I am finding it very difficult to write an adequate introduction for today’s interview guest, Leah Sewell, whom I know from my undergraduate years at Washburn University. Since our years in the English program at W.U., where our paths crossed frequently in writing circles and workshops, Leah has found inventive ways to resuscitate, and in some cases create, an arts and literary culture in Topeka. The many worthwhile projects she has begun or contributed to are crucial to a small city like Topeka and qualifies her for grand accolades, though I know that Leah’s efforts come from a place of conviction, her love of the creative process, and her dedication to her home town; not from a desire to be recognized. I’ve always known Leah to be exceptionally talented and the writer of great poetry and am thrilled whenever I hear about her accomplishments, whether they be a recent publication or the continued success of her lovely family. Topeka is fortunate to count Leah among it citizens, and I feel equally fortunate to count her among my friends.
Please enjoy Lea’s interview immediately following her poem, “Marionette.”
I dreamed I returned from the bar to find you
holding chopsticks & fresh-rolled sushi, only
they were really crochet hooks that dipped sharp heads
in apology at my ovaries round as dumplings.
I flapped like a stuck moth against the wall.
All my accoutrements — hairpins, false eyelashes, earrings —
sloughed off my body like dust. I unfurled my proboscis
to speak but the voice was a pastel feather. Out in blue night,
our friends saw shadows on shades.
Your limbs chopped like a marionette. They applauded
because you are a scientist who slips pills
into their drinks. I can’t remember why the wall
gulped open like a bruised esophagus to swallow —
maybe I tickled it apart when I shuddered. Your arm
clamped on my waist woke me next morning. On your breath,
evidence—sawdust. I rose & unrolled my plaster tongue.
(forthcoming in Stone Highway Review)
Tell me about your involvement in publishing in Kansas?
When I was a junior at Washburn University, a good friend and fellow English major Ande Davis convinced me to join the university’s newspaper staff. I eventually became an editor and had to learn to design the entertainment section and a monthly entertainment magazine. After I left Washburn, I still wanted to be involved in magazine publication, and I searched out Kerrice Mapes, who was a few issues into publishing this little glossy arts and entertainment magazine called seveneightfive. I went from being a staff writer to a copy editor to managing editor and ultimately the editor-in-chief. During my time there, I learned a lot about Topeka and came to love it and have strong feelings toward it and wanted to help improve it in many ways. I became involved in organizing poetry and art events and doing volunteer work in several organizations. I also wanted to make sure that local writing and writers were given due space in seveneightfive’s pages. Today, the poetry spread is still going strong under the editorship of Topeka poet Dennis Etzel Jr. who publishes work by local authors, interviews and reviews. Nearly seven years later, seveneightfive continues to have a huge presence in the city, a massive following of readers, and does great work with community arts activism. When my family grew with the arrival of my daughter, Sylvia, and my son, Oliver, I gradually became aware that the city could benefit from a family A&E magazine that emphasizes art, reading and community involvement for parents and children. With Kerrice’s enthusiasm and support, we created XYZ Magazine, and I shifted my focus to editing XYZ while Kerrice stayed over at seveneightfive. When I started grad school, I handed the reigns of the EIC position over to Janice Watkins, fellow Washburn English grad (English majors make great editors!) and I’m currently still involved as the art director. All of this experience in publishing led me to designing books, which I get to do now on a freelance basis, producing titles in poetry and prose for Kansas presses like Woodley, Coal City and Mammoth. I’ve also begun an assistant editorship with Coconut Poetry Press based in Atlanta, Georgia, founded by publisher Bruce Covey. My first book design project with Coconut is the book, of the mismatched teacups, of the single-serving spoon by Chicago poet Jenny Boully, which is set to be released this month.
You are also involved with the Topeka Writer’s Workshop. Tell me more about this organization and your role in it.
About four years ago, I realized that I lacked a generative atmosphere, a scene like the one I’d found at college where other writers were sharing their work, talking about poetry, and offering insights to my own work. I saw that the Lawrence Arts Center had a writers workshop, and every Tuesday, I’d hand my colicky newborn son over to my husband, go out into the freezing night and drive down the highway to Lawrence, where I found a group of writers who were welcoming and helpful, but they also seemed like an already cohesive community. I didn’t feel like I could fully enter that community because of the physical distance. I knew a handful of writers in Topeka, and decided to round them up for a Topeka writers workshop. By July of 2009, and with help getting the word out through seveneightfive, I had a group of nearly twenty people, both friends and strangers, who met bi-weekly in the sweltering back room of a furniture warehouse and gallery in Topeka where bats swooped in the rafters and the writing dialogue thrived and bloomed. The numbers eventually dwindled, and rightly so (I think of those first days and wonder how we were able to get everyone’s work looked over), and today the 10-12 regular members of the Topeka Writers Workshop participate in more of a collective model. We each bring a little money to the group for copy costs, reading promotions and the like. We’re an eclectic group, composed of a stay-at-home dad, a painter, a federal judge, a pastor, a couple who live and breathe poetry when they’re not slogging through their day jobs, an adjunct English professor, a graphic artist, a PhD candidate in English, a railroader, mothers and fathers and musicians, and myself, the facilitator. The diversity of the group is perhaps its best characteristic. No one snubs anyone else; all forms, styles and “levels” of writing are welcome. We’re also great friends who support each other but aren’t afraid to offer the occasional gutting critique. Ultimately, our goal is to help each other move forward with our writing and to give unpublished work its first chance to be read and appreciated. We also hold readings twice a year and have put out print materials in the past and plan to do more. We often discuss ways we can engage in community activism, and if I can get everyone in alliance with me, I’m hoping to begin to do just that in 2013 by bringing writing into areas of the community that could benefit from this incredibly gratifying form of expression.
Outside of editing and the Topeka Writer’s Workshop, what writing projects are you engaged in – writing projects for you, I mean?
I’m currently participating in my second semester of the low-residency MFA program at the University of Nebraska, which will culminate in a full-length poetry manuscript, so I’m amassing reams of poems at the rate of up to thirty per semester. I have a chapbook-length manuscript that is sort of languishing and gathering dust while I’m creating all this new work, and in my spare time I’ll go in and do some revisions on that to further its path to eventual publication. My minor as an undergrad was women’s studies, and I’m very interested in exploring themes of feminism and women’s issues in my work. I love to write in persona, and I’m also incredibly interested in the back-stories of women made famous by their boldness; the women of blues and jazz, women notorious as heartbreakers, criminals, or blatantly lustful women. I can feel the stirrings of a uniting theme among my poems in this way, and my eventual full-length collection will most definitely contain a few of the voices of these “wild women,” as my poetry mentor Teri Grimm calls them.
What techniques have you found to help you juggle work life, family life, and writing?
I have this awful tendency to say “yes” to everything. My daughter often tells people that her mom has five jobs (not the least of which is being a mother to her and her brother). But I’ve learned over the past year to begin occasionally saying “no.” I’ve scaled back my involvement in volunteering with community organizations, which hurts me to do, but I have to tell myself that there will be time for that after – after my kids are both in school full time, after I complete grad school, etc. I’ve turned down book design projects when I feel my plate is already full. I really have to prioritize, and the two most important things for me are, of course, my family and my writing. If I’m needed in any way beyond that, I have to ask myself if it benefits one or the other – my family or my writing. It also helps that I’m married to a poet, Matt Porubsky. Matt understands when I need poem-time and will scoop the kids up to let me be alone to focus. It’s possible to write when a baby sleeps nearby or lies on the carpet gumming a rattle. But it’s utterly impossible—at least for me—to write with a 4- and 6-year-old nearby. He understands this and is almost always willing to lend a hand. Another thing that I’ve found helpful is to always keep a pad of paper handy, and no matter what I’m doing, if an idea or a line or a string of words pops into my head, to write it down. My poetry mentor from my first semester of grad school, the amazing author Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, urged me to write at least an hour a day. When I bemoaned the difficulty of finding a solid hour in a day to write, she said, “Then write in 15-minute increments.” While I still struggle to achieve this on some days, for the most part, I can say that I find myself writing, whether it’s journaling or free writing or trying to compose an agonizing villanelle, for close to an hour a day. It’s a pretty attainable goal.
How do you cultivate creativity?
I’m blessed to be immersed in creative endeavors—I get to work on things like magazine and book design, creating recipes in my part-time job as a vegan chef, and even building block towers or coloring with my kids. There really isn’t too much in my life beyond the mundane everyday stuff that doesn’t involve a creative mindset. So this allows me to remain open, to receive ideas and slip into imaginative threads of thought. I never censor my thoughts or push poem-think into the back of my mind for later, when I can utilize the ideas on the page. I’m an incessant daydreamer, and I’m content with that. When the time comes to write, all that daydreaming will be put to good use.
Leah Sewell is the art director of XYZ Magazine (Topeka, KS), assistant editor at Coconut Poetry Press (Atlanta, GA), founder and facilitator of the Topeka Writers Workshop and a part-time vegan chef and mother to two youngsters. Her poetry has appeared in [PANK] Magazine, Rufous City Review, Weave Magazine, Flint Hills Review, Midwestern Gothic, Mochila and other journals, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2012. She is a freelance graphic designer whose work has created over a dozen poetry and prose books and countless magazine editions. She won the 2010 Women Making Headlines Award in the media category from the Topeka Chapter of the Association of Women in Communications and has been a recipient of the PenWomen Award for Letters. She is a graduate of Washburn University in English with a minor in Women’s Studies and is currently a candidate for a Masters of Fine Arts in Poetry from the University of Nebraska.