Interview with South African Writer, Vuyelwa Maluleke

November 23, 2014
Photo: Vuyelwa Maluleke

Photo: Vuyelwa Maluleke

Brief Biography:

Vuyelwa Maluleke is a Joburg-born writer and poet who grew up in a township. She describes herself as a storyteller: “It is when I am most honest. It is also the hardest thing to do for me, to hand my work over so publicly to audiences. But the sharing between the audience and myself generates an immediacy that is like church. There is so much magic there.”

Vuyelwa began competitive poetry in 2012 winning the TEWOP Poetry Slam and the DFL Lover and another 2012 Johannesburg Regionals. She has performed on various stages in Johannesburg. She graduated in 2013 with a BADA at the University of Witwatersrand, and was awarded the Leon Gluckman Prize 2013, for the student with the most creative piece of work.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you become a storyteller?

Vuyelwa Maluleke: I don’t know if I can say there was a moment when I decided, or when I was a storyteller. I think it kind of happened I’m an actor too, that I studied for, that was a choice as much as a passion of mine. I feel like I’ve always been drawn to other ways of making people listen especially being a twin sister to someone as exuberant as my sister, you had to be creative about how you ask people to listen to you I guess.

Geosi Gyasi: What sort of books do you read?

Vuyelwa Maluleke: I read a lot of fiction, novels mostly. I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie right now.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you enjoy public reading of your work?

Vuyelwa Maluleke: Yes, a lot. My work lives and lifts in performance.

Geosi Gyasi: Having lived and schooled in Johannesburg, what impact has this city had on your writing?

Vuyelwa Maluleke: Joburg is great in how you have many people represented in various spaces at any given time, so we can have conversations, arguments.

Geosi Gyasi: Which kind of writer would you like to be classified as?

Vuyelwa Maluleke: I don’t know, people will do that when I’m dead. I guess I’m not interested in classifications.

Geosi Gyasi: Has your work as a poet brought you enough recognition?

Vuyelwa Maluleke: Recognition? No, I think most people would recognize me for acting and not the writing. But my writing is very young. Recognition also means expectations, I like writing without a reader in mind.

Geosi Gyasi: Which writer/poet has influenced you most?

Vuyelwa Maluleke: That’s a heavy task to put on one single person; I know that there are a lot of writers who make me want to keep writing, make me want to be brave in how I put my words out and tell stories.

Geosi Gyasi: You graduated with BADA at the University of Witwatersrand. Could you tell us how Dramatic Arts helped shape your writing?

Vuyelwa Maluleke: I don’t know that it’s shaped the writing; I mean to be honest I almost failed a writing class because I hated it so much. I value that training more when I’m performing. How you relate to audiences, the methods you use to share your work. It really excites me to put my work on its feet, my degree has taught me how to think about doing that.

Geosi Gyasi: From whose point of view did you write the poem, My mother says? Do you write from your own personal experience?

Vuyelwa Maluleke: A lot of my work is personal before it is public, but that does not mean it is always my story. ‘my mother says’ is not about me alone, its about a conversation, its about the things we do sometimes when we are not good to other people. And sometimes those people are people we love. So I listen a lot for my work, I watch for my work and sometimes I’m the work- but so rarely.

Geosi Gyasi: When do you often write?

Vuyelwa Maluleke: At night, on my floor. But I’m trying to not fix conditions to my writing just so I don’t feel like that is the only time I can write. So the other day, I sat in a coffee shop, and wrote there, early in the morning and something came of it which was surprising and fruitful.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have an imaginary reader when you write?

Vuyelwa Maluleke: No, no, no. I have the story. That’s all I have in mind, and the words and what they feel like. Thinking of readers is restrictive. But I know that I don’t like to use words whose meanings I have to look up because if I’m doing that the person listening to my work will feel alienated. I don’t want people getting lost in my work. I want it to be accessible without compromising the quality. I’ve seen writers do the most beautiful work with language, in a way that if my old aunts read it, they’d get it, feel it, find themselves in those stories. I want that.


Interview with American Writer, Penny Freeland

November 22, 2014
Photo: Penny Freeland

Photo: Penny Freeland

Brief Biography:

Penny Freeland is an NYC transplant, who now lives on the beach in Cape Hatteras, NC. Her poetry is urban, yet full of nature. She still loves her native city, but finds long walks on the beach and the sound of the ocean, soothing. It is a far cry from the hustling traffic and concrete pavement, she once walked. Her work has appeared in fine journals, such as The Ledge, Black Rock and Sage, Red Booth Review, Rattle and Eclectia.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve said somewhere that you began writing poetry before you could hold a pen. Could you comment on this statement?

Penny Freeland: Yes. I began composing, before I could actually write letters and words. I memorized my poems and songs. I often sang them to my mother. They were sometimes sad and many times about love. For some reason, love seemed to be a sad topic. I would get tears in my eyes. I lost my father at the age of seven and wrote many poems about that loss. They made my mother cry. I was often accused by my family, “You didn’t write this!” I guess it was a form of flattery.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us something about New York City where you were born and raised?

Penny Freeland: I was born and raised in Chelsea, NY. It was really a city, so there was not much in terms of nature. There were some trees that were planted in cut-out squares of concrete. They were skinny and did not add much to the environment. There was sky, but it was high above the buildings. When I was around the age of five, I realized that the city was built on top of nature, if that makes sense. I had thought the man-made world was there first and that man added the nature part. It was a stunning realization and it affected my writing. I think children who grow up in nature are lucky, though I did have the advantage of culture, art and museums.

Geosi Gyasi: What motivates you to write?

Penny Freeland: Sometimes a memory can be the trigger. I am the type of writer who writes when inspired, though my mentor, Marie Ponsot would tell me I needed to write all the time and stop doing that. If I do write when uninspired, the work is not very good. To tell the truth, I did not write any of my work. A voice begins in my head and I just copy it down. I often do not know where the piece is going, or how it will end. I obey the voice. I do admit, I edit it later!

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think about money when you write?

Penny Freeland: Money has never occurred to me while writing. I have made very little money as a writer, so it is not something that dictates the work.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you conscious about style when you write?

Penny Freeland: Not at all. I never even consider style. I allow the poems to be what they want to be. They tell me what style, if any. I do not write in forms, and if I am conscious of style, again the work will not be very good.

Geosi Gyasi: What influenced you to write the “Incidentals”?

Penny Freeland: My constant, To Do lists. I write them, but really love to cross things out. That was my inspiration.

Geosi Gyasi: You teach at American Public University. How do you combine teaching and writing?

Penny Freeland: I generally teach writing, so it is helpful to be one. I always understand what the student is up against, as I am up against the same thing. What hurts me is that I am too aware of grammar, which does not work for creative writing. I have to allow myself to break rules when writing.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult to teach students how to write?

Penny Freeland: I do not find it difficult, but I do get some students who are not ready for college-level classes. In many cases, their high schools have failed them. In those cases, I have to get to work and teach some very basic things to help them get on par with the rest of the class. It is easy to teach students when they are at the appropriate level. They appreciate my advice because they know I am knowledgeable of the subject area.

Geosi Gyasi: I have some liking for your poem, “Latent Lunatic”. But I’m wondering how you came up with the title?

Penny Freeland: Latent Lunatic is a love poem about the Man in the Moon and me. It was easy to come up with the title! All of the imagery and language has to do with the moon. It begins when the moon is full and ends with the new moon, when I do not see him anymore. It was so much fun to write!

Geosi Gyasi: Are you influenced by what people say about your writing?

Penny Freeland: Of course is it great when readers like my work. Everyone appreciates good and faithful fans! I do not write for the audience. I mostly write what is spoken in my head. Sometimes I know the audience will not like a particular poem. I keep those to myself.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you consider fiction easier to write than poetry?

Penny Freeland: Not for me. I do love writing fiction and have had some fun doing so. I find poetry easier, because it comes naturally to me.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you hate about your own writing?

Penny Freeland: I hate when the muse takes over me in the middle of the night, or at times when I just cannot stop to write it down. I have missed many great poems that way!

Geosi Gyasi: You earned an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 1995. What sort of books did you read as a student?

Penny Freeland: I read all the masters as an undergraduate at Queens College. At Sarah Lawrence, I was introduced to modern poets and had the pleasure of studying under Jean Valentine, Tom Lux and Mark Doty. I read Billy Collins and was surprised to find that our writing was similar!

Geosi Gyasi: Did you have a purpose for why you chose to pursue writing ahead of other courses?

Penny Freeland: I really did not want to major in writing. I had a few majors ahead of it. I was going to major in education, psychology, and philosophy. A friend of mine wanted to take a poetry workshop and didn’t want to do it on his own. I told him I didn’t want to take it. I said, “Dave—you don’t understand. It is what I do.” He talked me into it and I began to win writing contests at the college for my work. I changed my major to English, with an emphasis on creative writing. It was how I began to work with Marie Ponsot. I was so fortunate! Maybe it was fate—but she influenced me more than anyone else in my life—not just as a poet, but as a person.

Geosi Gyasi: I realized that you’re a musician and songwriter. Could you comment on this?

Penny Freeland: As I said earlier, I have always written songs. I come from a musical family, so my mother taught me to play ukulele and my brother taught me guitar. I formed a parody band called, The Peachpitts in 1990. We played for ten years. I played in comedy clubs in NYC and even played at GBGB’s once! We all got a kick out of that. We had some original songs, but mostly parodies. My son was instrumental to my work with the band. He is a better musician than me and he helped with production issues.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind sharing how you’ve managed to keep your 21 year old cat?

Penny Freeland: Sadly, Freddy passed away at the age of 21. I do have luck with pet longevity. I take good care of my animals and feed them on schedule. I make sure they have veterinarian care and lots of love. Freddy lived through so much with me! I buried him and planted white lilies. He has been gone more than a year now.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you an avid reader? What is your favourite book?

Penny Freeland: I read when I can. I read numerous student essays, so my eyes are often tired at the end of the day. It is hard to choose just one favorite book, but if I had to I would say…Les Miserables. I have read it several times, unabridged. At different points in my life, I’ve identified with different characters. I did study French, but am not fluent enough to read it in Hugo’s original voice; it is a dream of mine to do so. My daughters share in this love with me. We saw the musical in NYC more times than we could count.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you find the art of writing joyous?

Penny Freeland: Yes! I love creating things. To me, it is almost like giving birth! I know when something is great and I get chills while writing.


Interview with Teresa Mei Chuc, Author of Keeper of the Winds

November 19, 2014
Photo: Teresa Mei Chuc

Photo: Teresa Mei Chuc

Brief Biography:

Teresa Mei Chuc was born in Saigon, Vietnam and immigrated to the U.S. under political asylum with her mother and brother shortly after the Vietnam War while her father remained in a Vietcong “reeducation” camp for nine years. Her poetry appears in journals such as EarthSpeak Magazine, Hawai’i Pacific Review, Hypothetical Review, Kyoto Journal, The Prose-Poem Project, The National Poetry Review, Rattle, Verse Daily and in anthologies such as New Poets of the American West (Many Voices Press, 2010), With Our Eyes Wide Open: Poems of the New American Century (West End Press, 2014), and Mo’ Joe (Beatlick Press, 2014). Teresa’s poetry is forthcoming in the anthology, Inheriting the War: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees. Red Thread is Teresa’s first full-length collection of poetry. Teresa’s second collection of poetry is Keeper of the Winds (FootHills Publishing, 2014).

Geosi Gyasi: You were born in Saigon, Vietnam. Could you tell us why you immigrated to the United States?

Teresa Mei Chuc: I was born in Saigon, Vietnam shortly after the fall of Saigon. I was about two years old when we immigrated to the United States under political asylum. After the fall of Saigon, during the time when my mother was still pregnant with me, my father, who served in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) had to report to “re-education.” My mother told me that in the evening after my father reported to the Vietcong “re-education” camp, some soldiers came and checked if my father had gone. My mother said that if my father did not report when he was suppose to, he would have been taken out of the home, like some of the other villagers, and shot to death. My father was told to pack enough food and clothing for ten days, but he ended up being imprisoned for nine years. In a Vietcong prison, there was no sentence, the prisoners didn’t know when they would be released or if they would ever be released.

Conditions were terrible for many South Vietnamese after the U.S. war in Vietnam. Vietnamese who were part of the ARVN or had family who were part of the ARVN, or those who worked in an American company or had some Chinese ancestry, were persecuted. My father had served in ARVN during the U.S. war in Vietnam, my family had worked for an American company selling music records in South Vietnam before the war, and we were ethnically part Chinese. On October 21, 1978, my mother took my brother and me and a bag of belongings, boarded a boat and fled Vietnam before the Sino-Vietnamese War when the persecution of Vietnamese with Chinese ancestry was mounting. China invaded North Vietnam on February 17, 1979 and began the Sino-Vietnamese War also known as the Third Indochina War that lasted until March 16, 1979. My mother, brother and I arrived in the United States on February 10, 1979.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you remember about the Vietnam War?

Teresa Mei Chuc: I was very young then, two years old, when we fled Vietnam. What I remember are the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual memories passed on from my family members and the stories that they would tell me about the war. I think my first remembrance of the Vietnam War came in the form of absence. I deeply felt my father’s absence from my life since he was taken away when my mother was still pregnant with me. So this hollow space in my life and heart and spirit was so great that it consumed me as a child. My father was imprisoned for nine years in a Vietcong prison in Northern Vietnam. I first saw him when I was nine years old and he brought the weight of the war with him when he came. I felt my suffering, my family’s suffering and the suffering of those involved in the war. Over the years, I learned so much from my family about the war and from reading historical texts. Many poems from my first collection of poetry, Red Thread, are about my family’s experiences through the U.S. war in Vietnam and about the war itself.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write from personal experiences?

Teresa Mei Chuc: I think that I write from personal, universal, natural and human experiences. I believe that our most intimate and personal spaces reflect the greater story of humanity, the earth and the universe. So, the deeper I look inside myself, the further and wider I reach into the world.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired you to become a writer?

Teresa Mei Chuc: I love words and languages and I think that I can best express myself in writing. Writing makes me feel human and allows me to share my heart and spirit. Writing also allows me to tell my story and my family’s story through the Vietnam War. I believe that it’s important to preserve many sides and voices in history, especially those of the oppressed because those are usually the voices that are silenced or overwhelmed into silence. It is almost a resistance against erasure.

Geosi Gyasi: You have a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Goddard College in Plainfield. Why did you decide to pursue poetry?

Teresa Mei Chuc: Poetry is the form that I gravitate towards. I think that I fell in love with poetry early on when I was a child and learning English as a third language (my first and second languages are Vietnamese and Cantonese) because I finally felt that I had control of language when I was able to write poetry and express myself. I didn’t have to follow any of the rules of English grammar or punctuation. I was able to recreate myself in a new world and country. Writing poetry was a way that I was able to reclaim a part of myself that had been exiled, dislocated and torn apart through war and its consequences, into something that was wholly my own…something of compassion, love and beauty.

Jane Hirshfield has a great quote that I think reveals my dedication to poetry. Hirshfield wrote, “…for giving oneself to the lion, or to poetry, is a vow- nothing more, nothing less than one’s entire life will be asked.”

Geosi Gyasi: You served for two years as a poetry editor for Goddard College’s Pitkin Review. What do you consider as good poetry?

Teresa Mei Chuc: When I was in high school, my English teacher taught us that the difference between good poetry and great poetry is that great poetry transcends time and place and that there is a working that a poet must do between sound and sense…a sort of balance or a sort of wisdom about the two, I think…and that sense should never be sacrificed for sound. I think this is true of what I believe and also that poetry should move me deeply in some way either by its images or sounds or meaning and I should be both transported and transformed in some way after reading it.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you edit your own work?

Teresa Mei Chuc: Yes, I mostly work in my own poet cave and mostly edit my own work. I am very self-critical so I am grateful to also belong to an email writing group called New Nada consisting of a few friends. We email each other poems now and then and provide some feedback and the group has been incredibly supportive over the years.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poem, “The Road”?

Teresa Mei Chuc: I went to an art exhibit at a local museum that was featuring paintings by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. The people in his paintings lit up. I remember reading somewhere that Caravaggio painted in a darkroom and treated his canvas with a luminescent powder made from crushed fireflies.

The experience seeing Caravaggio’s paintings in person and connections I made to my children, who are my biggest inspiration, became my poem, “The Road.”

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us about how you founded Shabda Press?

Teresa Mei Chuc: In the summer of 2011, I was sitting in my room and decided that I wanted to create something and support what I love – books and poetry. So, I decided to create a press to make poetry books and bring poetry into the world. I wanted to experience what it was like to go through the entire process from writing to publishing to distribution/sharing. I didn’t really know how to go about doing this and began by learning along the way. The road was unpaved and dark before me, but I took my first step. Now, I am happy to have brought some wonderful poetry books into this world.

The first books that I use to make when I started to put my poems and writings together were made by hand; I would make photocopies of each page, cut, paste and staple the pages together. I loved giving away the hand-made books to friends. I truly love the “do it yourself” process and making things.

Available on FootHills Publishing

Available on FootHills Publishing

Geosi Gyasi: I am wondering how it feels like to translate your own poems into other languages?

Teresa Mei Chuc: I actually haven’t translated my own poems into other languages, but I am very fortunate to have several of my poems translated into Vietnamese by some brilliant Vietnamese poets, Le Dinh Nhat Lang and Ngo Tu Lap.

Geosi Gyasi: Having studied the Russian language for about two decades, could you tell us anything about Russian literature and poetry?

Teresa Mei Chuc: Some of my favorite Russian writers are Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov and some of my favorite Russian poets are Marina Tsvetaeva, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Gumilyov, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. I really think that Russian literature and poetry speak for themselves in their brilliance of expression of humanity, society and imagination. If you can read the literature and poetry in Russian, that is even better because the Russian language is so descriptive and versatile and musical.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about your first full-length poetry collection, Red Thread?

Teresa Mei Chuc: It took me about a decade to write Red Thread. Many of the poems are about my experience and my family’s experiences in the Vietnam War and after the war. I also wrote about other aspects of the war such as Agent Orange, napalm, and the My Lai Massacre. Writing the book was important to me as I was documenting my experience as well as my family’s experiences. Writing the book helped me to process the war in the most intimate and compassionate way possible.

Geosi Gyasi: Is Keeper of the Winds actually your second book? Do you mind sharing anything about the book?

Teresa Mei Chuc: Keeper of the Winds is my second full-length collection of poetry. The book came much sooner than I had expected. Since I write at odd times, I didn’t even realize that I had enough new poems to make a second full-length collection. I just started putting all the poems together and then realized that I really had been writing. This made me realize that if you write here and there and now and then, pretty soon all those poems add up. Some of the poems were earlier poems that I love but weren’t included in the first collection. In Keeper of the Winds, I explore other aspects of the consequences of the U.S. war in Vietnam, such as the effects on the environment. In my poem, “the decade the rainforest died,” I explore the effects of Agent Orange used during the war on the rainforests in Vietnam. I have two poems in the book, “Jumping Jack: The M16 Mines” and “The Gambler,” about the continuing effects of unexploded ordnance or landmines used during the war. “Con Son” is a poem about Tiger Cages used by the U.S. during the Vietnam War. My poem, “Violin,” is about my childhood experience with my father’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I also wrote about current wars in the book. My poem, “Depleted Uranium,” is about the consequences of the U.S.’s war in Afghanistan. “Pencil” is a poem about the use of drones in the middle east. “ocean in a conch shell” is a short poem about the use of F16s in the middle east. In the book, there are also poems about my name, about healing, about breathing, about being and not-being, about birds, about the nuclear plants in Fukushima…

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about critics of your books?

Teresa Mei Chuc: I try not to think about what critics say unless it’s constructive and I can learn from the criticism. I think worrying too much about what critics say about one’s work can be distracting from the real work of writing. I try stick to what Rainer Maria Rilke taught me, to trust myself. Rilke wrote, “Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.…”

Geosi Gyasi: Where and when do you often write?

Teresa Mei Chuc: I work full time as a public school teacher and am also raising my kids, so I don’t have much time. Many poems I write in the middle of things, in waiting rooms, waiting in line, stopping while in the middle of washing dishes and jotting down notes, late at night when everyone is asleep or early in the morning when everyone is still asleep. Since there isn’t a lot of free time, I write whenever I can. Many times, I record my poems using voice memo on my phone while driving to work and then type them later. Whenever I have some free time on the weekend or during spring break and summer break, I try to write as much as I can. Sometimes, on the weekends, I go out into the garden and sit on some bricks in the silence beneath the guava and orange trees and write.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind ending the interview in Russian?

Teresa Mei Chuc: Sure, here is a short poem by Marina Tsvetaeva that I translated. The translation was first published in an amazing journal, Aldus Journal of Translation, in Spring 2013, Issue 4.


My translation:


All the magnificence of

Trumpets — is the murmur of

Grass — before you.


All the magnificence of

Storms — is the chatter of

Birds — before you.


All the magnificence of

Wings — is the flutter of

Eyelids — before you.


by Marina Tsvetaeva


(translated from the Russian by Teresa Mei Chuc)




Все великолепье

Труб – лишь толъко лепет

Трав – перед Тобой.


Все великолепье

Бурь – лишь толъко щебет

Птиц – перед Тобой.


Все великолепье

Крыл – лишь только трепет

Век – перед Тобой.


– Мари́на Цвета́ева


Большое спасибо, Geosi Gyasi!


Interview with Kelly Fordon, Author of Tell Me When It Starts to Hurt

November 18, 2014
Photo: Kelly Fordon

Photo: Kelly Fordon

Brief Biography:

Kelly Fordon’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review,  Kenyon Review (KRO), The Montreal Review, Rattle, The Windsor Review and various other journals.  Her poetry chapbook, On the Street Where We Live, won the 2012 Standing Rock Chapbook Contest. Her new poetry chapbook, Tell Me When It Starts to Hurt, was published by Kattywompus Press in April 2013. Her collection of linked stories, Garden for the Blind, will be published by Wayne State University Press in April 2015. She works for the Inside Out Literary Arts Project in Detroit where she lives with her husband and children.

Geosi Gyasi: What led you to become a writer?

Kelly Fordon: When I was little I read all the time. I was an only child and often lonely. Reading books was a way to escape and have adventures in Narnia or Middle-earth or any number of fabulous locations. Naturally when I grew up, I continued to enjoy reading but I also thought about creating stories. For a long time, the only thing that stopped me was that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a favorite between these two genres: poetry and fiction?

Kelly Fordon: No, I write poetry when I am overpowered by a feeling, and I write fiction when I have a story I want to tell. I vacillate between the two genres on a regular basis.

Geosi Gyasi: Is your approach to writing poems different from that of fiction?

Kelly Fordon: When I am writing poems, I am looking for a container for my feelings as well as the words to describe them so I am on the hunt for images, metaphors, etc. and for different poetic forms. I look in the newspaper or in magazines. I am very inspired by artwork. I roam around a lot and listen to science podcasts or Ted Talks. Then when I have three or four disparate elements to work with, I am ready to write a poem.

When I write fiction, I usually start with something that happened to me and then veer off into fiction. For instance one time I took a cruise to Greece with two friends. We talked to a man on a deserted beach who was kind of a lothario. Afterwards I wrote a story about three friends who travel to Greece and I even included the man on the beach, but the three characters were very different from myself and my friends and the main plot (how to recover from the death of a spouse/an affair and pinning a crime on another person) are three things I have never experienced. Essentially I used my own experience for the location, but made up the entire plot!

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a specific audience you write for?

Kelly Fordon: Not really. I write for myself. I write to figure out where the story will take me. Then I revise until the manuscript is as close as I can come to a good piece of literature—one that I would want to read.

Geosi Gyasi: Who are your literary forebears?

Kelly Fordon: I admire Catherine Barnett, Vievee Francis, Julia Glass, Julie Hecht, Christie Hodgen, Laura Kasischke, Sally Keith, Daniel Mueller, Naeem Murr, Alice Munro, Jenny Offill, Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, Gloria Whelan and a great many other people!

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do poetry readings?

Kelly Fordon: Yes I do.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you belong to any group of writers?

Kelly Fordon: No, not right now.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think about critics when you write?

Kelly Fordon: I try not to!

Geosi Gyasi: Do you revise a lot?

Kelly Fordon: Yes, some of the stories in my forthcoming collection of linked stories, Garden for the Blind, were first written more than a decade ago. I have revised them twenty or thirty times.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you show your work-in-progress to friends before it is published?

Kelly Fordon: Sometimes I trade work with other writers I’ve met at writing conferences or writers from my MFA program at Queens.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve worked for the National Geographic magazine. Tell us about some of the things you did there?

Kelly Fordon: I was an editorial production assistant. I worked with the editors revising copy. Each article (at least when I was there) had to be reviewed by multiple people so the production assistant was responsible for marking up and running the manuscripts between various editors.

Upcoming in April 2015 by Wayne State Uni. Press

Upcoming in April 2015 by Wayne State Uni. Press

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever been rejected for your work?

Kelly Fordon: So many times I cannot even begin to count! I have been rejected for both poetry and fiction more than two hundred times, I am sure!

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your chapbook, “On The Street Where We Live”?

Kelly Fordon: For two years I studied with the poet, Vievee Francis, in a small café called Café 1923 in Hamtramck, Michigan. I had not written any poetry in many years; I was only writing fiction. But she was so inspiring, suddenly I started churning out poetry. She encouraged me to write about my own life. At the time I was deeply mired in raising four children and I was thinking a lot about the sacrifices I was making as a mother, as well as the sacrifices that were being made by women around me. Some people were happier about it than others. Also life was happening to everyone—marriages, divorces, good relationships and not, so I wrote about that and how I felt about it. I used to look out my window at the other houses up and down the street and wonder what was going on inside each one. In the poetry chapbook, I made up the answers to that question.

Geosi Gyasi: Your book, “On The Street Where We Live” won the 2011 Standing Rock Chapbook Contest. Tell us about this prize?

Kelly Fordon: The Standing Rock Chapbook Contest is a yearly competition offered by Standing Rock Cultural Arts in Kent, Ohio. The mission of the Standing Rock Cultural Arts Rock in the River Literary Series is to promote literary arts in the area and to promote local and national poets with publication. The series launched with the Premiere Standing Rock Open Poetry Chapbook Competition in July 2010. The series is currently edited by Tina Puckett.

Geosi Gyasi: Where did you get the inspiration to write “Tell Me When it Starts to Hurt”?

Kelly Fordon: I watched a porn video mostly because I had never watched one before and was curious about it. I was deeply disturbed by it. ( I think that may be an understatement!) At first I could not figure out why I was so perturbed, because I don’t consider myself a prude. After some thought I realized that it was because the women in the video were clearly under duress. They either seemed completely disengaged from what was happening to them, or they seemed to be pretending to enjoy things that in real life would not be pleasurable at all. I realized that I could not write a poem about being outraged by a porn video without sounding pedantic. At the same time I was thinking about this dilemma I listened to a science podcast about naked mole rats and when I learned that you can literally pour acid on a naked mole rat and it won’t feel it, it occurred to me that women in porn videos would be better off if they were naked mole rats. The church entered into the poem because the body of Christ is mentioned so often in the Catholic Church. Christ is also tortured by men, and I somehow conflated the violence done to Christ and the violence against these women. Both are perpetually on view (Jesus on the cross in every church) and both are termed beautiful “how beautiful is the body of Christ,” and I just got really upset thinking about it. Luckily when you write a poem you don’t have to have the answers to any of these things, you simply have to ask the questions. Why all of this violence? Why are men running the Catholic Church? Why are women subjugated in porn videos? Why would anyone pour acid on a naked mole rat?

Geosi Gyasi: Could you give us a glimpse of your yet-to-be published collection of linked short stories, “Garden for the Blind”?

Kelly Fordon: This description (below) is from the Wayne State University Press Catalog. The collection will be published in April 2015.

In Garden for the Blind, trouble lurks just outside the door for Kelly Fordon’s diverse yet interdependent characters. As a young girl growing up in an affluent suburb bordering Detroit, Alice Townley witnesses a tragic accident at her parents’ lavish party. In the years that follow, Alice is left mostly in the care of the household staff, free to forge friendships with other pampered and damaged teens. When she and her friend Mike decide to pin a crime on another student at their exclusive high school, the consequences will reverberate for years to come.

Set between 1974 and 2012, Fordon’s intricately woven stories follow Alice and Mike through high school, college, and into middle age, but also skillfully incorporate stories of their friends, family, acquaintences, and even strangers who are touched by the same themes of privilege, folly, neglect, and resilience. A WWII veteran sleepwalks out of his home at night, led by vivid flashbacks. A Buddhist monk is assaulted by a robber while seated in meditation. A teenaged girl is shot walking home from the corner store with a friend. A lifelong teacher of blind children is targeted by vandals at the school she founded.

Garden for the Blind visits suburban and working-class homes, hidden sanctuaries and dangerous neighborhoods, illustrating the connections between settings and relationships (whether close or distant) and the strange motivations that keep us moving forward. All readers of fiction will enjoy the nimble unfolding of Fordon’s narrative in this collection.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you mainly do as a writer-in-residence for Inside Out Literary Arts in Detroit?

Kelly Fordon: Based in Detroit and founded by the poet, Terry Blackhawk, Inside Out Literary Arts sends professional writers into the public schools to teach children about creative writing. I have taught third, fourth and fifth grades in two schools in Detroit and have loved every minute of it. Here is a link to learn more about Inside Out:

Geosi Gyasi: Do you regret ever becoming a writer?

Kelly Fordon: Never! I definitely regret not starting sooner though.


Interview with American Poet, S.H Lohmann

November 17, 2014
Photo: S.H. Lohmann

Photo: S.H. Lohmann

Brief Biography:

S.H. Lohmann has her MFA from Hollins University, where she was a Graduate Assistant and Assistant Editor of the Hollins Critic. Her work has been honored with the 2012 Melanie Hook Rice Award in Narrative Nonfiction, the 2011 Gertrude Claytor Poetry prize from the Academy of American Poets, and a 2010 artist grant from the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. Her poetry has appeared in Best New Poets 2014, the Indiana Review, Rattle, and Third Coast. She lives in Roanoke, Virginia, where she runs programming for English literacy education to adult immigrants and refugees at Blue Ridge Literacy. She is from Texas.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poem, “What It Means to be Taken”?

S.H. Lohmann: The poem was motivated from two different goals: the first to write a sestina that was a bit sneaky, and not immediately recognizable; the second to tell a story. Storytelling isn’t often the purpose of poetry, and trying to stay true to the form while still getting to the heart of the story meant that at some point, language would have to trump plot, and it did. I think that’s why it ultimately wasn’t a prose piece, despite a deliberate attention to plot: in the end, the language, and the turns of the words through repetition and varying ripples of meaning, were what mattered.

Geosi Gyasi: Roughly how long does it take you to write a single poem?

S.H. Lohmann: For a long time, the rule was that the poem had to be produced in a single sitting, usually somewhere between one and 6 hours. I’ve since eased off this sort of manic production style, but I haven’t strayed too far– I’m what my MFA program describes as a “binge writer,” someone who rarely maintains a regular practice or routine but rather goes through stretches of not writing and then a very intense period of non-stop work. I have a full-time job, so the writing bursts tend to be in the morning, and I will usually produce a draft of a poem within an hour or two. The tinkering then, is constant.

Geosi Gyasi: Where and when do you often write?

S.H. Lohmann: I am an avid journaler and always have been– my office at home is lined with notebooks from as far back as 1997, when I was eleven. My journals are filled with bulky notes working out what I’m reading, feeling, and stressing about, and rarely figure directly into my poetry. But I suspect that they make up a good deal of the invisible force that will suddenly make the writing of a poem feel quite urgent. I write poems on a computer, usually my laptop, often hunched in the early morning and making me late for work. I also will sometimes write on my work computer, which George Saunders gave me permission to do. And recently, I “wrote” a new poem by voice memo in the middle of a run, which was very strange.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a formal education in writing?

S.H. Lohmann: I have a bachelor’s in English with a concentration in Creative Writing and an MFA in Creative Writing, both from Hollins University.

Geosi Gyasi: If there is one main reason why you write, what is it?

S.H. Lohmann: This is a question I ask myself all the time. There is no doubt that I feel endlessly compelled to do it, though I go through seasons of writing and not, sometimes for many months. I don’t think I write with autonomous motives, or I might be only a diarist.  It seems hugely important for the inclination to put words into a physical space of permanence to consider a reader. A longing to communicate something, maybe, though what exactly I don’t know. Something essential rather than specific. I think that’s the journey.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you begin to write?

S.H. Lohmann: My first memory of poetry-making is from middle school, and it was in a grimy notebook with a lot of ballpoint doodles of moody girls wearing chokers. It involved some metaphor of life as “my song.” I read it to my mother while she was cooking dinner, and a very awkward silence followed. I wrote a lot of bad imitations of e.e. cummings poems in high school too– blindly copying the spacing and egregiously abusing punctuation. It wasn’t until college that I studied it formally.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the most important poem you’ve ever written?

S.H. Lohmann: I have absolutely no idea. I have to consider what “importance” is and how to measure it in the hundreds of poems I have on my hard drive. I have a number of poems that come to mind when I think of the poems that did what they were meant to do very well, or the ones that felt most accurately to hit the mark for which they aimed. Then there are the poems that felt the most authentic, and those that were among the first that l could show a workshop unembarrassed. Most of my work is considering my family’s histories, and some of those poems have had to balance delicately on the line between truth and lore, with the judgement lying not in the phantom reader but with my mother. I know while some writers maintain a divine right to their subjects and feel no real concern for the reactions of those whose stories might be explored, but I can’t say that I would be a good poet if I didn’t consider the emotional stakes entirely. It matters very much to me that there is at least a reckoning of these stakes, and that I take a good look at my motivations. For this reason, I think I can say that the six poems about my parents that I sent to my mother are the most important I have written. My mother read them, and didn’t speak to me for some time, and then said “It was like getting a kick in the gut. But it’s your story too.” For my mother to give me that permission meant to me that I was able to write about this story with some integrity, rather than as only a vulture.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you plot out your work before you write?

S.H. Lohmann: Never.

Geosi Gyasi: Who are your audience?

S.H. Lohmann: I don’t know– readers of poetry, I hope! And perhaps my peers. I think a lot about how, thanks to social media, people who might never pick up a literary magazine on their own might click on a website link just because they know me, and see that I am excited about it. That’s interesting to wonder, when so many of my readers are only other writers, and people who have studied with me. To imagine those who have no formal background in poetry reading the work makes me hopeful.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about subject matter when you write?

S.H. Lohmann: Yes, deeply. I write about my family history, specifically my father’s death from AIDS and the many layers of events leading up to and after the fact. He was a Chilean immigrant and I have spent much time tracing back those roots as well, even traveling through the country in 2009 to meet his favorite cousin and see where he came from. It’s a funny thing, the way our own histories can be so fascinating, that question of where did I come as loud and its quieter counterpart, “Where am I going?” It’s a bit of a cliche maybe to be a poet fascinated with mortality but there you have it.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you see any connection between reading and writing?

S.H. Lohmann: I can’t remember who said that you should be careful who you read because they will start writing in your work but it is a very accurate observation for me! And the funny thing is that I read quite a lot of fiction, though I can’t write the stuff to save my life. But I do look at my poems with a narrative arc that is maybe not as common a concern for some poets who read only poetry, or for those poets who can work microscopically. I think I watch too many movies too, and I have a keen awareness of revelation and scope that comes from a filmmaker’s aesthetic.

Geosi Gyasi: What else do you do apart from writing?

S.H. Lohmann: I am a program manager for an adult literacy nonprofit, specializing in refugee and immigrant English classes. I also make art, cook, and photograph.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever encountered a writer’s block?

S.H. Lohmann: I think of it more as being out of season and trying to garden. But yes, of course.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think inspiration matters a lot to the writer?

S.H. Lohmann: I struggle a little with the romantic terminology that blankets poetry, of a “muse” and “passion” and all that. But I think when it comes to the root of the meaning of the word, of an idea having divine or unidentifiable roots, then yes, I think it matters very much. Art is made from a place of obsession, be it with an idea, a process, or the self. Inspiration is the initial seed of obsession, of the continuous turning over a thing in the mind until you must do something with it. When I go through the seasons of not writing, I think it’s because I am gathering these seeds, waiting for something to grow.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write on a computer or in a notebook?

S.H. Lohmann: Both, though the notebook is more of a kinesthetic activity and less so the actual poetry. I just like the feel of a good pen in my hand.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you read lots of poetry?

S.H. Lohmann: No, actually. I flit around books but have only read a few poetry books straight through: Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, Claudia Emerson’s Figure Studies, and Stacey Lynn Brown’s Cradle Song. Otherwise, I read poems singularly and slowly. Sometimes I will read an entire literary magazine front to back at high speed, almost impatiently, and go back later to whatever stuck out to me. I read mostly fiction, though my favorite kind of fiction is that by writers of poetry, of whom, happily, there are many. I also love food writers for their attention to textures, and would call Tamar Adler one of my favorite poets without hesitation.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever been happy as a writer?

S.H. Lohmann: Yes.

Geosi Gyasi: Can you describe your voice as a writer?

S.H. Lohmann: I know it exists only because a friend who has been reading my work for years had come across a poem of mine somewhere without attribution and knew immediately it was mine. I have a kind of meandering voice, one that will spiral out and wonder, and I think a lot about speed and sentence structure which I think is fairly apparent. I think there is also a kind of arsenal I’ve collected of favorite words that, even as I stray from them, I somehow seem to remain bound. I like to find a good economy of drama and quiet, and there is a kind of rhythmic force to which I feel quite loyal, even if I can’t define it formally. I have been working on a book that includes two voices going back and forth between poems, and though I think that I have been able to distinguish one from the other with various devices, the “voice” is still utterly mine: a little chatty, prone to listing, with a strong emotional bent. I am also very concerned with meat and the body.

Geosi Gyasi: Which sort of books interests you as a writer?

S.H. Lohmann: I love books that are made of many individual parts– novels in stories, especially. Books told in multiple voices, are especially fascinating. While working on this one project of two voices, I have been trying to decide whether it is a single poem or not, and what makes a book-length poem as opposed to a sequence or a collection, especially when I imagine books that live so happily in that hybrid space of smaller complete pieces making up the larger whole. Books that have been supremely influential for me are William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Sandra Cisneros’ House On Mango Street, Charles Wright’s Little Foot, Stacey Lynn Brown’s Cradle Song, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, and Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Some theories claim that multivocality makes a novel, but I find that all of these works were one genre or the other to me at various times. There is poetry in all of them, and a deliberation of structure and trajectory. I’m a poor map maker, but I am certainly mapping something with my work, learning slowly from these texts.  I think there is a fair amount of negative capability in my book interests, and in finding those who can transcend their confines well.

Food writers who have fascinated me as well are Tamar Adler, Molly Wisenberg, and of course MFK Fisher. The ability to write a cookbook that reads as literature is nothing short of magic.

Geosi Gyasi: Do your contemporaries interest you as a writer?

S.H. Lohmann: Oh yes. I had the great fortune of studying with a number of peer writers of whose work I have tremendous faith and awe: keep an eye out for Annie Mountcastle, Eric Thompson, and Mary Catherine Curley. I am excited about the work I am seeing published now, but I do feel particularly invested in the people of my little writing community. The writers I studied with will be my peers for life, and whether we are actively engaging in a workshop or simply congratulating one another on a publication from afar, we get to weigh the measure of this journey together. It feels very important to keep supportive roots on something that is so often an isolating and humbling experience.

Also, I am very competitive, so it is useful that I respect my contemporaries so much– keeps me on my game.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you think of the future of poetry in general?

S.H. Lohmann: Poetry (or any other kind of art) has existed for thousands of years, persisting through superficial challenges and adapting to suit the needs of the people who make it without much heed to those who claim, continually, that it has died. It will continue to do so.


Interview with American Writer, Maryanne Hannan

November 16, 2014
Photo: Maryanne Hannan

Photo: Maryanne Hannan

Brief Biography:

A former Latin teacher, Maryanne Hannan has published poetry in print and online journals, including Rattle, Sentence, Magma, Stand, Pirene’s Fountain, Christianity and Literature, Windhover and Gargoyle. She lives in upstate New York. Her website is

Geosi Gyasi: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?

Maryanne Hannan: I accepted myself as a person who wrote for as long as I can remember. Primarily personal writing, but anything else required. For many years, that was sufficient, but in my 40’s, for reasons I still don’t understand, the urge to go public with my writing emerged. That was a difficult turning point, which also coincided with identifying myself not so much as a writer, but as a poet. I began to work hard at craft, to study contemporary poets, to reflect on what I could contribute and to be assailed with a whole new range of self-doubt.

Geosi Gyasi: How many hours a day do you put into writing?

Maryanne Hannan: The first thing that popped into my mind is what most writers say: Not enough. So, too, the second thing: Any day in which I don’t write is not as good as one in which I do. But to answer your question, it varies greatly. My father passed away a month ago, so I’ve been writing hours a day in my journal, trying to process everything that happened. For the past several months, I’ve been unable to step outside the stream of these events and write anything other than raw unprocessed thoughts. As above, the difference between writing for myself and writing for others.

Geosi Gyasi: Having taught Latin at the University at Albany and Siena College, what is the relationship between language and writing?

Maryanne Hannan: I’m not sure I understand the question, but I can say that knowing two languages, I suspect any two, enables a writer to understand the limitations of each language and also its glories. My first in-depth exposure to the thrill of poetry was Vergil’s Aeneid in my fourth year of high school. I fell in love with it. But meter in English has, at its base, the iamb. I think I will never be able to write a sonnet because I want always a dactyl, Arma virumque cano. The same goes for diction. The Latin derivatives are the much-maligned polysyllabics. To me, though, they carry their base along with them and thus retain their original “muscularity.” So my answer perhaps runs counter to what you might expect: Latin has not really helped me write good poetry in English, but it has provided an unquantifiable amount of enjoyment as I read and listen to the words of others.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it difficult to learn Latin?

Maryanne Hannan: No more difficult than the vaunted STEM areas of study, and a lot less marketable. I will say what I used to tell students. You have to want to learn Latin for something beyond expanding your vocabulary (a frequent reason students begin the class). It’s not a subject you can dabble in. The pay-off comes only after you’ve gotten beyond the basics. In my experience, students either love studying Latin or hate it.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you begin to write, “To My Husband, Who 33 Years Ago Died AT The Age Of 33”?

Maryanne Hannan: At the risk of seeming pompous, that poem was a gift. It pretty much poured out of me, exactly as the title announced. As I realized that my first husband had been a memory, partially in my care, for the same length of time that he had been himself, I suddenly stepped outside the experience and saw it.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you write the poem, “To My Husband, Who 33 Years Ago Died at the Age Of 33” from a personal experience?

Maryanne Hannan: Yes. My first husband died after a difficult five year battle with cancer. He was an extraordinary person, vivid and alive despite his travails. I always assumed he’d live forever in the memory of anyone who ever met him. To think of his memory fading was anathema. My daughter read this poem after it was published and wrote me: “My gut reaction, other than enjoying your humor through my tears, was that you didn’t really let that happen but you fought against it. Passage of time/undoing being what it is though, I can see it all ossifies. So, I guess that is what is so sad, too.” I answered, “The poem is a classic elegy, more about the loss created by time than any individual loss. You have to be healed to be able to write such a poem, but the opposite seems true.” My words ring hollow to me now. I don’t know if anyone is ever healed, because loss is ongoing, at the heart of life. I am remarried. My current husband knows of the existence of this poem, but has chosen not to read it. If I were to say to him, I would say the same about you, would that help?

Geosi Gyasi: Is there a time you get bored writing?

Maryanne Hannan: I tend to get bored if I’m writing to order. I’ve had to learn this lesson several times in my life. I can never generate anything authentic using prompts. I’ve recently stopped writing reviews, because I started to dread doing them. I began feeling as if I had already said what I had to offer. If I’m bored, then surely readers would be also.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about the people who read your poems?

Maryanne Hannan: Very much. I would never subject myself to the drudgery of submitting and the quasi-pain of frequent rejection if I didn’t care for readers. On the other hand, I don’t see myself as having a platform and developing a readership, as commercial viability would demand. I am content to get the poems out there and hope for the best.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think of your poem, “Let Me Tell You a Story That’s Not a Story” as a free verse?

Maryanne Hannan: I think of it as a hybrid form, a prose poem. It is part of a series, written in this claustrophic voice, admitting no pause or line break. That voice is gone, and I miss her. She had started to repeat herself, so she is now for my ears only.

Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently working on?

Maryanne Hannan: I can tell you more easily what I should be working on: publishing a book. I have intermittently submitted manuscripts for publication, but I realize that I need to decide either to self-publish or be more dedicated in my submission efforts. I have been collaborating with my brother in writing song lyrics. Way over my head, but it is enjoyable. I am waiting for my next voice to speak to me, and, truth to tell, any poet is only as happy as the poem she is currently writing.

Geosi Gyasi: Whom do you write for?

Maryanne Hannan: I write for anyone who connects with the poem. After a poem is published, I don’t feel proprietary towards it. Well, I do, but ideally, I wouldn’t. In publishing a poem, I am sending it into the world where it will make its way, or not. If I’ve done the best I could with it, my job is over.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about bad reviews?

Maryanne Hannan: I’ve never been reviewed, and I don’t think I want to be. I write a lot of poems that are published in popular inspirational anthologies. Many of these poems would be easy to critique and be found wanting, but they are important to me. People come to poetry with all different needs and expectations. As above, if I have given from my best self, I am satisfied. If by bad reviews, though, you mean critical commentary from which I could profit, then I welcome it. I have a writing group that has provided invaluable input for years.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the importance of poetry in the modern world?

Maryanne Hannan: Poetry is a luxury and a necessity. I applaud anyone who shares poetry with children and old folk.

Geosi Gyasi: What themes do you often write on?

Maryanne Hannan: The themes in my poems are not mine to define. I know I value courage and human resilience, all the ways of restoring oneself and moving on after a crisis or even a tragedy. I have met many people whose stories are so sad, yet they have integrated their losses and endured. But I must beware of pat answers, any answers, in fact. I am interested in how religion collides with authentic human experience, specifically as opportunity and goad to life-affirming spirituality. The alternative is well-reported. It would be impossible to bring any such agenda into writing a poem because the poem would be dead before I began. But if I write enough and care enough, these themes might emerge.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you care about humor when writing?

Maryanne Hannan: Humor is divine.

Geosi Gyasi: What should readers be paying attention to when reading your works?

Maryanne Hannan: Whatever draws them in. I am humbled by how different readers see totally different things in a poem. Truly, once a poem is out there, I am no longer its arbiter. In writing a poem, more accurately, revising it, I am paying special attention to diction, loading my word choices so they are interesting/give pleasure on several levels, and endings. I am obsessive about getting the endings right.

Geosi Gyasi: Which writers do you often like to read?

Maryanne Hannan: I love to read. I go through phases. I used to read primarily novels, then I switched to non-fiction, and now I am reading both. About ten years ago, I decided that if I didn’t like a book, I didn’t have to finish it. I skim books at the library, and I buy books I want to read and think about. I usually have a pile of at least ten books by my bed. I am so happy to live among such bounty. And I read poetry in print and on the web. And subscribe to journals, including, of course, Rattle. It is important to support what you love. I know I am not answering your question, so I will say that my favorite poet is Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I have had the same book of his poems by my bed since 1965.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you define your voice as a writer?

Maryanne Hannan: Voice comes first for me. I have to hear the voice of the poem before I recognize it as a poem. Otherwise, it’s a journal entry. The voice of the prose poem series you mentioned is an ersatz version of myself. I am always embarrassed that people will mistake us for one. I have a series of responsorials to the Psalms. This voice is a naked, fleeting version of myself. I have to warn against identifying me too much with that voice also. This probably returns us to your initial questions. It was hard for me to go from years of private journal writing to the public arena. Both kinds of writing demand honesty, but the public arena demands courage and a ruthless humility.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have anything to say to end the interview?

Maryanne Hannan: Thank you… Human attention is human intention is Value Added Treasure.


Interview with Occupational Therapist & Poet, Haya Pomrenze

November 15, 2014
Photo: Haya Pomrenze

Photo: Haya Pomrenze

Brief Biography:

Haya Pomrenze’s first collection, Hook, was nominated for the National Jewish Book Award. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including 5AM, Lake Effect, Lalitamba, MiPOesias, Poetica and Rattle. Haya collaborates with Denise Duhamel on poems of faith and family. She is an occupational therapist who uses poetry as a healing tool with psychiatric patients. Haya considers herself the founder of the Jewhitsu poetry form. Her second book, How It’s Done, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in December.

Geosi Gyasi: You studied creative writing at Barnard College and poetry with Denise Duhamel at Florida International University. Have you always wanted to be a writer?

Haya Pomrenze: I did always want to be a writer. But I felt pressured by my peers and professors to have a career that paid. Nobody I knew was studying creative writing in an MFA program. That was considered “fluff”. I pursued my master’s degree in Occupational Therapy for practical reasons and, as it turns out, I think it’s one of the more creative health field professions. I use writing as a healing tool as an occupational therapist.

Geosi Gyasi: Which living poet has been most influential to you?

Haya Pomrenze: Denise Duhamel is by far the most influential poet on my writing. When I began studying with Denise, I didn’t realize the scope of her writing. Denise’s poetry is so layered I actually visualize an image in tiered form. She has a wonderful poem about her thighs and it’s about much more than a body part. It’s a thigh layer cake, really. I have the privilege of studying with her going on over ten years and we’ve begun a series of collaborative poems.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you start a poem?

Haya Pomrenze: My poems start with ideas. I went to the park the other day with my granddaughter and I started thinking about the dynamics among mothers in the playground. It’s fascinating to see how they treat their kids and treat each other. Once I get an idea, I write a short draft in my head (I actually envision a yellow memo pad with lines in my head) and the poem really writes itself. I may do ten or more revisions but I always end up coming back to the core of the poem which is always on that yellow memo pad.

Geosi Gyasi: Your poem “A Beautiful Town” is an ode written in memory of your father’s passing? How difficult was it to write this poem?

Haya Pomrenze: It really wasn’t difficult writing “A Beautiful Town.” I’ve written several poems about my father since he died and I find each one captures a specific trait or event and I often feel he’s still here. It’s comforting. My mother had the personality which overshadowed him totally. While work took him away from home a great deal, even when he was home, he was in the background. My Mom was the exclamation point and he was the parenthesis. A Beautiful Town as well as other poems honor him as the exclamation point.

Geosi Gyasi: How much of your poems are autobiographical?

Haya Pomrenze: Many of my poems have a part of myself in them. I hold by the writers’ creed to write what you know. It’s not always an actual experience. It can be an experience I imagined could have happened, would have wanted to happen. The amount of autobiography in my work ranges from a cookie crumb to an entire loaf of bread. I like that people keep guessing which poems “really happened.” I never disclose that information. It’s my role to write good poetry that is accessible to people. It’s not my job to tell them what’s real or not. That’s up to them.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve said somewhere that “with the exception of eating rice pudding and chocolate babka, writing poetry is the closest I’ve come to a true spiritual experience”. I am interested in the spirituality of poetry?

Haya Pomrenze: That’s an interesting question. I think writing poetry is an actual spiritual experience so I don’t define poetry as specifically spiritual. I can tell that a poem is spiritual when I have a hollow feeling in my stomach because I’ve literally held my breath. Sometimes it’s an audible gasp and if I’m in a public place, I feel foolish. I have a strong sense of a higher power and I’d like to think that I live my life in a spiritual manner. I often hear people say that they’re a practicing Jew or Catholic (I’m the former by the way). And I found that hilarious. What are we practicing? Life?

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have specific place(s) where you write your poems?

Haya Pomrenze: I’ve tried to create a specific writing space for years. At one point, I had 5 desks in my house, hoping that one of them would become my sacred writing space. I write in my car (at red lights), in bed at night when my mind is quiet and in coffee shops. But there’s a down side to coffee shops. I end up eavesdropping and sometimes forget the poems.

Geosi Gyasi: You teach creative writing at senior centers and substance abuse treatment programs. Does teaching have any effects on your writing?

Haya Pomrenze: Teaching has influenced my writing in two ways. I use creative writing as a therapeutic tool with my psychiatric patients. So I listen a lot of poetry. I’ve become a better reader of my poems, a more honest critic, if you will. My patients are very brave writers. There’s a sense of brutal honesty I rarely see among other writers. Sometimes I get lazy and scared and don’t take risks,. Then I’ll remember a poem from work and will indeed compare an unkempt vagina to a terrarium.

Geosi Gyasi: Your first book, “Hook” was nominated for the National Jewish Book Award, 2007. Do you think you had much success with your debut?

Haya Pomrenze: I think “Hook” had a great debut. I had fun promoting it in varied venues. Many readings took place in friends’ living rooms. I did reading at charity events and often gave a percentage of my sales to the cause. I’m fortunate that the Miami, Florida bookstore, Books and Books, promotes new writers and I had a successful readings there which segued into a reading at the Miami Book Fair. I love reading and I’ve added some stand-up comedy to my routines.

Geosi Gyasi: What sort of things did you write when you first started to write?

Haya Pomrenze: I started out writing short stories but my voice wasn’t authentic and was certainly forced. I wrote about family interactions, dynamics between Jewish and secular worlds and tried writing sex scenes which were horrible. I was always writing for the audience and not giving my characters their due.

Geosi Gyasi: Which poem of yours do you feel most attached to?

Haya Pomrenze: Tough question. I’d have to say “Pastels at Midlife.”. I cried when I finished it. People tear up when I read it. So here goes:


Like cups of scooped sorbet

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

my daughter’s bras drip

from the shower rod.


Lime, peach, pistachio:

my favorite flavors. Mouth-watering,

I watch them dry

and count my pills.


Pink for anxious, breathe breathe.

Baby blue with its name

formed into a smile , mocking.

Peach for fear of flying—


or of living. I clothe myself

in black. On good days,

vibrant finery, lace and silks

of scarlet, magenta and sapphire.


The click of my pillbox comforts

even as I feel deceived

embracing pastels at midlife.

Geosi Gyasi: Permit me to ask a typical Geosi Reads question. Does writing pay the bills?

Haya Pomrenze: I’m fortunate. Writing does not pay the bills. It might pay for several pairs of shoes for my overflowing closet. I’m actually surprised I haven’t written more about shoes.

Geosi Gyasi: Would you describe yourself as a better writer than when you first started to write?

Haya Pomrenze: I think I’m a more experienced writer but I have to work harder to be good. I miss those days when I didn’t know how much better my poetry could be, how developed. And I can’t get back those days. I can’t deceive myself into thinking a poem is done when it needs time to rest, percolate and then be tweaked.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any weakness as a writer?

Haya Pomrenze: Just one?! I’m not disciplined. I get distracted by my life and I’m grateful that it’s rich and multi-faceted. I’ll go through bursts of writing. I have a suitcase full of poems I’ve started, lists of ideas, poems that need editing and I have a hard time getting to them.

Geosi Gyasi: I understand that you’re a second degree black belt in Karate? Could you tell us a bit about Karate?

Haya Pomrenze: I began karate eighteen years ago. I’d describe myself physically as a Rubenesque woman and I had tried every type of exercise program known to mankind. A friend suggested karate. It has changed my life. It’s truly a physical, emotional and spiritual work-out. As trite as it sounds, it becomes a template for living. I feel more confident about my body and see its strength instead of flaws. Wow – that sounds a lot like my growth as a poet!



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