Most Important Part…

Without this knowledge, you’ll never make it:
it’s one part fashion advice and two parts survivalist.
Learn to talk to people so they think you’re honest
but never be honest. Cooking eggs may save your life,
so crack them, neat and firm, pour into the skillet,
stir gently. Forget about your shoes; people will judge
you by your shine, the imminent light you offer them.
Be a lamppost in wilderness, be the elephant
in the showroom.  If you steal the idol, make sure
to carry a weighted bag of sand. No surprises: we’ve lied
about having it all. It’s either the piano or the pit viper.
Cinderella’s shoe came off at midnight because it hurt,
and Red Riding Hood’s real story involves cannibalism and a striptease.
Don’t wear red lipstick, don’t you kiss your mother with that mouth?
Long bangs hide a multitude of sins. Ask your grandmother
about the herbs she used to swallow while pregnant.
The butterflies here didn’t start out black, they were white
as onion skin – and the forest was more ominous
before the smokestacks. Well, here’s your little basket
and red coat, sweetheart, sweetmeat, smile like you mean it,
shake what you’ve got while you’ve got it,
go out into the world and knock them dead.

Tell me about the moment you learned you were chosen as Poet Laureate for Redmond, Washington.

Well, the process was somewhat complicated. I was nominated, then I had submit materials, then I had two sets of interviews, then I was told I was chosen for the position. I was only the city’s second Poet Laureate, so I think a lot of the process was new for the city. I got to meet with the Mayor as well. That was a pretty exciting day!

What were/are some of your outreach projects as Poet Laureate?

I’ve had a couple, under the umbrella slogan “Geeks for Poetry, Poetry for Geeks!” Since our community is mostly made up of technical workers (among other companies, Microsoft and Nintendo are here) I was working hard to reach out to a techie crowd with multimedia (an art show with comic-book-style illustrations to go along with my inaugural reading’s poems based on comic books and anime, for instance) and bringing in poets and editors from around the community to talk about subjects like e-publishing, social media, and scientific poetry. I’m also working with the local library, choosing a book of poetry a quarter for the “Redmond Reads Poetry” project.

Discuss your view of the role of education in the creative process? Is an MFA an important credential for artists and writers to attain?

Education of some kind is essential for the creative process. That is, I don’t believe you can become a great writer without a good deal of practice as well as a lot of reading. Reading voraciously – the things being published in contemporary magazines, books from thirty to fifty to two hundred years ago, books popular and unpopular, lauded and unlauded – can only help you improve your sense of voice, your sense of where you belong as a writer. I love fiction and literary criticism as well as poetry, and I think a broad knowledge of all genres is helpful when it comes to building your literary “toolkit.” Is that a phrase, literary toolkit? My very favorite instructional guide to poetry is “Introduction to Poetry” by X.J. Kennedy, and I’m particularly fond of the 1969 and 1989 versions, if you can find them used. For me, speculative fiction writers like Margaret Atwood, Kelly Link and Haruki Murakami have all helped me develop my voice as a poet, so you have to cast a large net, as “your” essential writers may be writers you haven’t discovered yet.

You know, I got my MFA fairly late, in my early thirties, and I had been writing seriously for some years before I got it, which I think made it a more satisfying experience than my earlier degrees. I got an MA in English back in my twenties while I was working full-time for AT&T, and just wasn’t able to get the time to go back until much later, but I never lost my interest in poetry. I think if I had kept on with my poetry routine pre-MFA – that is, going to poetry conferences, regular workshops and writing groups and readings, trying to create my own reading list by visiting at Open Books (Seattle’s poetry-only bookstore with very knowledgeable owner/curators) – I would probably have been fine and eventually published my books anyway, but the MFA gave me a boost in terms of confidence and a focus that is only available when you devote yourself to something singularly for a couple of years.  Encouragement from my very kind mentors made me feel like the writing life wasn’t, in fact, impossible. But encouragement from my regular writing group of ten years (!!) has given me a community, which I think is just as important as an MFA to continuing writing through rejection, setbacks, discouragements, and regular life. We can’t think of the writing life as something that only happens in the academy – that’s not a realistic regimen for most people – but something that can occur along with family and job obligations as well, something we can nurture through reading, attending poetry events, cultivating friendships with other writers.

The MFA used to be required for a teaching position, and there is some evidence that today, in a very competitive environment for non-adjunct positions, a PhD is even encouraged among creative writers, which didn’t used to be the case, so if you want to teach at the college level, I’d say yes, it’s probably necessary (either that or the PhD.) It wouldn’t hurt you to win some big book contests or book awards, either. Did I mention that it’s difficult to get a non-adjunct teaching position in creative writing these days?

But I would encourage people who don’t have the time or money (or inclination) for an MFA to look at other resources, such as writer’s centers (such as The Richard Hugo House here in Seattle or The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis,) and the myriad writer’s conferences and writing retreats available through listings in places like Poets & Writers. I’d encourage them to go to readings in their area, volunteer with local literary magazines, and arrange meetings with other writers on a regular basis.  If I haven’t already mentioned it enough, reading a lot – poetry and fiction, both contemporary and the classics – will never ever hurt your writing.

What has been the role of poetry in your development as a creative person?

I’ve loved poetry a long time, ever since my mom gave me her college textbook when I was about ten years old and I fell in love with “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock!” I’m also very interested and inspired by the visual arts, and spend lots of time at galleries and museums, but my abilities with my hands (when I’ve taken art classes) are at odds with the limits of my imagination. I don’t feel the same limitations with the written word. I’m also not much of a public person, and feel much more comfortable with e-mail than phone calls and personal meetings – probably not too strange a characteristic for writers, as we tend to be introverts. I tend to think of “writing projects” in bigger terms – like, a series of poems rather than a single poem, and am often inspired by something – a piece of music, a film, an artifact like a painting or a comic book image – to write an entire book at a time. That, of course, can take years, but the inspiration or idea usually happens all at once.

Who are you reading right now?

I just finished a wonderful re-release, Stella Gibbons Nightingale Wood, a sort of re-telling of the Cinderella story with a Downton Abbey-esque British-class-structure satirical spin  – and now I’m looking (mosty in vain) for her out-of-print re-telling of the Snow Queen called The Snow-Woman. In terms of poetry, I end up reading mostly books I’m sent for review and I always feel I’m behind on my stack – I know I am, in fact – but I must give glowing recommendations to several new books: Annette Spaulding-Convy’s In Broken Latin, Kelly Davio’s Burn This House, and Jehanne Dubrow’s Red Army Red. I’m also really enjoying the tragi-comic poetry stylings of Gregory Sherl and Noel Sloboda’s mythic-with-a-twist Our Rarer Monsters. I’m also reading the new Philip Pullman edition of Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm and the new Jack Zipes, The Irresistible Fairy Tale.

Do you have a consistent writing practice?

Besides my blog, which I’ve been keeping faithfully since 2005, I probably write about two poems a week and maybe a piece of essay or flash fiction or pseudo-memoir (I’ve been experimenting with genres outside poetry, mostly for fun, not for publication.) When I have freelance writing assignments, they usually take up all my writing energy until they’re turned in – which ends up being a good motivator for getting those assignments done ahead of schedule.

 

Jeannine Hall Gailey is the Poet Laureate of Redmond, Washington, and the author of Becoming the Villainess (Steel Toe Books, 2006) and She Returns to the Floating World (Kitsune Books, 2011). Her upcoming book, Unexplained Fevers, will be available from New Binary Press this spring. Her work has been featured on NPR’s The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. She was a multiple Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Award winner (in 2011 and 2007) and is a 2013 Jack Straw Writer. Her poems have appeared in journals such as The Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. She volunteers as an editorial consultant for Crab Creek Review. Her web site is www.webbish6.com.

Interview with poet Devreaux Baker

DevreauxIt is with genuine honor and pleasure that I introduce today’s featured poet, Devreaux Baker. Devreaux’s poetry came into my life when she submitted a poem for the “200 New Mexico Poems” project last year. Her poem “Red Willow People” is number 93 in the collection and was posted on June 8, 2012. In addition, it will be included in the upcoming print anthology.

Not long after posting her poem, I received a copy of Devreaux’s 2011 collection of poetry of the title. It didn’t take long for me to appreciate and understand why it was selected for the 2011 PEN Oakland Award.  Please enjoy today’s interview with Deveraux immediately following her poem.
***
Recipe for Lorca’s Chocolate Cake 

I worked all night on a chocolate cake for Lorca,
filled with light that does not know what it wants,

created from chocolate so dark it sears hearts
and fills minds with dreams of moon and water.

I used cocoa so pure it causes policemen to weep.
I filled the layers with white linen afternoons,

a hint of ginger and essence of rose creating a dancestep
that wakes your spirit to enter the souls of your feet as a whisper

and fill your body with duende, passion of the first kiss,
becoming a river of fire that ignites your thighs,

and sets loose love reflected in all the eyes of men,
women, children and dogs,

so that one bite of chocolate will rest in your belly
like the tender edge of dawn,

lifting your voice out of the dark rooms of earth
where you sleep, rising up like wind or stars

to encircle my body once again
with your words.

***

How long have you been writing poetry and what set you in motion?I have been writing poetry my entire life. Some of my earliest memories are of writing poems as a child and making small books of poetry. I was raised in a home where story telling was a huge part of our family tradition and poems were freely recited to us by our grandmother. I remember taking long car trips with my family and being entertained by many poetry recitations from my grandmother. I also remember being shown hand bound notebooks that had been passed down from ancestors that were filled with stories and poems and this made a huge impression on me as to the importance of poetry as well as stories within a family.—

DBaker_Red_Willow_Front (2)Tell me about the inspiration behind your collection of poetry, “Red Willow People.”

When I received the HeleneWurlitzer Writing Fellowship I thought I would concentrate on editing an existing manuscript which I took with me to Taos.  It became clear after I had been in residence for the first week that I was there to write a book of poems which reflected the inspiration of the land and the many diverse people who live there.  I did not have a car while in residence which was a huge benefit as I walked everywhere and had an opportunity to more directly engage with the environment. Early on I had the good fortune to meet Jocelyn Martinez who is an incredibly talented artist from the Taos Pueblo. I shared some poetry with her and she offered to supply the cover illustration for the book. My connection with Jocelyn was a huge impetus for bringing the book to completion. A year later I was awarded a PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award for that book.
What, in your opinion,  is the most difficult aspect of getting a book published?I feel very lucky in finding a publisher who believes in my work and is so supportive of my vision. I think one of the hardest things about getting published is not becoming discouraged by rejection. It is so competitive and hard to get anything published these days that I think if a writer finds a small independent press that is a right match for them, they should consider themselves fortunate.

What other creative activities do you purusue?

Some other creative outlets include performance art, radio work, and of course anything to do with being out in nature. For several years I produced a radio program of original student writing for public radio titled The Voyagers Show. Working with students of all ages to produce that show was some of the most gratifying work I have done.  I also enjoy performing poetry readings which incorporate music and have recently staged shows which use live music and masks. I will be returning to Taos      in September for a second Wurlitzer fellowship and am looking forward to producing a new book and a multi media show with several other artists (as yet unknown) from New Mexico. I love the idea of collaborating on a piece that incorporates visual art with the spoken word.
***
Devreaux Baker is a Pushcart Prize nominee and winner of the 2011 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Poetry Prize for her book, Red Willow People. She is the recipient of the 2012 Hawaii Council of Humanities International Poetry Prize, and the Women’s Global Leadership Initiative Poetry Award. Her poetry fellowships include a MacDowell Fellowship, the Hawthornden Castle International Fellowship, three California Arts Council Awards and two Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Fellowships. She has published three books of poetry; Red Willow People, Beyond the Circumstance of Sight, and Light at the Edge and conducted poetry workshops in France and Mexico. She has taught poetry in the schools with the CPITS Program and produced the Voyagers Radio Program of original student writing for KZYX Public Radio.

Interview with Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Merriam-Goldberg

CarynCaryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the 2009-2013 Kansas poet laureate, which has not been an easy feat when one realized the Kansas Arts Commission was eliminated in mid-2011. Despite lack of the state’s support as epitomized by this gesture, Caryn has  managed to successfully put together two different anthologies, Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems, which celebrates Kansas’ Sesquicentennial,  and the subsequent To the Stars Through Difficulties: A Kansas Renga in 150 Voices, both of which began as daily blog postings. Caryn is the third Kansas Poet Laureate and continues to serve as the state continues its search for the next its next distinguished poet to serve in this office.

Please enjoy today’s interview which immediately follows the poem by Caryn:

***

Supercell     

Did you think your life was straight as this road,
something that could be time-lapsed into a predictable gait?
Did you ever try to map lightning, predict when
the thunderhead would pause and fold in on itself?
Have you pointed to a place in the clouds and said,
“there” just before a ghost cloud twisted briefly into form?
It is all nothing, then supercell, multiple stikes through
the clouds while the tips of the grass shimmer awake.
From the deep blue that narrates your life
comes the pouring upward of white curves and blossoms.
From the dark, comes the thunder. Then the violet flash.
From the panorama of what you think you know
comes the collapse of sky, falling on you right now
whether you’re watching the weather or not.
The world dissolves, reforms. What comes surprises,
motion moving all directions simultaneously, like the
losses you carry, talismans strung through your days, singing
of those you’ve loved deep as the blue framing the storm.
It rains for a moment in the field, in your heart,
then the weather stretches open its hand of life and says,
here, this whole sky is for giving.
***

 begin againTell me how you felt the moment you learned you were chosen to serve as the third Poet Laureate of Kansas.

I was thrilled and honored. After working for so many years as an activist poet, helping others find their voices and use those    voices to effect change and bring great meaning and healing to their lives, I had spent a lot of my work life lifting up other writers (which I still feel is a sacred calling). But to be recognized for my work in the community and also for my poetry was one of the greatest honors in my life.

Have you worked with previous Kansas Poet Laureates?

Yes, I worked very closely with the previous poet laureate, Denise Low, and also with Jonathan Holden, our first poet laureate. I also have worked and am still collaborating with poets laureate of other states, especially since I organized a national convergence of poets laureates that brought 20 poets laureate to Kansas for two days of readings, workshops and visiting. I’m about to go to New Hampshire for another such gathering, this one focused on poetry and politics, and I’m looking forward to more generative projects coming out of my time with other state poets laureate.

You mention on your website that when you were very young,  you told your Grandfather that you were going to live in Kansas someday. Can you recall your early impressions of Kansas before you ctually visited? What did Kansas represent to you or how did you imagine it?

All I really knew about Kansas was from the Wizard of Oz movie. When I first got on a plane to go to Missouri — I lived in Columbia, MO and then Kansas City, MO for a total of 4.5 years before I moved to Kansas — I didn’t really know where the Midwest was even, and certainly didn’t know anything about Kansas.

There is often a deep connection to place for Kansas poets. Can you tell me a little bit more about the relationships you are building with“the particulars” of Kansas?

renga-cover-rough-darkI think many poets many places have deep connections to the earth and sky where they live because what better way to get    inspiration? With Kansas, the beauty of this place is far more subtle than in Colorado, where the Rockies blow your mind, or the shores of Lake Superior in Minnesota, which dazzles just about anyone. Here, the main attraction is as much the sky as the land because the weather is astonishing, big-hearted, subject to rapid change, vivid and dramatic, and always happening. I also love the land here — the tallgrass prairies of eastern Kansas (where I live) where the grasses turn red each fall and need to be burned each spring; the Flint Hills and further west, Smoky Hills; the rock formations way out west and wide valleys throughout the state. Kansas is very varied, and the more I live here, the more I see the variety and also the patterns of who migrates through and what tilts each season.

How do poetry, teaching, and community interconnect for you?

All three are woven together so tightly that it’s hard for me to see the separate strands at time. I write, and because I write, I have a writer’s point-of-view when I teach: I can help students revise and strengthen their work, find overall patterns, clear away what keeps them from hearing the calling of the piece of writing. Because I also do a lot of community facilitation –workshops, meetings, etc. — I’m often hearing, in one ear, what my writing and teaching has to do with making community and making positive change in the world while, in the other ear, I’m in tune with what the words we write want to say and how we can best help them.

What role does revision play in writing and how do you approach revising your own work?

Sometimes revision is everything and sometimes not. This is to say that I have revised some writing for years. My novel, THE    DIVORCE GIRL, about to be published is something I started in 1997 after writing it in my head for decades. I spent over a decade simply revising it to the point that I feel like I have sections of it memorized at this point. I have books of poetry I’ve worked on for over a decade, revising some poems dozens of times. I also have things I write and just put out — like most of my blog posts and    some poems — that just come, and that’s that. But I think they tend to “just come” because I’ve written like a maniac since I was about 14, so those trails in my mind lead easily to writing on the page.

You are involved in numerous wonderful projects. Tell me how you maintain balance and protect your writing time while also keeping up with these projects? How do you prioritize?

FrontCoverWebPromosI struggle with this at times, and at times, I feel the    balance. It’s an ongoing practice Today, for example, I had a    meeting with the program director of the Individualized MA program    (in which I teach) about ways to help starting graduate students,    then had lunch with the former poet laureate, Denise Low, to catch    up on writing projects an talk over a contract I was offered on my    book on the Holocaust — NEEDLE IN THE BONE: HOW A HOLOCAUST SURVIVOR AND POLISH RESISTANCE FIGHTER BEAT THE ODDS AND FOUND EACH OTHER. I’m answering emails now, then finishing a letter to a Goddard student, then working on a book proposal for another book before going to teach a writing and yoga workshop. That’s today, and tomorrow will be very different – I’m meeting Kelley Hunt to write some songs, and working on some poetry or fiction (depending on my inclination at the time). I try to do something physical for an hour each day: yoga, walking, going to the gym. I’ve also been sleeping outside on a futon bed on our screened-in porch lately, which is only possible with ease during a handful of days each year (when it’s not too hot or too cold), and being outside helps me most of all to keep balance. I also talk with my husband daily, sharing all kinds of moments from our lives, and I see my friends and kids and other family a lot. It all helps. How I prioritize is to balance the work I need to do (workshops, work with my students, etc.) that’s bound to deadlines with the work I need to do for my soul (my own writing), making room for both. If I feel off kilter, I’ll switch things up a bit.

What’s next?

The Kansas Poet Laureate program is now part of the Kansas Humanities Council, which will be announcing a new poet laureate later this month.

I’m also working on two writing projects which will probably take me over the next year or two: revising a novel on the story of Miriam, from the bible, but set in the U.S. from the 1960s to the present; and writing poetry to go with photos from Stephen Locke, a weather chaser and brilliant photographer (www.tempestgallery.com) for a book on storms and wild weather that we’re pitching through my agent to various publishers.

Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg is the Poet Laureate of Kansas, and the author of 16 books, including four collections of poetry, most recently Begin Again: 150 Kansas Poems (editor, Woodley Press); Landed; The Sky Begins At Your Feet: A Memoir on Cancer, Community & Coming Home to the Body (Ice Cube Books); a forthcoming novel, The Divorce Girl (Ice Cube Books); a non-fiction book, Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other (Potomac Books); a beloved writing guide, Write Where You Are (Free Spirit Press); and several anthologies. She co-edited An Endless Skyway: Poetry of the State Poets Laureate (Ice Cube Books) with Marilyn L. Taylor, Denise Low and Walter Bargen. Founder of Transformative Language Arts – a master’s program in social and personal transformation through the written, spoken and sung word – at Goddard College where she teaches, Mirriam-Goldberg also leads writing workshops widely. With singer Kelley Hunt, she co-writes songs, offers collaborative performances, and leads writing and singing Brave Voice retreats. She writes columns and serves as poet-in-residence for http://www.TheMagazineOfYoga.com. Here daily blog posts, “Everyday Magic,” plus occasional podcasts and writing exercises are at http://www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.wordpress.com, and her websites are http://bravevoice.com/ and www.CarynMirriamGoldberg.com.

Interview with Texas Poet Laureate, Larry Thomas

Larry Head ShotI learned about Larry Thomas by way of “200 New Mexico Poems” when I accepted and subsequently posted his poem, An Aged Navajo Artisan” (#57, April 17, 2012). When I discovered that he is a former poet laureate of Texas, of course I had to interview him. I am impressed with Larry’s hard work and dedication as a poet and find his approach to writing poetry sound. We also share a few favorite prose writers.
Please enjoy this conversation with Larry immediately following his poem, Tide Pool Touch Tank. You will also find Larry’s professional bio directly after the  interview.
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Tide Pool Touch Tank
for Frank

The dank air
of the Maine State Aquarium
is pungent with brine
and the nostril-flaring
smell of fresh fish.

Little children huddle
around a tank
like primitives in a ritual.
Their heads swim
with flashbacks

of moonless, blue-black skies,
of luminous bodies
sparkling through the slats
of their cribs
beside the windows,

ever beyond the reach
of their fat, groping fingers.
Wide-eyed, entranced
by the miracle beneath them,
they take deep breaths,

ease their hands into the black-
green holiness of seawater,
and, with the fingers of gods
trembling in the heavens,
stroke the spiny skin of stars.

(from The Lobsterman’s Dream; first published in The Texas Review)

***

Tell me about your experience as Texas Poet Laureate. What sort of outreach projects did you initiate or further during your term?

My one-year term as the 2008 Texas Poet Laureate began in April 2008 and ended in April 2009.  As soon as my appointment was announced, in April 2007 (my appointment occurred one year prior to the commencement of my one-year term), I received a flood of requests for interviews and invitations to speak/read my poetry to schools, community colleges, universities, and civic organizations such as the Rotary Club, historical societies, poetry societies, and numerous other groups.  I did my best to honor each invitation I received, from throughout the large state of Texas, and only on a couple of occasions had to decline an invitation due to a scheduling conflict, etc.  I never required a speaker’s fee for a presentation; only reimbursement for travel expenses and lodging at a modest motel.  Many schools, especially public institutions, don’t have ample funds available for this sort of activity, so I wanted to make it as financially reasonable for them as possible.  I was privileged to receive a $2,000.00 grant from the Ron Stone Foundation for the Enhancement and Study of Texas History (based in Houston), and I used the entire grant for travel/lodging expenses to venues which didn’t have funds available for such activities.

As to outreach projects, I particularly enjoyed my visits to public schools and college/university creative writing classes.  Many public schools, most unfortunately, have dropped poetry from their basic curriculum, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk to the students about the importance of poetry in their lives and share with them examples of my own work.

Another outreach project, which I initiated, was to set aside time from my busy schedule to work one-on-one with young poets of promise.  I met with them primarily in coffee shops (such as Starbucks), critiqued their work, and answered any questions they had about my own creative process.  I charged no fee for my services, and feel that these young poets benefitted greatly from the time I spent with them and were encouraged to keep reading and writing.  My opinion of their work and the time I spent with them seemed to significantly enhance their confidence as young poets of seriousness.

Does poetry need community?

I feel very strongly that poetry needs community.  Poets spend countless hours crafting and revising their poems for hopeful publication in a distinguished journal or a collection, and do so to share their work with a “community” of appreciative readers.  Otherwise, they would just stash their work in diaries for their eyes alone!

Secondly, although I personally have never been one to join writers’ groups or participate in workshops, I am very much in the minority as a poet in this regard.  Virtually all of the serious poets with whom I am acquainted aggressively seek out and participate in quality workshops, and are members of writers’ groups which meet regularly.  This gives them a chance to present their work to and receive honest feedback from others whose work they respect, and to have their work seriously critiqued for necessary revision.  They feel that their participation in such a group is critical to their own artistic development.

Tell me a little bit about your writing process. Feel free to discuss your writing space, the time of day you write or any rituals you have which help you with your process?

I write in a small study on a rustic Mexican table which I regard as my desk.  My desk sits beneath a window overlooking the Davis Mountains of the Great Chihuahuan Desert.  For years, I composed first drafts on the back side of used computer paper secured in a clipboard, and I always wrote with a cartridge fountain pen.  During the past couple of years, however, I have composed on my laptop.  I generally write in the mornings, and I almost always write to the music of Beethoven which I play at a rather loud although not uncomfortable volume.When I begin my writing process, I often have no conscious idea of what I will write about that morning.  I often start with an image around which I feel I can construct a first draft, and I pay little attention to syntax, line or stanza integrity, or any other sense of “crafting” the poem.  I think that “play with language” is a critical part of the writing process, and that I should “let the words flow” before I begin the strenuous and critical revision process.  After the “play” has ended, I start shaping the amorphous mass of words I have before me, and begin what will be an extensive revision process.  I first start shaping the words into poetic lines and then see if the lines cohere in some manner into stanzas.  Most of my first drafts undergo twenty-five to thirty revisions during my initial writing session before I am reasonably comfortable with them.  I then return to the finished draft for several days, fine-tuning it, until I get the poem where I think it should be.  My “gut” lets me know when it is time to move on to another composition.

How do you approach the large task of putting together and arranging a manuscript? 

Before I even think about putting together a manuscript, I make sure that I have a very large body of published or “publishable” poems of thematic unity, well over one hundred, from which I can select fifty or so for the first draft of the manuscript.  I then approach the shaping of the manuscript in much the same manner I shape an individual poem, placing careful emphasis on theme, tone, consistency of syntax, etc.  I believe that a manuscript should be as seamless as possible, and that each poem in the manuscript should effectively serve the collection as a whole.


What non-writing activities do you practice that inspire creativity and fuel your writing?

Non-writing activities which I feel inspire my creativity are art museum/art gallery attendance, music listening (especially classical), and serious reading.  I spend a lot of time reading the collections of numerous contemporary poets of noteworthy achievement, and short story collections by distinguished fiction writers.  I believe that the short story is the “poetry of prose,” in compression, use of imagery, heightened use of language, etc., and I find a number of literary techniques in well-written short stories which are certainly transferable to the composition of poetry.  Among the contemporary short story masters whom I have found helpful to my development as a poet are Raymond Carver, Breece “DJ” Pancake, Joyce Carol Oates, and Tobias Wolff.

When people ask you what you write about or what your poetry is about, how do you respond?

The subjects of my poems are quite multifarious. I have published complete collections of poetry about the Texas Gulf Coast (The Lighthouse Keeper), the backwoods denizens of deep East Texas (The Woodlanders), the flora, fauna and denizens of far West Texas where I was born and reared (Amazing Grace, Where Skulls Speak Wind, and Stark Beauty), outlaw bikers (The Fraternity of Oblivion), paintings and the properties of color (The Skin of Light), the bird or avian world (A Murder of Crows), wolves (Wolves), and quicksilver (mercury) miners (The Red, Candle-lit Darkness).  When people ask me what my poetry is about, I often reply that it is heavily inspired by the natural world, but also by anything which captures my interest at any given time.  A poem, at least to me, is first the artistic use of language, and secondly a means of transporting the reader to the heart of the mystery, beauty and terror of existence.

What projects are you working on or planning now?

I just completed a chapbook of poems set on the coast of Maine (The Lobsterman’s Dream), forthcoming from El Grito del Lobo Press in a handset letterpress edition with original woodcut illustrations, tentatively scheduled for publication in late spring/early summer 2013.  I also have a book-length collection, Uncle Ernest, forthcoming from the Virtual Artists Collective (Chicago).

***

Professional Bio:

Larry D. Thomas, a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and the 2008 Texas Poet Laureate, has published nineteen collections of poetry, his most recent book-length collection of which is A Murder of Crows (Virtual Artists Collective, Chicago, 2011.  He has two additional books of poetry forthcoming: The Lobsterman’s Dream (El Grito del Lobo Press, Fulton, MO) and Uncle Ernest (Virtual Artists Collective, Chicago).  Among the publications in which his poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming are 200 New Mexico Poems, The Texas Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Sugar House Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and Southwestern American Literature.  His New and Selected Poems (TCU Press 2008) was long-listed for the National Book Award.

Web site: www.LarryDThomas.com