Interview with American Poet, Greg Kosmicki

October 20, 2014
Photo: Greg Kosmicki

Photo: Greg Kosmicki

Brief Biography:

GREG KOSMICKI is a poet and social worker living in Omaha, Nebraska. He founded The Backwaters Press in 1997 and is currently in the process of passing the operation of the press along to others.

Greg’s own poetry has been published in numerous magazines since 1975, both print and online, including Briarcliff Review, Chiron Review, Cimarron Review, Connecticut Review, Cortland Review, New Letters, Nimrod, Paddlefish, Paris Review, Poetry East, Rattle, Sojourners, and Solstice. He received artist’s fellowships for his poetry from the Nebraska Arts Council in 2000 and 2006. He is the author of three books and 9 chapbooks of poems. Two of the poems from his book from Word Press, Some Hero of the Past, and one poem from his newest chapbook from Pudding House Publications in 2011, New Route in the Dream, have been selected by Garrison Keillor and read by him on “The Writer’s Almanac.” His newest collection, Sheep can Recognize Individual Human Faces was published by Stephen F. Austin University Press in 2014.

He and his wife Debbie, who is also in the social work field, are the parents of 3 children and grandparents of one.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind telling us anything about Omaha, Nebraska?

Greg Kosmicki: Omaha is a great place. It’s a city of a little over 600,000 people, right on the Missouri River, with great restaurants, great art scene, great poetry scene, with lots of parks, and beautiful old and new buildings and lots of jobs. It’s one of the few places in the United States that didn’t get hit by the recession. You all should move to Omaha, and bring your wonderful cultures with you.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you combine your work as a poet and social worker?

Greg Kosmicki: I write about the things that happen to me in my life, but I don’t write about the people with whom I come into contact in my job because that would be a violation of their trust. When I retire, I will be able to loosely base stories on my work that I do now, but to write about it now would not be possible. As far at the time that it takes to write versus having a full-time job, I work my job in the day, and in the evenings after work, after supper and the dishes, and errands, and taking care of stuff for the press, I spend some time writing at the tail end of the day if I have any energy left. As I get older, I can’t do that as much because I need more rest.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you tell us what you do as a social worker?

Greg Kosmicki: I work for a part of the State Health and Human Services agency, and my job is to go out and visit with adults over age 18 who can’t take care of themselves very well, and about whom we received reports from the public, to see if they are being abused or neglected, and if so, to try to take measures to alleviate their situations.

Geosi Gyasi: Being an editor and publisher of The Backwaters Press, where does your writing fit in?

Greg Kosmicki: As noted above, it fits in less and less, since I am getting less energetic in my 60’s. In light of that, I approached the board that oversees the press and asked that we find a new editor to take over my duties so that I can retire from the press and devote my free time to writing. We are in the process of slowly turning that over to the new editor, James Cihlar, and it is working out very well. He is phenomenally gifted.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you think of young poets coming out of America?

Greg Kosmicki: It’s really not possible to say—you would need a huge anthology—and there are lots of different kinds of poetry going on now. Contrary to the rumor that poetry and poets are dying breeds, there is an explosion of it all over the US, and in the world. I was in awe when I looked at your blog-site and saw all the brilliant poets coming from your continent. So if I were to say one statement about young poets in America I guess that it would be that there are very many young poets and that they are very good poets.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about The Backwaters Press?

Greg Kosmicki: My friend and mentor, Greg Kuzma, from whom I took poetry writing classes at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, Nebraska, back in the early ‘70’s, used to run a little press for which he hand-set the type and hand-printed on a monstrous old platen press he had in his basement. His wife, Barb, suggested the name, “Best Cellar Press” for it, since the press was in the cellar. Seeing him do that got me excited about making books, and I carried the idea with me for years. He also had a little literary magazine called Pebble that he printed the same way. It was very demanding work. Eventually, late in the ‘90s I decided to try it myself, and started The Backwaters Press. I wanted a press that would make books that were more utilitarian though, rather than hand-made, so I have printed only perfect-bound paperback books. Since beginning, the press has published about 100 titles. Many of the books that we published in the last few years were selected by Rich (David) Wyatt, the co-editor, when we had an open submissions policy. He is a very astute reader. The press has an annual contest for a collection of poems by a single author. Our website is

Geosi Gyasi: Is it more difficult to edit than to write?

Greg Kosmicki: Do you mean edit other people’s work or my own?

Geosi Gyasi: Yes, your own work?

Greg Kosmicki: I don’t edit mine a lot—I’m pretty much one of those “First thought best thought” types. As far as editing other’s work goes, I don’t spend a lot of time going over people’s manuscripts, telling the poets what to cut, etc., because I think that if someone has gotten to the point that they have put their poems into book form, they think that the poems are finished. I will read the manuscript and if I don’t like the poems, then I don’t publish it. That doesn’t mean that the poems aren’t any good, it just means that I don’t like them for some reason and I don’t want to publish them. The only time that I will do line-by-line edits is when a poet I know asks me to do so, but they’ve got to know me pretty well, because that’s asking a lot. That’s difficult work! If someone I don’t know insists that I read something and edit, I charge for it, but I don’t like to do that. Too much other stuff to do in my life, and it’s time-consuming.

Geosi Gyasi: How long did it take you to complete “How Things Happen”?

Greg Kosmicki: I’m not really sure. The poems in that collection were part of a longer manuscript that I had submitted to Harry Duncan, who used to run Abbatoir Press, a fine letter press at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. He said that he would like to publish it, but that he had so many projects to do he was afraid that he wouldn’t get them all completed—by that time he was in his 70’s. So he passed the manuscript on to a former book-making student of his, Denise Brady, who runs bradypress in Omaha, another fine letter press. She selected about 15 poems out of the longer manuscript that she really liked and published those as “How Things Happen.” I’m surprised you know about it—it was a very limited, hand-made edition of about 150 copies. But the poems weren’t written as a book, but rather, like all of my books, the poems from many years were collected together into a loosely arranged book manuscript. The poems in “How Things Happen” which was published in 1999, I think, were written in the time period from about 1977 through about 1987 or so. Another book, which contains many of the poems that are in “How Things Happen,” but that is about 120 pages long, titled “nobody lives here who saw this sky” came out less than a year later from Missing Spoke Press in Seattle. Those books are very rare too, because the press only published about 250 copies and then went out of business about 2 years later.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about “How Things Happen”?

Greg Kosmicki: The book itself if a work of the book-makers art, being printed on fine papers, and with covers made of handmade paper that has cornstalks and coffee grounds in it. Denise Brady is a meticulous craftsperson and the book is beautiful, with each book hand-sewn by Denise, as well as all the typesetting and printing done by her by hand on a Van de Graf proof press. It’s gorgeous! The poems are all based on the poet-as-storyteller, talking about what’s happening in his life. I have always thought that because we are all human beings, that we will relate to each other’s lives if the writers talk about what is going on in them, and that will form a bond somehow between you and me when you read my poems, and with that bond comes understanding of each other, and when we understand each other, then we are less likely to follow the idiots who run countries and go out and kill other people, because we understand each other. That’s always been my justification for all the time that I spend with writing.

Geosi Gyasi: Where and when did you write “We Have Always Been Coming to This Morning”?

Greg Kosmicki: The poems in this book were written over many years. The first section reprints some poems, up through “History,” from a little chapbook I self-published in 1988, called “When There Wasn’t Any War.” Those poems were all written from the time when I was a student at the University of Nebraska circa 1974 (Eating Supper, Watching the News) to some that were written when we lived in Alliance, Nebraska, and I was working for United Parcel Service, from 1981 through 1988. The remainder of that section are poems that were written between 1988 and 1991 when my wife and I were living in and working in a group home in Omaha, with six developmentally delayed young men. Section 2 is comprised of poems written after we moved out of the group home and into a tough part of town, while I worked for an agency as a case manager that provided services for homeless mentally ill people, and my wife was in administration at the company where we both worked before. That neighborhood is reflected especially in the poems “4-17-94,” “7-8-94” and “Packing.” We moved to a quieter neighborhood in 1995 when I got my job with the state, and the poems in section three are from that time period, from about 1995 through about 1998 or so, though some of them are reminiscences, rather than being based on events of the current day that the poem was written. Several of the poems from the 3rd section about our youngest daughter Briana were collected together with other poems about her and published as a chapbook by Black Star Press in Lincoln, Nebraska, under the title Marigolds.

Geosi Gyasi: You are a 2000 and 2006 recipient of the Nebraska Arts Council’s Merit Award. Why do you think you were given this award?

Greg Kosmicki: The award is given to people who live in Nebraska who submit poems to the Nebraska Arts Council to be judged by an independent panel of judges. The Arts Council awards are cyclical: one year is for plastic arts, one year for performing arts, and one year for writing arts, in rotation. The Arts Council sends the submissions to the judges, who are recognized poets from another state, and they judge the writing without knowing the identity of the poet who submitted it. Each poet can submit up to 5 poems, and the Arts Council has the latitude to give out the awards however they deem fit, based upon the statements of the judges. For instance, if the judges think that all the award money should go to only two poets, then they will each get a fairly large sum, around $7,000 apiece. Usually though, they choose several poets to get smaller awards, such as $1,000 to $2,000, and one poet to receive the highest recognition with a $5,000 award. The money comes from state tax funds, so the Arts Council is extremely scrupulous about ensuring the integrity of the process.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: Do we have a defined way of life for writers?

Greg Kosmicki: Starting in the late ‘50’s in the US, poets and fiction writers began to get hired by English departments at major universities to teach “creative writing” as a sort-of “side salad” to a serious English Literature degree. Then a few universities realized the potential for these programs and started offering creative writing degrees. The first in the US was the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, I think, followed closely by Stanford University’s program. The concept grew slowly, but steadily, until today there are creative writing majors and minors at practically every college and university in the country, and now it appears that we have a glut of “certified” poets and writers in the country—so I’m guessing that many of them, most, probably, can’t find full-time employment teaching writing in creative writing programs, and are forced back into the workaday world doing other jobs, while writing furiously away on their novels and poems before and after work. There have also developed a huge system of prize-giving and awards and grants, so that if you’re lucky to have entered one contest or another and won it, you can win a fair amount of money and recognition through those. I’m not in that field—teaching—only because I couldn’t find work in it back in 1978 and gave up on it since I had to feed my family, so I really can’t say that I know if for a fact, but if you do the math, you come up with a lot more Master of Fine Arts graduates than there are teaching positions in the country. So I suspect that I was just ahead of the curve at least in that respect. (Not finding work with my English degree with a creative thesis.)

Geosi Gyasi: Your poem, “April 2, 2013” sounds like one written out of an event. Was it written from a personal experience?

Greg Kosmicki: Yes it was. Most of my poems are based on my personal experience in one way or another.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do many drafts?

Greg Kosmicki: I don’t really do much re-writing at all. I got in the habit when I was younger of writing at breakneck speed, trying to hang on to get where the poem was taking me. Some nights 40 years ago I would stay up for hours and write numerous poems—sometimes as many as ten. Most of them didn’t turn out well, so I’d write some more the next time. Once in a while, years ago, I would spend a lot of time, reading and re-reading a poem to try to get it to say what I thought I wanted it to say, especially when I first started writing. But later, I got in the habit of not going back much—now maybe I re-read, change a word here or there, and abandon it, because I figured out (after 20 years or so) that I should let the poem figure out what it wanted to do, not me with my big dumb ideas. Months later I will find them in my notebooks and see that some of them turned out OK if I just clip off, say, the last stanza or two, or the last line or two. Usually I try to let the poem take over so that I’m not in charge of it, and when I get back in charge, then it usually goes sour, so I stop there. Those are the lines/stanzas that get clipped off. Then, it might not be finished, but I rarely go back and work on something, because if I don’t finish it in the first sitting, I’ve lost the thread and I usually can’t get it back, so I don’t try. I just write another poem. I do go back through poems sometimes and cut out words that aren’t necessary to the poem, to tighten them up a bit—I look for “the,” “and,” “and then,” “that,” “then,” and other words like those that don’t contribute much and make the poem flabbier. Sometimes you need them, but often not. I try to keep those words off the ends of lines, unless they are pivoting the poem in a pretty important way somehow at the end of a line.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most difficult part of writing?

Greg Kosmicki: Waiting. Getting started. Writing when you think “I don’t have anything to say.” Writing when you don’t feel “inspired.” Just writing at all—it’s a discipline, and there are about sixty-eight million trillion distractions out there, waiting to jump all over you and keep you away from the page where you belong if you are a writer. Nowadays, with cell phones, I-pads, music everywhere, TVs everywhere, computers everywhere, the distractions are as ubiquitous as mushrooms on the forest floor after a month of rain. Those distractions will kill you as a writer if you don’t abandon them because they are sucking away the two elements you need to write: time, and quiet time in your mind.

Geosi Gyasi: When you write, do you care about style?

Greg Kosmicki: I wanted to be a smart-ass and reply “Do you mean that it’s not obvious from reading my poems that I don’t care about style?” but I guess that I do care enough about it that I write in the manner that I do— that’s my style, I guess—rather than in some other manner. I don’t sit around and think about it though, I just write and try to get from the first line that appeared on the page that night to the one that feels like the last one, based upon what the first one was. I guess that my style is to more or less meander around on the page until the place where I’ve meandered to feels like the place that I was going to when I started out not knowing where it was I was going to. I guess that if I have a style, it could be called “conversational.”

Geosi Gyasi: Does writing come easy for you?

Greg Kosmicki: Yes, it does in some respects. At least, I feel like it does once I get something finished, but when I was a young writer, I was furious, I was mad to write, I had to write, and I wrote all the time. Now I don’t agonize over it, but I don’t feel good generally when I don’t write. I don’t feel good because if I’m not writing, I’m not connecting with the world. The most difficult part for me is having the discipline to sit down and do it, and the longer I go without writing, the harder it is to get back into it, and the easier to let distractions take over. When I do write, I just spew and whatever comes out builds a little step-stool for me to climb onto to see where I’m going next. Then I go there and see where I can go to next. It’s not something that I think about consciously. If I think about it a lot, I get self-conscious and then my brain intrudes and tells me what I’m writing is dumb and I should stop. So I try to ignore that and keep going. Sometimes when I go back and read the poems a few weeks later, it appears that my brain was right sometimes, but sometimes not. Sometimes the words have a spark that seems right. But I have a hard time telling with my own poems because I’m too close to them, which is why I like going to the writing group I go to—The Poetry Warriors—they can tell me where it looks like a poem went off track, or if it stayed on.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most interesting aspect of writing?

Greg Kosmicki: I think that it’s the little surprise that comes at the end of a poem sometimes, (all the time in successful poems) that lots of times I don’t even recognize, I just feel like I’m giving up on this poem, I quit, it’s not going anywhere, and then later when I come back to it, I see that the poem ends right here or right there, and its done something that I didn’t realize it was doing. Then I feel really smart for a minute! But I know that it’s the poem, it’s not me, I’m just taking it down and it’s writing itself out, and I’m the lucky one who gets the credit for it.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s your plan for your readers in the foreseeable future?

Greg Kosmicki: Right now I’m collecting together all the poems that seemed to have worked out as OK poems about my relationship with my older brother and me. He was killed in a car accident when I was about 16 years old and I became pretty self-destructive for a few years after that and I think that his death is probably why I ended up writing poems. I guess that was my introduction, or one of my introductions, to what life is all about. When I was in college I wrote a couple poems about it and one that I wrote, “Letter to a Dead Man” was one that I thought was pretty much the definitive poem about his death and my relationship to it, and that I was all over his death, but then I have been revisited by poems about him for the next 40 years. It seems that the dead never die as long as someone is alive who knew them. So I want to get those together. If I can get them all together, I’ll try to find a publisher. It will be called “The Sun has Stayed Where it is” which is also the title of my Master’s Thesis. And I’m continuing to write in the nights, and I’ve about got a collection-sized group together that I think I will call “It’s as Good Here as it gets Anywhere” from a line in one of the poems.


Interview with American Writer, Gretchen Hodgin

October 18, 2014
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Photo: Gretchen Hodgin

Brief Biography:

Gretchen Hodgin was born in South Carolina but resides in Maryland, where she has become enamored with the local deer.  Her poems have been published in a variety of magazines, including, Gargoyle, Magma Poetry, Measure, Rattle, and Tar River Poetry. She’s currently making steady progress compiling her first book of poetry, half of which she is striving to write in terza rima.

Geosi Gyasi: Help me begin the interview with any word or sentence in Russian?

Gretchen Hodgin: Привет!

Geosi Reads: Which means?

Gretchen Hodgin:  Hi!

Geosi Gyasi: You graduated cum laude with a Bachelor’s in Russian from the University of South Carolina. What influenced you to study Russian?

Gretchen Hodgin: I read Dostoyevsky’s, “The Brothers Karamazov” as a teenager, and it literally changed my brain.  I’ve been interested in Russia ever since.  The program I was involved in does a very comprehensive major, so I studied culture, history, language, and literature.   My main focus was literature.  I taught myself first-year Russian; however, whatever part of the brain responsible for language and mathematics had some kind of power outage, so I never learned Russian the way I wanted.  It’s a shame, too because it’s such a beautiful language.  It’s still a goal, though.

Geosi Gyasi: Has your study in Russian benefited you in any particular way?

Gretchen Hodgin: I think it has enriched my overall perspective.  When I visited Russia, I learned that the onion domes on top of the churches were meant to symbolize candles during the harsh winters.

Geosi Gyasi: Moving on, it appears you ditched the Russian somewhere and opted for a Master’s in writing? What happened? 

Gretchen Hodgin:  “Ditched” sounds so harsh.  I don’t think I’m capable of ditching Russian because Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are probably infused in my blood at this point.  Charles Bukowski wrote a fantastic and articulate poem about Dostoyevsky’s effect on him.   It’s aptly titled… “Dostoevsky”.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you actually begin writing?

Gretchen Hodgin: I started writing poetry at around 10 or 11, and even then it was about the natural world and existentialism, so I’m not sure what that says about me.

Geosi Gyasi: Which writer has influenced you most?

Gretchen Hodgin:  Probably writers like Anne Sexton who have that whole, “I’ll invite you into my home, but I’m gonna take you into the basement, too” thing going on.  I like my art raw.

Geosi Gyasi: You work as a writer and editor. How does your editorial work influence your writing?

Gretchen Hodgin:  I edit a lot of transcripts these days, so I pay a lot of keen attention now to the way people actually talk.  I try to make my work sound as natural as possible, and being made acutely aware of people’s speech habits is helpful.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you edit your own writing?

Gretchen Hodgin:  It would be such a hot mess if I didn’t.  I also have a few close friends that read some of my work.  It’s easy to get all excited about new stuff after writing it, but you have to learn to simmer down and come back to it.  After some time, I’ll read stuff I initially thought was AWESOME and bang my head on the desk because I realize how much work it actually needs.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me about how you got the inspiration to write “To Myself When I Am Sobbing to Pachelbel for the Fiftieth Time in One Night:?”

Gretchen Hodgin:  I struggle pretty often with severe bouts of clinical depression.  So a lot of what I write is just basically me talking myself down from the ledge.  But there’s this particular piano version of that song I found on YouTube that always makes me cry.  I was listening to it one night on loop and realized how it was physically affecting me.  I wrote that poem to convince myself that if I can write even one thing that helps somebody get through the night, it would mean that my life would not have been lived, as Emily Dickinson already perfectly wrote, “in vain”.

For those who are similarly battling, there is a book called “Lincoln’s Melancholy” that argues that Abraham Lincoln’s depression drove him to achieve rather than cripple him because he wanted to make his life useful.  I subscribe to the notion that life is bigger than any of us individually, so I strive to devote my life to improving the world in whatever way I can. It just so happens that writing is just about the only thing I’m any good at.

Geosi Gyasi: You are originally from South Carolina. What took you to Baltimore, Maryland?

Gretchen Hodgin: A writing program at Johns Hopkins.  I like Maryland because it’s still southern enough to sell grits at the grocery store, but it’s slightly more liberal.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you mind telling me about reading and writing during your childhood?

Gretchen Hodgin: Around high school I started collecting and memorizing poems.  I would stumble across something that I really liked and would add it to a little scrapbook.  One of my favorites from those days was Sara Teasdale’s, “There Will Come Soft Rains”.  I also had a lot of Dorothy Parker poems dog-eared.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you do when not writing or editing?

Gretchen Hodgin: I love nature walks, taking pictures of wildlife, swimming, reading, dancing, and watching tennis and documentaries.  I’m also learning how to draw.  Sometimes I post my stuff on Facebook and people make fun of me because a third-grader could have done better, but I like monitoring my progress and being able to have visual proof of improvement.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you write “To Bitterness” from a personal experience?

Gretchen Hodgin:  I did.  It’s kind of embarrassing and pathetic, but, fortunately, I don’t have any shame, so I don’t mind talking about it.  I was sick and went to the doctor.  I had been single for a while and was feeling especially out of touch with the world.  Then he put his fingers on my throat as part of the exam, and I think all the hair on my body stood up in shock.  I didn’t have an epiphany sitting there, but I realized later that that was the first time I’d been touched by another human being in a while.  A doctor’s job is to care about you, so it was this gentle connection where my life was confirmed by a heartbeat, and I felt like a part of humanity again.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you explain what influenced the use of Afanasy Fet’s quote in writing “To The Bird Trope”?

Gretchen Hodgin: I collect quotes the way I collect poems.  Sometimes somebody else just kind of beats you to the punch and writes what you wanted to write.  Most of the poems in my scrapbook, for example, are poems I wish I had written – the kind I want to eat.

“To the Bird Trope” was written for a friend who was scared to open up her pain and write about something deeply tragic.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there any benefits one gets from studying creative writing at the university?

Gretchen Hodgin: Writers write, with or without formal training.  But meeting and growing with a community of other people pursuing your passion is pretty valuable.  I was also introduced to things I doubt I would have come across on my own.

Geosi Gyasi: Again, I want to make use of your study in Russian. Do you mind signing off the interview in Russian?

Gretchen Hodgin:  Спасиьо! Это былo весело!

Geosi Gyasi: I’m eager to know what it means in English?

Gretchen Hodgin: Thanks!  It was fun!


Interview with American Writer, J.P Celia

October 17, 2014

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a daily routine for writing?

J.P Celia: No, I don’t actually. I write when I’m compelled to write, which is sporadic. In this sense I envy novelists, who, unlike poets, rely less on inspiration and more on sheer determination and will, and therefore can write routinely. Perhaps some poets can do this. I can’t. It’s a weakness I’m aware of. On the other hand, I also think there’s something violent and unproductive about forcing oneself to write. So my envy is ambivalent.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you be described as a genre writer?

J.P Celia: I think you could safety describe me as a traditionalist or an anti-modernist or an anti-postmodernist writer, which is to say I’m rather repelled by the way poetry (and even some prose) is now written, which I find purposively incomprehensible and pompously vulgar.

Geosi Gyasi: How long have you been writing?

J.P Celia: Since I was a small boy.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you a great reader? What books did you read in your childhood?

J.P Celia: Yes, but my reading is a lot like my writing in that it is sporadic but passionate. I have to be seized by a book, just like I have to be seized by an idea. I’m a very fastidious reader. It’s similar to falling in love. I have to fall in love with a book essentially. Of course, there are problems with this. As a child I read the great fantasy writers, especially Tolkien. I also read the poets Shelley, Wordsworth, and Whitman. There’s a simplicity, innocence and wholesomeness to them which perhaps appealed to me then. I’ve found I don’t care for them much as I get older.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your first piece of writing?

J.P Celia: I do. It was a little poem about morning. I was eleven.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most boring part of writing?

J.P Celia: Frost said somewhere, “no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” If you’re bored while writing perhaps you’re not writing as you should.

Geosi Gyasi: What drew you to poetry?

J.P Celia: A dear friend of mine, who came from a very cultured Russian Jewish family (they were all familiar with Pushkin and Tolstoy), introduced me to poetry when I was very young. I suppose I dabbled in it out of love and duty towards him, but it soon became something I enjoyed on my own.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve said somewhere that you write because you find it pleasant and cathartic. Could you comment on this statement?

J.P Celia: Well, I’m suspicious of anything written without the intent to please, either for oneself or for others. You see a lot of modernist and postmodernist literature doing this, novels or poems written as if to intentionally frustrate, confuse, or alienate the reader, and which, you can imagine, were pure drudgery to compose (though I’m being a bit presumptuous in this.) I’m against this because I believe that a snobbish disdain for pleasure isn’t conducive to great literature, which is an intensely pleasurable activity, or, I’m arguing, should be. I’ve often noticed a discrepancy between supposed “great” works of art and the pleasure they afford. Why should there be no relation between greatness and pleasure? There were in the pre-modern writers. I find Shakespeare and Austen and Tolstoy both deeply profound and deeply pleasurable. I can’t say that of T.S. Eliot or James Joyce, two writers who both bore and baffle me. Though perhaps there are some who are given pleasure by their inscrutability, and so it’s possible that I’m unfairly equating inscrutability or obscurity with displeasure or lack of pleasure. As regards catharsis, who would deny that struggling to articulate a thought or feeling is wonderfully therapeutic? It unburdens the heart, clarifies the mind, and is one of the blessings of the art.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever gain pleasure from writing?

J.P Celia: Always.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you write from personal experiences?

J.P Celia: Yes, but not entirely. I leave room for invention. One should depart from personal experience when it becomes uninteresting. You see a lot of poets writing about everything that occurs to them, as if simply by virtue of it having happened to them it’s significant. This is silly and dangerous, not to mention narcissistic. A writer should certainly write from personal experience, but not rely on it.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you carry a particular reader in mind when you write?

J.P Celia: No, which isn’t to say I’m indifferent to the reader. I simply don’t have an abstract entity in my head called the “reader.” I’m aware there are readers, but they’re not taken into consideration when writing. I should also say that I’m very aware that much of what I write has limited appeal and that I’m fine with that. I try to satisfy my own particular aesthetic standard and I assume that there are others out there with the same or similar standard who will be naturally disposed to reading my work. In other words, I’ve never written for anyone, especially anyone different from myself. I write for myself and try to please myself, and in so doing hope to please likeminded people.

Geosi Gyasi: Do have specific subjects you write on?

J.P Celia: Anything that is poignant, profound, true.

Geosi Gyasi: Which writers have had great impact on you as a writer?

J.P Celia: Jane Austen, John Keats, Robert Frost, Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Larkin, E.B. White, William Shakespeare, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy. And there are others I greatly admire but can’t say have influenced me. These are Tobias Wolff, W.H. Auden, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Michael Chabon, Wilfred Owen, Jonathan Swift, J.D. Salinger, Plutarch, Pascal, Frank McCourt, Charles Dickens, Tim O’Brien.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you do poetry readings?

J.P Celia: I’ve never given a reading, though I’m not opposed to it in principle. However, I do think that there’s something strange about poets (intensely private people) exhibiting themselves, however innocently. There’s something contradictory there. I think a poem is a private experience, like a confession or a prayer or a kiss. A stage isn’t the right setting for such acts. Something is lost or perverted in them being performed I think. Though I could be wrong.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poem, “Before Riding West”?

J.P Celia: On that day I was simply filled with the desire to write, but with no clear idea or end in mind. I was inspired as I wrote it. This happens sometimes.

Geosi Gyasi: What things are likely to be found on your writing table?

J.P Celia: A computer, a dictionary, a thesaurus.


Interview with Poet and Editor, Doug Paul Case

October 15, 2014
Photo: Doug Paul Case

Photo: Doug Paul Case

Brief Biography:

Doug Paul Case lives in Bloomington, where he recently earned his MFA from Indiana University. His poems have appeared in Court Green, Salt Hill, Rattle, and Hobart. He is the poetry editor of Word Riot and the publisher of Gabby.

Geosi Gyasi: When I first viewed your website, I saw this quote: “I’m not a poet, I just crush a lot.” Could you elaborate on this?

Doug Paul Case: The phrase is a riff on the censored version of Big Pun’s hit song “I’m Not a Player,” which came out in the late 1990s, when I was in elementary school and too young to understand what it was about. But now it reminds me of categories / definitions / the art of naming, and feels appropriate to my writing process in two ways: that I usually don’t feel comfortable calling myself a poet (which is ridiculous, really, because I write them and therefore am) and that I only seem to have the need to write if I’m experiencing lust or love.

Geosi Gyasi: I observed, again, on your site, that you’re a compulsive reader. Are you?

Doug Paul Case: Yes. I’m currently reading Dorothea Lasky’s ROME, Claudia Rankine’s CITIZEN, Wayne Koestenbaum’s HUMILIATION, and Charles D’Ambrosio’s ORPHANS. I like to keep a mix of genres going at the same time.

Geosi Gyasi: Your debut chapbook of poems, “Something to Hide My Face In” won the 2013/14 Robin Becker Prize and is forthcoming from Seven Kitchens Press in February 2015? I am particularly struck by two words:  “debut” and “prize”?

Doug Paul Case: While I’ve had poems published in a number of magazines, this is the first time a group of them will be published on their own, and I’m quite excited to be working with Ron Mohring at Seven Kitchens on this project.

Geosi Gyasi: You are the founding editor of Gabby, a new journal dedicated to talky poems. Could you tell us how the journal came about?

Doug Paul Case: Talky poems (loosely, poems that eschew what we commonly think of as “poetic” language and highlight the poetics of everyday speech) are my favorite kind of poems, and at times it has seemed to me that they have a particularly difficult time finding homes in literary journals, getting passed up—I’d imagine—for more traditional work. When sound play and simile are stripped from a poem, you’re usually left with a bare-bones narrative, and I’m very interested in exploring how poets can work with just that, how focus and pacing and line breaks can add style and depth can enhance that narrative into, yes, a poem.

I wish I could say there was a grand reason for my deciding to start the journal, but really I just decided one day that if I wanted to see more talky poems getting the attention I think they deserve I was probably going to have to do that work myself. And so I am, gratefully with the blessings of contributors like Denise Duhamel, Ross Gay, Carrie Murphy, Heather Christle…

Geosi Gyasi: As the poetry editor of Word Riot, do you encounter any good writing? What kind of work do you expect from writers?

Doug Paul Case: I’ve been the poetry editor of Word Riot for about a year now, and I’m continuously surprised by and pleased with both the number of submissions we get and how consistently strong those submissions are. Because our submission response time is so fast (usually in 3-4 days), I always find myself nervous that I won’t find enough poems I love before the next issue’s selections are due, but I need to stop because that’s never actually a problem.

And I know virtually every editor says this in interviews, but I really don’t know what I’m looking for when I’m reading submissions. While I’m looking for very specific types of poetry at Gabby, I try to keep Word Riot’s aesthetic pretty eclectic. There’s only one question I ask of every poem submitted: Could another writer have written this (better)? If the answer is no, there’s a strong chance I’ll accept it.

Geosi Gyasi: Which writers have influenced you most?

Doug Paul Case: This is a tricky question for me because I think it’s impossible not to be influenced by everything you read, whether positively or negatively, and it’s a kind of magic, letting “influence” happen…in any case, I hope I’m learning most from the poets I admire, especially Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine, Michael Dickman, Maurice Manning, Aaron Smith, and Jericho Brown.

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

Doug Paul Case: While I read every day, most days I spend very little time actually writing. I only seem to write poems in bursts, and I have to wait for them. I won’t write anything for a few weeks, and then suddenly I’ll write four at the donut shop. They take me by surprise.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you put real life people you know into your writing?

Doug Paul Case: Yes.

Geosi Gyasi: Which of these do you think is more important when writing: style or plot?

Doug Paul Case: Style, of course! Very little “happens” in my favorite novel, C.E. Morgan’s ALL THE LIVING, but her prose is gorgeous and necessary. It shows me something in a new light.

When I write I often find it difficult to rely on plot—especially in shorter poems!—and instead spend my energy focusing in on particular details surrounding plot: the tattoo on someone’s body, the fleeting feeling of joy, the odd color of the teakettle, etc. Style is about deepening the plot’s potential for meaning, and that’s when poetry happens.

Geosi Gyasi: I am wondering where you got the idea for “What Makes You Beautiful”? Did you have to fall on a personal experience to write, “Driving Home, I Imagined the Man I’d Just Met, Alone in His Apartment, Washing By Hand the Glass from which I’d Drunk”?

Doug Paul Case: A majority of my work is at least partially autobiographical.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you arrive at titles for your poems?

Doug Paul Case: I often start with the title. They sometimes give me the feeling of a poem waiting to be written. Calling. And every poem is different, of course, but as a reader I appreciate placing titles. I enjoy entering a poem knowing a little something about its world and what I’ll encounter there. Tricks do very little work for me; I would much rather be prepared for what the poem has to offer, to experience it fully from the start.

Geosi Gyasi: What is the relationship between you and readers of your work?

Doug Paul Case: I like to think of my reader as my date for brunch, slightly hung-over and ready to gossip.


Interview with Award Winning Poet and Tattoo Artist, Ruth Awad

October 14, 2014
Photo Credit: Ruth Awad

Photo Credit: Ruth Awad

Brief Biography:

Ruth Awad has her MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New RepublicRattleSouthern Indiana ReviewCALYXDiodeThe Drunken BoatCopper NickelAnti-Vinyl PoetryEpiphany, and elsewhere. She won the 2013 and 2012 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize and the 2011 Copper Nickel Poetry Contest. She was also a finalist for the 2013 Ruth Lily Fellowship, and her work was anthologized in The Hundred Years’ War published by Bloodaxe Books.

Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin with your work as a tattoo artist? Who is a tattoo artist?

Ruth Awad: My mother has been a nurse most of her life, and about ten or so years ago, one of her patients was a tattoo artist. He was probably smitten with her (she is beautiful in every kind of way) and grateful for the way she pours herself into her work. Anyway, they bonded and started talking about art. My mother is a painter, and she showed him some of her work. Her patient was in the process of selling his tattoo studio, and as a condition of its sale, he required the buyer to take my mother on as a tattoo apprentice. She’s been a tattoo artist ever since. I think a lot of being a tattoo artist is equal parts talent and networking. It’s such a close-knit community that it can be hard to break into.

Geosi Gyasi: What does it take to be a tattoo artist?

Ruth Awad: In the United States, the law varies from place to place. Some states require that you have a tattoo license; others don’t. I was trained by my mother in Nashville, Tennessee, which requires you to complete a year-long apprenticeship with a licensed tattoo artist before you can get your own license. You also have to take a test through the health department, which aims to make sure you know how to properly sterilize equipment and prevent cross contamination.

Of course, you should also know a thing or two about how to draw, but you’d be surprised how many artists can get by with just tracing a stencil on the skin. And a steady hand is always a plus.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the most important work you’ve ever done as a tattoo artist?

Ruth Awad: That’s hard to say. I’ve tattooed a lot of people I care about immeasurably, and that kind of work becomes a visual representation of our bond. I’ve tattooed my mother, my sister, my friends, a handful of romantic partners.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you deal with clients who want their genitalia to be tattooed?

Ruth Awad: Oh, sheesh, I have had a few requests to tattoo genitalia (notable: three holes so a certain dude’s member would look like a flute), but I always refer those clients to other artists. I’m not being compensated enough to suffer that.

Geosi Gyasi: Does it cost to be tattooed?

Ruth Awad: Yes, but the cost varies. My mother and I price our work based on the size and intricacy of the piece because we only do custom tattoos, meaning we design them ourselves. Some artists have a “shop minimum” – usually $50 – just to get out their needles and ink. But a lot of work and expertise goes into a tattoo. A good artist knows how to design a piece to complement the body, how to counsel clients on their choices, how to be precise even when their hands are tired. You’re paying for the art, of course, but there are a lot of other things at play, too.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you combine your work as a tattoo artist and writer?

Ruth Awad: I feel like I lucked out on that front because my work as a tattoo artist is so closely tied to my relationship with my mother – something I wrote about a lot in the past and that I’m revisiting now. After my parents divorced when I was six, my dad got custody of my two sisters and me. I’ve always lived away from my mom, and when I turned 19, tattooing became a way for me to connect with her and understand her life that always seemed separate from me.

Geosi Gyasi: You have an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. What sort of books did you read as an MFA student?

Ruth Awad: Oh, everything – poetry, of course, but lots of fiction and nonfiction, too. A few standouts: Louise Glück, James Kimbrell, Brian Barker, Richard Siken, John Burnside, Cheryl Strayed, Terrance Hayes, Jack Gilbert, Robert Fisk, Anne Carson, Claudia Rankine.

Geosi Gyasi: Which teachers had the most influence on your writing?

Ruth Awad: I worked closely with Judy Jordan, who was my thesis advisor during grad school. I’d stay after workshop and we’d talk about everything – romantic woes, rescuing dogs from puppy mills, vegan recipes. She is still one of my foremost mentors and always pushed me to write what I was afraid to write. She encouraged me to never settle for a good enough poem, but to strive to write the hard one. I also worked with Allison Joseph and Jon Tribble, who taught me a lot about the publishing world and how to consider my work in the context of all the literature that’s out there. That perspective helped me put together my first manuscript. And there’s a piece of Rodney Jones’ advice that continues to inform my writing: “Loosen up, girl.”

Geosi Gyasi: You were the winner of the 2011 Copper Nickel Poetry Contest and the 2012 and 2013 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prize. Do prizes mean anything to you?

Ruth Awad: As a poet, you write and write and write and wonder if it’s really worth all the effort and rejection. I think that poetry is about more than expressing yourself – it’s about communicating. It’s audience based and demands participation. So in that sense, winning those prizes means quite a lot to me – it’s proof that somewhere out there, these poems are connecting with people and resonating.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you earn a living from writing?

Ruth Awad: I’m a copy editor for an insurance agency, and I’m a little surprised by how much I like it. I thought it would mean drudging through my work life like Kafka at his bread job. It helps that I work remotely. I get to hang out with my dogs during the workday.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about your two pomeranians?

Ruth Awad: You know, sometimes, I feel as though I have to apologize or self deprecate when I talk about the dogs. Like, I have to say, I love them so much, but I’m just a crazy dog lady. But I think there’s something almost religious in my appreciation for the girls. I’m grateful for their love every single day.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve been modeling for sometime now? Do you still model?

Ruth Awad: Not in any regular capacity. I modeled a lot when I was younger, but instead of boosting my self-esteem, it had the opposite effect. I’d look at the pictures from a shoot and find every flaw with my body. Or, I’d think, I’ll never look like that again. Pulling away from modeling was an act of self-preservation in a lot of ways. In others, it was part of growing up and realizing my interests are elsewhere.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your poem, “Karantina Massacre, 1976, East Beirut”?

Ruth Awad: It was inspired by this photograph by the French war photographer Françoise Demulder. I couldn’t get the image out of my mind – I wanted to hear that woman’s voice as she’s pleading to the militiaman.

Geosi Gyasi: How did the idea for “The Green Line” come to you?

Ruth Awad: I wanted to give a voice to that haunted feeling that certain places have – places that have seen great tragedy. I was reading a lot about the Lebanese Civil War, and I learned that the Green Line separated warring factions in Beirut. There was a picture of grass and trees rising up through the concrete because it was unoccupied for so long. It frightened me to think about the earth reclaiming that space.

Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently working on?

Ruth Awad: After working on journalistic poems for so long, I’m shifting gears a little. My new collection is much more lyric. Poems that move like smoke. The common thread is that they are meant to be read like spells.

Geosi Gyasi: When do you write?

Ruth Awad: On the weekends, mostly, fueled by lots of coffee. I think about a poem for a long time so that when I sit down to write, most of the work is already done. Sometimes the poem comes through a certain voice; sometimes, a line. It’s rarely a driving idea or subject that brings me to the page.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell us about your poem “Inheritance” published in Rattle?

Ruth Awad: That poem is based entirely on one of my father’s experiences while he was growing up in Tripoli, Lebanon during the war. I wanted to capture the romanticism of war – how it can seem like a game. I also wanted to get the idea about how ordinary war can be when exposed to it day in and day out. My father said at one point during my interview with him, “It was boring. I couldn’t go anywhere.” It shocked me. I had all these (naive) notions about how war affects civilians. But my father’s very concise answer underscored what survival is all about.

Geosi Gyasi: What sort of relationship do you have with Lebanon?

Ruth Awad: A distant one, but I hope to fix that soon.


Life is a Woman Breaking Eggs by Adura Ojo

October 13, 2014
Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Year of Publication: 2014

Genre: Poetry

“She makes us, she breaks us,” p9 Ojo notes from the beginning. In fact, it is the albumen upon which the fundamental premise of the book commences. Think of it this way, the fact that the title in itself is proverbial, gives much to think of, even when the reader has swallowed down word after word; from the Albumen through to Yolk to Woman.

Life is a Woman Breaking Eggs nonetheless is a chilling, refined debut of a writer whose style, thematic concerns and language use gives much to desire. The book, which is divided into three parts; homologous to the parts that make up an egg except for Woman, we are left to puzzle out.

Ojo’s “A Girl’s Pledge” is indeed an important poem with a theme that is not far-fetched from our homes. In fact it is everything about girlhood and recounts the coming-of-age story of a girl:

“A girl may not count

how many truths she told

which truths she will not tell

until the cows come home

she knows by layers

rows of burrowed on mama’s brow

mowed, planted lines

between folds of time” p13

Having lived in two different continents, back and forth, first born in the United Kingdom, then moved to Nigeria for her formative years, then back to the United Kingdom, Ojo gives us glimpses of life from all angles. Indeed, In Yolk, the second part of the book, “what does not break us, holds us” p33. Coupled with race and identity in a foreign territory, the narrator in “Say My Name” is confronted with the questions, “what’s your name, love?” p43 and “Can you spell that please?” p43 While Life is a Woman Breaking Eggs goes beyond the limit of cultures, the reader sits in the mind of the narrator per assumption that what if the reader were to be the narrator? In what seemed to be a useful engagement, vis-à-vis the confrontation, the narrator in responding:

“My name is bite free

Bark it in rapturous song

Wrap the vowels around your tongue

                                       Say my name” p43

With a disturbing approach to making choices, whether “home” or “away”, p45 in Eggs Crack Easy, the narrator instructively demands “Break, watch it spill” p45 Again, the narrator appears to encounter culture shock, with regards to change of environment, where “homing pigeons land to yield” p45 and told to “forget yam” and “welcome potato” p45 Nonetheless, could we focus our “eyes on the yolk” p45 which inadvertently assumes the role of the “root of soul” p45? Perhaps, after all, there’s no belittling the ultimate fact that eggs indeed crack easy.

The final part, perhaps, saving the last for the best, narrates concerns about womanhood and feminism, begins:

“She’s breakfasting on twin yolks

laceration on her tongue singing

                no more scrambled eggs” p57

In Girlfriend… where truth is sacrificed for lies even in worst scenarios “you lied when he hit you”, p61 “you lied when you couldn’t walk”. p61 Or, perhaps, is it love that has been sacrificed for lies? That notwithstanding, in “A Woman Knows Her Place”, there is believe and hope that indeed “a woman knows her place and how to get there” p74

There’s so much many readers would identify with this brief but intellectually engaging collection of poems. Ojo has written what ultimately appear to be a strong debut, more importantly the defining clarity of language use and the complexity of pivotal subjects dealt with in a cool but intelligent approach.

Interview with American Poet, Peter Cooley

October 10, 2014
Photo Credit: Paula Burch

Photo Credit: Paula Burch

Brief Biography:

Peter Cooley was born in Detroit and lived for thirty-four years in the Midwest until coming to New Orleans and Tulane where he has taught for thirty-nine years. Peter Cooley has published nine books of poetry; eight of them with Carnegie Mellon and his most recent is NIGHT BUS TO THE AFTERLIFE, which came out in March 2014. He is married and has three “grown” children. Cooley is a Senior Mellon Professor of English at Tulane and Director of Creative Writing and Poetry editor of CHRISTIANITY AND LITERATURE.

Geosi Gyasi: You’ve stated somewhere that “My faith is a part of what I see and touch and feel, a part of me, a part of everything”. Do you think there is any relationship between faith and poetry?

Peter Cooley: Of course there is a relationship between faith and poetry. By its very nature, the reflexive construction of its words which seek always to be simultaneously referential, poetry expresses a faith in something beyond itself. What is peculiar right now is that so few poets nowadays would admit to any belief—except in poetry and their professed “humanism.”

Geosi Gyasi: You were born in Detroit, Michigan in 1940. What sort of society did you live in growing up?

Peter Cooley: I grew up in a very traditional Midwestern, protestant society, with strictly defined roles for everyone, for children, men and women, even the family dog. Very little was questioned. I found that world dissatisfying and have been writing against it ever since. In defense of my family of origin, I was never discouraged from writing.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you surprised that your daughter, Nicole Cooley, took after you – I mean on becoming a poet?

Peter Cooley: I am delighted that my daughter took after me! Surprised? Even as a little girl, before she could read, she was making up poems that my wife and I wrote down, so I guess I’m not surprised

Geosi Gyasi: Which kind of books did you read at home?

Peter Cooley: We didn’t have any poetry books. We had some classics, some current books which were literary fiction, some best sellers.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you think writers have done enough to shape the society into a better place today?

Peter Cooley: Of course, it is the writer’s task “to shape the society into a better place today.” But he or she must do this by trying to tell the truth— so as to awaken the attention—about human existence in as imaginative a way as possible.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the current state of poetry in America? Are poets getting better?

Peter Cooley: I think the current state of poetry in America is indescribably rich in the number of poets writing and the current number of writing programs, small presses, reading venues and magazines available. And then there is the online world of publishing and performing, which is a whole new universe. Things have never been better.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon


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