Interview with Poet, Simon Perchik

July 7, 2016
Simon Perchik

Simon Perchik

Brief Biography:

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review, The Nation, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013). For more information, including free e-books, his essay titled “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities” please visit his website at

Geosi Gyasi: Let’s begin from the past: You served in the Army Air Corps as a pilot. How did you get involved with piloting?

Simon Perchik :It was a poster of a young pilot looking up at the sky and the words, “Learn to Fly” written on the poster that was placed in the army base I was sent to when I was drafted. I applied, passed the interview and was sent off for training. Got my wings about 8 months later and soon after that was off to England. Flew 35 missions (as co-pilot) then sent home and discharged. From beginning to end it took a year, year and a half out of my life and yet it has taken such a hold that I can’t shake the experience. It dominates my poetry.

Geosi Gyasi: What influenced your decision to go to Law School just after completing a B.A in English?

Simon Perchik: The G I Bill. I had enough points to get all that education free. Took me five years, including summers. Law seemed a good way to make a living so why pass it up.

Geosi Gyasi: What would you say to young budding writers who venture into writing from the very beginning of their lives? Would you encourage them to take a ‘well-paying’ job before they even think of venturing into writing?

Simon Perchik: No. I would advice them not to take anyone’s advice on that. But not to forget something has to feed the writing and the experience of earning a living is one source. Writing in an “ivory tower” deprives the writer of the material he or she needs to get the job done.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you get involved with poetry?

Simon Perchik: I wrote poems in grade school and never stopped. Must give credit to my High School teacher (Mary Bell) for encouraging me.

Geosi Gyasi: Did Mary Bell hear about any of your publications? Besides being a teacher, was she a poet too?

Simon Perchik: She died long before anything of mine got published. No, she was not a poet. Just a good teacher. I owe her much and want that there be a record of it. Himmm. Is that why I write!

Geosi Gyasi: How do you define your role or vision as a poet?

Simon Perchik: I don’t think I have any role or vision. I’m writing my way out and it helps me. If others are helped, I’m happy but I have no cause to champion.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me the story about being the first Environmental Prosecutor for Suffolk County Long Island?

Simon Perchik: I’m very proud of those five years. Lots of frustration (No help from the administrative agencies County, State or Federal) but did get a few things done and the DA kept the office open after I left..

Geosi Gyasi: Who were your early influences when you began to write?

Simon Perchik: Baudelaire of course. Paul Blackburn was a very big help and got me to give up rhyme. Much influenced by Pablo Neruda and Vicente Aleixandre.

Geosi Gyasi: What are some of the technical things you consider with your craft as a poet?

Simon Perchik: Tension is a primary concern. Also, as my work becomes more and more abstract (my subconscious talking to the reader’s subconscious). I have to be careful to provide the reader with concrete images to allow the reader a place to touch down now and then.

Geosi Gyasi: Is “I Counted Only April” your first published book?

Simon Perchik: No. I self published a small collection. Done with a rented typewriter and a rented mimeograph machine. Called “Bomber Moon”. Couldn’t give it away. Now I can’t find any copies.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard “Touching the Headstone” much of a success as compared to “The Autochthon Poems”?

Simon Perchik: I don’t regard any of my books a success. The only book that sold was “Hands Collected”(Pavement Saw Press) which went into a second edition.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you keep a dictionary beside you when you write?

Simon Perchik: Glad you asked that. I don’t keep a dictionary but do keep a Roget’s Thesaurus. But not solely for the purpose you may think. Of course some words are more handsome than others and writers want the best they can find. I’m no different. But I also use Roget’s Thesaurus to get ideas. Mainly to get ideas I would never in a million years thought of.. Very often a word will suggest something 90 degrees from where I was heading. Sometimes 180 degrees and the entire poem takes off in that new direction. My hope is that any writer reading this will explore what I just now said. It works!

Geosi Gyasi: Are you a full-time writer?

Simon Perchik: Yes. I wasn’t always but since my retirement in 1980 I write full time. I just exploded. Still am.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you use a computer to write or write longhand?

Simon Perchik: I write in long hand with a fountain pen. Need ink to flow out my hand.  Although the poems are short lyric bursts it takes 20, 40, 90 pages to get those 12, 14, 16  short lines.

Geosi Gyasi: Does the beginning of a poem matter to you at all?

Simon Perchik: Yes. Very much so. I work the marrow and a good, strong first line helps break open the bones.

Geosi Gyasi: How about the ending of a poem. Do care so much about your endings?

Simon Perchik: Yes. I try to avoid the mistake most poets make by not stopping in time.

Geosi Gyasi: Do your children and grandchildren read your work?

Simon Perchik: No. Most people I know would sooner drink iodine than read a poem.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your essay, “Magic, Illusion and Other Realities”?

Simon Perchik : Wanted to tell others how I get my ideas and how that method may be of help to them.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you justify the thought that ‘poetry is not a tool for everyday use by everyone’?

Simon Perchik: Because it’s true. Poetry revives us. At a funeral we need John Donne. At a party we don’t.

Geosi Gyasi: You seem to make clear the difference between prose and poetry but my question is, are the two vastly unrelated in anyway?

Simon Perchik: Yes. Prose tells you it exactly while poetry alludes to it and you do the rest which includes a ton of unrelated references.. And this is so for prose passing itself off as poetry no matter how wide the margins are on both sides the page.

Geosi Gyasi: How about music? Is there any close relationship between poetry and music?

Simon Perchik: They are one. Both inform the listener/reader of what cannot be articulated.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it always the case that, ‘prose is a telling of what the writers already know”?

Simon Perchik: Yes. And when they tell us something they don’t know, it’s poetry they’re making.


Essay: Magic, Illusion and Other Realities by Simon Perchik

July 5, 2016

Photo: Simon Perchik

                         Photo: Simon Perchik

About the Author:

Simon Perchik is an attorney whose poems have appeared in Partisan Review,The Nation, Poetry, Osiris, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. His most recent collection is Almost Rain, published by River Otter Press (2013).  For more information, including free e-books, please visit his website at


Where do writers get their ideas? Well, if they are writing prose, their ideas evolve one way. If, on the other hand, they are writing poetry, their ideas evolve another way. Perhaps some distinctions are in order. Distinguishing the difference between prose and poetry may not be all that simple. There are many definitions, all of which may be correct. For the purpose of this essay allow me to set forth one of the many:

It seems to me that there is available to writers a spectrum along which to proceed. At one end is prose, appropriate for essays, news, weather reports and the like. At the other end is poetry. Writers move back and forth along this spectrum when writing fiction.

Thus, prose is defined by its precise meaning that excludes ambiguity, surmise and misunderstanding. It never troubles the reader.  To define it another way, prose is faulty if it lacks a coherent thrust guided by rules of logic, grammar and syntax. It will not tolerate contradiction.  Poetry, on the other hand, is defined by its resistance to such rules. Poetry is ignited, brought to life by haunting, evasive, ambiguous, contradictory propositions.

This is not to say poetry is more or less useful than prose. Rather, they are two separate and distinct tools, much the same as a hammer and a saw. They are different tools designed for different jobs. If an essay is called for, the reader wants certainty; exactly what the words you are now reading are intended to give. If, on the other hand, consolation for some great loss is called for, the reader needs more: a text that lights up fields of reference nowhere alluded to on the page. This calls for magic, for illusion, not lecture. Thus, one of the many definitions of poetry might be: Poetry: words that inform the reader of that which cannot be articulated. To be made whole, to heal, the reader needs to undergo an improved change in mood, a change made more effective if the reader doesn’t know why he or she feels better. Exactly like music. That’s where poetry gets its power to repair; an invisible touch, ghost-like but as real as anything on earth. A reading of the masters, Neruda, Aleixandre, Celan…confirms that a text need not always have a meaning the reader can explicate. To that extent, it informs, as does music, without what we call meaning.  It’s just that it takes prose to tell you this.

This is because prose is a telling of what the writers already know. They have a preconceived idea of what to write about. With poetry it’s the opposite. The writers have no preconceived idea with which to begin a poem. They need to first force the idea out of the brain, to bring the idea to the surface, to consciousness. With poetry the writer needs a method to find that hidden idea. If the originating idea wasn’t hidden and unknown it isn’t likely to be an important one. Let’s face it: any idea that is easily accessible has already been picked over. It’s all but certain to be a cliché.

To uncover this hidden idea for a poem the writers each have their own unique method. As for me, the idea for the poem evolves when an idea from a photograph is confronted with an obviously unrelated, disparate idea from a text (mythology or science) till the two conflicting ideas are reconciled as a totally new, surprising and workable one. This method was easy for me to come by. As an attorney I was trained to reconcile disparate views, to do exactly what a metaphor does for a living. It’s not a mystery that so many practicing lawyers write poetry. Lawyer Poets And That World We Call Law, James R. Elkins, Editor (Pleasure Boat Studio Press. Also, Off the Record, An Anthology of Poetry by Lawyers, edited by James R. Elkins, Professor of Law, University of West Virginia.

The efficacy of this method for getting ideas is documented at length by Wayne Barker, MD. who, in his Brain Storms, A Study of Human Spontaneity, on page 15 writes:

If we can endure confrontation with the unthinkable, we may be able to fit together new patterns of awareness and action. We might, that is, have a fit of insight, inspiration, invention, or creation. The propensity for finding the answer, the lure of creating or discovering the new, no doubt has much to do with some people’s ability to endure tension until something new emerges from the contradictory and ambiguous situation.

Likewise, Douglas R. Hofstadter, in his Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid writes on page 26:

One of the major purposes of this book is to urge each reader to confront the apparent contradiction head on, to savor it, to turn it over, to take it apart, to wallow in it, so that in the end the reader might emerge with new insights into the seemingly unbreachable gulf between the formal and the informal, the animate and the inanimate, the flexible and the inflexible.

Moreover, the self-induced fit is standard operating procedure in the laboratory. Allow me to quote Lewis Thomas, who, in his The Lives of a Cell, on page 138. describes the difference between applied science and basic research. After pointing out how applied science deals only with the precise application of known facts, he writes:

In basic research, everything is just the opposite. What you need at the outset is a high degree of uncertainty; otherwise it isn’t likely to be an important problem. You start with an incomplete roster of facts, characterized by their ambiguity; often the problem consists of discovering the connections between unrelated pieces of information. You must plan experiments on the basis of probability, even bare possibility, rather than certainty.  If an experiment turns out precisely as predicted, this can be very nice, but it is only a great event if at the same time it is a surprise. You can measure the quality of the work by the intensity of astonishment. The surprise can be because it did turn out as predicted (in some lines of research, 1 per cent is accepted as a high yield), or it can be a confoundment because the prediction was wrong and something totally unexpected turned up, changing the look of the problem and requiring a new kind of protocol. Either way, you win…

Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the defining distinction between applied science and basic research is the same as that between prose and poetry? Isn’t it likewise reasonable to conclude that the making of basic science is very much the same as the making of poetry?

In a real way I, too, work in a laboratory. Every day at 9 am I arrive at a table in the local coffee shop, open a dog-eared book of photographs, open a text, and begin mixing all my materials together to find something new.

For the famous Walker Evans photograph depicting a migrant’s wife, I began:

Walker Evans     Farmer’s wife

Tough life, mouth closed, no teeth?  Sorrow?

Not too bad looking. Plain dress

This description went on and on till I felt I had drained the photograph of all its ideas. I then read the chapter entitled On Various Words from The Lives of a Cell. Photograph still in view, I then wrote down ideas from Dr. Thomas’s text. I began:

Words –bricks and mortar

Writing is an art, compulsively adding to,

building the ant hill,

not sure if each ant knows what it will look like when finished

it’s too big. Like can’t tell what Earth looks like if you’re on it.

This too goes on and on with whatever comes to mind while I’m reading. But all the time, inside my brain, I’m trying to reconcile what a migrant’s wife has to do with the obviously unrelated ideas on biology suggested by Dr. Thomas. I try to solve the very problem I created. Of course my brain is stymied and jams, creating a self-induced fit similar to the epilepsy studied by the above mentioned Dr. Barker, M.D. But that was my intention from the beginning.

Sooner or later an idea from the photograph and an idea from the text will be resolved into a new idea and the poem takes hold.

No one is more surprised than I. Or exhausted. The conditions under which I write are brutal. My brain is deliberately jammed by conflicting impulses. Its neurons are overloaded, on the verge of shutting down. I can barely think. My eyes blur. The only thing that keeps me working is that sooner or later will come the rapture of discovery; that the differences once thought impossible to reconcile, become resolved; so and so, once thought  impossible of having anything to do with so and so, suddenly and surprisingly, has everything in the world to do with it. Or has nothing to do with it but can be reconciled with something else it triggered: one flash fire after another in the lightening storm taking place in my brain.

Getting the idea is one thing but the finished poem is a long way off. And to get there I abstract so my subconscious can talk to the reader’s subconscious, much the same as an artist abstracts the paiting so the viewer’s subconscious can listen to the artist’s subconscious. There will be nothing anyone can point to and say, “That’s why”. Exactly like music, the most abstract of all the arts. Thus, for each poem its opening phrase is stolen shamelessly from Beethoven. He’s the master at breaking open bones and I might as well use him early on in the poem. Then I steal from Mahler whose music does its work where I want my poetry to do its work: the marrow.

Perhaps marrow is what it’s all about. Abstraction, since it contradicts the real world, is a striking form of confrontation which jams the brain till it shuts down confused. It befits the marrow to then do the work the reader’s brain cells would ordinarily do. And though what the marrow cells put together is nothing more than a “gut feeling”, with no rational footing, it is enough to refresh the human condition, to make marriages, restore great loses, rally careers.

Of course abstraction is just one of the ways writers arrive at the poem with their idea. But however they come they all leave for the reader poetry’s trademark: illusion. It is that illusion that builds for the over-burdened reader a way out.

Perhaps, as you may have already suspected, a poem, unlike a newspaper, is not a tool for everyday use by everyone; it’s just for those who need it, when they need it.


Interview with 2016 Caine Prize Shortlisted Writer, Lidudumalingani

July 2, 2016
Photo: Lidudumalingani

Photo: Lidudumalingani

Brief Biography:

Lidudumalingani (South Africa) is a writer, filmmaker and photographer. He was born in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa, in a village called Zikhovane. Lidudumalingani has published short stories, non-fiction and criticism in various publications. His films have been screened at various film festivals.

Geosi Gyasi: You are a writer, filmmaker and photographer. Which of these can we most identify you with?

 Lidudumalingani: Writing. Photography too is a form of writing; writing with light, both in its technical understanding of how the light enters the camera and exposes the film and my own obsession with where the light is sitting on an image and what it illuminates and hides in that image.

Geosi Gyasi: How does being a photographer affect your work as a writer?

Lidudumalingani: I am not sure if it does. My approach to both is similar and it is that of a pensive eye, attempting to capture every detail in the frame in a photograph and two, when I am working with words, I write sentences that give the reader enough to evoke images.

Geosi Gyasi: You come from the village of Zikhovane in the Transkei and grew up herding cattle. I am keenly interested in this story. How did you end up as a writer?

Lidudumalingani: Growing up I never had any ambitions to be a writer, largely because I did not know that one can be, even as I read books in school, it never occurred to me that I could be one. I continued to read as the stories were interesting and every now and then I would come across a book that I could relate to. It was much later, leaving high school and going to varsity, when my reading became serious that I began to come to the understanding that the text I was reading was written by a writer. And so I came not to know but to adore writers like Chinua Achebe, Bessie Head, Mariama Bâ, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Lewis Nkosi, M. Lamati, JJ Jolobe etc. It is a strange thing but I knew nothing about writers and did not care for them, much like it is the case with film directors or music producers, people love the films and music but they rarely know the people behind it, only the celebrities. In the case of the novel, the story was the thing I obsessed about and I think for some people that is still the case, people remember the story and this, in retrospect, is not a bad thing. It was via reading that I took to writing like whales took to water when they evolved from two legged forest creatures 55 million years ago, gradually, and began to slowly become a writer, like they did, shedding legs to become sea creatures. Poetry was my first love, to a large extent, even after everything we have been through, the contempt, the infidelity, the disconnect, poetry is still my love, and the way it seeps into my writing, the feeling is mutual. And now we are here.

Geosi Gyasi: What specifically took you to Cape Town?

Lidudumalingani: The birth of Ubuntu, my son, and nothing about the city itself. This is how people often move around the world, out of necessity, and the lucky, out of pleasure.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you know that you would be on the shortlist of the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing?

Lidudumalingani: Not at all. I do not think about such things when I am writing, the writing itself is already too much to think about.

Geosi Gyasi: Seeing your story, “Memories We Lost” on this year’s shortlist, do you feel satisfied for the purpose for which you wrote the story?

Lidudumalingani: I only wrote the story because I had carried it for a long while and during this time, it had haunted me. Anything that has happened to it since releasing it to the world, relinquishing control over it, has been out of my control and I am not bothered by it, this is the path art takes and has always taken, it travels, charms hearts or makes enemies. I was satisfied, even relieved, when I stopped writing, everything that has happened since has left me in perpetual bliss.

Geosi Gyasi: Is it true that your story was written out of your own family experiences?

Lidudumalingani: Ah, the infamous autobiographical bandit strikes again. Not true, not even close to being true. There are certainly familiar stories about mental health that I know and were on the back of my head when writing the short story but none of the details in it are from family experiences, only vaguely drawn from familiar cases. This is the case with every fiction work, I would argue, the writer creates much of it but most of it has always existed in people we know.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you have to research anything about “Schizophrenia” before you set out to write the story?

Lidudumalingani: When I was in film school, many years ago now, I began working on a script about Schizophrenia, in which the two characters, the only ones in the film, were in consultation, one the doctor and the other the patient, and the trick was that it was not clear who was schizophrenic. Anyhow, I remembered the research I did for that but not all of it and the details I could not remember were good enough to offer the writing space in which to create.

Geosi Gyasi: How do you arrive by character names like Smellyfoot, Nkunzi, and so forth?

Lidudumalingani: I think the narrative names the characters in the story. I do not ever insist on the names and it has never been a difficult process. Even if I personally think the names are not great, the names always stay because they fit the narrative.

Geosi Gyasi: In this 21st century, I would be shocked to know that things like “baking” as a form of healing exist as portrayed in your story. Does it?

Lidudumalingani: I remember reading about it in a newspaper some years ago and I remember the shock at the images of burnt bodies that accompanied the reporting but also I remember, once the shock subsided, understanding the parents’ decision to put their kids through it, it is the need to heal them, not hurt them. I cannot say with certainty that it is happening now but if it is, this is not shocking, for me at least, this world is capable of worst things, we are not as civilised as we think we are. It is also worth considering that it is someone else’s way of living and easily dismiss it as a barbaric act.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you intend to end the story the way you did: I am actually wondering what must have happened to the narrator and her sister after they woke up from their sleep and after the sun was up and what actually happened to her sister?

Lidudumalingani: Two things happened, submission deadline was nearing and the story, on multiple times, had tried to take, not only sleep from me, but my happiness, and so first I had to finish it to get sufficient editing time and to return to some form of sanity, so the story, like Famished Road, did not end, I stopped writing. I have since thought about where it could have gone if I had not stopped writing and the possibilities are endless but I am not sure if I want to continue writing.


Interview with 2016 Caine Prize Shortlisted Writer, Bongani Kona

July 2, 2016
Photo: Bongani Kona

Photo: Bongani Kona

Brief Biography:

Bongani Kona (Zimbabwe) is a freelance writer and contributing editor of Chimurenga. His writing has appeared in Mail & Guardian, Rolling Stone (South Africa), Sunday Times and other publications and websites. He is also enrolled as a Masters student in the Creative Writing department at the University of Cape Town.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any past experience with writing contests?

Bongani Kona: Firstly, thank you so much the interview. I wrote ‘At your Requiem’ for a South African short story competition and when I was working on it the most important thing in my head was just to finish the story. I didn’t care so much for the outcome. It was really a learning experience for me because I had done some journalism in the past but I had never written fiction. And that’s been my only experience with writing competitions.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me the kind of work you do as a freelance writer?

Bongani Kona: All sorts of things. I’ve written profiles, reviews, essays, interviews and some long form journalism.

Geosi Gyasi: Where were you when the news reached you that you’ve been shortlisted for the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing?

Bongani Kona: It was late afternoon on a Friday and I was on my way to a book shop in Cape Town which I go to quite regularly. The news really took me by surprise because I had no idea the publishers had entered the story and even if they had let me know, I wouldn’t have bet on making the shortlist.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you make of the other writers on the shortlist?

Bongani Kona: I think it’s an incredible shortlist and I really feel honoured that my story was chosen as one of the five.

Geosi Gyasi: What were the technical details you considered in writing “At your Requiem”?

Bongani Kona: The most important thing for me was just to finish the story. I say that because like a lot of beginning writers, I don’t have a lot of confidence, and it’s quite easy to abandon things midway. Sometimes even after a couple of paragraphs. So getting to the end was important for me. It was important to me not to give up on myself and just keep going. The other thing I had to consider was how to move forward because the story begins at the end.

Geosi Gyasi: What was the most challenging aspect in writing “At your Requiem”?

Bongani Kona: The sexual scene that’s in the story was really difficult to be honest. Although the story began as a purely intellectual exercise I started to feel really deeply about the characters – Abraham and Christopher – and that scene was really hard emotionally.

Geosi Gyasi: Did you intentionally set out to write about a brother’s death in “At your Requiem”? In other sense, why ‘death’?

Bongani Kona: The spark for the story was a poem I read with the same title. I don’t remember the poet’s name but like the story it begins at a requiem and it’s actually a conversation between a woman and her late father. So I wanted to do something similar and I had these two brothers in mind.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you personally think of your chances of winning the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing?

Bongani Kona: To be honest, none of that stuff really matters. The thing I’m thankful for is that it’s given me the encouragement to keep trying. I think the thing most aspiring writers need is encouragement and criticism that will build you.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired you to study creative writing at the University of Cape Town (UCT)? How has studying creative writing helped you to become a better writer?

Bongani Kona: It was something I really wanted to do. I’ve always admired the work that’s come out of the creative writing department at UCT and thing I’m grateful for is that it’s given me a space to experiment and a community of like-minded individuals.


Interview with American Writer, Carine Topal

June 6, 2016
Photo: Carine Topal

Photo: Carine Topal


Carine, a transplanted New Yorker, lives in the Southern California desert. Her work has appeared in numerous journals throughout the U.S. and Canada such as The Best of the Prose Poem, Scrivener Creative Review, Caliban, Greensboro Review, and many others.  She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2004, was awarded residency at Hedgebrook, and a fellowship to study in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2005. She won the 2007 Robert G. Cohn Prose Poetry Award from California Arts and Letters, from which a special edition chapbook, “Bed of Want,” was published. Her 3rd collection of poetry, “In the Heaven of Never Before,” was published in December, 2008, by Moon Tide Press.  In the same year she was honored with the Excellence in Arts Award from the City of Torrance, California. In 2014 Carine won the Briar Cliff Review Poetry Contest and her new chapbook, Tattooed, won 1st prize in the Palettes and Quills 4th Biennial Chapbook Contest. Tattooed is forthcoming in Summer 2015. She teaches poetry and memoir in the Palm Springs and Los Angeles areas.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you remember your earliest writing as a child?

Carine Topal: My parents never saved any of my writing. There may not have been anything to save! I was more interested in the visual arts, in particular, photography. My mother was an artist. I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 15 years old.

Geosi Gyasi: Were there any signs as a child that you would one day grow to be a writer?

Carine Topal: Really no signs that writing was in my future. There were, however, indications that I’d be some sort of artist-in-angst! I always wanted to be a photo-journalist. Travel, shoot, and write.

Geosi Gyasi: How does it actually feel to be a writer?

Carine Topal: I don’t know what it’s like to feel other than a writer. I am proud of the art, of its power to heal, to resolve what the conscious mind is often incapable of resolving; I am always stirred at how poetry moves people in unexpected ways.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any regret becoming a writer?

Carine Topal: I earned an MA at New York University in the 70’s. My one regret is that I didn’t study at in the writing program with Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds. At the time I went for my MA, I didn’t know that I could possibly make a living from writing/teaching poetry

Geosi Gyasi: Born and raised in New York City, do you think the city has changed in any particular way now?

 Carine Topal: Actually, the city has changed in many positive ways. When I lived in the city, many areas of Manhattan were dangerous, filthy, untended to. The city is safe now, gentrified in places I’d never go to at night or during the daylight hours. There was a raw quality, however, that was grand and bohemian, and full of abandon; a quiet riot in the West Village, where I lived, but the nervousness was subterranean. Now that is gone or hard to find. But I do love the changes that make the city pedestrian-friendly, and the unexpected discoveries like the High Line that gentrified so many parts of the city. Of course, I could not afford to live in Manhattan anymore, and I’m not certain that I would choose to if I were a rich poet. (Is there such a person?)

Geosi Gyasi: Are there enough writers coming out of New York City?

Carine Topal: NYC has hosts an abundance of fabulous writers. Dave Eggers is one. He founded a poetry project in Brooklyn; there are poets, screen writers and novelists. Such as Eileen Myles and novelist T. Cooper. NYU has an extraordinary writing program with Sharon Olds at the helm. Sonia Sanchez, a veteran writer, is the quintessential New Yorican voice; the writers coming out of the New York Writers Workshop: Jacqueline Bishop, June Clark, Gail Eisenberg, and Doug Carr; and the New School writers, who are staples in the community and beyond. I studied with Colette Inez when the New School was not credited and called itself The New School of Social Research. Then there’s the NYC Poetry Festival, The Poetry Brothel, The Typewriter Project and The Poetry Society of NY which bring so many talented writers together from acound the boroughs.

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

Carine Topal: I have been part of a group that meets monthly. Dorothy Barresi, a professor from Cal State Northridge, leads the workshop The group members are smart, accomplished poets. I’ve been a part of this group for several years. My thought about writing groups is that no matter how accomplished, how well-published, there is always a need for a second or third opinion; a need for forward movement in your craft. I get that inertia from the members of this group.

Geosi Gyasi: You have lived in Jerusalem, Israel, where you worked with Palestinian merchants. What actually took you to Israel?

Carine Topal: A lone survivor of the holocaust, my mother’s cousin, whom I call my Auntie, sailed on a ship in 1945 from somewhere in Italy to Haifa, Israel. She settled in Rechovot where she married and had two children. I visited twice a year for many years. I was close to the family and felt a part of the nation of Israel. I’m not a religious person, but I’m proud of my heritage. I traveled throughout the country and fell in love with the culture, which is not so much Jewish as it is Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. After graduating college, I announced to my parents that I would be moving, forever, to Israel. Upon saying good-bye to my father, he slipped me a $50.00 and said “Here, spend this on the Palestinian children.” I will never forget that. And so I did. I worked in the Palestinian souk (market) and lived in the Israeli world.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you briefly describe Bethlehem and West Bank where you worked and lived?

 Carine Topal: Off-white buildings spotting the Mount of Olives. Jerusalem stone, as it’s called. Everything built from stone the color of sand. I remember the Palestinian workers breaking stones by hand; I remember the souks, the open markets, where lambs’ heads hung like hideous piñatas over make-shift racks. I remember the figs and dates and spices laid out like gemstones on a wooden table. I remember the photo I took of an 8 year old boy sitting beside his grandfather, wearing a Muslim cap and a long gown, behind them piles of watermelon for sale. I recall thinking that the grandfather’s head looked like the watermelon. I told him so, and it was translated into Arabic. The old man laughed a toothless laugh and shook my hand. Once I heard a bomb blast while I was dancing in a bar in Jerusalem. It came from Bethlehem, a few miles away. No one in the crowd looked startled.

I often visited homes in the West Bank with my boss/friend Omar Imam. He bought museum quality dresses from women in the villages. I went to their homes: clean, dirt swept floors covered here and there with colorful carpets. We sat on the floor, crossed our legs and drank tea with mint which was poured from 3 feet up, so it flowed like an amber waterfall. We were offered dates and goat’s milk. It was unkind and rude to turn anything away. You ate what was offered. I heard baa-ing from upstairs where the goats were being milked, and moments later, a small girl appeared down the stone stairs and brought me warm milk. I remember the people being kind, working hard, always trying to work a good bargain. They were proud but I knew they had been oppressed and stateless people for so many years. Working in the Old City in Jerusalem many years ago instilled in me a sympathy with the Palestinian people of that day. Of course, things are so different today, but I still believe in an autonomous Palestine. A two-state solution.

Geosi Gyasi: In your view, how would you describe New York City as against West Bank or Bethlehem?

Carine Topal: I can only compare them by saying that there are lots of Jews and lots of Arabs in all three places!

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any affinity for children with special needs?

Carine Topal: I earned a degree to teach severely emotionally disturbed children. For more than 20 years it was magic. I did write poetry with these children, those who could speak, and all through the years I anthologized their poems which were published by different school districts. So, actually, I reconsider my previous answer about regret and writing: I would not undo my career choice. Working with special needs children changed my world. And I put poetry into theirs.

Geosi Gyasi: Your first poetry collection, “God As Thief” was published in 1994 by The Amagansett Press. How long did it roughly take you to put the collection together?

Carine Topal: I wrote “God As Thief” over a period of 7 years. It was my first book. I look at it now as a reminder of how poetry saved me from a very deep sadness which paralyzed me. I was very proud to offer my parents this book as a way to communicate to them what was too difficult to say.

Geosi Gyasi: Why the title, “God As Thief”?

Carine Topal: We were 3 children in my family, including myself. My brother Russell, and his wife, just gave birth to a baby girl. Russell had a very rare form of cancer that even today could not be cured. He was 35 when he died, two weeks before his daughter was a year old. We were close in age, and close. He was a funny, loved, generous man. His friends called him Buddha. Six years later, just after giving birth to my son, Russell, my oldest brother, Brian, who suffered from diabetes for years, died at the age of 44. He married late in life, adopted two daughters, lost the use of a kidney, lost vision in one eye, and his body shut down on Labor Day. For many years, even after writing all these poems, poems that I still write today, that whoever god was, wherever god was, god stole the essence of living from my parents as well as my brothers. I carried this sadness and anger for many years. It followed me and I pulled it along like a little red wagon.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you regard as your best poem in “God As Thief”?

Carine Topal: My best poems are not necessarily my favorite poems. My favorite poems are like my children who remind me of something important; something I didn’t know I knew. One such poem is “Mr. Fisher Feeds the Boarder Babies in Harlem.” I wrote this after reading a Life Magazine article about an elderly man from Harlem, who, every day, would volunteer to care for those infants who suffered the effects of drug withdrawal. He himself was physically challenged, but living alone he felt the need to be close to young lives. Hopefulness is what I found in this poem. Charity. Compassion and patience. I learned a great deal after I wrote this poem, and even more when I read it aloud at a performance.

Another favorite poem in the book is “The Netting,” which I wrote for my brother’s daughter, Michelle. This poem was a gift to my niece. The poem helped me connect to my niece and connected her to her father. It was a love poem to my brother and for his daughter.

Available on Amazon

Available on Amazon

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any found memories about your participation in the 2005 Hedgebrook residency?

Carine Topal: Memories of those weeks in spring, on Whidbey Island are vivid. What I loved was the convergence of what I was writing ((letters from Emily Dickinson) with the surroundings of sweet peas, pine trees, freshly grown vegetables that were picked for the meals. I collected flowers each day and brought them to my cottage, a craftsman cottage, one of 6 built to house the writers. I remember the meals we ate together and the long writing days of silence and concentration. One early morning, I sat at the window seat, looking out at the forest. A deer was nibbling on something a few feet away from me. We stared at one another for what seemed to be long minutes. I blinked first to get my camera and the doe ran off. This city girl had a country moment. Hedgebrook was a glorious experience. The women were writers from all over the U.S., diverse and talented. I wrote every day and left with a feeling of great satisfaction.

Geosi Gyasi: How different is your book, “In the Heaven of Never Before” from “God As Thief”?

Carine Topal: “God As Thief” was written out of a terrible, but necessary drive to relive my brothers’ lives somehow. The writing of the poems threw me into a protracted sadness that lasted beyond the publication of the book. “In the Heaven of Never Before” incorporates poems about the loss of both parents, reflections on what it means to be an orphan, a mother, a woman without the brothers she loved. But it does not have the sadness of “God As Thief.” “In the Heaven” also speaks to the immigrant shadow cast over me via the lives of my parents. All the untraceable history of our people. It is a larger book in scope. A more mature view of the world.

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired you to send your then manuscript of “In the Heaven of Never Before” to the Moon Tide Press?

Carine Topal: I had faith in the poems from “In the Heaven,” and after a reading performance at Orange Coast College, I introduced myself to a publisher. I figured I could sell my wares as good as anyone else, so I approached Michael Miller, the poet and publisher of Moon Tide Press, who was in the audience and liked what he heard. He asked me to send him the entire manuscript, which I did. Soon after, he responded that he’d be honored to publish it. Working with Michael and his editors was easy, rewarding, and a good learning experience. Michael was patient, had a good sense of how the poems flowed, and had a good critical eye.

Geosi Gyasi: Besides writing, do you do any other work?

Carine Topal: I’m an amateur photographer, preferring black and white to color. I also play classical piano. For 5 years I played the cello, but my teacher passed away a few years ago; my heart was broken, and I never played the cello again. I’m sure Sevan Pegosyan, my teacher, is an unhappy fellow, banging on the harp “upstairs,” trying to get my attention. Pick up the cello and practice! The cello was work but I adored the instrument.

I was brought up listening to all the classical composers, to Broadway music, to Russian folksongs. My mother played the piano and the accordion. My father played the violin. I don’t know if you consider playing musical instruments work, but often times it can be.

I have been teaching a weekly poetry and memoir workshops in the South Bay for more than 20 years. My group of poets have been together for 10 years. Unfortunately, since I’ve moved to the desert, I can only manage a monthly workshop, but I look forward to working with this talented group of poets. I also teach occasional workshops in the Palm Springs area. I miss the regular teaching experience and I’m hoping to start a weekly workshop in the desert.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you even regard writing as work?

Carine Topal: Yes. It is work and it is painful and playful and gruesome and intimidating. But it is necessary. Life blood! I would not have it out of my life. It is who I am. It is what I want to do and have to do. Yes, writing is a job. You must show up!

Geosi Gyasi: Could you briefly describe your new book, “Tattooed” and explain why readers should look for it?

Carine Topal: Because 1/3 of the population surveyed believe that the Holocaust is a myth. Because the perpetrators, some still alive, are responsible and accountable for their sins. Because there are countries who still turn away, as they did 70 years ago, and do not support the capturing of those who killed systematically. Because people must speak out for those who can no longer tell their story. This is not only a “Jewish” story. The Holocaust is a lesson for humanity: do not turn away from what is unjust. Be a witness, bear witness to a social and moral injustice. And never think that it cannot happen again.

Geosi Gyasi: In your view, why do you think the Holocaust occurred?

Carine Topal: Propaganda, ignorance, dehumanization, and the willingness to blindly follow a charismatic leader are all factors for why the Holocaust took place.

It was a confluence of political and societal factors that allowed the Holocaust to occur. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Germany was in a state of economic despair. This allowed Hitler to rise to power and impose his will upon the German people. Over the years, active propaganda against Jews had a dramatic impact on the average German’s opinion of the Jewish people. Nazi propaganda instilled in the average German a general distrust of Jews. The Germans’ general indifference, or their blessing, helped the Nazis with their anti-semitic campaign. .
One final thing to consider about why the holocaust was allowed to happen is a sad fact of human nature. The Nazis had been denigrating and dehumanizing the Jews of Germany for nearly a decade before the Holocaust began. This probably had a dramatic effect on what people actually thought of the Jews. Many Germans considered the Jews to be a sub-race of humans, or barely human at all. This allowed them to feel little to no guilt when forcing them into labor camps and marching them to their deaths.

Geosi Gyasi: Tell me something about the poetry and memoir workshops you conduct in the Los Angeles and Palm Springs area?

Carine Topal: For the last 20 years, I have been conducting poetry and memoir workshops in the South Bay. I taught workshops in Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Redondo Beach, and Torrance. At times the workshops were held in the home of one of the students; other times we were housed in cultural centers or libraries. Many of my current students have studied with me since the 1990’s. I also offer online mentoring for those writers who cannot attend my workshops. My poetry and memoir workshops are guided with exercises and prompts. My emphasis is not only on the making of a poem, but the reading of the poem. My thought is that if you truly hear what you are reading, you can train your ear to self-correct language, diction, syntax, and to pay attention to many elements of craft. When a poem is read to one’s self, the poet does not truly hear the dynamic of the piece.

In both my poetry workshop and the memoir workshop, the hope is to have fully realized poems or memoir shorts to submit for publication. Ideally, a chapbook or full manuscript will have been compiled. Many of my students have won prizes and awards; some have published widely in anthologies and journals; others have full manuscripts that have been published.


Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Warsan Shire

May 10, 2016
Photo: Warsan Shire

Photo: Warsan Shire

Brief Biography:

Warsan Shire is a Somali poet raised in London. She was the first Young Poet Laureate for London. Her début book, ‘Teaching my Mother How to Give Birth’ (flipped eye), was published in 2011. She has read her work extensively internationally. Her poems have appeared in Poetry Review, Wasafiri, Magma, and the anthology ‘The Salt Book of Younger Poets’ (Salt, 2011). In 2013 she won the inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize. In 2014 she was Australia’s Queensland Poet-in- Residence. Her poetry has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Estonian and Swedish. She teaches workshops using poetry to explore memory and heal trauma. Warsan lives in Los Angeles, where is she working on her first full collection.

Geosi Gyasi: You immigrated to the United Kingdom at the age of one. How and why did that happen?

Warsan Shire: My father is a writer and journalist; he was forced to leave Mogadishu soon after I was conceived because he wrote a book questioning the government. My parents moved to Nairobi, where I was born. Still in danger – we moved to London. Then the civil war broke out soon after and we couldn’t go back.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you regard the United Kingdom as your home?

Warsan Shire: One of my homes, yes. North West London, specifically.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you first regard yourself as a poet?

Warsan Shire: On some level, when ‘teaching my mother how to give birth’ was published – I had something tangible to reference. I didn’t come from a world where your dreams could actually come true. I wanted to write books, so when this manuscript I started writing at 18, was actually published by Nii Parkes – I had something real and physical to point to.

Geosi Gyasi: So in 2011, ‘teaching my mother how to give birth’ was published by flipped eye. Could you tell me the technical process by which you give titles to your poems?

Warsan Shire: It’s a natural process, sometimes it comes before the poem, sometimes the poem names itself. I don’t think about it too much. Most of my poems have working titles of whatever state I was in at the time of writing. I recently found a freewrite of mine titled ‘WHY IS UR EX-GIRLFRIEND HAUNTING US IF SHE IS NOT DEAD????’. The title can always change later, to something a little bit more subtle, maybe.

Geosi Gyasi: In October 2013, you were selected as the first Young Poet Laureate for London. What were your roles as a young Poet Laureate?

Warsan Shire: A major part was the writing residencies, all over London, from the Houses of Parliament to a shed in a park in East London. I would sit and write poems all day for a year. Too often I would be interviewed by journalists whose only intention, it felt, was to make clear that I was a spoken word poet and not a ‘poet’. On occasion I would be asked if I was also, a Rapper and ‘how did you learn to speak English so well?”.

Geosi Gyasi: As a poetry editor, do you edit your own poems before you send them out to publishers?

Warsan Shire: I edit until life gets blurry, then I work with my editor, who is also a brilliant poet – Jacob Sam La-Rose. Everything I know about editing I learnt from him and my mentor – the beautiful poet Pascale Petit.

Geosi Gyasi: Your poetry has been translated into many languages including Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Danish, Estonian, & Swedish. How do you feel about this and how many languages do you speak?

Warsan Shire: I look forward to translating more work in Somali, that’s really important to me. I can speak Somali and English fluently.


Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Warsan Shire’s poems.

Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’

The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.

Interview with 2016 BUAPP Shortlisted Writer, Chekwube O. Danladi

May 9, 2016
Photo: Chekwube O. Danladi

                Photo: Chekwube O. Danladi

Brief Biography:

Chekwube O. Danladi was born in Lagos, Nigeria and raised there, as well as in Washington DC and West Baltimore. A Callaloo Fellow, her writing prioritizes themes of teleological displacement, navigations and interrogations of gender and sexuality, and the necessary resilience of African and Afro-diasporic communities. She is currently working towards an MFA in Fiction at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

Geosi Gyasi: Born in Nigeria, at what point in your life did you move to the states and why?

Chekwube O. Danladi: I moved to the states in 1997, a week after my sixth birthday. Regarding why, there’s still a bit of confusion about that on my end. I haven’t ever received a concise answer from my family members about how we ended up in the US or why, though I’ve been given some vague responses about political force being the main motivator (most Nigerians will of course remember the tyranny of the Abacha regime). I can’t say with any certainly what happened, but the impact of that mystery has been significant for me. Much of my writing lately is actually about attempting to excavate, through many mediums, these missing pieces, trying to fill in the blanks regarding my history and ancestry. That seems to be a unifying theme for many people of the African diaspora. Black people more than any other group have so many gaps to fill. I find that to be really rich emotional and literary territory.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any fun memories as a child growing up in Nigeria?

Chekwube O. Danladi: Fun? Well, I spent most of my Nigerian childhood in Lagos, but also Port Harcourt and Kaduna. As a result, I sometimes loss track of what happened where. Most of the fun memories evolve around food. Living in Kaduna meant eating much kilishi and suya; I remember eating aya and dodo after school in Lagos. Port Harcourt likely meant eating snails. I was a very precocious child, so most of those early memories revolve around getting into trouble. Also my mother used to let us ride okadas to school, which in hindsight might not have been best, but was certainly a lot of fun. I also have fond memories of my family, especially those who have passed since my departure. I’m always surprised by how much I remember, even after almost twenty years.

Geosi Gyasi: When did you found the love for writing?

Chekwube O. Danladi: In some ways I think its safe to say I inherited that love. Both of my parents were writers, having worked in journalism professionally in the late 1980s through the 90s. But they also wrote for pleasure; my father was a poet, and my mother wrote short fiction. As a child, I was eagerly encouraged to pursue writing as a means of expression, especially because I have always tended toward shyness and privacy. My parents both encouraged me to reflect and respond to the world around me through writing, and that is still where I turn to first in the aftermath of trauma or despair, or to process joys and celebrations. The older I get, the more I turn to writing as a source of comfort.

Geosi Gyasi: What is it about Chris Abani’s story, “Benediction’ that inspired you to write, “E tu tu”?

Chekwube O. Danladi: I first encountered that poem in his collection “Santificum,” and that piece broke me. The entire collection is just devastating in its beauty and its precision. Benediction in particular spoke to the social and emotional challenges I’ve face in trying to reconcile my desire to connect to some obscured Nigerian or indigenous African identity with my loss of language. I’m half Igbo on my father’s side, but I have never spoken or had access to the language, and while I was a Hausa speaker as a child, even that language has evaded me with time. Most of what I do with Igbo is play and exploration. “Benediction” was a piece that I encountered at the height of an existential crisis (at age 20, which now is perhaps laughable) where my intersecting gender, sexual, and racial/ethnic identities felt out of reach and intangible. I wept when I read that poem. “E tu tu” is my attempt to describe an evening spent with my auntie on a trip to Enugu some years ago, where those haunting feelings of dislocation surrounded me as ether once again.

Geosi Gyasi: What are your main concerns as a writer?

Chekwube O. Danladi: I’m concerned with exhuming and reimagining histories. I find that poetry allows for a particular intimacy that fiction, my other primary genre, does not. In my poetics, I work to unravel and reconstruct the quotidian and the spectacular into a new iteration that I am better able to understand. I think of writing poetry as a type of mastication, chewing up and regurgitating pieces so that they can be consumed differently. I’m concerned with language and babbling, with navigating liminality without romanticizing it, and with exploring queer notions of space, place, and time.

Geosi Gyasi: Are there any writers you admire?

Chekwube O. Danladi: So, so many. I frequently turn to the work of Buchi Emecheta, Bessie Head, Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Jorge Luis Borges, and Naguib Mahfouz for inspiration and instruction. Poets who inform me include Marge Piercy, Angela Jackson, Chris Abani, William Blake, Leopold Senghor, Nathaniel Mackey, and Audre Lorde. I also adore contemporary works as well, too countless to name here.

Geosi Gyasi: What motivated you to submit your work to the Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Chekwube O. Danladi: I kind of just did it on a whim. I guess I wanted to see if anyone could find value in the work I’d produced thus far. To be honest, I was stunned to hear that I’d been shortlisted, especially given the quality of the other shortlisted and awarded poets.

Geosi Gyasi: What’s the inspiration behind your poem, ‘Qui Parle’?

Chekwube O. Danladi: I have been haunted by the deaths of those two boys since first hearing of the 2005 French riots. I was very young at the time, nearly the same age as Bouna Traore. I can’t say for sure why these remained with me, given the frequency with which Black people are killed by the state. Maybe it had something to do with sensing my own mortality, that two kids who I might easily recognize as cousin or friend were killed only to have their characters defamed by media outlets.

The killing of Black people is not new, and has a longstanding historical precedence, so I’m always a bit annoyed when people say they are surprised that this sort of thing is happening. “In this day and age?” people will say. The days where killing Black people and other people of color have been long. Recent attention has been paid to the killing of Black people in the U.S., though most of that attention has gone to boys and men. “Qui Parle” is actually part of a series of poems I have been working on to process the state sanctioned killings of many Black people, especially those who are queer, trans, or from the Global South.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you hopeful of winning the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize?

Chekwube O. Danladi: I suppose I am, though I’m not expecting to. Whoever wins will surely deserve it. I’m in the company of many talented folks.


Visit the BUAPP website to read some of Chekwube O. Danladi’s poems.

Note: BUAPP stands for ‘Brunel University African Poetry Prize’

The winner of the 2016 BUAPP will be announced on May 11, 2016.


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